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TOPIC: George T Dalby - a fighting deserter

George T Dalby - a fighting deserter 1 week 2 days ago #67051

  • Rory
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George Thomas Dalby

Sapper, 5th Field Company, Royal Engineers – Anglo Boer War
Private, Natal Light Horse – German South West Africa
Sergeant, 4th South African Horse – German East Africa


- Queens South Africa Medal with clasps Cape Colony, Transvaal and Wittebergen to 253 Sapr. G.T. Dalby, 5/F. Coy, R.E.
- Kings South Africa Medal with clasps South Africa 1901 & 1902 to 253 Sapr. G.T. Dalby, 5/F. Coy, R.E.
- 1914/15 Star to Pte. G.T. Dalby, Ntl. Light Hse.
- British War Medal to Sjt. G.T. Dalby, 4th S.A.H.
- Victory Medal to Sjt. G.T. Dalby, 4th S.A.H.


George Dalby saw extensive service in both the Boer War as well as the Great War of 1914-18, but his military got off to a rocky start.

Born in Heaton, Northumberland in 1877 (some documents say York, Yorkshire) he was the son of George Dalby, a painter by trade and his wife Isabel. Mrs Dalby, at 32, was four years older than her husband at the time of the 1881 England census. George, aged 4, wasn’t short of playmates in the house at 8 St. John’s Terrace in York. Aside from him there was Maude (6), Emily (3) and Francis (1).

Ten years later, at the time of the 1891 England census, a 14-year-old Dalby was a Telegraph Messenger in the employ of the British Post Office with no. 398793. According to the Register he was appointed in October 1891 – with the census having taken place earlier, it can only be assumed that he was initially employed on a probationary basis. The family had moved to 56 Denmark Street, Newcastle upon Tyne in Northumberland and it is here that Dalby was employed by the Post Office. His parents had been very busy with an additional six siblings added to the family since the previous census.

An early personnel file in respect of Dalby has not survived but it can be surmised that he joined the 5th Field Company of the Royal Engineers at the age of in about 1894 at the age of 17. According to the records he blotted his copybook for the first time at Chatham in February 1899 when he was charged with desertion.

Dalby’s shenanigans took place against the backdrop of an impending war. The last year of the 19th century saw an increase in the tensions between Great Britain and the two Dutch-speaking Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State in far-away South Africa. War broke out on 11 October 1899 and provided a respite for Dalby who, along with his Field Company was dispatched to the front in early 1900.

According to the Glasgow Herald of 13 March 1900, “No. 5 Field Company of Royal Engineers also left Aldershot yesterday for Southampton to embark on the British Prince for South Africa. They had 7 officers and 210 non-commissioned officers and men, commanded by Captain Mooney.”

What exactly the 5th Company, R.E. contributed to the war is difficult to determine but, thankfully, a letter appeared in the Birmingham Daily Post of 3 July 1900 which shed some light on their doings. Written to his mother, a Mrs McCarthy, a man serving with the 5th wrote on 1 June, 15 miles from Senekal in the Orange Free State, while the troops were on their way to Ficksburg to relieve Brabant’s Horse. The letter read as follows:

“We were moved rather unexpectedly from Senekal, the scouts bringing in news that the Boers were in a very strong position on a kopje just outside the town. Our Brigade, the 10th, went out to meet them, and I will give you a description of that awful day, for truly awful it was. No sooner had our artillery come in range of the Boer kopje, which was in an almost impregnable position, than they opened fire, and were very shortly answered by a Boer gun.

The Grenadiers were first to advance to the firing line, the Bowers dropping shell after shell into them. They advanced to within 300 yards of the hill, and then a terrific rifle fire was commenced. The poor Grenadiers seemed to be hemmed in, and a few minutes afterwards their commanding officer was shot through the groin. It was a terrible and awful sight to see the poor fellows being mown down almost, and the shells shrieking through the air.

