First published in Britain at War in December 2015.
Temporary Lieutenant Wilbur Dartnell: sacrifice
William Taylor Dartnell – his name at birth – was born on 6 April 1885 in Collingwood, Melbourne, Australia. He was the son of Henry Dartnell, a fruiterer, and his wife, Rose. After going to school in Melbourne, he worked as an actor before Dartnell enlisted into the 1st Victorian Bushmen, then the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, aged just 15.
He served during the Boer War until March 1902 when he left the military. However, he later served during the Natal Rebellion of 1906 in South Africa and, on his return to Australia, he married Elizabeth Smyth in Melbourne on 15 April 1907. The couple went on to have a daughter. It is understood that Dartnell ran his own business between 1906-12 before leaving once again for South Africa, where he settled in East London, having left his family in Australia. It was while in South Africa and working as a writer that he changed his name to Wilbur Taylor Dartnell.
After the outbreak of the Great War, Dartnell was determined that he and other Australians living locally should take part in the fighting. He therefore chaired a meeting to this effect before contacting the War Office in London to offer the group’s services and seek passage to Britain. At some point, Dartnell became engaged to Mabel Evans, who lived in East London: though there is no evidence he and his first wife ever divorced. He clearly knew Mabel Evans before he left for England because in his will, drawn up on 23 September 1914, he left his estate to her.
On 23 September 1914, too, the Australians left for England and, on 12 February 1915, Dartnell enlisted with the Legion of Frontiersmen: the very day that the service battalion was formed as the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Service) Battalion (City of London Regiment). Darnell was immediately commissioned and, from his base at Southampton and having described himself as a good rider, he was responsible for the draft of artillery horses to Belgium for the frontline.
On 10 April 1915, the 25th Royal Fusiliers, including Dartnell, left Plymouth for Africa: during the late 19th century most of East Africa was divided between Britain (Kenya) and Germany (Tanganyika) but the outbreak of war meant both sides were keen to expand their boundaries and seize more land.
On arrival, the Royal Fusiliers were tasked with defending the section of the railway near Mombasa that led to Uganda. It was not long before Dartnell distinguished himself on the battlefield: during the battle at Bukoba he took part in a successful raid, leading from the front. In fact, he entered the enemy fort and dragged down the German Imperial Flag from the roof and replaced it with a Union Jack. For this action, he was Mentioned in Depatches, recommended for a DSO (that he never received) and was promoted to temporary lieutenant at the end of July.
In early September 1915, Dartnell was part of a small force located near Makatu in East Africa at a point close to the enemy. A section of men from the Royal Fusiliers, along with 50 rifles, had joined up with a section of the Mounted Infantry Company. On 3 September, it was reporter that the enemy laid a mine on the Mombasa-Nairobi railway. A party of British troops of well over sixty British soldiers, supported by 50 Baluchi troops, was dispatched at 6.30am to intercept the enemy as it returned from is bombing mission.
At 10.15am, the enemy ambushed the advanced posts and fierce fighting took placed at close quarters. The German force was more than 200-strong and it soon overwhelmed the British force and the German controlled local Askaris closed in on the defeated soldiers. Captain Woodruffe gave orders for a withdrawal and for the wounded to be taken away as soon as possible. Dartnell, who in the fighting had been injured in the leg below the knee, had initially been carried to safety. However, knowing that the Askaris were likely to hack the wounded to pieces, he ordered his men to leave him behind in the forlorn hope that he could save lives.
Dartnell was only 25 yards from the enemy when he was last seen alive: he fought to the end but was overwhelmed and killed. Furthermore, Dartnell’s worst fears had been confirmed as the Askaris had also stripped and mutilated their victims. He had sacrificed his own life, aged 30, and he was buried, along with his seven colleagues, at the Makutu Burial Cemetery.
Dartnell’s VC was announced on 23 December 1915 when his citation concluded: “He gave his own life in a gallant attempt to save others.” Dartnell was one of only four men to be awarded the VC in the East African Campaign.
It was Dartnell’s widow, Elizabeth, by now living in Victoria, Australia – rather than his “fiancée”, Mabel Evans, from East London, South Africa – who received his VC from His Excellency Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, Governor General of Australia, on 7 October 1916. However, as stated in Dartnell’s will, his modest estate passed to Mabel Evans. After the war, Dartnell and his comrades were reburied at a Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery at Voi, some 100 miles inland from Mombasa. A first-rate account of Dartnell’s life appears in Gerald Gliddon’s book: “VCs of the First World War: The Sideshows”.
As a one-time actor, Dartnell is one of several men commemorated on a plaque in the foyer of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London. His medal group, including his VC, was purchased by a medal collector in 1984 and presented to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.