The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra
|The New South Wales Lancers in South Africa 1899 – 1900|
The New South Wales Lancers
The New South Wales Lancers were formed as the Sydney Light Horse in March 1895. 1898 saw the unit headquartered at Lancer Barracks, Parramatta under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Burns. Their service in South Africa was unique. When the war commenced, a squadron of the regiment was returning from training in England, they landed as the first Australian troops to take part in the conflict. Reinforced thrice, they insisted on fighting as "cavalry" rather than taking on the mounted infantry role adopted by most other Australian units. This account details their preparation, and follows the course of the conflict until their premature return to take part in the Federation celebrations.
After the war the Lancers continued to serve the nation, made "Light Horse" (mounted soldiers with cavalry organisation and roles who engaged the enemy on foot) in 1903, "Royal" in 1935, mechanised 1936; the Regiment fought as a Tank Regiment in World War II and takes the traditions of the 1st and 15thst Light Horse (AIF). The 1st /15th Royal New South Wales Lancers is today a Mechanised Light Cavalry Regiment of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, their headquarters is at Lancer Barracks.
The Squadron Trains in England
At the annual camp of the New South Wales Military Forces at Rookwood in 1898 the idea of a term of intensive cavalry training in England was discussed by the officers. There was much support in the Military from Major-General French down, but little government enthusiasm; it was seen as an unnecessary budgetary item.
The Commanding Officer of the New South Wales Lancers visited London privately in 1898. There he arranged for a squadron of one hundred to be quartered, fed, horsed and trained at the chief cavalry centre at Aldershot, Hampshire, 60 km south west of London. Lord Carrington, honorary colonel of the Lancers and others in England contributed £500 to the endeavour. When he returned Colonel Burns opened a fund with £300; Regimental officers and other supporters soon subscribing £2,000. The members of the Regiment were approached, and it was found that each applicant was prepared to pay their own fare of £20 (approximately $20,000 in today's currency). This would mean costs for the whole enterprise could be covered.
The New South Wales Government still needed convincing. It agreed only after submissions from the British Government (all duly organised by Colonel Burns and Lord Carrington) and an agreement that there would be no public expenditure involved.
The planners decided that the period away from New South Wales would be six months. Arrival would be in early spring 1899. Hard work and rigorous training would be the order of the day. The programme was to include the annual British Army Salisbury Plains. Each man signed an agreement with Colonel Burns agreeing to be subject to the NSW Volunteer Regulation and Imperial Army acts for the duration of the training, and to stay in the Regiment for at least two years after they returned so as to pass on what they had learnt.
On 20 February 1899 the squadron pitched camp at Lancer Barracks, Parramatta. Four days after assembling, a night display was given at Victoria Barracks, 12,000 people were in the audience. Departure was on the SS Nineveh on 3 March, anniversary of the formation of the Sydney Light Horse in 1885. The Officer Commanding was Captain CF Cox, troop commanders Second Lieutenant SF Osborne, and WJS Rundle; the Sergeant Major H Read, Staff Sergeant Major H Robson.
Fifty six days out of Sydney, the Lancers arrived in London. On a crisp April morning, led by the band of the Coldstream Guards, they marched through the city to Waterloo station. Aldershot was reached and the Lancers settled into barracks attached to the 6th Dragoon Guards; their horses were provided by the 15th Hussars, recently despatched to India. Training was hard, sword, lance and riding; daily drills in the "Long Valley", a particularly dusty environ. Many field days in the countryside took place in late summer; speed and shrewd use of hills and valleys from officers' down to troopers' patrols made the Lancers successful and respected.
The Royal Military Tournament was held in the Agricultural Hall at Islington. In the period 25 May to 8 June twenty six performances of a "Cavalry Display by the 6th Dragoon Guards and New South Wales Lancers" were given. The display being a sham engagement. Some of the Lancers had to dress as enemy "Dervishers".
The soldiers took both a kangaroo and an emu with them as mascots. The emu died pretty early reputedly from eating something inappropriate, the kangaroo survived, eventually living out its days at High Wycombe, Lord Carrington's property.
The Islington tournament was followed by The Royal Irish Tournament, Dublin, there a detachment of 25 under Lieutenant Osborne took part in racing, jumping, lance and sword exercises and wrestling on horseback. The team returned with some prizes.
As the time drew near to return to New South Wales, there were rumblings about a possible war in South Africa. Before the SS Nineveh sailed on 10 October, Captain Cox telegraphed RHQ asking for permission to take part in a possible conflict.
The Squadron Arrives in South Africa
On his arrival at Cape Town on 2 November 1989, Captain Cox, received not only a visit from the Mayor of Cape Town, but also orders from Military Headquarters at the Castle, and official cables from the New South Wales Government. There was great consternation when the order was read from Sir William Lyne, Premier, forbidding Captain Cox to land any members of the contingent under 20 years of age, and to return them to New South Wales. Following this, most of the dozen or so under that age scuttled to different parts of the ship, and some were not seen again, officially, until in camp on shore, the ship well and truly gone. Some who, under compulsion, had been returned to the ship, were to appear later in Africa with reinforcement drafts. Some received private cables urging them to return home. Altogether 29 remained on the S.S. Nineveh and returned to Sydney, as well as two who had been dismissed, had handed in government property, and were going home as civilians.
The disembarkation of the 72 New South Wales Lancers was as welcome as it was unexpected. Volunteering at Cape Town was in its very early stages, overseas men had not yet arrived, and the regiment holds the proud distinction of its squadron being the first of all English or overseas volunteers to land at any of the bases of that war.
The SS Kent had already left Sydney on October 28, with Major Lee and the 1st Reinforcements. This was a fine piece of quick enlistment and embarkation on the part of the regimental staff, only 18 days having elapsed since the Boers invaded British territory. Troops from other colonies, especially New Zealand, were already on the water.
There was a great shortage of all sorts of equipment. In this case there were no horses, khaki clothing, or field equipment, what the squadron had with it was unsuitable for the rough work ahead. The first problem was dealt with in characteristic Australian fashion: a few kilometres inland, at Stellenbosch, the squadron was very soon to be found catching, riding, and training about 70 Cape horses, mostly unbroken. These were seldom above 14 hands, and ever afterwards were referred to as "the guinea-pigs". SSM Robson (192 cm), tucked his legs up when the ground was rough!
