The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra
|Trooper Walter Pope|
Walter Pope served with the NSW Mounted Rifles during the Boer War, surviving many battles but like many of his countrymen he caught dysentery, bronchitis and rheumatic fever before being repatriated.
During the war he wrote many letters to his mother and father, describing the battles in vivid detail.
Bloemfontein, 15 March 1900
We have at length arrived at Bloemfontein and captured it after half an hours fighting. Bloemfontein is now in the hands of the British, and the 0.F. State has surrendered unconditionally. We are camped about three kilometres out of the city, which as yet I have not seen, but I expect to get in for a look round in a few days. The hardships that we have gone through have been very trying, and for nearly three weeks we have had nothing to eat but three hard biscuits a day, and now and again a drop of tea or coffee. On the march, especially when fighting our way, we are nearly always separated from the transport for days together, consequently, if we run short of biscuits we must starve until it comes up again.
Hardship is not the name for what the troops have come through, for at intervals, our privations beggar description. Twice now we have been standing to our horses for 24-36 hours respectfully in a terrible thunder storm, and the rain teeming down in sheets. Of course wet to the bone, and then march on without drying our clothes. We have had to stop where we fought once, and a bitter cold night it was. All we could do was put on our great coats, put our arms through our bridle reins, drop down on the ground and sleep as best we could. I could go on for a long time, but I have not the space, I must reserve it until I get home.
I have quite determined to stop away from soldiering if I get home again, for when we get 800-900 casualties in one engagement, it makes a fellow very dubious.
Bloemfontein, 16 March 1900
Today I am very unwell, suffering from dysentery, I am sadly afraid that it is a case of hospital for me this time, I am almost bled to death. I have been bad three days now, having hung on in the hope of recovering, but I'm only getting worse. When I came into camp yesterday evening, I found your letter awaiting me, it is the first I have received since arriving, and Oh, the joy that letter has given, it simply raised new life in me, and built up my flagging hopes.
The latest news is that we are to spell here for three weeks, then to be remounted and sent on into the Transvaal. I am afraid that there is some heavy fighting ahead yet.
Bloemfontein, 21 March 1900
From the day that we left Capetown it has been one continual round of hardship and fighting, but thank God, and in spite of it all, I'm still alive and fairly well. Lately I've not been in perfect health, in fact I was ordered to hospital, but on account of a slight change for the better they exempted me from that odious time, and I'm thankful to say that I'm better than I've been for some days past. My trouble has been dysentery and piles, the latter causing me most anxiety, today I'm not in near so much pain and feeling generally improved thank goodness.
I'm going to give you a brief outline of our travels right through, so that you can see what we have come through. When we arrived at Capetown we went into a camp at a place called Machland. and remained there three days. Glad indeed we were when orders came that we were to entrain to the front. Dust blew in suffocating showers the whole time and we were head over our heels in a complete state of chaos. We entrained at Capetown on Friday afternoon at half past three, and did not arrive at Modder River where we detrained, until the following morning at nine o'clock. At Modder River we went into camp for a week awaiting orders. Here we were worse off than at Machland for dust but still had something to interest us. There were hundreds of graves all over that memorable field, of fallen soldiers, some of them looked so pathetic with their rough hewn crosses and rude though tender inscriptions.
We also saw where hundreds of dead Boers were hauled out of the river after that great battle, and while there General Crongs and his 5,000 men came as prisoners. We kept guard of them for two nights, and a rough burly crowd they were too. They have no uniform Dad, excepting for a few German field cornets among them, and to look at them they remind one of a crowd of Australian bushmen or shearers. I did not see Crongs, but some of our chaps did, and they say he is a tremendous size, horizontally, not perpendicularly. There is an amusing tale told about him. After his surrender, Lord Roberts took him to his tent, gave him a chair and handed him a cigar. He took the weed with a grump, broke it in two, crammed the lot into his mouth and chewed it up. They say it was a Rothschilds too.
