In the annual commemoration of the Anzac landing, it is often forgotten that Australia’s military history pre-dates the 25th of April 1915. The scope of the Great War and later conflicts overshadow earlier, smaller campaigns and battles, both by colonial and federal contingents that shaped Australia’s national military character. This month we look at one such battle, during the Second Boer War, 1899 - 1902.
The various colonial contingents raised following the disastrous British reverses of “Black Week” in December 1899, and which had served in South Africa during 1900, were due to be relieved in 1901. The call for replacements reached Australia as the colonial governments were preparing for Federation. The original British request was for individual replacements that would top up existing irregular contingents as members were released to return home. While not interested in considering a federal military response, the state premiers decided to send formed units rather than individuals. A strong response to recruiting allowed the states to offer a replacement force of 5,000 men, one thousand of whom formed the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles Regiment (5 VMR).
5 VMR was raised in early February 1901. Training was brief, interrupted by the arrival of new drafts of recruits, and limited to basic drills for mounted movement. The unit sailed for South Africa at the end of February and was mobilised in late March at Pretoria. The period of battles with large formations of Boers was over. The campaign now consisted of columns of mounted troops scouring the countryside for bands of guerrillas and of destroying logistical support available to them from the rural population.
By June 5 VMR was at Middelburg, in the eastern Transvaal, serving as part of a column under Major General Stuart Beatson, an experienced Indian Army cavalry officer. The regiment had been reduced to a strength of 700 by a combination of fever, dysentery and general exhaustion, and their horses were in poor condition. Beatson split the weakened 5 VMR into two wings, with E, F, G and H Companies forming the left wing nominally under command of an Australian, Major William McKnight. However Beatson, concerned about the lack of experience of the Victorians, appointed a British regular artillery officer, Major Morris, in overall command. On 10 June this detachment, including two one inch calibre Vickers-Maxim “pom pom” guns in carts, commenced a sweep to search for a small Boer group reported in the area. Finding that the Boers had evacuated their camp, Morris turned to rejoin Beatson and the main column.
By early evening on 12 June, at a farm named Wilmansrust (Wilman’s Resting Place) Morris established a night bivouac on a small, bare rise, 18 km east of Beatson’s force. Four outlying posts were established to provide security for the camp. However in accordance with Indian cavalry tactics, as followed by Beatson’s columns, the posts were lightly manned and had no patrols covering the ground between them. Apart from a camp picket of 12 men, the rest of the detachment settled down for rest before an early start next day. Unknown to Morris’s men, 150 Boers had been following them throughout the day and decided to attack under cover of darkness, having already observed the camp’s layout and positioning of the security outposts. Guided by the owner of the farm, the Boers approached through a gap between the outposts and, at 7.45 pm, swept into the camp in extended line, firing on the move.
The opening volley created pandemonium in the camp. Terrified horses broke from their lines and stampeded, knocking down tents and men. The surprised soldiers froze, fled, surrendered or raced for their rifles which had, on Morris’s orders, been stacked rather than kept by the sleeping men. The fight lasted less than 15 minutes. With no capacity to hold prisoners, the Boers stripped the surviving Victorians of their trousers and boots and turned them loose on the veldt. They collected the weapons, including the pom poms, ammunition, food and 100 horses and rode off into the night. 5 VMR casualties were one officer and 17 men killed, while five officers and 36 men were wounded.
The 5 VMR embarrassment at Wilmansrust was the worst reversal suffered by any colonial contingent in the war and was taken as a reflection of the courage and military skill of Australian troops in general. And there were further repercussions. Both Beatson and his superior, General Bindon Blood, were disparaging in comments about the Australians, resulting in resentment amongst the troops. When 5 VMR was ordered back on operations in July, three men were charged with inciting mutiny by suggesting that the men refuse to go out under Beatson. Found guilty and sentenced to death, their sentences were commuted to prison terms in England. The charges were quashed in October, owing to procedural errors in the trial. However the event reopened debate in Australia as to the suitability of placing colonial troops under Imperial officers and subject to British military law – a matter that would resurface with the case of Harry “Breaker” Morant the following year.
Article written by Rod Margetts
- who is a battlefield tour guide for Boronia Travel Centre.
Image Top Left:
Members of E Company, 5th Contingent, Victorian Mounted Rifles, in action against the Boers in front of the Pongola Bosch, October 1901.
Image Middle Right:
Members of the VMR in South Africa.
Image Bottom Left:
Major General Sir Blindon Blood.