The Battle of Elands River in the Boer War was Australia’s Gallipoli before Gallipoli itself. On the eve of Federation the battle was looked upon as proof positive of what Australian soldiers were capable of. Heavily outnumbered, besieged, they refused to buckle and, unlike Gallipoli, finally saw the enemy off.
“For the first time in the war, we are fighting men who used our own tactics against us. They were Australian volunteers and though small in number we could not take their position. They were the only troops who could scout our lines at night and kill our sentries while killing or capturing our scouts. Our men admitted that the Australians were more formidable opponents and far more dangerous than any other British troops,” wrote a Boer historian on the Siege of Elands River
The dreadful shelling goes on, putting the wind up more than a few troopers.
"Well, Jack, old man," one of them will later write a letter describing the experience, "the best writer in the world cannot describe heavy shell fire to give one who has never been under fire the slightest idea of what it is like, and I will not attempt. From a big gun there is a terrible roar, and a moment after a screaming sound coming closer and closer to the ground until it strikes and bursts with a tremendous bang, pieces flying in all directions – any one sufficient to kill or maim a man for life. I have seen one burst and kill six horses."
The sky rains death and the ground shakes and trembles beneath it. All that most of the defenders can do, as the shells continue to fall, is use their bayonets and whatever implements come to hand to make their trenches deeper, scratching out whatever earth they can – with the bare minimum being enough of a pouch to get their body into – and once the dirt and stones are loose enough, throwing it up to create something of a growing rampart between them and the Boer guns. Meanwhile, those mighty men on the artillery keep firing the best they can, until finally full darkness descends and, for the first time in over 12 hours, relative calm descends on Elands River. The Battle of Elands River begins - and as it would go on …
And every night, the digging goes on. "I fancy an underground plan of Elands River Camp would make anyone laugh," one digger records, "such workings were never before seen, every man his own architect in burrowing a hole, and by jove they are necessary, the shells can do such fearful damage."
In any case, if the worst does come to the worst, they will, the Australians decide – as chronicled by one soldier – "lie low, and when the Boers got near enough, to charge with fixed bayonets. The men swore they would never surrender, nor be taken prisoners."
9 August 1900, Elands River, surrender unrendered
"Cease fire!" A cry rings out on the morning of August 9. Again the guns from both sides fall silent as the Boer emissary comes forth from under the white flag, clearly wanting to parley. He has come with an offer to them, all penned on the back of three telegraph forms.
9/8/00 Assistant-Commandant General de la Rey to Lieut. Colonel Hore Commanding Officer British Camp, Elands River …
"If your Honour surrenders the camp," Assistant-Commandant General de la Rey writes to Colonel Hore, the Commanding Officer of the British Elands River Camp, "with everything in it (without hiding or ruining anything in it)... then I am prepared to give a security to your Honour, that I will send you and your troops to the nearest British force to which you choose to go. Your commissioned officers, in such case, will retain their arms in recognition of your courage in defence of your camp. Please be so kind as to give me your reply as soon as possible. If necessary, I am ready at any time to hold a conference with your Honour on the subject to arrange details."
H. DE LA REY Assistant-Commandant General Z.A.R.
Colonel Hore reacts quickly, calling what amounts to a council of war – his senior officers gathered in his headquarters bunker, including Butters, Zouch, Tunbridge and Thomas – to talk it through. Alas, the Colonel’s need for speed soon emerges. For he is eager to surrender from the first and says so, urging his officers to accept the reality of the situation.
His senior officers beg to differ, and do so perilously loudly. The first man to speak is Queensland's Major Walter Tunbridge, who rejects the very idea of surrender. "You, Colonel Hore, can surrender if you must, and I cannot stop you. But we are Queenslanders and we don’t surrender. If necessary, though we only be a hundred, we will withdraw from your surrender, and fight our way through the Boer lines. And there really is a great deal of angst-cum-anger among the men at how long this meeting is taking. What is there to discuss? Isn't the answer obvious? No. We are not surrendering. Why not just say so, NO, and be done with it?"
In the end, in the face of the united opposition to his proposal, Colonel Hore really has no choice. Colonel Hore hands over the note, and a few words of explanation. "Even if I wished to surrender to you," he says, "and I don't, I am commanding Australians who would cut my throat if I accepted your terms." So be it.
The Boer emissary must return to General de la Rey with the note he’s been given, together with a scrawled note some of the Australian soldiers had already given him to pass on to his bloody Boer mates: “If de la Rey wants our camp, why does he not come and take it? We will be pleased to meet him and his men, and promise them a great reception at the end of a toasting fork. Australians will never surrender. Australia forever!”
16 August 1900, Elands River, here comes the cavalry
A week later, on August 16, Field Marshal Kitchener, with his strong force of 10,000 troopers, is heading on his way to hunt down the troublesome General Christiaan de Wet and his army when it happens, not far from the outpost of Bethlehem. A galloping horseman approaches. It proves to be one of Kitchener's own scouts, who had caught a "kaffir" runner taking a message from de la Rey to de Wet, which is believed to be important. But it is extraordinary. I have the British in a corner [at Elands River]. They have a valuable convoy, but am unable to take it without more men and more guns/
"We must help those fellows at any cost," Kitchener says to his senior officers, "and not lose, a moment ..."
