Chapter III – De Aar

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  • Chapter Overview – The Train Ride – Westralians on Picket
  • Correspondent Asistant Monger – Sleeping in Khaki – Amongst the Wounded
  • We Want Cavalry! – Regiments in Camp – British War Stories
  • The Highlander’s Kilt – Violets – The Mule System – Remington Scouts – Boer Prisoners
  • Bathing Parades – Utmost Honour for the Fallen Enemy – General Wauchope – Railway Dining Room – Nethercott of Boulder – Waiting For Orders – The West Australian Station
  • The First Capture by the Australians in the War – Appointments – Westralian War Cry!
  • Letter From Sergeant Lessey – Letter From Private Brown – Letter From Lieutenant Campbell – Letter From Lance Corporal Day – Letter from Private Lowe

Chapter Overview – The Train Ride – Westralians on Picket

Chapter Overview

The Australian Regiment left Cape Town by train for De Aar (also known as Orange River Camp) at 3 a.m. on the 1st December, after having spent 5 days in camp at Cape Town. The mayor and people of Cape Town came out in full force to cheer the Australians off which made up for the cool reception they had earlier received.

The stay in De Aar was short and consisted mostly of construction and sentry duties. The West Australians interacted with the men of some Imperial regiments as well as fraternising with wounded Boers. After 4 days at De Aar (3 a.m. 3/12/99 to 3 a.m. 7/12/99), the Australians began their march to Belmont. This chapter details the West Australian’s stay at De Aar.

The Train Ride

On entertainment at Cape Town three days’ rations were issued, consisting of tinned (” bully”) beef, army biscuit – very hard—coffee , tea, sugar, and salt. Queensland corned beef. I found, played a prominent part in the rationing. Hot water was supplied at the stations en route, and the men fared fairly well, albeit that it was a sharp change after the generous dietary scale of the Medic.

Compliments were paid to the officers at several stopping places, and all ranks spoke in glowing terms of the great kindness shown by their loyal fellow-colonists in South Africa . The process o f disentraining was slow, because of the scant accommodation at a railway never Intended for such extensive business as the war has brought to it. Some experienced cavalry officers, who watched the regular and methodical work of the mounted men, were most eulogistic in their comments. The horse had a good deal of knocking about on the train journey, and bore marks of abrasions.

The men carried their tents and equipment to the camping ground, which was far enough south of Orange River to make us little interested in the waters of that stream. The day was terribly hot, and the first test of the men’s good humour was made. They bore it quite as the people of Australia had a right to expect. With here and there an exception, for the first time in their lives or men lay down that night in the knowledge that they were a fighting force, with an enemy close at hand, and were at any time liable to be attacked.

Westralians On Picket

The patrols and outposts were strong, and the Westralians got the first tour of active service duty, as they furnished pickets. Major Eddy was the field officer with the outposts. Subsequently the several companies took outpost duty in turn day and night during the stay at Orange River.

Correspondent from “The Sun” writing on the 4th December 1899. (The West Australians had left Capetown on the 1st December 1899.)

I am scribbling this in red-hot haste in my tent at Orange River camp, 589 miles inland from Capetown. We left the Cape on the morning of the first of the month, and all our boys are here. We have had no accidents or sickness of any note except that one of the W.A. lads is in hospital suffering from a slight attack of enteric fever. One of the Victorian Mounted Rifles had a finger crushed off this morning at daybreak whilst shifting our material from the railway trucks, but will soon be fit for service. He has stoutly refused to be invalided. All the men and officers are in great heart.

The camping place was little better than a sandy desert; a veritable Gehenna heat prevailed, and the high wind blew the sand in great clouds all over us. Writing in my tent that blessed Sabbath afternoon, the aids to composition were showers of blinding sand, armies of the most persistent flies I have ever met, huge ground spiders, and various coloured scorpions.

