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Thursday, 15 January 2009
William De Passey
Topic: AIF - Misc Topics

Lieutenant Colonel William De Passey


Lieutenant Colonel William De Passey

[From: De Passey Collection]


William de Passey was born William Passey at Kidderminster, Warwickshire in 1859.  In the 1861 English Census his father, Thomas Passey, was listed as an agricultural labourer and his mother Charlotte, as a farmer’s assistant, with five children including William, the youngest.  By the 1871 English Census the family appears to have moved from Kidderminster to the Habberly Valley, where they stayed, but neither William nor his brothers appeared to have been at home by that time. According to a later biography, he was educated at King Charles’ Grammar School, Kidderminster.

De Passey family lore has it that young William Passey was looking after a bloodline horse owned by a local wealthy landowner when a mishap occurred.  The horse, under Passey’s care, was injured and had to be destroyed. Passey enlisted in the 5th Irish Lancers and changed his name on enlistment to ‘De Passey’ to help hide from the wrath of the land owner.

ON 1 MAY 1876, William De Passey attested at Worcester for the 5th Irish Lancers Regiment at the stated age of 18 years 4 months and joined the Regiment at Aldershot on 3 May, with Regimental Number 1693.  Among other duties assigned to the new soldier was guard detachment to the Aldershot Military Prison in late 1877.  

On 10 February 1879 he was promoted Lance-Corporal, and then transferred to the 17th (The Duke of Cambridge's Own) Lancers on 27 May 1879, with Regimental Number 2380.  


William De Passey, 17th Lancers, c.1879.

[From: the De Passey Collection]


THE 17TH LANCERS took 65 men and horses from the 5th Lancers in February 1879 prior to embarking for Natal on the 24/25 February to join the campaign against the Zulus. De Passey followed with further reinforcements in time to take part in the last days of the campaign.  Although he does not appear on the Medal Roll for the 17th Lancers at the last great battle of the Zulu War – at Ulundi on 4 July 1879 - he almost certainly was there or close by.

At Ulundi, the 17th Lancers were positioned inside a very large British infantry square which was attacked on all sides by Zulu impis. When the Zulus wavered under heavy infantry, artillery and Gatling gun fire, the square was opened to let the 17th out to counter-attack.  The Zulus were routed, with heavy casualties.  

It was a decisive victory and effectively ended the campaign. The 17th returned to station in India later that year.   For his service in Natal Lance-Corporal De Passey was awarded the South Africa Service Medal with clasp ‘1879’.   

De Passey did not return to India immediately, instead attending the Equestrian School at the Cavalry Depôt in Canterbury.  The School trained the future Regimental Riding-Masters, thus ensuring a certain level of uniformity in the equestrian arts among the various Regiments of the British Army.  De Passey finished his course and rejoined his unit in India at Mhow and later Lucknow.  

WITH THE TERMINATION of his fixed period of limited engagement, with 12 years and 81 days of service, De Passey was discharged in Lucknow on 1 May 1888.   He left with written recommendations from his Troop Commander of 7 years and from the Riding Master at the 17th’s Riding School, where he served for his last three years.  The Riding Master, Captain McGee, commented:

‘I consider he was the best horseman in the 17th Lancers.’

He also left in apparently difficult circumstances.  In his memoirs of Boer War service years later, De Passey related how he visited his old regiment, the 17th Lancers, which was encamped nearby and met with some of his former officers. He wrote:

Another officer then came over to me; he was at this time second in command but was the officer who was the cause of me leaving the regiment.  He held out his hand and said “shake! Don’t you know me?” I said “I recollect you too well but don’t want to meet you or the old regimental sergeant-major again, you rotter!”  As he turned away the Col. Said “that serves you right, Fortescue, after the way you and Clarke treated him before he left the regiment.”   

The Hon. Major L.H.D. Fortescue was later killed in the battle of Diamond Hill.  De Passey wrote:

I felt very sorry, for death atones all injuries.

DE PASSEY ARRIVED in S.A. and on 10 September 1888, enlisted for five years in the Permanent Force Artillery as a Gunner with Regimental Number 82. He was quickly promoted to Bombardier (Corporal) and then just as quickly discharged on 31 October 1889 to take up an appointment as a Staff Sergeant with the SAMR (S.A. Mounted Rifles).   

In 1890, on 3 May, De Passey married Louisa Wegener, at St. Bede Church, Semaphore, near Port Adelaide.  They made a home in Kensington Park, with their son, Roy, who was born the same year.  

