Battlefield History Tours

Battlefield History Tours
Incorporating History and Heritage tours

About the Boer War 1899 - 1902

When Australia became a nation on 1 January 1901, it was at war.  This was not a war that the new nation declared, that had been done by the former colonial master, and at the time our troops when they left our shores fell under empirical control, a situation that was to remain until 1942.  The war, in South Africa was an economic one engineered by those with an interest in the gold and diamonds in what had developed as self-governing republics (Orange Free State, and Republic of South Africa (Transvaal)) to the north of the British South African colonies (Cape Colony and Natal).  From 1835 a large section of the Boer (South Africans of Dutch heritage) population of Cape Colony had packed wagons and trekked north in search of new land.  They ultimately formed the two largely independent republics, although Britain still claimed sovereignty over the whole of Region.

The war was fought by British forces in South Africa, forces raised by the South African colonies, some of these were "Imperial" units that incorporated volunteers from all over the Empire, including Australians, units sent from the far-flung corners of the Empire, and units like the Scottish Horse raised by individuals with focus on a particular heritage.  Later in the fight, units were raised from a mixture of "soldiers of fortune" who drifted into service and were officered by those who had seen service now faced with difficult command situations. 

The war started conventionally.  On 10 October 1899 the British Government received an ultimatum from the republics, now allied demanding the additional British forces that had built-up as relations worsened, be removed from the British colonies at the Cape and Natal.  The ultimatum gave the British 48 hours to act or the Boer republics would declare war.  On expiry of the 48 hours, Boer forces invaded the British colonies and within a short time had besieged the important towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith. 

Initially the Boers were successful.  Black Week saw the British in South Africa suffer three serious defeats in six days.  The first came at Stormberg (10 December 1899), where an army under Sir William Gatacre suffered a defeat after a badly handled night march.  Next came Magersfontein (11 December 1899).  This saw the defeat of an expedition under Lord Methuen that had been attempting to relieve Kimberley.  Finally, on 15 December 1899 the commander in chief in South Africa, Sir Redvers Buller, led his army to defeat at Colenso, ending his first attempt to relieve the siege of Ladysmith.  Colenso was the worst defeat the British suffered 1,137 casualties while inflicting only 38. 

The tide soon turned fresh Empire troops, and a change in command enabled a conventional advance from Cape Colony into the heart of the Boer republics.  By September 1900 the conventional war was over, the British forces had won.  The sieges had been relieved and the prize of Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal taken.  Then began a guerrilla war.  The Boers were able to deploy "commandos", units and sub-units of up to 1,000 who were mostly independent, able to live off the land and strike at will.  The British reacted as conventional forces have past and present to what was an uncontrollable situation.  They attempted to remove the support that enabled such forces to operate.  Families were removed from their land, homesteads razed, crops burnt and stock destroyed.  The families were concentrated in camps in conditions that regardless of other intentions became inhumane.

A crusading English woman, Emily Hobhouse alerted the world to the horrors of the camps and was virtually seem as a Saint, both in England and South Africa. Reports on both of the above shocked the whole civilised world, including great objection from many of the British and Colonial soldiers engaged in the fighting.

The guerrilla war dragged on and did not peter out until early 1902.  The result was a treaty that formed the Union of South Africa; and put in charge the very Boer politicians and generals that had recently been sworn enemies of the "victors".  That union formed the foundation of the current inclusive South African nation, though it was not for another 90 years that the adjective "inclusive" could be applied.

When war was declared, there was quite an unhealthy rush by Australian politicians) most of whom until late 1899 had shown no predilection toward defence) to support the Empire and get involved in the fight.  In 1898 when the commanding officer of the New South Wales Lancers proposed sending a squadron to the UK to train with British regular cavalry the New South Wales government could best be described as indifferent to the proposal.  The soldiers did go in April 1899, they got so little official support that each had to pay £20 (approximately $10,000 in 2011 terms) toward their passage and upkeep.  The story was different when the war was on, the squadron left Southampton to return to Australia on the day after the war was declared, The commander of this squadron Captain (later Major General) Charlie Cox cabled the government for permission to stay and fight when they were to arrive in Capetown.  The New South Wales Government were of course quite happy to say yes.  In so doing, the "Mother Colony" was able to win the race to have the first Australian troops in Australian uniform in battle.  The Queenslanders were next, with the first contingent of the Queensland Mounted Infantry departing on 1 November 1899, and arriving soon after the New South Welshmen.  All of the other colonies soon responded with their own contingents of varying strength; a total of 5 set out from New South Wales, 6 from Victoria, 7 from Queensland, 6 from South Australia, 6 from Western Australia and 4 from Tasmania.  By 1902 the new Australian Commonwealth was able to send troops in its own right, three contingents a total of seven battalions strong were sent, few saw service, however, in what were the dying stages of the conflict. 