The NSW Lancers were attached to General French's 1st Cavalry Brigade until 25 October 1900, when their term of engagement was up and the New South Wales Government desperately needed them at home to take part in the celebration of the new Australian Commonwealth. The squadron became involved in a strenuous campaign of continuous movement. They were fortunate in serving under the man who had lately been their brigadier at Aldershot.
At this stage of the war, British prestige was in the balance. The Boers had successfully attacked British territory. On the east they beleaguered Ladysmith and Natal, and on the west cut off Kimberley, thus forcing their will on the defending armies as they arrived, while moving commandos across country as they wished. In the centre they advanced down the main railway line, and had they bypassed the junctions in the move south, Cape Town would have had to be defended.
The Fighting Twenty Nine
Only a fortnight after disembarkation at Cape Town, having journeyed 500 kilometres in a north-easterly direction, the Lancers detrained at De Aar Junction. A few kilometres from here, Lord Methuen was trying to force his way across the hills through the Boer lines, and it was thought that a start into action would be made as soon as the horses had got over the journey. But there was still insufficient equipment, and enough weapons for only a few. Hurriedly, a troop under Lieutenant SF Osborne was given what was available, and away they went, to the disappointment of the remainder of the squadron. With Lieutenant Osborne were S.S.M. Robson (Lismore) , Sergeant McDonald (near Ballina) , Sergeant Dooley (Berry) , Corporal Hopf (Lismore), Lance-Corporal Ford (Lismore) , and 23 troopers. They were called by the British regiments "The Fighting Twenty-nine". Eleven survived sickness and wounds and continued to the end: nine of these (two were prisoners at Waterval for five months) hold the distinction for the regiment of bearing eight, the maximum number of battle clasps on the Queen's Medal, two being awarded for battles in which they fought during the next few weeks, Belmont and Modder River.
General Lord Methuen, greatly pleased by the work of "The Fighting Twenty-nine", repeatedly complimented them in person on their steadiness under heavy fire. Tactical work in the field was not difficult to these Australians after their extensive training in England, but being continually fired at was quite a new experience. The general expressed regret at losing them as his force became stronger, having found their scouting, and their ability to find their way on the open veldt of great value.
On 19 November the squadron, less the "Twenty-nine", arrived at Naauwpoort, which was threatened, and next day General French arrived from Cape Town and Natal. The garrison here numbered only 945 with two 9 pounder muzzle-loading guns. It consisted of: half battalion of the Berkshires; half battalion of the Black Watch: 25 Cape Police, and NSW Lancers divided into two troops of about 20 each. One troop patrolled 20 kilometres north under Captain Cox, the other entrained at 05:45 hrs and reconnoitred as far as Rensburg. All returned. The railway line nearer De Aar had been blown up, and 25 men were detailed to cover the repair party. On the 23rd Lieutenant Osborne's troop took part at the battle of Belmont, and on the same day a troop entrained at Naauwpoort, detrained at Arundel and patrolled in that neighbourhood, meeting the enemy. Daily reconnaissances and minor patrol engagements continued here for the next few days, as Boers estimated at 300 held an advanced post on Arundel Hills. When the Boers vacated Arundel, however, General French had insufficient troops to move up. Meantime, Lieutenant Osborne's . troop had taken part in the battles of Graspan and Modder River.
Early in December Major GL Lee with Lieutenant GH Allan, 2nd Lieutenants CWFP. Roberts and RM Heron, Veterinary-Lieutenant FW Melhuish and Warrant Officer CE Fisher, 31 other ranks and 131 horses, largely from the NSW Police, landed at Cape Town, and joined the squadron at Naauwpoort on 6 December. During this period the squadron was occupied on daily patrols and visits to farms. On one occasion a patrol was heavily fired on while drawing fire from Taaiboschlaagte, the Boer main position, and several horses were shot. Trooper Harrison (Parramatta) being left behind, Trooper Morris (Singleton) went back under close and heavy fire, got him up behind, and galloped out. For this action Tom Morris was recommended for the Victoria Cross, an award never made.
Patrols for moving over the veldt were usually four men of a section in line and from 30 to 100 metres apart. In drawing fire when near a suspected position, on a signal from the section leader they would turn round and trot back, which usually brought the desired information. If so, the trot was generally found too slow!
It was during this period that the Lancers were frequently fired at by their old friends, the Carabiniers, who, although they were familiar with the Australian hats at Aldershot, could not tell the troopers beneath them from Boers. The Lancers retorted that Australian "walers" could not be mistaken for veldt ponies. Nevertheless, khaki helmets that had arrived at the end of November and had been scornfully rejected by the men, were again issued - this time to be worn!
On 7 December, the 6thth (Inniskilling) Dragoons, marched in from Maitland. There had been some heavy fighting in the neighbourhood and the enemy strength at Taaiboschlaagte was estimated at 3,000, at Colesberg 3,000 in addition to which commandos were moving up. In the second week of December a base camp was established at Arundel, and it was to this camp that Troopers Herbert Vernon and George Cummings, who had left the Aldershot contingent in London, came to rejoin the squadron and draw horses.
As the month wore on, enemy activity intensified and an ever increasing force was entrenched at the Arundel camp. On 11 December Lieutenant Osborne's troop took part in the battle of Magersfontein, and, two days later, the Boers were beaten on the right flank by the 6th Dragoons, 6th Dragoon Guards, 10th Hussars, NZ Mounted Rifles and NSW Lancers. At this time the enemy were pressing in closely: an attempt to surprise the camp was checked only a kilometre off. Fortunately there was no shortage of food for the troops, 3,000 captured sheep providing plenty of mutton.
On the afternoon of 16 December, Captain Jackson of the 7th Dragoon Guards, attached to the Inniskillings, was brought into camp by Troopers Carlo Fiaschi and McPherson, he died on the way. He had been sniped at and shot from a hill about five kilometres towards Taaiboschlaagte while out with a patrol. When the two Lancers galloped up, he was on the point of being taken prisoner. McPherson kept the Boers at bay with rapid fire while Fiaschi (a medical student and son of the Regimattal Medical Officer Major T. H. Fiaschi, bound up the captain's wounds, bullets missing them by inches. The two troopers then managed to get the wounded man on his horse, and holding him on, galloped out. This is only one of many examples of individual courage and initiative displayed by the men during their first experience of active service. Troopers McPherson and Fiaschi were thanked formally by the CO, 6th Dragoons, Lieutenant Colonel Page-Henderson.
