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At the Front in South Africa: Boer War

Enthusiasm was a characteristic of the members of the various Victorian contingents as they set out to fight the Boers in South Africa. For many this attitude did not continue throughout their twelve months service as the horror of war became more apparent, the discomfort of long rides with insufficient supplies increased, and the twin dangers of disease and the bullet escalated. Many of the young men involved wrote home to relatives and friends of their experiences. These letters, or part of them, were published in the local newspapers and form the basis of the information presented here.

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Members of the First Victorian Contingent.

Lance Corporal Tom Matson of the First Contingent wrote from Enslin on December 15, 1899 about conditions at the front in South Africa:

“You would laugh at us now if you could see us. We are dirty and unshaven - our togs are black and greasy - our only dress consisting of a Khaki uniform, all our others being left at different camps on the route. There is an awful lot of diarrhoea among the contingent, some of the cases are very bad. … We have to sleep on the ground, with only half a blanket, very often out in the open. … We have very hot days and bitter cold nights. … We have about every second night on pickets and get very little sleep; we do very well if we get on the average four hours out of every 24. … We have been watching that big battle for the last two days, and think we were rather fortunate being so near and yet out of range of their guns. There has been terrible slaughter, but the British have not yet been successful in driving the Boers out. … This is a very dusty place … the dust sticks to our skin and in our whiskers, and as we have no water to wash in, you will guess how clean we are. We get coffee and bread or hard ship biscuits for breakfast, soup and tinned beef (bully) for dinner, tea and biscuits for tea. We cannot buy anything like jam or extras of any kind, including beer, as there are no canteens up here, and the only luxuries we can get are what we can commandeer from the Boer farms around. … We were complimented by the General for our march. He said it was the record march from Orange River to Belmont - 25 miles in 24 hours, with baggage, ammunition waggons, Maxims, &c. We broke the record , and it nearly broke us, as we were in full marching order, blankets, topcoats, 150 rounds of ammunition in our pouches and two days’ rations in our haversacks.” [2]

Private Edwin Jennings, an eighteen year old from Elm Grove, Brighton also wrote home about the march to Belmont indicating they arrived two days after the departure of the Boers. While the Boers had been all around them there was no contact, much to his disappointment. Nevertheless Jennings indicated he and his mates enjoyed themselves while they could. He said the commandeering party brought in an organ from a Dutch farm house, and “it was played all day long.” [3]

Private McCracken also wrote from Enslin after being there for a month, ‘and just about ‘full up’ of it. We have some easy times some days, but on others our work is hard - digging trenches, or building walls of rock around the kopjes (hills). This work is made harder by the terrible heat. Many of the men have been suffering from dysentery. … The bread and water started the dysentery; the bread being sour as vinegar, and the water drawn from wells. … We buy Quaker Oats and cook it ourselves. … We have to pay 1s for a tin of six sardines, and the stuff here is not worth half of what we have to pay for it. We cannot get vegetables up here.” [4]

The rates of pay of members of the Victorian contingents were major, 29s 6d per day; captain, 23s 6d; lieutenant, 19s; warrant officer, 11s 6d.; staff sergeant, 10s; sergeant, 8s.; corporal, 7s; and private 4s 6d.were set out in a letter from Private Jennings. [5]

Jennings wrote to his mother from the Orange River the night before he went into action against the Boer. “The heat here and the dust is terrible, not a drop of rain has fallen since we arrived,” concluded his letter with “Good-bye and if I fall in the fight don’t fret, as I have done my duty.”

It was not long before Jennings and other members of the First Contingent were engaging the Boers from their position on a kopje. McCracken reported the Boers concentrated their fire amongst the Victorians who were forced to retire three times although returning after each occasion. “Their artillery fire was wonderful, but their rifle shooting is anything but good. They were all around us and firing at about 20 yards, and considering our few casualties, it does not say too much for the hundreds of Boer marksmen. The air was thick with bullets, explosives, shrapnel, and all kinds of missiles. Major Eddy rose to give the order to retire, and was shot through the back of the head and fell.” [6]

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Officers of the First Contingent. Left: Lt Tremearne (wounded) Lt Pendlebury, Major Eddy (killed) Captain Bruche and Captain McInerney (wounded and prisoner).

