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Sergeant Barrie Watts-Phillips MiD; 8th Light Horse Regt.

Top soldier, top man

By RSM 1 Bde WO1 Darryl Kelly

  • Fought in the  Boer War.

  • Shot in the face by a Zulu.

  • Rode a bike from Adelaide to Darwin.

  • Survivor of the Charge at the Nek.

A favourite painting of mine, is the famous “Charge at Beersheba” by artist Septimus Power. I can’t walk by it without stopping to view the intricate detail of the work. 

The painting holds significant interest to me, as I have walked the famous charge route many times. One figure stands out alone. Who was this man? 

Barrie Watts-Phillips was born in South Australia in 1878. 

Life in the latter part of the 19th century was hard and a kid from the back-blocks had to be just as hard, simply to survive.

Sgt Barrie Watts-Philips – top soldier, top man. 

Barrie Watts-Phillips in 1915 prior to embarking for Gallipoli.


The mystique of battle in a far off land appealed to the lad, so putting his age up by a few years he enlisted in the 5th Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse, bound for South Africa and war against the Boers.

Life on the African Veldt was hard for the mounted troopers. Water was scarce, food was bland and the elusive Boer commandoes were first rate troops. 

They were the masters of hit and run tactics – their only problem was that our blokes had their measure and soon began to dominate the local countryside. 

Young Barrie relished life as a soldier. He felt equal to the older men with whom he shared the hardships of combat. He was strong, lean and ready for the fight, wherever and whenever it may come. And come it did, fast and furious, but the young trooper was more than up to the task.

Sickness was a common foe on both sides and Barrie did not escape its clutches, when malaria hospitalised him in Johannesburg. As the war sputtered to an end, Barrie Watts-Phillips decided to remain in South Africa. The lure of quick money in the abundant goldfields appealed to his sense of adventure.

He secured work in the massive Johannesburg mine complex known as “The Angela Deep”. Long hours and back-breaking work was Barrie’s reward. The pay was good but the conditions were shocking and Barrie had had just about enough. He rallied his fellow workers and took the management to task by leading the first white miners strike in South Africa’s history.

It was now 1906 and South Africa was again in conflict – this time the famed Zulu nation was rebelling in nearby Natal. Never one to back away from a stoush, Barrie joined a local mounted unit known as Roystons Horse.

In what many thought would be a strictly one sided affair, the irregular units went about putting the Zulus back in their place – the only thing was no-one told the Zulus that they’d be a walk over and the proud warriors gave as good as they got. During an ensuing action, Barrie Watts-Phillips was shot in the left side of the face. The wound was serious and the doctors worked hard to repair the damage caused by the bullet.

As he began to heal, the doctors reviewed their handy work on Barrie’s face – “Not bad if I do say so myself” the doctor said jokingly, “Don’t worry trooper, you’ll still get the girls in.” The natives looked on Barrie with awe – a man who had been shot in the face and lived to tell the tale was someone to be revered – they nicknamed him “Unn Farnes” or Stone Jaw.

Barrie returned to civilian life and continued to knock about South Africa. He took up a job as a sparring partner for the world middleweight champion, Eddie McGorty, and his challenger, Jimmy Clabby, as they prepared for their bout. He gave a good account for himself but after a few weeks of this he really wished he did have a stone jaw.

In 1908, he secured work on a steamer bound for Australia, via Singapore. Landing in Adelaide, he heard of lucrative work in the Gulf of Carpentaria. As he stood in a pub he spoke of his impending trip with a group of fellow drinkers.

“How you planning to get up there, mate?” one of them asked. “On that!” he replied, nodding towards the ancient looking push-bike. The group broke into laughter - the only one not laughing, was Barrie.

Feeling his icy glare, one of them stated – “you’re not joking are you mate – you’re really going across Australia on that?” “Too bloody right I am!” “Well you’d better get this into you then” one said, handing him another beer. And travel to the Gulf he did, straight up the Burke and Wills track.

