No unit that served during the Boer War is as well known to Australians as the Bushveldt Carbineers. Not because of the many great deeds they performed in battle, but by the infamous deeds of some of its members. This has overshadowed the many fine actions in which the unit was involved.
As the great battles of 1899-1900 came to a close, the defeated Boers chose to continue the struggle by hit and run raids which were more to their character than large set piece battles. Lord Kitchener was forced to disperse his forces over the Orange Free State and the Transvaal and, to cover the many gaps which were created, he formed a variety of irregular units. One of those was the Bushveldt Carbineers.
The Regiment was formed on the 21st February 1901 in the Northern Transvaal by Maj. R.W. Lenehan (an Australian) with a maximum complement of 350 men. The recruiting base was at Durban and between February 1901 and June 1902, 660 men had attested, of which 43% were Australian, 31% English and the rest native South Africans, Americans, New Zealanders, Canadians and even a German.
In March 1901, the Regiment began to muster at Pretoria where it became part of General Plumer's column of 1300 men which was preparing to advance and capture Pietersburg, 180 miles north of Pretoria. The column left on 26th March and followed the Pietersburg-Pretoria railway track until they reached the Pienaars River where there was a running fight with the Boers. During this time, the Bushveldt Carbineers were tasked to ensure General Plumer's supply trains were able to run as the Boers continued to attempt to blow up all trains on the Pietersburg-Pretoria Railway Line.
After one such train had been attacked, the Carbineers took some local Boers prisoner. These prisoners were placed in the second carriage of the next train and told that if they did not reveal the location of further demolitions on the line they would be blown up with the train. When the prisoners would still not talk, the Carbineers ran the train until the first wagon was blown up. With that, the Boers revealed the position of all mines.
With Pietersburg's capture on the 14th April, the Regiment moved into that location to establish its headquarters. Lt Col Hall took command of the Regiment. A Sqn, under Capt J.H. Robertson, was assigned the area of Louis Trichardt at Fort Edward, North of Pietersburg and B Sqn, under Lt H.H. Morant, was camped at Strypoort, south of Pietersburg. From these positions they conducted a series of raids and patrols along the Zoutpansburg District and Pretoria-Pietersburg Railway.
By April the Regiment was making its presence felt. On 5th May, one patrol under Lt H. Morant captured five Boers at Chuniespoort and on 11th, another five were captured at Marsfontein. It was during this time that the only man to receive a decoration in the Bushveldt Carbineers was mentioned in Lord Kitcheners dispatches. On hearing of 23 Boers, Sgt C.A.B. Forbes (an Australian) marched 80 miles, surprised and captured them. A further 100 men, under Commandant Rensburg, surrendered to the Carbineers at Pietersburg towards the end of the month.
Some notable captures were in April. They included 42 Boers at Commissie Drift, 47 at Klip dam and during May, 150 surrendered in the Louis Trichardt area. In June 44 men under Veldt Cornet Preez surrendered and Capt Taylor captured 20 more on 18th August. Perhaps the most notable capture occurred on 30th September when, after a wild ride across the veldt, Lt Morant and a small party took Veldt Cornet Kelly and 10 men.
In mid July, after some misconduct in A Sqn, its commander, Capt Robertson was dismissed and Capt Hunt assumed command. Lt Morant and 60 men were sent to Fort Edward to "sort A Sqn out". The next month, A Sqn was again out on patrol and 18 Boers were captured with 500 cattle and 15 wagons.
On the evening of 5th August Capt Hunt and 17 men went to the Viljoen farmhouse at Duivalskloof to capture Veldt Cornet Viljoen, who was reported to be hiding there, in the following action, Capt Hunt and Sgt Eland were killed by the 53 members of Viljoen's Commando. There is anecdotal evidence that Captain Hunt was abused by the Boers before he died, and mutilated afterwards.
