Topic: BW - Vic - 5VMR
5th Victorian Mounted Rifles
The Fifth Victorian Contingent Serious Charges.
[From: The Australasian, 5 October 1901, p. 768.]
The transcription follows:
The Fifth Victorian Contingent Serious Charges.
Information received from South Africa reveals an unfortunate state of things in connection with the Fifth Contingent of Victorians now on service there. The contingent has, in more than one respect, seriously damaged the reputation of the Australian soldier in South Africa, for apart from the fact that until their arrival no large body of Australian troops had ever thrown down their arms to the enemy - a record of which all Australians were naturally proud and one which had been maintained at times by splendid acts of heroism, and self-sacrifice - there are statements current that cannot be ignored that these men have got thoroughly undisciplined and out of hand. That they were unfortunate in their brigade commanders is admitted, but that the mischief has been internal, too, is absolutely asserted.
The regiment had not been more than a week in the field when one of their number was court-martialled, and sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment for refusing to obey the commands of a sergeant. They were, under instructions, removing stuff from a rebel farm-house, when a sergeant ordered one of the men to come away he simply said "I won't," and for these two words got 12 months. To a civilian the sentence seems out of proportion to the offence, but a direct refusal to obey orders is a most serious misdemeanour on active serve.
Since then things have got much worse, and two of the contingent at least –possibly three, though as to the third there is some uncertainty have been sentenced to be shot. The sentence in each case been commuted by Lord Kitchener, the commander-in-chief, to 12 years' penal servitude, and the men have been sent to English prisons to serve heir sentence. In other cases sentences of two and three years have been inflicted.
Wherever the blame for early misdemeanour may be allotted there appears to be little doubt that the climax in the ill luck of the regiment was reached from the moment that the here made part of the brigade, commanded by a particular Imperial officer, and in an almost equally marked degree to the hostile and offensive attitude of their brigade major.
On the eve of Wilmansrust a detachment of the Fifth Contingent had returned from a long and arduous trek, and had no sooner settled down in camp than they were ordered out ors picket duty. They at first refused to obey orders but were finally persuaded to do so. Pickets were posted with long intervals, according to the orders already mentioned. Through one of these gaps the Boers crept, under cover of darkness, took the sleeping camp by surprise, and the disaster of Wilmansrust followed. And, as a necessary consequence, there followed, too, the questions of blame and the usual recriminations. The contingent had lost all faith in and respect for their commanding officer - the commanding officer was equally contemptuous of the contingent. Instead of being, as was expected, at once sent into Middleburg to refit, they were kept to the South, constantly harassed by the enemy, and forming regular Boer laagers with the waggons every night, while all the positions were thorough entrenched, a precaution which had not been taken at Wilmansrust. Seven days later, on rejoining Sir Bindon Blood they were at once sent in to Middleburg, but, in the meantime, the friction with their commanding officer had reached extreme tension.
On the march one day, and in the presence of the Australian officers - Major Harris and Captain Anderson are specifically named - the brigadier in the course of a conversation observed, "I tell you what I think the Australians are a fat, round - shouldered, useless crowd of wasters." Major Harris retorted, "I'm sorry to hear you say that and I intend to take down our words.” “Do that by all means," said the brigadier, "and you can add if you like that in my opinion they are a lot of white-livered curs." The statement was carried to Major M'Knight, who saw the brigadier, and asked for an apology. This, it was, understood, was given, the officer explaining hat he spoke in the heat of temper, and did not quite mean all he said. Some of the men had in the meantime come under the lash of his scorn. Some four days after Wilmansrust they were camped at a large farmhouse, where a lot of pigs were running about. The men asked for permission too kill some of them for fresh meat and the officer immediately in command had given them permission to do so. Pig-sticking, though a recognised branch of military sport, and often a very essential thing on service when rations are short and the great problem of something to eat always present - is not, of course, a very dignified thing in warfare. The free-speaking and always arrogant brigadier chanced to ride by while the men were trying to bayonet the pigs, and at once said, "Yes, that's just about what you men are good for. When the Dutchmen came along the other night you didn't fix bayonets and charge them, but you go for something that can't hit back." Some days later in Middleburg half-a-dozen men were sitting round the fire at talking of these matters, when one of them (Steele) said, "We'll be a lot of fools if we go out with him again,” meaning the brigadier. The words were overheard by a lieutenant of the contingent, who repeated them. The charge was made within the regiment, and Steele, being tried for inciting to mutiny, was found guilty, and sentence to be shot - a sentence afterwards commuted to imprisonment.
That the men had good reason to complain of their brigadier is clear, but they took an inexcusable way of showing it on service. Complaints had already made to Sir Bindon Blood, and, whether he thought that they were justified, or that, under all the circumstances, it was impossible to hope for good work, the contingent was taken from their former commander, and part of it sent to Newcastle and afterwards to Utrecht, where it seems to have shared in a minor disaster.
Wilmansrust left its aftermath in another direction. Some time after the disaster Major M'Knight was relieved of his command, and sent on other duty of an inferior kind. No reason for the change was suggested, and nothing of the results of the inquiry made public; but, the fact that rankled with the Australians was that their own officer, who was only second in command on the night of the disaster, was in some measure degraded; while Major Morris, who was in direct command, and senior to M'Knight, still retains command of the Horse Artillery battery. There may be circumstances unknown fully justifying the action in each case, but in their dissatisfied and captious – if not disorganised – mood the men of the contingent find in it another cause for complaint.
There is evidence of fault on both sides. A returned officer, in speaking of the Fifth Contingent, says; - “There is no disguising the fact they are not a good lot, and are, or were, disorganised. I saw them do things on active service for which, in our own defence force and in peace time, they would have been instantly cashiered."
Wilmansrust, South Africa, 12 June 1901
5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, Roll of Honour
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, Serious Charges