Waranga News masthead image

An unsung hero – Ambrose Geary

The extended Geary family had a long association with Murchison. Ambrose was one of fourteen children of Timothy and Mary Ellen (nee Phillips). Many of the children were born in and around the town. His uncommon first name was inherited from the Phillips side of the family, with his grandfather being William Ambrose Phillips. William was a former convict who was one of the first employees of the Aboriginal Protectorate Station which operated at Murchison from 1840-53.

Ambrose first enlisted for the South African War in the 3rd Victorian Bushmen’s Contingent in late 1899. He was a 19-year- old stockman at the time. Competition for positions in the unit was fierce. The fact that Ambrose was selected means that he was probably an excellent horseman, skilled marksman and capable of “living rough”. His unit, along with their horses, left Melbourne on the “Eurayalus” in March 1900 for the sea journey of a little over three weeks. They landed in Portuguese East Africa (now Zimbabwe) then were transported by rail to the front.

By the time the 3rd Victorian Bushmen arrived, the South African War had become a brutal guerrilla war between British forces and the Boers, who were of Dutch descent. Ambrose was with a party of Australians and other colonial forces guarding a remote supply post at Eland’s River, on the road from Mafeking to Rustenburg, in August 1900. They were surrounded by a large Boer force and subjected to a siege which last for nearly two weeks.

In the lead-up to the siege, the Victorians were instructed to dig a trench by their officer, Captain Ham, who then went out on a mounted patrol. On his return, the Victorians had dug a trench six inches deep, in which they had placed a sign saying “Erected to the memory of the Victorians who were compelled to dig this trench. Fort Funk. 3/8/00”. Ham was less than impressed and ordered an enquiry for the following morning. However, before the enquiry could be held, the Boers attacked the site with sustained artillery fire. The Victorians did not need any incentive to dig a trench at that point!

Eland’s River siege has gone down in history as one of the most significant actions of the South African War involving the Australians. It was a great boon for British propaganda in that the defenders, who were vastly outnumbered by the Boers, were able to hold out for an extended period of time until relief finally arrived in the form of a British column under Lord Kitchener. Ambrose returned to Australia in June 1901, having completed a full tour of duty. During his first period of service, Australia had become a federated country, rather than a collection of British colonies. The first Australian units were put together to go and serve in the South African War. Ambrose signed up again, enlisting as a Private (No 2245) with the 4th Australian Commonwealth Horse. He served for the remainder of the war, which ended with the capitulation of the Boers on 31 May 1902.

After the war, Ambrose resettled in Colac, working as a labourer and marrying Edith Florence Gamble in 1906. They started a family and already had six children by the time Ambrose signed up for the Australian Imperial Force for WW1 ten years later. He was assigned to the 21st Infantry Battalion, where he would have had plenty of contact with Goulburn Valley boys, including many from the Waranga area.

Three of Ambrose’s younger brothers had already enlisted, all initially serving in the Australian Light Horse in the Middle East. Two of them, Maurice and George were in the same unit before transferring to the artillery later in the war. All three returned to Australia, but Maurice died in the Caulfield Military Hospital with heart problems in 1919. Older married brothers, Owen and Ambrose, signed up in early 1916. They joined infantry battalions and saw some of the worst fighting in France and Belgium before the war ended.

What worrying years they must have been for their parents, Timothy and Mary Ellen, and Ambrose’s wife Edith and their children. After the war, Ambrose returned to Colac, where he worked in the dairy industry in the Larpent district west of the town. He and Edith had another three children. Of their six sons who could potentially serve in WW2, five signed up, with three serving overseas. What an incredible record of family service to their country by the Gearys over many, many years. Both Ambrose and Edith went on to live long and productive lives into their 70s.