March 6-10 2017, we will commemorate the centenary of the winning of the Victoria Cross by Captain Oswald Austin Reid, attd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment during the Mesopotamia Campaign.
Oswald Austin Reid was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 2nd November 1893, the son of Harry Austin Reed and his wife Alice Gertrude Reid, both pioneer founders of the city. He attended the Diocesan College in Cape Town and St John’s College in Johannesburg before coming to Britain to complete his education at Radley.
Bishop Nash, his Headmaster at St John’s, wrote: Reid was a fine athlete at School, captain of Football and Cricket. I believe his last four innings at School were centuries, and he was considered the best boy wicketkeeper in the Transvaal. He took a Second in Matric, at sixteen, and he was my Senior Prefect and a really strong and loyal head. On leaving St. John’s he was received on my special request (for he was over age) at Radley College in England.
Oswald Reid came to Radley in April 1910 when he was sixteen and a half, so considerably older than most new boys. He got into the Cricket XI his first term as a wicket-keeper.
The most promising wicket-keeper seen here for a long time, quick and unostentatious. Disappointing this season with the bat, but is bound to get lots of runs before he has done. The Radleian, July 1910
In the Michaelmas Term 1910 he played some matches for the 1st Football XI and in the Lent Term 1911 he was a forward in the 1st Rugby XV (this was before rugby was adopted as Radley’s official sport). He was a member of the Debating Society and he won the Heavyweight division of the College Boxing. In November 1911 Oswald Reid was elected to the Literary Society and had a part in the Greek play. In March 1912 he passed Certificate A in the Officers’ Training Corps.
Freezing weather in January 1912 delayed the start of rugger by ten days and Reid missed the 1st XV match against Christ Church after being injured in a skating accident. In the Sports of 1912 Reid won the High Jump, tied the Long Jump and won Putting the Weight.
In Michaelmas 1912 Oswald Reid became Senior Prefect. The Warden’s Prize for the Senior Prefect was inaugurated in 1913 on his behalf: A special prize was presented to Reid, the Senior Prefect, to whom, the Warden remarked, much of what he had said about the good tone of the school was due.
He was also captain of Cricket and captain of Racquets and Fives. In 1913 he was captain of Rugby Football, captain of Swimming, President of the Debating Society and was a Colour-Sergeant in the OTC.
The 1913 1st XI Cricket side had the estimable advantage of a really good captain in O. A. Reid: Originally a pure hitter. He has made himself into a really consistent forcing batsman. His strength of body and forearm make it possible for him to force even good length balls to the boundary. A most useful fast bowler and a first-rate wicket-keeper. An admirable captain, watchful, courageous, and even tempered.
Reid was asked to play in the Public Schools Trial match at Lord’s. He was unfortunately disabled by a fast one from Rucker, three or four balls after he had put on the gloves, but despite the necessity for a visit to the hospital, he made some big hits, sending one ball on to the stands, and was eventually chosen as first change bowler for the Public Schools XI. During the 1913 season Oswald Reid averaged 43.55 runs and he took 21 wickets for 294 runs (14). He was a member of the Public Schools XI in their Match against the M.C.C., August, 1913.
After leaving Radley, he went for nearly a year to Holland to learn Dutch and Dutch law with a view to future work in the Transvaal.
His Headmaster in South Africa believed Oswald Reid had thoughts of taking Holy Orders but on 14th August 1914, just 10 days after Britain declared war on Germany, he was commissioned into the 4th Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment, as a 2nd Lieutenant. He went out to Flanders within a few months.
In a letter to his father, written from Flanders on 26 March 1915, he recounts his experiences in the battle of Neuve Chapelle:
I am still safe and sound. We arrived in the firing line just in time to take part in the battle of Neuve Chapelle, which I dare say you have read about. It was simply terrific, and was a most severe baptism of fire. We are fighting in co-operation with all the Indians. We have just come back from the trenches for a bit of rest … The British successes cost us very dear. Over a hundred officers were killed or wounded at Neuve Chapelle. Our regiment got off comparatively lightly but my two best friends were both bowled over. One was killed by a shell which struck a house in which several of us were sheltering. It left the rest of us absolutely unharmed but tore him about most dreadfully. The shell fire out here is terrific at times. When we went up into action the British were bombarding with 137 big guns and the Germans were by no means slow to reply either. The Germans have exceptionally good snipers located all over the place, and one is always liable to get picked off unexpectedly.
