Topic: Militia - LHQ - Qld
Queensland Mounted Infantry
Outline, Part 4
March: Soldiers of the Queen
The following outline of the Queensland Mounted Infantry is extracted from a book written by Joan Starr called Forward: the history of the 2nd / 14th Light Horse (Queensland Mounted Infantry), published Queensland, 1989. This section comes from pp. 18 - 17:
Off to War
Departure of the troops on the Cornwall in November drew vast crowds to the wharf area, and the whole event blossomed into a gala occasion with the bands, bunting, garlands, refreshment booths, and bright sunshades.
Almost every craft capable of floating, large and small, and gaily decked-out with flags and bunting, gathered not far from the Cornwall. The contingent commander, Major Ricardo, led his men onto the wharf where he dismounted. First to march on the wharf was the machinegun section (a detachment of the Queensland Royal Australian Artillery followed by A and B Companies of the Mounted Infantry under Captain Harry Chauvel and Captain Philip Pinnock respectively. Lieutenant Alfred Adie carried the handmade flag presented to the contingent by the women of Brisbane. The men embarked on the Cornwall to the tune of "Soldiers of the Queen", played by the Headquarters Band. The words and music were "catchy" and easy to remember:
It's the soldiers of the Queen, my lads,
Who’ve been, my lads, who've seen, my lads,
In the fight for England's glory lads,
Of its world-wide glory let us sing.
And when we say we've always won,
And when they ask us how it’s done,
Well proudly point to every one
Of England's soldiers of the Queen!
By 11 December the Cornwall reached Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The forty-three day voyage had not been very pleasant for the men, many of whom were ill with influenza during the trip. Ordered by the British Commander on to Cape Town, the Cornwall arrived at Table Bay on 12 December, and troops landed at Cape Town the following day. Major Ricardo was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on the day he landed at Cape Town.
The man who the Queenslanders and other colonists were to serve under was General Sir Redvers Buller, recently appointed Commander-in-Chief. Buller was a veteran soldier who had fought in five wars, the first Boer War from 1880 to 1881, and against the Zulu, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was a hearty, jovial commander, popular with the troops but unfortunately, not only had he never commanded large formations of troops in the field; he had assumed command after ten years of desk service.
Buller scrapped the War Office plan of an advance on the Boer republics and decided to split his force into three columns, leaving the Cape undefended. The tragic result of this blunder was "Black Week", when in December 1899 the Boers soundly defeated the British at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. The noted British historian Arthur Conan Doyle wrote:
The week ... was the blackest one known during our generation, and the most disastrous for British arms during the century. We had in a short space of seven days lost, beyond all extenuation or excuse, three separate actions. The total loss amounted to about three thousand men and twelve guns, while the indirect effects in the way of loss of prestige to ourselves and increased confidence and more numerous recruits to our enemy were incalculable.
The pride of the British Army had been dragged in the dust of the veldt by Boer farmers, who were no longer considered simply "native rebels". In addition Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith were still under siege. Buller was subsequently replaced by Lord Roberts.
The British were out of their depth as they were confronted by an enemy which used unconventional tactics. The Boers had no standing army and wore no standard uniform. Every farmer between sixteen and sixty was prepared to fight, providing his own horse, rifle and ammunition, and provisions for eight days on the open plain (veldt). These citizen-soldiers were organised into highly mobile guerrilla units called "commandos" varying in size from several hundred to many thousands, appearing and vanishing as required.
One war correspondent described them as a "motley-looking" group of fighters, a "crowd one is apt to see in a far inland shearing shed in Australia". However there was nothing unsophisticated about the Boer force. The artillery was trained by German officers and equipped with the most modern German and French guns, outranging their British counterparts. The mounted infantrymen favoured the German Mauser rifle and the Maxim machine-gun. The Boer was a skilled marksman, having gained much experience from years of living and hunting on the veldt. He would hide behind boulders or rocky hills (kopjes), picking off advancing infantrymen with ease, often using small white stones left on the plain as target-markers. As the infantry closed in, the Boers would leap on their ponies and disappear in a cloud of dust.
When Lord Roberts assumed command of all troops he found an army extended over a front of 500 miles. The task of the new Commander-in-Chief was to take the offensive by carrying the war across the borders and into the republics and, in doing so, force the Boers to loosen their grip on the besieged British towns.
The Queensland contingents, together with those from other colonies never fought as one Australian division. They were divided up, as were the Canadian and New Zealand contingents, and attached to British regiments, thus fighting in what was an Empire army. They learnt much soldiering from the British, while the British learnt a great deal from the colonials who were well-suited to guerrilla warfare, and to the country itself.
