"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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Saturday, 27 September 2003
5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, Roll of Honour Topic: BW - Vic - 5VMR
Boer War, 1899 - 1902
Roll of Honour
5th Victorian Mounted Rifles
Poppies on the Roll of Honour, Australian War Memorial, Canberra
The Roll of Honour contains the names of all the men known to have served at one time with the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles and gave their lives in service of Australia, whether as part of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles or another unit during the Boer War.
5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, Wilmansrust and after 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.
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."
Map illustrating the activities of the Australian Commonwealth Horse in South Africa, 1902.
[From: Chamberlain, M., The Australians in the South African War 1899-1902, Canberra, 1999.]
In 1911, Lieutenant-Colonel P. L. Murray, produced a marvellous Boer War reference detailing all the contingents sent from Australia to South Africa, giving a brief history of the formation and finally, listing all the soldiers who saw service in South Africa with that unit. The book was called, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa. It is now the standard reference and starting place for any person interested in pursuing information about Australian involvement in the Boer War.
Murray, P. L., Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, p. 307.
The Second Battalion Australian Commonwealth Horse. Victorian Units.
This Battalion was raised after Federation, to represent Australian troops, upon the same principles as the first battalion. It consisted of three Victorian units (or companies), one from South Australia„ and one (half-company) from Western Australia, together with the battalion staff.
Preference was given to men who had had experience in the war, but candidates were also eligible who were acquainted with country life in Australia, also the management of horses, and were good shots. As a matter of fact, almost the whole of the staff, the company officers, and the N.C.O.'s and men had served in previous Contingents. Some had belonged to South African regiments. Married men ware not selected except for N.C.O.'s of exceptional merit.
Uniform consisted of F.S. jacket, pants, puttees, F.S. hat, F.S. cap, greatcoat, together with boots and a full kit of underclothing, necessaries, etc.
Equipped with rifles and bayonets, and bandolier belts; fully horsed and provided with saddlery. Vide Appendix II (Murray).
Regimental transport was also provided.
Up to date of embarkation, this was at Imperial cavalry rates. After embarkation as follows:
Colonel or lieut.-colonel, £1 5s. per diem, with 4s. field allowance; major, £1 3s., and 4s.; captain, £1 1s., and 3s.; lieutenant, 15s., and 2s. 6d.; adjutant, as for captain or lieutenant, according to rank; quartermaster, as for captain; paymaster, if captain, same; medical officer, £1, and 3s., veterinary officer, £l, and 3s.; chaplain, £1 1s., and 3s.; regimental sergeant-major, 9s.; quartermaster-sergeant, 8s. 8d.; farrier-sergeant, 8s. 6d.; farrier staff sergeant, 8s. 8d.; company sergeant major, 8s.; company quartermaster-sergeant, 8s; sergeants, 7s.; corporals (if paid lance-sergeants), 6s. 6d.; corporals and paid lance-corporals, 6s.; buglers, 6s.; privates, 5s. N.C. officers not above the rank of sergeant, acting as farrier sergeant, or farrier staff-sergeant, and privates, acting as buglers, saddlers, or shoeing-smiths, 1s. per diem extra.
Officers were allowed £30 to provide equipment, &c.
Detail of a company :-1 major or captain, 4 lieutenants, 1 company Sergeant major, l company quartermaster-sergeant, 1 farrier-sergeant, 4 sergeants, 3 shoeing-smith, 1 saddler, 2 buglers, 6 corporals, 97 privates; total, 5 officers, 6 staff sergeants and sergeants, 5 artificers, 2 buglers, 103 rank and file; total, 121, with the like number of horses.
Add battalion staff:- 4 officers, 3 staff-sergeants, with 8 horses. Total of staff and three companies - 20 officers, 21 staff-sergeants and sergeants, 15 artificers, 6 buglers, 309 rank and file; in all, 371, with 401 horses, including 30 spare.
A chaplain accompanied the battalion.
Departure And Return.
The staff and Victorian unite left 12th February, 1902, comprising-21 officers, 351 others, with 401 horses, One died, 2 officers, 77 others were struck off in South Africa; 19 officers, 273 others returned.
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