The Life and times of General J. M Gordon C.B.,
sometime Mounted Trooper with the South Australia Police.
By R. E. Killmier,. A.M. Q,M,P, J.P.
Jose Maria Rafael Ramon Francisco Gabriel Del Corazon De Jesus Gordon was born at Jerez, Spain in 1856. For obvious reasons I will refer to him as “Joseph” or “Gordon”.
His family was descended from the First Earl of Huntly, who died in 1470. The family estates were Wardhouse and Kildrummy in Aberdeenshire. The Tenth Laird fought on the losing side at Culloden. After the Scottish defeat there by the British, landed property of the defeated Scots was confiscated unless the owners gave up the Catholic religion. As a result many Scots looked to go abroad. One such was an ancestor of Joseph whose descendants, including Joseph’s father married Spaniards. Although family links were maintained young Joseph could only speak Spanish in his early years.
On the death of his cousin, Joseph’s father came into possession of entailed properties in Scotland to which the family returned. The young Joseph was given in charge of a gamekeeper to acquire a knowledge of English. After 6 months he was sent to the Oratory School in Edgeware Road, Edgbaston in Birmingham. This was followed by further education at Beaumont College, a Jesuit School on the River Thames. He excelled academically and at sport.
At 17 years he took the entrance examination for Woolwich Academy, the Army establishment at which artillery officers were trained. During this period he received permission to be attached to the staff of the Spanish Duke of Carlos, then engaged in the Carlist War. There he gained military experience as an observer, and subsequently graduated from Woolwich.
In 1876, he was commissioned a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery and posted to Ireland to command a detachment at Limerick. He enjoyed his stay there and became an accomplished horseman. Much of his duties were of a peace-keeping and Public Order nature. In contrast with contemporary events, there seemed to be plenty of shouting but comparatively little violence.
In Ireland he fell seriously with rheumatic fever which necessitated him resigning his commission. It was thought a long sea voyage would be beneficial for his health and he sailed for New Zealand where he completely recovered his health before going to South Australia.
In Adelaide he called upon the Governor, Sir William Jervois, a distinguished Engineer officer. The Governor’s A.D.C. was his son Captain John Jervois who had been a fellow cadet with Gordon at Woolwich. It is interesting that Gordon had family connections with Adam Lindsay Gordon and the fill fated General Gordon of Khartoum fame.
In Adelaide, Gordon put up at the Adelaide Club. There he met George Hamilton, the Commissioner of Police who resided at the club. At the invitation of Hamilton, he accompanied him on his monthly inspection of the Mounted and Foot Police who were then quartered at their North Terrace Barracks which was also shared with the Volunteer (Army) Force.
Gordon records that he was most impressed with the Mounted Police, which uniquely in his experience were all mounted on greys. As he walked back to the Club with the Commissioner he asked him what the pay and emoluments of the Mounted Police were.
He was informed that a Mounted Trooper was paid eight shillings and sixpence per day, was given free quarters, uniform and travelling expenses. He was pleasantly surprised, for as he remarks the pay of a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery at the time was six shillings and fourpence a day. He remarked to the Commissioner that the lot of a Mounted policeman seemed a happy one and sought permission to join the Force. He was accepted and through a timely resignation took over the duties of Drillmaster. His prior military experience and knowledge of horses equipped him particularly well for this role.
He obviously enjoyed his time with the Mounted Police and paid tribute to their elan and standards. There was considerable competition to join the Mounted Police and the Service attracted well motivated men. One of his memorable experiences was his single handed capture of two foreigners in the Adelaide Hills for the attempted murder by stabbing, of a young girl.
Just before Christmas 1881, Gordon was summoned to the office of the Army Commandant, Colonel Downes. It was a short walk across the barrack square.
Downs informed him he had watched him at work and had formed a favourable impression of him. He told Gordon that the Army required the services of a qualified Staff Instructor in connection with the expansion of the Volunteer Force which included artillery units, and that he had the permission of the Commissioner of Police to offer Gordon the position. Gordon accepted. This was a fateful decision on his part as we shall see.
Fort Glanville had just been constructed with an artillery unit. The Russian scare was to the forefront and it was intended to establish further forts at Glenelg and Largs. In the event only Fort Largs was built. Gordon had the oversight and responsibility for the establishment of Fort Largs, and later commanded the unit there. Today, Fort Largs is the Police Academy and it is pleasing to reflect on the historical association of Gordon with both our Services. I do not think he would have been dismayed with the eventual fate of Fort Largs, as the police have ensured its preservation and public use.
Between 1882 and 1893, Gordon progressed from Lieutenant to the rank of Colonel on the Staff. These were active years. The State Defence Force based almost entirely on volunteers was expanded and qualitatively was one of the best in the Australian colonies. Even the Premier of the day, Charles Cameron Kingston was a Sergeant in the Volunteer Force.
It was during this period that Gordon formulated plan for National Service which he dubbed, “Universal Training. He recommended the plan to the Premier who supported it, but who was unable to obtain the necessary funds. However Gordon later saw his plan adopted throughout Australia after Federation. This did much to prepare Australians for World War 1. In 1893, Colonel Downes was appointed Commandant in Victoria and Gordon succeeded him in South Australia.
