General Sir Harry Chauvel, GCMG, KCB in the Boer War




The QMI disembarked in Table Bay, South Africa on 14th December 1899—this was in Black Week during which the British troops had suffered grievous defeats at Colenzo, Magersfontein and Stormberg. The QMI was immediately trucked north by rail to De Aar on the Orange River (see maps here). Here they experienced the first difficulties of living rough on the veldt. The opportunity was taken to blacken any item of their dress and kit that was shiny, and the officers exchanged their swords for carbines. It is also said that they all grew beards.


At this point, it is worth mentioning their horses. There were some losses on the sea voyage, and many still had horse flu when they disembarked, to say nothing of their loss of condition. From then on, the losses from starvation, disease and exhaustion worsened. Chauvel wrote home that as the campaign wore on they were losing five horses a day, sometimes more. Hence the QMI often spent more time on foot than riding. As Banjo Patterson wrote they were ‘Cavalry to ride, but infantry to shoot, but you will know them by the feathers in their hat’. The whole campaign was often slowed down because of the condition of the horses throughout the whole army. Fortunately, many lessons in animal husbandry were not lost on Chauvel when he led the Desert Mounted Column in Palestine in WW1.


It was not long before they were selected by Lieutenant Colonel T D Pilcher of the Northumberland Fusiliers to join the force he was assembling at Belmont. It comprised a company of Canadian infantry, 40 mounted infantry of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, two guns of the Royal Horse Artillery with a Maxim gun, a detachment of the NSW Medical Corps, and some field telegraphists. The Queenslanders also had their machine gun detachment with them. It was indeed a mixed force.


They were to attack a Boer defensive position on the Sunnyside kopje, a hill, 60 miles south-west of Kimberly, between Belmont and Douglas. Pilcher sent out two mounted patrols from the QMI, each of four men—one to the north and one to the west. Their task was to see whether any Boers were returning from Douglas to their base at the foot of Sunnyside kopje. Unfortunately for the one commanded by Lieutenant Adie they did run into some Boers. In the exchange of fire Private Victor Jones was shot and fell dead from his horse. He was buried the following morning in a shallow grave where he had fallen.


It was around 11.00am that Pilcher began the attack with rounds being fired by the artillery into the Boer’s lager. He sent the Munsters around to attack from the north, while the Canadians were to advance on the kopje across open ground. The QMI were sent around to the left flank where they dismounted and began the assault up the rock-strewn kopje. After some serious fighting, the Boers surrendered. During the firefight Private David McLeod was badly wounded, and died that evening. He was nursed by his Canadian friends and buried by them.

Studio portrait of 219 Private (Pte) Victor Stanley Jones. Pte Jones was a member of B Company, 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry Contingent and travelled to South Africa aboard the SS Cornwall. He was killed in action on 1 January 1900 at Sunnyside, South Africa. He is believed to be the first Australian killed in the Boer War.

Chauvel had led his company in the attack: ‘We had a very hard day lying for hours in the sun waiting to advance about a three mile walk with a tough fight at the end to say nothing of climbing the kopje. I was pretty tired when we got to the top. Fortunately I found a Boer pony which I annexed and did the rest of the job mounted.’  This was almost his undoing. Ricardo sent him to take a message to Pilcher. Astride a Boer pony and wearing a slouch hat the Canadians mistook him for a Boer and fired at him. He quickly dismounted, tied his handkerchief to the muzzle of his carbine and advanced under the white flag—the only time in his entire service.


The QMI proceeded to Douglas where they were welcomed by the British townsfolk and spent a comfortable night. Chauvel washed his supper down with champagne. Then after further reconnaissance, they were back in Belmont two days later.


After their success at Sunnyside and at Douglas, the QMI rode to the east and patrolled into the Free State. There were some almost disastrous clashes with Victorian and British columns. This highlighted the problems of communications and identification—no radios in those days. The slouch hats worn by the QMI at that time meant that they were often mistaken for Boers. Later in the campaign when under the command of General Hutton, they were made to wear pith helmets, much to the disgust of Chauvel and the men. The New Zealanders felt much the same when they also had to give up their “lemon squeezer” hats.


On 10th January 1900 Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC arrived and took command, with Major General Lord Kitchener as his deputy. He soon began reorganising units and supply arrangements ready to defeat the Boers.  It was not long before he was ready to advance on the Boers.