Correspondent Assistant Monger – Sleeping in Khaki – Amongst the Wounded

Correspondent Assistant Monger

The life is terribly rough even for men accustomed to the hardships of pioneer life on the goldfields. I have with me as assistant Mr. Ernest Monger, one time of Coolgardie. My pass entitled me to take one servant and, as Ernie Monger was frantic to go up and have a look at the war, I gave him the chance to come along with me, and he is playing his part splendidly, and is of inestimable value to me in foraging for news of things that are happening. He and I will (I fancy) just about hold our own with any of the others.

Sleeping in Khaki

We have not had our clothes off since we started, and as all our baggage was stowed away we simply laid down and slept in our khaki suits. The days are intolerably hot, but the African dawn knows how to be as chilly as a stepmother’s blessing. Still we managed, with the aid of a plentiful supply of Boer tobacco and well-filled flasks of whisky, to get along pretty well. Our camp here is located at the foot of a barren range, covered with giant rocks. On the plain where we are lying there is nothing but deep white sand, which the wind keeps going in a constant cloud, very much after the fashion of then Boulder in its playful moods.

Our rations consist of two ship’s biscuits, a cup of tea, and half a tin of “dog” per meal. We smoke Boer tobacco when we can get it, and drink water when we can get it, so that those clever folk who talk of the Australian contingent’s picnic had better come along and have a sample if they fancy it, because its just the kind of picnic that would do them the world of good. All the goldfields “boys” send loving words of Christmas cheer to you up there, and they say when you are drinking do not forget their health, and when you are praying don’t forget their souls. There are a lot of them who will never see the old Golden Westland again.

Amongst The Wounded

I am always amongst the wounded as they come along from the front, and God knows there are plenty of them. They all tell one tale, viz, that the Boer is a bitter foe, a great fighter in his own style, and that England has taken on a great contract. A man has to stand and look, as I do fifty times a day, at the terrible hills, each one a natural fortress, ridged with barriers of mighty rocks that girdle them like mammoth ribs of metal to understand the task our soldiers have in front of them.

Step by step, inch by inch, our men have to fight their way upward in the face of a rifle fire that has no equal on God’s earth. When they reach the heights, the Boer has jumped into his saddle and cleared to some similar range, where the struggle has to be fought over again. They have very little cavalry here, and it is a wondrous thing to me to note how someone in England is blundering in this matter.

We Want Cavalry! – Regiments in Camp – British War Stories

We Want Cavalry!

We want cavalry and heaps of it, if we are ever going to sweep those stubborn sons of the soil out of their rocky fastnesses. Our infantry cannot catch them when they ride off, and all the time these fellows are wetting the blistering soil of Africa with the gamest blood of Britain. Our losses have been very heavy, and we have done practically no good. We won a hollow victory at Modder River the other day. Our fellows fought with grim pluck, and we lost 600 men. The Boers abandoned the position at midnight, took up another very similar to it a few miles further back, and a galloper has just arrived in camp informing us that another big battle is pending there today. We expect to be called on to move up at any moment, and young Australia will then get its first taste of war.

Regiments In Camp

The Shropshire Regiment is lying just in front of us 1,000 strong and good fighters I believe, also, the Gordon Highlanders, and a strong body of engineers. The Canadians are up with us, and will join Methuen’s army. They seem to be in good heart, and are all well, no casualties so far. They are 1038 strong, all footmen, and seem to be good, useful chaps, able and willing to rough it. The Queenslanders have not come up to us yet. I don’t know where they are, nor can I find out where the New Zealanders are so far, but they are somewhere in front. Vic mounted and foot, S.A., W.A., and Tas are all here.

British War Stories

I shall have to chronicle the death of many a man whose home is in my own dear country. But as sure as the sun shines, I know I shall tell a tale of a young nation’s glory as well as of its sorrow. At a place called Grasspan. This side of Modder River, a week back we fought a grim fight, and won another barren victory. In the engagement the Naval Brigade, 186 strong, made an effort for victory which will live as long as England’s empire lasts. They charged the Boers, cutlass in hand, but were mowed down like leaves before the tempest’s breath.