Reid was wounded in the head in the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April 1915. He describes the circumstances in a letter to the Headmaster of St John’s College written from London on 10 May 1915:
My wound is only a slight one in the head, and in another month I shall be quite healed … It was in the recent fighting at Ypres. Our regiment has been remarkably busy since we got out here. We took part in the battle of Neuve Chapelle and again at Ypres. We have only been out a little over two months and yet we have only seven officers and about 300 men left of our original 30 officers and 1000 men. I have had some narrow escapes. If the bullet that wounded me had struck me ever so little lower I would have been killed outright. Time and again shells have burst within a few yards of me, and left me untouched. I have even had my glasses whisked out of my hand by shrapnel without being touched myself. We had to march to Ypres in a tremendous hurry. One day we marched 12 hours on end. The men are wonderful in these marches. It must be remembered that they carry an enormous weight on their packs. The war here is simply colossal. The Germans are up to every vile trick. They were making great use of that poisonous gas at Ypres. It is much more painful than a wound and the men who get gassed are ghastly to see. Their shells have also got some poisonous gases in them. They nearly blind you if they burst nearby. What has struck me most has been the marvellous imperturbability and cheerfulness of the British soldier. They face death as if it was a common occurrence. One cannot help keeping cool oneself when all the men behave like that. One soon becomes quite callous at the front and can easily bear to see a shell kill several men, and sometimes a best friend, without any undue emotion. The loss of life is quite terrible. Neuve Chapelle and the roads leading to it were a simple shambles …I have been promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
He returned to France in September 1915, as a member of the First Battalion and in December 1915 was promoted to Captain.
A letter dated 15 February 1916:
You will be pleased to hear that I have now become Captain and I feel quite proud to think that I am serving as a Captain in the first battalion of the finest and oldest of the British Regiments. Spring is stirring both armies to activity just now, and we all expect to have to go through the awful inferno of attacking or being attacked before long. It is fortunate that one’s intellect seems to become temporarily dulled on these occasions, otherwise it would be too terrifying for anything. It’s just a regular tornado for every kind of death-dealing missile imaginable. The old methods of warfare must seem quite fairly peaceful – bullets, bayonets and some shells. But now-a-days there are also trench mortars, machine guns in plenty, rifle grenades, mines, gas, bombs and even liquid fire. Liquid fire isn’t very common, but the others are often met with. So you can see that that short hundred yards or so of ground between two trenches hold a ten to one chance of a wound in crossing them …The general opinion out here is that we really have got the upper hand of the Germans and we all hope to settle the matter this summer.
He was wounded again, this time in the face, during the 1st Battle of Arras in April 1915. Captain Reid did not serve in the battle of the Somme because he was serving on the North West Frontier of India with 2 Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment, taking part in the fighting against the hill tribes. Reid’s service in India lasted four months and in December 1916 he had arrived in Mesopotamia, attached to 6 Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.
A letter to his father dated 4 December 1916:
I have arrived out here safely and am attached to the above regiment [6 Bn, Loyal North Lancashire.] I have a double company to command and am first on the list for second in command of the battalion. This is a new young battalion. The country is all as flat as a pancake, absolutely devoid of trees; in fact it’s nothing but a dry desert, and one gets awfully tired of looking at nothing at all. When I joined the battalion they were down the line refitting, now we are on our way up again with all sorts of rumours of desperate deeds to be done. Personally I think they are only rumours. In any case the Turk seems to be much more of a sportsman than the German…
The Battle of the Diyala River
In March 1917 the British were approaching Baghdad. Selected to force a crossing of the Diyalah River, the Turks last main line of defence just eight miles from the city, men from the 6th Battalions of the East, South and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments, together with fellow Lancastrians from the 6th Kings Own, were shot down in waves as they tried to ferry pontoons across the stream. Eventually around 100 men and four officers from the 6th Loyals, led by Oswald Reid, established a tiny bridgehead. But fierce Turkish opposition prevented reinforcement and there began an epic of endurance under fire which bears favourable comparison even with the much more well-known Rorke’s Drift battle.
Instead of the Zulu warriors with spears and cow-hide shields which the Lancastrians had faced in the Boer War, now they had to withstand a modern army with 20th Century fire-power. For over 30 hours the little band, at least well positioned for defence in a deep bend in the river bank, fought off attack after attack, often at the point of the bayonet. Their few bombs were expended during the first night, but with great skill and courage they hurled back the ones thrown into their redoubt by the Turks. Each man started the action with 220 rounds of ammunition, but it quickly became clear that unless great caution was used they would be left only with their bayonets. Finally, on the third night of the siege, the East Lancashires at last succeeded in getting across the Diyala River behind them. When relieved the little force was down to four officers and about 30 men, many of them wounded, out of bombs and down to the last of the ammunition. Their senior officer, Oswald Reid, received the Victoria Cross. Of the other survivors, three were awarded the Military Cross, two the Distinguished Conduct Medal and 11 the Military Medal.
