Captain and Quartermaster, Prince Alfred’s Own Cape Artillery
- Cape of Good Hope General Service Medal to Qr. Msr. W.E. Thomas, P.A.O.C.A.
William Thomas was born in Cape Town in the Cape Colony in about 1843 the son of John Thomas and his wife Georgina, born Mackay.
Very little of his early life is known until, on 13 March 1866, he enlisted with the Cape Volunteer Artillery at the age of 23. This was a year before the Duke of Edinburgh visited Cape Town – a visit wherein he was so impressed with the bearing of the Gunners that he conferred on them the designation of Prince Alfred’s Own Cape Town Volunteer Artillery.
What followed was a seemingly endless round of field gun drill as well as foot and sword drill – as is the lot of a military unit in peacetime. In June 1870 the name of the Corps was shortened to Prince Alfred’s Own Cape Volunteer Artillery. Despite their new name they still sported old equipment – 6-pounder brass muzzle loaders which would have been ineffectual against European armies but would still prove to be adequate against an unsophisticated for.
The firing of salutes was the order of the day in those years and many hours were volunteered by the members to do the honours on the arrival and departure of one or another dignitary visiting Cape Town. The PAOVCA at this time became quite an elitist outfit; prospective members had to be proposed and seconded by members of the Corps and, what followed was a ritual akin to that of a man wishing to join a select club. Once accepted one had to sign the rules and pay one’s subscriptions. Any misbehavior could lead to one being "blackballed."
In June 1876 Thomas’ leadership qualities were recognised and he was promoted to the rank of Corporal, this was followed by elevation to the rank of Sergeant on 1 December 1878. The Eastern Frontier of the Cape Colony was in turmoil at this time with the Galeka’s harassing the Fingoes and generally making a nuisance of themselves – this led to the Ninth Kaffir War – a war in which Thomas does not appear to have played a part although the PAOVCA were in on the action – sending two detachments to the front at different times.
With the war having drawn to an end they returned to Cape Town in time to be issued with new armament in the shape of six 7-pounder steel Rifles Muzzle Loaders. After this excitement Thomas, no doubt as a result of business interests, took his discharge from the Corps on 31 January 1880. The lure of a uniform and the camaraderie proved to be too much for Thomas who ended his self-imposed exile and re-enlisted with the PAOVCA on 15 October 1883 at the age of 40.
The strength of the Corps in January 1884 stood at 8 officers, 8 sergeants and 118 rank and file. Thomas received promotion to Corporal on 1 April of that year – beginning his climb up the ranks once more, by the time he became a Sergeant on 1 July 1885 the numbers had swollen to 12 officers and 190 other ranks. Promotion to Battery Sergeant Major followed on 1 June 1891.
On 10 August 1891 (two months later) he was commissioned to the rank of Captain and Quartermaster of the PAOVCA – taking part in a march past in 1894 in honour of the Governor, Sir Henry Loch, at which time the Corps comprised two batteries. The six-gun field battery under Captain Jardine and the garrison company under Captain McLeod. Other officers at the time were Captain Divine, Lieutenant Janisch and Second Lieutenants Zeederberg and Day. The Corps name was also changed to, simply, Prince Alfred’s Own Cape Artillery.
Trouble was looming in Bechuanaland in 1896 – the same year Thomas was awarded the Cape of Good Hope Volunteer Long Service Medal after many years of service. Rinderpest had broken out among the cattle of the Batlapin people and when orders to burn all cattle in affected areas were executed the police were fired on. Chief Galeshewe in the Taung district started a rebellion murdering a European trader which led to the call for the militia to engage.
On Sunday evening, 27 December 1896, men from the various Cape Town- based units, including the artillery, were ready to entrain but were ordered to stand down. In early 1897 a detachment of the PAOCA were sent to Kimberley to form the artillery component of a field force which was to comb Galeshewe’s rebels out of the Langeberg, south-west of Kuruman.
On 16 March the battery was at Kuruman with the rest of the force, eventually moving forward a base was established at Bishopswood, 15 miles from the Langeberg. Several encounters with the rebels took place over many weeks leading to much loss of life on their part as opposed to the very few killed and wounded of the field force. On 9 May the PAOCA was involved in an action lasting eight hours and it was at this stage that the 12-pounder opened fire, keeping the enemies head down and enabling the infantry to advance up the kloof.
The attack of Galeshewe’s main strongholds did not take place until 30 July leading to his capture. The enemy routed the campaign was over and, after a parade on 13 August at Kuruman the force headed back to Cape Town. Thomas was awarded the Cape of Good Hope General Service Medal with Bechuanaland clasp for his efforts.
Peace restored the men reverted to the humdrum of routine drills and practice. One of the last official acts in which Thomas took part (he didn’t serve operationally in the Boer War of 1899-1902) was the unveiling of the Langeberg Campaign Memorial in St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town in March 1899.
Thomas resigned his commission on 31 March 1903 –hanging up his uniform for the very last time after 34 years of (almost) unbroken service. He had been awarded the awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officers Decoration on 22.8.02.
Now 50 years old he decided to leave Cape Town where he had spent most of his life and, journeying to the Eastern Cape, he took up farming at Bridge Farm in the Queenstown district. He had married a Fanny Watts at some point and she had borne him a number of children – William John Watts Thomas; Winifred Edith Ashley; Florence Emily Bisset and Edith Elizabeth Cleghorn. After a long and eventful life William Edward Thomas passed away on his farm on 24 March 1932 at the age of 89 years 7 months.