General French established his headquarters at Arundel on 17 December, and a few days later C Squadron 6th Dragoons under Major Allenby (later Field-Marshal Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe, GCB, GCMG) arrived from Cape Town. The cavalry was then divided into:
• 1st Cavalry Brigade, Colonel Porter: 6th DG; NSWL; NZMR; MI
• 2nd Cavalry Brigade, Colonel Fisher: 6th (Inn) D; 10th Hussars: MI
The 1st Brigade took the east of the railway line; the 2nd the west. Attached were Lieutenant West and a small troop from 5th Lancers. This troop, early in February, was sent to Stellenbosch and never seen again. Before they went, however, at a camp concert, a member of the troop sang a whole number standing on his head without any assistance; an accomplishment enviable in the music hall world, but not sufficiently impressive on active service to raise the prestige of a troop of lancers!
The heat was now intense. Though few troops had seen much actual fighting, daily reconnaissance and outpost duty was carried out, a troop often being away for a week.
Two days before Christmas 32 other ranks of the 1st Australian Horse under Lieutenants Dowling and Osborne arrived (wearing helmets) , and were mixed into the 1st Cavalry Brigade. On Christmas Day a tacit truce was observed, and in spite of the heat, races for men, mules, ponies and horses were held, only to be followed by the usual 16:00 hours dust storm and rain.
At the outbreak of war, Major Rimington, Inniskilling Dragoons, had raised a troop of Guides. He enlisted only men who knew the country and spoke Dutch unless found absolutely efficient they were at once discharged. Known as "The Tigers" they became famous early in the war, their sobriquet being derived from the cat tails they wore round their hats, and for their daring. On 26 December "The Tigers" arrived in camp from Modder River, together with Lieutenant Osborne's troop and 1,000 infantry.
An all day reconnaissance on 28 December round Taaiboschlaagte, which appeared to have been vacated, produced no real information. On the following day the Dragoon Guard horses, however, stung by hail and stampeding through to Lancer lines, swept off with their equine comrades on a circular six kilometre gallop which, being uninterrupted by enemy fire, provided the required intelligence. The last days of the month saw the occupation of Rensburg Ridge at Porter's Hill by the 1st Cavalry Brigade, and the withdrawal of the Lancer outpost troop which was marched to Rensburg. This troop moved off again later the same day arrived at Maedar's Farm at 21:00 hours and before dawn relieved the Carabiniers near Coleskop.
Coleskop was a kopje, 270 metres high, overlooking the English town of Colesberg, then held by the Boers. Hard fighting in various open formations took place throughout the whole of the next day; the heat was great and there was no water for the horses until night, for the men until midnight. Subjected to heavy and continuous fire, the squadron were unable to do more than remain with the provision trucks, taking what shelter they could among them. After dark the men withdrew. Had the Boers persisted in their attack they could have taken the whole squadron.
About the middle of January the Boers made a bold attack on Slingersfontein, creeping up during dark and shelling and advancing unperceived at daybreak. Captain Maddocks with NZ Mounted Rifles, rallying the surprised Yorkshire lads in possession, made a very gallant and successful bayonet charge right through the Boers ("New Zealand Hill") , and drove them off, the enemy leaving 21 dead.
Corporal Kilpatrick – The First Lancer to die in battle
"At 03:00 hours," Trooper Vernon writes in his diary, "my troop, about 20 mixed Lancers and 1st Australian Horse under Lieutenant Dowling of the latter, set out on patrol. I was in charge of a prisoner at camp. About 15:00 hours Tpr Eames (AH) rode into camp, having escaped from a kopje where the troops had been surrounded and penned up by wire fences: Tp Sgt-Maj Griffin (AH) killed; Cpl Kilpatrick (NSWL) wounded badly and Tpr Roberts (NSWL) shot in one hand. We volunteered to go in pursuit, but Colonel Porter stated the horses required rest: we then volunteered to go on foot, but he would not allow it.
Corporal Kilpatrick, and the memorial to him at Leichhardt Public School NSW
Bert Artlett's (Parramatta) horse was shot; he jumped up behind Lieutenant Dowling, but that horse was shot also. The fall stunned him, and when he regained consciousness, he took off his boots and sneaked through the Boers, reaching camp next morning. It appears all the horses were soon shot or captured, when each man built a stone krantz around him, and fought until every cartridge was expended, which we knew by counting the empties. The Boers then rushed them (remember, we carried no bayonets). Started before light next day with ambulance wagon; found Tpr Thomas (AH) wandering on the veldt, and the kopje with Griffin and Kilpatrick. Lieutenant Dowling had lost an eye and had been captured. The following Lancers were taken to Pretoria as prisoners, and were not seen again until June 5 1900 at Waterval (except for Ford and Whittington): WO Fisher (SHQ), Sgt McDonald, Tptr Taylor, Cpl Hopf, Tprs Daley (all of the Northern Rivers); Doudney (Parramatta), Johnston (Sydney), Roberts (Singleton), M. Ford and G. Whittington (both of Sydney).
The last two escaped from the prisoners' laager at Waterval and, after gruelling experiences and hairbreadth escapes, almost without saddles. Most of the three months later, reported to the British Consul at Lourenco Marques in neutral Portuguese territory. Read the Account.
Returning to the Slingersfontein fight, Cpl Kilpatrick died on the way to camp, and was buried the next day on top of a kopje behind the camp. Corporal Kilpartick a teacher from Carlingford near Parramatta, was the first Lancer to die in battle. Found a medal of Cpl Hopf in his krantz on top of kopje, which helped to reconstruct the story; and a few days later handed in a masonic emblem that a New Zealander found and passed to me (Tpr Vernon).
