.jump-link{ display:none }

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

A Hero in a Forgotten Conflict: 52 Ancestors - Wk 21

 "Military" is this week's theme from "52 Ancestors" and I am featuring an often forgotten conflict  - the South African Boer War, 1899-1902.

My interest was sparked by seeing this plaque in the  War Memorial Gardens in Kelso in the Scottish Borders,  honouring   Kelso-born Sergeant Donald Farmer who, at the age of 23,  was awarded the Victoria Cross  for action in the Boer War.  

After seeing the plaque, I wrote a short blog post on the memorial,   and was delighted  to hear from Donald's granddaughter, who very kindly supplied me with more information on her  ancestor, with personal memories and Donald's own words on his experience.

Sgt. Donald Farmer VC 1st Cameron Highlanders  

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.


Background Information  on the Boer War 
The Boer War was fought between the British Empire and the  descendants of Dutch settlers (Boer being the Dutch and Afrikaan word for farmer.   Between 1835 and 1845,  the people  of Dutch extraction,  in conflict with British rule,   moved out of the British  Cape Colony   into the interior of South Africa and established two independent republics - the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. 

The discovery of gold and diamonds led to renewed antagonisms and war erupted.  At first the Boers were successful and laid siege to  the British garrisons at Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberly.     The British counter offensive led to the relief of the garrisons and the capture of Boer capital of Pretoria. 

The Boers adopted guerrilla warfare tactics and the the British responded with a "scorched earth" policy, and  the herding of Boer families and synmpathisers into camps.   These measures were largely responsible for bringing the Boers to the negotiation table.  The war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging with the two republics absorbed into the British Empire, with the promise of self-government in the future. This promise was fulfilled with the creation of Union of South Africa in 1910.  

British lost almost 30,000 fighting men and 78 Victorian Crosses were awarded for acts of bravery during the conflict   Prominent commanders included Lord Kitchener, Lord Roberts and Lord  Baden-Powell. The young Winston Churchill was in South Africa as a newspaper war correspondent for "The Morning Post".  


 Donald Farmer's Military Life
Donald was born in 1877 in Kelso; his father Thomas a pastry cook and confectioner.  Following  arguments, he left home and joined the Queen's Own Cameron  Highlanders - was two months short of his 15th birthday but gave his age as 18. 

After serving in Malta and Gibraltar, Donald fought in the Sudan War were he wrote:
 "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". 
In January 1900 the Battalion was ordered to South Africa.   Donald, now a sergeant and still only 22, became part of a mounted infantry.  

The Victoria Cross citation in the London Gazette of 12th April 1901 records Donald's heroism in action:

“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 (later King George V)  at Pietermaritzburg, Natal on August 15th1901. 

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 six months later at the age of 79, having served his country in the  Sudan War, Boer War and First World War, and achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Donald Dickson Farmer VC.jpg

 With grateful thanks to Donald's granddaughter for her contributions to this post. 

Adapted from two blog posts  first published in 2014


Join  Amy Johnson's Crow's Facebook Group  "Generations Cafe 
 to read posts from other bloggers taking part in
 the 2019  "52 Ancestors" Challenges


  1. What a noble and brave man he was!

  2. Off to war at such a young age. He was obviously brave and resourceful. Thank you for sharing his story.

  3. I have a 23-year-old son, and still don't want to imagine him going off to war. And Donald was only 15 when he joined the service! He was a very courageous man!

  4. Thank you all for your comments. I think it so important that we do not forget the brave actions by so many young men.


Thank you for your comment which will appear on screen after moderation.