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The Boer War and the Districtsʼ Forgotten Soldiers

Photo: Lt. Leslie Cecil Maygar, VC, DSO, of Dean Station, Kilmore, Vic, of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles ; c.1901, South Africa

The following article by Jim Lowden was originally published in the December 1999 edition of our Newsletter, Kilmore Connections

Background

Boer settlers established the Orange Free State and Transvaal in southern Africa and these states were officially recognised by the British government in 1852. The discovery of gold and diamonds in these territories in the 1860ʼs meant a rapid influx of immigrants, including some Australians. The Boers treated these ʻnewcomersʼ or Uitlanders with contempt and this caused unease.

In 1899 British interests gained British government support and a military force was prepared for South Africa. The Boers learned of these preparations and delivered an ultimatum to the British Government on 9 October 1899 demanding that their military build
up in South Africa cease.

After receiving no reply in the stated two days, they attacked with forces from the Orange Free State and Transvaal. They surrounded Ladysmith, a strategic railway junction on the Natal border, and also laid siege to British garrisons at the other key border posts of Kimberley and Mafeking. There was great jubilation in Kilmore when the word came through that the siege of Mafeking had been broken on 19 May 1900.

The maintenance of the siege at these border posts had tied up large numbers of Boer troops. However, by this stage a considerable number of Cape colonists had also joined the Boer side to boost their numbers.

The Boer War, which was regarded as ʻthe last of the gentlemanʼs warsʼ, was different from the traditional large fullscale military confrontations. It was a highly mobile guerrilla war requiring skilled horsemanship and marksmanship. The Boers would surreptitiously group and then charge at a gallop with their German-made Mauser guns blazing. They became masters in the element of surprise, and their passage was unfettered throughout the whole area. This mobility provided a major logistical problem for the British military strategists. The initial requirement for foot soldiers was soon changed to mounted cavalry.

It was only after several humiliating defeats, that the British replaced Lord Roberts with Lord Kitchener as commander in chief in November 1900.

Kitchener was determined to stop the constant unchallenged roving of the Boer forces across the country and he established a large network of fortified and armed blockhouses along strategic roads and railways to ensure delivery of stores and the safe passage of reinforcements being sent to the frontline.

The blockhouses, surrounded by barbed-wire entanglements, were normally 1000 metres apart, to enable the intervening ground to be safely raked by rifle fire. They formed a wavy line across the country and were generally connected by phone.

Small detachments of armed cavalry scouts were intermittently based at these blockhouses to detect the movement of Boer soldiers and provide a net against which the enemy could be cornered.

It was also Kitchener who ruthlessly adopted the ʻscorched earthʼ policy of burning the Boersʼ farmsteads and crops and taking their livestock, ensuring that their sustenance lines were cut. They then moved the Boer women and children and native servants into centralised concentration camps. This had two unforseen effects. It relieved the Boer soldiers of their family responsibilities and ʻconcentrationʼ camp conditions caused an international furore.

However it also provided the British soldiers with better rations which normally consisted of tea, bread and dripping for breakfast and biscuits and jam during the day. Meat, until Kitchener assumed command, had not been a regular item on their diet!

A number of district soldiers, including Kilmoreʼs Ernie Crane, had their ʻnewsyʼ letters published in the Kilmore Free Press or the Kilmore Advertiser.

Illness, from gastroenteritis or typhoid, was a regular item mentioned and it is not surprising that half of Australiaʼs Boer War casualties died from disease such as Percy Seymour who died at Graff-Riennet.

The Boer soldiers knew their country and its strategic landmarks and were regularly known to remove the uniforms or ʻkhakiʼ from the dead and wounded British soldiers for their own use.

One controversial action was known as the Wilmansrust Affair took place on 12 June 1901. Boer commandos, dressed in khaki, infiltrated the picquet line after dark and opened a volley of Mauser fire on the relaxing soldiers. Their horses were stampeded and the Boers took everything usable and left the Australian unit in disarray, with 18 killed, including two Kilmore district boys, Rube Thornton and Pat Mahoney, and 42 wounded to the care of the battalion veterinarian.

Several Australians escaped the massacre and reported to Major-General Stuart Beaston, but he declined to send relief until daylight next day. Beaston described the Victorians as a group of “fat arsed, pot bellied, lazy lot of wasters”. He later elaborated further, stating “In my opinion they are a lot of white-livered curs…You can add dogs too!”

The Victorians did not take kindly to these words and returned to Middelburg. (The inquiry found the actions of Beaston and the Picquet Commander, Major C. J. N. Morris wanting.)

On 7 July the Victorians were ordered out on another operation and Private James Steele was overheard by a British officer to say “It will be better for the men to be shot than to go out with a man who called them white-livered curs:” Private Steele and two others, Privates Herbert Parry and Arthur Richards, were arrested and convicted of ʻinciting mutinyʼ and were sentenced by court martial to death by firing squad, a sentence which was commuted to prison terms by Lord Kitchener. When word reached Australia the press took up the cause and the sentences were quashed and Beaston was returned to India.