Arrival at a large farmhouse at Potfontein, surrounded by orchards with a large dam on a hill behind it, cheered both men and horses. The Lancers camped north of the dam and the Carabiniers to the south, Rimington's Guides were about five kilometres away at Kleinfontein, and the Guards three kilometres further on at Rhenoster Farm.
"Allowed a swim in the dam – very necessary", writes Trooper Vernon laconically; adding, disgustedly, "but as some plutocrat used soap this luxury was immediately stopped."
At the end of January 1900 General French left for Cape Town to meet Lord Roberts and arrange for his now famous march to relieve Kimberley. The Scots Greys with A Squadron, 6th Dragoons, attached, left for Modder River.
The Boers were now about 8,000 to 10,000 strong in Colesberg, with many guns. The Cavalry Brigade helio and flag-signalling stations were well developed, and very active at every point, a particularly good signaller being Bob Johnston (Sydney) . Johnston was often detached with General French personally up to the time of his capture at Slingersfontein. On 2 February camp was broken at Potfontein and the next day orders were received to return to Naauwpoort Junction. General French returned to Rensburg on this same day and by dark, a day later, the Lancers were back at Arundel, welcomed into camp by the sick-horse-lines troops. With the sick-horse troops the patrols formed a full squadron again, and on 6 February, General French having left for Modder River, the squadron left Arundel for Naauwpoort, arriving at noon. Next night, the squadron's horses and gear were loaded on open trucks. The squadron left Naauwpoort for De Aar in bitter cold, arrived at Orange River about noon next day, and pitched camp near the Carabiniers.
An extract from Trooper Vernon's diary provides a succinct account of subsequent events:
"10 February. The river was about eight kilometres away; we could not pitch camp closer on account of enemy snipers. Consequently we watered horses early in the morning and at evening - 32 kilometres without saddles. Most of the horses' backbones protruded and worked like caterpillars as they moved-pleasant rides. At 17:00 hours we were swimming and dawdling in the sandy shallows and islets in the river which was low, while SSMs Read and Robson stormed up and down the bank and could not get any to listen. Their threat was that we were to secretly truck that night for the front, but they were not believed. However, we got orders on return to truck for Belmont.
11 February. Arrived at Belmont amongst numbers of cavalry at 03:00 hours and pitched camp at daylight. Rumoured the cavalry were to move and many did. At 15:30 hours someone roared into camp asking Captain Cox why we had not gone. Sudden orders to mount and pack for a three days' reconnaissance; as we would return here we were only to take necessaries. It was two and a half months before we saw our kitbags again, and in the meantime we lived with only what we left with that day. In three or our weeks there was practically nothing left. The saddle carried the usual greatcoat, blanket, nosebag, waterbag, billy can, and mess tin: picqueting rope was carried around the horse's neck as a head rope, and pegs were scarce. Besides these were sword, lance and carbine in bucket.
It was seldom there was any cooking by squadrons, two men drawing their rations together, cooking and sharing. A travelling cooker vehicle would have been a blessing.
From then on I was never under any cover, either tent, tree or rock until March 24-only 42 days, but it seemed like three months. In March there was a wet weather spell of three weeks, during which we were naturally wet through all the time, and the blankets useless except as umbrellas at night."
The force to relieve Kimberley was the Cavalry Division under General French which had been organised during the first week of February. This division was made up of:
1st Brigade (Porter) : 6th Dragoon Guards, l4th Hussars, one squadron of Scots Greys, A Squadron Inniskilling Dragoons, NSW Lancers.
2nd Brigade (Broadwood) : Household Cavalry, 10th Hussars, 12th Lancers. 3rd Brigade (Gordon) : 9th and 16th Lancers, seven batteries of Royal Horse Artillery.
Two brigades of mounted infantry joined the division on February 13.
The relieving of Kimberley was a fine example of a cavalry flanking movement. The plan was for the cavalry to assemble at Ramdam on 11 February, make a rapid dash around the Boer left at Magersfontein, some 72 kilometres from Ramdam, and enter Kimberley (about 32 kilometres beyond Magersfontein) from the east. To conceal this plan, a feint attack by a separate force was made on the right of the Magersfontein position, causing General Cronje to move more of his strength to that flank.
Major Rimington and his Guides were entrusted with the task of guiding French's force. After the concentration of the main body at Ramdam the plan was successfully carried out. When, on the second day's march, Dekiel's Drift was taken and a crossing effected, the supply wagons got into difficulties, the column of transport becoming completely disorganised. After assembly on the north bank, the cavalry parted with their transport wagons, many of which were not seen again until Paardeberg.
On 13 February Lord Roberts visited the troops and witnessed their departure at 09:00 hours The column marched all that day in scorching heat without stopping or watering, until, towards evening, green bushes in the distance marked the line of the river, and longed-for water. The column, by now a vast, straggling mass of mixed units, made for Klip Drift, the spearhead driving the Boer commando from the further bank as the remainder came up. The Royal Horse Artillery shelled the Boer positions and the order was for any who could cross to do so. Several Lancers got across and joined in the rush of the 12th Lancers and MI. In spite of the fact that as the column reassembled on the other side many men were on foot, their horses having dropped, brigades, regiments and small units formed in remarkably quick time. Large quantities of provisions and some sheep were taken.
After 24 hours' badly needed rest, General French continued his daring rush across the Boer flank and lines of communication.
The Relief of Kimberley
"Kimberley was now only 32 kilometres distant," writes Trooper Vernon, "and all were keyed up to effect the relief though many knew they would have to 'foot it' and carry their arms. The advance in early morning led along a valley about three kilometres wide with Boers and guns on the hills on each flank. It was here our carbines, sighted only to 800 metres, did telling execution at from 1,200 to 1,500 metres, as the firers got good observation of strike on the dusty ground. We continually moved parties of Boers about for an hour. The British had the same Martini-Enfield carbine as we had, except that theirs had magazines.
The 9th and 16th Lancers charged up the valley, five metres between files, and we followed, passing many bodies from which the lance had not been extricated. But it cleared all opposition, and from then on I never saw a position held if the intention of a lance charge was shown."
The division reformed slowly on the forward march, watered at Roodekalkfontein, and met no further important resistance until close to Kimberley. Here the besieging forces were soon silenced, having been taken by surprise. The townspeople had at first feared that the helio messages of the relieving force were wiles of the Dutchmen, as news of the approach seemed incredible. But by sunset the British troops had appeared.
