Topic: BW - NSW - NSW Inf
Legge Letter 28 December 1899
After the arrival of Captain JW Legge in South Africa, he sent a series of letters to Sydney describing the activities of the New South Wales Infantry Contingent. They are a mixture of action and issues and so allow the reader to get to know this unit in an intimate manner. The personality of Legge comes through very clearly in his commentaries. The following is a transcript of his letter dated 28 December 1899.
Camp, Enslin Railway Siding near Modder River, South Africa.
28 December 1899
From Captain Legge
Commander NSW Infantry Company
To the Chief Staff Officer, New South Wales.
I have the honour to report the following occurrences since my last letter from Capt Town.
On 6 December 1899, in accordance with instructions received at Cape Town, I handed over to the Officer Commanding Mounted Rifles all my horses, transport, and miscellaneous stores, in order to save time as the Company had to entrain the following morning. I was informed that these would eventually be taken over by the Imperial Government, and that we should receive the necessary mule transport at De Aar. My orders were to proceed at once to De Aar and report to the Officer Commanding Australian Regiment.
On 7 December 1899, I drew three days preserved rations and sufficient ammunition to make 100 rounds per man and 4,000 for the machine gun. The Company marched in full marching order through Cape Town to the Railway Station and received a fair reception from the people en route. The train moved off at 11 am. During the journey there were many delays, and more rations had to be obtained, but eventually, after four days and three nights in the train, we arrived at Enslin, a siding on the railways about 18 miles south of Modder River, lat on the night of Sunday, 10 December 1899.
All consequent halting places on the line were occupied by troops, as many as could be provided for by the local water supply. Troops on the trains can always have hot water for tea, and washing water also, got ready at any place where there are troops by sending a wire ahead.
At Enslin we were met by Colonel Hoad, Commander what has been named the Australian Regiment, and went under canvas.
Enslin is only a railway siding near a farm owned by a Boer of the same name, and the Australians have been holding this point on the railway line, which from Modder River to Orange River is liable to attack on either flank. Every seven miles there is a camp similar to our own, and here we have even been strengthened since by 2 guns Royal Horse Artillery, a detachment Royal Engineers, and part of the "Gordons" who were rather badly knocked about at Modder River. There are many graves here of those who fought in the Graspan - Enslin engagement.
The country is undulating Veldt with may Kopjes. Four of these near the railway are held by piquets day and night, and the Veldt around the camp and well is encircled. The Australian Regiment consists of the NSW, Victorian, South Australian, West Australian and Tasmanian Companies, five in all, 125 each except Tasmania which is only 80, and also the Victorian Mounted Rifles attached, with 3 Medical Officers from Victoria, South Australia and West Australia, in all about 700.
The day after arrival we sorted out kits and sent away to Cape Town a number of things that the Commanding Officer decided would not be required by us.
In accordance with the advice of Imperial Officers in Cape Town I had arranged for an agent to act for us in every capacity, AR MacKenzie & Co. This IO found afterwards had been also done by other Colonial troops. A number of our spare stores and kits are now in charge of the above firm, and any money matters may be arranged through them also. The equipment of the Company now consists of - Arms, accoutrements, tents (outer bell only), blankets and water proof sheets, camp kettles, 1 suit of uniform 2 shirts 2 pair socks, 1 pair puttees, 2 pair boots, 1 bowl, 1 great coat, 1 hat, 1 cap and 2 flannel belts each. The rest is in Cape Town in charge of AR MacKenzie & Co., who are large forwarding and general agents.
All the troops here are in puttees, while those raised locally or in other colonies nearly all wear the felt hat.
The rest of the Australians had Martini Enfield rifles and were rearmed with Magazine Lee Metfords, but so far have not been allowed by the Commanding Officer to fire a single round to test their rifles. Of course our men, excepting the Volunteers, have done 2 years' musketry with theirs, and even the Volunteers fired at Randwick before leaving home.
Since coming here we have had plenty of work, fatigues and drill by day, and a good deal of night work. In every four days we get 24 hours outpost duty on the kopjes, and 2 nights standing to arms from 3 am till 5 am, one night only being unbroken. Several nights we have had alarms also.
The health of the Company is good. Private Coxhead was left in Hospital at the Cape with rheumatism, and Private Bright has been sent down from here to hospital at Orange River with the same complaint. There has been a good deal of dysentery and other bowel complaints, caused partly by water, and even more by sour bread supplied by the Army Bakery Column at Orange River.
As we have no medical comforts or station hospital here I am spending a little of the incidental money on fresh milk from the Kafir camp here, which I give the sick men boiled and allowed to cool, and with rice if possible. This gives them relief and takes the place of the bad bread they would have otherwise to eat. The Commanding Officer will not arrange for a Regimental canteen, so I have advanced some money for a Company canteen, where we sell groceries at a small profit, out of which we provide little luxuries for the men, such as curry etc.
On Christmas Day I issued groceries (mostly tinned provisions) free to the Company, and charged same to Incidental money. I should be glad to have this expenditure approved. Twice we were fortunate enough to obtain from a trader a barrel of beer, which was retailed to the men not exceeding 1 quart per diem.
After a few days here I came to the conclusion that the present constitution of this Regiment was very unsatisfactory for many reasons. The units themselves were none of them equal to ours in discipline or training, and in fact were in part formed of recruits and none of them were familiar with the rifle. Party feeling was rife and jealousy everywhere more especially as the Commanding Officer, Major, Quartermaster, Squadron Sergeant Major, Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant Major, Butcher, Hospital Attendants etc were all Victorians, the Adjutant alone being an Imperial Officer and he not a man of strong will (Lascelles, a Captain of the Royal Fusiliers), lately Aide de Camp to the Governor of South Australia.
This disproportion did not affect me so much as the fact that the Victorian contingent were outrageously favourites in everything, even rations, at the expense of the others, that all the officers were disunited, and the Commanding Officer seemed altogether different to Regimental Commanding Officers in Imperial Service.
I therefore, after carefully considering the situation, sent in to the Commanding Officer a very respectful letter, asking that the Company might be attached to an Imperial Regiment, and that my letter might be forwarded. At a private interview with him, in which I was invited to speak out, I frankly told him my reasons, and that I feared the result of taking such a combination into action.
After keeping the letter a day the Commanding Officer came to me and gave me the option of withdrawing it. I understood indirectly from what he said, that the NSW Company would be sent to the base. It was a very difficult position, but he undoubtedly held the stronger hand, and anything he might say would no doubt carry more weight with the General Officer Commanding than anything I could say. Rather than allow the Company to do such I finally consented to withdraw the letter, but I fully expect that when we get in a tight place it will be left for this Company to pull some of the others out.
The matter being settled however I have done my best and I think that the NSW Officers are now in a fair way to being popular all round and that they are helping to bind others together.
There is no doubt that when it comes to solid fighting some of the Companies will be very difficult in fire discipline, but I hope NSW will keep things going. Already up here the 28 Lancers under Osborne, who were detached with Lord Methuen's Column have been known as the "Fighting Twenty Eight" and I hope we may earn something of the same ourselves.
This report has been written in a very disjointed fashion, as it has to be done on several days, and with many interruptions.
Sir, Your obedient servant
JW Legge, Captain
Commander NSW Infantry Unit
PS. Our mails arrive in a very scrappy fashion, and many letters we know should come have no yet done so. If the GPO would make up bags for each unit separately and add to our "Australian Regt", then would be much more regularity. This is already done now by some Colonies. JHL.
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Further Reading:Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: New South Wales Infantry Contingent, Legge Letter 28 December 1899