The Boers continued to push ʻthe rules of warʼ and it was those rules that the Bushveldt Carbineers, Lieutenants Henry Harbord ʻThe Breakerʼ Morant and Peter Handcock tested to their ultimate fate, to their death by firing squad. The charges against Lieutenant Harry
Picton were dismissed and the death sentence on Lieutenant George Ramsdale Witton was commuted to life gaol term.

The Australian public were outraged at the British ʻmurderʼ of their volunteers. Witton was subsequently released from prison in England and returned to Australia to settle at ʻThe Elmsʼ at Lancefield and it was here that he wrote his account of the sorry business, The Scapegoats of the Empire.

Australian Involvement

On 28 September 1899, military leaders from all Australian states met in Melbourne and agreed that in the event of war breaking out in South Africa, a force of 2500 would be available.

Initially half of the pledge was to be made up of foot soldiers, but eventually most Australian soldiers were to be mounted cavalry.

District lads enlisted from their residence of that time. Mick Conway, Australiaʼs first casualty, enlisted from Perth. Donald Fraser enlisted from New South Wales and the Mackenzie brothers, who were practising medicine in New Zealand, both enlisted with the New Zealand Medical Corps. One Heathcote lad, Will Aitken, who was working in the Kimberley mines, enlisted from there, and was killed at Colenso on 15 Dec 1899 and is believed to have been the first Australian born casualty.

Many serving members of the existing Victorian Militia volunteered their services. Some of these were declared medically unfit and they joined one of several ʻprivateʼ units such as Bethuneʼs Mounted Infantry (Bethune had only one hand!), as did David Crawford and Frank Egan; Cameronʼs Scouts recruited Bob Sharkey and Jim Still; and the Marquis of Tullibardineʼs Scottish Horse, Fred Dau and Dave Davies who were both killed. They all took their own horses and lamented their wounding as did Charlie Bidstrup. They had also to leave them in South Africa on their return to Australia.

The Australian bushmen proved themselves to be excellent soldiers and matched the ability of the Boer soldiers who conducted the mobile guerrilla war.

Even Lord Roberts, the British commander, who was initially shocked by the unorthodox and casual nature of the Australian soldier, could not fault their ability as extremely brave and mobile soldiers. Indeed, it was these Australian horsemen who rode in to pick up many a British infantryman caught in a sticky situation.

Each Australian State sent its own contingent, which was divided into squadrons of 125 men and these were attached to British units.

The Fifth Victorian Mounted Rifles was the largest Victorian group of which Captain Leslie Maygar was a member. Captain George Johnston, who had married Kilmore girl Margaret Hobson, joined as a special service officer initially with the railwaysʼ unit and then with the 62nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery.

Eventually after Federation, on 1 January 1901, the State contingents all were brought within the membership of the Australian Commonwealth Horse. Some of the Kilmore district soldiers who had seen an earlier tour of duty with a Victorian unit re-enlisted for a second tour with one of the Commonwealth Horse units. High Campʼs Sergeant-Major Spooner, returned with the 2nd Australian Commonwealth Horse (ACH). Even George Johnston who had been seriously wounded and invalided home in 1900, returned as commander of the 4th ACH Regiment. A keen Tom Dwyer, from Mia Mia, who was wounded and invalided home in October 1900, rejoined his original unit the 4th Victorian Imperial Bushmen in January 1901, returned home with his unit in April, rejoined with Johnstonʼs 4th ACH.

A final departure of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles from South Africa, drew the following telegram from the British commander, Lord Kitchener to their Commanding Officer, at Cape Town on 11 March 1902.

“Please convey to Australians my warm appreciation of their gallant and arduous service in this country. In the name of the Army of South Africa, I wish them good luck and God speed.”

The Cost

War ceased with the signing of the Peace of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902, which brought the Boer states under British rule.

The Australians lost 251 killed in action or dying from wounds. A further 267 died from disease. Kilmore and surrounding districts lost six from its contingent of more than seventy and another died from wounds on return.

In total Victoria contributed 193 officers and 3372 of other ranks to the total Australian commitment of 16,175 personnel.

The Guild of Loyal Women provided metal crosses for the graves of British casualties and these were erected on all the known graves.

It is strange that only one memorial exists to commemorate the Boer War in our region and that is to Pat Mahoney in the Darraweit Primary School grounds. A memorial committee was established for Rube Thornton but did not gain Council support and apparently did not proceed further.

Longwood, near Euroa, has a memorial listing the names of 22 soldiers, who served from their district in the Boer War. Even the recent new Memorial Wall at the Kilmore cenotaph remembering the ʻotherʼ wars did not include the Boer War, when some 25 soldiers appear to have either been born in or enlisted from or had close connection with the Kilmore district. Another 50 came from Wandong, Wallan, Darraweit Guim, Lancefield, Mia Mia, Pyalong,
Tooborac, Broadford, Strath Creek or Reedy Creek.