The march had been fast for the condition of the horses, and they as well as the men were mad with thirst. It is not surprising, therefore, that notwithstanding Captain Cox's prudent and forceful command to leave untouched the water in a dam in the compound which formed the cavalry camp, many drank. In the morning the dam was found to be covered with green slime and full of dead and cut-up cattle, a condition that probably accounts for many men going down with enteric at the same time, when in Bloemfontein. In spite of the fact at there was no food, the exhausted troops slept.
Next day the Lancers were joined with A Squadron, Inniskillings, since that squadron mustered only 42 horses. The whole under Major Allenby made the combined number of horses 170. In his book Major Yardley writes: "The N.S.W. Lancers, under Major Lee, were attached, and thereafter they remained with the regiment, rendering yeoman service until their return to NSW."
An extract from Trooper Vernon's diary describes the movement of the Division during the next few days:
"16 February. Up at daylight and disgusted with the condition of our mounts the 1st and 3rd Cavalry Brigades marched about 16 kilometres, the sand throwing up a heat that scorched even the air; several tongues were black and not a dam to be seen. On Dronfield Ridge we lay in the grass for about an hour 200 metres from a Boer trench, under their fire; during another `reinforcing', two Scots Greys, one on either side of me, were shot dead. The NSWL and A Sqn, 6th Dragoons, covered the retirement at nightfall which was slow as the infantry were carrying their casualties. Scores of dead horses were passed. Took prisoners including several Boer snipers in the low trees: one would not come down until gently urged by my lance point; he said he was only hiding but we found his rifle planted and many Schneider shells; handed him over to the Infantry, happy in knowing that when interned he would be forced to wash.
The Battle of Movement
Next morning, French, collecting every horse that could move, took the 2nd Bde, and doubling back commenced cutting off the Boer retreat to Bloemfontein, whereby Cronje with 10,000 men, many families and wagons was hemmed into the river bank at Paardeberg. We remained to rest and shot horses that would not recover. Though mine was knocked up, he pulled through, and we soon had fodder and good grazing.
20 February. From Kimberley with the lst Bde and marched about 40 kilometres towards Cronje: heard the shelling.
"22 February. Moved to Koodoesrandrift and took place in the ring around Paardeberg, 13 kilometres distant. The 6th D.G. drove 150 captured sheep past our bivouac, and 30 were rushed and taken, but the old and close friendship of Aldershot prevailed.
23 February. The next two or three weeks it rained; neither blankets nor clothes were able to be dried. There was very little food. Our main task at first was the Boers to the north who might mass to relieve Cronje
27 February. Anniversary of Majuba; nevertheless Cronje surrendered with about 3,700 prisoners; actually, the first British officer to accept the surrender of any portion of the Boer force that day was Surgeon-Major Fiaschi, our RMO in the Lancers at home.
28 February. Rations were now a heaped handful of flour in the hand for two men, with two biscuits. Belts in the last holes, but cheery humour as usual with the cavalry.
On 3 March, anniversary of the Lancers' first public parade, 1885, the Boer shelling was very accurate. Corporal Harkus and 14 men with horses arrived, mostly Aldershot men, who had left Sydney per SS Moravian on 17 January, arriving at Cape Town On 16 February. This draft had been present at Paardeberg, but not with the squadron. They arrived in regimental uniform, not the khaki helmets which the rest now wore. The same column brought the main body of 1st Australian Horse, under Captain RR Thompson, the Sydney Troop's original sergeant instructor. The remainder of the 34 members of the Australian Horse who had been mixed in the Lancer ranks since 23 December now rejoined their own unit, the parting being mutually regretted.
Shortly after this the Cavalry Division moved off to the Battle of Poplar Grove. Marching and fighting from Abraham's Kraal to Driefontein, the 1st Brigade was the first to locate and engage the enemy. Later, a wide flank attack by the brigade took a hill under heavy fire, and for that day's work a clasp was issued. On March 13 the squadron formed part of an investing ring around Bloemfontein. This town surrendered after Major Weston had blown up the railway to the north and cut the town off from Pretoria.
It was at this time that the NSW. Lancers lost a lot of men from enteric fever. Two men died: Corporal Harkus and Trooper Fetting. A number of others contracted the disease in varying degrees of severity: Lieutenant Roberts and Troopers Akers, Brady, Haken, Knight, Lee, O. L. Milling, T. Morris, K. McPherson, Stratford, Vernon, Wilks, Waddell, Whitney and J. Watts.
A further list shows men detailed for military police duty at Bloemfontein, and detached: Staff Sergeant Read, Shoeing-Smith Moon, Troopers G. Baly, J. Heuston, James Johnson, McGill, Palmer, Pettigrew, Hillis, Sandon, Saville, F. Stuart, Weston, Wilson.
Bloemfontein having surrendered, it now became necessary to clean up the many Boer strongpoints and camps in the neighbourhood. On 16 and 17 March Major Allenby with 100 Inniskillings, New South Wales Lancers and Carabiniers safely escorted a convoy to Thaba Nchu, via Sanna's Post and back to Wessel's Farm. Two weeks later, the 1st Brigade with two days' supplies marched to Rondeheuval and took part in the action at Karee Siding. The enemy having been cleared out, the infantry took over the position, and the brigade returned to its camps near Bloemfontein on the 30th. A move was made next day to the sound of guns, the brigade bivouacking at Springfield, nine kilometres to the south-east. The strain on the Cavalry Division was now beginning to tell, and its strength on the last day of March showed only 830 men with horses, A Squadron of Inniskillings turning out only five officers and four men. This was the day of the reverse to Broadwood's force at Sanna's Post, some 32 kilometres further east.
On 1 April, with much reconnoitring as the Boers numbered many thousands, the Cavalry Division marched to Sanna's Post. The 1st Brigade brought in General Broadwood's wounded, returned to Springfield and remained there. Preparations were now being made for Lord Roberts's general advance. On a night march to Fischer's Farm during the fourth week of the month, hundreds of dead horses were passed, and in Bloemfontein enteric was still raging, 32,000 cases being in hospital.
