If you have ever visited the Natural History Museum in London you will no doubt have seen the statue of Charles Darwin on the main staircase in the Central Hall. You may however be forgiven for paying less attention to a large bronze bust mounted high on the wall to the left of Darwin.
This is in fact a memorial to a First World War casualty; panels either side of the bust state ‘Captain Frederick C. Selous DSO, Hunter, Explorer & Naturalist, Born 1851, Killed in Action at Beho Beho, German East Africa, 4.1.1917’. Selous was a true Victorian explorer and reputedly the inspiration behind H. Rider Haggard’s adventurer Allan Quatermain, who in turn heavily influenced the character of Indiana Jones.
Selous was born in London on 31st December 1851. After attending Rugby School he never really settled in England and in 1871 went to South Africa where he became a big game hunter and ivory trader. He was often commissioned to secure trophies for dealers and museums, including many specimens held by the Natural History Museum, hence the reason for his memorial there.
Selous wrote about his experiences in the 1881 book A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa, and the 1893 book Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa amongst others. In 1893 he was involved in the First Matabele War, acting as a guide in the expedition organised by Cecil Rhodes. He could also count American President Theodore Roosevelt among his friends.
When war broke out in 1914 Selous was 62; he repeatedly tried to enlist but was denied due to his age. However he was eventually successful in gaining a commission with the25th Royal Fusiliers (the Legion of Frontiersmen). He was promoted to Lieutenant in February 1915 and Captain in August of the same year.
Given his experience it is hardly surprising that he ended up taking part in the campaign in German East Africa, led by General Smuts. He was Mentioned in Despatches on 30th June 1916 and awarded the DSO on 26th September 1916, the citation reading “For conspicuous gallantry, resource and endurance. He has set a magnificent example to all ranks, and the value of his services with the battalion cannot be overestimated.”
One of his last letters home was written to his wife on Christmas Day 1916: “We are on the eve on an attack on the Germans out here. Their lines here are quite close to ours, our forces are gathering, and we shall now attack their lines in several places simultaneously in a few days. Our forces are terribly depleted principally from sickness. The German forces are sure to be entrenching, and as they still have a number of machine guns, it may be no child’s play attacking their positions, and we may meet with heavy losses.”
Selous was killed in action whilst leading his company in an attack on Beho Beho on 4th January 1917. He had just turned 65. A corporal from Selous’ battalion gave an account of his death: “He was not killed instantaneously, as I fought over him for fully ten minutes. He was shot in the head, but this wound was not the cause of his death; this wound was caused by a splinter some half an hour previous to the action fought on the hills outside the village of Beho Beho, and when Captain Selous was asked if he was wounded he stated that it was nothing very much and insisted on going on. He went over the ridges at Beho Beho and was kneeling near a small tree, and was seen after the action had been in progress for about 15 minutes to drop his rifle. I immediately went over to him and stayed with him for fully ten minutes before he received his fatal wound, and then I carried or dragged him to the rear of a small hill and there he died.” Corporal B. Davis, 32667, 25th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers.
Selous was buried in Tanganyika, in the game park that is now known as the Selous Game Reserve. He is also commemorated on Pirbright war memorial, along with his son Captain Frederick Hatherley Bruce Selous, Royal Flying Corps, who was killed in action on 4th January 1918 – the anniversary of his father’s death.
The plaque to Selous is not the only war memorial in the Natural History Museum…but that’s maybe a subject for another blog post.
You can download the ‘Life of Frederick Courtenay Selous DSO’ free here.