From August to September many prisoners were taken but few were sent back to Pietersburg. In October,seven officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers were involved in a court of inquiry into the shootings of prisoners and, as a consequent, the Bushveldt Carbineers were reformed into the New Pietersburg Light Horse, the name they kept until the disbanding of the Regiment in June 1902 with the end of the war.
During February and March 1902, Commandant Beyers and his Commando seized the Fort Edward area, from where he was able to send out raiding forces as far away as Pietersburg. Col Colenbrander, the local British Commander, was sent with a mixed force of regular and irregular units (which included the Pietersburg Light Horse) to retake the area. Between 25th March and the 21st April, the Light Horse distinguished itself in a number of actions. Two members received decorations, Capt S. Midgeley (an Australian) was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Sgt J.R. Gray (also an Australian) was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
With war's end in June, the Pietersburg Light Horse was disbanded. Since its creation, the Regiment had enlisted 660 men of which eight were killed in action, three died of disease and four were severely wounded.
Those arrested in October 1901 were mostly Australians but perhaps there has been too much emphasis on their nationality. The officers were Maj Lenehan (Aus), Capt Taylor (Eng), Lts Morant, handcock, Witton, Hannam (all Aus) and Lt Picton (Eng). Lt's Morant and handcock were subsequently found guilty and executed.
There were six known charges brought against the seven officers at the court of enquiry:
1. 2nd July shooting of six Boer prisoners
1st Charge - On 2nd July six Boers were captured by Capt Robertson who had Capt Taylor shoot them. (This happened before Lt Morant's detachment arrived at Fort Edward).
2nd Charge - Tpr Van Buuren was a local who had enlisted in the Bushveldt Carbineers. On witnessing the above shootings, he told their families who were also locals. Lt handcock took Tpr Van Buuren out on patrol from which only handcock returned. Lt handcock stated that Tpr Van Buuren was shot by Boers.
3rd Charge - The prisoner named Visser was captured at the Waterburg by Lt Morant's patrol after the death of Capt Hunt. Morant had him court martialled and shot for wearing a British coat. The court of inquiry was told it was Capt Hunt's jacket (it was in fact a British warm jacket). The fatal shot was administered by Lt Picton.
4th Charge - On 3rd August, eight Boers surrendered to Lt Morant's patrol. Rev Heese rode in to comfort these men and was told to depart by Morant. He then had them shot. Lt Witton shot one man as he attempted to escape. Afraid that the Reverend would tell, Lt handcock went out and shot him. Unfortunately for handcock, he was seen by two Kaffir boys and the local storekeeper.
5th Charge - On 5th September, Lt Hannam came upon three wagons containing four men with women and children. They were called upon to surrender which they did but Hannam ordered his men to shoot into the wagons. After 250 rounds were fired, he advanced to the wagons finding two little boys killed and one little girl wounded.
6th Charge - On 7th September, Maj Lenehan who was at Fort Edward on an inspection, sent Lt Morant to take two Boers and one boy aged 14 prisoner. Morant had all three shot, all with Maj Lenehan's full knowledge.
The result of these crimes was the eventual execution of Lts Morant and handcock. Lt Witton was sentenced to penal servitude for life, Lt Picton was cashiered, Maj Lenehan was reprimanded and discharged and all charges were dismissed against Capt. Taylor.
Lt Hannam was not brought to trial. Capt Robertson having already been discharged for his actions on 2nd July, turned prosecution evidence and no charges were laid against him.
All officers were brought to trial from the evidence taken from 15 NCO's and soldiers from the Bushveldt Carbineers who were sickened by the actions which they were forced to partake. With evidence from other soldiers, Morant's and handcock's fates were sealed. All seven officers were charged with real crimes, despite the innuendoes of the movie 'Breaker Morant'. The facts in all the proceedings were that all seven were guilty of the shootings either by direct action or by complicity. The charges brought against these men meant that the great service of their Regiment was spoilt but this does not detract from the contribution of the Bushveldt Carbineers to the final victory in South Africa.
Courtesy of "Fortune & Valour", the Journal of 12th/16th Hunter River Lancers.
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