Reading of this period, when matters were at a low ebb, it is heartening to encounter warm appreciation of Australian initiative and temperament: "The New South Wales Lancers under Major Lee," writes Major Yardley, "now formed a distinct squadron of the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. All officers will testify to their usefulness, and the fine scouting and efficient work they rendered. Under splendid officers, their coolness, self-reliance and dash brought them out of difficulties where other troops might have suffered severely."
The 1st Australian Horse was similarly attached to the Scots Greys. Transfer of the New South Wales Lancers from French's division to General Hutton who commanded 13 colonial mounted units, not being cavalry, was only averted by Major Lee's request to Hutton not to persist.
During the first week of May, Captain Nicholson (Maitland), 40 other ranks ( The Forty Thieves ) and 71 horses joined, and the brigade marched out of Springfield towards Rondeheuval. The objective was Kroonstad, temporary capital of the Orange Free State, where General Botha was in occupation with 6,000 Boers. By May 8, the brigade was 96 kilometres from Bloemfontein. 29 kilometres further on, at Vredes Verdag near Ventersburg Road Station, it was heavily shelled. An Inniskilling squadron supporting the 1st Australian Horse was practically annihilated by the Johannesburg Police Regiment, and Lieutenant Wilkinson, 1st AH, was taken prisoner. In spite of this, the brigade pushed forward 20 kilometres by night, and went to the assistance of Lieutenant Rundle (formerly one of the Lancers' officers in the Aldershot squadron) and his troop of the Carabiniers
At dawn on 11 May the brigade set out in bitter cold, most of the men leading their horses. Three thousand Boers were known to be making for the Vaalsch River Drift at Boshof Farm. A swift 24 kilometre march, however, brought the cavalry there first, and they bivouacked on the river bank. Major Weston again slipped among the Boer army 24 kilometres ahead and blew up the railway line eight kilometres north of Kroonstad, he and Burnham, the American Scout, lighting the fuses under their hats within 10 metres of a passing commando.
This exploit completed the cavalry turning march on Kroonstad. At dawn thousands of Boers were seen streaming north. President Steyne escaped, while the Landdrast with a white flag rode out and surrendered to General French. Later, on the arrival of the main army, the formality of handing over the keys to Lord Roberts was gone through. Orders were to live on the country and that every farm must be stripped of provisions and fodder. The 6th Dragoons alone had lost 200 horses in the week, the route being 270 kilometres without counting patrolling and cossack posts. Trooper Tunks (Parramatta) died, and was buried at Kroonstad; Trooper Pestell (Gerringong) was evacuated with enteric fever.
On 20 May the regiment (6 DG including the NSWL squadron), mustering 400 all ranks and 291 horses, set out on the march for the Transvaal. There were now only 37 Aldershot men left. After crossing the drift at RhenoSter River and Honing Spruit Junction, the brigade bivouacked in the bitter winter cold at Essenbosch, the New South Wales Lancers under Major Lee reconnoitring to Gredepoort Station. They returned after covering 72 kilometres and being 16 hours in the saddle with reports that the Boers in strong force had retired out of the Free State, to the north of the Vaal. On the Queen's birthday, May 24, the whole division with great difficulty crossed into the Transvaal at Vilgoensdrift. Enthusiasm was high amongst the men, and all the farms flew white flags.
The tale is now taken up again by Trooper Vernon:
"25 May. To Lindeque through intricate ravines and hills which could have been held by a few; the regiment took a terrible hill where the loss would have been great but for Major Allenby's excellent dispositian of his men. Outpost at night.
26 May. To Reit Spruit, and Vereeniging.
27 May. To Doornkuil, the regiment again taking at Vlakfontein a strongly defended ridge with great gallantry and some loss.
28 May. At daylight the regiment led the advance through Van Wyks Rust and was held up by heavy shelling. The NSW Lancers in the centre gained Klip Spruit Farm, and cleared Oliphant's Vlei.
29 May. After a night of frost and ice, without rest, fought to due west of Johannesburg at Doornkop, where the Jameson Raid met its fate. Sgt Mofhtt and Tpr W. B. Carter evacuated with enteric. Infantry moved with us: our horses very done.
May 30. To 16 kilometres due north of Johannesburg. At night Lieutenant Johnston, 6th D with "Banjo" Paterson and six men penetrated the enemy with General French's despatches for Lord Roberts at Germiston, returning safely after hairbreadth escapes."
On 1 June the cavalry moved to Ber Vlei, and two days later crossed the Krokodile River and moved 32 kilometres to Kalkheuvel Pass. Here there was heavy fighting in rocky country. The Carabiniers and 6th Dragoons in advance were ambushed, and even General French galloped back, through a hail of bullets. Lieutenant Rundle (late New South Wales Lancers) had three horses shot under him, but the New South Wales Lancers and one squadron of the 6th Dragoons rallied, dismounted, went into action and prevented further panic. "All credit for this must be given to Major Allenby," writes Yardley, "the NSW Lancers under Major Lee, and the Inniskillings supporting the Carbs." The division was critically jammed in a ravine all night, but luckily the Mafeking Commando retired. The advanced guard cleared the pass on June captured a large supply of provisions and bivouacked at Zilikats Nek under the Magaliesburg Range, due west of Pretoria. There were now only 30 men left in A Squadron.
The release of the 3,500 prisoners at Waterval on 10 June was a joyous and exciting event. On the British coming within view of the barbed wire enclosures," writes Trooper Vernon, "the prisoners burst out cheering, and during the next few hours were headed to safety, the Boers shelling them and the 100 warders alike, and also a hospital train for the sick. The prisoners were too excited to assist in their own getting away, which lasted until after dark. Captain Nicholson and two troops of the NSW Lancers did good work in the fight of 400 of the brigade against 2,000 Boers."
Yardley's account of the subsequent retirement indicates its hazardous nature: "The bold front kept by the Inniskillings and the NSW Lancers under Major Allenby when the other troops retired," he says, "aided at first by a Scots Greys squadron and 1st AH kept back the large numbers of the enemy, gave time for released prisoners to escape, and made an orderly retreat of what would otherwise have been a rout.
