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Welcome to the Hay Historical Society web-site newsletter No. 11. Included in the newsletter is:
THE BOER WAR MEMORIAL AT HAY:
Local casualties of the South African conflict of 1899-1902
The annual Anzac Day march at Hay begins in front of the War Memorial Hall in Lachlan Street. The march proceeds south down Lachlan Street before turning right into Moppett Street, then right again into Pine Street at the Anglican Church corner. As the march reaches the south-east boundary of the Hay Park the ex-service men and women and other marchers pause while a short ceremony is held at the memorial in the park commemorating the men from Hay and district who died in the Boer War. Wreaths are laid at the monument and the march then continues for a short distance to the Hay War Memorial High School where the main Anzac Day ceremony is held.
The Boer War memorial in the Hay Park lists the names of five young men who died during the South African conflict of 1899-1901. The purpose of this article is to put these names in context by providing details of the lives of the five men and the circumstances of their deaths.
Background to the War
The Second Anglo-Boer War is commonly known in Australia as the Boer War or (at the time it was fought) as the South African War. The events which led to the war directly relate to the partition of Africa among the European colonial powers and the uneasy relationship between the Dutch (Afrikaner) settlers of South Africa and the British colonial administration which became established in the region. Two adjoining Afrikaner republics – the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (often referred to as the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State – had attained independence from Britain in the 1850s. In 1877 Britain annexed the Transvaal republic at a time when the territory was under threat of war from the Zulu nation, whose homelands were located between the Transvaal and British Natal. Afrikaner discontent with the British annexation resurfaced in 1880 after the Zulus had been subdued; the Transvaal Boers declared their independence from Britain in mid-December and sporadic confrontations occurred in the ensuing weeks between the British army and the insurgent Boer commandos. This conflict is now referred to as the First Anglo-Boer War. In the end the British government adopted a conciliatory stance and a peace treaty was signed in March 1881 which allowed for Boer self-government in the Transvaal (though Britain insisted on retaining suzerainty in external affairs).
In the mid-1880s gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand district of the southern Transvaal. Thousands of gold-seekers, mostly from Britain and her colonies, were attracted to the region. On the goldfields the settlement of Johannesburg grew rapidly (located just 30 miles from the Transvaal capital, Pretoria). The foreign workers were known as uitlanders by the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers of the Transvaal, most of whom farmed for a living. The Afrikaner government became alarmed at the massive influx and were opposed to granting civil rights to the foreigners; heavy taxes were imposed on the uitlanders and their demands for voting rights were resisted. By the mid-1890s resentment between the Boers and uitlanders had reached a high level, causing political instability in the Transvaal republic. By this stage it was estimated that the number of (mostly male) uitlanders in the Transvaal was about comparable to the Afrikaner population.
In late December 1895 the British colonial administrator, Dr. Leander S. Jameson, led a group of 600 men, mostly from the Matabeleland Mounted Police, on an armed incursion into the Transvaal territory in an attempt to incite an uprising by the uitlander population. The planning for the raid had been supported by the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes. The invading force was tracked as they crossed the border and encountered increasing resistance as they neared Johannesburg. Jameson’s raiders were halted at Doornkop on 2 January by a defensive force and were eventually compelled to surrender to the Boer commander Piet Cronjé. The British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, made a prompt repudiation of the raid and was conciliatory to the Boers over the matter. The raiders were incarcerated in Pretoria and later handed over to the British government for trial in London. During the period of Jameson’s trial the British press published evidence of support by Germany for the Afrikaner republics, stimulating strong anti-Boer and anti-German feelings amongst the British public. During 1896 Cecil Rhodes was forced to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony over his involvement in the raid.
Jameson’s Raid led to a closer strategic alliance between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and stimulated preparations for war by both republics. Taxation revenue from the goldfields enabled Kruger’s government to purchase large amounts of armaments, mainly from Germany. From August 1897, after Sir Alfred Milner was appointed High Commissioner for British South Africa, the British government increasingly pressed for uitlander claims. Although the rights of the uitlanders was the immediate issue, the conflict was rooted in the British determination to dominate South Africa and the Boer resolve to resist the obliteration of their internal independence. During 1899 the British government increased troop numbers in their South African colonies.
Milner and the president of the Transvaal, Paul Kruger, met at Bloemfontein in May 1899 in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the uitlander impasse. The Bloemfontein negotiations were followed by a period of provocative diplomatic and military manoeuvring. By early October, British and Boer troops had mobilized near the Transvaal borders with the Cape Colony and Natal. On 9 October 1899, in an atmosphere of escalating tensions, President Kruger demanded the withdrawal of British forces from the borders within forty-eight hours, otherwise the Boer republics would go to war. The British government rejected the ultimatum and war was declared. The initial Boer strategy was to win swift and decisive victories before British reinforcements could arrive, to incite the Afrikaner population in British-held territory to rebellion, and win a negotiated peace.
Overview of the War
The Second Anglo-Boer War lasted for more than two-and-a-half years, from October 1899 until 31 May 1902 (when the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed). The conflict is generally divided by historians into three distinct phases:
More than 16,000 Australians were engaged in the South African war of 1899-1902, of which 1,400 were wounded during the conflict. Fatalities amongst the Australians were 251 killed in battle or who later died of their wounds, and 267 who died of disease.
The majority of the casualties were caused by rifle fire, with only a low percentage due to shelling. The high proportion of deaths from disease was caused by the drinking of impure water and the neglect of sanitation.
Australian casualties in the Boer War are not considered heavy.
This was because as mounted troops they were seldom called upon to make frontal attacks on strongly-held positions as the British infantry commonly did in the early months of the war. The other main factor was the ability to adapt themselves quickly to the environment and the style of fighting in which they found themselves involved.
As the war in South Africa evolved, from the set battles of the first few months to a more mobile and strategically-flexible warfare, the importance of resilient mounted troops became increasingly apparent.
Influenced by the success of irregular mounted forces in the early months of the war, British authorities began to encourage the recruitment of good horsemen who need not possess any military training. This suited the Australian colonies admirably. The bush was full of skilled horsemen, and there seems to have developed from the very outset of war a wide belief that the bushman, with his ability to ride, to endure, to improvise and to find his way, was the natural opponent for the unorthodox Boer.
The involvement of Australian volunteers in the South African War of 1899-1902 represents a unique moment in Australian history where the endurance, initiative and physical skills of young stockmen and station-hands from regional Australia were directly harnessed in the service of British geo-politics.
“ALICK. M. ABERLINE – Died of wounds 28TH SepT 1900.”
Alexander McFarlane Aberline was born in 1880 at Terang in Victoria (north-east of Warrnambool), the eleventh of thirteen children in the family. His parents, James Aberline and Janet McFarlane, had been married in October 1861 at Warrnambool and the family lived in the nearby Terang district until about 1883, when they moved to Hay (where the thirteenth child was born in 1884).
Alexander Aberline was seven years of age when, in April 1887, his father died at Hay (aged 45 years). By 1890 the widowed Janet Aberline and her children were living in a house in Lachlan Street (probably located near the Union Bank building). In March 1890 a dentist named Hirsch was carrying out his business from Mrs. Aberline’s residence. Apparently Janet Aberline also operated a business from the premises. In 1897 she “decided to relinquish [her] business” because she was leaving Hay. In December Mrs. Aberline’s household furniture and business stock were auctioned without reserve. Several of her children, including Alexander, remained in the Hay district after Janet Aberline had left Hay to live in Victoria.
As a young man ‘Alick’ Aberline worked as a labourer or station-hand on local pastoral runs. In March 1900, aged twenty, Aberline enlisted to serve in the South African War. Major Rupert Carrington and Sergeant Clayton (of the Scottish Rifles) arrived at Hay on 19 March 1900 “for the purpose of enrolling volunteers for the Imperial Bushmen’s Contingent, which is being raised for service in South Africa”. Candidates were interviewed the following day at the Police Barracks.
The candidates were required to produce certificates of character, and also certificates from their last employer, or other competent person, that they had experience of bushmen’s work. No applications from married men were entertained, and no one who was forty years or over was taken… Station hands, drovers, and surveyor’s men, properly accredited, were provisionally accepted at once; others such as grooms or fencers, had to undergo a tolerably strict scrutiny.The successful candidates were examined in the afternoon by a local doctor and, when passed, were given railway tickets to Sydney where they were to undergo further testing. By the end of the day nineteen volunteers from Hay and district (including Alexander Aberline) had been provisionally accepted by Major Carrington. The applications of another three men “were deferred for further particulars”.
The New South Wales Imperial Bushmen regiment was a part of the third contingent of troops from the Australian colonies, raised in response to strong encouragement from the British Government to choose bushmen with riding skills and qualities of initiative and endurance in order to match the unorthodox Boer commandos. Volunteers were tested and subsequently enrolled in a number of towns within the pastoral districts of New South Wales (as well as the other Australian colonies).
On 29 March 1900 the successful volunteers from Hay and district travelled to Sydney, where they were tested for their marksmanship and riding abilities at the Randwick rifle range and Kensington racecourse. Four of the Hay men were placed in ‘F’ company of the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen – Alexander Aberline, James Collins, Robert William (‘Bert’) Kilgour and James Butler. For the next few weeks prior to their departure the volunteer Bushmen undertook training at Randwick and Rookwood.
The New South Wales Imperial Bushmen was made up of forty officers and 722 troops. On 23 April 1900 they departed from Sydney aboard the transport-vessel Armenian. Another trooper from Hay, Robert Aitken, had been placed in ‘A’ company of the Imperial Bushmen; a letter from Aitken (dated 1 May and posted at Albany in Western Australia) described the first leg of the voyage:
Just a few notes of our local boys, which might be of interest to the Hayites. All hands stood the trip very well, with the exception of William Smith and myself. William Cronk, A. Aberline, Collins, Killgour, and Butler did not feel the trip at all. We had a very fair voyage, with the exception of one day and night, which was a bit rough, and we lost three horses throughout. We are under very strict discipline, which is a very good idea. It keeps all hands up to the mark. Our rations are very fair, considering the quantity of men there is in a small space. You can also buy anything you like at a very fair price. There is a lot of stuff on board for the troops, but it has not been given out yet. The only thing we can’t get on board is liquor, which is a great drawback to some of the “beer chewers.” … We had Major Boam as far as Albany with the troops. He had to come on account of not having enough time at Rookwood to swear the troops in… Our bunks seemed very funny for the first night or so. They are hammocks swung from the roof – about one hundred in each compartment. There was seven men sent to the hospital next morning – fell out of their hammocks – but they have learned a lesson since, and don’t fall now.
When the Armenian arrived at Cape Town in May 1900 the vessel was ordered northward to the port of Beira in the Portuguese-administered territory of Mozambique. From Beira the troops travelled 312 miles by narrow-gauge rail to Marandellas in Rhodesia (a journey of four days). In Rhodesia the Australians were joined with the 2nd Brigade Rhodesian Field Force under Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Carrington. From Marandellas the troops travelled 280 miles overland to Bulawayo in south-western Rhodesia, with a portion of the Australian contingent marching the distance because of a lack of transport animals. The forces assembled at Bulawayo on 4 July. From there the troops travelled south, on the railway which linked Rhodesia with the Cape Colony, to the town of Mafeking near the border with the Transvaal. Mafeking had been besieged by Boer forces and was relieved by the British in mid-May 1900. From there Carrington’s troops travelled north-east into the western Transvaal to Zeerust, which had recently been occupied by the British. However, British gains were beginning to unravel during July as Generals Lemmer and De la Rey led a Boer resurgence in the western Transvaal. Their commando units adopted guerrilla tactics and conducted damaging raids against British-occupied positions and disrupted supply-lines. Soon after arriving at Zeerust ‘B’ and ‘C’ companies of the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen, under Colonel Houldsworth, were sent to relieve Rustenburg which had been attacked by the Boers on 7 July.
