Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Veteran Remembers - part 1

It's 1940 and from your home in Australia you hear daily news reports of bombs landing on your native Kent, with invasion threatened to roll across the land. War is very much in the air and everywhere young men are joining up. You think back to all those many years ago when you did the same, 70 years ago -  Prussians were threatening Europe even then.

In January 1940 Bob Whiting gave an interview to the The West Australian newspaper. This is based on his interview.

Battles Long Ago. A Veteran's Memories
The West Australian
26 Jan 1940

Private of the Buffs. History comes very much alive again, and there is the sound of invisible drums and trumpets in the air, when you are talking to a certain grand old veteran, Bob Whiting, Private of the Buffs, the oldest soldier in Western Australia. Except for his 93 years there is no thing of the nonagenarian about Robert Austin Whiting, Private No. 2018. His stalwart body still has strength and suppleness, and there is a suggestion of rugged indomitableness in every line of it. His grizzled head is firmly poised, and his kindly old face is alert and full of character. Bob Whiting, doyen of all old campaigners now living in this State, is a sociable chap who loves to sit on the verandah of his East Fremantle home and swap reminiscences with other sociable chaps who drop in for a yarn about the brave days dead.

Robert Whiting

 It was in the year 1870, when the Prusslans were spreading the desolation of war over the smiling countryside of France, that Bob Whiting took the King's shilling and enlisted in the British Army as a full private in the 1st battalion of the old 3rd Regiment of the Line, now the East Kent Regiment, popularly called the Buffs on account of the former colour of the facings on their tunics. Besides being the oldest soldier in Western Australia, Private Whiting is the oldest living Buff anywhere in the world. He was born at Maidstone, Kent, on March 22, 1846, the year of the great Irish famine and of the repeal of the Corn Laws. Soon after he had "'listed for a soldier," in his early twenties, Bob Whiting was drafted out to India, and remained at various stations there until 1875. During that year and the next he took part with his regiment in the hazardous Malay Peninsula campaign, and was awarded the Perak medal, with bar........ (to be continued)

The Perak Campaign

James Birch in Perak

In the 1870s Malaysia was not a single state but a network of native Sultanates with a three British enclaves, Penang, Malacca and Singapore. British influence over the Sultanates was gradually increasing, so that in 1874 The Pangkor Treaty was signed with Perak in the north, allowing a British Resident to take over government administration. That Resident, James Birch arrived in 1875 and set about many reforming the government, especially by outlawing slavery and improving tax collection. Both of these hit the economy of the local chieftains and in July, whilst visiting up country at Passir Salak, Birch and his bodyguards were murdered under the orders of the local chief, and slave trader, Dato Maharajaleda. The British response was swift and crushing, the Perak War.

The British garrison in the Malay states was small, but troops were shipped in from other bases in India. Troops from the 80th Foot arrived from Hong Kong via Singapore in November and were shortly joined by a task force under Brigadier General J. Ross from India. Ross's force was a mixture of the 1st Gurkhas, the Madras Sappers, some Royal Artillery, and a strong Naval Brigade, supported by HMS Egeria, Fly, Modeste, Philomel, Ringdove and Stirling. Last, but certainly not least, he had the 1st battalion of the 3rd (East Kent) Regiment of Foot, based in Calcutta, Bob Whiting's battalion.

Arriving in Penang in late November the Buffs set about preparing for Perak, and presumably for Christmas, though their hopes in that regard were to be dashed. Christmas for 200 men of the battalion was spent down in Malacca were they were sent to put down a Chinese riot.

Meanwhile, Perak had been building up it´s forces, and the Residency was attacked in November, though this was easily repulsed. Elsewhere stockades were built and fortified, especially along the Perak river that formed the basis of the state. On December 10th 1875 the British started to move, the 10th Foot storming and defeating a stockade of 400 Malays only 5 miles from the Residency. The coast secured, in January the Expeditionary force started up the River Perak, checking villages and stockades as they went -  a typical action for the Buffs is described in the extract from the London Gazette below.

 British forces camping at Passir Salak 1876

By the end of February, Passir Salak was captured and three of Birch's murderers captured. The rest fled upsteam, pursued by a task force of 200 infantry of the 10th and 80th Foot, 40 artillerymen with two steel guns and a rocket tube and a small Naval Brigade of 40 men and officers, transported and supported by 40 boats including HMS Modeste and Ringdove, each with two steel guns on slides and three rocket tubes. 50 "friendly" Malays acted as scouts. The force reached Blanja on March 13th and disembarked, ready to march to Kinta, where the Sultan Ismail was believed to planning a stand. The road or path from Blanja was through virgin forest
 "it is difficult to imagine, but if endless fallen trees, tree roots, elephant holes, streams, swamps, and clay ditches fifty yards long full of, all jumbled together in different combinations of disorder, could be put on paper in it sketch, it would give a feeble idea of the 'road' over which the guns, rockets, and forty rounds of ammunition were dragged, carried, or pushed with intense labour."
Twice the force was ambushed by Malays behind felled trees, but each time the ambushers were driven off, the rocket tubes roving especially effective. After an uncomfortable night in the jungle they reached Kinta. There was some token cannon fire, swiftly silenced by artillery and rockets, and the British entered Kinta without casualty, pointedly taking over the best houses as their quarters.


Sultan Ismail fled again up stream, aiming for the state of Patani, under Siamese not British, protection. He was captured in March after surrendering to the Rajah of Quedah and was exiled to the Seychelles. Dato Maharajalela was found guilty for the murder of James Birch in December 1876 and was sentenced to death by hanging.

By April 1877, Whiting and the Buffs were on their way back to their base at Calcutta having lost eight comrades as casualties (Lt. Colvill, Col. Sergt. Julian, Corpl. Clune, and Privates Neal, King, Killingbeck, Hobbs and Watson). Reportedly, they were very glad to be leaving, the hot humid climate being regarded as unhealthy, with many more men sick in the local hospital. Apparently, the Gurkhas from the highlands of Nepal hated it even more, and were even more desperate to get away.

This was not to be Bob Whiting's last active service with the Buffs, far from it, but more of that another time.

 The Buffs Regimental Ball in Calcutta 1876 - probably not for private Whiting.

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