1860 - 1900 | VIC | War correspondent
Lambie had the sad distinction of becoming the first Australian journalist to be killed while covering a war. Having reported the 1885 Sudan war (where he was wounded) he was recognised as Australia's senior military correspondent at the Boer War. On 9 January 1900, Lambie and another correspondent - A. G. 'Smiler' Hales, representing the London Daily News - accompanied an Australian mounted patrol that was attacked by 40 Boers. The pair attempted vainly to escape at a gallop; Lambie was shot dead; Hales wounded and captured.
William John Lambie achieved two 'firsts' as a journalist that none of his contemporaries or successors would seek to emulate. He was the first Australian war correspondent to be wounded in action and – 15 years later – the first to be killed on assignment.
Lambie was born in Argyllshire, Scotland, in 1860. Two years later, the family migrated to Australia when his father, James Lambie, a Presbyterian minister, took an appointment with the church in Victoria.
Described as “thoroughly Australian”, William Lambie started in journalism early and worked for newspapers in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania earning renown as an authority on military matters. He was also a crack shot. The Victorian Rifle Association would name a lavish solid silver trophy in his memory.
When General Charles Gordon was killed in Khartoum in early 1885, colonial Australia was quick to answer the call of an outraged empire. A New South Wales Contingent of 734 men and 200 horses was despatched from Sydney amid great fanfare for what would be the emerging nation’s first independent engagement in a foreign war.
The convoy included three special correspondents for Sydney newspapers, including Lambie of The Sydney Morning Herald, and one stowaway from Melbourne: Joe Melvin, chief reporter for the then Melbourne Daily Telegraph who was already famous for his reporting on the capture of Ned Kelly in 1880.
Melvin had snuck aboard the troopship Iberia as a crewman after NSW authorities refused to dilute their glory by accrediting Victorian journalists. His ruse was uncovered by Lambie who was on his way to take a bath “in gorgeous silk pyjamas” when he was splashed with dirty water by a steward swabbing the deck. As he turned to reproach the man, Lambie recognised his old adversary Melvin. “Shortly after, they were laughing uproariously over the incident in the captain’s cabin, to the accompaniment of brandy and soda and cigars,” The Bulletin reported.
After reaching the Sudan, Lambie and Melvin joined a force sent in early May to attack an enemy encampment about 30 km from Suakin. There was heavy fighting after the column was attacked by about 250 mounted Arabs.
Anxious to get the news out, the correspondents set off alone to ride back to the telegraph office in Suakin only to be suddenly surrounded by Arabs on camels armed with spears and rifles. Lambie and Melvin had only revolvers, each with six shots.
“The Arabs seemed rather taken aback at finding us armed and fightable, but when we made for running, they flogged up their camels and began the chase,” Lambie wrote in his later dispatch. “I saw an Arab on a yellow camel pushing forward from the line to intercept Mr Melvin. This fellow had to be stopped if possible, for although our time might be pretty close it had not come to the pinch when a man drops his mate and fights for his own life.”
As the pair broke away from their attackers, Lambie was wounded – “a sharp piercing blow on my right leg below the knee”. Undeterred, he kept firing: “Another shot or two passed between us, and I gave them a parting shot just before getting out of range.”
Later news reports said the pair had succeeded in killing “two or three of the attackers” and that Lambie was recommended for a medal for his bravery but had to settle for a letter of commendation from the military command.
After Sudan, Lambie refined his credentials as a military correspondent, including covering the civil war in the Samoan islands and the Pacific intrigues involving the European powers and the Americans. In December 1899 Freemans Journal reported: “Mr W. J. Lambie, who is representing the leading Australian liberal daily the Melbourne Age at the seat of war, can make a boast that no other living war correspondent can utter. He is the only pressman who has seen Germany defeated since the Franco-Prussian War. He was an eye witness of the annihilation of a German force by Matrafa and his warriors in Samoa”.
Lambie’s luck, if not his pluck, would run out just weeks later when he was sent to cover the Boer War as senior military correspondent for The Age.
He was accompanying a patrol of Tasmanian troopers near Jasfontein in Natal Province on 9 February 1900 when he became the first Australian to die in the war in South Africa – and the first Australian war correspondent to be killed in action.
After the party fell into an ambush and was surrounded by a party of 40 Boers, Lambie and fellow correspondent Alfred “Smiler” Hales, an Australian reporting for the London Daily News, ignored calls to surrender and bolted on their horses.
“A rain of lead whistled around us,” Hales later wrote. “We were racing by this time, Lambie’s big chestnut mare had gained a length on my little veldt pony, and we were not more than a hundred yards away from the Mauser rifles that had closed in on us.
“All at once I saw my comrade throw his hands up with a spasmodic gesture. He rose in his stirrups, and fairly bounded out of his saddle, and as he spun round in the air I saw the red blood on the white face, and I knew that death had come to him sudden and sharp.”
Hales was also wounded before being captured by the Boers, who treated his wounds and buried Lambie. The kindly Boer commander admonished Hales when he discovered the pair were correspondents not combatants. “Sir, you dress exactly like two British officers; you ride out with a fighting party, you try to ride off at a gallop under the very muzzles of our rifles when we tell you to surrender. You can blame no one but yourselves for this day’s work.”
Lambie left a widow in Gippsland but no children. His death, on the cusp of federation, is honoured in a memorial to British journalists in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and in the commemoration galleries of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
After his death, Lambie was eulogised by Premier Allan McLean in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. “He was an able journalist and an excellent authority on military matters and I am sure his genial face will be very much missed in this chamber.”
Mark Baker is a former editor-at-large of The Age and is the Chief Executive Officer of the Melbourne Press Club. During a long career as a correspondent he was once wounded but never took a horse, or a firearm, on assignment.
'A race for life' illustration of the Boer ambush of William Lambie and A. G. Hales, in which Lambie was killed.
William John Lambie, the first Australian war correspondent to be killed on assignment
The late Mr W. J. Lambie - Death of the war correspondent, Brisbane Courier, 16 February 1900
The Rehearsal: Australians at War in the Sudan 1885, K. S. Inglis, Rigby, 1985
Company of Heralds, Gavin Souter, MUP, 1981
Campaign Pictures of the War in South Africa 1899-1900, A. G. Hales, Cassell & Company, 1900