A total of 16,175 were sent from Australia, and a further 6,600 (approx.) recruited from Australian and other Contingents in the Cape Colony.  Total Casualties 1,918 . Total Deaths 516 (Note: Of this number, 251 died in battle while 267 died of wounds or disease).  Six Australian soldiers were awarded VC's and three of our nurses were awarded Royal Red Cross Medals.  A total of 98 other awards were made to soldiers for bravery and special service in the field.  [AWM records].  All Australian forces were under British command, many attached as sub-units to British units. 

The first to be nominated for a VC was Trooper Tom Morris of the New South Wales Lancers, in his own words he describes the action that won him the nomination on that fateful day, 6 December 1899. "We were at Arundel, near Colesberg, and a body of us were ordered out under Major Lee to examine a row of kopjes about four miles long. We had ridden along for half the distance without finding any sign of the enemy, when they suddenly opened fire on us from the kopjes on both sides. All we had to do was to draw their fire, so we started to get back at once. I was near the rear of the detachments, and as I rode along I could see the Boers coming round the other kopje to cut us off. Then I looked back to see if any of them were following us and saw Trooper Harrison's horse fall. It was shot under him, so I went back and took Harrison up and galloped away." [Singleton Argus, 26 June 1900].  The first to be awarded a VC was Lieutenant Neville Howse of the New South Wales Army Medical Corps. On 22 July 1900 near Vredefort a young trumpeter in the front line lay shot through the bladder and bleeding severely as his comrades were forced to retreat. Lieutenant Howse did not hesitate. Digging his spurs into his horse, he charged through literally a hail of bullets to the wounded man. The Boer Mausers soon found their target and the brave doctor's horse dropped dead under him. Undaunted Howse grabbed his medical bag and ran forward on foot. Reaching the trumpeter, he dressed his wound and while bullets flew round him, lifted the man onto his shoulders and carried him to safety.  Both men survived the Boer War Tom Morris joined the NSW Police eventually was a sergeant in the Corowa district, his exploits there in apprehending the lawless, as recounted in his 1955 obituary [Corowra Free Press, 7 October 1955] indicate the bravery shown in 1899 was not a one-off instance.  Lieutenant Howse was eventually promoted major general and was responsible for medical services in Gallipoli and Palestime, his innovation saved many lives; he was Minister for Repatriation in the 1920s, and passed away during a visit to the UK in 1930.

For his courage, Lieutenant Howse was awarded the Victoria Cross - the first ever awarded to someone in an Australian unit, and the only one ever awarded to an Australian medical officer.

The war was one of movement.  All Australian troops regardless of the fact that they left our shores as dismounted infantry, heavy cavalry, light cavalry or mounted rifles ultimately were all horse mounted and deployed as mounted infantry with scouting cavalry roles, what was eventually to become the Australian Light Horse; the most successful horse mounted troops of the 20th Century.

Australia also sent the "Royal Australian Artillery" (called so even before Federation).  The use of Artillery was in transition from direct to indirect fire as communications advanced, and from slow to rapid firing weapons; all the guns were horse drawn.  British artillery  was often not well used.  There was a lack of understanding of how air moved in hot climates, and regardless of the fact that powder was smokeless, the heat given off by guns could give their position away to the astute eye.

