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5th Victorian Mounted Rifles

The Scandal of Wilmansrust

<<the amazing monument erected by the 5th Victorian Contingent, in memory of their fallen comrades, when they returned to Melbourne

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 campfires.

Private George William Stratton, eldest son of Eliza Cook and Walter Thomas Stratton, who was killed at Wilmansrust, South Africa, 1901-06-12, aged 19 years. 

Stratton was a member of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles contingent to the Boer War. (donor's uncle).

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 Australians are a damned fat, round shouldered, useless crowd of wasters . . . In my opinion they are a lot of white-livered curs . . . You can add dogs too"
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 engagements. 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 curs'.
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 death.
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 Federal Parliament lingered on how the aftermath of Wilmansrust was a disgraceful way to treat men who had volunteered to go to the Boer War.
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'.
Since it was acknowledged that the picquets were insufficient 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.
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 public. Most people seemed glad the whole horrible episode quickly faded away.
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)


webmaster's note; many people, myself included, believe that this incident had more to do with the later decision by the Australian government that Australians must stay under Australian legal control than the better known "Breaker Morant" incident.
[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 controversy
National Archives of Australia
  • Report by Major McKnight on the Wilmansrust affair, 1901: B168, 1901/3859.

  • Papers re members of the 5th Victorian Contingent being sentenced (courts martial) for insubordination in South Africa, 1901-1902: B168, 1902/919.

  • 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: B3756, 1901/3426.

This information compiled by Craig Wilcox in forthcoming NAA Boer War guide.

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