Treachery led to death of young soldier
Name: William Abrahams
Unit: Bega Mounted Rifles
Location: Driefontein, South Africa
Private William Abrahams was excited about taking part in the Boer War. He joined the Bega Mounted Rifles with a number of other young men from the district.
He arrived in South Africa and couldn't wait to write home about his experiences. He wrote lots of letters home to his mother, his brother and sister, describing his journey to South Africa and his impressions on arrival.
In a letter to his brother and sister dated 4 December 1899, he wrote:
"We arrived in Port Elizabeth last night at about 9.30 and anchored there till this morning. We called in for orders. We are now on the way to Capetown then we will go on to Kimberly where we will join some other regiment. I think we will be stationed there. We left Port this morning at 10 o'clock, It is a very nice looking place, the town is close to the sea it would make a half dozen Begas."
"The Harbour is much like Woolmooloo (sic) only larger, plenty of sailing ships and steamers there. The coast is very sandy in places and what timber is there looks low set scrubb and inland a few miles is very high mountains. N.S. Wales is nothing like it. Along the coast is very rough and always is I believe."
Late in February he wrote to his mother describing a battle.
"We had a good battle last week called Paardeburg, we captured a laager (as we call a camp) of 3,400 Boers, and killed many more. We have had several small battles but not so large as Paardeburg. We were shelling the Boer position for 10 days with lyddite and schrapnel, they had a great position, almost impossible to take it."
But his death, which occurred just one week later, was due to treachery. He was riding past a farm house from which a white [surrender] flag was flying, when a volley of shots rang out and he was hit in the chest.
A tragic irony of his death was that it happened at a place called Abraham's Kraal.
His death was reported in a letter from Surgeon-Captain Marshall of the mounted stretcher bearer section, published in a Bega newspaper.
"After leaving Osfontein we got into the Driefontein battle. Here we were under fire for 5 or 6 hours, and, although I would not like to have been out of it, I cannot say that I enjoyed it. The roar of cannon and musketry was deafening, and what gave me a terrible shock was the death of poor young Abrahams, killed within a few yards of me. The poor boy staggered up to me the blood welling out of his mouth, and he died in a few minutes. The young fellow's death and the empty and looted houses we passed have given me a truer idea of what war means than I ever had before."
One of Abrahams' comrades, Trooper Stewart of Wollongong, writing from Bloemfontein said:
"The young fellow who was killed in our company was named Abrahams and hailed from Bega. His death was due to abominable treachery, for while the enemy were holding up white flags in any number, a shower of bullets landed all round us, and one of them found its mark in the heart of this poor boy. In his pocket was found a letter from his mother, which he had only that morning received, and had not had time to read."
Abrahams' commanding officer, Captain Antill, in an official letter dated 22 March wrote:
"Abrahams came from Bega, was an excellent, steady, and first rate young soldier."
According to a report in the Bega paper, Abrahams' father, unaware of his son's death, had bought shirts and socks and was presented with a pipe to send to his son. He took the parcel to Major Bland to have it forwarded to South Africa. Major Bland, "as gently as he could, had to break the sad tidings" to Mr Abrahams.
Elizabeth Healey wrote to her brother Pte William Abraham in January but it is not known if he received the letter before he was killed.
"My Dear Brother Willie. I hope when this reaches you it finds you well and strong also that dreadful war over. We see a good account of you soldiers in the papers which we anxiously watch. Ther was a second contingent went on Wednesday. Doctor Marshall and young Mick Healey from Bega also. They had a good send off. I went to see them off.
"I wish I had of seen you before you went but I suppose I will only have to look forward to your returning which I hope won't be long. I hope you and all your comrades come out successful for you do not know the anxiety felt for all of you and we know it is a dreadful war but put your trust in God and he will see you safely through.
"Thanks dear Willie for your nice letters also your card for myself and Baby of which we will remember you by while far away. Mother sent them on to me. I hope you got my last letter. Will received yours from Port Elizabeth of which he thanks you.
"I suppose Mother has told you Will and I and Baby spent Xmas with them. Well it was a sad one for all you away over there and Mother worrying about you and poor Bob being burried (sic) on that day for he died on Xmas Eve at half past seven. He is better off for he suffered terrible poor chap. He was very fond of Baby and me. Will is well and getting along middling he says. He wishes he was over there with you Dear Willie.
"I don't suppose you will eat any more bacon after seeing all those dead boers lying about. I hope yous shift them all and come back soon for we will all be anxiously watching your return. I am sorry to hear you have been sick but hope you are recovered by the time this reaches you also hope you get it safely. I suppose it is very hot over there, it is over here. Those silver leaves are lovely. I am indeed proud of them. So now my Dear Brother as I have told you all the news I will conclude with fond love to you from Will and myself and dear little baby. I remain your loving Sister Millie."
(No changes have been made to the spelling or grammar of the original letters.)
William Abrahams sent numerous letters and cards home in the short time he was in South Africa, including the following poem to his mother for Christmas.
The balmy southern light is slowly falling
O'er vale and mountain's brow,
And wrapping in it solemn dusky mantle
Our lone encampment now.
Within his tent your soldier-boy is seated,
Writing these lines to thee,
And this shall be the burden of my letter
Dear mother, pray for me!
I know, in my old home, the lamps are lighted
And friends are gathering there,
But one is missing from that happy circle -
There is one vacant chair;
And when you gaze upon the dear ones round you,
From care and sorrow free,
Think of your boy far off 'mid strife and danger -
Dear mother, pray for me!
Pray that out God your help in times of trouble,
To me his aid will lend,
While yon bright flag - the emblem of our nation -
I'm striving to defend,
And safely from these fearful scenes of carnage
Will guide me back to thee,
Back to the home for which my heart yearns sadly,
Dear mother, pray for me!
But, should it be my fate to fall in battle,
And this bright youthful head,
Which on thy breast so often hath been pillowed,
Be laid among the dead.
Oh, pray that to the land of rest and glory
My unchained soul shall flee
Where one day we shall meet no more to sever -
This, dear mother, pray for me!
The material for this article was supplied by Mrs Millie Dowler of New South Wales