We tried to reach the front line to dig some trenches for the men, but it was no use, the fire being too heavy to allow of our doing any entrenching, and we fell back to our old position. A little while afterwards we noticed another frightful danger threatening the men. Someone had set the grass on fire in the rear of us, and the wind was blowing towards the Boer defences. The flames gradually gained on the men, and as the wounded lay on the ground they were burned and scorched by the fire.

Their shrieks and groans I will never forget. A shell burst and killed 5 West Kents near us, and blew another’s foot nearly off. Our artillery in the meanwhile were making fine firing, we could see where the shells struck, and nearly everyone was true to its mark. Some comical sights I saw even amongst the sad ones. A lot of our chaps had their hair burned completely off. What made it better for the enemy and worse for our chaps was that the fire had left in its wake a great black patch, upon which the men in their khaki uniforms were shown up quite plainly.

The General ordered the retirement for the day. It was a fine retreat, for the men rose from the ground in the midst of all that fire, and marched back in line as if they were only on their summer maneuvers. With great difficulty we made it back to camp and unfortunately found our wagon containing blankets and food had been lost, so we had to stay up the whole night with only our coats to cover us. It was bitterly cold.

When day broke we discerned our lost wagons returning, and we gave them a right royal cheer. Then came the roll call. Our company had escaped miraculously, no one being wounded. The Grenadiers had 81 killed and wounded, the Scots 44 and the West Kent 5. All that day we were digging graves for the poor heroes who fell in the great fight.”

It was shortly after this, in July 1900 and also in the eastern Free State, that Dalby and his comrades earned the Wittebergen clasp to his Queens Medal.

Dalby additionally earned the Cape Colony and Transvaal clasp to his medal and, because he had continuous service in the war of more than eighteen months, he was also eligible for the award of the Kings South Africa Medal. This is, however, where things started to go awry for him – the Kings medal roll clearly states “No Medal” next to his entry, with the comment “Deserted in South Africa 20-10-1902” in the Remarks column. So Dalby was up to his old tricks. His Boer War medals were issued on 1 February 1916 and sent “to the applicant” at 484 Burger Street, Maritzburg, Natal. Dalby, it appears, had decided to stay on in South Africa whether that meant deserting to do so or not.

Still flying under the radar, Dalby moved to Pretoria where at the age of 27, on 4 January 1904, he wed 17-year-old Mildred Alice Atmore. Miss Atmore could well have been a nurse as her address was No. 7 General Hospital, Pretoria. Children followed, Bernice Fawbert Thelma being born on 21 September 1905 and Cosme Erdmuth Mayburn on 16 October 1908. Both children were baptised as young adults on 19 June 1915 by which time Dalby was working as a Miner and living at 4 De Villiers Street, Johannesburg.

The abovementioned baptism took place whilst Dalby was in uniform. The Great War, the “War to end all wars”, had erupted on the world stage on 4 August 1914 and South Africa was called upon to invade German South West Africa. Wasting almost no time, Dalby enlisted with the Natal Light Horse with the rank of Rifleman and no. 201 on 1 September 1914. Assigned to “B” Squadron he gave his address as Malelane Estate, Transvaal and his next of kin his 11-year-old daughter, Cosme. Interestingly the full names provided by him were George Thomas Fawbert Dalby.

Much has been written about what is widely regarded as the seminal action of the entire German South West campaign which took place at Gibeon on 27 April 1915 and the Natal Light Horse had the starring role. I leave it to Gerald L’ange in his book “Urgent Imperial Service” to recount the event itself and the actions leading up to it. But first there is a need to contextualise it – a large section of what remained of the German army had retreated to a small railway siding known at Gibeon and were intent on boarding the train there along with all their men and supplies in order to travel north and away from the advancing South African forces. They were under the impression that they had plenty of time and wholly underestimated the time it took a determined S.A Brigade to get there before the train departed and blow up the track to the north of the station in order to block any escape attempt.


“Royston had deployed three squadrons of the Natal Light Horse on the railway embankment with fourth squadron in reserve. Because Royston had placed his men so near the station it wasn’t long before they were encountered by the patrols that Von Kleist had been sending out continually ever since learning that the line had been blown up. In fact Royston was still getting his men into position at 2 a.m. when a patrol arrived on the scene and the Natal men were forced to open fire, alerting Von Kleist to the arrival in his rear of more than a sabotage party.