He worked at a number of jobs, including jackaroo, cook and fencer. In northern Queensland, he was a gun shearer, where he “Rang the Bell” for the most sheep shorn. He returned to Melbourne a few years later and got married. The couple settled in Albert Park, where Barrie secured work as a commercial traveller. He remained an active member of the Australian Natives Association, a lodge type of organisation bent on maintaining the principals of Australian life and culture.

In 1914, the onset of war saw Barrie Watts-Phillips back in uniform. Enlisting in the AIF, he was allocated to the 8th Light Horse Regt. With his experience, he was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant in B Sqn.

The Regiment sailed for Egypt in early 1915 and continued training at the Light Horse camp on Cairo’s outskirts. As the infantry and support troops of the 1st Division marched out, bound for Gallipoli, the troopers of the Light Horse were jealous. They knew that they were every bit as good as their “gravel-crushing” cousins – all they craved was for a chance to prove it.

Their chance came soon enough though, as casualties in the peninsular began to rise. As the word came down to prepare for embarkation, Barrie Watts-Phillips swung into action. He rallied his men and laid down a few ground rules as to what to take and what to leave. He was a firm taskmaster and his men respected him for it. They knew that he’d always give them a fair shake but heaven help them if they crossed the line with him.

Gallipoli was not the adventure the young diggers expected. This was war at its worst – kill or be killed. The only problem was that the Turks held most of the high ground, hence most of the advantage. Barrie seemed to be everywhere. He was always on the look-out for his men and saw to it that they had everything they needed to wage battle. He scrounged additional food, water, bombs and ammo. He’d roam the trenches, offering advice to the younger blokes on how to stay alive and how to make the best of the harsh conditions. He kept up an incredible pace, which soon began to take its toll on his system.

It was now August 1915 and the bloody stalemate of trench warfare continued. A British landing was planned further up the peninsular at Suvla Bay. To cover the landing a series of diversionary attacks were to occur along the Anzac front. 

The infantry would attack at Lone Pine, the Kiwis would attack and seize the heights at Chunuk Bair and the Light Horse would conduct two charges – one at Russell Top and the other by the 8th, 9th and 10th Regiments, at a place called the Nek. 

The Nek was a narrow bridge of land, flanked by two steep gullies – it was a natural choke point. The diggers knew that they had to take it but the Turks also knew that they had to hold it. The Turkish machine-guns were positioned with interlocking arcs of fire. Every bit of the ground was covered by fire. 

The attack at the Nek was scheduled for the pre-dawn darkness of August 7. The regiments drew lots to see who would have the honour of leading the charge – the 8th won.

As they moved into the trenches, some of the men of the first wave joked with their mates. “This is just another stunt”, one said “we’ll get in and rip their guts out with this,” thrusting his bayonet and rifle forward. Others jockeyed for position, so as to go over the top with a mate. Then came the silence before the barrage. Some sat silently, some prayed, others fought back tears, some tried to scratch out a hasty message to loved ones but now, nearly to a man, they took time to reflect on the seriousness of the situation.

Barrie moved among his men, dishing out a double ration of rum. “Remember boys, nothing up the spout, we’re going over with the bayonet,” he said as he made his way along the trench. “We’re the first wave, so we’ve got to keep moving and push forward.”

The pre-assault barrage commenced right on time. Round after round slammed into the Turkish trenches as the barrage gain intensity, then suddenly it stopped, several minutes earlier than expected. 

Orders were questioned – do we go now? Do we hold? Was there to be another blast of artillery? The Turks now streamed back into the forward trenches and prepared for the expected assault. Then came the whistle blast to send them on their way – right on time and right into the gates of hell. 

They only had to charge 40 metres to reach the enemy trenches – most didn’t get more than 10 metres before they were cut to pieces. Some didn’t even get over the lip of the trench. Barrie ran forward, coaxing his men on. He felt the tug as bullets ripped into his equipment cutting it free. Suddenly he was alone, dropping to the ground he took stock of the situation. The first wave of 150 men had been cut to pieces. He’d had every piece of equipment blown off him and the next wave was just about to come over. 

