On the evening of 12 June 1901, the Left Wing of the 5th
Victorian Mounted Rifles, E F G and H Squadrons, camped at Wilmansrust in South
Africa's central Transvaal.
The encampment was surprised when rushed in the dark by the
Boers at about 7.30 pm. Their first volley stampeded the horses in H Squadron
lines through the camp. The Boers were dressed in captured khaki uniforms and
turned up hats. It was impossible to tell friend from foe by the light of dying
Victorian casualties were heavy. Killed was regimental
surgeon Herbert Palmer of Ballarat, and 18 NCOs and men. Five officers and 36
NCOs and men were wounded.
The Victorians were part of a combined column commanded by
British Major-General S. B. Beatson, a stern disciplinarian. In the week after
the Wilmansrust engagement, the column remained in the vicinity.
For some reason General Beatson was deeply, but unfairly,
disturbed about the Wilmansrust action. Until then he had seemed keenly
impressed with the Victorians. Now, all that had changed. He was reported to
have angrily stated during a march that week:
'I tell you what I think. The
a damned fat, round shouldered,
crowd of wasters . . . In my opinion
are a lot of white-livered curs . . .
can add dogs
The facts were very different, with
Victorian mounted troops being generally acknowledged as formidable opponents to
the Boer 'Commandos', and terrifying to them in some
General Beatson , however, later found
a group of Victorians slaughtering pigs for food. He is said to have addressed
them as follows:
'Yes, that's about what you are good
for. When the Dutchmen came the other night, you didn't fix bayonets and charge
them, but you go for something that can't hit back'.
The column returned to Middelburg depot
later that week. There was by then a state of mutual contempt between the
General and the Victorians.
On 7 July, when the Victorians were
ordered out on another operation. Trooper James Steele was overheard by nearby
British officers to say:
'It will be better for the men to be
shot than to go out with a man who called them white-livered
For this apparent refusal to do as they
were ordered, Steele and troopers Arthur Richards and Herbert Parry were
arrested, given a summary court-martial and sentenced to
Lord Kitchener intervened in the
aftermath of Wilmansrust.
British supreme commander Lord
Kitchener intervened. He commuted the sentences (Steele to do ten years gaol,
the others to do one year each). Controversy continued when a speech in the new
(Australian) Federal Parliament lingered on how the aftermath of Wilmansrust was
a disgraceful way to treat men who had volunteered to go to the Boer
A court of enquiry earlier had begun
sittings three days after the disaster, at Uitgedacht. The Wilmansrust camp had
been under the overall command of a British officer, Major CJN Morris,
Royal Field Artillery. He had personally chosen the position of the picquets. In
another extraordinary outburst British General Sir Bindon Blood mentioned the
'chicken-hearted behaviour of the officers and men generally of the Victorian
Mounted Rifles on this occasion. We must remember that they were all a lot of
recruits together, and that their behaviour was only what was to be expected in
the circumstances'. You can read
the Court of Inquiry's findings by clicking here.
Major-General Sir Bindon
Since it was acknowledged that the
picquets were insufficent and wrongly placed (the responsibility of Major Morris
who had personally selected their positions), the comments of Sir Bindon Blood
and General Beatson before him were grave slurs on the Victorians. Major William
McKnight, the CO of the 5VMR Left Wing at Wilmansrust, called General
Beatson to account for his 'gross insults'. A belated apology by the General was
curtly refused by McKnight. The Court of Enquiry, meanwhile, had censured
British Artillery Major Morris.
5VMR Major William McKnight successfully upbraided a British
Melbourne newspapers heaped criticism
on General Beatson and his reported remarks. But it took a petition to King
Edward VII, and the personal representations of the Australian Prime Minister
Edmund Barton and prominent Australians then living in London, to secure the
release of the prisoners from an English gaol. They were returned to South
Africa and from there to Victoria.
Prime Minister Barton later tabled a
report on Wilmansrust by Victorian Major W. McKnight, who had been present
during the engagement. Because the convictions of troopers Steele, Parry and
Richards had by then been quashed, the complete report was never made
Most people seemed glad the whole
horrible episode quickly faded away.
You can view the amazing monument
erected by the 5th Victorian Contingent, in memory of their fallen comrades,
when they returned to Melbourne by clicking here.
A strong defence of the 5th Mounted
Rifles and its humiliating defeat at Wilmansrust was provided by Max Chamberlain
in 1985, in his article The Wilmansrust Affair (Australian War Memorial Journal
No. 6; April 1985)
[The above was put together using the following
sources: Murray, Lt-Col P. L.: Official Records of the Australian Military
Contingents in the War in South Africa: Govt. Printer: n.d., 1911? -- and
the balanced viewpoint in Holloway, David: Hooves, Wheels & Tracks: A
history of the 4th/19th Prince of Wales Light Horse Regiment and its
predecessors: Regt. Trustees: 1990 and 'The Wilmansrust Affair': Max
Chamberlain: AWM Journal: No. 6: April 1985].
about Wilmansrust defeat and subsequent
National Archives of
Report by Major McKnight on the Wilmansrust affair, 1901:
Papers re members of the 5th Victorian Contingent being
sentenced (courts martial) for insubordination in South Africa, 1901-1902:
Copy of minute from Governor-General to Prime
Minister--re telegram of condolence from Duke and Duchess of Cornwall for
heavy losses sustained by Victorian Mounted Rifles near Wilmansrust, 1901:
This information compiled by Craig Wilcox in forthcoming NAA Boer War
CAN YOU help with photos, letters,
diaries or newspaper reports about the Wilmansrust Affair?