"At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points..." Trooper Ion Idriess
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The Battle of Slingersfontein, South Africa, 16 January and 9 February 1900, Outline Topic: BatzB - Slingersfontn
The Battle of Slingersfontein
South Africa, 16 January and 9 February 1900
The location of Slingersfontein in South Africa.
Slingersfontein, in central Cape Colony about eighteen kilometres east of Rensburg station on the railway line between Naauwpoort and Colesberg, was the scene of two actions between Australian troops and Boers in early 1900 during the Second South African War. The first engagement occurred on 16 January, when part of a patrol comprising men of the New South Wales Lancers and the 1st Australian Horse (another New South Wales unit) were ambushed by Boers. Before dawn that day the party had set out from Slingersfontein camp with orders to reconnoitre north towards Norval's Pont on the Orange River.
After proceeding a few kilometres the patrol split into two groups - the first under Lieutenant R.M. Heron of the Lancers, the second under Lieutenant WV. Dowling of the Australian Horse. The former took his men on a route which carried them past Norval's Farm, where they halted to make inquiries of the Boer owners. Heron had taken the precaution of posting a sentry to watch the rear of the farm, however, and when this man rejoined the party he reported that as soon as the Australians departed the place an enemy force had openly ridden in. When making his way back to camp at 1 p.m., Heron accordingly made a wide detour around the farm.
Meanwhile, the 21 men with Dowling (fourteen Lancers and seven Horse) had an uneventful patrol before turning for their base that afternoon. Dowling, too, decided to check out a Boer farm located eight kilometres short of his destination - accounts are unclear if it was the same farm - and, after being well received by the family there, rode on at about 2 p.m. Being so close to the main camp it seems probable that the members of the patrol were less vigilant than they should have been, although it is also clear that the Boers (who had been lying in wait all day for Heron's return, not noticing when this group passed it by in the distance) had made cunning use of a concealed fold in the apparently open plain.
The Australians suddenly came under fire from about 50 Boers who rode towards them at full gallop from 500 metres away. Caught by surprise and clearly outnumbered, the men made towards a kopje (small hills some 250 metres off with the idea of mounting a stand until help arrived. The troopers had actually dismounted and begun opening fire on their pursuers, when they were themselves heavily engaged on all sides by more Boers w ho were lying in concealment including on the hill they had occupied. With Dowling already out of action, a warrant officer gave the order to mount up again.
The harried band then raced in the direction of the camp, until they found their escape route impeded by a tightly stretched six-strand farm fence topped with barbed wire. The horses of several of the men were shot from under them during this flight, with those dismounted being immediately taken up behind other riders. Although six men managed to find gaps in the wire through which they were able to ride clear of the trap, the remainder were left with nowhere to go. Fourteen of the Australians were taken prisoner - including Dowling who, like several others, was wounded. One man had been shot dead and another who was mortally wounded were left on the scene; the latter, found the next day crudely bandaged by the Boers, died while being conveyed back to camp in an ambulance.
An inquiry into the incident found that no blame attached to anyone, but the Australian cavalry -both the Lancers and the Horse - were retired down the railway line to a rest camp at Arundel. Moreover, they took no further part in operations in the Colesberg sector before being transferred west early in February to join the forces being prepared on the Modder River for a renewed push to relieve Kimberley.
The second action, on 9 February, saw men of the West Australian Mounted Infantry (WAMI) involved in a gallant stand which did much to erase the stain of Dowling's defeat the previous month. That afternoon a troop of twenty men of the WAMI under a British officer, Captain Hatherley Moor, accompanied a squadron of Inniskilling Dragoons on a reconnaissance to the east. After proceeding only some five kilometres, the patrol made contact with a 400-strong Boer commando which was in the process of preparing gun positions from which to shell the British camp at Slingersfontein. Subjected to a hot fire by the enemy force, the Dragoons turned and got away to take up a defensive position some distance off. Moor's West Australians retired to an isolated kopje on one flank and decided to make a fight of it.
The WAMI men maintained their position until nightfall, even though effectively surrounded by Boers occupying hills on three sides and subjected to artillery fire. During this time, they defied all efforts to overrun them. When called upon to surrender, Moor ordered his men to display their fixed bayonets and challenged the enemy to come and get them. Under cover of gathering darkness, the Australians then braved the Boer riflemen covering the rear slopes of their kopje by retiring two or three at a time, carrying their wounded. By this means they got clear, and the frustrated commando made off.
Moor's party suffered three men killed in the action (one of whom was initially reported as missing), and six wounded. One of the latter was so badly hit that he had to be left behind during the retirement; later that night an ambulance went to the scene and retrieved him, but he died a month later in hospital near Cape Town. The West Australians performance was highly praised in a brigade order issued the day after the fight, and the scene of their stand subsequently became known as 'West Australia Hill' or often 'Australian Hill'.
Panorama view of Slingersfontein Camp.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 64-66.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
P.L. Murray (1911) Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Melbourne: Government Printer.
L.M. Field (1979) The forgotten War, Carlton, Vic. Melbourne University Press.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
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