The South African War (aka the Boer War) of 1899-1902 brought no end of literary greats to southern Africa, often as newspaper correspondents, sometimes as propagandists. Rudyard Kipling was here, as was Arthur Conan Doyle. Local literati included Percy Fitzpatrick and Olive Schreiner, the latter an opponent of the war.
Also among their number was the Australian Andrew “Banjo” Paterson, author of the epic poem, The Man from Snowy River. Paterson accompanied the New South Wales (NSW) Lancers and the NSW Army Medical Corps to Cape Town to take part in the campaign against the Boers, who were then entrenched about Colesberg, now in the north of the Eastern Cape.
Paterson and his fellow New South Welsh arrived in the Cape Colony in late November 1899 and eventually made their way to the front, seeing action at Arundel, near Colesberg in December. Paterson would follow the Lancers around for a good eight months, witnessing the relief of Kimberley, the occupation of Bloemfontein, Kroonstad, Johannesburg and Pretoria before heading south to partake in the hunt for Christian de Wet. Paterson`s war ended after the Boer surrender in the Brandwater basin in July 1900. Prematurely considering the war over, he returned home.
The Australian was a master of words and drew vivid images of the terrain, of being under fire, of the farmers, the Boer fighters, camp life and of the various Imperial contingents. His descriptions are crisp and frankly a cut above the usual. Of particular, but extra-curricular interest is the doings of a range of then young officers who would hold high office just over a decade later, the likes of then Captain, later Field Marshal Douglas Haig. Amusing to are some of his views – the British Army has too many generals and too much indecision, its “scouting is feeble in the extreme. A column blunders along in a bull-headed fashion till it finds an enemy to butt against, and then it proceeds to tread that enemy flat … but it never learns from experience.”
Paterson also accompanied Ian Hamilton (of Gallipoli fame – or otherwise) and his column in the march on Johannesburg. Also present was the young Winston Churchill – although Paterson does not mention him. May 28 was spent in the vicinity of Van Wyk`s Rust fort – the ruin of which sits next to the Golden Highway on the south bank of the Klipspruit – driving the Boers of a nearby ridge. The next day was spent on wide flanking movements – Hamilton to the west and others to the east – to Germiston to cut the railway line. Hamilton`s cavalry brigade was part of General John French`s column and traced a route west along what is now the N12 “Moroka Bypass” highway to Potchefstroom, turning north (along what is now Adcock Street) to follow the Klipspruit towards Roodepoort – and Doornkop, where in January 1896 the Jameson Raid had come to grief when 200 Boers stopped 600 adventurers on a site which is sadly now being subsumed by low-cost housing.
Battle was soon joined: “The men got orders to halt, but they took no notice of the orders and ran on, the lust of slaughter having taken full possession of them. They killed two men and wounded two more, and captured quite a few prisoners, who lay down until they were overtaken, and then they calmly surrendered, quite happy to be out of the fighting. The behaviour of the Transvaalers [sic] in this affair bears out my theory that there is no vital difference between the Transvaaler and the Free State Boer. Either will fight well in a kopje, and neither will make a stand in the open.”
Get this book, read it. It`s as good an account of that war as you`ll ever find – and likely much better than you have yet come across.
RWF Drooglever (Ed)
From the front – AB (Banjo) Paterson`s dispatches from the Boer War
Pan Macmillan Australia