Topic: BatzB - Wilmansrust
The Battle of Wilmansrust
South Africa, 12 June 1901
The battlefield trials of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles
The following essay was written by Max Chamberlain and called Wilmansrust: the battlefield trials of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, . It was published in Sabretache, Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia, in September, 2003. Previously this paper was presented on 9 June 2001 at the Orders and Medals Research Society Convention held at Blackburn, Melbourne, 9-11 June 2001.
The action at Wilmansrust, Transvaal on 12 June 1901 led to accusations of cowardly and mutinous conduct by the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles. They were said to have damaged the reputation of the Australian soldier, but evidence at the Court of Inquiry indicates extenuating circumstances that have been overlooked for 100 years.
The 12th of June 2001 marked the 100th anniversary of the action at Wilmansrust, Transvaal, in the Boer war, where the left half of the 5th VMR and British artillerymen were defeated by the commando led by Vecht-General C H Muller. The action and its consequences attracted some attention in 1901-1902, but strangely, in light of the exposure given to the 'Breaker' Morant case, was virtually forgotten until comparatively recently. The action became the subject of official despatches, calls for investigation, a Court of Inquiry, reports by the field commanders and comments by Lord Kitchener, Lord Roberts, and the Secretary of State for War. It led directly to the issuing of instructions on the defence of camps at night. It was discussed in the Australian Parliament in its first year of existence, and was referred to in correspondence and cables by the Prime Minister and the Governor-General. In England it led to involvement of the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and King Edward VII himself. Its comparative obscurity is therefore difficult to understand.
The story of the action is briefly told. About 7.30pm on the night of 12 June, 1901, a force of 350 men under Major C J Morris, RFA, was attacked by Muller's commando when operating detached from Major-General S B Beatson's column south of Middelburg. The force comprised E, F, G and H companies 5th VMR and two RFA pom-poms. The camp had been surprised because of Beatson's insistence, being a Bengal Lancer, on widely spaced cavalry pickets instead of the close pickets appropriate for the campaign against the Boers. After a few minutes fighting the camp was rushed and the Boers secured the guns and captured rifles and stores. Of the Victorians one officer and 17 men were killed or died and four officers and 38 men were wounded. The officer killed was the medical officer. One British officer was killed. A few men managed to escape and made their way to Beatson's camp, 12 miles away. Because the Boers now had no facilities to accommodate prisoners, the rest were marched out into the night and dismissed. The sad news was gradually pieced together in the Victorian press, the state shocked by the long casualty list at this stage of the war. (3)
When he learned of the disaster General Beatson had accused the Victorians of cowardice, calling them 'a fat-arsed, pot-bellied, lazy lot of wasters' and 'a white livered lot of curs', and added injury to insult with charges of 'incitement to mutiny' when some men were overheard expressing apprehensions about leadership that had cost their comrades' lives and threatened their own. (4)
There were two sequels to the action: a Court of Inquiry, and the courts martial of three men of the 5th. The formal Court of Inquiry, held at bivouacs as the battered unit fought its way to safety in the days following the fight, took evidence from 16 witnesses, and in essence told of how the pickets had been placed far apart with no means of intercommunication on a pitch dark night. At the height of the fighting a sergeant had relayed to a bugler an order to blow 'Cease Fire' actually given in the dark confusion by a Boer, because the sergeant did not know that some Boers spoke excellent English.
The court completed its inquiries, Beatson appended a report attacking the Victorians and submitted the court's deliberations to General Sir Bindon Blood, with whom Beatson had served for 20 years in India. Blood added his report which assigned the following causes:
1 Pickets B and C had not done their duty through want of vigilance or cowardice, and
2 Arrangements for defence were not sufficient--pickets were too weak, fires were burning, the guns were too close to the perimeter. Morris was responsible for these errors of judgement.