After seven days camp and hard drill we got orders to march, and from Lord Roberts' camp some 80 to 100 kilometres ahead. We set out and on 6th inst. We had our first go with the Boers. We were just saddling up to start one morning, when news came that one of our outposts, a Queenslander, had been shot. Colonel Knight formed us up and in five minutes we were off at full gallop towards some neighbouring kopjes where the affair had occurred. When we arrived there we could see about thirty of their scouts making off across the plains as fast as they could go. We spread out and gave chase, and for half a day they led us a lively dance.
At length, through rashness on the part of our leaders, they led us right into an ambush, but for the fact that the Boers were too eager to let us have it, there would have been very few of us left to tell the tale. They were very strongly entrenched on three high kopjes, and we went galloping up to within a thousand metres when they opened fire on us. A couple of horses went down at once, but we did not retreat, simply dismounted, handed our horses to the horseholders who took them to the nearest cover, and we advanced in extended order. By means of short runs and taking advantage of cover, we succeeded, or at least some of us did, to getting within 500 metres of their position, and here the hail of bullets became so dense that it became simply impossible to advance or retreat a slip.
The Boers had the range, immediately a man showed himself, down he went. There we lay for seven hours on our bellies in the burning sun, behind anthills, with bullets dropping all around us like hailstones. Such a fusillade of musketry you never heard, for of course we kept the firing going properly. I was aiming over the top of an anthill when a bullet came and took the top clean off and sped by my left cheek, the dust flying into my eyes. I saw one go through a chap's legs as he was running next to me, and Bert Watts had his shoulder straps clipped, pretty close shaves, aye Dad? As it was we had to wait for dusk to retire and then took about twelve men wounded and five horses killed.
At half past twelve that night we rode into Lord Robert's camp, and next morning saw the big guns shell the Boers out of their position. We marched on them with the main army for Bloemfontein, and on the 10th came up with them again at Driesfontein. Here they made a great attempt to check our advance, it being the principal battle in the taking of Bloemfontein. The battle commenced about ten o'clock in the morning and we succeeded in completely routing them by just about sundown. We Australians on the right flank turned and drove from kopje to kopje and at last, by clever manouvering, completely outflanked them and got them into the open plain in full retreat.
For about half an hour they were completely at our mercy and going down like ninepins. In this we lost about 400 killed and wounded and the Boers must have suffered terribly as the kopjes were lined with their dead. I can tell you it is an awful sight to see the great shells bursting over a body of men and blowing dozens into eternity. The noise they make going through the air too is terrible. That night we slept where we fought, holding on to our bridle reins to prevent our horses from straying. We dared not light a fire and had to speak in whispers. It was a bitter cold night and next morning, wet through with dew, hungry and starving, we were pushing along the road before the sun was in the sky. From this, the Boers went like chaff and we had no further resistance. Hunger becomes our greatest enemy now.
For days we pushed on, doing long marches on knocked up horses and one hard biscuit a day. More than once we have had to stand by our horses night after night in teeming rain, and then push on next morning without breakfast or even as much as drying our clothes. On 14th we arrived outside Bloemfontein which capitulated after about a dozen shots, and here we are camped and spelling, and it is wanted badly, for both horses and men are completely done. I have not been into town yet, but I believe it is a very nice place, but there is plenty of time. The general opinion is that we won't go much further. There is a rumour that General Buller has surprised the world and that he is within four days march of Pretoria. If this is correct I don't think that there will be much more fighting for us, and I cannot say I am sorry, Dad, for war is a terrible thing.
In his next letter addressed to his father, he wrote about the battle of the Vet River.
