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Fri 13 December 2019
John Frederick McCrea was born on 1 Apr 1854 at Fort George, Madras, India to Captain Herbert Taylor McCrea and Elizabeth Dobree Carey. Following his parents' deaths in 1855, he was brought up by his Aunt Charlotte in Guernsey, where he was educated at Elizabeth College. He then studied medicine at Guy's Hospital, qualifying in 1878 as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and Edinburgh.

In 1879 he went to South Africa, where he did duty at the Military Hospital in Cape Town as Civilian Surgeon to HM's Forces. A year later he moved to Fort Beaufort to settle, but decided instead to join the 1st Regiment, Cape Mounted Yeomanry as a surgeon.

This year the Basutos rebelled when the Government tried to disarm them. Fighting took place on several fronts, with the main engagements taking place around Mafeteng, just across the Orange Free State border, where Colonel Carrington was besieged with 200 Cape Mounted Riflemen. The relieving force, which included the CMY, was surprised by a mounted Basuto force at Kalibani. In this, his first engagement, McCrea very narrowly escaped with his life - his batman who had been riding beside him was killed together with 40 others.

On 14 January 1881, a misty and rainy day, commander of the CMY, Colonel Brabant, led a patrol of 180 infantry and 380 mounted men equipped with two seven-pounders and 400 burghers towards Thaba Tsueu, a mountain some 10 miles east of Mafeteng. The patrol entered a wide, marshy valley flanked by steep ridges which rose gradually to a plateau on which lay the village of Sepechele. Lerothodi awaited the attackers with 8000 well-armed and mounted Basutos. Brabant ordered the Burghers to seize and burn a village called Radiamari, which lay on the right flank. Having done this they disregarded orders by pressing on to Sepechele. Suddenly Chief Maama led 3000 Basutos in a charge through the rain and mist, forcing the burghers to retreat hastily to the main force. The CMR's 110 men dismounted and opened fire, effectively splitting the attack to the flanks. Chief Maama's force retired several hundred yards and Chief Lerothodi's force opened up with a heavy fire from the broken ground on three sides.

On this field of battle known then as Tweefontein, McCrea then went forward to help the Burghers. During their hasty retreat, 16 of them had been killed and 21 wounded. Surgeon McCrea, assisted by another officer, went out under heavy fire to rescue a wounded burgher, conveying him to the shelter of a large ant-heap, and having placed him in a position of safety returned to the ambulance for a stretcher. Whilst on his way, he was himself severely wounded by a bullet in the right breast, notwithstanding which he continued to perform his duties at the ambulance and again assisted to bring in several wounded men. He continued to attend the wounded during the remainder of the day and scarcely taking time to dress his wound, which he was obliged to do himself due to there being no other medical officer in the field.

During all of this period, the enemy kept up a heavy fusilade from a hollow about 200 yards ahead of the column, from a kopje 600 yards to the right front as well as from dongas on the left. The action lasted for five hours, mostly in heavy rain, before the Basutos were finally driven from the plateau and its rocky sides. Had it not been for McCreas gallantry and devotion, the sufferings of the wounded would undoubtedly have been much aggravated and greater loss of life might have ensued. For this act Surgeon McCrea was awarded the Victoria Cross, which he received at a ceremony at King William's Town on 25 October 1881 and mentioned in Despatches on the 28th June 1881. He was promoted to Surgeon Major and transferred to the Cape Infantry Regiment.
Grave on J.F. McCrea VC
When this regiment disbanded in February 1882, he transferred as Regimental Surgeon to the Cape Mounted Riflemen and joined the garrison at Kokstad where he met and married his wife, Elizabeth Antoinette Watermeyer. He died in service at Kokstad from lung inflammation following a bout of influenza, only seven years after his marriage, on 16 Jul 1894.

Photos of him exist in the Cape Town Military Museum and in the S.A. National Museum of Military History. There is also a painting of him tending a wounded Burgher at Tweefontein painted by Eric Wale of Cape Town at the Royal Army Medical College, Millbank, London.

Source: Nigel McCrea

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