William John Lambie has the sad distinction of being the first ever Australian war correspondent to die in the service of his profession. He was killed in 1900 during The Anglo-Boer War. Yet today, hardly anyone remembers this brave and dedicated man. Perhaps it is now time that we should recall the exploits of William Lambie and remember him.
For a time he worked for The Mercury Newspaper and lost his life while on patrol with the Tasmanians and is buried with Tasmanians. He is often referred to, wrongly, as a Tasmanian.
Lambie was born in Scotland in 1860 and arrived in Australia with his family at the age of three. He was educated in Victoria and in 1883 arrived in Tasmania.
Lambie’s time in South Africa was short lived. He was attached to the 1st Australian Regiment, a pre Federation unit combining contingents from all the Australian colonies. Just three months later it was reported: “It is with the deepest regret that we publish the sad news cabled from England of the death of Mr W.J. Lambie special correspondent in South Africa.” (Feb 13, 1900).
It was the first war to be substantially serviced by local journalists. Some Australian journalist represented English papers, while other represented multiple newspapers. It was where the famous ‘Banjo’ Paterson worked as a journalist for Reuters, Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Argus. Paterson only writes briefly of Lambie’s death, saying “We hear that the infantry has had a bad time at Colesberg and that Lambie is killed – a very simple matter to happen among these kopjes.” ( kopje – a small hill)
Lambie was with a Tasmanian patrol under the command of Captain St. Clair Cameron. A large party of Boers closely watched their movements. A scout spied the enemy and as a consequence, Captain Cameron split his command, one to move towards the kopjes and the other to fall back to protect the rear. Lambie and fellow correspondent Alfred Hales decided to move with the advance party.
The Tasmanians came under fire, dismounted and returned the fire. Trooper Pearce was shot through the neck, but survived. Trooper Atherly Gilham cried out that he had been shot through the shoulder and in trying to get under better cover received a mortal shot through his heart. Fellow trooper, Alfred Button was killed outright. The Boers called on Lambie and Hales to surrender, but ignoring the call they galloped in the hope of reaching cover. The Boers opened fire and shot accurately, toppling Lambie from his saddle, to die on the spot. Hales made it, but stated of Lambie’s death, “had come to him sudden and sharp”.
The toll of the ambush was two Tasmanians killed, one war correspondent, one trooper wounded and four Tasmanians taken prisoner together with correspondent Hales. It is reported that 11 Boers were killed. So ended the short life of William Lambie, war correspondent. Eventually his next of kin would receive the Queens South African Medal, without clasps.
A Melbourne newspaper reported: “The late Mr. Lambie was barely forty years old. A native of Argyleshire. Mr. Lambie is the son of the manse, his father being the late Rev. James Lambie, a well-known Presbyterian minister on the Werribee. He was thoroughly Australian and had had varied experience of journalistic work in these colonies.”
Lambie had previously covered the Australian involvement in the Sudan Campaign of 1885. It was there where he was first ambushed that time by Arabs on camels and was wounded.
In South Africa Lambie was buried with those who also were killed on the spot. In December 1905 his body was exhumed and reburied in the military cemetery of Colesberg with the Tasmanians and with a trooper F. Clark, who although not a Tasmanian also rests with them. It has been difficult to find out exactly where Clark fits in, as there is no mention of him during the ambush. I suspect that he belonged with an English regiment and that during a skirmish in the region March 6, he was killed and when the bodies exhumed, it was judged that he too was a Tasmanian.
Sadly, when Lambie was re-buried at Colesberg, the inscribers got it wrong. Being listed as a Tasmanian, as he was killed with them, is understandable, but his inscription reads: “PTE. W.I.LAMBIE.
Lambie left a widow, Clara Ada Church Lambie (1862-1946)
At one time a memorial tablet was erected to his memory at the entrance to The Age newspaper in Collins Street, Melbourne. Since the move to Spencer Street it has been mislaid. Lambie remains forgotten. Surely this is unjust.
In 2012 Lambie was inducted into the Melbourne Press Club Hall of Fame. Several years ago I made an effort to have a plaque dedicated to Lambie to be placed at the Boer War Memorial, Hobart. Sadly, the Hobart City Council rejected my application.
My book, “Heroes All” deals with Tasmania’s involvement with The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).