Major General French’s Cavalry Division was formed on 8th February and included a mounted infantry brigade commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alderson. It comprised British mounted infantry battalions, South African Horse, New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and the QMI. The QMI was under command of Ricardo whose rank of Lieutenant Colonel had been restored, and Captain Chauvel was now the Adjutant.


Roberts’ plan now depended on surprise and speed. French’s cavalry moved under the cover of darkness securing fords on the Riet River then north across the Modder River before riding hell for leather for Kimberley. The rest of the army followed across the rivers but headed east towards Bloemfontein. French entered Kimberley on 15 February. This was much to the relief of all citizens and the Royal Engineer Commandant, Colonel Kekewich who now had Cecil Rhodes off his back. In fairness to Rhodes he was instrumental in having a field gun designed and built in his workshops. Long Cecil as it was known was used to great effect in shelling the Boers who were besieging Kimberley.

Chauvel had found the great cavalry advance exhilarating despite occasional actions on the way and some artillery shells bursting nearby. He enjoyed the hospitality of Rhodes at the Kimberley Club and accommodation for the men on Rhodes’ property, complete with electric light, showers and grapes from his orchard. “It won’t last”, Chauvel wrote and they were soon heading east again supporting Roberts’ advance to Bloemfontein, which was entered on 13 March. The advance was no pushover, and whilst there was some respite at the end, half rations and enteric fever (typhoid) was taking its toll. Makeshift hospital facilities were inadequate. Men were dying, often as many as fifty in one day.


The QMI had tents but some eighty men were in hospital by the end of March leaving the QMI well below fighting strength. Chauvel went to Cape Town to bring back men who had drifted there after hospital. At the same time, Roberts was building up his resources in preparation for an advance north to capture Johannesburg and then Pretoria, believing that would bring the war to an end. The Boers had other ideas, however, and de Wet threatened Bloemfontein from the east. The QMI under Ricardo was deployed to stem the flow. In doing so they lost two men and a number were taken prisoner.


Roberts placed all the colonial mounted units into a mounted infantry division of two brigades under Major General Ian Hamilton. The 1st Brigade was placed under the command of Major General “Curly” Hutton, commandant in NSW 1893-96. Hutton was to return to Australia in 1902 after Federation as its first General Officer Commanding the Australian Military Forces.

Bloemfontein, South Africa. 1900-05-28. Troops in formation and civilians watch the ceremony marking the annexation of the Orange River Colony by the British.

The man who drew this was a descendent of one of the Boers killed.  He and his wife hosted our party (from QMI) for an enjoyable lunch in January 2000.  Given the new regime in South Africa most of the old differences between the Boers and the Anglos had faded away – they had to stick together (Miles Farmer, 2-Jan-2015)

As part of Hutton’s force the QMI again came under command of Colonel Pilcher, and followed Robert’s push north along the railway line leading to Johannesburg and thence to Pretoria (see maps here). There were many rivers to cross and Chauvel saw plenty of action, sometimes to the displeasure of Ricardo. On 1st July Ricardo relinquished command which Hutton then gave to Chauvel, now a major.


The advance north entailed much hard fighting to secure numerous river crossings, and they frequently came under fire from the Boer guns which outranged those of the Royal Horse Artillery. By 31st May Johannesburg had been occupied, and Chauvel was able to watch the triumphant Roberts marching in ahead of some twenty thousand infantry with their bands and pipers. This was a nuisance to Chauvel who had been on a mission to get rations but the shops were closed.


Pretoria was then occupied without a shot being fired. Kruger had long departed for Europe via the Delagoa Bay Railway line to the port in neutral Mozambique. The fate of Kruger’s gold remains a mystery to this day. The Boers now occupied the ranges along Diamond Hill which they lost in a hard battle over two days, 11 and 12 June. The QMI had fought under Hutton on the left flank to find that on 13th June the Boers were in full flight to the east. After a short pursuit Roberts ordered his troops back to Pretoria for rest and refit.


By now the QMI was seriously reduced in numbers—many were sick and a number had joined the South African Constabulary (under command of Baden Powell) and others went to the Imperial Military Railways. It was not an inspiring command for Chauvel now to take on. Their work entailed patrolling in the districts around Pretoria, spending many a night on the veldt, which being so high above sea level was always cold, and often freezing. Many native porters and British soldiers died of the cold.