The Australian troop's baptism of fire was at Belmont on 19 November 1899.  A fortnight after the NSW Lancers disembarkation at Cape Town, they journeyed 500 kilometres in a north-easterly direction and detrained at De Aar Junction a short distance from where, Lord Methuen was trying to force his way across the hills through Boer lines.  There was insufficient equipment, and enough weapons for only a few.  Hurriedly, a troop under Lieutenant SF Osborne was given what was available, and away they went, to the disappointment of the remainder of the squadron.  With Lieutenant Osborne were SSM Robson (from Lismore), Sergeant McDonald (near Ballina), Sergeant Dooley (Berry), Corporal Hopf (Lismore), Lance-Corporal Ford (Lismore), and 23 troopers the "Fighting 29" joined Methuen's column.  Outside Belmont three out of four removed carbines from buckets on their cape ponies and dismounted, every fourth man took the reins of three horses lances still firmly in buckets, and withdrew to cover.  The dismounted men occupied a rocky outcrop.  The 9th Lancers had charged, and been met by withering long range fire from Mauser rifles.  Using smokeless ammunition and quick-firing bolt actions, every man was able to fire again and again on the galloping light cavalry; they faltered and ultimately withdrew.  Their fellow Lancers from New South Wales covered the withdrawal with carbine fire from that rocky outcrop.  Australian soldiers had fought in battle for the first time.  This was not the last cavalry charge.  A somewhat biased Trooper Vernon who chronicled the NSW Lancers' service in South Africa recorded that in February 1890 some 30 kilometres from Kimberley "The 9th and 16th Lancers charged up the valley [to our front], five metres between files, and we followed, passing many bodies from which the lance had not been extricated.  But it cleared all opposition, and from then on I never saw a position held if the intention of a lance charge was shown. " However, the tactics where horses were used for mobility rather than shock and awe became the norm.  Troops armed with rapid firing rifles and machine-guns were neither shocked nor awed by gallopers that could so easily be brought down regardless of their erstwhile magnificence. 

The Queenslanders were the first to experience the ultimate loss, the death of a soldier in battle.  Conway Drew later a journalist, serving with the 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry, noted in his diary entry of 1 January 1900:

"As we advanced, from Sunnyside Farm 40 kilometres north of Belmont, a patrol of the enemy was seen.  We dismounted, A Company (my company) advanced under cover.  Lieutenant Aide with Troopers Butler, Jones and Rose scouted forward.  Some 20 metres from the party a group of Boers emerged from the tall grass.  They fired.  Lieutenant Aide was shot three times and is not expected to live; Jones was shot dead (the first Australian soldier to die in battle); a bullet grazed Butler's head; two horses were shot dead. 

Our guides captured Commandant Schultz commander of the Boer detachment. 

We found the Boer camp at the foot of a kopje, they were at dinner when they saw us and quickly ran up the hill.  The two 12 pounders and the Maxims took up positions to the right, the Fusiliers to the left.  The artillery opened fire at 10 past 11 o'clock while we crawled through the tall grass to the foot of the kopje.  At 11:30 we were ordered to charge, the slope was almost perpendicular with quite a few rocks.  When we reached the top of the hill, the Boers were not in sight, only some puffs of smoke from behind rocks revealing their firing positions.  Trooper McLeod of B Company to our left fell seriously wounded.  His falling inspired us, we charged with bayonets fixed.  Bullets whistled around our heads like hail, our own Maxims were firing at us in error.  The Boers seeing there was no go threw up a flag of truce, we surrounded them.  I had never seen a more ragged crew, some had no boots on.  We destroyed their arms and ammunition and took 44 prisoners.  The rest of the force was not aware of our charge, a few Canadians made it to the top of the hill after the Boer Surrender, the victory was ours. "

By February 1900, Australians from all future states were in action.  All the Australian infantry had been mounted by 6 February and the Australian Regiment, which comprised E Squadron, New South Wales Mounted Rifles, the 1st Victorian Mounted Rifles, 1st South Australian Mounted Rifles, 1st Western Australian Mounted Rifles and 1st Tasmanian Contingent, was used on what was termed the Central Front where the Boers had occupied Colesberg and were pushing south into the Eastern Cape.  On 9 February the Western Australians gallantly prevented the Boers outflanking the British position by defending what was known as West Australia Hill.  On 10 February the Victorians had heavy fighting at Bastards Nek and then two days later at Pink Hill, sustaining casualties, including their CO Major Eddy.  On 14 February General Clements, the British commander, pulled everyone back to Arundel which the Boers failed to take, despite a number of assaults over the period 14-21 February.  The Boers retired to Rensburg, then Colesberg.  Clements followed them all the way and forced them out of Colesberg on 1 March. 

The relieving of Kimberley was a fine example of a cavalry flanking movement.  The plan was for the cavalry to assemble at Ramdam on February 11, make a rapid dash around the Boer left at Magersfontein, some 72 kilometres from Ramdam, and enter Kimberley (about 32 kilometres beyond Magersfontein) from the east.  To conceal this plan, a feint attack by a separate force was made on the right of the Magersfontein position, causing General Cronje to move more of his strength to that flank. 

