The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra
|Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Parrott VD|
MOUNTED ENGINEERS. A SOUTH AFRICAN EXPERIMENT
ORGANISED BY COLONEL PARROTT
The South African campaign has revolutionised the methods of warfare in many respects. Among the numerous innovations in which the exigencies of circumstances rendered necessary was the formation of a Mounted Engineers unit. The secret of Lord Roberts's success lay in his rapid movements, and in order that they might keep pace with highly mobile forces the experiment of Mounted Engineers was tried. The onerous duty of organising and commanding this experimental unit was entrusted to a Sydney officer, Lieutenant-Colonel T. S. Parrott, and the unqualified success achieved by his men adds another instance to the long array of evidence of the versatility and conspicuous ability of the Australian soldier.
Lieutenant-Colonel Parrott, of the New South Wales Corps of Engineers, left for South Africa in January last as a special service officer. He had command of the Australian contingents on the troopship Surrey. He returned by the Orient in full health, though with unmistakable evidence on his bronzed and somewhat rugged face of having passed through an arduous campaign. On arrival in South Africa, the work of arranging the winter quarters of the British troops at the large camps near Cape Town was entrusted to him. This he refers to casually, though the base commandant, it is well known, has been profuse in his praise of the success and completeness of the arrangements. Subsequently he was engaged in bridge work at Norval's Pont. From there he went on to Bloemfontein, making an inspection of, and reporting upon, the railway and stations en route.
'I arrived at Bloemfontein," said Colonel Parrott to a reporter from the Sydney Daily Telegraph, a week or so after Lord Roberts. Major-General Sir EvelynWood, of the Royal Engineers, had heard that I was in South Africa, and had been telegraphing for me. By good luck I turned up in Bloemfontein at the right moment. They were forming a division under Lieutenant-General Ian Hamilton, the Colonial Brigade, known as the First Mounted Infantry Brigade. General Wood was after me to form an Engineers unit for the Mounted Infantry Brigade, which was a rather novel thing. The imperial service provides for work of that kind by what is known as the Royal Engineers Field Troop, but the field troop as it exists is not adapted for the swift work of the Mounted Infantry Brigade. What General Wood wanted was an Engineers unit somewhat similar to the R.E. Field troop, but capable of keeping pace with the Mounted Infantry. This he instructed me to organise. I formed the unit, in all 66 men, out of the oversea colonial troops ,together with the Imperial Mounted Infantry, adding six men of the Royal Engineers (sappers) as a demolition party.'
'Did you have any men of your Sydney corps?'
The question evidently touched a soft spot in an officer who has the highest confidence in his men and is proud of their proficiency. "Ah!" said the colonel, "I wish I could say yes to that; but they would not let me take any of my men with me. General Wood was deeply disappointed when he heard of it. To a large extent I had to train the men I got together in that scratch manner in Bloemfontein. It was hardly to be expected that they would be trained in military explosives, and the work in the field had to be done chiefly by parties of infantry.
'The Colonial Brigade was co-operating with General French's cavalry division, so you will understand that the unusual mobility of the force made it absolutely necessary to have mounted Engineers. As the idea was largely an experiment, it caused me a lot of anxiety at the start, but the men soon fell into their work, and everything went on satisfactorily. The work of the unit consisted of constructing and repairing drifts (fords), seeing to war supplies for the brigade, constructing entrenchments, demolitions, and generally any engineering work required in the field. As we were on the left wing of the British advance during the march to Pretoria, our work lay away from the railway. The re-pairing of the railways was carried out by one of the finest railway pioneer regiments in the world, commanded by Major Seymour, Who was killed at the Zand River. He did really splendid work. On one occasion, at the junction of the Winburg line, however, we got through the Boer lines and destroyed a culvert beyond tie junction, which prevented the withdrawal of two Boer trains.'
In answer to a query. Colonel Parrott said that his men came in for their share of the actual fighting, but he did not lose one man in action. "Of course," he added, an Engineers unit is not a fighting unit, unless necessity arises. In the course of a battle we have got to see that the guns and ammunition wagons are able to get about from one part of the field to another. We were in many tight corners. At Diamond Hill the Boer guns opened on us from the front and rear, but I got the men under cover, and we only lost one horse that day.
'After the battle of Diamond Hill the Colonial Brigade was merged into a composite column, and on October 10, when the war was thought to be over the unit was disbanded.'
Colonel Parrott added his tribute to the achievements of Australasian soldiers, about which he waxed enthusiastic. "I had daily and nightly opportunities of seeing the work of the Australian men, and there is no mistake about it from beginning to end it was simply magnificent. The Canadians were the same. In South Africa, in my opinion, there were no troops in the field to be compared with Australasians and Canadians for mounted infantry work. They carried out their work in a business-like and intelligent way, as if they had been accustomed to it all their lives."
The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 – 1931 Saturday 19 January 1901 p8