The battle began on the night of March 7th, 1917. Men of the Lancaster Regiment (The King’s Own) were detailed to make the first attempt to cross the Diyalah, but even before the No. 1 pontoon could be launched, enemy machine-guns and artillery fired across the 50 yard wide river and wiped out the Royal Engineers assembling the pontoon. A second pontoon was launched and got half-way across when its occupants were all killed or wounded. A third, fourth, and fifth attempt to cross the river met with the same fate. Enemy machine-guns on the opposite bank dominated the battle zone. Daylight made further attempts impossible. I saw the pontoons with their dead and wounded floating down the River Tigris. Next night (March 8th) the battle continued. After an intense bombardment of the Turkish positions, men of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment succeeded in crossing the Diyalah and gained a footing on the other side: but the supporting troops were not so lucky. Their boats and pontoons were blown to bits in midstream, leaving about 100 Lancashire soldiers isolated on the north side of the river. Throughout the night, the stranded men fought off attack after attack by a much stronger Turkish force. It was not until daylight on the 10th March that a rescue was effected. When we reached them, there were only about 30 exhausted survivors. The many dead lying round the parapets of the river-bound defences told their own grim tale. From Machine Gunner 1914-1918 by C. E. Crutchley: The Battle of the Diyalah River
His bravery in defending the isolated bridgehead bought vital time for reinforcements to arrive and cross the river. This enabled General Sir Stanley Maude to outflank the Turkish forces, which then retreated. This retreat facilitated the unopposed British entry into Baghdad on 11 March 1917.
Hero in South Africa – Hero at Radley
Reid returned to Johannesburg on leave to recuperate. He was greeted as one of South Africa’s greatest heroes, the first man from Johannesburg to win the Victoria Cross:
Thank you all very much. It’s all a matter of luck, was Captain Reid’s soldierly and brief reply to the welcome and the acknowledgement of the cheers which marked the public approval of the Deputy Mayor’s congratulations … Johannesburg Star
Captain Reid left Johannesburg to rejoin his Regiment on Monday 13 August 1917. In the London Gazette dated 31 August 1917 it was announced that he had been awarded the Italian Silver Medal for Military Valour. In December 1917 he was mentioned in despatches for his part in the capture of Baghdad. He returned to South Africa to recover from his injuries.
He visited Radley on All Souls Day in 1919. He was honoured by the traditional ceremony of being carried up and down Covered Passage. In turn, he requested a half-holiday for the boys at school. Many years later Eric Gillett, who had been a Prefect when Reid was Senior Prefect, remembered the day:
I was in my first year at Oxford when he and I met for the last time. It was at Radley, on All Saints’ Day, 1919. This was the Old Radleian celebration, and of course he had a great reception. After the dinner and the speeches he had asked me to meet him in the Prefects’ study, and when he came in looking much as he had done seven years earlier when we had last met, no one else was there.
I’ve something to show you, he said with a grin: and taking me by the arm, led me across Prefects’ Court to the School Shop. Asking me to wait for a minute, he dived into a plantation just behind Shop, and came out with a small leather case. It was pitch dark all round us, except for one gaslight. In its gleam, and with his habitual shy grin, he put his VC into my hand. In the present day and age, no doubt this will seem a very sentimental gesture. It was, in fact, nothing of the kind. What struck me at the time as very odd indeed, was that he had chosen to hide his decoration for some hours in a hollow tree-trunk because he felt no doubt that he might be regarded as a ‘show-off’ if someone had asked him what the bulge in his pocket was.
Less than a year later he died in Johannesburg after a short illness, and with him went the potentials of a great, delightful, and most unselfish man. I am very proud to have been one of his friends.
After the War
After the Armistice he went to Russia as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force, serving with the Slavo-British Legion, supporting the White Russians in their struggles against the ruling Bolsheviks. He was demobilized on 6 February 1920, after which he returned to Johannesburg. On 1 April 1920 he resigned his commission in the British Army, and obtained a commission in the Transvaal Scottish Regiment as a Captain. After his return to Johannesburg military affairs continued to play a major role in his activities. Not only did he serve in the Transvaal Scottish but he was the first Secretary of the Johannesburg branch of the Comrades of the Great War League (subsequently the British Empire Service League and now the South African Legion). He also entered the political sphere, unsuccessfully contesting the Troyeville constituency in March 1920.
Reid died, only a few weeks short of his 27th birthday, on 27 October 1920, from gastro-enteritis, his health having been seriously undermined for several years by multiple war wounds. It was a supremely tragic irony that, having survived the most desperate fighting on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia, he should succumb to a comparatively minor sickness.
Oswald Reid is buried in Braamfontein Cemetery, Johannesburg. The funeral took place on Sunday 31 October 1920 … The simplest, and from its very simplicity perhaps the most striking, of the many wreaths yesterday was that laid upon the coffin by the Senior Prefect of St. John’s College. It consisted of oak leaves tied with the school colours, and it was made by the boys themselves from the trees of the estate.
In his reminiscence, Eric Gillett wrote: ‘It’s very odd to think that he was the sort of person who, if he had lived, might have changed the course of South African history.’
|Oswald Reid’s medals and presentation sword are displayed in the South African National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.
He is not included on the WW1 War Memorial at Radley College. However, there is a memorial to him outside Chapel.
Research by Jock Mullard. Abridged from an article in the Old Radleian magazine, 2015. The full-text of the magazine can be accessed at Radley Archives
The letters of Oswald Reid were originally published in a publication entitled St John’s College and the War.
The assistance of Sandra Lou and Angie Delport of St John’s College, Johannesburg and the help of Martin Kennard (Radley 1959) in Johannesburg has been invaluable.