He was powerless to stop the carnage as the second wave charged and met the same fate as the first. Wounded and dead now littered the battlefield. In a scant five minutes, the 8th Light Horse Regt almost ceased to exist.

By mistake, a third wave of the 10th Light Horse also charged. A couple of the diggers almost made it to the Turkish trenches before they too, were cut down. A smaller fourth charge took place in daylight 30 minutes later in a futile gesture. It barely made it over the parapet.

In a matter of minutes 234 men were killed and more than 140 wounded, in an area a little larger than two tennis courts. Ever so slowly, Barrie Watts-Phillips made his way back to the safety of the trench. The Turks took a few pot shots at anything that moved but somehow they missed him.

Watts-Phillips took stock of the situation. The time to grieve would come later. He had work to do, to get the wounded back to the rear and prepare for a possible counter-attack by the Turks. He worked around the clock for the next three or four days and was on the verge of exhaustion when the Regimental Medical Officer stepped in.

He wrote, “This man Sgt Watts-Phillips can not continue active service, for weeks he has stuck solidly to his work although I wished him to go away. He is an excellent man but he has now reached the limit of human endurance and I must strongly urge that he be evacuated. He is no longer fit to do his work.” 

Barrie was evacuated to Malta a couple of days later and then to England. He discovered that he’d been recommended both for a commission and a decoration but he received neither. He did, however, receive a Mention in Despatches, for his work at Anzac Cove. 

In London, Barrie was approached by the noted war artist, Septimus Power, who asked if he could do some sketches of him. Barrie agreed and thought nothing more of it. 

Barrie was able to recuperate enough to return to the regiment in March the following year. He was detached to the 3rd Light Horse Training Regiment as a Temporary SSM with his rank confirmed sometime later. He secured a posting back to the Regiment as the SSM of A Sqn – he moved to C Sqn some moths later, again as the SSM. Detachments to and from the Training Regiment continued over the ensuing months.

Barrie was not with the regiment when it went into action around Beersheba and returned to the 8th in January 1918 as the SSM of his beloved B Sqn. As the war in the Middle East spluttered to a close in October 1918, the 8th took up garrison and patrol duties. Barrie was appointed as acting RSM in early 1919, before he embarked for home in June. 

With the unveiling of Septimus Power’s now famous painting “Charge at Beersheba”, in the 1920’s, Barrie Watts-Phillips realised one of the sketches of himself, which was done in London, was now part of the famous work. 

Barrie Watts-Phillips resided in the Melbourne suburb of East Malvern. He was just as tough in his older years as he was as a younger man. In the late 1930s, he attended the Anzac Day march in Melbourne. It was the best turn out of late 8th Light Horsemen for many a year, with numbers attending in the hundreds. 

As they enjoyed a few quite beers in Young and Jackson’s before the march, the clock ticked ever closer to form-up time. At the given moment, Barrie Watts-Phillips and another past RSM and good mate “Bunny” Nugent took charge – “Right you blokes, finish up your drinks and get yourself outside and formed up, ready for the march”. Some of the hard-nuts who had decided to forgo the march and settle in for a morning’s drinking, looked around at the pair. They quickly thought better of their plan and finished their drinks and moved outside with the rest of the regiment.

Barrie Watts-Phillips passed away in 1956, aged 78.

  • A great deal of thanks for this story needs to go to my mate, Cam Simpson, the author of Maygar’s Boys, who provided me with the information on Barrie Watts-Phillips.
  • Originally printed in ARMY News, The Soldiers Newspaper.
It gave me great pride to see my maternal grandfather featured in this web site. A few points. The picture contained in the story is not Barrie. I will obtain a picture and email a copy. I was the person who supplied Cam Simpson with the detail on my grandfather for his book Maygar's Boys. I attach a bit more detail that may assist from an excerpt of my own family history.