Johannesburgh, ZAR 13 June 1900
The war Dad, is practically over. Pretoria, as you must already know, is in the hands of the British, and old Kruger has retired to a place called Leydenburg in the far north of the Transvaal, where, if he is going to make a stand at all, his last stand must be made. You see, Lord Carrington with some 10,000 troops is coming in from Rhodesia at the back of him, and he is completely surrounded. There is no possible getaway for him. Mrs. Kruger and family are under restraint at Pretoria, and all the old man's friends are doing their best to induce him to surrender. He is advised on all sides to throw up the sponge, and I think, from what I can hear, that he will do it.
You know far more than I do of all the actual state of affairs. The Australian papers get very accurate accounts of our doings here, accounts that can be relied upon. Here we simply know nothing except what we are actually doing ourselves. At present I am shut up in a convalescent camp, having only recently come out of Johannesburg hospital after an attack of bronchitis, I am in complete ignorance of how things really stand. Of course I know that the war is almost over, if not already, but what I want to know is, when are we coming home? There is a rumour current that the reserves are sailing on 29th inst. if this is so, the volunteer regiments ought soon to follow.
I expect to be sent down to Capetown as soon as the line is clear. I think that is what they are going to do with us invalids. If they don't send us down they must keep us here until our regiments return. The regiment is somewhere beyond Pretoria, I know, and it was blooming hard luck for me after getting to within thirty kilometres of Kruger's capital, to be sent back. There is one thing certain, I shall not go to the front again as no more convalescents are to be brought up.
Well Dad, old man, I've seen a few more ups and downs since writing you last. Of course you are pretty well acquainted with all our doings, but I know you prefer to hear about them from myself. To commence with we started our Pretoria march on lst May, when we left Bloemfontein. Our first brush with the enemy took place at a town called Brandfort, then in possession of the Boers. It was nearly all artillery work however and we did not have much to do except when the Boers were retiring from their strongholds, we followed and made it very hot for them.
I was in a position to watch all the artillery attack, in fact all our company was posted along the ridge right under the cannon's mouth, and the shelling was really worth watching. It played the very devil with the Boers, principally our shrapnel which they detest. I had a very narrow squeak at Brandfort, it was a most exciting time for me, but it must wait until I can tell you verbally as it would take too much time to narrate it at present. When I get home, just jog my memory with the Brandfort incident, but I don't think I'll require it for it is a thing I'm not likely to forget all my life.
From Brandfort we drove them before us to the Vet River where they made a big stand, and where our regiment covered themselves with glory. General Hutton was in command of us that time and I know he was proud of us and meant every word he said. We struck the Vet River about 11.00 o'clock a.m., the Boers opened fire on us from the river bed and some high kopjes beyond on which their guns were posted.
Our position was fearfully exposed, excepting for a small stony ridge behind which our guns were posted, it was completely open veldt. The ridge was 15 or 1600 metres south of the river, and between us and the river was another small isolated kopje on which stood a kaffir's kraal. The river, which was very deep, having high precipitous banks, was overgrown with these mimosa trees in which the Boer riflemen were entrenched. Our regiment's position was on the left of our guns, which were waiting in extended order behind the ridge for orders. Presently General Hutton rode up and addressed us thus: "Men of the NSW Mounted Rifles," he said, "I am proud to have you with me today. You know I am a NSW Mounted Rifle as well as yourselves, and I have selected you to do some very important work today. You see that position?" he said, pointing across the plain to the river and kopjes beyond, with his cane, "Well, I want you to take that position. Yes I know it is a dangerous undertaking, I am fully alive to all its requirements, and it is on this very account I've chosen the NSW Mounted Rifles."
"I know," he continued, "what you can do and what you are capable of doing, and it is with full and perfect confidence that I entrust you with this attack. Now get off your horses and rest their backs for awhile, for they will need all their strength directly."
Presently we got word to advance. Our first point was a small kopje between us and the river, fully 800 metres away. We extended and galloped for this point at full tilt, the Boer shells and bullets dropping among us all the way. We reached it however, dismounted, handed our horses over to the horseholders and took up a position on the top, the horses remaining below under cover. Here we opened up a sharp rifle fire pouring our bullets into the river timber incessantly, while bullets and shells dropped all round us tearing up the ground in every direction.