They left their trademark on every height they reached, but at last they were decimated by a perfect storm of lead. Men who were there tell me that the hissing of the bullets from the almost impregnable heights sounded like the breaking of

surf on our southern coast. It was hell, yet up that bloody hill our bluejackets swarmed with heroic courage, worthy the best traditions of the flag they fought under. Out of the 136 bold bluejackets who dashed at the heights only thirty-eight

(38) came back, and not one of them was unscathed. We drove the enemy out, it is true, but only a little way, where they entrenched as before. We gained nothing but a few hundred prisoners and a few hundred dead foemen. The fruits of victory were lost because we had not sufficient cavalry to keep them on the move.

The Boers have behaved badly to our fellows. At Grasspan I hear that one of them was wounded, and a British medical officer went to his assistance. As the doctor bent over him to bandage him the ****** hound reached his hand up, drew the doctor’s revolver from his belt, and shot the medic stone dead. They brought the Dutchman in to De Aar. Tried him by court martial and shot him for cowardice.

I was chatting to one of the wounded Gordon Highlanders. He got his little lot at the battle of Modder River. He was scaling a hill, climbing on hands and knees up the steep hillside, when a Boer above him fired at his head. The bullet went through the top of his helmet (I saw the helmet), passed down, cutting his cheek, went through his shoulder, and came out under his arm. Close enough in all conscience.

The Highlander’s Kilt – Violets – The Mule System – Remington Scouts – Boer Prisoners

The Highlander’s Kilt

Every hour the trains come thundering in with men, all dressed alike in plain khaki suits, the brilliant Guardsman and the humble but useful “line” man look alike here, all useful, all workmanlike, for this is the reality, not the poetry of war. The only distinction existing here is that of the Scotch regiments, who wear their kilts. They fairly howled when asked to drop the national dress. The War Office met them half way, giving them kilts, but they wear helmets and khaki coats. It is a funny sight to me to see them trooping around, their legs bare from the knees upward.

When the wind is frolicsome and the kilts fly up, then from the hip to the knee the Scot is in the “altogether,” as our friend Trilby puts it. I tried to snapshot one big Highlander, but he swore he’d butt me in the stomach with the big end of his rifle if

I did, and as he looked like a man who generally fulfilled his promises I let the venture slide, and we made friends over a bottle of Bass’ ale.


We have a native lad who costs £3 per month and his tucker. He is the blackest black man I have yet seen. His face is so dark that it cast a shadow in the sunshine, and I have christened him ” Violets” because the odor of him when he perspires is something a man will remember for a lifetime. When I want him of a night time I don’t call him, I don’t look for him, I simply run him down by scent. We have also got a mule. It is not a bad mule as mules go.

He served his time as a transit male, and what that male don’t know in the way of devilment is hardly worth collecting. He can kick with his four feet at once, send each in a different direction. I’m a bit more afraid of him than of the Boer rifles, because the lemon coloured devil always looks as innocent as a lizard asleep in the sun, but when he smiles and tries to rob his nose on my shoulder I skip out of range, because he’s no more to be trusted in that humour than a Salvation soldier with a shotgun.

The Mule System

The Natives and the mules had to have a say in the matter, and they asserted themselves with considerable emphasis. Mule teams in South Africa generally consist of fourteen animals (10 mules and 4 Native drivers). One of the Natives sits in front of the wagon and holds the reins, another sits beside him and wields an enormous whip. The other two sit promiscuously on all parts of the wagon, ready to jump off and flog with their short whips whenever a crisis arrives, which generally happens about every five minutes. The Native’s idea of driving is to flog if he has an excuse, and if he hasn’t one, flog also.

The mule seems to participate in this flogging mania, for he obstinately refuses to budge till he has had his fair allowance, and then he requires it at frequent intervals to keep his spirits up. The starting of a Kaffir wagon is attended with more noise and commotion than the starting of a dozen special trains in Australia. Kaffirs flog

and shout, and the mules kick and grunt, till suddenly half of them obey a common impulse to bolt forward, and away she goes. I have never yet seen more than half the mules in a team start at once.