Major Rimington and his Guides (hand picked men with local knowledge and able to speak Dutch, they were called "tigers" because of the animal tails attached to their hats) were entrusted with the task of guiding French's force.  After the concentration of the main body at Ramdam the plan was successfully carried out.  When, on the second day's march, Dekiel's Drift was taken and a crossing effected, the supply wagons got into difficulties, the column of transport becoming completely disorganised.  After assembly on the north bank, the cavalry parted with their transport wagons, many of which were not seen again until Paardeberg. 

The New South Wales Lancers, Queensland Mounted Infantry and New South Wales Mounted Rifles were part of the relieving force.  Trooper Vernon of the New South Wales Lancers describes the fighting "Kimberley was now only 32 kilometres distant, and all were keyed up to effect the relief though many knew they would have to 'foot it' and carry their arms.  The advance in early morning led along a valley about three kilometres wide with Boers and guns on the hills on each flank.  It was here our carbines, sighted only to 800 metres, did telling execution at from 1,200 to 1,500 metres, as the firers got good observation of strike on the dusty ground.  We continually moved parties of Boers about for an hour.  The British had the same Martini-Enfield carbine as we had, except that theirs had magazines. "

General French's division, watered at Roodekalkfontein, and met no further important resistance until close to Kimberley.  Here the besieging forces were soon silenced, having been taken by surprise.  The townspeople at first feared that the hello messages of the relieving force were wiles of the Dutchmen, as news of the approach seemed incredible.  But by sunset on 15 February 1900 the British troops had appeared. 

The emphasis then moved to the right of what became a two pronged advance on Pretoria.  Bloemfontein was occupied on 13 March 1900.  The Australian Regiment was disbanded on 6 April and reorganised.  Australian mounted units were placed in General Hutton's Mounted Brigade: the 2nd Corps under LTCOL De Lisle included all the New South Wales Mounted Rifles squadrons and the West Australians; the 3rd Corps under LTCOL Pilcher included the Queensland Mounted Infantry and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles; and the 4th Corps under LTCOL Henry had the Victorians (now augmented by the 2nd Victorian Mounted Rifles), the South Australian Mounted Rifles and the Tasmanians. 

Whilst most of Australian contingents raised in 1899 were involved in the Bloemfontein actions, 1,400 volunteers of the Citizen Bushmen Contingents arrived in Capetown in early April and were redirected north to Beira in Portugese West Africa to help secure Rhodesia and relieve besieged Mafeking under the control of LTGEN Sir Frederick Carrington. 

On 16 May 1900, this force struck south through thin Boer lines outside Mafeking.  the inexperienced Queensland "Bushmen" were assigned to guard the wagons.  This was no job for men who had come to South Africa to scout for the nation.  As the regular infantry advanced, the Queenslanders rushed forward too, yelling and cheering.  Fortunately none were killed or even wounded.  By dusk the Boers were retreating and Karri Davies was calling for men to ride with him into Mafeking.  'You can bet I was in that lot', wrote Corporal Ernest Warby, an Imperial Light Horseman who hailed from Sydney.  Karri Davies, Warby, and seven others galloped past the few remaining Boers in the vicinity and into the tiny settlement. 

On 28 May 1900 Johannesburg surrendered, with New South Wales and South Australian Mounted Rifles in the thick of the fighting.

On 6 June 1900 Lieutenant Watson of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles, under a flag of truce entered the Transvaal capital Pretoria, demanding the surrender of the city, which his unit was the first to enter.  Over the next couple of months there were battles to secure the area, and to all intents and purposes, the war was over.  It was not. 

By September 1900, the British were nominally in control of both Republics, except for the northern part of Transvaal.  They, however, soon found they only controlled the ground their troops physically occupied.  As soon as the columns left a town or district, British control of that area faded away.  The huge territory of the Republics made it impossible for the 250,000 British troops to control it effectively.  Vast distances between British columns allowed the Boer commandos considerable freedom to move about.  The Boer commanders thrived under a guerrilla style of warfare.  The commandos were sent to their own districts with the order to act against the British there whenever possible.  Their strategy was to do as much damage to the enemy as possible, and then to move off and vanish when enemy reinforcements arrived.  It was during this early stage of the war, 1 September 1900 to be exact, that a small party of Tasmanians, acting as escort to an Army Service Corps unit sent to round up cattle at Warmbaths, 100 kilometres north of Pretoria, was ambushed by a Boer commando.  The Tasmanians behaved magnificently, rescuing under fire men who had been unhorsed and wounded.  The result was two Victoria Crosses and two Distiinguished Conduct Medals, the most decorated incident involving Australians in this war. 

