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 yards (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 seven miles 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 six feet deep and twenty feet 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, 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 gaol, 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 gaol. 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.
When the 5th VMR departed from South Africa, Lord Kitchener sent the CO this telegram:
All was forgiven it would seem, though not forgotten. It was this incident, where what we today would regard as a chance remark by a volunteer soldier was almost enough for the British to judicially murder him, as much as the judicial murder (with possible justification) of Morant and Handcock, that ensured no Australian soldier would ever after the Boer War be submitted to capital punishment by their own side.
Murray; Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents in the War in South Africa; David Holloway Wheels & Tracks: A history of the 4th/19th Prince of Wales Light Horse Regiment and its predecessors: Regt. Trustees: 1990; 'The Wilmansrust Affair': Max Chamberlain: AWM Journal: No. 6: April 1985; and Wilmansrust: The Debacle in South Africa by Graham J Whitehead.
CLICK HERE to view the roll of F Company 5 VMR, included are indications of what happened to the members of the sub-unit.
© National Boer War Memorial Association Inc ABN 29 293 433 202