Remington Scouts

There are a few of these Remingtons here and they strike one as being a remarkably useful lot. They are armed and mounted like the Boers, with rifle, bandolier and Beer pony. They carry no tent or equipment, and ride incredible distances in the 24 hours. Two of them are sleeping just outside in the hot sun with their heads under their saddles. The Boers have offered a reward of £5 dead and

£10 living for them. The brutes fill them full of buckshot.

Boer Prisoners

Another batch of Boer prisoners have just been brought in. Many of them can speak English, but it is useless trying to talk to them. They are sullen and down hearted, and do not waste any sort of civility on me when I speak to them. I asked one how long he reckoned the war would last, and he said, “Oh until we take Capetown and pitch you into the sea.” I laughed, and he fervently expressed the hope that he might live to place a bayonet or a bullet, he was not particular which, in my stomach only he did not say stomach, but used a much short and less elegant if more familiar term.

They are a stout, sturdy lot of chaps, and well fitted by nature for the job they have in hand, but they don’t like close quarter work, and they seldom fight when collared. Their game is to shoot until cornered, and then throw down their arms and cry for quarter. These tactics are very disheartening to our soldiers, who love a hand to hand tussle.

Our men have been round fraternising with the Boer prisoners and are duly surprised to find that many of them speak English perfectly, wear starched collars, and comport themselves generally like civilised beings. Among them is an Irishman, a wealthy Pretoria citizen, who claims to have been commandeered, much against his will. As the prisoners were without tobacco, the West Australians collected all the available surplus in camp and gave it to them, for which they expressed themselves very grateful.

Lieutenant Campbell said of the prisoners:

“I have met some of the Boer prisoners. They seem to be a good lot of fellows. They advised me to take the blue puggaree from my hat, as it made a very good target. I bought them some tobacco and pipes, and they wished me good luck.”

Bathing Parades – Utmost Honour for the Fallen Enemy – General Wauchope – Railway Dining Room – Nethercott of Boulder – Waiting For Orders – The West Australian Station

Bathing Parades

Two bathing parades have been held since we came here, and though the bathing place is two miles away, every man turned out for a plunge.

Utmost Honour For The Fallen Enemy

Many of the wounded in recent battles were lying in the hospital, a considerable portion of them Boers. Never had wounded soldiers fallen into the hands of a more tender foe . The Boer sufferers were given quite as much care as that bestowed by the doctors and nurses on our own gallant countrymen. The afternoon we arrived , one of the Boers, who had died from his wounds, was buried by a party of the Gordon Highlanders, who marched with arms reversed, and preceded by wailing pipers. The utmost respect was paid to the remains of the dead foeman.

General Wauchope

The Australian officers met General Wauchope, who was in command of the British forces in the area. He left the following day in charge of the highland brigade and died a soldier’s death at the Battle of Magersfontein.

Railway Dining Room

There was a dining-room at the railway station here, and many of the officers had their meals in it. Such a strain upon the resources of the place had never before been imposed, and it was amusing to see distinguished soldiers making good the deficiencies in attendance. Here a general officer fossicked for the bread, there a full colonel emerged triumphantly from the kitchen with the cup of tea for which he had long waited. All the hurry and bustle of the few attendants could not overcome the shortage in cups, and it was first come first served alike with generals and subalterns, all in the most perfect good humour.

Nethercott of Boulder

Nethercott, who was the town clerk of Boulder City, is dead. He joined the Cape Light Horse, went into action, and died like a man in the thick of the battle. So that, whatever his faults whilst living, he atoned for them in his death. His comrades speak highly of him as a brave soldier and one who did not Know fear. So, God rest his soul, let his faults die with him.

Waiting For Orders

We are still here waiting for orders, and the men are beginning to fear that we may be kept here for some weeks as it is necessary to have troops at all these intermediate stations, in order to keep open the lines of communication with Modder River. We are now on fighting ground, for several skirmishes took place a few weeks ago round here. The wonder is that the Boers did not blow up the big iron bridge when the war started. They had the opportunity, but curiously overlooked it. The river here is wide, and there would be great difficulty in fording it with heavy wagons and artillery.