KILMORE AND DISTRICT BOER WAR SOLDIERS
These men appear by record, books or hearsay, either to have been born at, came from, had strong connections with, or enlisted from:

BROADFORD
Private George Tarrant BAKER (1878-19??)
Lieutenant Charles Niels BIDSTRUP (1877-1944)
Private Alexander McLEAN (1880?-19??)
Private George MCLEAN (1880-19??)
Private James Roberts MILLS (1878-19??)
Captain William ROSS
Trooper Benjamin SUTHERLAND (1867-19??)
Saddler Ralph Hamilton TAIT (1870?-19??)
Private Kenneth YORSTON (1872-19??)

BYLANDS
Captain Edgar Leslie Cecil Willis Walker ʻElsieʼ MAYGAR, VC (1871-1917)
Major Frederick George PURCELL (1875-1927)

DARRAWEIT GIJIM
Private James Francis MAHONEY (1878-19??)
Private Patrick MAHONEY (1882-19??)
Shoeing-Smith Thomas Henry MAHONEY (1876-1901)*
Sergeant Michael Francis RYAN (1880-19??)
Private Charles Stewart WALTON (1875-19 ??)

HIGH CAMP
Private J BROWN (1880-19??)
Trooper Timothy John CANTWELL (1874-1938)
Sergeant David CRAWFORD (1874-1915)
Sergeant-Major William S SPOONER (1874-1919)

KILMORE
Private Thomas S CAHILL (1867-19??)
Private Alexander CLARKE (187 1-19??)
Private William A CONWAY (l874~19??)*
Shoeing-Smith Samuel Ernest Thomas CRANE (1882-1918)
Private Francis James DODSON (1877-19??
Trooper William Francis EGAN (1868-19 ??)
Trooper Henry Mathieson FISCHER (1880-19??)
Sergeant William Nicolson FISCHER (1883-1917)
Trooper Donald FRASER (1864-1900)*
Private Thomas GOONEY (1863-19??)
Private Charles Albert HODGES (1880-19??)
Major-General George Jameson JOHNSTON (1868-1949)
Private James John MARSHALL (1873-19??)
Sergeant Percy Callan SEYMOUR (1872-1901)*
Private James Oliver Alexander STILL (1879-1956)
Shoeing-Smith Sergeant Rupert Melbourne Arthur THORNTON (1877-1901)*

LANCEFIELD
Private James Desmond CASEY (1878-19??)
Private Alfred James CATTANACH (1881-1979)
Corporal Michael John CONWAY (1871-1900)*
Private William FAGAN (1874-19??)
Private George HAMPTON (1873-19??)
Trooper Alexander ʻIkeʼ JOHNSTON (1882-1965)
Private Charles Harris MUSTEY (1875?-19??)
Private F J ʻFerdʼ SIDES (1880-19??)
Private Gilbert Benjamin YOUNG (1873-19??)

MIA MIA
Private Thomas DWYER (1874-19??)

PYALONG
Corporal James BROWN (1880-19??)
Private John H BROWN (1880-19??)
Private John Vernon RICHARDS (1874-19??)

REEDY CREEK
Sergeant Robert Thomas SHARKEY (1862-19??)
Farrier Sergeant George Herbert SHEPPARD (1879-19??)
Private W J SHEPPARD (1880-19??)

STRATH CREEK
Sergeant Martin Herbert NOYE (1874-19??)
Private Donald Alexander PATTISON (1881-19??)
Farrier Sergeant William Raymond SMITH (1875-19??)

TOOBORAC
Trooper John Thomas ARNOLD (1880?-19R?)
Private A DONALDSON (1880?- 19??)
Private Mark Edward ʻTedʼ DONALDSON (1873-19??)
Private Harold HARNELL (1870-19??)
Private William Joseph HAYES (1876-1944)
Private Charles T HOWATT (1864-19??)
Private Reginald Percy NORTON (1873-19??)

WALLAN
Saddler Herbert James ABBOTT (1873-1958)
Private Neil McKENDRICK (1871-1944)
Trooper T MeKENDRICK (1880?-19??)
Lance-Corporal George Victor ROBERTSON (1874-19??)

WANDONG
Private Frederick George DAU (1882-1901)*
Saddler Lance-Corporal David Wellington DAVIES (1875-1901)*
Private Charles McK1NNON (1870?-1901)*

WILLOWMAVIN
Private James Joseph KIRBY (1875-19??)
Surgeon Captain Andrew Hardie MacKENZIE (1873-19??)
Surgeon Captain Murdoch MacKENZIE (1861-1912)
Trooper Norman McKENZIE (1874-1942)
Private William MacKENZIE (1874-19??)
Private William SEYMOUR (1864-19??)

(Research by Jim Lowden)

Lt Leslie Maygar, AWM P05481.003
Lieutenant (Lt) Leslie Cecil Maygar, DSO, of Dean Station, Kilmore, Vic, of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles who was the first Victorian to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), which he won at Geelhoutboom in South Africa on 23 November 1901, for rescuing a comrade under fire. (Source: Australian War Memorial P05481.003)

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