The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra
|A Battery Royal Australian Artillery|
On 24 August 1899 when Queen Victoria agreed to the formation of the Royal Australian Artillery (RAA). The RAA was formed from the Colonial Artilleries of NSW, Victoria and Queensland and is considered to be the first Federal Institution, occurring as it did well prior to Federation.
In 1899, when the South African War commenced, all the Colonies in Australia offered military assistance to England. These offers were accepted but only to the extent that the Colonies were initially requested to send mounted infantry , light horse and medical corps units only. After the action at Magersfontain, the early confidence and optimism of the Imperial Forces had faded. A second offer by NSW to send a battery of Artillery to South Africa was accepted with a greater degree of urgency. A Battery RAA was formed from Officers and Men of A Battery NSW Artillery, and on 30 December 1899 the Battery embarked on the “Warrigal” from Sydney to South Africa. Given that the Battery was only warned for service on 19 December 1899 the ability to mobilise and sail within 11 days was testimony to the Battery’s state of readiness and training.
A week after their arrival on 5 February 1900, the Battery moved by train from Capetown to Belmont. Almost immediately, the Battery was broken up into three sections of two guns apiece. There was a fear of insurrection in the North West Cape areas and the possible effects on the lines of communication for Lord Robert’s planned invasion of the Orange Free State. It was decided to conduct a supporting operation to clear the Boers from the NW Cape area and this task was given to Major General H Settle. General Settle had a total force of 1600 men assembled at short notice from available forces in the area. He arranged his Force into three columns; A Battery was in General Settle’s own column. By 19-21 March 1900 this operation was sufficiently effective to remove the threat of insurrection This allowed General Settle to commence widely dispersed operations around Upington and Kenhardt.
The Centre and Left Sections were deployed with patrolling columns while the Right Section and Battery HQ were to remain in a static role in what was reputed as a miserable place called Draghoender. There is ample evidence that the Imperial Forces had failed to learn some hard lessons from the First Boer War in 1881 in that they persisted in the break-up of formed units. Critics of the Gunners often fail to appreciate that it is the role of the Artillery to provide advice and effective fire support for the plan of manoeuvre of the Supported Arm (no matter how flawed these plans are judged to be at the time and after their execution). Apparently the citizens of NSW were more aware of this than many of the Field Commanders as letters to the Sydney papers of the day show. They questioned why one of the best trained units sent from the Colonies was being so seriously misemployed.
As 1900 was drawing to a close, this already unsatisfactory situation was exacerbated as the Boers changed their tactics from fixed engagements in favour of a campaign of guerilla warfare. In October1900,while the Battery was concentrating at Prieska, the Left Section (commanded by a very capable officer in Lieutenant Christian) was ordered to Colesburg which was astride the main railway line to Pretoria.
Meanwhile, the Right Section was involved in several actions around Vryburg in mid-November 1900. During one of these actions, one gun managed to get 190 rounds away while Gunner B.Gowing died of wounds sustained in this engagement.
The Left Section (as often happens in warfare) was destined to see the greater part of the action in the coming months. On 21 February 1901 the Section was in support of a Column under Lieutenant Colonel E.M.S Crabbe. The Column consisted of the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards and about 150 mounted troops. Their mission was to trap De Wet’s force who were operating in the immediate area. The Section was soon called into action in support of an attack on a ridge near Pampoenpan. The Section was able to keep pace with the attacking force (in this case, the Victorian Mounted Rifles) but was able to come into action quickly and effectively silence the enemy guns deployed on the ridge. DeWet withdrew to the East but on 22 February 1901 the Boer camp was observed at Disselfontein. The Left Section went rapidly into action and engaged the Boer guns causing them to be abandoned. During these operations,which covered a period of three months, Christian’s Left Section showed an exemplary ability to keep pace with the leading elements of Crabbe’s force and to be decisively engaged on those occasions when a quick response was called for. It was recorded that of all of the Artillery Sections employed in this manner, Christian’s Section was the only one to keep up the pace throughout. This effort came at a great cost in terms of the condition of the horses and the physical demands on the men.