At Elands River itself, they are holding on. Only at night do they get up and about, while the rest of their time is spent lying in the trenches from five in the morning until seven o'clock at night. "I can tell you it is no joke," trooper Fred Bates chronicles in a letter to a friend. "We go up to the camp every second night for tucker, and it is moonlight and the Boers can see us crawling up, and sometimes the bullets come a bit too close for my liking. We are completely surrounded. This makes the eleventh day and no relief has come yet."
Not long after it gets dark on August 15, three rockets explode in the eastern sky – clearly a Boer signal for something, but no one is sure what. Still, on this very night two officers are in their usual position, forward of the weakest flank, just down from Butters’ Kopje, when the one with the keenest eyes is sure he sees something. Movement in the moonlight. With one hand he grips his rifle, with the other he alerts his companion and points, whispering, "There's a man crawling up to us through the long grass, cover him with your rifle and I'll challenge." Once sorted, the call goes out. Who is that? "What place is this?" a broad voice comes back. "Elands River garrison." "I have a message from Lord Kitchener. If you hold out till tomorrow morning he'll relieve you." There is more movement, and soon enough the man emerges from the long grass, to come up and shake their hands. "Any Australians here?" "Any number of 'em." "Good enough," says he. "I’m a ‘Sandgroper’ myself."
Here comes the cavalry! The Boer scouts soon confirm exactly that – a convoy of mounted British soldiers, no less than 10 miles long – and the obvious decision is taken. Those few Boers who remain also pull out, and the siege is over, after 12 days, as the pointy end of the convoy arrives.
First come the 17th Lancers, followed by the 9th and 16th Lancers with the 10th Hussars and the 5th Mounted Infantry close in behind. Now come the Imperial Yeomanry, the 6th Dragoons and the Natal Rifles as the bearded brutes of Elands River emerge from their dugouts in their tattered clothes, their roughly bound wounds, their thousand-yard stares with bloodshot eyes. The newly arrived soldiers – some holding their noses against the unbelievable stench when arriving in a place where dead carcasses have been rotting for nearly a fortnight in the sun– and not all of the dead soldiers have been buried yet – are stunned at what they see. At 8.30 am, just behind the leading squadron, one particularly sparkling, swish group of 150 lancers, pennants waving from their lances, enters the camp and, right behind them it is . . . him! I am sure of it! Kitchener himself! He’s here! That one, over there, the slight figure sitting high in the saddle who looks like he has a steel poker for a spine, so straight up does he sit, so red is his face as he glares balefully at all around with those glittering diamond eyes, that bristling moustache, which always signals extreme disapproval. Looking around with wonder, Kitchener himself notes: "Only colonials could have held out and survived in such impossible circumstances."
Kitchener’s officers are equally stunned, some of them so impressed with what will clearly ever after be remembered as an iconic defence that they pocket shell fragments as souvenirs. Most interesting to the new arrivals is just how the defenders had managed to dig their trenches so deep, their tunnels so long, and make their fortification so strong. They are stunned – stunned, do you hear me? – to learn much of the burrowing had been done with a bayonet. "What beggars these colonials are for fighting," one of the British officers is heard to say to another companion. "If it had been our Tommies they would have surrendered."
At Elands River it is time to take stock and, as well as everything else, work out just how much stock they have lost. Before the siege began, the Elands River camp had 487 horses, 269 mules and 356 transport oxen. Now, there are just 56 horses, 29 mules and 106 oxen left. They had started with a total of 505 men, of whom there have been 73 casualties, including 17 fatalities.
There is something that must be done before they leave this God-forsaken spot. For over the next day, all of the graves are cleaned up. White stones are gathered from surrounding hills and placed both around them, and to form a cross in the middle. Some even have headstones, with the names of those who will lie there for eternity chiselled upon them. Particular care is taken with the grave of the revered Lieutenant Annat, for whom his men still actively grieve. For him, a large slab of slate is taken from the river itself, and laboriously hauled to the spot before Trooper Waltisbuhl and Sergeant Major Glass carefully manoeuvre it into place at the head of his grave, with the words standing out clearly: "In memory of Lieutenant Annat, 3rd QMI, who was killed here in action on the 6th August, 1900." As a final touch, a barbed wire fence is constructed around the sacred ground to ensure that no animals will unwittingly desecrate the graves.
"It is impossible to give you anything like an idea of what they must have gone through," one British officer with the relief force will write to London's The Times. "I do hope Great Britain will show its gratitude to these Australians for the brightest page in the history of the war. Let it be known far and wide." Even the Boers will be moved to record their valour. "Never in the course of this war," General Jan Smuts, who served alongside de la Rey, will note, "did a besieged force endure worse sufferings, but they stood their ground with magnificent courage."
The war correspondents agree. "This stand at Brakfontein on the Elands River appears to have been one of the very finest deeds of arms of the war," Conan Doyle will note. "The Australians have been so split up during the campaign, that though their valour and efficiency were universally recognised, they had no single exploit which they could call their own. But now they can point to Elands River . . . When the ballad-makers of Australia seek for a subject, let them turn to Elands River, for there was no finer resistance in the war."
This is an edited extract from Breaker Morant by Peter FitzSimons, published by Hachette Australia on 27 October (RRP$49.99)