Our fire must have been very accurate, for after about an hours fusillade, we saw the enemy retiring from the river to the high kopje beyond. Then we started properly. Down came one of our guns full tilt across the veldt - Boer shells bursting round it all the way, and took a position on the kopje we were holding. By jove Dad, it was a pretty sight to see that gun coming full gallop and shells bursting all around it. I can see it now, and the mere thought of it sends my blood on fire.
We waited until our gun got posted, then we advanced in extended order on foot, on the river. We had about 1,000 metres of perfectly open veldt to cross before we reached the river timber, but the cool steady way the men advanced across that plain, midst a perfect hail of bullets, was nothing less than magnificent. They really surprised me, without a stop or once hastening our pace we walked grandly on, fixing our bayonets and firing as we walked, with bullets flying all round us. At length we drew pretty close, and then with a yell, we charged the timber. When we reached the bank the last Boer riflemen were scampering up the other side. Down we went, pouring the lead into them all the while.
We could not reach them before they reached their trenches on the kopjes however, under cover of their guns, we pushed on, and when drawing pretty close, the sight of the steel cowered them, for as we charged they fled. We immediately took up their almost impregnable position, and didn't we give them pepper retreating across the valley beyond. Down came our guns at full gallop, scarcely without a stop. Two maxims and a pom pom galloped across the river and up the steep kopjes, and opened fire on the retreating Boers. Didn't they get a cutting up! The sight of the kopjes which I mounted, among the very first was horrible, horses and Boers lying dead and wounded all over the place.
By sundown the victory was ours, and when we came to look at the wonderful position we had captured, we marvelled. It was late that night before we got into camp, but next morning just prior to marching, General Hutton sent for us, and lining us up before the whole column, an army of some 12,000 men, he addressed us.
"Men of NSW Mounted Rifles," he began, "I'm proud of you. From the bottom of my heart I thank you for the grand work you did yesterday. That advance was simply magnificent, supurb, it could not have been steadier and cooler, and as I watched you from my position, I only wished that I had the honour of being the officer that was leading you. You did exactly what ought to have been done in precisely the proper way. In that I say everything, I cannot say more, for yesterday's work has only substantiated the great name you have already won and will always carry with you. I have great pleasure in informing you that you will not be forgotten, and that Lord Roberts signalled his gratitude last night and complimented us on our grand victory in so successfully turning the enemy's flank."
I can tell you Dad, the other regiments did look. I felt a very proud man that morning, and indeed we all did. We had reason to, don't you think?
From Vet River we marched to the Zand River where they made another great stand, but were of course, outflanked and defeated. From Zand River to Kroonstad to Vaal River. Here they made no stand, but about sixteen kilometres out of Johannesburg they made a three days big fight of it. I was with General French in that fight, on the left flank again, and here is a cavalry charge. I had my horse's inside torn out by a shell, and save for a nasty buster, I escaped unhurt, caught another horse and finished the charge.
And now here I am alright again, packed up and awaiting developments. I expect to be home about the middle of August. I've had no word from home since leaving Bloemfontein seven weeks ago.
Trooper Pope was invalided home, arriving 15 September 1900, suffering from rheumatic fever. In 1900 this was a long and debilitating illness and recovery was slow. The war in South Africa did not end until 31 May 1902. Veterans of the Boer War were awarded a medal. Trooper Pope's medal has three bars: Cape Colony, Driefontein and Johannesburg.
By 1906 he was a policeman stationed at Sunny Corner near Bathurst, and in that year too he married Isobella Graham. His wife died in 1916 and there were no children of the marriage. Walter Pope did not remarry, after his wife's death he left the police force and became a government valuer for the Bathurst district. But rheumatic fever had taken its toll, he developed a heart condition and died in 1946 aged 68.
Item submitted by David Deasey 17 October 2012
Imperial measurements have been converted to SI units