Three years previously (1890) as a major in command at Fort Largs he was ordered to march his troops, (which included a body of Victorian artillerymen receiving training at Fort Largs) to Port Adelaide to support police in dealing with apprehended riots by strikers there. At the time there were strikes by maritime workers across Australia, and business, commerce, and the movement of ships had ground to a halt. This seems to be the first and last time, the South Australian Government ordered its permanent troops to directly assist police in quelling civil riots. The State Defence Minister who gave the order was Mr. Tom Playford, the father of Sir Thomas Playford.
It is interesting to reflect that years later, as a young man, a future Commissioner and Army Brigadier (McKinna) was sworn in as a Special Constable and assisted police in somewhat similar circumstances during the “wharfies” strike in 1930 at Port Adelaide.
In 1897, Gordon was granted six months leave and permission to attend the Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria’s reign in London. He had been married in 1892 to a Victorian lass named Fitzgerald. At the time of his marriage Gordon had entertained hopes of buying Old Wardhouse in Aberdeenshire from his Spanish nephew. Through economic circumstances this did not eventuate.
Gordon took his wife and young children to England where his wife became ill. It became evident he would have to return to South Australia to resume his duties alone. This he did and when nearly home became aware of the sudden death of Colonel King-Harman, Military Adviser and Inspector of Warlike Stores in London for the Australian Colonies. With the support of Premier Kingston he obtained that post and returned to London.
He applied himself assiduously to this task. There were many problems not the least being the difficulties between the Australian colonies in standardising their equipment and reaching agreement on their needs.
In October 1899, the Boer War broke out. At that time a squadron of New South Wales Lancers were undergoing a course of training in England under the command of a Captain Cox. These were the first Australian troops to land in South Africa. Gordon cabled the various Australian Colonies for permission to go to South Africa and serve there. He was refused as the war made his services in London even more vital. He then resigned his post and returned to South Australia, resuming there as Commandant.
With the support of Kingston, he assisted in the organisation of the first South Australian Mounted contingent for the Boer War, one of whom was Jack (Breaker) Morant. The British authorities had stated a preference for infantry. All the Australian colonies had proffered and were keen to send mounted riflemen, a role for which the Australians had extensively trained and were peculiarly adapted. Gordon whilst in England had argued strongly for this form of contribution. Although the British had cavalry, they clung to the outmoded use of the lance and sword and had not developed or appreciated the use and mobility of mounted riflemen. South Africa was a war of mobility against an enemy who was fighting in the land of his birth and who was expert in bushcraft and was well mounted. The value of the Australian mounted riflemen soon became appreciated. These units were the genesis of the Australian Light Horse in World War 1 who served under Chauvel and which included Sgt. W. F. Johns of the 9th Light Horse Regiment. A pre-war mounted trooper he became Commissioner of Police from 1944-1950.
Having organised the first South Australian Mounted contingent, Gordon promptly applied to the South Australian Government to go to South Africa as a
Special Service Officer. This was granted and he sailed with the first contingent. In South Africa he saw service on the staff of Lord Roberts, the Commander in Chief as the Staff Officer for all overseas Colonial Forces. This was an important post and included the Canadian contingent. He also served in the field in command of a Mounted Column, in a critical campaign. Towards the end of the war he returned to Adelaide where he resumed his normal role and was promoted to Brigadier General, and made a Companion of the Order of the Bath by the Imperial Government.
Federation and the new Commonwealth of Australia had come into being on 10 June, 1900 after Royal Assent was granted. Defence then became the responsibility of the Commonwealth. Obviously senior appointments to assist in the organisation of the new Defence Force were a priority. The first Commander in Chief was the Canadian, General Hutton. He had been a previous commandant of the New South Wales Defence Force and later commanded the Canadian Forces, including the period of the Boer War.
In the subsequent reshuffle of senior army commanders, Gordon was appointed Victorian Commandant in 1902. In 1905 he became Commandant in New South Wales and in 1912 he became Chief of the General Staff, Commonwealth Military Forces and First Member of the Military Board.
In the years prior to 1914, he accomplished many army reforms. In 1910 Lord Kitchener visited all Australian States and reported upon the state and organisation of the Australian Army. He was uncommonly generous in his praise. It was in the same year that Gordon had his first passenger flight in a flimsy Bristol aeroplane which had been used for reconnaissance in army manoeuvres. He was responsible for selecting the site of Point Cook for the fledging Army air element, which became the Australian Flying Corps and subsequently, the Royal Australian Air Force.
But perhaps his most notable contribution was his achievement in persuading the Government of the Day to introduce his system of Universal Training. This did much to prepare Australians for the their role in World War 1.
On 1 August 1914, he reached the compulsory retiring age of 58 years. He was on board ship returning to England when he learned of the outbreak of war on August 4th. He had been succeeded by General Bridges who led the Australian troops on Gallipoli only to die from a sniper’s bullet. Gordon saw that as a “not unfitting end to the life work of a soldier.”
But it transpired his own life’s work as a soldier had not ended. In 1914-1915, he served in the British Army as commander of the 92nd Brigade, and later as commander of the 10th Reserve Division. In 1919, at the end of World War 1, he was attached to the Army of Occupation in Cologne, Germany. In 1921 he was promoted to Major General.
He lived on for another 11 years after the end of World War 1, and died on Friday 6 September 1929, at Egham in Surrey in his 74th year. He lies in the Catholic portion of the cemetery in Old Windsor in Berkshire, far from Australia and South Australia which he had served with devotion and skill for most of his professional life.
Fort Largs is perhaps his South Australian memorial, and is a reminder of his service with the South Australia Police.
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