William de Passey (front centre laying on ground) Tea Tree Gully Mounted Rifles, c. 1897.

[From: AH Harris Collection.]


He continued in his chosen profession.  By the time he was selected as the Drill Instructor for the S.A. Contingent to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in London, he was a Warrant Officer First Class and was the Staff Sergeant-Major (drill instructor) to the SAMR.  His selection to the Contingent was popular, evidenced by the lengthy stories of his service in the newspapers, such as in The Advertiser, 23 April 1897.

ON HIS RETURN from England with his Diamond Jubilee 1897 Medal, De Passey was busy with a constant round of judging military sports, inspecting troops and conducting drills.  At Gumeracha, according to the Mount Barker and Southern Advertiser, 7 January 1898, De Passey acted as judge at the Gumeracha Military Sports and Picnic held on 3 January 1898.  

At Jamestown, in a report in The Agriculturalist and Review, 30 August 1898, De Passey shot with the Adelaide team against the Jamestown team in the morning, judged the competitions with Lieutenant [J.E.] Rowell in the day and in the evening, gave an exhibition of sword drill at the Grand Military Concert held at the Jamestown Institute.

A YEAR LATER the Boer War broke out.  De Passey was appointed as Instructor to the formation of the 2nd SAMR Contingent which was formed in December 1899 and served to May 1901.  De Passey went with it to South Africa as its Regimental Sergeant-Major.  He was commissioned in the field as a Lieutenant on 13 March 1901.

He was present at the whole fighting, including the operations in Cape Colony between de Aar and Priesca; took part in the advance from Bloemfontein to Komatapoorte; and was present at the actions at Brandtford, Vet River (5/6 May 1900), Johannesburg, Pretoria and Diamond Hill (11/12 June 1900); and the operations east of Pretoria, including the actions at Belfast (27 August 1900), Swatz Kopie, and Dulstrom.  

Captain Howland of the 1st S.A. Contingent, in a letter home from Koree Kloof on 1 May 1900 (not long after the 1st and 2nd S.A. Contingents joined up as part of one unit, The Australia Regiment), wrote:

Sergeant-Major De Passey was with me yesterday, and we were talking about our Mount Gambier dances, wishing we were at one again.

According to the Adelaide Observer, 22 February 1902, De Passey:

... served 15 months…..working on the veldt from Bloemfontein to Koomati Poort on Lord Robert’s march back to Pretoria, and afterwards in the Goswin Valley district, where he remained five months in charge of a detachment of South Australians at the front.  

De Passey’s memoirs recorded a curious incident at Komitia Poorte:

Just as we were leaving Komitia Poorte, Mr. Van Herden, General Botha’s private secretary, and his brother, came in and surrendered to us and we took them on with us in the train to Pretoria..... and [they] were released on parole.  I got a valuable memento of the War from Mr. Van Herden.  It was a Kruger Sovereign, one of 8000 struck and minted out of some of the last gold which left Johannesberg on the evacuation.  It was struck off at Machadorp and dated 1900 and was distributed among the Boer Leaders as a memento before President Paul Kruger left the Transvaal.  Mr. Van Herden had five of these sovereigns in his possession and he exchanged one of them with me for an ordinary Kruger sovereign…

For his service with the 2nd SAMR Contingent he was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal with 5 clasps, with two further clasps being awarded after his second period of active service in South Africa.
ON 7 JUNE 1901 De Passey wrote a memo to the Commandant of the SAMF (S.A. Military Forces), requesting that he be allowed to retain his field rank of Lieutenant upon his return to Australia.  The memo noted his service as Drill Instructor and Staff Sergeant-Major for up to 12 years, with the whole training of the Mounted Branch under his supervision from 1889-1900.  Attached was a letter written on 11 August, 1900 by Major G.J. Reade, the Officer Commanding 2nd SAMR. This recommended De Passey:

...be granted a commission either just before or just after the return of the Contingent to the Colony.  

Initially it seemed that there would be no place for him.  A number of officers who had been commissioned in South Africa were also hoping to retain their rank, and there were not enough places for all of them in the new Commonwealth Military Forces.  When it appeared he would not be able to retain his rank some public sentiment weighed in.  The satirical magazine Quiz led on the subject with an article on 27 June 1901:

The staff office order which has been issued depriving Lt. W. De Passey of his commission is little short of rank snobbery.  Quite a howl has gone up in the ’dailies’ correspondence columns and Quiz trusts that the question will not be allowed to rest there.  It would be intensely interesting to know why Lt. De Passey has been deprived of his rank.  Is it on the score of an enemy or is it to forward the Federal preferment of military aspirants?  The two questions, of course, cannot be allowed to hang together…..Mr De Passey left South Australia as a Sergeant major and was made Lt. on the field of South Africa battle.  If he is fit to hold a Lieutenancy – and mind he gained it in a war – surely he is entitled to bear the honour when he returns home after the campaign…..What is good enough for the British Army on active service is not good enough for our khaki on a peace footing…..meanwhile it is a trifle nauseating to hear a lot of bloodthirsty stay-at-home, toothpick warriors who have never met a ball other than at Government House defending the action of the Staff Office…..   