The Boer commandos in the Western Transvaal were under the astute leadership of General Koos de la Rey.  He had many competent commandants to whom he gave freedom of action and they gave the British a difficult time.  The Australian Bushmen were very active in this area and were hard pressed to protect the garrisons and convoys. 

When General Christiaan De Wet invaded the Cape Colony in January 1901, many Australian Bushmen were sent south to join the 16 British columns sent to pursue him.  This relieved the pressure on the Boer commandos in the Transvaal and the two months that De Wet was in the Cape was a time of great difficulty for British garrisons, particularly in the Western Transvaal.  Australian Bushmen had a setback at Hartebeesfontein in February 1901, and the initiative taken by the Boers lasted well into the first quarter of 1902.  In May 1901 the 2nd New South Wales Mounted Rifles were ambushed by de la Rey at Korannafontein, west of Klerksdorp, and lost 12 men killed and wounded and 26 prisoners.  The Boer attacks prompted Lord Methuen, the British second-in-command after Lord Kitchener, to move his column from Vryburg to Klerksdorp to deal with De la Rey.  On the morning of 7 March 1902, the Boers attacked the rear guard of Methuen's moving column at Tweebosch.  Confusion reigned in British ranks and Methuen was wounded and captured by the Boers.  The Boer victories in the west led to stronger action by the British.  In the second half of March 1902, large British reinforcements were sent to the Western Transvaal.  The opportunity the British were waiting for arose on 11 April 1902 at Rooiwal, where the combined forces of Gens.  Grenfell, Kekewich and Von Donop came into contact with the forces of General Kemp.  The British soldiers were well positioned on the mountainside and inflicted severe casualties on the Boers charging on horseback over a large distance, beating them back.  The area was to be the last of the strongholds held by the Boers and was only secured by the final drives of May 1902. 

While the British occupied Pretoria, the Boer fighters in the Orange Free State had been driven into a fertile area in the north east of the Republic, known as the Brandwater Basin.  This offered only temporary sanctuary, as the mountain passes leading to it could be occupied by the British, trapping the Boers.  A force under General Hunter set out from Bloemfontein to achieve this in July 1900.  The hard core of the Boers under Christiaan de Wet, accompanied by President Steyn, left the basin early.  Those remaining fell into confusion and most failed to break out before Hunter trapped them.  4,500 Boers surrendered and much equipment was captured, but as with Roberts' drive against Kruger at the same time, these losses were of relatively little consequence, as the hard core of the Boer armies and their most determined and active leaders remained at large. 

From the Basin, de Wet headed west.  Although hounded by British columns, he succeeded in crossing the Vaal into the Western Transvaal, to allow Steyn to travel to meet the Transvaal leaders. 

Returning to the Orange Free State, de Wet inspired a series of attacks and raids from the hitherto quiet western part of the country.  Many Boers who had earlier returned to their farms, sometimes giving formal parole to the British, took up arms again. 

In late January 1901, De Wet led a renewed invasion of Cape Colony.  This was not successful, as there was no general uprising among the Cape Boers, de Wet's men were hampered by bad weather and relentlessly pursued by British forces.  The Australian Bushmen under Colonel De Lisle, were among the 16 Columns sent after De Wet and they nearly caught him.  He lost his artillery to an Australian unit.  De Wet's men escaped back across the Orange River, almost by a miracle. 

In August 1901 the South Australians distinguished themselves at Grootvalliers farm when they scattered a Boer commando led by Jan Smuts.  There were two DSOs and two DCMs awarded for this encounter.  In September 1901 the 5th Queensland Bushmen, who were part of Colonel Plumer's column operating against de Wet's commandos in the south west of the Orange Free State, were ambushed by General Wessel's commando at Mokari Drift on the Caledon River and had 16 casualties, 2 of which were officers killed.  Christiaan de Wet was the major prey.  He was constantly on the run from British mobile columns but he made skilful use of his rearguard and frequently turned on his pursuers and dealt them a heavy blow.  In late 1901, De Wet overran an isolated British detachment at Groenkop, inflicting heavy casualties.  This prompted Kitchener to launch the first of the "New Model" drives against him. 