McCracken commented on the bravery of Private Jennings and his plucky retreat and subsequent escape from the Boers. [7] Jennings explained the circumstances in a letter home. Wearing a felt hat similar to those worn by the Boers he was going down the kopje on foot as the enemy advanced up the hill. He found a saddled horse but while attempting to mount he was discovered by the Boers. As he said, “I bolted. … One of them would probably have caught me. I shot him when he was about 180 yards away the next being 500 yards.” Jennings climbed through a wire fence and following an empty water course met up with a few dragoons who carried him out of range of the flying bullets. He escaped injury but found three bullets holes in his trousers. [8]

Lance Corporal Matson writing from Arundel of the loss of officers and men from the First Contingent commented, “We were complaining that we could not find any Boers before, now we are getting enough to satisfy any ordinary mortal” and went on to say that after arriving at Arundel nine days ago they had been in the saddle almost continuously. Describing the circumstances surrounding the death of Major Eddy and Lieutenant Roberts and the wounding of several other officers he said, “Shot and shell were striking and bursting everywhere, yet our chaps were wonderfully cool and behaved splendidly. It seems terrible to have men being killed and wounded on all sides, but we seem to think very little of it if a man is killed. We say ‘Poor fellow, he’s gone,’ and if wounded we do what we can for him.” [9]

Acting Sergeant Daniel of Oakleigh was lucky in this encounter with the Boers. He got away without a scratch although he had his helmet shot off and his horse sustained seven hits. According to him there were 5 killed, 4 missing and 14 wounded from the First Contingent because of this action. Daniel wrote another letter eight days later when an armistice had been called to allow the exchange of prisoners, “There are white flags flying all around our and the Boer front.” In this letter he expressed the hope that the Second Contingent would not join them. “As you will have heard we have been in a tight place this last eight days with the loss of many of our comrades.” [10]

However the Second Contingent was moving towards the front. Private W. George Rigg, the son of the Head Teacher of Mordialloc State School, wrote that they had been having some fun. Having captured thirteen Boers, Rigg and his fellow troopers were given a great welcome on their arrival at camp. “I was at the head of the escort, and I did fancy myself. … We made them walk through a creek and they did not like it at all but they had to go nevertheless. When we were coming into the camp the crowd were yelling, ‘Good boys second contingent, V.M.R.” [11] The next day the contingent left for the front to join the flying column marching on Bloemfontein.

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Private W. George Rigg standing to the left in the third row.

After leaving camp and marching a few miles a small party, of which Rigg was a member, took possession of a Boer house and at dinner time raided the fowl house to gather eggs. “We went into the kitchen and made some niggers boil them for us. There were five of us who had eggs, three men had seven each, one had six and I had three - quite a luxury after tinned meat and dog biscuit.” [12] Writing again two days later, Rigg reported being involved in an action which drove 300 or 400 Boers out of a farm. There they took possession of fruit, watermelons, hay and water for the horses. But food was not always so readily obtainable. Frank Daff of the Second Contingent noted in a letter written a few days after Rigg’s, “We are getting very near as much as we can eat now, but up to a week ago we were nearly starved” and several days later wrote that they were again short of food. “We have the job of feeding ourselves. A lot of the chaps have gone out to find something and they are bringing in a few sheep now and I suppose there will be a bit of a row about it, but we can’t work on nothing.”[13]

Food was not the only difficulty faced by the Second Contingent as many members experienced extreme exhaustion. Jennings, writing from Van Zyl in March, drew attention to the rough time they were having since leaving Arundel. “They had been in the saddle nearly all day and night since that time. Sundays were the same as any other day as regards work. There was little time to write letters because as soon as you get the heading and a few lines written, the corporal or sergeant will poke his nose in the tent and have us out to unload a waggon, or go on a patrol for the rest of the day.” [14] Daff indicated that he had just had his second good wash since arriving in South Africa. On that occasion he changed his underclothes so he felt like ‘another chap altogether’. Dirt was something they had to become accustomed to as on average they were only able to wash every three days. Under these conditions Daff expressed the view that “there are very few men in either the first or second contingent who don’t wish the war was over and that they were back home.” [15]

Rigg writing to his sister indicated that during the advance to Bloemfontein he was invalided first to a field hospital and the next day to the general hospital at Naauport. There he expected to stay for three or four weeks before returning to the front but reason for this stay in hospital is not given, although he told his sister he was much better owing to the careful treatment of the doctors and nurses. [16] “We have two nurses in the ward during the day and one at night, and two orderlies during the day and one at night, so you may judge we are being well looked after. … Two men died here with typhoid, one was an Australian and one of them was recommended for the VC, and the other was recommended for the D.S.O, hard luck when they had got their honors they died. They were buried today with military honors.” Several weeks later Rigg was staying at the cavalry department to gain strength but he did not believe he would be sent back to the front as the authorities had discovered that men who had been wounded or sick when returned to the front suffered relapses and died. [17] Rigg was later invalided home arriving July 29, 1900.