By the time De Passey arrived back in Australia on the troopship Tongariro (after 1 year and 141 days away) during July 1901, the Staff Office caved in.  De Passey was commissioned as Lieutenant in the Military Forces of the Commonwealth of Australia from 24 July 1901. Colonel J.M. Gordon, the Commandant of the SAMF, was surprised to be commanded by the Duke of Cornwall during the Royal visit to Adelaide in July 1901 to give him information regarding the promotion of officers and others from Australia in South Africa.  The Duke especially mentioned De Passey:

…he appeared most anxious that the Warrant Officer and others promoted from the ranks…should not lose their commissions. 

This influence could not be ignored, although how the Duke came to know of De Passey’s case in particular is not known.

Receiving his Special War Gratuity and colonial officer gratuity of £137/10/- for service in South Africa, De Passey went back to routine soldiering.

The Border Watch 20 November 1901 noted Lieutenant De Passey as acting Staff Adjutant of the SAMR, visiting Mount Gambier to examine several candidates for N.C.O. rank in the Mount Gambier MR.  

ON 8 JANUARY 1902, De Passey was appointed for further service in South Africa with the 2nd ACH (Australian Commonwealth Horse).  He was selected to command ‘D’ Squadron, consisting of South Australians.  

The Adelaide Observer of 22 February 1902 said that De Passey:

‘…has the respect and esteem of every member of the force under his command, and is every inch a soldier.’  On his return to South Africa in late February 1902:

…..he served with the regiment until the conclusion of the war, taking part in Lieutenant-General Ian Hamilton’s last great drive, Lieutenant De Passey’s squadron taking the last prisoners of the war at Devondale, near Vryburg [in the Transvaal].

THE PROBLEM OF finding a position for De Passey occupied the minds of senior officers in the military establishment in Australia.  Again, his retrenchment as an officer was actively sought out by influential senior officers. De Passey’s interests in 1901 were saved by some high level interference and the support of Colonel Gordon.  Now some officers tried to discredit him personally.  While he was still in South Africa, De Passey was reported by the Commandant of Western Australia for being ‘under the influence’ at Port Fremantle on the day the 2nd ACH was leaving for South Africa.  An internal inquiry was conducted by Colonel J. Hoad, and Lieutenant-General Hutton, the G.O.C. (General Officer Commanding) the Australian Military Forces. They may have seen the report as an opportunity to have De Passey humiliated or at least retired early.  


The Minister of Defence, Sir John Forrest, points out the problems with the retrenchment of de Passey.

[Click on page for larger version.]


Subsequently, while still in South Africa, De Passey received a letter stating that he would have to retire on 31 December 1902: ‘…..consequent on the reduction ordered by the Government…..’ with a gratuity of one month’s pay for every year of permanent service. The letter made no mention of the Fremantle report.

However, the Commonwealth Minister for Defence heard of this and quietly intervened.  He called for a special report on De Passey.  The balance of this high authority interest in his impeccable war record, coupled with strong supporting letters defending De Passey and disputing the earlier reports of ‘conduct unbecoming’ from his Squadron officers, helped to scuttle the attack on his reputation.    

De Passey’s opponents did not give in to the Minister’s decision to retain De Passey without a fight.  As late as June 1903, objections were still being made.  Hutton, the G.O.C., objected:

I consider his retention in the military services of the Commonwealth to be distinctly detrimental to discipline.

Confidential reports on De Passey from Colonel J.M. Gordon (having to choose between De Passey and his General Officer Commanding, he chose the G.O.C.) and from Lieutenant-Colonel J.S. Lyster (‘…in my opinion he has not the sufficient educational qualifications or status to perform the duties of a staff officer.’) were made in support of Hutton’s rear-guard action. But they were to complain to no avail, especially when the Minister pointed out that it was Gordon who recommended De Passey so strongly for Lieutenant, so how could he now say that he was not suitable?  