Almost at once the Lancers found their men who had been captured at Slingersfontein an January 16, five months before, continues Trooper Vernon, "WO Fisher Sgt McDonald, Tptr Taylor, Cpl Hopf, Tprs Daley, Roberts and Johnston, two having escaped. All were fearfully thin and weak. Not one Lancer had been taken prisoner since, though all had had narrow escapes."
At Derdepoort the enemy drove in the patrols, but on June 9-10 after a march of eleven kilometres to Kameel Drift, 70 Boers surrendered. The Battle of Diamond Hills was fought over the next three days, Lieutenant Heron's troop of New South Wales Lancers being the first to go as scouts. The 1st AH, reduced to two officers and eight other ranks, went with them, and the gunners, mistaking them for Boers, burst shell after shell over their heads with mathematical accuracy. Fortunately the bullets struck 200 metres ahead. This unit then bivouacked at Doornkraal.
During the next three weeks the men rested and rehorsed. One hundred of the lOth Hussars were distributed throughout the regiment, staying for several months, bringing the strength up to 500 men mounted. On 8 July Sergeant JWW Campbell was evacuated with enteric fever, and on 9 July the regiment marched 40 kilometres to Grootfontein. This long march and winter weather conditions proved too much for the "soft" remounts, and many had to be destroyed. Another 40 kilometre march on 10 July brought the regiment past Rietfontein, and at noon of the fallowing day Leeupoort Hill near Oliphantsfontein was taken. Building stone sangars for defence, the regiment held the position for three days, surrounded by the enemy in force. On 14 July, Troopers BF Evans and GEL Ramsay were evacuated with enteric fever.
At dawn on 16 July the enemy rushed two picquets. They were repulsed by the New South Wales Lancers. Two days later the regiment moved to Oliphantsfontein, and on 21 July the 4.7 inch gun (called a "cow gun" because it was drawn by oxen) shelled 800 Boers. During the 40 kilometre march to Dieplaagte a week later Captain Ebsworth, lst AH, an international cricketer, was killed by a spent bullet at 2,000 metres. Another march on 24 July, the regiment as advanced guard in extended order, ended in a brigade bivouac at Bosmansfontein, and at daylight, in bleak and bitter cold, the brigade marched at 09:00 hours, seizing Naauwpoort Drift on Oliphants River. So severe was the weather, the troops being bivouacked in torrents of cold rain, that one officer died later of exposure. On July 26, as advanced guard, the regiment seized a hill from the Boers, and moving at 10:00 hours next day, Erfdeel Drift was taken, and Greenfontein held.
There were now 440 fit horses in the regiment, which was relieved and returned to Erfdeel three days later. On 30 July a move was made to Koopermyn, officers' patrols scouring the country for a radius of 32 kilometres.
The month of August was full of rapid movement and frequent actions. From the regimental base at Strathrae, a patrol under Captain Nicholson, on 2 August, discovered the enemy in force to the north-east, and surprising a commando at breakfast, "did some execution".
Next day A Squadron, whose strength was down to 30 men, made a reconnaissance to the Komati River and met with great opposition. Major Allenby sent the NSW Lancers squadron to support on the left flank; this led to the retirement of the Boers and enabled A Squadron to push on. On the same date 100 of the Carabiniers were attached to the Inniskillings, and that night the regiment retired and took up an extended outpost line near Goedehoop. Throughout the next fortnight, the regiment, under Major Allenby, with two guns and a pom-pom and the 100 Carabiniers (Major Hamilton) held a line of about 13 kilometres at Goedehoop. The enemy were very aggressive and in strong force all round. The greatest vigilance was necessary, and the constant outpost duty proved very trying to all ranks. The regiment was organised into six small squadrons of 40 men each. "British Warms" (short overcoats) were issued to all ranks for the first time about 16 August, and proved to be of great benefit.
On 21 August the regiment proceeded to Blesbokspruit, and, marching at 04:00 hours on the 26 August, fighting at close quarters all day,reached Vlakplaats on the 27th. Here it was again selected to take the ridges opposite, occupied by the enezny in force, with two guns. Marching as advanced guard through country full of precipices on the 29th, Helvetia was reached at midday, and the men bivouacked that night on the heights above Waterval Onder. Next morning the Inniskillings occupied the hills 300 metres above the town. In the afternoon B Squadron gained the town, galloping through a hail of bullets and, under cover of dark, bringing away a number of prisoners. The success caused the enemy to release all our prisoners at Nooitgedacht, a few kilometres away. Among the released was Lieutenant Rundle. On the last day of the month, the cavalry proceeded to Machadodorp, a town which had been used for some time by Mr Kruger as the capital of the Republic.
General French's task was now to accomplish a wide turning movement, via Carolina, on Barberton. In spite of difficult, mountainous country, full of enemy troops, this movement was successfully carried out.
On 2 September the regiment, as advanced guard, marched to Zevenfontein. Driving back small parties of Boers, it occupied Welgelegen, and on September 4 the Lancer squadron occupied an important hill commanding the Komati River. Bivouacking at Bonnevoie, officers and men had great difficulty in saving the bivouac and horses from the grass fires lit by the Boers on retreating. Some of the horses were saved from fire only to die some days later from eating tulip grass.
A march over open country on 6 September brought the force to Carolina. Trooper Avard (Maitland) was badly wounded on the way and left behind at a farmhouse.
On 9 September the march to Barberton was commenced and, after fighting all the afternoon until late, a bivouac was made on ground gained on Buffels Spruit, without food. At 06:30 hours next day, the march continued to Koppie Aleen, and on 11 September, with the Inniskillings again in advance, to Hlomo Hom.
Trooper Vernon's account is taken up again here:
"12 Sept. Marched 03:00 hours and crossed the Komati River at the drift, but could not get the pom-pom along owing to the precipitous nature of the country.
13 Sept. After only an hour or two in bivouac, started at 03:00 hours and owing to the regiment's horses being knocked up, missed getting to Barberton direct, but marched 55 kilometres with guns by road, in many places sliding them down on locked wheels.
14-15 Sept. The regiment took up a big outpost line around Barberton. Tpr Thomas (Casino) was evacuated to N.S.W. from Machadodorp.