The British had first erected lines of blockhouses to protect the railway lines.  They now built fresh lines of these, linked by barbed wire fences, to prevent free Boer movement across the veld.  They also allowed "New Model" drives.  Unlike the earlier inefficient scouring of the countryside by scattered columns, a continuous line of troops could now effectively sweep an area of veld bounded by blockhouse lines.

De Wet escaped the first such drive, but lost 300 of his fighters. 

Two Boer forces fought in Eastern Transvaal; under Botha in the south east and Ben Viljoen in the north east.  Under Commandant Muller a commando swept in on the recently arrived 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles camp at Wilmansrust in June 1901 and inflicted the heaviest defeat of Australian forces in the war. 

In June the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles contingent was part of a column at Middelburg in eastern Transvaal commanded by Major General S.  Beatson, a distinguished Indian army cavalry officer and a stern disciplinarian.  Under his direction the Victorians were split into two wings.  The left wing, consisting of companies E, F, G and H, along with two 'pom-poms' (one pounder automatic maxim guns) was under the command of a British officer, Major Morris of the Royal Field Artillery who had recently arrived in South Africa from India and was still learning how to combat the Boers.  The senior Victorian officer was Major William McKnight of Cheltenham.  Major Morris, with sufficient rations for two days, had been instructed to make a sweep to the south with his 350 strong flying force, and on the afternoon of 12 June 1901 they camped on a farm named Wilmansrust, thirty two kilometres south of Middelburg in South Africa's central Transvaal.  Major Morris personally chose the position of each picquet, and in accordance with King's Regulations ordered rifles to be stacked away from the bell tents where the soldiers were to sleep.  Trooper White of Caulfield and a member of H Company wrote in his letter home that they had been camped for about two hours when three Boers approached.  When they were in range they were forced off by fire from the pom-poms but this enabled them to establish the position of the guns.  It was about quarter past eight when the Boers returned in strength. 

Their first volley stampeded the horses in H Squadron lines through the camp.  The Boers were dressed in captured khaki uniforms and turned up hats.  It was impossible to tell friend from foe by the light of dying campfires. 

Trooper Chas Redstone of Cheltenham, a member of the picket on the perimeter of the camp, in his letter printed in the Brighton Southern Cross, described the arrival of the Boers.  We did not expect anything unusual ... The Boers crept up and were lying within 30 metres of the camp for twenty minutes before they attacked.  A lot of our men were cooking in front of the fire; some had gone to bed because we had to start out in the morning at half-past three.  ... At quarter to eight the Boers put the first volley in and then they rushed the camp, shooting as fast as they could pull their triggers, never attempting to put the rifles to their shoulders. ...  They ran along the line of saddles and shot men in their beds." Trooper White explained that the fight was short and deadly.  The Boers had departed from the camp site within two hours of the first shots being fired.  They took with them the two pom-poms and all the ammunition and food they could find as well as what could be scavenged from the dead.  "One of them took a purse from me and a few shillings that was in it, all that I had left from my last pay, and asked me what sized boots I took? I told him 'fives' and he said that he wanted a pair of 'sixes' as his were worn out," wrote White.  They took Trooper Redstone's watch and chain and belt with £2 in it but, as he said, "he was glad to get away with his life. " He went on to describe the predicament of one of the attackers, "One of the Boer's shot himself through the foot.  He was taking a badge off one of our fellows and rested his rifle on his foot, muzzle down, when it went off blowing a few of his toes off.  I wish it had been his head.  I might say that half of them that attacked us were not Boers; a lot were Americans, Irish and other nationalities, they could all speak good English. " When the attackers withdrew with their booty the remaining men of the Fifth Contingent attended to the wounded as best they could, as their doctor, Dr Palmer, had been killed in the initial attack.  Redstone said it was a bitterly cold night as a group of them nestled amongst the rock about 1 kilometre from their original camp.  At the break of dawn about half a dozen Boers approached to muster some cattle.  When challenged they wheeled their horses and retreated but fire from the Victorian troopers killed one Boer and wounded another.  The dead Boer was the son of General Grobler.  When the body was searched it was found to carry only twopence, a bible, and a lot of blood stained papers which were left untouched. 

