William Luff was born 1874 and, aged 22, joined A Squadron, the Australian Horse, a volunteer cavalry unit of experienced bushmen who supplied their own horses and saddles. His troop was raised in1896 in the Gundagai-Adelong area; the other two squadrons were headquartered in the Cootamundra and Murrumburrah-Harden areas in the south east slopes and plains of the colony of New South Wales.
Trooper Luff’s squadron had some of the formal unmounted and mounted military drills but even more enthusiastically developed cavalry skills in the saddle. Training began with navigating the bush they knew already as stockmen by both day and night. It progressed to practising military tactics in patrolling and using their long cavalry swords and short-barrelled rifles (carbines).
In the early months of the Boer War (1899-1902) the cavalry spearheaded the British army’s ‘flying columns’ which otherwise consisted of mounted infantry, artillery, engineers and a large number of supply wagons.
In the Australian colonies, volunteers for the Boer War from militia units had to enlist specifically for active service overseas, despite their citizen service background. Trooper William Luff, No.396, was among the first to step forward. Many others of his volunteer unit easily met the regulations imposing the strictest of criteria, especially their ability “to ride well and shoot straight”. Thus the ‘new’Australian Horse with a squadron-strength of 143 officers and men was raised quickly and sent from NSW in two sections: the larger numbers on 14 December 1899, from Newcastle on the Langton Grange, and the rest on 17 January 1900 from Sydney on the Surrey as part of the Colony of New South Wales’first contingent.
On arrival in Cape Town the first section, commanded by Lt Willoughby Dowling and which included Tpr Luff, was sent to the north of the Cape Colony and attached to British cavalry in a large column commanded by Major-General John French. French’s column had successfully defended Colesberg, and from there they marched in what became famous as the Relief of Kimberley, where a Boer force, well equipped with heavy German-made guns, had trapped British forces.
Lt Dowling took a patrol to the southeast and was surrounded by Boers. Great cavalry swords and carbines were no use against the Boers’ long-barrelled Mauser rifles’ firing accurately aimed shots from scattered, concealed positions. The patrol, hemmed in by farmers’ wire fences, tried to escape the ambush by heading for some high ground only to find that the Boers were hiding behind rocks and bushes scattered around it. Lt Dowling fought bravely in the action, including rescuing a wounded trooper, but he and 15 of his patrol were captured and one killed, and a large number of horses lost.
In his report of this action, the Sydney Morning Herald’s war correspondent Banjo Paterson said, “The whole trouble was an excess of zeal”.
Paterson’s patriotic explanation was undoubtedly correct in this earliest phase of the war. It would take more time for the British generals to understand that the traditional cavalry charge was an inappropriate weapon to use against scattered and concealed Boer irregulars. The solution was to convert cavalry to the role of mounted infantry, arming them with long-barrelled rifles, bayonets, and sufficient ammunition, water, food and blankets to last for several days fighting dismounted.
French’s column continued on, with Trooper Luff’s squadron becoming battle-hardened, forming part of the cavalry spearhead, to retake Kimberley. After initial strong resistance, the troops were a little disappointed to find that the majority of the Boers had withdrawn and were heading towards their stronghold at Bloemfontein across the Modder River in Orange Free State. The cavalry pursued and harassed them, cutting off a large number. Other Boers went to ground at Paardeberg, where Tpr Luff earned the second clasp to his Queen’s South Africa medal forcing them back.
Maj Gen French pursued the Boers to the town of Driefontein where they put up a massive resistance. Tpr Luff earned his third clasp in the successful attacks. Beaten here, the surviving Boers made the 36 mile dash to their major base at Bloemfontein. But it was to be too late.
By the time Field Marshall Lord Roberts, commanding all British troops, entered Bloemfontein (as one wag put it “like walking into Yass”) the Boers, exhausted, had either melted back onto their farms or surrendered on the excellent terms the British offered, because they, too, were also exhausted.
While camped around Bloemfontein many of the British troops did not look after themselves very well, drawing water from the same river in which they tipped their sewage and dumped dead horses. Dysentery and gastro enteritis turned into typhoid (euphemistically called “enteric fever”) which, once started, spread to Australian forces despite their better medical supervision, and their own ‘bush’ commonsense in matters like boiling water before drinking it.
Tpr Luff unfortunately contracted typhoid and was repatriated home arriving Sydney 30 July1900 and was discharged 28 October 1900, with the Queen’s [Victoria] South African medal, and clasps for Modder River, Paardeberg, Driefontein and the Relief of Kimberley.
Trooper William Luff’s son, Len, spent the entire Second World War in the 6th Division Cavalry Regiment.
William’s grandson, Noel, who lives in Canberra, was in the 1st Armoured Regiment in Vietnam. It was Noel who provided much of the information for this article and who was photographed at the Boer War Memorial Site dedication ceremony wearing his grandfather’s, his father’s and his own medals.
The Boer War Monument committee is trying to raise public support to erect a suitable monument on the Anzac Parade, Canberra, site alongside memorials to those Australians who served in all other conflicts.
The government insists that the public demonstrates a reasonable financial interest in having a monument before it will provide additional money. Accordingly the Committee is seeking donations, especially from the relatives and descendants of those who served.
Donations can be sent to the BWM Project - NSW Committee, Building 96, Victoria Barracks, Paddington
© National Boer War Memorial Association Inc ABN 49 709 547 198