16 Sept. With two days' supplies, moved at 05:00, climbed 530 metres and occupied the heights in Eureka City overlooking Sheba Mine. A troop under Captain Nicholson proceeded down the railway line to Avoca, took 52 locomotives and several prisoners and held the place until the arrival of reinforcements a few days later."
In occupation of the mines, the squadrons of the regiment (Inniskilling Dragoons) were scattered six kilometres apart in wild, mountainous country. Water was very scarce, and food had to be brought up by aerial train. After about two weeks in this difficult terrain, the march back to Machadodorp was commenced on 3 October. While on the 32 kilometre stretch through Devil's Kantoor, several horses and mules were killed by lightning; but by the 6th the force had passed over the mountains and reached Goodwin Station. On the march again next day, the 35 kilometres through a long and dusty gorge to Machadodorp was covered. Here, it was found, the opinion was held universally that Boer resistance was at an end. General Buller and some of his commanders were en route to England, while the South African Light Horse and other irregular corps were being disbanded. And so the next few days were spent by the regiment in remounting and refitting in preparation for General French's drive to clear the country to Pretoria.
On 13 September, after going to the aid of a force in difficulty at Welgelegen, the regiment advanced to Carolina, crossed the Komati River and camped at Bonnevoie. Next day Carolina was occupied. Trooper Fred Avard, who had been left badly wounded at Carolina on the last occupation, had died a few days earlier. It was reported that the enemy had buried him reverently, numbers attending the funeral in tall hats and frock coats. The men found his grave beautifully decorated with flowers.
Two days later, on advance guard to Tevreden Hills, the regiment surprised the Boer main laager, and with great difficulty got out with 33 casualties in the Inniskillings. Major Yardley was shot in the thigh and his clothes riddled by bullets. That night the bivouac was at Witkraus. Next morning at 4.30 a march was started to Ermelo, with outpost duty at night. Farrier Sergeant E Rose and Trooper A. H. King were wounded and Sergeant-Major GE Morris and Sergeant EAE Houston were awarded the D.C.M. for dashing work under fire this day.
With the rest of General French's force, the regiment marched on October 19, harassed by the enemy all day. "The New South Wales Lancers did good work," writes Major Yardley. "They worked as a squadron of the regiment and consistently rendered excellent service. They were a very fine lot of men and their officers, especially Major Lee, Captain Cox and Lieutenant Heron, were hard to beat anywhere." That night they bivouacked at Tietvlei. Moving off at 04:00 next morning, they reached Bethel in darkness and rain. On the 22nd the regimental convoy of ox-wagons was evacuated, carrying 78 wounded for Standerton. A Boer commando took eight of the best wagons, but the remainder got through. This day the brigade still marched west- ward, accompanied by thunderstorms and hurricanes of hail. The storm delayed the column, the horses being terrified; some of them were killed by lightning. Vlakplaats was reached on October 24 and the brigade marched on to Witkop the next day. Major Lee reported: "We were fighting from Carolina a rearguard action right up to here, two men being wounded."
On October 26 the squadron found itself at the end of its journey: at the end, too, of its term of service in Africa. A final commendation from Major Yardley indicates the esteem in which the men were held. "Major Lee," he writes, "with his New South Wales Lancer squadron, now left on their return to New South Wales, greatly to our regret. Captain Cox, second-in-command, afterwards returned as a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 3rd NSW Mounted Rifles, and rendered admirable service for twelve months under Colonel Rimington."
For the Lancers the War Ends
A total of 170 or 171 of all ranks served with the squadron in South Africa and in addition nearly as many served with other units, while some having returned after serving in the squadron re-enlisted and went to South Africa again. In August 1902 there was a gathering of Lancers at the Australia Hotel, Sydney, to welcome a number of officers who had just returned from the seat of war. Colonel Burns is reported to have given those present the following information about the service of members of the regiment:
Aldershot detachment 72
Three later drafts 93
Veterinary surgeon attached 1
Troopers who joined at the Cape 5
Total in NSW Lancers Squadron 171
Sailed with other NSW units (Mounted Rifles, etc.) 41
5th Battalion, Commonwealth Horse 119
Total number who served in South Africa 331
Served right through 3
Served three times 3
Served twice 44
Served once 281
(In addition several old members had resigned and had gone over unofficially.)
Of the total of 331 there were 29 who finished the war as officers. Those who gained their commissions during the war included Captains Leek, McDonald, Blow and Middleton and Lieutenants Doudney, Luke, Moffitt, Hindmarsh, Gould, Pearce, Barnett, Robson, Shaw, Carter, Breckenridge, Stuart and Price.
On the return of the squadron primarily at the behest of the New South Wales Government in order for a "good show" at the Federation celebrations (1 January 1901), Colonel Burns wrote to the Governor-General recommending that the regiment might be allowed some honourable distinctive title, such as the Royal Australian Lancers, or King's Own Australian Lancers." This request was passed through the usual channels as far as the Prime Minister who concurred with the advice of the Minister of Defence that "this is a delicate matter, and might I think stand over until we have a General Officer Commanding". In April 1902 the new G.O.C., Sir Edward Hutton, wrote declining to recommend it at that time and pointing out that it would not be expedient to select any one special corps for the high distinction proposed without very careful consideration of the claims of others.
Prepared by Lieutenant Colonel John Howells RFD from the work of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Vernon ED psc drawing on the diary kept by his father Colonel Hugh Vernon DSO, VD who fought as a trooper in the South African War, and later commanded the 1st Light Horse at Gallipoli, and the New South Wales Lancers 1921 – 1926.
Photographs and illustrations are from the Collection of the New South Wales Lancers Memorial Museum, Parramatta.
The above poem was written in the pages of Major (later Major General) GL Lee's diary (NSW Lancers Memorial Museum collection) by AB (Banjo) Patterson. It was published by the Sydney Mail on 6 January 1900, in an edited form. The above is a direct transcription of the original poem.
The buried deep British troops refers to the skirmish at Majuba Hill (near Volksrust, South Africa) on 27 February 1881 a resounding victory for the Boers using tactics not generally used until 1918 during the first Boer War, and obviously at the forefront of the minds of those about to take part in the conflict.
Text by Trooper (later Colonel) HV Vernon other material Courtesy the New South Wales Lancers Museum.