The West Australian Station

Yesterday fifty Western Australians were placed on fatigue duty, laying rails for a new siding. “Little Jim”, who is an experienced hand at this work, assumed the post of director, with the result that when the work was completed the staff officer complimented the men on the way they had worked, remarking that they had done more in four hours than Imperial troops would have done in twelve.

The First Capture by the Australians in the War – Appointments – Westralian War

The First Capture By The Australians In The War

Last night [3rd or 4th December] some Victorian outposts did a notable piece of work, capturing no less a personage than an Imperial officer. The officer, it appears, had been out purchasing horses, and hadn’t the latest “pass-word”. He stormed and explained alternately, but the Victorians were as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar, and marched him off to the guardroom, where he had to remain all night. First capture by Australians during the war. The incident has created a good deal of amusement but has done the whole regiment some good in the eyes of others, as it shows they knew their duties and are not afraid of them.

This morning the Victorian Mounted Rifles. effected a further capture in the person of a ragged looking Kaffir, who was discovered crawling along on his stomach trying to avoid observation. This serpentine mode of progression was looked upon by the alert Victorians as highly treasonable and suspicious, and the terrified native was promptly run in.


Lieutenant Parker has been appointed Assistant Railway Staff Officer here. The honour is great so is the labour, 14 hours a day; but Parker is in fear and trembling lest the appointment keep him from going to the front. Lieutenant Campbell was offered the post of transport officer to the whole regiment, a most arduous and responsible position, but he declined, preferring to remain with his company. The Colonel has placed him permanently in charge of the Maxim guns. The authorities wanted to keep one of the Western Australian officers at Capetown for staff duties, but Captain Moor succeeded in defeating the insidious design.

Westralian War Cry!

The Western Australians early adopted as a war cry the New Zealand football cry, “Rik tik, rikitik tik, houpta, houpta, heh,” the Afghan word “hooshta” being substituted for the Maori “houpta.” The other companies have since adopted it, and if the Boers hear it on the battlefield they will probably ask each other what new and barbarous tribe the British have brought in to help them. Delivered from several hundred throats, it has a peculiarly inspiring effect. The more distinctively Australian “Coo-ee” is also frequently heard on the march and in camp.

Letter From Sergeant Lessey – Letter From Private Brown – Letter From Lieutenant Campbell – Letter From Lance Corporal Day – Letter from Private Lowe

Letter from Sergeant Lessey

No. 38 Sergeant Barton S Lessey Dated 4th December 1899

“We left Capetown on the 1st at 5 AM for De Aar, 500 miles by train, and arrived at 3 AM on the 3rd. We got orders at once to proceed 70 miles further, and arrived here at 10 AM. There are about 8,000 or 9,000 troops camped here, most of them spelling after the engagement at the Modder River that took place on the 30th

November. There are a number of wounded here, both of our men and the Boers. We expect another engagement in a day or two about 18 miles from here.

General Cronje’s son was buried here yesterday, and another Boer is to be shot this morning for shooting one of our men whilst holding the white flag. The Boers are terribly treacherous, and I could tell you some terrible things if I had time and space. They cannot stand the bayonet at all. I am glad to say I am as fit as a fiddle and ready for anything, so you can tell the boys I am ok.

P.S.-This is the third night without sleep. Tucker menu: Biscuits and tinned meat.”

Letter from Private Brown

No. 111 Private Frederick S C Brown Dated 4th December 1899

The sand and wind are ten times as bad as at Karrakatta. We have each been served out with magazine rifles and big water bottles. When we go into action our dress is heavy marching order that is braces, haversacks, three days’ rations, water bottles full, great coat, canteens, 100 rounds of ammunition, side arms. I do not know whether you have seen the magazine rifle or not, but I have no time to explain it to you now. We have also been supplied with a khaki suit and heavy military boots, which are very easy to walk in.