One hour later a large body of Boers returned but retreated with the arrival of the relief group who had been camped eleven kilometres away.  Lance Corporal Arthur Ruddle was with the right wing of the Fifth Contingent when it arrived at the sickening scene of the disaster that morning.  He likened it to a slaughter house not a battlefield.  Trooper White wrote that the ambulance came up for the wounded and then they set to work to bury the dead.  "We dug one big hole about 1. 8 metres deep and seven metres long, as we had eighteen killed in all, and we buried them all in the one hole, put stones on top and a fence around" before marching off to join the right wing.  Victorian casualties were heavy.  Killed was Regimental Surgeon Herbert Palmer of Ballarat, and 18 NCOs and men.  Five officers and 36 NCOs and men were wounded. 

In the week after the Wilmansrust engagement, the column remained in the vicinity. 

For some reason General Beatson was deeply, disturbed about the Wilmansrust action.  Until then he had seemed keenly impressed with the Victorians.  Now, all that had changed.  He was reported to have angrily stated during a march that week:

"I tell you what I think.  The Australians are a damned fat, round shouldered, useless crowd of wasters .  .  .  In my opinion they are a lot of white-livered curs .  .  .  You can add dogs too"

The facts were very different, with Victorian mounted troops being generally acknowledged as formidable opponents to the Boer "Commandos", and terrifying to them in some engagements.  General Beatson , however, later found a group of Victorians slaughtering pigs for food.  He is said to have addressed them as follows:

"Yes, that's about what you are good for.  When the Dutchmen came the other night, you didn't fix bayonets and charge them, but you go for something that can't hit back". 

The column returned to Middelburg depot later that week.  There was by then a state of mutual contempt between the General and the Victorians. 

On 7 July 1901, when the Victorians were ordered out on another operation.  Trooper James Steele was overheard by nearby British officers to say: "It will be better for the men to be shot than to go out with a man who called them white-livered curs".  For this apparent refusal to do as they were ordered, Steele and troopers Arthur Richards and Herbert Parry were arrested, given a summary court-martial and sentenced to death.  British supreme commander Lord Kitchener intervened.  He commuted the sentences (Steele to do ten years jail, the others to do one year each). 

Controversy continued when a speech in the new Federal Parliament lingered on how the aftermath of Wilmansrust was a disgraceful way to treat men who had volunteered to go to the Boer War. 

A court of enquiry earlier had begun sittings three days after the disaster, at Uitgedacht. 

On another extraordinary outburst British General Sir Bindon Blood mentioned the "Chicken-hearted behaviour of the officers and men generally of the Victorian Mounted Rifles on this occasion.  We must remember that they were all a lot of recruits together, and that their behaviour was only what was to be expected in the circumstances". 

Since it was acknowledged that the picquets were insufficient and wrongly placed (the responsibility of Major Morris who had personally selected their positions), the comments of Sir Bindon Blood and General Beatson before him were grave slurs on the Victorians.  Major William McKnight, the CO of the 5VMR Left Wing at Wilmansrust, called General Beatson to account for his "gross insults".  A belated apology by the General was curtly refused by McKnight.  The Court of Enquiry, meanwhile, had censured British Artillery Major Morris. 

Melbourne newspapers heaped criticism on General Beatson and his reported remarks.  But it took a petition to King Edward VII, and the personal representations of the Australian Prime Minister Edmund Barton and prominent Australians then living in London, to secure the release of the prisoners from an English jail.  They were returned to South Africa and from there to Victoria.  Prime Minister Barton later tabled a report on Wilmansrust by Victorian Major W.  McKnight, who had been present during the engagement.  Because the convictions of troopers Steele, Parry and Richards had by then been quashed, the complete report was never made public. 

In the meantime Botha's forces were particularly active, raiding railways and even mounting a renewed invasion of Natal in September 1901.  After defeating British mounted infantry at Blood River Poort, Botha was forced to withdraw by heavy rains which made movement difficult and crippled his horses.  Back in the Transvaal, he attacked the 2nd Scottish Horse, which had a large number of Australians in its ranks, at Bakenlaagte, and inflicted a heavy defeat.  This made his forces the target of increasingly large and ruthless drives by the British, and eventually, he had to abandon the high veld and retreat to a narrow enclave bordering Swaziland.