Daff wrote after finishing the fourteen day march from Orange River to Bloemfontein expressing some disappointment at not being sent home. Instead they were to be sent ‘further on’ and were likely to experience some ‘hard fighting’ as the ‘Free Staters had to be beaten’. He hoped his group would get more to eat on the next trip reflecting on the march from the Orange River when they were on half rations and when the horses fared even worse. “We are supposed to get 1 lb bread it is always light, we eat that for breakfast and have a little meat and compressed vegetables for dinner, and nothing for tea. …On the last three days of the march the horses had nothing but what they picked up so most were in a bad state.” [18]

They had two wet nights at the camp but were able to string up two blankets to keep dry. For the following nights they were in tents. Daff reported in a letter written on April 7, 1900, that it was fine fun sleeping in tents after so long at sleeping out in the open. Daff was also pleased to have access to his kit bag so he was able to change his clothes. When on the march the troopers only carried one shirt and a pair of socks so a change of clothes was a significant event. Another important occurrence was the receipt of mail from home. Daff realised that letter go astray but he used to feel disappointed when others received letters and he received none. However the receipt of one a few days later made him feel like a new man. “I got a letter from home last night, you can tell how glad I was to get news from home, it put new life into me.” [19] Other writers indicated they relied on news from home to find out what was happening in South Africa where communication to the troops was poor.

Daff was writing from Kroonstad on May 14, 1900 about some ‘big fights’ he had been involved in, and where some of the regiments ‘got cut up a good deal’. “The shells were bursting all over the place a few yards from us, but they could not shift us. …. They were firing common shell. If they had used shrapnel there would have been a lot of our chaps killed, but we came out all right. Our horses were knocked out at night, it was such hard going. … We have been on short rations for the last four days. We had 12 small biscuits during that time, excepting what we could pick up, and that was not much. The horses fared worse than us. We lost a lot lately. As soon as they knock up the owner goes to the nearest farm, puts his saddle on the first horse he sees and rides off. …. When we get to a farm we ask for something to eat. We are not allowed to take things without payment, so we give them something for it and take whatever we want in the way of poultry and eatables.” [20]

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Private Daff. Courtesy La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.

“In the fight the other day a white flag was hoisted on a farm house, so a party of Scots Greys rode up and passed the house, and as soon as they were gone, the Boers who were hiding there opened fire on them with a Pom Pom and blew them to pieces. A Pom Pom is a gun which throws a shell weighing from 1 to 3 lbs. They are very rough on troops up to 3000 yards. We had them on us until they got their big guns in position. I would rather dig potatoes all day than stand under shell fire for five minutes,” wrote Daff. [21] In a letter to the South Brighton Wesleyan Endeavourers, a society of which he was a member, he states “the Boers say that God guides their bullets and I believe He does, for most of them go over our heads.” [22]

On May 29, 1900 Daff and a comrade were taken prisoner by the Boers, a few miles from a place called Bozburg,. whilst on their way from Kroonstad to Pretoria. About 200 Boers came upon them very quickly at dusk. No shots were fired. “We had our hands up pretty smartly,” wrote Daff. The Boers put the two prisoners in a wagon and took them to Pretoria where they were well treated as far as food was concerned but placed in cells. They were released on June 4 before the British troops entered the town. “A British officer rode up and directly we saw him we let out a yell and rushed the gates, took the guards’ arms, hauled down their flag, and had the Union Jack up before they quite knew what had happened.” [23]

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Boer Prison Camp, Pretoria.

John Foster of Cheltenham, who had enlisted with the Kaffrarian Mounted Rifles, was a member of the escort protecting a convey travelling to Johannesberg. He described the situation as ‘lively’ having several engagements with the Boer commandos. The country was full of small parties of Boers he said. “They go about wrecking trains and attacking conveys. We burn down their houses and all males above the age of sixteen are taken prisoners. Sometimes for a week at a time the column marches through the country destroying the houses and driving away the stock. It is very distasteful work, but it has to be done. … Some of the scenes will never be forgotten. The women are frequently left desolate on the veldt with their innocent children, without any protection from the Kaffiers, who are most aggressive. Many of our men loot to their heart’s content although it is against the orders. ” [24]