The Germans quickly brought up reinforcements with artillery and machine guns and, from the cover of the culvert and the draining ditch, they poured a heavy fire into the Natal men. Caught out in the open they were soon being cut up by shrapnel and machine gun fire.

Shortly before dawn they found themselves surrounded and had to surrender. Royston withdrew his force three miles to the east of the railway to await daylight. When Royston withdrew and the trapped N.L.H. men surrendered the Germans assumed that they had defeated the main South African force and celebrated joyously. But there joy was short-lived McKenzie was already moving up with his main force…….”

The battle then raged and “shortly afterwards, however, the 1st Natal Carbineers and Lieutenant Colonel Park Gray, who had collected a handful of his men – the N.L.H. – released about 70 of these prisoners.” Whether or not Dalby was one of the “70” is unknown as those present failed to record who they were but he was able to say that he had been “in on the action” in a theatre of war known more for the dust and heat that took its toll on the men than actually skirmishing.

Dalby soldiered on until 16 June 1915 when he was repatriated to South Africa. The German surrender came at Otavi on 9 July 1915 and, for many, the war was over as they were under no obligation to continue fighting. The choice that confronted many returning soldiers was either to go home or join the war in another theatre – either the jungles of East Africa (for which a force was being raised) of the slaughter fields of France and Flanders.

Dalby decided on the former, enlisting for service with “C” Squadron of the 4th South African Horse at Johannesburg on 6 December 1915.

Confirming that he was 39 years old and was married with one daughter (perhaps the other one had died), he gave his occupation as Fireman. Seemingly economical with the truth he claimed to be a Widower (evidence to hand suggests that she was alive many years later). He confirmed that he had seven years service with the Royal Engineers and that he had served 289 days with the Natal Light Horse.

Physically he was 5 feet 7 ½ inches in height, weighed 140 pounds and had a ruddy complexion, grey eyes and grey hair. According to his attestation papers, he was assigned no. 235 and the rank of Sergeant Cook. On 6 February 1916 he embarked for German East Africa where, on arrival, he was deployed operationally. Although there had been no previous mention of it at the time of his medical examination, Dalby had a malformed left foot which impeded his movement and occasioned him great pain.

On 6 April 1916 he was admitted to hospital at Anusha where he spent a full month before being discharged to duty. The very next day he was admitted to hospital at Longido West with hallop valgus (deformed foot), before being transferred to the Base Hospital at Kajiado. From here he was sent on to the General Hospital at Muthaiga from where he was invalided on 13 June 1916. A short trip on the Hospital Ship “Ebani” followed from where he disembarked at Cape Town a few days later and, after a Hospital Board had sat to discuss his case, he was found medically unfit for service in the field for an indefinite period.

Discharged at Wynberg on 5 July 1916, he was awarded the Silver War Badge (3670) and Kings Certificate (3625). Interestingly he provided the details of his children’s guardian, Mrs N. Lambert, of 484 Burger Street, Pietermaritzburg, for pay purposes. Who this lady was to him is a mystery. Dalby’s proceedings on discharge form claimed that his final destination was Johannesburg and that he was employed by the Fire Brigade in Pietermaritzburg. His military character was described as “Very Good.” With this his war was over and he returned to civilian life.

But with Dalby it was often a case of what you see is not what you get. Readers will recall that he had claimed to be a Widower although his wife was known to be alive. An Illiquid Case – Restitution of Conjugal Rights (commonly the precursor to a Divorce) was heard in the Supreme Court in Johannesburg in 1940. Who were the parties to the case? Mildred Alice Fawbert-Dalby (born Atmore) and George Thomas Dalby.










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George T Dalby - a fighting deserter 1 week 1 day ago #67054

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What a fascinating story and a reminder that the local newspapers of the time provide an excellent source of information.

Thank you, Rory.
Dr David Biggins

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