The remaining Imperial Bushmen were involved in an abortive attempt in early August to relieve a supply-post east of Zeerust near the Elands River (at a locality called Brakfontein) which was under attack by Boer forces under General De la Rey. The Elands River encampment had been established as a staging-post for convoys travelling along the supply- route between Rustenburg and Mafeking. A large amount of supplies were amassed there due to the disruptive activities of Boer insurgents along the route. On 4 August 1900 De la Rey’s commandos attacked the Elands River post which was comprised of 505 colonial troops under the command of an Imperial officer, Colonel Hore. Australian soldiers numbered 301, including a component (105 troopers) from ‘A’ company of the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen. The defenders at Brakfontein occupied an exposed rocky ridge, with a defensive perimeter of wagons and piled-up stores. For twelve days the defending troops withstood a heavy artillery bombardment from the surrounding high ground and opposed a force of Boer commandos that numbered about two thousand by the end of the siege. The dogged and heroic defence of the Elands River supply-post is a significant milestone in Australian military history. On the other hand, attempts during the siege to relieve the encampment were less than glorious and in a few cases proved detrimental to the reputation of the British commanders who were involved.
When the Boers attacked the Elands River post General Carrington had already left Zeerust with a thousand mounted troops and artillery to cover the retirement of the garrison to Mafeking. Components of the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen (probably including Alick Aberline’s unit) made up a significant portion of Carrington’s force. On 5 August a detachment of Carrington’s troops advanced to within two miles of the besieged Elands River post but were driven back by the Boers. Carrington decided he could not sustain a protracted engagement and withdrew, leaving the supply-post defenders to their fate. Three troopers from the Hay district in ‘A’ company of the Imperial Bushmen – William Cronk, Edward Witt and George Woods – were involved in covering the retreat of Carrington’s artillery:
Troopers Witt and Wood both had their horses shot under them as the rear-guard were ordered to retire. Trooper Cronk, seeing Wood fall, rode back to him, took him up on his own horse, and rode on to his company under a continuous fire.
Carrington’s retreating troops were forced back seventeen miles to the Marico River and then harried all the way to Zeerust by a small force of Boers. While Carrington was retreating to the west, Colonel Baden-Powell was advancing towards the Elands River post from the east with another column of a thousand mounted troops. However, within twenty miles of the besieged camp Baden-Powell turned away and marched back towards Pretoria. He had heard gun-fire to the west that seemed to be getting fainter; without waiting for the reports of his scouts Baden-Powell assumed that Carrington had succeeded in withdrawing the garrison towards Mafeking. Trooper Fred Sadler from Hay claimed that Baden-Powell was tricked by the Boers into believing the Elands River post had been relieved by Carrington’s force.
… the Bushmen went to the relief of Elands River under Major-General Baden-Powell. They got to within five miles of the place, when De La Rey, by an ingenious heliographic trick, led them to believe that the place had been relieved by Sir Frederick Carrington.
At about the same time Baden-Powell received a message from Lord Roberts directing him to return to Rustenburg. On the following day (6 August) Lord Roberts heard from Carrington at Zeerust that the Brakfontein garrison was still under siege; nevertheless Roberts reiterated his instructions from the day before and ordered Baden-Powell to Commando Nek to assist in securing the route between Rustenburg and Pretoria. Lord Roberts was probably convinced that the Elands River garrison was on the verge of capitulation and his decision to effectively abandon the garrison seems to have been a pragmatic decision giving precedence to wider strategic objectives. At Zeerust Carrington insisted on the evacuation of all Imperial forces to Mafeking which, when carried out, allowed large quantities of stores to fall into the hands of the Boers. Carrington’s column reached Mafeking on 10 August. Rev. James Green, who was attached to the Imperial Bushmen, recorded that there were widespread feelings of shame at the participation by the Bushmen in what had been regarded as a dishonourable retreat.
On the fifth day of the siege at Elands River (and again on the following day) General De la Rey called upon the garrison to surrender, offering safe passage for the defenders back to British lines. The offers were refused and the siege developed into a battle of attrition in which the colonial troops struggled to survive in rudimentary trenches against cannons and sniping from the surrounding enemy forces. The British command became aware that the Elands River garrison was continuing to resist the Boer offensive when an African runner from the besieged garrison got through enemy lines and, on 13 August, arrived at a point along the Mafeking railway to alert the British of the situation. At this news Lord Kitchener (by that stage second-in-command to Lord Roberts) turned aside from chasing General De Wet’s forces and marched his column of ten thousand men from the Vaal River to relieve the Elands River garrison. The Boers withdrew as Kitchener’s column approached.
This siege… was especially a Colonial triumph… and it would be difficult to praise overmuch the determination and fine spirit shown by these Colonials in their first opportunity of distinguishing themselves as a corps. Every soldier who saw the place afterwards expressed surprise that they could have held out so long, and it is, therefore, the more creditable to them to have done so when every hope seemed entirely cut off; while, at a time when surrender and retreats were not sufficiently rare, the example shown by these splendid men was even more important than the position they held.
When the situation at Elands River became known Carrington was ordered by Lord Roberts to return to Zeerust. From Mafeking Carrington’s 1,500-strong column marched as far as Ottoshoop (24 miles from Mafeking), which they occupied on 14 August. Any further progress, however, was halted by a Boer force led by General Lemmer holding a line of kopjes (hills) at Buffels Hoek (a few miles beyond Ottoshoop). Carrington’s 1st Brigade under Brigadier-General Errol attacked one end of the Boer line on the morning of 16 August. The troops approached to within five hundred yards where they dismounted and fixed their bayonets. Under fire from a Maxim machine-gun the troops charged at the Boer position and by the end of the day had managed to occupy several of the hills. Lemmer’s commandos staged a counter-attack the next morning but the British and colonial troops held the territory they had gained and the Boers withdrew by mid-afternoon. The confrontation at Buffels Hoek was costly for both sides. It was estimated the Boers suffered 70 casualties and Carrington’s force lost about 50 killed and wounded. Among the Australians five were killed and eleven wounded.
On 19 August at Malmani (five miles from Ottoshoop) two separate patrols of Australians and New Zealanders co-ordinated to drive off a Boer force and afterwards destroyed a flour mill. One of the four men from Hay in ‘F’ company, Bert Kilgour, was severely wounded near Ottoshoop on 19 August 1900 (possibly at Malmani) and was eventually invalided to Australia (arriving back at Hay in mid-December 1900). Over the next two weeks the Imperial Bushmen were involved in continual skirmishing and engagements with the Boers in the Ottoshoop district. In late August, two weeks after setting out from Mafeking, Carrington’s troops once again entered Zeerust. On 4 September 1900 Major David Miller, the regimental Paymaster of the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen, wrote from Ottoshoop:
We have been continually engaged in skirmishes, sniping or heavier engagements on a daily basis, and are now awaiting orders for another advance… The horses have suffered terribly, we have lost nearly 200; some of our very best among them.
In early September 1900 the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen became a part of Lord Methuen's No. 2 Column, under the direct command of Major-General C. W. Douglas. The disgraced Carrington was transferred back to Bulawayo to supervise the movement of troops from Beira through Rhodesia to the frontline. On 9 September 1900 Douglas’ column (which included ‘F’ company of the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen) set out along the road from Ottoshoop south-west to Lichtenburg on the way to relieve Vryburg (south of Mafeking in the Cape Colony). Over the next four days there were several engagements with the enemy: at Wonderfontein on 10 and 11 September and at Manana (four miles east of Lichtenburg) on 12 September 1900. Douglas’ forces occupied Lichtenburg on 13 September 1900 where a small garrison was established. On 20 and 21 September Douglas’ column clashed with General Lemmer’s commandos in the Leeupan district, 35 miles southwest of Lichtenburg. On the news that Vryburg had been relieved Lord Methuen’s column joined with Douglas’ and the combined force retired to Lichtenburg once more. On 27 September 1900, as they neared Lichtenburg, “word was given that a Boer convoy was in sight”.
A party went out to meet it, but, although shots were exchanged, the convoy managed to evade capture.
The next day (28 September) a patrol of Australian troopers, including Private Alexander Aberline, were scouting in the Lichtenburg district when they sighted the Boer convoy in the vicinity of a group of farm-buildings at a location called Riet Kuil (about ten miles south of Lichtenburg). Apparently the Boers flew a white flag at the approach of the patrol, which probably emboldened a group of about eleven to fifteen of the Bushmen to approach more closely. Private George Woods of Carrathool related a version of the encounter:
The Boers were flying the white flag, but perceiving there were so few Australians, the Boer lieutenant in charge gave an order in Dutch, to his men, who rushed to their rifles, which were lying on the ground, and opened fire at short range. The order was at once given to retire, but four men, including Trooper A. M. Aberline, were mortally wounded before the men could get out of range.
Other accounts state that the farm-buildings were occupied by a force of about two hundred Boers. One of the men in the group, Sergeant Henry Tebbutt from Quirindi, gave a more vivid account of the incident (in a letter to his cousin at Hay, Mrs. R. Jennings). Sergeant Tebbutt was in ‘E’ company of the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen and was probably the most senior-ranked trooper of the patrolling party.
I was next to Aberline when he was shot. It was a most awful affair. About eleven of us rode up to a crowd of Boers, 200 strong, within fifteen yards of them, in a mistake. The cowards offered us no quarter, but opened fire upon us, and we started to gallop away. I saw Aberline fall from his horse, shot, and three others. The next second my horse was shot and fell, and I was taken prisoner. The Boers saw that the four men were so badly wounded that they could not take them away, so they put them in a farmhouse, and, to my surprise, left me to look after them until our doctor came out, whom they had sent for. I put the field dressing on all their wounds. They were brutal to look at, as they were caused by the large Martini Henri bullet. Poor Aberline was shot in the right side, near the groin, and seemed in great agony. I did all I could for them, and then made my escape back to the column, about four miles away.
Private James Collins, writing later from Waterkloof (near Rustenburg) to his father at Hay, gave a second-hand account of the shooting of Private Aberline:
On the 28th of last month [September] eleven of our men were out scouting near Lichtenberg, when they saw about 200 Boers at a farmhouse. When they got to within a few yards of it the Boer leader (Lemmer) came out with a white flag behind his back, thinking that he was captured, but when he saw there were only a few of our men there he changed his mind, and ordered his men to fire. Well, instead of our men surrendering, they tried to gallop away, and nine of them were shot. Five, I think, will die – they were not expected to live when we left them at Lichtenberg hospital. Alick M. Aberline was one of them, and the doctor told us that he was certain to die. He was shot through the stomach with an explosive bullet. They were all shot with soft-nosed or explosives; and when they hit you you are not much good if you do live.
Collins concluded his letter:
P.S. – I have got Aberline’s dog, and will try and bring him back with me if I can. I am the only one left out of the four now.
The patrol that encountered the Boers at Riet Kuil, with such devastating consequences, was made up of troopers from an assortment of the companies within the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen. Eleven of the Australians were wounded as a result of the encounter, nine of them severely. Alick Aberline and three other men, all from ‘F’ company, received the most serious wounds and it was determined that their injuries were too severe to be treated in the army field hospital. These four men were taken to the small hospital in nearby Lichtenburg, which by that stage was probably occupied by the British. Lichtenburg was a small township built around a market square, located in the western Transvaal south of the main route between Rustenberg and Mafeking. In June 1900 and the following months, during the oscillating struggle for control of the western Transvaal, Lichtenburg had been alternately occupied by Boer and British forces. It was only later (in November 1900) that a British force under Colonel Baden-Powell secured the town and established a more permanent garrison there.
Amongst the nursing staff at the Lichtenburg Hospital when the wounded Bushmen were left there to be cared for in late September 1900 was a young woman named Edith Mathews.
During that chaotic period from the middle of 1900, when neither side was able to claim advantage, Edith Maud Mathews tended Boer and Briton alike in the small hospital near the centre of town.
