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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Military Monday: Donald Farmer - A Boer War VC

"I am very proud to say that Lt. Col. Donald Dickson Farmer VC  (left)  was my grandfather and I remember him as being such a lovely man, a gentle man and a gentleman". 

These are the words of Rachel Hyde, Donald's granddaughter. Rachel happened to come across my post in the this year's "A-Z Challenge".  On the theme "My Scottish Borders",  I highlighted under V for Valour  memorials to Borders soldiers, including this plaque (below)  in Kelso War Memorial Gardens  to Sergeant Donald Farmer VC,   who, at the age of 23,  was awarded the Victoria Cross.for action in the Boer War.

The Victoria Cross, instituted in the Crimean War,  is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. 


Rachael has very kindly supplied me with more information on her  ancestor, with personal memories and Donald's own words on his experiences in the Sudan War,  Boer War and First World War.   

Donald was born on 28th May 1877, in Kelso, Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders. son of Thomas and Iona Farmer.   Donald’s father was a pastry cook and confectioner by trade, and it seems that he may have been the roaming sort, for he periodically moved his family around Scotland, to Dundee, Pitlochry, Carnoustie, Perth and Edinburgh. Family  anecdotes recall  how Donald used to sneak into the bake-house and devour freshly baked buns, pastries, cakes and pies!  Was this the reason he attained the height of 6’3” in his early teens?

Census returns showed  the Farmer family later comprised  Donald. Joan, Euphermia (Effie) who became a pastry cook), Marion, Violet, Jane and young Thomas.
By all accounts, father Thomas ruled  with the proverbial “rod of iron”.  Donald was only 14 years old when he approached the Army Recruiting Officer only to be  advised  that because of his age he was too young to enlist, so he should go to do six weeks of training in the Militia at Glencorse Barracks in Edinburgh, the depot of the Royal Scots. 
Terrible arguments ensued at home. Remembering his father’s parting shot about having ‘made his bed’ and ‘never darken these doors again’, Donald left home.   He tramped all the way to Fort Leith where he was sworn in, got the “Queen’s Shilling” and a railway voucher to the Depot of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders  in Inverness. He was two months short of his 15th birthday but gave his age as 18.

In September 1892, after  intensive training , Donald set sail for Malta to join the 1st Battalion and three years later was in Gibraltar.  

In 1897 Donald was made a Corporal and received a Bounty of £3 per year for 2 years if he re-engaged. He accepted and was given home-leave.  Knowing he couldn’t return home to be under his father’s roof again, he accepted the offer  of hospitality from fellow solider  Robert Bonnar who took him home to meet his family, including his sister Helen (Nell), who later became Donald's wife.  

The Sudan War
All too soon though in 1898, , the two soldiers left for Cairo and and the Sudan War where Donald was present at the battles of Atbara and Khartoum.  In his own words:
 "Conditions were appalling and the battlegrounds were bleak.....It was hard going, nothing but marching ever onwards, the terrific heat and the husbanding of water.... We did about 100  miles in 4 days, with constant heat and followed by the dreaded flies".  
They eventually camped in mud huts at Darmali and trained for the first clashes with the Dervishes  The Battle of Omduran was a massacre and again in Donald’s words: 
“The effect of fire-power was prodigious even at this time, and as they were all fanatics we were given orders to exterminate them. We just had to, we had no choice”.
On Saturday January 20th 1900, with trouble brewing in South Africa   the Battalion was ordered to proceed south.  Donald, now a sergeant and still only 22, became part of a mounted infantry.  He had enough of marching and decided that he might as well suffer from saddle sores for a change and give his weary feet a rest.

Parts of the journey of the Mounted Infantry are described in a report by one of the Camerons:
“Day and night we trekked. In the most bitter cold at night, very often without blankets, mules used to drop down dead in the wagons, and also the horses, and still on and on we had to go. We became a sort of machine, nobody spoke from the time we saddled up till we off-saddled again, perhaps some 15 or 16 hours later, only to re-saddle again shortly. One got into the way of never expecting to get any sleep, everybody just too tired to grumble or complain. We used to trek from 2-00 or 3-00am with our feet frozen to the stirrup irons and our fingers to the reins, and just ride on till the sun rose and thawed us a little".. 
Rachel writes  My grandfather Donald never told anyone about his part in this particular area of the Boer War. And despite his height of 6’3” and awe-inspiring fit build, he was always a quiet unassuming man and dismissed his particular act of bravery as, “Och it was a wee bit of nothing”!

The Victoria Cross citation in the London Gazette of 12th April 1901 reads: :
“During the attack on General Clement’s camp at Nooitgedacht, December 13th 1900, Lieutenant Sandilands, Cameron Highlanders, with 15 men went to the assistance of a picquet which was heavily engaged, most of the men having been killed or wounded. The enemy, who where hidden by trees, opened fire on the party at a range of about twenty yards, killing two men and wounding five, including Lieutenant Sandilands.  Sergeant Farmer at once went to the officer, who was perfectly helpless and carried him away under a heavy and close fire to a place of comparative safety, after which he returned to the firing line and was eventually taken prisoner.”

Three days after capture, Donald  knocked his guard unconscious and managed to escape eventually finding his way back to his Battalion.

Donald was presented with his Victoria Cross by HRH Prince of Wales at Pietermaritzburg,Natal on August 15th1901. 

The Battalion returned from South Africa to Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow and in 1903 Donald married Nell Bonnar. 

Donald went onto serve in the First World War (a subject of a later post) and  achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. 

Donald's dearest wish was fulfilled when he took part in the Victoria Cross Centenary Celebrations,   attended by the Queen. in Hyde Park on June 26th 1956.   He died sixmonths later at the age of 79, having served his countryin the  Sudan War, Boer War and First World War.

Donald Dickson Farmer VC.jpg
With grateful thanks to Rachael for her contributions to this post.

   2014 Tower of London Ceramic Poppy

Military Monday is one of many daily blog prompts from www.geneabloggers.com
to encourage writers to record their family history. 

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