To the north, Ben Viljoen grew steadily less active.  His forces mounted comparatively few attacks and as a result, the Boer enclave around Lydenburg was largely unmolested.  Viljoen was eventually captured. 

After he escaped across the Orange in March 1901, de Wet had left forces under Cape rebels Kritzinger and Scheepers to maintain a guerilla campaign in the Cape Midlands.  The campaign here was one of the least chivalrous, with intimidation by both sides of each other's civilian sympathisers.  Several captured rebels, including Scheepers, were executed for treason by the British, some in public.  In most cases though, the executions were ostensibly for capital crimes such as the murder of prisoners or of unarmed civilians. 

Fresh Boer forces under Jan Christiaan Smuts, joined by the surviving rebels under Kritzinger, made another attack on the Cape in September 1901.  They suffered severe hardships and were hard pressed by British columns, but eventually rescued themselves by routing some of their pursuers and capturing their equipment. 

From then until the end of the war, Smuts increased his forces until they numbered 3,000.  However, no general uprising took place, and the situation in the Cape remained stalemated. 

1901 saw the raising of special units to try and deal with this guerrilla war.  One such unit was the Bushveldt Carbineers.  Raised in February from drifters and officered by men who had seen service.  Many officers were Australians including: Major R. W.  Lenehan - Commanding Officer, Captain Edwards - Adjutant, Lieutenant Mortimer - Quartermaster, Lieutenant P.  Handcock - Veternary Officer, Lieutenant Baudinet, Lieutenant H. H.  Morant and Lieutenant G. E.  Witton.  Their operations were at the shady end of this difficult warfare.  Like all soldiers they were ordinary men required by their country to do things that would in civilised circumstances be heinous crimes.  In this case a reasonable person must accept the crimes were beyond acceptance.  Nonetheless, these same men had they lived lives in our peaceful nation would have been unlikely to do any of these things. 

Throughout August, September to mid-October 1901 there was intense patrol activity in the Spelonken district north of Pretoria in Transvaal.  A number of Boer prisoners and a German missionary were shot under unknown circumstances.  Handcock, Morant and Witton were implicated.  On 15 January 1902 a British Court Martial was convened.  All three were sentenced to death with a recommendation for mercy.  Only Witton's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.  The trial and sentence had political overtones, by this time peace negotiations were in progress and it could be said the British were keen to wash their hands of the dirty aspects of the war, and these "colonials" from the antipodes were effective scapegoats.  Witton was eventually released from prison in England 11 August 1904 after intervention by the Australian government. 

Towards the end of the war, British drives and offensives became more successful.  This was due to the lines of blockhouses and wire fences which parcelled up the wide veldt into smaller areas.  Also, the British were themselves using raiding columns to harass the Boers.  Australian units were frequently in the forefront of these attacks.  These columns relied heavily on intelligence given by native Africans, who were becoming increasingly hostile to the Boers.  Using these various methods, Kitchener's forces at last began to seriously affect the Boers' fighting strength and freedom of maneuver.  When the first of the Australian Commonwealth Horse entered the fray in April 1902 they were thrown straight into the drives.  The 1st and 2nd ACH were used in the final drives against de la Rey in May 1902.  Many of the men were veterans from the first year of the war. 


Chamberlain, Max 'The Wilmansrust Affair': AWM Journal: No.  6: April 1985;

Drew Conway, His Diary (unpublished).  Diary held by the State Library of Queensland.

Droogleever, Robin, (ed), 'From the Front - the War correspondence of Banjo Patterson', MacMillan, 2001. 

Holloway, David, Wheels a Tracks: 'A history of the 4th/19th Prince of Wales' Light Horse Regiment and its predecessors': Regt. Trustees: 1990

Murray, Lieutenant Colonel P.L., 'Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa', Department of Defence, Melbourne, 1911.

Tyquin, Michael B., Neville Howse: 'Australia's First Victoria Cross Winner'

Vernon, Lieutenant Colonel P.V. (Editor), The Royal New South Wales Lancers, 1885-1985, Royal NSW Lancers Centenary Committee, Parramatta 1985.

Whitehead, Graham J, 'Wilmansrust: The Debacle in South Africa'

Wilcox, Craig.  'Australia's Boer War.  The War In South Africa 1899-1902'.  Oxford University Press in conjunction with AWM, Australia, 2002.

Lieutenant Colonel John Howells OAM RFD, 2019

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