Edith Mathews had English heritage, yet she was from a family committed to the Boer cause. In fact Edith’s brother, Charles Mathews, was away fighting alongside the Boer commandos and did so until the end of the war. The Mathews family had been in South Africa for over half a century; Edith’s grandfather, Charles Wheatley Mathews, had emigrated to South Africa as a young man in the 1840s. He was initially engaged in farming and later, in the 1860s, a diamond-mining partnership. The Mathews family settled at Lichtenburg in the early 1870s (during the first few years of the township) and Charles Mathews later served as Lichtenburg’s second Civil Commissioner. Charles’ eldest son, Edward, and his wife Nella, had nine children (including the aforementioned Edith and Charles). Edith Maud Mathews was born in May 1881.
Despite the care and attention from the medical and nursing staff at the Lichtenburg Hospital three of the four severely wounded New South Wales Bushmen died within the week after they were admitted. Private Andrew Ross Mackellar died of his wounds on 29 September 1900. Mackellar was aged 39 years, born at Hamilton in Victoria; when he volunteered for the war in South Africa he was working as a drover. Private James Joseph Fahey died 2 October. He was a 29 year-old station-hand who had been born in Ireland. Private Alick M. Aberline, the youngest of the three Bushmen, died on 4 October in the Lichtenburg Hospital, aged 20 years. Each of the three soldiers was buried in the local cemetery at Lichtenburg. The identity of the fourth seriously-wounded soldier is not known, though it can be assumed he recovered from his injuries and was probably later invalided back to Australia.
In the Riverine Grazier of 16 October 1900 it was reported that a cablegram had been received in Sydney that afternoon “stating that Private A. M. Aberline had died from wounds received at Lichtenburg”.
In January 1901 an article appeared in the Riverine Grazier stating that Mrs. Aberline had received a letter from the young nurse at Lichtenburg, Miss Edith Mathews, “giving her particulars of the last days of her son, Mr. Alex. Aberline”. Edith Mathews’ letter had been dated November 1900, indicating that she had probably been able to obtain Mrs. Aberline’s address after Baden-Powell’s forces established a garrison at Lichtenburg during that month. Her letter gives a poignant account of the last days of Alick Aberline’s life in the Lichtenburg Hospital and describes the close bond that developed between herself and the young wounded soldier.
Lichtenburg, Transvaal, South Africa.
Dear Madam, – After waiting for more than a month, at last I have obtained your address. I thought you might be glad to hear from one who, though an utter stranger to you, yet God granted to be at the bedside of your dying son, and before I tell you of him I want to tender my sympathy to you and the family. I know such a loss must be very great. I might mention that I am not a professional nurse, only an amateur trying [to do] my little for my country and my people. The hospital belongs to the so called Boers. Your son, with four of his wounded companions, was brought here by some of his own people because they were mortally wounded, and could not be taken on to the field hospital. They were all in very great pain, poor lads. Your son was a general favourite in the ward. I always used to can him 'My Laddie,' which he seemed to like very much.
One day after dressing wounds and giving the young men something to drink, your son asked me to hand him a photo, which he had in a case in his pocket. After taking it out of the case and gazing at the portrait he closed his eyes and pressed the photo against his breast; he always kept that photo next to his bed. One afternoon, when one of his wounded comrades had died, he called me to his bedside and said, ‘Miss Mathews, you’ve been so good and kind; may I show you this photo?’ Of course, I was only too pleased to be shown your photo, and he said, 'Poor mother! How I wish I could be back with you in Australia.' So I told him we were going to make him quite well and send him back to mother. We all expected him to pull through, but God willed it otherwise. I tried everything to make his last hours pleasant – everything I thought you would have done had you been with him. I sat on his bed fanning him, and gave him everything he asked for. Once he looked sad and despondent, so I said, 'Poor laddie, you will be better tomorrow.' Fixing those large blue eyes on me, he said, 'I'll be on the way to the happy land.' I said, 'Are you looking forward to it?' He replied, 'Yes.' He did not want me to leave his bed. If I knelt before his bed fanning him he would say, 'You are too good spoiling me in that way.' I thought I would spoil him for your sake. I remained at his bed holding his hand until he died. He fixed those large blue eyes on me until I closed them. There I remained; I could not leave my laddie. I thought my heart would break, and those tears that fall for your people as well as my own dropped on the face of that laddie whose mother and sisters were so far away. I kissed him for all your sakes. Tell his sisters that I tried to be a sister to him. I am only nineteen, and he twenty, so he must have adopted me for one, and we try to be even kinder to patients coming from the other side because their loved ones are so far. We had him buried in the graveyard; his grave is marked with a cross, on which is written his name and regiment. His coffin was covered with beautiful wreaths. I attended to his grave as if it were one of my own people, so don't trouble about that. I pray God that He will comfort you all, as He alone can comfort.
Yours truly, Edith Mathews
Alick Aberline’s mother, Mrs. Janet Aberline, died on 20 February 1901 at Kongwak in Victoria, south-east of Melbourne (near Wonthaggi).
The deceased lady took her son’s death in South Africa very much to heart, and never seemed to recover from the shock it caused her.
Janet Aberline was aged 57 years when she died; her body was transported to Hay and buried at the local cemetery on 26 February 1901.
Private Alexander Aberline was posthumously awarded the South African War medal in June 1901. Edith Mathews’ letter to Mrs. Aberline was published in the Melbourne Age on 25 June 1901. The letter had been shown to Rev. Edward Isaac of the George-street Baptist church in Fitzroy by one of Alick Aberline’s sisters (who regularly attended the church). Rev. Isaac read the letter to his congregation, before conveying the details to the newspaper for publication.
After the war ended Edith Mathews married Fred Gardiner, a former British soldier, and the couple had three children (the first of whom died soon after birth). Edith Gardiner (née Mathews) died on 22 August 1910, aged 29 years, during the birth of her third child. The two surviving children, daughters named Iris and Edith, were raised by their grandparents in South Africa.
In the 1970s the Boer War historian and author, Robert L. Wallace, discovered the connection between Edith Mathews’ letter and Alick Aberline. The basic story was recounted in Wallace’s The Australians at the Boer War, published in 1976. During his research Wallace was able to convey the details to the Aberline family after knowledge of the story had been lost within the family:
In 1973 the author contacted members of Trooper Aberline's family in Australia. Mr. A. M. Aberline, of Manly, New South Wales, said that his uncle, Trooper Aberline, had come from Hay and that two of his sisters had been living at Fitzroy early in the century but nothing was known of Nurse Edith or her letter. Mr. Aberline said that as he was the first boy to be born in his family after the death of his uncle in South Africa, he had been christened Alexander Matthew Aberline, thus bearing his uncle's Christian names. Mr. Aberline was amazed when he was told that Defence Department records revealed that his uncle's two Christian names had been Alexander McFarlane. His parents had joined the name of his uncle Trooper Aberline and that of Edith Matthews but the reason had long been forgotten.
In January 1973 Edith Mathews’ younger sister, Mrs. A. Moorecroft of Queenstown in the Cape Province, wrote to Robert L. Wallace describing the effect that Alick Aberline’s death had on her sister:
I cannot remember the lad's name, it has slipped my memory. I am nearing 82 but I remember the occasion as if it were yesterday. I have never seen Edith so upset. She truly mourned his loss. For many years we put flowers on the three graves of the Australians.
“PETER J. CLANCY – Killed in action 25TH OctR 1900.”
Peter J. Clancy’s father, James Roche Clancy, was born in county Limerick in Ireland and had been living in the Hay district since at least 1872. In November 1872 he married Julia O’Connor at the Sixteen-mile Gums, south of Hay on the road to Deniliquin. Julia (from county Kerry in Ireland) was living in Melbourne at the time of her marriage. During that period (or in early 1873) James R. Clancy purchased land at the Nine-mile Box near Hay (on the road to Booligal). The Nine-mile Box had been a coach change-station on the route between Hay and Booligal, established by John Taylor in the late-1860s. In June 1872 the hotel at the locality, then owned by George Barnes, had been destroyed by fire. After purchasing the land and whatever remained at the site James Clancy proceeded to build a house and re-establish the coaching facilities. By early 1875 there is a reference to “Clancy's stables” at the Nine-mile Box. During this establishment period Julia Clancy probably remained in Melbourne.
Peter James Clancy was the eldest of James and Julia Clancy’s children; he was born in about 1873 (probably in Melbourne). The couple’s second child, Jeremiah James, was born at Carlton in Melbourne in May 1875. Shortly afterwards James Clancy bought his family to the Nine-mile Box to live. James and Julia Clancy had three more children (all born at the Nine-mile Box): William (born in 1877); Michael (born in July 1878); and, Catherine (born in 1882). The second child, Jeremiah, died in February 1877 four weeks after he accidentally received severe burns from a fire. As well as managing the stables, James Clancy farmed at the Nine-mile Box, probably in fields developed by John Taylor in the late 1860s. Taylor had found a spring at the locality and grew crops of oats and barley.
In 1898 Peter James Clancy, aged about twenty-five years, left Hay for Queensland. He was living at Burketown on the Gulf of Carpentaria when, in early 1900, he volunteered to join the Colonial forces to fight in South Africa. Peter Clancy was accepted as a Private (regimental number 279) in the Queensland Imperial Bushmen, which became part of the Fourth Contingent of troops sent from the Australian colonies. His younger brother, William, also volunteered for service in South Africa and was placed in ‘A’ squadron of the New South Wales Contingent of the Imperial Bushmen’s Corps (regimental number 1360). William Clancy was amongst the group of volunteers from Hay accepted by Major Carrington in March 1900.
The 4th Queensland Imperial Bushmen (consisting of 372 troops and 25 officers) left for South Africa from Brisbane on 18 May 1900 aboard the transport-vessel Manchester Port. The voyage to Africa took four weeks. On 14 June the vessel arrived at Beira in the Portuguese-administered territory of Mozambique, before proceeding along the south-east coast to Port Elizabeth and then on to Cape Town. The Manchester Port anchored in Table Bay on 23 June; baggage and stores were off-loaded first and the men disembarked the next day. Peter Clancy wrote to his parents the day before he left the vessel.
We are to get off the ship to-morrow at Capetown… It has been terrible on board, as there is such a crowd of men and horses. So far, the men have been in good health, but we lost about fifteen horses. I think there was a disease amongst the English horses, and ours got it from them.
After a short rest at Maitland Camp (a staging camp four miles out of Cape Town), the troops travelled by train for a week to Kroonstad in the Orange Free State. By that stage the British counter-offensive in South Africa was well advanced. The Queensland troops were following in the wake of the recent advances of British and colonial forces through the Orange Free State and into the Transvaal to Johannesburg and Pretoria. At Kroonstad the Queenslanders were sent out to the surrounding district in search of Boer insurgents. After a fortnight in the Kroonstad district the Queensland Imperial Bushmen proceeded by train to Pretoria in the Transvaal, where they joined with General Ian Hamilton's forces.
Peter Clancy wrote to his parents again from Pretoria on 10 July 1900, just a month after the city had surrendered to the British forces under the command of Lord Roberts. Clancy wrote of his initial experiences in South Africa:
I have had a rough time since we arrived at Capetown. We were put into a train and sent right on to Bloemfontein. Then on to Kroonstad. We were seven days in the train, and it was rough. Then we were sent out in the country – the Orange Free State – after rebels, for a fortnight. We had no tents, and were sleeping in the open every night. We are going out to fight Botha from here in the morning. We can hear the cannons roaring at the present moment, but I do not take any notice of it now, as this is my second time of being within firing distance of the Boers. From what I can hear from those who are here, this battle is going to be a big one, and I feel quite anxious to get in the fighting… You would hardly credit the pleasure it is to get news from home after being out here. We get no war news, as there are no papers printed here. The sights that I have witnessed since I came over are something terrible. We have come to towns deserted and ruined – merely the frames of the houses standing. It was a sight to see the Kroonstad railway blown up. It was a ruin. On the line from there to Pretoria all the bridges were in ruins. It is wonderful how quickly the British got the line in repair again. At one place the line was torn away for five miles. But you could not imagine what it was like without seeing it… I am writing this on the ground.
The British counter-offensive had succeeded in capturing the major towns of the Orange Free State and the political and administrative centres of Johannesburg and Pretoria in the Transvaal. Pretoria had been the capital of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republic (ZAR). However the rapid advances had over-extended supply and communication lines and disease began to take a heavy toll on the British and colonial forces. The British effectively controlled only that territory which was occupied by their columns. With their armies scattered the Boer commanders abandoned systematic warfare and began to adopt guerrilla tactics in order to prolong the conflict. Their commando units commenced sporadic raids against infrastructure and supply targets in order to disrupt the operational capacity of the British Army. Lord Roberts summed up the situation in a despatch to the War Office:
Subsequent to the occupation of Johannesburg the organised forces of the enemy were materially reduced in numbers, many of the burghers in arms against us returning to their farms, surrendering their rifles, and voluntarily taking the oath of neutrality. But the submission only proved real when the burghers were protected from outside interference by the actual presence of troops. Whenever a Boer commando has traversed a district, the inhabitants of which had ostensibly resumed their peaceful vocations, a considerable part of the male population again joined the enemy and engaged in active hostilities.
The Boers had maintained their hold on territory in the vicinity of Pretoria even after the city was taken by British forces. In July 1900 it was reported that “the Boers continue to hold a line of kopjes five miles north of Wonderboom and Daspoort forts”. In mid-July 1900 the Queensland Imperial Bushmen suffered their first casualty of the war. On 13 July, three days after Peter Clancy had written to his parents, a patrol was sent out to escort guns to Wonderboom, north-west of Pretoria. The Queenslanders were involved in a skirmish with Boer forces at Honen's Nek during which Private James Duggan was shot dead. On 16 July the Bushmen were again engaged by the enemy at De Waggen Drift.
During the last week of July the Queensland Imperial Bushmen participated in an advance to Rustfontein, east of Pretoria. Over the next three weeks or so their operations switched to the west of Pretoria, along the Magaliesberg Range running between Pretoria and Rustenburg. They were involved in a number of skirmishes and engagements with Boer commandos as they pursued the formidable Boer commander, Christiaan de Wet. In late August the Bushmen advanced towards Warmbad during which they were engaged by Boers at Krokodil Drift. The Queenslanders returned to Pretoria on 28 August where they remained until 10 September. In mid-September a detachment of four officers and fifty men from the Queensland Bushmen joined General French’s forces directed at operations east of Pretoria. The remainder, including Private Clancy, joined General Ridley’s column (under the overall command of General Clement). During the period 15 to 23 September the Queensland Bushmen undertook operations at Maghatie's Valley.
The Zandfontein area, in the rugged Magaliesberg Range about three to four miles north-west of Pretoria, was of great strategic importance. The Rustenburg road, one of the main routes between Pretoria and the Western Transvaal, passed through the mountain range along the Daspoort defile. A fort stood at Zandfontein on the northern slope of a ridge of hills west of the Daspoort passage, overlooking the road. On 25 September 1900 the Queensland Bushmen were involved in a skirmish at Zandfontein during which Private Peter Clancy was killed and Lieutenant Higson received a severe head-wound. A second-hand account of Peter Clancy’s death was given by Trooper ‘Mick’ O’Brien (who had been a station-hand on “Corrong” station) when he returned to Hay from South Africa in January 1901. O’Brien had spoken to another soldier who had witnessed Clancy’s death:
Speaking of Clancy’s death, [O’Brien] says that his informant stated that the late trooper was in the thick of the fight, and had emptied his magazine, and 13 bullets out of his bandolier, when a bullet went through the top of his hat. Clancy remarked that that was close, and the next instant he was shot through the heart.
Reverend C. Day, who was present on the battle-field when Peter Clancy died, wrote the following to a Brisbane newspaper:
Poor Clancy only lived a few minutes after being shot through the lower part of the heart. He expressed a wish that he should be buried with his signet ring on. I had a grave dug close by where he fell, and one or two of us laid him to rest just as he was. I read the service over him, which was accompanied by the ping-pong of the rifles all around, and the booming of the big guns.
Australian troops were still in the Zandfontein area in early October 1900 when it was reported that Lord Roberts “visited Daspoort, where the Australians and Rhodesians are encamped”.
He thanked the men for the devotion and bravery they had evinced throughout the campaign…
On 11 October 1900 James Clancy, of the Nine-Mile Box, received a telegram from Lieutenant-Colonel Lyster, of Brisbane, informing him of the death of his eldest son:
Deeply regret to inform you cable received reporting death of Private Peter James Clancy, killed at Zandfontein on 25th September; accept sincere sympathy from Commandant and staff.
The Riverine Grazier added the following comments:
When the news of his death reached Hay yesterday the greatest regret was expressed, and Mr. and Mrs. Clancy and their family, who are old and much respected residents of Hay, have the sympathy of all classes in their bereavement. Mr. William Clancy, a younger brother of the deceased, went to the war with the New South Wales contingent of Imperial Bushmen, but so far as is known the two brothers never met in South Africa.
James’ younger brother, William Clancy, returned to Hay on 24 July 1901, together with five other men from Hay and district who were enlisted in the 3rd New South Wales Imperial Bushmen – Robert Aitken, William Cronk, James Collins, James Butler and Henry Patrick Prendergast.
Although there was no formal reception of the returned soldiers, a very large crowd gathered at the railway station to welcome the troopers home. As the train approached the railway station, the Hay City Band, the members of which had hurried across from the show-grounds struck up “Home Sweet Home.” The explosion of detonators and cheers for the Bushmen filled the air for the next few minutes, and then the friends rushed the carriages to welcome their returned relatives. But the latter had all discarded their uniforms, and dressed in their ordinary attire it took the crowd some time to discover them, and then after hearty cheers were again given individually and collectively for the returned warriors, and hearty congratulations expressed at their safe return, the gathering dispersed. All the returned men appear in very best health.
James and Julia Clancy continued to live in the Hay area for the rest of their lives. James Clancy, in conjunction with his brother John, conducted a dairy business for many years; at one time the Clancy Brothers were the principal milk suppliers of Hay.
The distance of the farm from the town, and other difficulties, led to the brothers dropping out of the milk vending business, and taking to carrying, at which occupation they were very successful, being trusted and much sought after teamsters.
Julia Clancy died on 9 September 1913 at Hay. James Roche Clancy died in the Hay Hospital on 16 November 1917, aged about 74 years.
The funeral took place on Sunday afternoon, and was one of the biggest seen in Hay for a long time, a large number of people attending to pay the last sad offices of respect to one who for half-a-century had been a much esteemed resident, and who had put up a good fight against many difficulties, in good and bad seasons, and who through it all had been a good citizen and friend. The interment took place in the Catholic burial-ground, the Rev. Father James Shore officiating.
“THOS. C. ROBERTSON – Killed in action 21ST NovB 1900.”
Thomas Cunningham Robertson was born at Deniliquin in 1864, the son of Thomas and Jane Robertson. He was the third of ten children and the eldest son of the family. Thomas’ father, Thomas Robertson (sen.), was a solicitor who, for much of the period from the 1860s to his death in 1891, was a prominent figure within the political and social milieu of the Riverina district.
Thomas Robertson (sen.) had been born in 1831 at Windsor in England, the son of the mathematics master at nearby Eton College. Robertson studied law and practiced in Scotland before he departed for South Africa in about 1850 where he was admitted to the bar and appointed an attorney of the Natal District Court. In 1851 a war began between the native amaXhosa people and European settlers in South Africa. It was the eighth of nine distinct conflicts which were known as the Kaffir Wars (nowadays referred to as the Xhosa or Cape Frontier Wars). These conflicts were important factors in the steady dispossession of the amaXhosa people from much of their lands during the nineteenth century. The 8th Kaffir War extended from 1851 to 1853. Thomas Robertson (sen.) took an active role in organising a volunteer corps to fight in the conflict and was also involved, to a limited degree, in the actual fighting.
Taunted that while he was ready enough to send other people to the war he had no disposition to hazard his own life, he relinquished the practice of his profession and hurried off to the seat of war. He attempted to obtain a commission, but failed; although, unattached, he smelt powder and saw blood in one or two skirmishing engagements.
At the end of the hostilities Robertson returned to Natal and “found his practice had disappeared”, whereupon he returned to England. He attained an appointment as secretary of the Australian Agricultural Company and soon afterwards travelled to Australia where he “entered the company’s service as an overseer”. Robertson held several positions with the Australian Agricultural Company, the last of which was as manager of “Warrah” station, on the Liverpool Plains (near Quirindi). In the mid-1850s Thomas Robertson (sen.) travelled to Victoria to search for gold in the Beechworth district and afterwards purchased the lease of the pound at Mulwala, on the main road between Sydney and Melbourne. Later he became a partner in the leasehold of “Coreen” station (between Corowa and Urana). In February 1857 Thomas Robertson and Jane Susannah Cunningham were married at Albury and the couple subsequently settled at Deniliquin. Robertson sold his interest in “Coreen” and then purchased the lease of the Deniliquin pound. In the early 1860s Thomas Robertson (sen.) successfully applied for admission as a solicitor in New South Wales and practiced at Deniliquin during the 1860s and early 1870s. In March 1862 Robertson opened a branch office at Hay and often visited the new township to represent his clients during court-sittings. During his period at Deniliquin Thomas Robertson served as an Alderman of the township and was elected Mayor on two occasions.
In 1872 Thomas Robertson (sen.) and his family re-located to Sydney where Robertson became a partner in a firm of solicitors. When the sitting member for The Hume electorate (Albury district) resigned in February 1873 Robertson was entreated to contest the by-election. He was successful and served as the Member for The Hume in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly from March 1873 to November 1874. He was unsuccessful in his bid for a second term. In the meantime Robertson continued to practice as a solicitor in Sydney. In 1880 he unsuccessfully sought election to the Camden electorate. In 1885 Thomas Robertson “took a leading part” in a public meeting “held in support of the Government who had without parliamentary sanction placed the ‘Soudan contingent’ at the disposal of the Imperial Government”. In the wake of General Gordon’s death by the Mahdi’s forces at Khartoum in January 1885 the Government of New South Wales had cabled the British government in London with an offer of troops for Sudan (which was accepted on the condition that the contingent would be under British command). The troops of the New South Wales Contingent departed for the Sudan in March 1885. It was the first occasion in which soldiers in the pay of a self-governing Australian colony had participated in an imperial war. The Australians saw little action during the short campaign; the only fatalities were nine troopers who died of disease or by accident. The troops returned to New South Wales in mid-May 1885.
In 1886 Thomas Robertson (sen.) and his family left Sydney to settle at Hay, where Robertson took over the practice of the recently-deceased local solicitor Frederic W. Reed. The family lived at Hay in a house called ‘Lansdowne’. In June 1891 Thomas Robertson (sen.) was stricken with seizures, which left him seriously ill. In the last few months of his life, “feeling himself unable to cope with the business”, Robertson took his nephew, Leslie S. C. Robertson, into partnership. After an illness of several months duration Thomas Robertson (sen.) died at his home in Hay on 1 October 1891, aged 60 years. Thomas C. Robertson was aged 22 years when his parents left Sydney to live at Hay. As a young man Robertson worked on pastoral stations in the Riverina district and in Queensland. When he enlisted for service in South Africa in January 1900, aged 35 years, Thomas C. Robertson was living at “Toganmain” station between Hay and Narrandera. Robertson was accepted as a Private (regimental number 465) in ‘D’ Squadron of the 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles, which had been formed as part of the second contingent of troops from the Australian colonies to South Africa.
This was the first Contingent despatched from New South Wales which did not consist entirely of drafts from local regiments or of men recruited from different local infantry regiments. One squadron from the Mounted Rifle Regiment had already been sent, together with a company of infantry which was mounted in South Africa. It was now resolved that three squadrons of Mounted Rifles should be raised; to be "B,"C," and "D" squadrons of the 1st Regiment, and that the squadron and company at the seat of war should be "A" and "E" squadrons respectively. Men who were good shots and good riders were required, and preference was given to those serving, or who had served, in the local forces, provided they fulfilled the necessary qualifications. Reservists and men of civilian rifle clubs were also eligible on the same terms.
The newly-recruited men of the 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles were under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Knight. They departed from Sydney on 17 January 1900 aboard the transport-vessel Southern Cross, and arrived at Cape Town on 17 February (where they disembarked two days later). The men of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles arrived in South Africa at a critical time, as the balance in the conflict began to shift when the British forces under Field-Marshall Lord Roberts won key victories in the field during February 1900.
Lord Roberts had arrived at Cape Town in mid-January 1900 to co-ordinate the British counter-offensive after the early set-backs and defeats of the first months of the war. Roberts’ initial strategy involved plans for the relief of Kimberley (besieged by the Boers since October 1899) and the invasion of the Orange Free State. A large Boer force was concentrated on the north bank of the Modder River at Magersfontein, on the railway line south of Kimberley. Roberts opted not to attack directly at Magersfontein (which had been attempted unsuccessfully in December 1899). In February 1900 Roberts sent two infantry divisions and a cavalry division on a flanking movement; they marched south-east along the Riet River before crossing the river to put themselves between Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, to the east and Kimberley across the Modder River to the north-west. The cavalry under Major-General Sir John French crossed the Modder River and on 14 February they swept through a gap in the Boer lines to liberate Kimberley. The Boer army at Magersfontein, under the command of Piet Cronjé, were now in a vulnerable situation. On 16 February they began to move to the east along the Modder River to avoid being surrounded by the British. However, the mobility of Cronjé’s forces was impaired by a large supply train and numerous camp-followers. French was ordered to intercept them; his cavalry engaged the Boers at Paardeberg Drift on the north bank of the Modder River. On 18 February, after British reinforcements had arrived from the south, Lord Roberts’ chief-ofstaff, Major-General Lord Kitchener, ordered an ill-conceived frontal assault on the Boer positions, resulting in heavy British losses. The next day Roberts took personal command at Paardeberg. After some vacillation he ordered his field-guns to bombard the Boer positions. Eventually, on 27 February, with the British forces pressing closer and almost all their horses and oxen killed, Cronjé and the 4,069 burghers under his command surrendered to Lord Roberts.
The British forces now began to advance toward Bloemfontein. By this time the newly-arrived troops of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles had joined Roberts’ column (attached to Lieutenant-Colonel Le Gallais’ Brigade). The Boer commander, Christiaan de Wet, with a force of 6,000 men, occupied a defensive line on the hills around Poplar Grove. On 7 March 1900 Lord Roberts sent two infantry division straight at the Boer position, while the cavalry made a wide flanking move to the south in an attempt to prevent their escape. With their morale undermined by recent events, the burghers simply turned and fled, with French’s cavalry unable to get into position in time to cut off their retreat. The British encountered more determined resistance three days later at Driefontein. De Wet had been joined by another of the Boer commanders, Koos de la Rey. With a force of just 1,500 men, the Boers were heavily outnumbered. Nevertheless they managed to hold off the British attack for most of the day. By nightfall, however, the British forces had made significant gains; they had overtaken the northern end of the Boer defensive line and were threatening the southern flanks. During the night the burghers fled from the battle. British losses at Driefontein were 82 dead and 342 wounded.
With the British forces pressing upon Bloemfontein the government of the Free State retreated to Kroonstad (on the railway line further to the north-east). On the afternoon of 13 March Lord Roberts made a formal entrance into Bloemfontein. For the next six weeks or so Roberts endeavoured to consolidate his position as he re-supplied and re-organised his forces in preparation for an advance to Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal. During this period the Boers were able to inflict a number of set-backs on the British, including the temporary capture of the Bloemfontein water-works at Sannaspos, 30 kilometres east of the capital. The disruption to Bloemfontein’s water supply led to a severe outbreak of typhoid amongst Roberts’s troops.
The troops of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles were placed within a Mounted Infantry brigade under General Edward Hutton as part of the re-organisation of Lord Roberts’ forces for the advance to Pretoria. L. March Phillipps, a member of Rimington’s Guides (under Major M. F. Rimington), described the British army as it began to march along the railway line towards Pretoria on 1 May 1900:
North of Bloemfontein we get into a pretty, uneven country with several level-topped kopjes set end to end like dominoes, and thickets of grey mimosas clustering in the hollows. The great column is moving forward on our left. Big ambulance waggons, with huge white covers nodding one behind the other, high above the press; the naval twelve-pounders, with ten-oxen teams and sailors swinging merrily alongside; infantry marching with the indescribable regular undulation of masses of drilled men, reminding one of the ripple of a centipede's legs; field artillery, horse artillery, transport waggons, more infantry, more guns – they stretch in a long, dark river right across the plain.
A force of about 4,000 Boers formed a defensive line at Brandfort, “a little town on the railway some forty miles north of Bloemfontein, overlooked by a big rocky kopje on the north”. Lord Roberts’ forces attacked the Boer positions there on 3 May. General Hutton’s Mounted Infantry brigade (which included the New South Wales Mounted Rifles), assumed a crucial role in the conflict. A Reuters correspondent described the British “advance in force” at Brandfort:
On the right, General Bruce Hamilton's Brigade moved east along a line of kopjes. East of the line of communications, and close in touch with Bruce Hamilton, followed Maxwell's Brigade, with Wavell on the left, these forming General Tucker's Division. In the centre, General PoleCarew's Division advanced, with Inigo Jones on the right and Stevenson on the left, while Hutton's Mounted Infantry Corps, consisting mainly of Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders, made a wide detour to the east and arrived on the east side of the town, where they were totally unexpected by the enemy.
General Hutton’s flanking movement proved to be critical to the outcome of the confrontation:
Soon afterwards gun fire was heard on the left. General Hutton had come into touch with the enemy, who were holding a strong position, but, his arrival being totally unexpected, they had left several small kopjes unoccupied. Seizing these, General Hutton opened fire with No. 9 Field Battery and sent Colonel Alderson to try to outflank the enemy on the left. The Boers were unable to withstand the raking shrapnel fire, and, evacuating the kopjes, streamed away across the plain towards a small hill immediately above and commanding the town. As they left No. 9 Battery placed several shells in their midst. As soon as the retreat of the Boers was perceived General Hutton ordered a portion of his troops to advance in pursuit. Major Rimington seized the hill, and the enemy retired, leaving the town at our mercy.
By 5 May the British had reached the Vet River, along which De la Rey had established defensive positions either side of the railway crossing. Hutton’s brigade was advancing on the western side of the railway line and Lieutenant-General Hamilton’s mounted infantry division was on the eastern side. In the afternoon Hutton’s men, on the western flank, confronted a strong Boer force on the opposite bank at Coetzee's Drift, ten kilometres west of the railway. The troopers of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles, together with Queensland and New Zealand troops, made a successful frontal assault, supported by a flanking manoeuvre by British and Canadian troops.
The Boer commander, General Louis Botha, had withdrawn his forces from Natal and joined with De Wet in an attempt to block the British advance at the Zand River. When the forces met on 10 May, Roberts employed French’s cavalry in a flanking movement which forced the Boers to withdraw to avoid being surrounded. Two days later the British were able to occupy Kroonstad. Roberts again took an opportunity to re-organise and re-supply his army.
One powerful weapon which was forged during those weeks was the collection of the mounted infantry of the central army into one division, which was placed under the command of Ian Hamilton, with Hutton and Ridley as brigadiers. Hutton's brigade contained the Canadians, New South Wales men, West Australians, Queenslanders, New Zealanders, Victorians, South Australians, and Tasmanians, with four battalions of Imperial Mounted Infantry, and several light batteries. Ridley's brigade contained the South African irregular regiments of cavalry, with some imperial troops. The strength of the whole division came to over ten thousand rifles, and in its ranks there rode the hardiest and best from every corner of the earth over which the old flag is flying.
The New South Wales Mounted Rifles were placed under the direct command of Colonel Henry de Lisle (within General Ridley's Mounted Infantry Brigade), as part of General Ian Hamilton's division.
General Hamilton’s forces took responsibility for the territory to the east of the railway line. The government of the Orange Free State had retreated from Kroonstad to Lindley, but Hamilton’s operations necessitated a further retreat to Vrede, in the extreme north-east of the State. Hamilton’s troops occupied Lindley on 20 May 1900.
During these operations Hamilton had the two formidable De Wet brothers in front of him, and suffered nearly a hundred casualties in the continual skirmishing which accompanied his advance. His right flank and rear were continually attacked, and these signs of forces outside our direct line of advance were full of menace for the future.
The British army crossed the border into the Transvaal on 27 May. Roberts’s forces occupied the Witwatersrand goldmines and entered Johannesburg on 30 May. On 2 June President Kruger and his government departed from Pretoria and retreated along the railway line to the eastern Transvaal. Two days later Lord Roberts entered Pretoria, the capital of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republic (ZAR). Roberts’ advance had been spectacular, though the rapid advances had over-extended supply and communication lines and disease had began to take a heavy toll on the British and colonial forces. Effectively the British controlled only that territory which was occupied by their columns.
As Lord Roberts began to take stock of his situation a force of 6,000 Boer commandos under the overall command of General Botha had occupied a 50-kilometre front to the east of Pretoria.
To deal with this threat Roberts moved out on 11 June with 14,000 men and 70 guns – all he could spare from the protection of his lines of communication. His plan called for attacks by Lieut.-General John French’s cavalry and mounted infantry in the north and Lieut.-General Sir Ian Hamilton’s infantry, and mounted infantry in the south, which were intended to tie up both enemy flanks before a main attack was attempted against the centre.
On this occasion, however, the Boers commanders had anticipated Roberts’ tactics. On the left flank French’s cavalry were halted by De la Rey’s commandos. On the right Hamilton was strongly opposed by General Piet Fourie’s commandos who occupied a long rocky ridgeline dominated by Diamond Hill.
In the face of the situation which now confronted him, Roberts was reluctantly forced to contemplate a costly frontal attack in the centre against enemy positions which had been barely touched. Reports during the night, however, persuaded him to lend his support for a main thrust to be mounted by Hamilton against the Boer strongpoint at Diamond Hill.
The main assault was launched after noon on 12 June, involving five battalions of troops moving against the western slopes which led onto the Diamond Hill plateau. The attack soon became stalled as the British and colonial troops were exposed to fire from the high ground. The breakthrough occurred at the Rhenosterfontein kopje, the eastern extension of the Diamond Hill ridgeline. During the morning of the next day, in heavy fog, ‘C’ Squadron of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles (under Captain Maurice Hilliard) escorted field-guns into position in order to bombard the Boer line. The troops of the 6th Mounted Infantry Battalion worked their way forward on foot, but were halted by gunfire from above. The deadlock was broken when, towards evening, De Lisle ordered the New South Wales Mounted Rifles to advance. With two ‘pom-poms’ providing artillery support 350 men from four squadrons of the New South Wales regiment galloped in formation to the foot of the hill, dismounted and began to climb the steep, rocky slope.
‘It was a difficult climb especially after a trying gallop’, reported [Captain] Hilliard later, ‘but our men never hesitated.’ Soon they were on the hill’s flat top, scurrying forward from boulder to boulder, bullets hissing past them. Then they flashed their bayonets or waved their rifles like clubs, and their officers cried: ‘Forward, New South Wales,’ with a ‘real colonial yell’ they leapt forward and bluffed the Boers into evacuating the hill.
When darkness fell, aware that De Lisle had taken a part of the ridgeline giving Hamilton access to the plateau, Botha gave orders for his commandos to disperse during the night.
Over the next several months the New South Wales Mounted Rifles, as part of Colonel de Lisle’s column, were engaged in patrolling and scouting in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. From necessity the Boer commanders began to adopt guerrilla tactics in order to prolong the conflict. Their commando units increasingly carried out sporadic raids against infrastructure and supply targets in order to disrupt the operational capacity of the British Army.
Disorganized and outnumbered, the Boer citizen soldiers offered very little resistance to the invasion of their homelands and the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were annexed. The republican armies were not defeated, however, but merely dispersed, and the war entered an unorthodox phase lasting more than eighteen months. In this period of so-called guerrilla warfare, the Boers adopted a strike and retreat strategy and were chased all over South Africa by British mounted columns.
Private Thomas C. Robertson was ‘mentioned’ in a despatch dated 25 August 1900 “for distinguished service on the field of battle”. The despatch read: “For conspicuous good work and bravery in scouting, patrolling, and other dangerous duties, from 12th April to 16th June, 1900.”
A number of officers and men serving with the New South Wales troops in South Africa have been brought to the notice of the Commander-in-Chief, for distinguished service on the field of battle. A copy of the despatch, and the full list of the names, have been sent to the New South Wales military authorities. Amongst those who are “mentioned” in the despatches are:–– … Private T. C. Robertson, “for conspicuous good work and bravery in scouting, patrolling, and other dangerous duties.” The last named gentleman is a cousin of Mr. Leslie S. C. Robertson, of Hay, and has many friends in this part of Australia who will be glad to hear of his success.
Private Thomas Cunningham Robertson was killed in action on 21 November 1900 at Rhenoster Kop in the Transvaal, about 32 kilometres east of Pretoria. The locality was named after the highest point of a crescent-shaped line of kopjes. The circumstances of Private ‘Tom’ Robertson’s death were described by Lieutenant F. L. Learmonth:
Yesterday a patrol of 100 men and two guns, went out some eight or ten miles to a farm to fetch in some women and children who were being sent to Kroonstad. Only 30 of our N.S.W. M.R. were sent out, and I was not of the party. But it appears that they accomplished their mission, and were returning, 20 of the N.S.W. men acting as rear guard, amongst them Tommy. It was open ground, and they were suddenly taken aback by nearly 50 Boers galloping straight at them – most unusual tactics on their part. Our men, not to be beaten, leaped off their horses, and holding the reins on their arms, opened on the Boers at from 800 or 1000 yards. During this three of our horses were shot, but we accounted for two of the Boers. I believe it was a terribly hot fire for about ten minutes. However, the Boers, not being able to get our chaps in this way, then mounted, and tried to get round our flank. Then our fellows also mounted, and galloped on. A few Boers kept up a desultory fire, and it was while mounted and galloping that poor Tommy got one right through the back, and out at the breast-bone. He fell, but was picked up by his mates, and carried on. He lived for half an hour, and was quite conscious. It was Captain Watson who carried him, and he quite recognised him, saying, “Steady, you are knocking my wind out!” Shortly after they put him on the waggon he looked up, and said, “Where are we?” and then died. We buried him in the evening under a shady mimosa tree in this, one of our prettiest camps. The place is called Dansfontein, and lies two thirds of the way between Kroonstad and Rhenoster Kop, which you ought to see marked in any map.
On 22 November the commanding officer of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles, Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Knight, wrote to Private Robertson’s sister:
Nov. 22nd, 1900. Camp West of Kroonstad. I have the very worst of news to give you, for yesterday your brave brother was shot. I was not there, so Mr. Learmonth will write you full particulars. On returning to camp, I was told, to my own, and everyone else’s great grief, that one of our best men, and pluckiest scouts, had been killed. It was a most unlucky hit, as he was a long way off, and was going fast. We cannot speak too highly of your brother. Always ready and willing to take the hardest piece of work, cool and collected in danger, he was the beau ideal of a scout. I had hoped to get him a good billet out here when we went home. Believe me when I say that your brother possessed the good wishes of every officer and man in the regiment, and the loss of no one could have been felt more. – Yours very sincerely, Guy Knight.
In addition to the details he provided of Private Robertson’s death, Lieutenant Learmonth (who was a member of the family that owned “Groongal” and “Bringagee” stations, upstream from Hay) made the following comments to Tom Robertson’s sister:
Ten miles north-west of Kroonstad, O.R.C., 22nd November. – You will already have had the news by cable of poor Tommy’s death yesterday. It is very sad, and I personally feel his loss keenly. He was such a good, keen soldier, always merry and jolly, and always first to spring to any duty required. Only three or four weeks ago he was strongly recommended for a commission in the new police here, and would have got it… I need not tell you how much I, in common with many others, will sympathise with you and your brothers and sisters in your loss. For myself, I can only say that I am fit and well, but, like the rest of our fellows, quite anxious to get home again. – Yours very sincerely, F. Livingstone Learmonth.
In mid-December Thomas Robertson’s younger sister Ida sent a message by telegraph to her cousin in Hay, Leslie Robertson, informing him of Tom’s death in South Africa.
Mr. Leslie S. C. Robertson this afternoon received a telegraphic message from his cousin, Miss Ida Robertson, as follows:–– “Tom killed, South Africa, November 21st.” This message refers to Mr. Thomas Cunningham Robertson, who left Hay to go with the second contingent as a member of the Australian Mounted Infantry. The deceased soldier was well known in Riverina, where he was a general favourite, and the news of his death will be received with great regret by his numerous friends and acquaintances. Mr. Thos. Robertson was a son of the late Mr. Thomas Robertson, solicitor, and cousin of Mr. Leslie S. C. Robertson. His death is the third which has taken place amongst the Hay district volunteers.
Private Thomas Cunningham Robertson was posthumously awarded the South African War medal in June 1901.
Eight days after Thomas Robertson was killed at Rhenoster Kop a battle was fought at the locality between a British column (which included Australian Bushmen and New Zealand Mounted Rifles) commanded by Major-General Paget and a Boer force led by General Ben Viljoen. The Boers occupied the line of kopjes, from which there was a commanding view of the northern approach over a wide open slope, which they defended for the whole day against a larger British force. The Boers held such strong defensive positions that the British attack stalled, with the troops pinned down on the open veldt. During the night, however, the Boers withdrew from their positions. The conflict at Rhenoster Kop on 29 November 1900 has been described as “the last pitched battle of its kind during the war”.
“WILLIAM REGAN – Killed in action 21ST May 1901.”
Of the five men from Hay and district who were killed in the Boer War, the least is known about William Regan. A reference in the Riverine Grazier after Regan’s death states:
[William Regan] was a native of Bendigo, thirty-two years old, and resided many years in this district. Mrs. Butler, Seaton Farm, Gunbar, is a sister, and the only relative here.
From this rudimentary information and additional research the following can be extrapolated. William Regan was born in about 1869 and spent his early life at Bendigo in central Victoria. William’s sister, Catherine Ruth Regan, married Henry George Butler and the couple settled at “Seaton Farm”, adjacent to Gunbar township. “Seaton Farm” was originally selected by John McFarlane, who was later joined by other selectors (including Butler), forming a community of small farmers on the outskirts of Gunbar township. Henry and Catherine Butler had five children (four boys and a girl), born between 1894 and about 1900. Catherine’s brother, William Regan, probably came to the Hay district as a young man in the late 1880s or early 1890s, and probably worked in the Gunbar district.
The Riverine Grazier states that “Regan left Hay in March, 1901, to join the Mounted Rifles”. This passage indicates that William Regan joined the 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles (for which recruitment was carried out in March 1901). However the major published source of information about the Australian forces in the Boer War, Murray’s Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, does not list Regan as a member of this regiment (or of any of the other Australian forces that served in South Africa). But other evidence (detailed below) indicates that William Regan was enlisted in the 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles, and his absence from Murray’s book possibly indicates a deficiency in the records.
The men of the 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles were conveyed to South Africa aboard four separate transport-vessels: ‘B’ and ‘D’ squadrons departed on 15 March 1901 aboard the Maplemore and arrived at Port Elizabeth on 12 April; ‘A’, ‘C’ and ‘E’ squadrons travelled on the British Princess which departed on 21 March and arrived at Durban on 17 April; the regiment’s machine-gun section left on 21 March aboard the Ranee and arrived at Durban on 23 April; and a quantity of drafted troops embarked on the transport Antillian on 5 April and arrived at Durban on 12 May.
William Regan was killed soon after his regiment arrived in South Africa, possibly on the first occasion that they engaged with enemy forces. The 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles were attached to Colonel Remington’s column at the beginning of May 1901. The report in the Riverine Grazier contains some specific details of William Regan’s death:
Private William Regan was killed on the 21st May, 1901, at Mandesfontein… He was only in South Africa one month when he met his death. He was struck in the mouth by an explosive bullet, and died instantly. Six empty cartridges were found by his side.
Mandesfontein is probably near the town of Springfontein in the south of the Orange Free State. Reports from the London Times and the Sydney Morning Herald provide details of Australian and British casualties at Mandesfontein on 21 May 1901, however Regan’s death was not listed. Two other troopers of the 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles were killed that day: Privates Herbert William Lenon and Andrew McKenzie Campbell, both from ‘E’ squadron. In addition, Sergeant James Sutton and Private Thomas Wells were severely wounded during the fighting. British troops of the 21st Battalion Imperial Yeomanry were also involved in the engagement with the Boers at Mandesfontein; they also suffered casualties, including Lance-Corporal G. Williams who was “dangerously wounded” and later died of his wounds.
Despite William Regan’s apparent absence from the official records his death was recognised in the Hay district and is recorded for posterity on the South African War Memorial in the Hay Park. During the period 1899 to 1903 Regan’s brother-in-law, Henry Butler, was the undertaker for burials at Gunbar cemetery. Henry and Catherine Butler left the Gunbar district sometime after 1903, possibly re-locating to the Temora or Leeton district. Like others from Gunbar they probably left the district in the wake of the devastating drought at the turn of the century. By the outbreak of the Great War they were living at Bendigo (where Catherine probably had family). Henry Butler died at about this time. Each of the four sons of Henry and Catherine Butler enlisted for service in the Australian armed forces: the third son, Roy Butler, enlisted in February 1915 at Liverpool in Sydney and his younger brother William also enlisted there a month later; the eldest son, Henry Butler, enlisted at Cootamundra in May 1916. No details have been found regarding Herbert Butler’s enlistment, though his name appears on the World War I Honour Board at Gunbar. Two of the brothers died in the conflict. The third son, William Thomas Butler (a Lance-Corporal in the 13th Battalion A.I.F.), died of wounds on 4 July 1918 and was buried in the Villers Bretonneux Military cemetery at Fouilloy in France. The eldest son, Henry George Butler (a Private in the 8th Battalion A.I.F.), died of wounds on 11 August 1918 and was buried in the Vignacourt British cemetery in France.
“JOHN MAIR. Lieut. – Killed in action 6TH June 1901.”
John Mair was born on 27 October 1875 in Melbourne, the eldest son of George and Mary (‘Minnie’) Mair. John’s father was the manager of “Groongal” station, on the Murrumbidgee River between Narrandera and Hay. George Mair had been a superintendent at “Groongal” from the late 1860s after the station was acquired by the Learmonth brothers. He took over as manager from Donald McLarty in early 1874 and remained in that position until about 1892 (after which he acquired part-ownership of the property). George and ‘Minnie’ Mair had five other children – three daughters and two sons – born between 1874 and 1883 either at “Groongal” or Sydney.
In mid-year 1890 John Mair, aged nearly 15 years, commenced attending the Sydney Church of England Grammar School (later known as ‘the Shore School’) in North Sydney (a year after the school was founded). He remained at the Shore School for almost three years. Mair became a Prefect in 1892. He was a member of the First XV Rugby Union team and the First XI cricket team in 1891 and 1892, and rowed in Shore’s Second Crew in the Head of the River rowing competition in 1892. John Mair completed his Senior Examination in 1892 and in April the next year (at the end of First Term 1893) he was one of the first group of three boys from the Shore School to matriculate and enter Sydney University. However, Mair did not complete his tertiary studies; in mid-June 1895 he enlisted as a Lieutenant in No. 3 Company of the New South Wales Garrison Artillery based at Victoria Barracks.
By this time John’s parents, George and Minnie Mair, had purchased the ‘Mount Adelaide’ house at Darling Point in Sydney. George Mair divided his time between “Groongal’ station and Sydney. He was a principal of the Groongal Pastoral Company, through which he acquired a partnership in “Groongal” station and also pastoral holdings in Queensland. He was on the Sydney boards of Dalgety and Co. and Liverpool London and Globe Insurance Co. During the early 1890’s George Mair was prominent within the Pastoralists’ Union, an employers’ association formed to resist the demands of labour (principally shearers). Opposition between this organisation and the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia (later the Australian Workers' Union), led to the widespread industrial disputes of the period.
In mid-1899 tensions began to escalate in Boer-controlled lands in southern Africa concerning the rights of uitlanders (foreign workers, mainly British), who predominated on the Witwatersrand goldfields, near Johannesburg in the Transvaal. By early July military conflict in South Africa was considered to be inevitable. Men from the military units in New South Wales began to volunteer for service in South Africa, encouraged by their commandant, Major-General French. John Mair was a part of this first wave of volunteers; he left Sydney in September 1899 and travelled to South Africa to support the British forces. In early October 1899 the Boer republics declared war after the British government rejected an ultimatum to withdraw their forces from the borders with the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Mair had obtained a commission in the Rhodesian Light Horse and was travelling to join his regiment when a Boer advance forced him to Kimberley, in the northern Cape Colony near the border with the Orange Free State. Kimberley became besieged by Boer forces from 14 October 1899.
The British garrison at Kimberley consisted of 1,624 troops under Colonel Kekewich of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. During the siege John Mair volunteered to join the Kimberley Light Horse, but was rejected because of his weight; at fifteen stone he exceeded the maximum limit of twelve stone. He subsequently enlisted with the Cape Mounted Police as a gunner, operating a Maxim gun (the first self-powered machine gun). On 24 October (ten days after the start of the siege) a successful sortie northward of Kimberley, commanded by Major Scott Turner, resulted in the death of one of the Boer commanders. John Mair was probably a part of the support for this operation which involved two armoured trains carrying artillery and Maxim guns. On 6 November the Boers, commanded by General Cronjé, commenced bombarding the town.
Less than three weeks after the commencement of the bombardment John Mair participated in another sortie against the Boers, during which Major Henry Scott Turner was killed. At dawn on 25 November 1899 Major Scott Turner, of the 2nd Battalion Royal Highlanders, led a force of mounted troops against strongly-entrenched Boer positions. The sortie was supported by artillery, an armoured train and a number of military units. Lieutenant Mair was probably part of the force directed against Boer reinforcements advancing from the south-west.
Protecting our flanks were detachments of Royal Engineers, who occupied Otto’s kopje, while a strong body of infantry with a mounted force, including field guns and Maxims, advanced towards Spytfontein, checking the enemy, who were seen approaching from that quarter. They did excellent service, holding their position firmly for over two hours and returning the enemy’s fire with interest.
Despite early gains the Boers retaliated strongly against Major Scott Turner’s forces.
Major Scott Turner had his horse shot under him. Another bullet passed through the fleshy part of his shoulder. Some of our men have terrible wounds. The enemy used Martinis, and several of those who were engaged tell me that they employed explosive bullets. The Boers repeatedly fired at our ambulance wagon, notwithstanding the large Red Cross flag which was flying over it, besides other distinguishing marks.
Major Scott Turner, another officer, and twenty-one non-commissioned officers and men were killed during the fight.
John Mair was detained at Kimberley for the duration of the siege. The township was relieved after four months by British forces (as part of the British counter-offensive led by Field-Marshall Lord Roberts). General French’s cavalry and mounted infantry units made a determined charge through the Boer lines on 15 February 1900 which broke the deadlock and forced the Boers to abandon their positions. Mair remained with the Cape Mounted Police as a Maxim gun operator for about a year, during which he received minor wounds on three occasions. It was recorded of John Mair during this period “that he was remarkably popular in the regiment and was well known as a most efficient gunner”.
In early 1901 John Mair was attached to the 6th Mounted Infantry (Imperial) and appointed as Provost-Marshal and Aide-de-Camp (ADC) to Colonel Henry de Lisle. The role of an ADC was to attend as a personal assistant to a senior officer and the rank of Provost Marshal indicates a position as head of the military police within De Lisle’s command. Rev. R. Griffiths met Mair during this period and wrote the following in April 1901 from Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State:
I lately came across a former Church of England Grammar School boy – J. Mair. He is now A.D.C. and Provost-Marshal to De Lisle, and is doing really splendid service. I liked his modest and sincere manner, and was struck by his keenness and ability, as far as I could judge, in his work. The credit of Sydney and of the Church of England Grammar School is safe in his hands.
In about May 1901 John Mair succeeded Lieutenant William Watson (of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles) as Colonel De Lisle’s Staff Officer (or galloper).
Lieutenant John Mair was killed on 6 June 1901 during a confrontation with Boer commandos involving captured supply-wagons. A force consisting of 100 Mounted Infantry and 100 South Australian Imperial Bushmen had travelled by night to intercept a Boer convoy carrying supplies for General De Wet’s commandos. The troops were under the command of Major Sladen of the East Yorkshire Regiment and Lieutenant Mair was a part of the Mounted Infantry component of the force. The encamped Boer convoy was located in the early hours of the morning at a farming district known as Graspan (or Can Cans), near Reitz in the Orange Free State (120 kilometres east of Kroonstad). After a brief engagement the wagons were captured and forty-five prisoners taken. Sladen sent forty of his men back to De Lisle’s column to request reinforcements and then began positioning the captured wagons in defensive formation around a kraal at Graspan.
The Boer command received news of the taking of the convoy and a force of about 400 men under General De Wet set out to attempt to re-capture the supplies. The counter-attack began at about noon; the Boer forces were initially mistaken for a British Mounted Infantry unit which allowed them close access to some of the wagons. Major Sladen based his main defence at the kraal and nearby wagons. Elsewhere the fighting was carried out amongst the wagons, often in a situation of chaotic confusion. It was in such conditions, away from the main defensive lines, that a situation occurred that resulted in the death of John Mair and two other soldiers.
It was alleged by witnesses that Lieutenant Mair and two soldiers from the 2nd Bedfordshire Mounted Infantry (Lance-corporal W. Harvey and Private G. Blunt) were shot down after the three men had surrendered. Private E. Sewell of the 2nd Bedfordshire Regiment was a witness to the killings; he stated that during the fighting he had retired to join a group commanded by Lieutenant Mair, “when, finding we were outnumbered and surrounded, we put our hands up”.
The Boers took our arms from us and retired round some kraals; shortly afterwards they came back, and two man shouted, “Hands up.” We said we were already prisoners, and that our arms had been collected.
One of the British soldiers, Private Blunt, shouted, “Don’t shoot me, I have thrown down my rifle.” It was reported that the Boers then said, “Take that,” and shot Blunt through the stomach as he held his hands above his head. At that point Lieutenant Mair stepped out from the wagons (also with his arms above his head), and said, “Have mercy you cowards.” One of the Boer commandos, mounted on his horse near to where Mair was standing, “deliberately shot Lieutenant Mair dead”. The mounted man then shot at Private Pearse and Lance-Corporal W. Harvey, standing together with their hands up; the one bullet hit Pearse on the nose and killed Lance-Corporal Harvey. Lance-Corporal James Hanshaw reported that two Boers then rushed from the wagons and threatened to shoot him. They then kicked him and told him to lie down.
The British reinforcements arrived at about three in the afternoon, at which stage the Boers retired from the fight taking some of the wagons (all but two of which were subsequently retaken). Major Sladen’s forces had suffered twenty killed and twenty-five wounded during the Boer counter-attack.
The killing of Mair and the two men from the Bedfordshire regiment caused great indignation and consternation throughout Great Britain and her colonies. A similar incident had previously occurred on 29 May at Vlakfontein where it was alleged Boer commandos had shot wounded men during the battle (some of whom were lying on the ground). The Sydney Morning Herald described “the Graspan murders” as “one of the worst and saddest episodes of the campaign”. Lord Kitchener, who had been appointed commander of the British forces in November 1900, issued a proclamation which articulated the principle of applying collective responsibility for incidents of this nature:
The proclamation declares that members of any commando committing such an outrage (the shooting of men who have surrendered) shall, after a trial proving that they were present at such shooting, all be deemed guilty, that the leader of the commando shall be sentenced to death, and that other members of the commando shall be sentenced to death, or to a less sentence, according to the degree of their complicity in the crime.
It was reported that the Boer commander, General Botha, had expressed to Lord Kitchener “his regret at the demoralization and degeneracy in the Boer ranks, and the impossibility of their repression”. Paul Kruger, the exiled president of the South African Republic, had justified the shooting of wounded men at Vlakfontein “as retaliation for the barbarities which he said the British had inflicted on Boer women and children”. There was a high level of frustration and anger amongst the Boer commandos by this stage of the South African War. As a counter to the guerrilla tactics adopted by the Boers in the latter part of 1900, Kitchener had implemented a ‘scorched earth’ policy which sought to eliminate sources of sustenance and support to the Boer insurgents. British and colonial troops systematically swept the countryside and destroyed crops, poisoned wells, burned homesteads and farm-buildings and interned Boer and African women, children and farm-workers in concentration camps. By mid-year 1901 Kitchener’s ‘scorched earth’ policy had been effectively applied to much of the Orange Free State, which perhaps explains the determined efforts by the Boers to secure the supply-wagons at Graspan.
In September 1901 the following obituary of John Mair was printed in Torch-bearer, the magazine of the Sydney Church of England Grammar School:
Mair’s name comes early on the School records, and to those who can remember him as a schoolboy the thought of his early death will be more than ordinarily painful. We can remember his honest laugh, his frank and fearless bearing, and how, no matter what we spoke of, his eyes ever met ours. He was a true schoolboy in every sense of the word, and grew up as the true schoolboy ever grows up, into a true man. His admission as a prefect dates before the time of the Prefect Book, but it was with pride that we learnt shortly before his death, from one well qualified to speak, the “good name” of the School was safe in his hands. We cannot grudge his life to the needs of his King and Empire, but we cannot fail to deeply mourn his death and hope that the reality of our kindred sorrow may be some slight comfort to those who loved and mourn him more than ourselves.
In 1903 George and ‘Minnie’ Mair were living at ‘Kamilaroi’ at Darling Point in Sydney. The following letter from George Mair was read at the unveiling of the Boer War memorial at Hay in May 1903:
Kamilaroi, Darling Point, Sydney, 30th April, 1903. Dear Sir, – I have to thank you for your notification of 23rd instant with reference to the proposed unveiling ceremony of the South African War Memorial Fountain. I regret that I shall not myself be able to be present at the ceremony, but I wish to convey to all of those who have interested themselves in the matter, an expression of my personal gratitude. As the father of one of the soldiers whose memory is being honoured by this memorial, I am grateful to those with whom the idea of the memorial originated, to those who have contributed to its cost, and to these who have freely given their time to the carrying out of the work. I hope that the memorial may long stand as an evidence of appreciation of those men who have given up their lives in the service of their country, and to encourage others, in like manner, to do their duty, faithfully and bravely, in whatever circumstances of life they may be placed; if need be, in the face of struggle, and danger and death. I am, faithfully yours, Geo. Mair.
George Mair died in Sydney in April 1908 and Minnie Mair died there three years later.
Laurence Melville Field, The Forgotten War: Australian Involvement in the South African Conflict of 1899-1902, Melbourne University Press, 1979.
Reginald Ivan Lovell, Struggle for South Africa 1875-1899: a study in economic imperialism, Macmillan and Co., 1934.
R. L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War, The Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1976.
 The Australians at the Boer War by R. L. Wallace, The Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1976, pp. 1-6.
 The Forgotten War: Australian Involvement in the South African Conflict of 1899-1902 by Laurence Melville Field, Melbourne University Press, 1979, p. 129.
 Private Alick M. Aberline actually died on 4 October 1900 (or possibly 30 September 1900), of wounds he received near Lichtenburg on 28 September 1900.
 Advertisement in Riverine Grazier, 25 March 1890, page 4.
 Riverine Grazier,, 24 December 1897, page 3.
 ‘The Imperial Bushmen’s Contingent: Enlisting at Hay’, Riverine Grazier, 20 March 1900, page 2.
 Riverine Grazier, 5 May 1900, page 2; F. L. Murray, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1911, pp. 85-105.
 'The Imperial Bushmen: A Letter from a Local Member of the Corps’, Riverine Grazier, 5 May 1900, page 2.
 Testimony of Private George J. Wood of Carrathool, ‘The Home-coming of Two Soldiers: Welcoming Troopers O’Brien and Wood’, Riverine Grazier, 22 January 1901.
 ‘Back from the War: Some of the Troopers’ Experiences’, Riverine Grazier, 28 May 1901, 2(5). Fred Sadler had been placed in “C” Squadron of the N.S.W. Citizens’ Bushmen, which, at that time, was a part of Baden-Powell’s force.
 Rev. James Green, The Story of the Australian Bushmen: Being notes of a Chaplain, 1903, Sydney.
 The Times History of The War in South Africa 1899-1902, vol. IV, 1906, London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., p. 428.
 The Times History of The War in South Africa 1899-1902, vol. IV, 1906, London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., p. 429.
 Chris Coulthard-Clark, The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen & Unwin, 2001, pp. 85-6.
 Quoted in 'Luke George Mansfield Robinson: Boer War Photographs’.
 Testimony of Private George J. Wood of Carrathool, ‘The Home-coming of Two Soldiers: Welcoming Troopers O’Brien and Wood’, Riverine Grazier, 22 January 1901.
 Riverine Grazier, 22 January 1901.
 ‘With the Imperial Bushmen: An Interesting Letter from the Front’, Riverine Grazier, 11 January 1901, page 2. The letter’s author, Sergeant Tebbutt (‘E’ Company of the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen), was wounded in the mouth on 24 October 1900 at the battle of Kaffirskraal and later invalided to Australia. The letter was written prior to his departure, from Woodstock Hospital in Cape Town on 11 December 1900.
 James Collins’ letter was dated 7 October 1900, Riverine Grazier, 20 November 1900, page 4. James Collins’ mention of “the four” is a reference to himself, Aberline, Butler and Kilgour, volunteers from Hay who were put into ‘F’ company of the New South Wales Imperial Bushmen.
 John Bottomley & Jan Schutte, op. cit.
 Murray (1911), p. 104. Trooper A. M. Aberline’s grave-marker at Lichtenburg cemetery records that he died on 30 September 1900 (see photograph in article).
 Murray (1911), pp. 85-105. Two of the six surviving soldiers who were severely wounded at Riet Kuil – Private Edward Charles Haynes (‘F’ company) and Private Thomas West (‘D’ company) – were later invalided back to Australia.
 Riverine Grazier, 16 October 1900, page 2.
 Riverine Grazier, 15 January 1901, page 2.
 This is probably a shortened version of Edith Mathews’ letter to Mrs. Aberline. The reference to the letter in the Riverine Grazier further states that the doctor at the Lichtenburg hospital gave Alick Aberline the nickname of ‘Tenderfoot’, “which amused him very much”. [Riverine Grazier, 15 January 1901, page 2].
 “Nurse Mathews adds that two of Trooper Aberline’s companions had also died, and she was trying to get the addresses of their friends, to write to them.” [Riverine Grazier, 15 January 1901, page 2]. Several versions of this letter exist (with slight differences); this version is from the Melbourne Age, 25 June 1901, page 5.
 Riverine Grazier, 22 February 1901, page 2.
 Riverine Grazier, 7 June 1901, page 2.
 ‘A Pathetic Letter: Boer Girl and Dying Victorian Trooper’, Age, 25 June 1901, page 5.
 John Bottomley & Jan Schutte, op. cit. Edith and Fred Gardiner’s second child, Iris, died of appendicitis while still a teenager.
 The Australians at the Boer War by Robert L. Wallace, The Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1976, p. 313.
 Robert L. Wallace (1976), op. cit., p. 313.
 ‘Coaching in Riverina – Hay to Booligal’, letter to the Editor by ‘Passenger’, Riverine Grazier, 17 February 1875.
 NSW BDM records.
 Riverine Grazier, 12 October 1900, page 2.
 F. L. Murray, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Government Printer, Melbourne, p. 475.
 ‘With the Bushmen’s Contingent: Letter from a District Member’, Riverine Grazier, 24 August 1900, 2(3).
 F. L. Murray, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Government Printer, Melbourne, p. 475.
 ‘With the Bushmen’s Contingent: Letter from a District Member’, Riverine Grazier, 24 August 1900, 2(3).
 Despatch from Pretoria dated 10 October 1900, South Africa Despatches, 6th February 1900 to 23 June 1902. (Library of New South Wales number Q355.4868) - quoted in Wallace (1976), pp. 285-6.
 ‘The situation near Pretoria’, report dated 13 July 1900, The Times, 16 July 1900, 8(1).
 F. L. Murray, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Government Printer, Melbourne, p. 475.
 F. L. Murray, ibid, pp. 475-6.
 F. L. Murray, ibid, p. 476; ‘Casualties Amongst the Australasians’, Telegram from London (dated 8 October 1900), Sydney Morning Herald, 9 October 1900, p. 5.
 ‘An Hour with the Returned Troopers’, Riverine Grazier, 22 January 1901, page 2.
 Quoted in ‘The South African War Memorial’, Riverine Grazier, 8 May 1903, page 3.
 Report dated 8 October 1900, The Times, 11 October 1900, 3(3).
 Riverine Grazier, 12 October 1900, 2(2).
 Riverine Grazier, 26 July 1901, page 2.
 Riverine Grazier, 20 November 1917, page 2.
 Riverine Grazier, 20 November 1917, page 2.
 Extract from ‘Death of Mr. Thomas Robertson’ (obituary), Riverine Grazier, 3 October 1891.
 For further details see 'Sudan (New South Wales Contingent) March-June 1885’, Australian War Memorial web-site.
 The biographical details of Thomas Robertson (sen.) are from: ‘Death of Mr. Thomas Robertson’ (obituary), Riverine Grazier, 3 October 1891; ‘Thomas Robertson, Solicitor’ (obituary), Pastoral Times, 3 October 1891; Pastoral Times, 14 February 1862, page 3; New South Wales Election Results 1856-2007 (web-site).
 Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 1900, page 5. At that time “Toganmain” was owned by Thomas Robertson (no relation).
 F. L. Murray, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Government Printer, Melbourne. page 58.
 Harold E. Raugh, The Victorians at War, 1815-1914: an encyclopedia of British military history, ABC-CLIO, 2004, pp. 259-60.
 L. March Phillipps, ‘Letter XVII: The March North’, With Rimington, 1901.
 L. March Phillipps, ibid.
 ‘The Capture of Brandfort’ (report from Reuter’s Agency dated 4 May 1900), The Times, 7 May 1900, page 7.
 Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘Chapter XXIII: The Clearing of the South-East’, The Great Boer War, London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1902.
 Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘Chapter XXV: The March to Pretoria’, The Great Boer War, London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1902.
 Chris Coulthard-Clark, The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen & Unwin, 2001, pp. 78-81 (‘Diamond Hill’).
 Chris Coulthard-Clark, ibid.
 The Forgotten War: Australian Involvement in the South African Conflict of 1899-1902 by Laurence Melville Field, Melbourne University Press, 1979, p. 1.
 ‘The South African War Memorial’, Riverine Grazier, 8 May 1903, page 3.
 Leslie S. C. Robertson and Martha L. Hinchcliff were married in 1899 at Hay; they had four children who were born there between 1900 and 1904.
 Riverine Grazier, 16 October 1900, page 2.
 ‘The Late Trooper Thos. Robertson: An Account of his Death’, Riverine Grazier, 11 January 1901, page 2. The newspaper account is based on letters describing the particulars of Trooper Robertson’s death; they were sent to one of his sisters, Mrs. Hotham, who passed copies of the letters to her cousin Leslie S. C. Robertson of Hay.
 ‘The Late Trooper Thos. Robertson: An Account of his Death’, Riverine Grazier, 11 January 1901, page 2.
 ‘The Late Trooper Thos. Robertson: An Account of his Death’, Riverine Grazier, 11 January 1901, page 2.
 Riverine Grazier, 18 December 1900, page 2. “A photograph of the late Trooper T. C. Robertson, of Hay, appears in last week’s Sydney Mail.” (Riverine Grazier, 1 January 1901, page 2).
 Riverine Grazier, 7 June 1901, page 2.
 Coulthard-Clark, Chris, The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen & Unwin, 2001.
 Riverine Grazier, 8 May 1903, page 3.
 Pioneers of Gunbar, written & compiled by Nancy Low, 1984, p. 80.
 Riverine Grazier, 8 May 1903, page 3.
 Riverine Grazier, 8 May 1903, page 3.
 ‘The War: Casualties’, The Times, 27 May 1901, p. 8; 4 June 1901, p. 6; 8 June 1901, p. 12; ‘N.S.W. Casualties’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 1901, p. 5; Private Herbert William Lenon’s death is not recorded in Murray’s Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa.
 Torch-bearer (magazine of the Sydney Church of England Grammar School), September 1901; ‘The building of the Shore War Memorial Library and those it commemorates’, John Warden, 2003; Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1901, page 7.
 ‘Death of Mr. George Mair: A Veteran Riverine Pastoralist’, Riverine Grazier, 17 April 1908; Pounds and Pedigrees: The Upper Class in Victoria 1850-80 by Paul de Serville (1991: Oxford).
 The Making of the AWU by John Merritt, Melbourne University Press, 1986.
 Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1901, 7(4); ‘The building of the Shore War Memorial Library and those it commemorates’, John Warden, 2003; ‘The South African War Memorial’, Riverine Grazier,8 May 1903, 3(1-2).
 'The building of the Shore War Memorial Library and those it commemorates’, John Warden, 2003.
 ‘Successful Sortie from Kimberley’, The Times, 28 October 1899, 7(1).
 Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1901, 7(4).
 ‘Fighting at Kimberley’, The Times, 7 December 1899, 5(2-3).
 ‘Fighting at Kimberley’, The Times, 7 December 1899, 5(2-3).
 The Times, 9 December 1899, 7(1-2).
 ‘The building of the Shore War Memorial Library and those it commemorates’, John Warden, 2003; quotation ascribed to James Stewart.
 Rev. R. Griffiths to Rev. D. Davies of the Church of England Grammar School, North Sydney, written from Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, on 12 April 1901; quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1901, page 7.
 Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1901, page 7.
 This account is based on the affidavits sworn by Lance-Corporal James Hanshaw and Private E. Sewell, reproduced in ‘Boer Outrages’, The Times, London, 20 September 1901, page 8.
 Refer to sworn affidavits reproduced in ‘Boer Outrages’, The Times, London, 20 September 1901, page 8.
 ‘The War in South Africa: Boer Treachery’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1901, page 7.
 ‘The War in South Africa: Boer Treachery’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1901, page 7.
 Torch-bearer, September 1901.
 ‘The South African War Memorial’, Riverine Grazier, 8 May 1903, page 3.
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