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Correspondents in the Boer War

Several Australian newspapers sent war correspondents to the Boer war to report events for a public eager to read about their contingents in action. Among them was Australia's senior military reporter, W.J. Lambie (Melbourne Age, Adelaide Advertiser, Sydney Daily Telegraph), who had been with the New South Wales contingent in the Sudan in 1885, where he was wounded. Other Age representatives were D. Pontin and G. King.

Some Australians represented English papers: M.D. Donohoe (London Chronicle), M. Mempes (Black and White) and A.A.G. Hales (Daily News). Others, like Frank Wilkinson (Sydney Daily Telegraph, Melbourne Age, Adelaide Advertiser), Donald Macdonald (Melbourne Argus) and W.T. Reay (Melbourne Herald), wrote on early campaigns and later produced books on the Australians in various engagements. Lambie was the first Victorian to die in this war when, accompanied by Hales, he was with a patrol that was attacked by 40 Boers at Jasfontein on 9 February 1900. As they tried to escape Lambie was killed and Hales was wounded and captured. Reay and J.A. Cameron (Reuters, Daily Chronicle, West Australian) later rode out to visit Lambie's grave site, being blindfolded by the Boers under de la Rey, who expressed regret at the death of a non-combatant.

A.B. (Banjo) Paterson (Reuters, Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Argus) and H. Spooner (Sydney Evening News) were with General French when he entered Kimberley, and Paterson gave some account in his book Happy Dispatches and in his poem With French to Kimberley. Together with H.A. Gwynne (Reuters) and P. Landon (Times), he was first into Bloemfontein ahead of the army. Spooner was another war correspondent to die in this war when after observing the action at Glen Siding, he had a recurrence of fever and died at Deelfontein in May 1900.

Macdonald returned from the siege of Ladysmith a sick man, wrote How we kept the flag flying and articles on the Australian participation, notably the series Bushmen in battle, and Victoria's fifth. After the capture of Bloemfontein Reay also returned ill and his reports were gathered into his book Australians in war with valuable reference to the action at Pink Hill. Hales also gave an account of Pink Hill as told to him by a Boer captor, in his book Campaign pictures of the war in South Africa. Bert Toy (Perth Morning Herald) wrote on actions including Koster River and returned to a distinguished career in New Zealand and Sydney.

Mrs Edith Charlotte Musgrave Dickenson reported from South Africa in 1901, and her articles, under the byline "ECM Dickenson" can still be found in the archives of the Adelaide Advertiser.She may have stirred up some controversy by reporting on conditions at concentration camps where the Boer women and children had been interned; she was quoted heavily in Emily Hobhouse's book "The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell", and was particularly critical of the management of the Bethulie Camp.

Most of the Australian war correspondents had returned by late 1900. Frank Wilkinson accompanied NSW units until about September 1900 and some account of their experiences were included in his books Australian Cavalry and Australia at the Front. Chaplain James Green was at Elands River and contributed newspaper articles and later wrote The Story of the Australian Bushmen. Thereafter firsthand accounts of the Australians relied on occasional mention in the London cables or letters from serving troops. For this reason the history of the later contingents is fragmentary.

It is surprising that no attempt was made to utilise the war correspondents' experience in preparing an Australian official history of the war, as happened in later wars with C.E.W. Bean and Gavin Long. Macdonald's The Australasian contingents in the South African war - Their work for Queen and Empire - A historical record is perhaps the most readable narrative of the colonial participation although with noticeable gaps. For The Story of South Africa Volume II the editor attempted a similar task. It was extended in successive editions as the war progressed and also has important omissions. It included chapters by Paterson, Wilkinson and Padre Green as well as serving troops. Green's account of the Australian Commonwealth Horse in the final edition is a valuable contemporary account of the first Australia-wide force sent overseas.

The war correspondents faced the same hardships as the troops, risked their lives and health in difficult situations and rode long distances to get their stories dispatched. They suffered at the hands of Generals as censors, but these early Australian war journalists gave the people at home some idea of the colonial experience and achievements in the first year of the war, and left valuable permanent records for future generations.

  

Text By Max Chamberlain, a member of the Anglo-Boer War Study Group of Australia.
Additional detail about Edith Dickenson was provided by her great grandson Steve Lipscombe of Aurora, Ontario, Canada

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