In March 1901, the Left Section left Crabbe’s force and was allotted to another Column under Lieutenant Colonel H.M. Grenfell in the Graaff-Reinet area. This move was as inexplicable as it was pointless and only a month later the Section joined a new Column forming up under Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Ingouville Williams at Klerksdorp (160km SW of Johannesburg). Christian became ill and was replaced by an unknown officer from the RA who greatly improved the dress sense of the Battery but apparently was well regarded despite this. Eventually the Section was commanded by Lieutenant R.G. King who had recently arrived with 43 reinforcements from Australia.
During this period, the Right Section was engaged in garrison, patrolling and escort duties in the Vryburg area but eventually moved to the South Transvaal in April 1901 to join other forces tasked to clear that area. The remainder of the Battery (the long suffering Centre Section and Battery HQ) joined Colonel Rimington’s Column at Standerton (150 km SE of Johannesburg). There was a change of command during this period with the Battery Command being assumed by Captain Antill, locally promoted to Major.
The Left Section was still in support of Ingouville William’s Column which had the task of clearing the Western Transvaal of De La Rey’s forces and if possible to capture De La Rey. De La Rey was considered to be one of the more effective of the Boer leaders. In early May 1901, the Column had a series of encounters with De La Rey’s forces but lacked sufficient strength to effectively engage him. The Column was chasing a “ Phantom “ enemy but did have one small success. On 24 May 1901, Ingouville Williams attacked a laager under the command of Van Rensburg at Leewsdoorns. The Left Section provided covering fire while the 2nd NSW Mounted Rifles rushed the objective capturing 28 Boers and 47 wagons and carts. After this excitement, the Column returned to Klerksdorp.
In late June 1901, Ingouville William’s column was absorbed into a larger Force and committed to a clearing operation to the NW of Johannesburg. While this was happening, orders were received for the Left Section to leave this Force and concentrate with the rest of the Battery at Standerton (where one is left to assume that the majority of the Battery had been employed in a series of ineffective operations since April 1901). On the departure of the Left Section, Colonel Rimington was very appreciative of the service given by the Left Section. It was recorded that Rimington greatly valued the support of the Gunners and that of the elements of A Battery in particular. Apparently during engagements, Rimington would take station with the Section as it came into action and would observe and direct the fighting from the gun line.
In late July 1901, the Battery was recalled to Australia and this heralded the end of the Battery’s service in the South African War. The concentation at Standerton was the first time that the Battery had been together as a complete unit in 12 months. The Battery spent some time on “make and mend” activities before moving to Capetown to embark on the “Harlech Castle” in mid-August 1901 for the journey back to Sydney. The Battery arrived in Sydney on 15 September 1901 having lost one soldier in action, one who died in an accident and 45 men invalided back to Australia through illness. Despite a frustrating series of events during the Battery’s service in the War, there is a well documented legacy to the efficiency, professionalism and the high state of morale of the Battery in carrying out all of the tasks required of it in 18 months of operations.
A Battery was formally honoured for its service in the South African War when King Edward VII presented A Battery with a King’s Banner. This was not a unique event for participating Australian troops (at least the NSW Lancers and the Medical Corps were accorded similar honours). However, it is believed that this honour is unique among Commonwealth Artillery units and the award has always been a great source of pride to those serving in A Field Battery. (During its tour of South Vietnam, A Field Battery celebrated its Centenary Birthday on 1 August 1971. A Banner Party was sent home to Australia for the Centenary Celebration Parade at Victoria Barracks, Sydney where His Excellency the Governor General, Sir Paul Hasluck presented the RAA with the Queen's Banner which replaced the 67 year old King's Banner. On 25 April 1972 a detachment from the Battery laid up the King's Banner at the Australian War Memorial as part of the Anzac Day Commemoration Service.)
Taken from "A Short History of A Field Battery RAA" provided by Brian Armour Click Here to download the complete document.