For war heroes and adventure you couldn’t go past my maternal grandfather Barrie Watts- Phillips. I am not sure where the Watts came from but it was from somewhere on my Grandmothers side. The hyphenated name was used sporadically over the years and was dropped altogether in the Forties. Barrie was born in South Australia in 1878. He served in the Boer War in 1901-2 in the 5th Battalion Commonwealth Horse. He stayed on in South Africa after the war working in the Deep Angela Mine gold mine where he reportedly helped start the first miners strike in South Africa . He re-enlisted in 1906 in Royston’s Troop and fought in the 1906 Zulu rebellion in Natal


He was wounded in the face during this insurgence by a gunshot after which he was nicknamed "Unn Farnes" (Stone Jaw) by the natives. He was a sparring partner for Eddie McGoorty, the then World Middle Weight Champion who defended his title in Johannesburg in 1908 against Jimmy McClabby.  I have since trawled boxing records on the Internet and whilst there were several fights between these two combatants there was no record of a fight in Johannesburg . However both fighters came to Australia at various times, McGoorty at about the time of the "bout" in South Africa . This could have been part of a world tour.


Anyway Barrie returned to Australia via Singapore in 1908, and spent time in South Australia , his birthplace, during which he laid claim to the first man to ride a bike up the Birdsville Track. I am unaware how far he rode but it’s a pretty good story.


He came to Melbourne in 1910 fell in love and became engaged to a lady until he met her sister and decided that she was the better option, dumped his fiancée, and married Daphne Reeves my Grandma. Mum was born on what was to become Anzac Day eve in 1913.


Barry enlisted as the first call of duty echoed from London on 21st September 1914 and joined the Light Horse. Because of his Boer war experience he became a Sergeant in B Squadron of the Eighth Light Horse. The Eighth Light Horse trained at Broadmeadows for some four months and was shipped to Egypt early in 1915. He landed on Gallipoli in June and was one of the leaders who jumped out of the trenches leading the second charge at the Nek that has been made famous in the film ”Gallipoli”.


Ian Jones in his book ‘The Australian Light Horse” Time Life Books 1987 describes the battle, "At 4.30 am the first line of the 8th Light Horse leapt over the parapet, and the waiting Turkish trenches exploded in a blizzard of rifle fire and crossfire from an estimated thirty machine guns……… man watched the first wave running across the skyline suddenly grow limp and fall as though the men’s limbs had become string".


Barrie took six bullets in the second charge and lay on the battlefield until night when he crawled back to the Australian lines. He was Mentioned in Despatches being recommended for a Commission in the Field and a decoration for gallantry but nothing was forthcoming. The day after the battle when a roll call was taken only 47 answered out of a total of 550. Of the total figure, 318 were from the 8th   of whom 154 were killed and 80 wounded. 


Grandpa was evacuated to Malta on 12th August 1915 , five days after the battle, due to physical and mental breakdown. From Malta he was hospitalised in the UK on 19th September 1915 . He rejoined his Troop in Cairo on5th March 1916. All told, he spent over eight months hospitalised for wounds suffered at the Nek. On his return he was appointed Squadron Sergeant Major of A Squadron of the 3rd Lighthorse. He was further hospitalised for almost six weeks in October 1916. I am unaware of the reason for this hospitalisation.  He transferred back to the 8th Lighthorse in January 1918 as Squadron Sergeant Major of B Squadron but was once more ill and was evacuated to a rest camp on 12th October 1918 . Shortly before return to Australia he was appointed acting Regimental Sergeant Major of the 8th Lighthorse.


He observed, but did not participate in the Charge at Beersheba in 1917 which as it turned out was the last mounted troop charge in modern warfare. The Australian Light Horse took on Turkish artillery stationed in Beersheba catching them by surprise so much so the Turks were constantly lowering their gun sights as the troopers charged and the Turks continued to fire over the charging heads of riders and horses. The Light Horse overtook the fixed Turkish positions and eventually the town of Beersheba . In spite of my Grandfather not taking part in the charge the artist Septimus Power painted his face as the only recognisable face, leading the charge, in the painting “The Charge at Beersheba”, which now hangs in the War Memorial in Canberra.


He returned to Melbourne in March 1919.  Life in East Malvern was going to be pretty dull after Barrie’s last four years.

Roger Evans January 2005


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