Midshipman Cymbeline Alonso Edric Huddart, CSC, RN (1881 – 1899)

Cymbeline Alonso Edric Huddart was born in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn on 6 January 1881, the youngest child of James and Lois Elizabeth Huddart (nee Ingham).  His father was a wealthy shipping magnate who was part owner of the Huddart–Parker Company, a shipping line that operated a number of vessels in Australian waters.

Cymbeline had two older brothers (James and Lindow) and two older sisters (Irene and Torfrida).  The family moved to Ballarat the early 1880s, where they resided until moving to England in 1895.  Shortly after arriving in England, Cymberline entered the Royal Naval College Britannia as a 14 year old Naval Cadet.  He did well in his studies and naval training and was made a Chief Captain of Cadets in his final term at the College.  On Passing Out (graduating) from the Naval College in June 1897 he was promoted to the rank of Midshipman and joined the cruiser HMS St George for service on the Cape of Good Hope and West Coast of Africa station.  In 1898 St George returned to England and Midshipman Huddart was transferred to the cruiser HMS Doris.

HMS Doris was still serving on the Africa station when war broke out between Britain and the Boer states (Orange Free State and the Transvaal) in early October 1899.  The townships of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith were soon besieged and British forces were hard pressed to stop Boer attacks on the Cape Colony.  Rear Admiral Sir Robert Harris, commanding the Royal Navy Squadron at Simonstown was requested to provide a 350 man Naval Brigade with guns to support the army ashore.  Naval brigades had often been formed in the past to assist the army ashore and guns were removed from the British ships and installed on hastily constructed field carriages for use as artillery.

The cruiser Doris provided several men for the Naval Brigade, which was placed under the command of their commanding officer, Captain Reginald Prothero, RN.  He earned the nickname ‘Prothero the Bad’ as he was a man of violent temper who terrified his officers and crew alike. (The nickname was in order to distinguish him from another officer with the same name.) The Naval Brigade departed Cape Town on 19 November 1899 and proceeded north by train to the front line where they joined up with Lieutenant General Lord Methuen’s forces at Belmont.   Midshipman Cymbeline Huddart was one of the officers allocated to the Naval Brigade and became Prothero’s Aide de Camp.

Methuen had been pushing forward to relieve the besieged town of Kimberley and had fought a successful action against the Boers at Belmont on 23 November 1899 and then continued to push north towards Kimberley.   On 25 November the British force of 8,500 troops, including the 350 men of the Naval Brigade, fought at the Battle of Graspan (sometimes also known as the Battle of Enslin).   This battle was fought to the east of the single north-south railway line (between Cape Town and Kimberley) in the vicinity of the Graspan railway station where the Boer forces were dug in on a line of small hills (or kopjes).

The men of the Naval Brigade paraded at 5 am and, after the kopjes had been shelled, the seamen and marines, led by Captain Prothero, conducted an uphill frontal assault on the enemy’s left flank positions.  The Boers opened a heavy fire at 600 yards and soon supplemented it with a cross fire.  Nevertheless the brigade advanced steadily by rushes, and in spite of a loss of 15 killed and 79 wounded gained the summit of the kopje, killing several Boers and forcing the remainder to retreat.

Among the wounded was Captain Prothero, so Captain Alfred Marchant, of the Royal Marines, was promoted in the field to Major and took command of the Naval Brigade.  Overall the attack was a success but with heavy casualties to the Naval Brigade.  A feature of the attack was the bravery of 18 year old Midshipman Cymbeline Huddart of the Doris. Huddart was hit twice during the advance but courageously pressed forward until hit a third time and mortally wounded. He was taken to a field hospital at nearby Enslin where he died that night.  Midshipman Huddart was buried in a makeshift cemetery next to the hospital the following day.  His remains were later re-located to West End Cemetery in Kimberley, South Africa.

In a dispatch on 26 November 1899 Lord Methuen stated that Huddart had ‘Behaved magnificently and still advanced after he had been twice wounded, until he was finally struck down mortally wounded’.   Queen Victoria honoured the Naval Brigade by telegraphing her congratulations on its gallantry and Lord Methuen paid it a special visit and complimented the men on their splendid behaviour.  The Naval Brigade went on to fight at the battles at Modder River (28 November 1899) and Magersfontein (11 December 1899), the relief of Kimberley (February 1900), the battle of Paardeberg (17-27 February 1990) and the capture of Bloemfontein in March 1900.

Cymbeline Huddart’s death was reported to his family in London and Queen Victoria wrote personally to his father to express her sympathy and referred to Cymbeline as ‘one of the bravest and most distinguished officers in the Royal Navy.’ She also requested a photograph of Cymbeline Huddart be sent to her.  Midshipman Huddart’s death was detailed in the Australian press on 30 November 1899 and later a commemorative plaque to his memory was erected in St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne.

The First Lord of the Admiralty also mentioned Huddart in a speech with the words:

It is with deep regret that I have to report the death of Midshipman Huddart, who behaved magnificently and still advanced after he had been twice wounded until he was finally struck down mortally wounded. The Queen read with feelings of admiration and pride the record by his commanding officer of the noble conduct of the sailor, whose heroic but untimely death Her Majesty deeply regrets. The Doris sent one of the most gallant boys that ever lived, Midshipman Huddart, who charging up the hill at Graspan continued to advance after he had been twice wounded, and at last fell mortally hurt in the moment of victory.

On 2 July 1901 the London Gazette reported the posthumous award of the Conspicuous Service Cross to Midshipman Cymbeline Huddart for his gallantry at the battle of Graspan. Regrettably his father had died, on 27 February 1901, at Eastbourne in London before the award was announced.

The Conspicuous Service Cross (CSC) was implemented in 1901 to reward Warrant Officers and other  “minor officers” who had displayed gallantry in the field but due to their rank were not eligible for the Distinguished Service Order.  Only eight Conspicuous Service Crosses were awarded (six for service in the Boer War) before the award was transformed into the much more well known Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in 1914.  Each recipient of the CSC had to have been previously mentioned in dispatches in order to be considered for the award.

Finally on 27 February 1904 a memorial, in the form of a captured Boer gun mounted on a plinth, was dedicated in Devonport Park, Plymouth to the men from HMS Doris who lost their lives in the South African War 1899-1902. The memorial was unveiled by Admiral Sir Edward Seymour, GCB, OM, Commander in Chief at Devonport, and Vice Admiral Sir Robert Harris, whose flag was flying in HMS Doris, at Simonstown, when the brigades were formed. The gun was handed over to Devonport Corporation on the same day.

There have been some claims that Midshipman Cymbeline Huddert was the first Australian to die in the South African War 1899-1902.  This is, however, not the case as only a few days before, on 23 November 1899, Private Henry Schultze who had been born in St Arnaud, Victoria and was serving in the British Army was killed in action during the fighting at Belmont.

From an old postcard

Contact Greg Swinden about this article.

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