Blood did not criticise Beatson's wide cavalry pickets, or the unwisdom of detaching a vulnerable force into an area known to be infested with the enemy. (5)
Lord Kitchener received the report, added that Major Morris had been censured and sent it to StJ Brodrick, Secretary of State for War, who asked had pickets B and C been disciplined, to which Kitchener replied that he felt the lesson they had received from the Boers sufficiently severe. Lord Roberts thought Lord Kitchener had taken all necessary action. (6) The 5th was not, therefore, censured, but the furore in the Australian press condemned the unit, although its record before Wilmansrust was excellent, as Beatson had acknowledged. Beatson had, in fact, apologised to Major T F Umphelby, CO of 5th VMR who was off duty in hospital, and to Major S Harris for additional derogatory comments he had made, namely that the Victorians had another colony (sic) to keep them company in running away from the Boers, referring to the action at Brakpan, where 5th-6th Western Australian Mounted Infantry had suffered severe casualties when retiring from an ambush.
Major W McKnight, commanding the left half of 5th VMR, considered that Beatson should have apologised to the unit and sought leave to go to Pretoria and seek an inquiry, but was ordered to Balmoral, 50 miles away, with no reason given. He returned to Australia and on 21 October provided the Victorian Commandant with a report on Wilmansrust, explaining how the Boers in khaki uniforms with hats turned up exactly like the Australians had infiltrated the camp. This was circulated in the Commonwealth Parliament and an edited version was published in the press, parts omitted including the fact that 14 men had reached the main column 12 miles away during the night and had succeeded in getting into camp without being challenged. (7)
The Prime Minister's objection to releasing the whole report was because he claimed it was based on hearsay evidence. McKnight wrote a second report on 9 November, denying this, naming his informants and stating that he had been careful to omit information about other harsh punishments inflicted on the men, which he had obtained second-hand. This report was not made public. (8) Further information had been sought officially by the government from the British authorities.
Meanwhile, the unit lost faith in the General and he was equally contemptuous of it. At Middelburg, some days after uttering his insulting words, and with disaffection spreading, half a dozen men were talking, when Private J Steele said 'It will be better for the men to be shot than to go out with a man who would call them white livered curs'. The words were overheard and this led to the courts martial of Steele and two others, Private A Richards and Private H Parry, although the comments were described as just talk that meant nothing.
The field courts martial had been held on 11 July, the men charged with 'incitement to mutiny'. They were found guilty and sentenced to death, but this was commuted to ten years' gaol for Steele and one year each with hard labour for the others. They were held in custody for a month, then sent to England where they were placed in Gosport Military Prison for a fortnight. Steele was then sent to a civil prison and Richards and Parry to Wakefield. (9)
On 28 September, The Age published a facsimile of the schedule setting out the sentence of death on Steele and referred to two others, whose names had not yet been made public. (10) Now, critical commentators in the Australian press gave reasons for the tragedy, suggesting variously that because they were the 5th the standard must be lower, or the supply of trained NCOs had dried up, or the men were in need of more training, and that because no other Australians had thrown down their arms they had damaged the reputation of the Australian soldier. (11) In Britain a petition was presented to King Edward VII by some Australians living in London, praying that the three prisoners might be released. (12)
Parry's father had received a letter to his son returned unclaimed with a note from the Sergeant-Major of E Company to say that his son had left the unit and his whereabouts were unknown. Mr Parry had cabled to the British authorities for information and had received a curt reply, 'Shipped England, Message ends'. On 9 October in the Commonwealth Parliament, Mr Crouch (Corio) voiced Mr Parry's complaint and wanted an inquiry into Private Parry's whereabouts, and said the whole history of the 5th should be inquired into. (13)
By coincidence, on the same day, a telegram was received from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr Joseph Chamberlain, explaining that the three men had been tried by court martial for inciting mutiny and sentenced to death, but the Judge-Advocate General declared that they had been tried under the wrong section of the Army Act and instructions had been issued for their release. (14) The men returned to Australia in December. (15)
In Africa, in August General Beatson had been transferred to Cape Colony, and in September General Blood returned to India. The 5th VMR had been railed to Newcastle, Natal, for operations in the column under command of Colonel W Pulteney, helping prevent the second invasion of Natal by the Boer Commander-in-Chief Louis Botha by sweeping the rugged mountain terrain in the south-east corner of the Transvaal. Here they continued to give loyal service under General H C O Plumer and others who understood how to command Australians. When they received newspapers from home the men were justifiably aggrieved to read the criticisms of them, when each day they were subjected to heavy fighting and severe casualties. They knew they had to wipe something off the slate.