We have 1,500 to 2,000 Boers in the vicinity of us and we have to keep a comparatively heavy patrol at night. After being 48 hours in the train the W.A. Contingent was put on outpost duty, we number 93 men. There were 12 men with a sergeant and corporal in charge, but there has been nothing startling yet. We went for a bath yesterday in the Orange River guarded by our maxims. Most of the rivers are swarming with crocodiles, but I did not see any. The mixture of races in this part is something marvelous, there being Hottentots, Zulus, Busutos, Boer prisoners, etc.

Letter from Lieutenant Campbell

Lieutenant John Campbell Dated 6th December 1899

I am writing this letter in the open and on the sand by the light of a candle, which the wind blows out every now and then. We have struck camp and are sleeping in the open air this evening, as we shall start at 2.30 in the morning. The fellows have a number of tin whistles, which Captain Moor bought for them, and they are whiling away the time by playing “Home, Sweet Home”. The music is running right through me. We are having a pretty rough time of it, very little to eat and drink, but I am very well and strong. We buried a dead Boer a few days ago with full military honours.

It would make your eyes sore to see this field. Coolgardie is a paradise to it. The heat is intense, and our candles fall over as we stand them up, while the ink in the fountain pen dries up as soon as it is poured in, But I am enjoying it all. The water that we drink is like pea soup, but the doctors say that it is good.

Colonel Wilson was up here, but he went back to town ill, on the day that we arrived. It would do you good to see the batteries and regiments in camp. I can honestly tell you that we have not yet seen a force that is anywhere near the standard of ours. We have some of the Gordons and Seaforths in camp with us, also four batteries of cavalry and mounted rifles. Altogether between four and five thousand troops.

We are expecting an attack any day. More troops are to arrive tomorrow, the general tells us that this is an important station. We had some spies out a day or two ago but could not get hold of them. We did outpost work a few evenings ago. We all took a turn, and scrambled over rocks, down trenches, etc. Poor Frasor fell into a trench, and I fell on top of him, the butt end of my rifle striking the middle of his back.

He and I were very sore in the morning. I started at 11 in the evening, and when I had completed my rounds, it was daybreak. A good day’s work before breakfast. But it is agreeing with me, and I am quite happy, It is a sad sight to walk along and see all the poor fellows in the hospitals, seme with eyes out, not only our own men, but also young Boers. They all seem to be happy. An old man told me that he was forced to fight, and also to send along his horses and wagons. We do not know anything about the war.

Letter from Lance Corporal Day

No. 35 Lance Corporal Leo Day Dated 6th December 1899

We shall fight side by side with the Gordon Highlanders and all the crack regiments of the British army, an honour that many Australians would be proud to share. We, that is, some of the Vics, and us, were on outpost duty last night, and we captured three Boers and five mules. There is a regiment here known as the “Tigers”, they are mostly English farmers, who act as guides and scouts. They are looked upon as little gods. The Boers have a £50 price on their heads. They are grand fellows, and as hard as nails.

*It’s important to note that Day, in capturing 3 Boers, would be the first action of the West Australians in the war.

Letter from Private Lowe

No. 12 Private George Lowe Dated 6th December 1899

We have heard some good yarns from some of the boys who have already been in three engagements. I shall give you some idea of what the Boers are, and also what the Britishers are. In the first fight, at Belmont, the Britishers charged with bayonets, and when they got up to the trenches they found one of the Boers on his knees, supposed to be praying. A British officer said to one of the privates, “Don’t bayonet that man,” and the private took his rifle by the muzzle and bashed his head in with the butt.

He went up to the officer and said, “I did not bayonet him, sir.” Our boys say that they have to do this sort of thing, or else the Boers would shoot them down when their backs were turned, unless they could take their prisoners straight away. One of the Boers at Grasspan took a British prisoner, and forgot to take his rifle from

him, and when they were walking away the private ran away. The Boer fired at him and shot him through the muscles of the left arm. The private turned back, and went for the Boer with his bayonet, and struck him twice.