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William Thomas Dartnell (1885–1915)

by Merrilyn Lincoln

This article was published:

William Dartnell, c.1915

William Dartnell, c.1915

Australian War Memorial, A01585

William Thomas Dartnell (1885-1915), soldier, actor and clerk, was born on 6 April 1885 at Collingwood, Melbourne, son of English-born Henry Dartnell, fruiterer, and his native-born wife Rose Ann, née Hanley. He was educated in Melbourne and became an actor. On 15 April 1907, at Queen Street, Melbourne, he married Elizabeth Edith Smyth with Presbyterian forms; they settled at Fitzroy.

Dartnell was in South Africa when World War I broke out. He went on to England and on 12 February 1915, using the name Wilbur Taylor Dartnell, joined the 25th (Service) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen), as a temporary lieutenant. As the regimental history notes, this battalion 'included men of various ages and with strange experience from all quarters of the globe'. Raised especially for use against German troops in British East Africa, it was the only British unit sent on active service during the war without preliminary training. The Fusiliers reached Mombasa on 4 May and went at once to their military post on the Uganda railway: their main task was to protect the railway from enemy raiding parties. In June the Fusiliers captured Bukoba, the German base for attacks on the Uganda frontier.

In August the battalion had its headquarters at Voi and two of its companies were stationed at Maktau to patrol the frontier. Dartnell, whose rank had been confirmed on 25 July, was assigned on 1 September to a mounted infantry patrol and two days later, near Maktau, his party was ambushed. In the fighting that followed he was wounded in the leg and was being carried away when he realized that the badly wounded could not be removed. 'Knowing that the enemy's black troops murdered the wounded' he 'insisted on being left behind in the hopes of being able to save the lives of the other wounded men'. Though he was twice asked to leave he ordered his men to abandon him and began firing on the Germans who were within twenty-five yards of his post. When his body was found seven enemy dead lay around it. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for giving his own life in a 'gallant attempt to save others'.

Dartnell was buried in Voi cemetery, East Africa. He was survived by his wife and a daughter. At 16 he had served in the South African War with the 5th Victorian (Mounted Rifles) Contingent.

Select Bibliography

  • H. C. O'Neill, The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War (Lond, 1922)
  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily (Canb, 1963)
  • London Gazette, 23 Dec 1915
  • 'A Life for the Wounded', Times (London), 24 Dec 1915, p 4
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Jan 1916
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 May 1956.

Citation details

Merrilyn Lincoln, 'Dartnell, William Thomas (1885–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Dartnell, c.1915

William Dartnell, c.1915

Australian War Memorial, A01585

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Dartnell, Wilbur Taylor

6 April, 1885
Collingwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


3 September, 1915 (aged 30)
Maktau, Kenya

Cultural Heritage

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