It is difficult to accept that the unit was not up to standard as recruitment of one in four of the 4000 offering ensured selection of the best. Medical, riding and shooting tests were carried out by experienced organisers. Training, equipping and transporting were undertaken more efficiently than for earlier Victorian units. (16)
Beatson was one of several officers with Indian experience but he was new to South Africa and was believed to be learning to fight the Boers at the expense of the Victorians. His behaviour was erratic and his language inflammatory. He was much influenced by the antagonistic Brigade Major Waterfield, also a Bengal Lancer, favoured promotion for the officers from India, and had the support of the area commander, Sir Bindon Blood.
At Wilmansrust the Victorians were silhouetted by a veldt fire to the west. The men had actually warned of the dangerous camp-site. The Boers' spies had observed the pickets placed in broad daylight and changed at dusk, but even so General Muller told Major Morris he could not find the pickets, which supports the view that in the dark the pickets could probably not see the Boers, who were adept at infiltration. The suggestion that the pickets could have given support by firing on the camp is not valid given the distance, and the fact that the Boers wore khaki with hats turned up like Australians. (17)
One of the Boers, Schikkerling, recorded his side of the encounter--how 120 Boers advanced at ten yard intervals because of the breadth of the camp, fired 15 cartridges and rushed the pompoms. They knew that the British always fired high at night and he states that the enemy was taken by surprise and was panicky. His credibility suffers because of exaggeration. Veterinary Lieutenant Sherlock, present at Wilmansrust, described the camp as about 125 yards square and Schikkerling admits '... perhaps my hot imagination or excitement had magnified it'. Had all fired as rapidly as he the camp would have been saturated with some 1800 bullets and it would have been miraculous had anyone escaped being hit, unless the Boers also fired high at night. The Boer also detested night raids and dawn attacks. The Times History states '... pounced on while still in laager, he was liable to panic'. Perhaps no-one is immune from fear when confronted with such tactics. (18)
Later in the war General Muller's report on Wilmansrust to General Ben Viljoen was discovered, in which he admitted to six Boers killed and four wounded, and stated '... we ... routed the enemy'. (19) The word 'rout' is still used to describe Wilmansrust, although the 5th had fought as well as any unit placed in so disadvantageous a position, accounting for more of the enemy than Major Gough's attacking force annihilated at Blood River Poort in September. Given the errors by the Imperial commanders the best force would have had little chance of forcing a retreat at Wilmansrust, but discovery of the evidence of the Boer order to blow 'Cease Fire' when the 5th were inflicting casualties indicates that they were not routed, nor did they throw down their arms without a fight, but had to obey the order of the bugle.
Beatson's lack of consideration in his abuse of men who had just lost 18 comrades killed and 42 wounded casts doubt on his ability to be unprejudiced in the report he attached to the court's deliberations. He vilified the Victorians but gave high praise to the British artillerymen, which is hard to justify, given that there was no picket placed in front of the exposed guns, and that among the men who escaped to Beatson's camp, was a British officer. The fact that they were able to get right into Beatson's camp without being challenged indicates that his camp was as vulnerable as Morris's. This combination of factors reflecting on Beatson's ability possibly made him over-react towards the Victorians to deflect attention from his own errors.