The Boers too were looting. Foster says a Boer would go on commando for a few weeks with little risk to himself and after a fight or two and a lot of looting and commandeering would return to his farm, bury his rifle and ammunition and rest his ponies. Following a few weeks recuperation and good food he would mount and go on the warpath again. Foster suggested a solution was to give more freedom to the mounted troops to take independent action. Unfortunately, he pointed out, this did not suit the iron bound conservatism of the majority of British officers. “They prefer the ‘good old way’ - columns toiling painfully along, enveloped in clouds of dust, keeping ‘ordah’, encumbered with a long string of ox waggons, about half of which are filled with officers’ luggage and servants’ kit.”

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Baggage wagons on Pontoon bridge in South Africa.

Clearly Foster was not impressed by many of the British officers. He recounted the story of the English officer who rode into camp wearing an eye glass. He was so heckled by the men that he dropped it. Turning to a “rather rough looking fellow standing by a tent he asked ‘Aw, who is this rabble fellow?’ ‘Who are you’ was the quick response. Aw, I am Captain ______, the son of the Bishop of _______. I want you to know you are speaking to an officer.’ ‘Oh do you?’ I would inform you that I am Colonel Dalgety, and this ‘rabble’ is the Colonial Division. Get off your horse, sir, and apologise to my men.” After recording this story Foster went on to point out that some of the English officers were excellent men and highly esteemed. “Our local commandant is as civil and gentlemanly to the lowest in rank as to the highest. [25]

Foster believed war had a fascination for most individuals taking part. “It holds us as does a good band or a cathedral organ. There is no such thing as fear - one feels as if he would like to go on fighting indefinitely. It is the sight of the dead and wounded that makes war dreadful. The sight of the doctors and the ambulances will sometimes cause a shudder, but the sight of a string of black covered carts for removing the dead, damps the courage of the bravest.” [26]

Many of the later letters from soldiers at the front expressed misgivings about the turn of events in South Africa. Property was confiscated, women and children displaced and confined to concentration camps. Thousands of civilians and soldiers died from contagious diseases. Death also resulted from lack of food and soldiers faced exhaustion from long and physically demanding rides over harsh terrain. This was in addition to the possibility of a bullet from a marauding Boer or wounds from exploding artillery shells. Given these circumstances it is not surprising that the original enthusiasm of many Victorian volunteers serving in South Africa had dissipated. While some men remained to continue their military exploits and the occasional exhilarating experience the majority returned to Melbourne at different times to be greeted by a thankful community and to resume their civilian occupations.

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The Boers.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. Members of the First Contingent were originally infantrymen but were converted into a mounted infantry regiment armed with the latest Lee Enfield rifles, wearing helmets, corduroy trousers, bandoliers, putties, spurs and all the equipment of the mounted infantry [Brighton Southern Cross, March 10, 1900].
  2. Brighton Southern Cross, January 20, 1900.
  3. Brighton Southern Cross, February 3, 1900.
  4. Brighton Southern Cross, February 10, 1900.
  5. Brighton Southern Cross, March 3, 1900.
  6. Brighton Southern Cross, March 24, 1900.
  7. Brighton Southern Cross, Ibid.
  8. Brighton Southern Cross, Ibid.
  9. Brighton Southern Cross, March 31, 1900.
  10. Brighton Southern Cross, March 24, 1900.
  11. Brighton Southern Cross, Ibid.
  12. Brighton Southern Cross, April 7, 1900.
  13. Brighton Southern Cross, April 21, 1900.
  14. Brighton Southern Cross, Ibid.
  15. Brighton Southern Cross, Ibid.
  16. Water contaminated by corpses and human waste infected the army during a period of rest in Bloemfontein after its capture in early 1900, causing 1,000 deaths, mostly from typhoid. See: Australia and the Boer War 1899-1902 [http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/conflict_boer.htm].
  17. Brighton Southern Cross, June 2, 1900.
  18. Brighton Southern Cross, May 19, 1900.
  19. Brighton Southern Cross, Ibid.
  20. Brighton Southern Cross, June 30, 1900.
  21. Brighton Southern Cross Ibid.
  22. Brighton Southern Cross, Dec, 1900.
  23. Brighton Southern Cross, August 25, 1900.
  24. Cheltenham Leader, December 15, 1900.
  25. Cheltenham Leader March 20, 1901.
  26. Cheltenham Leader December 15, 1900.

Article Cat. At War
Article Ref. 136

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