After arriving in Cape Town the Queensland Mounted Infantry went immediately by train to Orange River providing some badly needed mounted troops to the Kimberley Relief Force. They saw no action for two and a half weeks, but this was still far too short a time for the horses to be acclimatised and recover from the sea voyage. On first arrival in Africa the horses developed a kind of influenza and a regiment on the march sounded like a veterinary hospital with the sneezing and wheezing of the wretched animals.
The loss in horses from starvation, disease and sheer exhaustion was terrible. Captain Chauvel was to write home early in the campaign that they were losing five horses a day. The situation only became worse; it was unlikely that a man would ride the same horse for very long, there was therefore little opportunity of building the extraordinary sympathy between rider and horse that later existed in the Middle East in 1916-18, when well-cared for horses displayed enormous stamina and great heart.
The turnover in animals was so great that by the end of the war no fewer than two hundred thousand horses and mules were lost, the carcasses lying the length and breadth of South Africa. When the war concluded there were 264,000 horses and mules and 19,000 oxen listed on army service.
A day on the march was very much as follows - At grey dawn the soldier gave his horse a meagre (very meagre) supply of hard uncrushed Indian corn to eat. No hay, nor bran, nor any other fodder was supplied to assist the animal to chew and digest the unattractive maize. While eating his feed, a saddle, loaded with accoutrements up to a weight of six stone was hoisted onto the horse and left there while the trooper went to get his own scanty breakfast. At midday again a very small meal (about a handful) of maize or raw oats would be given to the horse. Such water as they got to drink was hurriedly snatched at intervals of marching, and on many occasions the horses went all day without water.
At night the troopers would be out on outpost duty, and this meant the horses were kept standing all night with their saddles on, unable to rest. Many a time the horses went 48 hours without having their saddles off; and there was no chance for them to recuperate. Day after day they had to plod on under the blazing sun all day, and in the freezing wind at night.'
The few cavalry charges that were attempted during the war were sorry spectacles; a long drawn out string of weak and weary horses, plodding hopelessly across the veldt at a canter, urged to further exertions by blows from the riders, and with no hope of closing on the enemy. All of the combat was of the nature of mounted infantry in which the men dismounted to fight.
A note by the Editor on the comments made by J. Starr in the above text regarding General Sir Redvers Buller
For the purposes of clarity and ensuring that the otherwise excellent summary of J. Starr is not undermined by some poorly researched comments, the following is inserted to give the reader an insight into the problems of balance and the nature of those who write history.
The problem of making comments about the ability of Buller through the prism of history written to exult General "Bobs" Roberts and by default, Kitchener, leads the unwary commentator to miss the outstanding ability of Buller. History has vilified the man for being in charge of the British forces in South Africa during Black Week. Because Buller was the man in charge, he is also the convenient public scapegoat whose history has been tarnished by many authors who describe him as some type of bungling fool and Colonel Blimp like character.
The facts are quite different. Buller was an immensely popular General with his troops. He cared for their welfare and ensure that they were well looked after despite the incompetence of the War Office which was not up to the task of supplying such a vast army with the basic means let alone with the tools to provide victory. In addition, the valuable intelligence assessments were not circulated to him. It took the Times in 1900 to publish this report which was readily available in England but not to the people who needed it the most.
After the three disasters that constituted the Black Week, the men under Buller's command never lost another battle. Buller learned the lessons of these defeats and applied them well. The change in strategy involved the creation of such an innovative infantry practice that it took until 1916 for it to be fully understood and appreciated. Then his methods became standard practice during the Great War for the British Army. Buller mapped out two basic ideas: limited objectives and creeping barrages. The limited objective ensured that the troops knew exactly the nature of their specific task and objective. Each section knew the task they were meant to achieve in the battle. The assistance was then given to the infantry by artillery co-ordination, a novelty as it had never occurred on a mass scale before and something very difficult to arrange bearing in mind that there was not the luxury of immediate communication between the infantry and artillery on the battlefield. Buller's thinking was far beyond his time. Regardless of his ability, the Roberts followers wanted something to alow Roberts to shine which basically meant damning Buller. As is often the case, the wrong person received all the credit. This was not the first time this happened in history and nor was it and will it be the last time.
When presenting an analysis of a situation, it is essential for historians or critical readers to understand the nature of the circumstance rather than iterate "common" wisdom.
Citation: Queensland Mounted Infantry, Outline, Part 4