Blood's summing up seems also to be far from impartial in supporting his colleague from India. His subsequent issuing of 'Notes on the defence of camps and bivouacs of small forces at night' was a case of being wise after the event, suggesting that he also was still learning to fight the Boers. He was critical of pickets B and C, but even so, it was Morris who was censured. Had Lord Kitchener felt the fault lay entirely with the unit he would have been merciless. Instead, the Victorians were not removed from the field of battle when transferred to Natal, as the Intelligence Department knew of Botha's intended invasion plans.
Kitchener had also commuted the death sentences imposed at the courts martial. Lord Roberts had previously decreed that overseas Colonials be subject only to punishments of the second class, to be disarmed and made to march with the baggage wagons. It was not until after agitation from Australia that the authorities decided that the courts martial proceedings had been flawed, which was either an admission of ineptness or a bowing to pressure. The result was not a mere reprieve, nor a pardon, but a quashing of the charges, although the unit still felt stigmatised by the condemnation in the press.
The war had become more desperate according to men who had served in both the regular and the guerilla phases. Yeomanry and other newly arrived units had suffered at the hands of the Boers who were now all veterans. The 5th had many successful actions after Wilmansrust, culminating in riding to the relief of the Queenslanders at Onverwacht in January 1902, and their letters indicate that they finally felt that they had redeemed themselves, although some recent writers remember only their humiliation.
The 5th VMR were well regarded by their British leaders, Major Daly and Major Vallentin, and the Australian Major Vialls. General Plumer and Colonel Pulteney gave them praise for their later service. Pulteney said that he had felt trepidation when he learned that the 5th were to be posted to him, but within two days his fears had been dispelled, and it was the finest irregular regiment in the field. (20)
Far from damaging the reputation of the Australian soldier, they had enhanced it. The accusations of cowardly and mutinous conduct had been shown to be unwarranted. The 5th VMR was one of only four Australian units in this war that could claim a Victoria Cross. Ironically, another was the 6th Western Australian Mounted Infantry, also accused by Beatson of running away from the Boers.
The men of the 5th VMR returned home and said little. A memorial was erected and unveiled in 1904. It stands in St Kilda Road, near Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance-not the gesture of a grateful nation but contributed for solely by the officers and men of the unit. Possibly the only Boer war unit memorial in Australia, it is their tribute to comrades still on the veldt. Their major battles are engraved around the crests of its buttresses. It is hoped that after a century the stigma is removed and the 5th VMR will in future be remembered by Australians for their many gallant achievements.
(3) The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902, Vol V, pp294-296 Max Chamberlain, 'The Wilmansrust Affair', Jnl of the Australian War Memorial, No6, April 1985 Melbourne Argus, 29 June, 1901
(4) Major W McKnight, Report on Wilmansrust, National Archives of Australia (NAA), 1901/3859
(5) Court of Inquiry, 'Boer Attack on a detachment of Major General Beatson's force at Wilmansrust', WO 32/8007, Public Record Office, Kew, UK
(7) McKnight, op cit.
(8) Major W McKnight, [Second] Report on Wilmansrust, NAA, 1901/4389
(9) Argus, 17 December 1901
(10) Melbourne Age, 28 September 1901
(11) Argus, 30 September 1901
(12) Argus, 3 October 1901
(13) Commonwealth Hansard, 1901, p.7077
(14) Argus, 9 November 1901
(15) Argus, 17 and 19 December 1901
(16) Max Chamberlain, op cit, and The Australians in the South African War 1899-1902--A Map History, Army History Unit, Department of Defence, 1999, pp.36, 89-90
(17) Court of Inquiry, op cit C Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians fought, Allen & Unwin, 1998, p.92
(18) R W Schikkerling, Commando Courageous, Hugh Keartland, Johannesburg, 1964 Argus, 3 August, 1901 Times History, Vol V, pp329-330
(19) Argus, 1 February 1902
(20) Lieutenant J H Patterson, 5th VMR, Diary, 2 March, 1902
Citation: The Battle of Wilmansrust, South Africa, 12 June 1901, The battlefield trials of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles