Chapter II – Capetown

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  • Arrival in Capetown – Life in Capetown – The Locals
  • Arrival of the Australians – A Wise Provision – Upgrades
  • Changing to Khaki – Trading in the Horses – Municipal Welcome – Promotions -In High Demand
  • Other Notes – The Camp – The Kind Inniskillings – Distinguished Meeting and Inspection – Formation of the Australian Regiment
  • Lieutenant Parker’s Letters – Lieutenant Campbell’s Letter – Private Cobb’s Letter – Private Monger’s Letter – Private Bird’s Letter
  • The Military Situation: story by The Sun

Arrival in Capetown – Life in Capetown – The Locals

Arrival in Capetown

After eighteen days with nothing to look at but open sea, the sight of the grim mountains of South Africa on the morning of Sunday, the 26th of November, was a cheering one to the soldiers on the Medic. No news had been heard since leaving Albany, and everyone looked forward with strained eagerness to receiving a signal from the lighthouse on the famous Cape of Good Hope, which was passed early in the forenoon.

The signal came, but it was a scant relief to the pent-up expectancy of nearly three weeks, during which fortunes of Empire were at stake. It was simply “Good news. You will be welcome.” Now, whether it meant that our arrival was good news and our presence welcome to the distressed Britishers, or that the Army Corps had made short work of the Boers and a civic “drunk” was in store for us at Capetown, no man could say, and we had to cool our heels and admire the scenery till the city was reached.

This scenery was strange to Australians: great brown, flat-topped mountains strangely mingled with cones here and there. On every mountain was a cloud, towering up in all sorts of fantastic shapes and giving it the appearance of an Alpine peak of vast height. The clear African light, so much spoken of, was very noticeable; the blue Australian haze was absent, though the haze had a faint bluish tinge. Perhaps this was partly to be accounted for by the absence of the green vegetation which, in Australia, enables distance to paint false colours on the ranges, for in this part of Africa they are made as the Pyramids, and present a clear, bold outline and striking appearance, unequalled by anything I have seen in our own country. The flat-topped mountain is a South African specialty; we meet it in nearly every picture or scenic description, and the realisation, especially to a reader of Rider Haggard, is strangely familiar, though none the less interesting.

As we steamed round the Cape, we caught sight of a jagged piece of table mountain, separated from the rest by clouds and looking like a mass of rock suspended in the air. The mountain is only 3,200 feet high, but to us it looked like Everest, such was the illusory effect of the intervening cloud. “The cloth was laid,” though the hired girl had forgotten to smooth it over one corner.

Afterwards we learnt that a man had been lost on Table Mountain. The foot of it is only a quarter of a mile from the Town Hall on that day. He had wandered about hopelessly in the cloud for a whole day without being able to find his way down. In Table Bay, the pilot came on board bearing a letter of instruction regarding disembarkation for Colonel Hoad. Here also we got our first newspaper, containing stirring descriptions of the actions at Belmont and Estcourt, and establishing the theory beyond doubt that there was enough fight left in the Boers to give the Australians a chance.

Life in Capetown

Capetown resembles old Sydney more than any other place in Australia. The buildings have the same dingy colouring, and the streets the same picturesque crookedness. Dutch architecture is common-plain, substantial looking buildings, with steps or raised platforms in front, but in the newer erections the types familiar in Australia, prevail. In the streets, it is possible to discern the presence of a large non-British population, the Dutch forming one-half of the whole. Among these Afrikaners a very large proportion are tall, spare, stalwart men resembling the best types of Australian squatters and farmers.

They look as if they would be more at home on the veldt than in the city. The women, though not strikingly handsome, have a very pleasing appearance, with refined features and manners. They are more foreign looking than the men.

Although commonly accounted Dutch, the Boers throughout South Africa, from Rhodesia to Capetown, are reckoned to be nearly half French in blood. One has not to get far from the wharf to note the presence of a large coloured population.

The Locals

Hundreds of black lumpers are everywhere about the wharfs, dressed and undressed in the most remarkable hues and fashions. Still more striking are the innumerable mixed breeds, who represent half the races of Africa, and many of those of Europe, all grades of features, morals, and intelligence, from the monkey-like Hottentot and brutish Congress, to almost white, refined looking people, in whom the ostracising sometimes of colour can scarcely be detected.

The Malays form a separate class. Many of them are wealthy, and the spectacle of a fat, prosperous looking Malay out for an airing with his three or four wives is quite imposing. They are Muslims, and polygamy among them is winked at by the authorities. The Malay women are rather pleasing in appearance and wear flowing garments in all colours of the rainbow.

In a country in which civil war is raging the number of able-bodied men walking about the streets is surprising the more so because they present magnificent fighting material, but this is only a natural corollary of the remarkable position the colony is in with regard to the war. Two thirds of the people of Cape Colony are Dutch, springing from the same ancestry as the Boers of the Republic, with the same language, religion, and, mainly, ideas. The original Dutch and French settlers who came out two and a half centuries ago the progenitors of this stock were few in number, and to this day there are less than three hundred surnames among the whole Afrikaner population.

Arrival of the Australians – A Wise Provision – Upgrades

Arrival of the Australians

The arrival of their Australian helpers did not seem to excite the Capetonians to any appreciable extent. There was some cheering in the main street, but as some 20,000 men have disembarked at African ports during the past few months, the public may be excused if they get rather used to them. The Cape Times, the leading paper of the city, devoted exactly two and a half lines to the Australians on the morning after their arrival. How differently the Australian papers would have acted! Maitland, where the men were ordered to encamp, pending orders for the front, is about four miles from Capetown, and though the troops were there four days, they were not once allowed into the city.

A Wise Provision

A wise provision, attended by the happiest non-results. At first it had been the intention of the Imperial authorities to apportion the different units among British battalions, but the appearance and training of the men so impressed the inspecting officers that it was decided to form the West Australian, South Australian, Victorian, and Tasmanian, and New South Wales infantry into an “Australian Regiment.” This arrangement is as satisfactory to the officers and men as it is doubt loss to the people of Australia.


The rifles of the Australians were immediately condemned as obsolete, and Lee Metford (and 300 rounds of ammunition each) supplied in their place, which later the men immediately handled as if they had been used to them all their lives. The dark blue jackets and puttees of the West Australians were also discarded for khaki, the wearing of dark blue being described as suicidal. Whatever may be true in the statement often repeated before the war that with the disappearance of big game from the veldt the shooting of the Boers has deteriorated, there can be no doubt that they manage to pick off a great number of officers. The medical personnel received new field dressing as the Australian variety was out of date. The green rot-proof tents of the Victorians were retained.

Changing to Khaki – Trading in the Horses – Municipal Welcome – Promotions -In High Demand

Changing To Khaki

The consequence is that the British officer now goes into action with the appearance of a full blown private, or as near as he can get to it. He has even discarded his sword and carries a rifle and bayonet. The sergeants, too, have taken off their stripes. All collars and facings were also removed. The other contingents which used leggings were replaced with puttees. All brass was painted khaki including the band’s instruments.

Trading in the Horses

The Government at Cape Town took over all the transport horses as they would not be suitable for the rugged terrain and would be better used in the Cape. The Australians would receive their Bucks and Oxen at De Aar.

Municipal Welcome

While no official welcome was extended to the Australians by the municipality, the mayor handsomely presented them with a supply of tobacco, The theatrical managers, our old friend Herbert Fleming among them sent invitations to the theatres, and the officers were made free of the clubs. None of these privileges were availed of, and to the credit of the officers, be it said, that they set an appropriate example to their men, for during the four days and nights that the troops were in camp I never once met an officer in town. The town was always full of drunken soldiers, but they were not Australians.


No. 101 Private Gifford Graves was promoted to Lance Corporal due to previous experience as an officer in England.

In High Demand

While we were in Cape Town, the South African Light Horse was being formed, and Australians (there being a lot of them over here) were being snapped up everywhere. Medical examinations were being dispensed with. A man only had to say he was an Australian, and the doctor winked the other eye and signalled him to pass on along the path to glory. The popular impression in military circles here seems to be that the Australian passes the day galloping after wild cattle, and the night in warding off natives with his trusty rifle. Several Australians are doing well here at army contracting.

Other Notes – The Camp – The Kind Inniskillings – Distinguished Meeting and Inspection – Formation of the Australian Regiments

Other Notes

The Boer prisoners, of whom there are several hundred here, want to know where the “aerobatics” (red coats) are. They greatly regret the disappearance of the scarlet tunic from the field of battle. The more ignorant of them are very suspicious, having been told that the English nurses would use reasoner bandages to dress their wounds. There is a feeling of confidence in pro British quarters that the war will soon be brought to a conclusion. The Cape Times announces that its coming Christmas edition will contain an illustrated history of the “Rise and Fall of the Dutch Republics” and Natal modestly hints that the Republic might be annexed to her in the near future. In the meantime, it is satisfactory to note that a Capetown firm announces the arrival of a large consignment of artificial arms and legs.

The Camp

Our lads were sent into a camp close up to the western slope of Table Mountain , near which stands the Observatory ,and also the residence of Mr. Cecil Rhodes. Coming soft soft footed from shipboard on a particularly hot, dusty morning , the tramp out to the camping ground, no doubt, appeared longer than it really was. The horses were led all the way, and on reaching their destination , were gently exercised before being picketed.

It was a new experience to Australians to find rations piled on the ground , but they had come to get more new experiences. The company cooks were not allowed time to seek fancy methods o f preparing the food. The men wanted it anyhow. When It was ready, they fell to with a will and heartiness begot of fine robust appetites united to a long fast.

The camp was on the bank of a sluit, or creek, in which there is a fine supply of fresh water, suitable for every purpose. The weather was hot, and many preferred the open air to the tents at night time. They were promised that they would soon get all the open air sleeping they cared for.

The Kind Inniskillings

When the Australians were pitching their tents, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons came to help them out and were duly welcomed.

Distinguished Meeting & Inspection

On the night of arrival the officers of the contingents were invited to Government House. 2 days later, on the 28th November, Lord Milner, the Governor of the Cape Colony*, inspected the troops. The infantry (including the West Australians) stood to attention at their tents whilst the Mounted Victorians rode past.

Lord Milner said to Colonel Hoad:

“I am delighted to see the Australians here . They are a fine lot of men, and look very fit indeed. The horses are in excellent condition, and I am surprised that you only lost one on so long a sea journey . I shall cable to the Governments of the several colonies represented here the pleasure I feel in seeing you here in camp to-day.”

*He would later play a pivotal role in the management of the British Empire and was, along with Lord Kitchener, the main architect of the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the Second Boer War.

Formation of the Australian Regiment

Up until this point it was understood that each of the contingents from the individual colonies would be separately attached to different British Army units upon arrival at Cape Town.

Lieutenant Parker’s Letters – Lieutenant Campbell’s Letter – Private Cobb’s Letter – Private Monger’s Letter – Private Bird’s Letter

Lieutenant Parker’s Letters

November 26th – Here we are at Cape Town at last. We arrived this afternoon at 2. We are to move alongside the wharf directly and are to disembark first thing in the morning and go into camp just on the edge of the town. The New Zealand troops and New South Wales Lancers have gone to the front; the latter have already got into action. We hope to go to the front in three or four days”

November 28th, Maitland Camp – We landed at Cape Town at 6:30 on Monday morning; and marched through Cape Town out to here, about four miles. We are camped with two batteries of the R.H.A. and part of Haig’s regiment, the Inniskilling Dragoons. The camp is very pleasantly situated. We have orders to obtain khaki uniform and new rifles (the magazine), and these are to be issued to us today. Orders have been issued that officers are to remove their badges of rank and carry rifles instead of swords, and the sergeants and other non-commissioned officers are to remove their stripes, as the Boers pick them out and shoot them off.

We shall probably go to the front in two days’ time. We shall go first to De Aar. Everyone here says that the War Office is going to give us every good show to get some fighting. At present we are made up with other Australians under the command of Colonel Hoad.

Lieutenant Campbell’s Letter

November 28th, Maitland Camp – We are leaving for the front tomorrow, and I believe that we are going to De Aar, I’m leaving camp quite happy. I believe that we are going to catch the train at Cape Town, seven miles away; so, we shall have a good tramp before getting onto the train. Colonel Hoad wanted me to take charge of the transport of the whole Australian contingent, but I did not want to leave my Maxim guns. He also wanted me to stay back a day or so to meet the Canadians, but I wanted to go with my guns. We have got on great since we left, all like brothers to one another.

I can’t write much because I want to pack up, and that is not the best job in the world. I have met some very nice fellows in camp, and it does one’s eyesight good to see the regiments going to the front. They look grand. We are going out just like the men, with greatcoats and canteens on the back, and with magazine rifles. We also dress in khaki, and have regimental boots, which are great. I don’t think a man could ever get tired in them. Sergeant-Major Fraser is doing very well and is very well liked by the men. He is working very hard.

Private Cobb’s Letter

No. 2 Private Charles Cobb sent a letter to Mr. William Sharp of Dudley Street, West Perth.

Maitland Camp, November 29, from which the following is extracted: Arrived at last. Had to tramp out of town five miles first day and did four yesterday. Dust up to our necks worse than Kalgoorlie. You will be delighted to hear that we are going to the front. The British have just fought a battle and driven the Boers back. The army is closing in on them, and the Orange Free State will soon be ours. I believe that the colonials will make a great name for themselves. The NSW Lancers have had a brush, and driven the Boers back, without a single loss to them.

We shall leave for De Aar to-morrow (December 1). and trust to have an engagement shortly. I suppose that by the time you get this we shall have smelt powder. The public is very favourably impressed with our contingents. The Western Australians are certainly the best lot of men. We won nearly all the sports, bayonet exercise and tug-of-war thrown in. No. 34 Private Phillip Allen won the obstacle race in grand style. The Tasmanians are alongside us, and the South Australians and Victorians are close at hand, all in the same camp. We are absolutely going into action on Sunday next. You will have heard of the engagement by cable. Remember me to all brother Masons.

Private Monger’s Letter

No. 102 Private Lionel Monger

Today we had great fun throwing pennies to the black boys. They tumbled and fought like black demons. We are to go on to the front as soon as possible. You may depend on me to write again at the first opportunity. We are going to the relief of Kimberley. The reports in the paper are fairly correct. They brought a lot of Boer prisoners into the Cape today. I could not see them. I can give no description of the town as they will not let us off. Table Bay itself is a very pretty place. It is a fine harbour. Our boat can go right up to the jetty. – Goodbye, Boys.

Private Bird’s Letter

No. 104 Private John Bird

Dear Brother, — I am just writing a few Hues to let you know that I arrived here safe on Sunday last and went into camp on Monday with the South Australians, Victorians and Tasmanians. There are about 1000 men in camp here now and 1000 Canadians coming in to-morrow and we are packing up ready to start for the front tomorrow. We had a splendid trip over, until the last two days when it was blowing half a gale, we passed a barque hove too under reefed topsails and one scudding before it. We passed two other ships on the way and two steamers. Capetown is a rather pretty place; it is surrounded with mountains; Things are lively in the shipping line, but it is nearly all black labour employed.

Newton Moore told me the day we left Perth that you were intending to get over to Africa as soon as you could raise enough money, but if you take my advice, you will not attempt anything of the sort as this is no place to come to while tilings are in such a troubled state. And as to think of joining anything over here with the intention of going to the front it is a thing out of question, they will take men in the Cape Volunteers, but they are kept in barracks as they will not send any to the front while they can get a supply of Imperial troops and the latter are arriving here almost daily. Do not expect to hear from me too often as I may not have a chance to write once I get on the march. Remember me to all kind friends in Bunbury.

The Military Situation: story by The Sun

The Military Situation

*Story by The Sun*

Though the position of affairs will be materially altered before this sees print, a short resume of the position of affairs at the time of the arrival of the Australians should prove interesting. The Boers up to now have been steadily advancing. They have seized Northern Natal and have only been stopped from advancing on Durban by the steady resistance of Sir George White’s army at Ladysmith.

On the West they have seized Bechuanaland and Grishland, with the exceptions of Mafeking and Kimberley. South of the Orange Free State about twenty small towns have fallen to them almost without resistance. They are reported to have in the field about 60,000, of whom nearly half are under Joubert’s command in Natal*.

Though matters have been somewhat mixed in the open field with both sides claiming victories, with enormous losses on the enemy’s side the Boers have failed, despite their much-vaunted artillery, to make any impression on the fortified towns.

*Boer Numbers: (32,000 Transvaal Boers, 22,000 Orange Free State Boers, 4,000 Cape Rebels, 4,000 Foreign Volunteers creating a total of nearly 62,000. Only around 30,000 invaded Natal, however.)

This was also the case in the previous war, in which, though the Boers were everywhere victorious in the field, they failed to capture the defended towns within the Transvaal. The defence of Mafeking has been the most brilliant point of the war so far. Colonel Baden-Powell is a magnificent officer, a modern Rupert of the Rhine, daring, cool and resourceful. With thirteen hundred men he has held his post a collection of corrugated iron shanties against an overwhelming force of Boers, his men hiding in cellars by day to escape the rain of delicate shells and stealing out at night to countercheck and deal death blows wherever the enemy has pushed his works forward. Kimberley, defended by 4,000 men, has done well, but the little band far away in Mafeking has carried off the honours.

At Ladysmith the Boers stand several miles off and throw shells into the town. As caves have been excavated along the riverbank for the protection of the civilian population, and the soldiers are well sheltered behind their entrenchments, the bombardment has become harmlessly monotonous. Several of the bigger Boer guns are now looked upon by the Ladismith people as old acquaintances, and are known by nicknames, such as “Baby,” “Long Tom,” etc. “There’s a Baby crying again,” remarks someone, as a shell hurtles overhead.

The utter failure of modern death dealing weapons to commit wholesale destruction has become notorious. Artillery duels are nearly as harmless as the French duel described by Mark Twain. Of course, if the rival parties got near enough to one another, one would have to go under in very short time; but that isn’t “the game.” When one hears of so many thousand shells being fired with the force of half-a-dozen chimney stacks, and a man on the other side such phrases as streams of lead,” ” holocaust of fire,” etc., lose some of their terrors.

With rifle fire it is the same. Here the game is to be behind shelter and blaze away at the other fellow, who is consistently doing the same thing. If he is getting outflanked or the artillery begins to get the range on him, he will generally give back a little, and the game is then to follow him up a bit in case he should change his mind. The Boers generally give back when a solid forward movement takes place on the part of the British, for the glint of a bayonet has more terrors for them than all the Lee Metford in the British army. The use of the bayonet is another surprise. Military writers have been telling us for the past thirty years that it is obsolete, but here we find the same old British bayonet charge cropping up again with almost as much effect as over.

A Boer prisoner, captured after a bayonet charge on one of the battlefields of Natal, was asked what he thought of the bayonet charge. “Almighty!” he said. “You didn’t think I waited for that!”. As regards the present situation, the British have been waiting for the arrival of the whole of the Army Corps before venturing on any big movement. The Army Corps has not arrived with the celebrity expected of it, but in a short time the British will have 80,000 men in the field, and the turn of the tide may be expected to soon follow. General Lord Methuen, with 12,000 men, including the Australians, will shortly make an attack on the besieging force at Kimberley. General Gatacre will move towards the southern border of the Free State from Queenstown, and General Buller sets the ball rolling towards Ladysmith from Estcourt. Australians were vastly amused when they heard that the Boers were annexing portions of British territory in Natal, Bechuanaland and Cape Colony; but this seeming madness has its more serious side, and gives a striking indication of what Boer “slimness” is.

The Dutch of the Republics stand to lose the control of government, and temporarily, perhaps, political rights, if they are beaten. The Dutch of Cape Colony and Natal, on the other hand, under a special law enacted in 1882, and recently promulgated afresh for their special benefit, are liable to have their property forfeited, and even to be hanged, if they commit treason.

To remove the responsibility from their sympathisers, the Republican Boers annex the country as they pass through it, set up land dress and then commandeer male inhabitants as citizens of the Transvaal or Orange Free State, according to whichever of the two the territory happens to be annexed to. When the war is over, if the Boers are beaten, and they are cute enough to see that such a possibility may be in store for them, the Cape Dutchmen will set up the plea that they were forced to fight and couldn’t help themselves.In all probability they will revile the British for not protecting them from the invaders.

The Boers were very confident till they met a snag at Ladysmith, and talked of stabling their horses in the Durban Town Hall within a month. A wife of one of the Commandants had a magnificent dress specially made to wear when the Natal capital was formally taken over. For the sake of the lady, it is to be sadly feared that the dress will have ceased to be a la made before the occasion for wearing it rises.

The Boer women are showing tremendous spirit in this affair. Nearly all the country women are armed, ready to make short work of the Kaffirs if they attempt any hanky-panky tricks, and every Boer crew’s house, when an excuse offers, is converted into a nursing establishment. When a position of the enemy was surprised and captured during a night attack in Natal, two side-saddles were captured, showing that two women had been among the defenders and in a Boer camp, that means that they came to fight.

Another surprise of the war is the way the Free Staters are fighting. Hostile critics had repeatedly declared that it was only the Transvaal Boer who was to be feared, the Free State was become too torpid, too peaceful and timid from lack of fighting practice, according to these prophets. Now we find the Transvaalers acknowledging that the best fighting and shooting has been done by the Free Staters, and British officers endorse this opinion.

In the colonial districts that have been added so confidently to the Republic, many thousands of Dutchmen have meekly bowed the head to the commandeering law and are now engaged shooting Britishers with an enthusiasm that will do their mentors credit here, also that women are foremost in anti-Imperial manifestations. When news arrives that a commando may shortly be expected, the ladies work day and night making orange sashes and puggarees, in order to deck themselves and the expected heroes in the colours of the conquering Free State.

Then, when the unkept horde arrives, roses are strewed beneath their horse’s feet, and songs sung in praise of their prowess. It is not the uneducated youth who takes the lead in these triumphs, but the boarding-school Miss, who a few short weeks ago was playing tennis and flirting with British officers and curates. In Capetown the same feeling is also very strong among the Dutch women, though it lacks opportunity for free expression, the Boers not having as yet added this city to their already expanding area of control

The much-talked-of Irish Brigade found in the Transvaal turns out to be a rather sorry affair. Its numbers in its ranks include many who are not Irishmen, and if it were described as an “International Brigade” the term would be much more suitable. Altogether it amounts to less than 100 men. Its commander (Colonel Blake) is, however, a man to be reckoned with. He was at one time Colonel of the Sixth United States Cavalry and is a noted Indian lighter. Some of the other officers, too, have held commissions before. The Irish Brigade is too small and too polyglot in its composition to add another Fontenoy to the list of British battles.

The German corps is more substantial in its nature, numbering some 4,000 men, and commanded by scientifically trained German officers. A portion of it was decimated at Elands Laagte, where the Natal and British cavalry charged thrice through its retreating ranks. Many Imperial German officers are also accompanying the Boer forces in order to study actual effects of up to date arms and strategy. Russian, French, and Dutch officers are also reported to be present and to be supplying information in a manner irritating to the British As a matter of fact, Turkey is the only country in Europe that is showing a friendly spirit towards the Old Country in the present struggle.