Biography – Lt-Col Charles edward Ernest Umphelby

Special Services Officer

Late Col Umphelby (NLA)
Late Col Umphelby of the Victorian Forces Sydney Mail 23 Feb 1901 p70

Charles Edward Ernest Umphelby was born at Richmond Victoria on 13 June 1853, the son of businessman Charles Ernest Umphelby of Toorak. He started his working life in his father's office and shortly after married Ann Austin, daughter of Thomas Austin of Barwin Park. The couple settled near Warrnambool and took over Dwarroon station. Umphelby joined the Militia Garrison Artillery on 20 June 1881 and was appointed lieutenant in the Permanent Artillery in March 1885, with a further promotion to the rank of captain on 1 January 1888.1

In 1894 he was promoted to the rank of major and three year later to lieutenant colonel. In addition to commanding the artillery he also commanded the Western District Garrison Artillery. In 1889, the Victorian government sent him to England to undergo various courses of instruction. He succeeded Major Daniell and took over command of the Queenscliffe fort in 1890. At the outbreak of war he was one of four special service officers recommended by the Minister for Defence, for service in South Africa. He sailed on the Aberdeen, with a New South Wales Contingent.2

Upon his arrival in South Africa he worked as a press censor at the Censor's Department in Cape Town and then transferred to a howitzer division at Modder River. He was then appointed staff officer to Colonel Barker, and was carrying out duties in that capacity when he was fatally wounded on 10 March 1900.

Towards the close of the day when the guns were pounding the Driefontein kopjes, Lieut-Colonel C E Umphelby, a Victorian Special Services Officer, received a mortal wound. Umphelby's duties that day lay in assisting the movement of the batteries and carrying despatches... While scanning the kopje with field glasses he was hit by a Mauser bullet. Umphelby was removed for treatment to a bell-tented field hospital a mile and half to the rear... [then] sent four miles back by bullock wagon to a farmhouse situated near water. There many of the wounded were left, with 10 days provisions, in the care of medical officers and orderlies. The move left Colonel Umphelby in such an exhausted condition he failed to respond to medical care. They buried him near the farmhouse. Six weeks later the body was exhumed by order of Lord Roberts and reinterred in the cemetery in Bloemfontein.3

Lt-Col Umphelby was the highest ranking Australian officer to die in South Africa. The date of his death and place of burial differ in various records. A photograph of Umphelby's grave on the veldt near Driefontein, in the Orange Free State appeared in the Australasian on 7 July 1900, shortly after his death. The inscription on the wooden cross read –

In memory of Colonel Umphelby, of the Victorian Artillery, Victoria, Australia, Wounded on March 10, 1900; and died March 12, 1900. In sad remembrance – NSW Medical Corps.

Colonel Umphelby's grave on the Veldt (NLA)
Colonel Umphelby's Grave on the Veldt The Australasian 7 Jul 1900 p27

In recent years eight headstones were located on the site of a field hospital cemetery near Driefontein. One substantial stone bears the inscription:

To Lt Col C E E Umphelby of Victorian Regt., Royal Australian Artillery. Died of wounds on 12 March, 1900 at Driefontein4

The National Monuments Council of South Africa records his death as being killed in action on 10 March 1900. His burial place is given as Farm Schaapplaats or Driefontein Noord in the Paardeberg area, Northern Cape.5 The Roll of Honour cards at the Australian War Memorial give his date of death as 10 March 1900.6 Lt Col Murray in his Official History of Australian Military Contingents, etc indicates that Umphelby's death took place on 12 March 1900.7 Yet another official source located in the files of the National Archives of Australia in Canberra, states his death took place on 11 March 1900.8

The extremely competent, respected and popular Lt Col Umphelby left a widow and two daughters to mourn his loss.

1 Death of Lieutenant-Colonel Umphelby, Sydney Mail, 24 March 1900.

2 ibid.

3 The Australians at the Boer War, R L Wallace, Canberra, 1976, p140 - no source of information is quoted.

4 Untitled and undated article from a South African publication, has a photograph of Umphelby’s extant headstone.

5 Refer to database entry for Lt Col C E E Umphelby.

6 AWM142 Roll of Honour cards, War in South Africa 1899–1902.

7 Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P L Murray, Melbourne, 1911.

8 Letter from W Franklin, Secretary of State for War, London to the Agent General for Victoria, London, dated 20 February 1901, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Series A6443/1 Item S62.