Topic: BW - Vic - 5VMR
5th Victorian Mounted Rifles
Wilmansrust and after
Wilmansrust and after.
[From: The Australasian, 5 October 1901, p. 766.]
The transcription follows:
Wilmansrust and after
A very unfortunate reticence has surrounded the disaster which befell the Fifth Victorian Contingent at Wilmansrust. The meagre details of the event itself which came through by cable in literal truth “hastened slowly.” There was some restraining hand in South Africa. Probably the censor thought he was dealing kindly with these communities. Only by degrees did we learn what had really happened. And now we are, in the same tardy fashion, hearing of equally unwelcome consequences of getting the information, but at least it is to them that the public are indebted for getting it at all. Neither the state Government nor the Defence department has any arrangement for obtaining official reports. Our men are sent to war and we hear no more about them except the unofficial news - much of it necessarily unverified - gathered and published by the daily journals. Sir John Forrest ought not to be content with such a position of affairs. A line of regular and complete communication between the Minister of Defence and the Commonwealth Contingents is a very obvious requirement.
Of the Wilmansrust disaster it is possible to take too harsh a view. It is pretty well agreed by the critics who include a number of the survivors - that the site of the camp was badly chosen, and that the "gappy" system of picketing adopted was the blunder primarily responsible for the failure to detect the approach of the enemy. There was no cordon of guards around the camp. But the commander on the occasion, who was an Imperial officer, must bear the blame for these mistakes. The sudden rush of the Boers caught our fellows quite unconcerned and unprepared. The whole thing was over in a few minutes, but those few minutes are the one blot upon the Australian record. That there were many individual instances of cool bravery can read only be imagined and believed. It is equally easy to imagine and believe that there was more or less panic, especially as the men are declared to have been without their rifles and cut off from access to theirs. The Boers ran over the camp, and retired with the honours of a victory won at comparatively light cost to themselves. And this has hurt our pride. Perhaps we had been indulging in laudation of our representatives - a subtle form of self-flattery - pitched in an over high, rather feminine strain; and Wilmansrust brings us down, with a disagreeable "flop," to the earth again. Our pride will have to walk softly for a time. But there are considerations which should mitigate disappointment and humiliation. One is that against Wilmansrust may be set a splendid series of valorous displays. Another is that all the other branches of the British Army in South Africa have had their occasional reverses. And a third is that human nature is universally liable to panic. Not even troops who have repeatedly proved their bravery, who are thoroughly disciplined, and who have a matured experience in. active service, can claim absolute immunity. Over and over again lapses at the critical moment into nervous weakness and losses of self control have unaccountably occurred. They are part of the common lot. What we have to be satisfied with - what, after all, is the true basis of national pride - is the fact that the Australian average in regard to soldierly achievements is creditably high. Wilmansrust cannot be forgotten; but it is the average that place's a people.
The insubordination which is alleged to have followed Wilmansrust is hardly less regrettable than the disaster itself. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the reports of it have not been exaggerated, it was unsoldierly and unpardonable. Let it be conceded that there was gross provocation - that it was the contingents very great misfortune to come under the command of General Beatson, who is said to be prejudiced against irregular forces, and to be afflicted with a violent, temper and tongue. A general officer who could speak of the Australians as "a lot of white-livered curs" was unfit to hold any authority over them. It could not have been a pleasant duty to obey such a commander after the insult had been uttered and circulated, even though it had been apologised for. There are insults that no apology obliterates. No doubt General Beatson was irritated by Wilmansrust. That is intelligibly enough; but he must have known that no campaign escapes such incidents, and the genius of command, if he possessed it, should have told him that the Victorians were smarting under a sense of what had happened, and that sympathetically handled, they would have made the most strenuous efforts to set deeds of valour against Wilmansrust. Unfortunately the feeling of his displeasure and distrust had to be endured - a bitter punishment: But nothing justified insubordination. The news that three Victorians were tried by court-martial, found guilty, and sentenced to death (though the sentences were commuted by Lord Kitchener to terms of Imprisonment) came as a most painful shock to the people of Victoria, and indeed, of the whole Commonwealth. A soldier's first duty is absolute obedience. The moment he disobeys he plays the enemy's game. Disaster would follow upon disaster if the responsible commanders had to deal with insubordinate troops. Each soldier is part of the fighting power which the commander depends upon, and which, if trustworthy, moves and acts as he wills. Therefore insubordination is severely punishable in the armies of all nations. It cannot be tolerated anywhere. The man who is not willing to obey is essentially not a soldier.
The Fifth Contingent was as carefully picked as any of its predecessors so far as physical qualifications concerned. But it is said that in other important respects it was distinctly inferior. Particularly it had the smallest proportion of men with previous military training and experience, and it was - with individual exceptions, of course - poorly officered on both the commissioned and the non-commissioned sides. So it was a "raw" regiment in -an unusual degree. And this lack of knowledge on the part of the officers, and of discipline on the part of the men, is probably the true explanation of the insubordinate tendency. The strain of adverse circumstances was more than they could bear with perfect patience. There have been rumours that the strain was not perfectly borne by some of the other contingents; and the lesson of it all is that discipline, especially in its moral aspect, cannot with impunity be omitted from the soldier's equipment. Obedience, patience, fortitude, cheerfulness - these are fruits of discipline. Much will be gained when there is universal recognition in the Commonwealth that our defenders will need these qualities. Swagger and uncontrolled temper and self-will and resentment of authority destroy the soldier. Other things being equal, the disciplined man is the better fighter. The technical intricacies of drill are not worth much. Discipline is a larger thing; and it is to be hoped that high value will be set upon it in the defensive preparation of Australia.
Citation: 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, Wilmansrust and after