Horses the forgotten heroes of the Boer War

THE Indian Army had been sourcing its horses from Australia for many years.

Captains Dove D.S.O, SH Nicholson and Cross. Photo taken by SH Nicholson on his second tour of duty in South Africa 1900-1902. Photo courtesy of DON MEARNS

Captains Dove D.S.O, SH Nicholson and Cross. Photo taken by SH Nicholson on his second tour of duty in South Africa 1900-1902. Photo courtesy of DON MEARNS

LARRIKIN RECRUITS: The Bushies and the Boers, also from the Sydney Mail on March 3, 1900, comments on the Australians' discomfort with the spit and polish of army discipline. Reproduced in Poor Jim Has Died.

LARRIKIN RECRUITS: The Bushies and the Boers, also from the Sydney Mail on March 3, 1900, comments on the Australians' discomfort with the spit and polish of army discipline. Reproduced in Poor Jim Has Died.

In  an advertisement in the Moree Examiner on January 6, 1900, Major Thompson of the 7th Dragoon Guards advised that he had received a cable from the War Office asking for the “Purchase of broken-in horses for the use of the Army in South Africa.”

The sooner he could get them shipped, “the greater will be their value to the Empire”. Two classes of horses were required, one for cavalry and one for artillery and transport. “NO GREYS, LIGHT COLOURED HORSES or PIEBALDS…”

 The state contingents that went to South Africa in 1900 took their own horses with them and funds to raise these contingents were donated by wealthy citizens and a patriotic Australian public.

 About 6000 horses were taken to South Africa and those that survived had to be left there or destroyed because of their condition and because of the diseases in South Africa.

 The Australian horsemen have been accused of not caring for their horses and for riding them too hard. 

By comparison, British soldiers who were inexperienced riders would not have tired their horses. 

The Australians really cared for their horses and the grief they experienced on having to destroy a sick or injured horse is seen in letters home, many of which were published in local newspapers.

 The Australians were experts in using Condy’s Crystals; they dyed General Plumer’s horse but he recognised it.

“Give an Australian half an hour with a horse and tails are changed, manes hogged, marks and brands disappear as if by magic.”(LM Field)

 ‘Breaker’ Morant, who spent some time in this area, at Byng, epitomises the legendary skills of the Australian soldier horseman.

In 2000 we saw his grave in the Pretoria cemetery, with a large broken white marble cross lying on it. 

Perhaps he also represents the aspect of the war that the British, although they felt they needed the skills of fighting men who could compete with the Boers and their guerrilla tactics, were still in control, a trend that continued into World War One.    

 There are famous names associated with this war, found in town and street names in Australia, of places like Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith, and of people, Kitchener, Roberts and Baden-Powell but we also think of Andrew Barton Paterson who went as a war correspondent, at the end of 1899, for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sydney Mail and the Argus. 

Many Australians know Banjo’s poetry and quickly associate him with horses because of The Man From Snowy River. Another poem The Last Parade  is a tribute to the horses told in the words of ‘the old campaigner’, who had given loyal service but would never return home to Australia. 

And Paterson had to leave his horse behind. He had travelled on campaign through much of the Orange Free State and into the Transvaal, to Johannesburg  and Pretoria, sending photographs and dispatches from the front. 

He returned to Australia in September, 1900.

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