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My Father Served His Queen Throughout the Boer War 1899–1902

A son remembers

On their way from England to settle in New Zealand in 1875, my grandparents William and Maria Bliss broke their journey at Hobart, Tasmania, where my father Albert Edward Bliss was born. He was named after the husband of Queen Victoria. The family, which later grew to two sons and three daughters, later settled in Woodville, New Zealand, where grandfather was the original town cobbler. My dad left primary school early and matured early as an outstanding sportsman, deer hunter and horseman. Woodville proved too constricting for his restless nature, so he moved to Palmerston North to learn the drapery trade. However, once again his adventurous spirit prompted him to move to Sydney in the mid 1890s and further his knowledge in the big wide world.

For most of the 19th century, Southern Africa had been regarded as a worthless jumble of British colonies, Boer republics and African chiefdoms – a troublesome region of little interest to the outside world. But in 1871 everything changed. Prospectors exploring a remote stretch of sun-scorched scrubland chanced upon the world’s largest deposits of diamonds at Kimberley. Fifteen years later, an itinerant digger stumbled across the rocky outcrop of the gold-bearing reef on a ridge known as the Witwatersrand, beneath which lay the richest deposits of gold ever discovered. Suddenly the region was a glittering prize. What followed was a titanic struggle fought by the British to gain supremacy throughout Southern Africa, and by the Boers to preserve the independence of their republics.

When the Boer War broke out in 1899 Dad had no hesitation in joining an elite band of troopers, known as Doyle’s Australian Scouts. With their horses they were shipped to South Africa to face hostilities. My father lost more than one horse during skirmishes with the enemy, but he survived the three year war without a scratch. He had a reluctant admiration for the skills of the Boer farmers who would attack without warning on horseback and then retreat before they could be fully engaged in battle. Such highly mobile action probably heralded the birth of what is now known throughout the world as guerrilla warfare, and the traditional red coats of the British army were finally discarded for khaki uniforms, as the Boers were such expert marksmen. Australian and New Zealand soldiers in the Boer War all wore khaki uniforms.

During and after the war, Dad came across Baden-Powell, who founded at that time the world scouting movement, Winston Churchill, who at that time was a war correspondent and Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia. After hostilities, the English speaking soldiers were given the option of either returning home or accepting 50 pounds sterling to settle in South Africa to counter balance the Dutch speaking majority. My father had no ties and readily accepted the offer. (50 pounds in 1902 was quite a tidy sum.) My father worked in a drapery store in Johannesburg. As well as being a talented sportsman, he was a born gambler and philanderer, and managed to survive a somewhat questionable social life in white rule Johannesburg.

Dad was 30 years old when he met and married my 20 year old grandmother Gabriel, whose father owned a Johannesburg pub. Three daughters were born and schooled in Johannesburg before my dad decided to bring his family to New Zealand. They settled in Hamilton, where I was born in 1923. Sadly, my mother did not survive long after my birth. In 1941 I was called up at the age of 18 for the Waikato Territorials. Fourteen months later I was transferred to the RNZAF, and after intensive training in Christchurch, I served in the South West Pacific war zone, mainly in the Solomon Islands of Bougainville and Guadalcanal, and later in New Guinea.

My father died in 1956 at the age of 80, after retiring from a lifetime in the drapery trade. I have marched in every Dawn Parade since I moved to Pukekohe with my family in 1969, and with much pride and deep memories, I have always worn my father’s Boer War medal, which is faced with the head of Queen Victoria. His name and unit are engraved around the rim and there are several campaign bars attached to the ribbon.

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elocal Digital Edition – April 2020 (#229)

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