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In Memory of

William Thomas Dartnell

William Thomas Dartnell, VC (6 April 1885 – 3 September 1915), also known as Wilbur Taylor Dartnell, was an Australian-born soldier, actor and a recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. Born in Melbourne, he served in the Second Boer War as a teenager and later in the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906. He married, managed his own business and worked as a professional actor before immigrating to South Africa in 1912 or 1913.

Dartnell offered his services to the British Army on the outbreak of the First World War, and was commissioned into the 25th (Frontiersmen) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in February 1915. He fought in the East African Campaign and was mentioned in despatches for the Battle of Bukoba, where he had stormed the German-held town hall, pulled down the German flag and replaced it with the Union Jack. On 3 September 1915, after his company had been ambushed and despite being wounded, Dartnell voluntarily stayed behind in an attempt to save the lives of wounded men as the remainder of the British force retired from the scene. Dartnell was killed in the attempt, but in recognition of his determination and sacrifice he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Early Life

William Thomas Dartnell was born in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood on 6 April 1885 to Henry Dartnell, an English-born fruiterer, and his Australian wife Rose Ann (née Hanley).[Note 1] He was brought up in Melbourne and, after leaving school, became an actor.

 

In 1900, at the age of 15, Dartnell joined the Victorian Mounted Rifles, a part-time colonial militia unit. The regiment was mobilised as the 5th Victorian (Mounted Rifles) Contingent in early 1901 for service in the Second Boer War, and embarked for South Africa on 15 February. Arriving in Port Elizabeth the following month, Dartnell saw service in the Cape Colony and Orange Free State over the next twelve months and was wounded on 6 April—his 16th birthday. The Mounted Rifles returned to Australia in March 1902, and Dartnell was demobilised soon thereafter.

 

He later returned to South Africa, and served as part of Royston's Horse during the Bambatha Rebellion in Natal in 1906.[3] For his service in these two campaigns Dartnell was issued the Queen's South Africa Medal with "Cape Colony" and "Orange Free State" clasps, the King's South Africa Medal with the clasps "South Africa 1901" and "South Africa 1902", and the Natal Native Rebellion Medal with "1906" clasp.

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After he returned to Australia, Dartnell married Elizabeth Edith Smyth on 15 April 1907 at Holt's Matrimonial Agency on Queen Street, Melbourne. They settled in Fitzroy, and had a daughter in 1908. Little is known about Dartnell's life over the next few years, though it is thought that he managed his own business and worked as an actor until 1912 or 1913, when he again departed for South Africa.

 

 Elizabeth and their daughter remained in Victoria, while Dartnell established himself in East London, a coastal city in the Cape Province. He found employment with the Standard Printing Company, and was a regular contributor to their Saturday newspaper, the Weekly Standard. During this period, he started using the name Wilbur Taylor Dartnell and, according to historian Gerald Gliddon, became engaged to another woman, a Mabel Evans.

 

Sources & Credits

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  • Tom Lawrence

  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission

  • South African War Graves Commission

  • Radely College Archive