Arriving home on the Norfolk in July 1902, De Passey was subsequently appointed as a Staff Officer to the Headquarters Staff, MR (‘provisionally’), was confirmed as a Lieutenant and Honorary Captain and as an Enrolling Officer in March 1903.  

IN MAY 1904, Lieutenant (and Honorary Captain) De Passey was appointed to the A&I (Administrative and Instructional) Staff of the Military Forces of the Commonwealth.  In July 1905 he was granted a two year extension of service on the A&I Staff, was promoted Captain on April 4, 1906, and granted a further extension of service in the A&I Staff from 1 July 1909.  He even gained a long entry in the prestigious Cyclopedia of S.A. in 1907, which in part informed:

He [is] a member of the Naval and Military Club, Adelaide, and … a past master of Moyston Lodge of Freemasons…

A medallion inscribed to Captain W. De Passey (‘Special School of Instruction Albury 1910-11 - Inauguration Universal Training’) gives another clue to his activities during the pre-WWI period. De Passey was subsequently promoted Major on 1 October 1911.  

WITH THE OUTBREAK of WWI, De Passey was placed, according to The Advertiser, 19 June, 1942:

‘…in command of the AIF camp [Mitcham] in South Australia.’ He was the swearing-in officer for S.A. enlistees in 1st A.I.F. and ‘Throughout hostilities Col. De Passey swore in no less than 38,000 men for service…’  

In WWI, his son Roy enlisted in October 1916 for the Tunneling Corps. Roy De Passey embarked for England in late 1917 and saw active service with the 3rd Australian Tunneling Company in Flanders.  He was made Lieutenant and returned to S.A. for discharge in July 1919.

IN NOVEMBER 1918, after several extensions of service beyond retirement age, De Passey was transferred to the retired list, with honorary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.  His rank was confirmed in 1921, with full Colonel following in his retirement year of 1922.

Little is known of his retirement years.  He took an active part in Anzac Day marches, visited his son and family in W.A. and no doubt kept an interest in the goings-on of military affairs in S.A. in particular.  He wrote his memoirs, but unfortunately only parts remain.  William De Passey, 81, of Kent Town, died 16 June 1942 and his wife Louise died, aged 82, on 5 February, 1947.

De Passey experienced a remarkable career.  He saw active service with the 17th Lancers in South Africa during the last Zulu War and in the Anglo-Boer War in S.A. and Commonwealth Contingents.  He fought staff and social prejudice to be commissioned on his merits. Above all, although controversial at times in the staff setting, he remained the consummate horseman and swordsman.  De Passey sensed his own importance in the scheme of things, yet he could also enjoy himself. Serving once more during WWI and achieving high rank, he proved himself to be a survivor who outlived most of his critics.  


Acknowledgement:  Reprinted with permission of the author, Andrew J. Kilsby, from Lions of the Day - The Colonial Contingents to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee 1897 - The South Australians, (Melbourne 2008). Copies of this book may be obtained directly from Andrew who may be currently contacted at:

kilsbya at optusnet dot com dot au

On this same theme, Andrew is currently researching for a PhD at UNSW@ADFA under the title Australian Defence and The Rifle Club Movement 1850-1926.  He would be interested to hear from anyone with information or interest around this topic. Please feel free to contact him.


Further Reading:

Philip Fargher

Militia - Rifle Clubs 


Citation: William De Passey

Posted by Project Leader at 11:21 AM EAST
Updated: Saturday, 17 January 2009 2:29 PM EAST

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A note on copyright

The Australian Light Horse Studies Centre is a not for profit and non profit group whose sole aim is to write the early history of the Australian Light Horse from 1900 - 1920. It is privately funded and the information is provided by the individuals within the group and while permission for the use of the material has been given for this site for these items by various donors, the residual and actual copyright for these items, should there be any, resides exclusively with the donors. The information on this site is freely available for private research use only and if used as such, should be appropriately acknowledged. To assist in this process, each item has a citation attached at the bottom for referencing purposes.

Please Note: No express or implied permission is given for commercial use of the information contained within this site.

A note to copyright holders

The Australian Light Horse Studies Centre has made every endeavour to contact copyright holders of material digitised for this blog and website and where appropriate, permission is still being sought for these items. Where replies were not received, or where the copyright owner has not been able to be traced, or where the permission is still being sought, the Australian Light Horse Studies Centre has decided, in good faith, to proceed with digitisation and publication. Australian Light Horse Studies Centre would be happy to hear from copyright owners at any time to discuss usage of this item.


Australian Light Horse Studies Centre

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