When war was declared between the British and Boers, I, like many of my fellow-countrymen, became imbued with a warlike spirit, and when reverses had occurred among the British troops, and volunteers for the front were called for in Australia, I could not rest content until 1 had offered the assistance one man could give to our beloved Queen and the great nation to which I belong.
When the first Australian Contingent was being prepared for active service, I was a gunner in the Royal Australian Artillery, and was stationed at Fort Franklin, opposite Queenscliff, Victoria. I was sworn to serve for five years in the Artillery, and this gave me little hope that my wish to go to Africa would be realised. But one day a notice appeared in brigade orders that a limited number of artillerymen would be selected for service at the front, all applicants to parade on the jetty at Portsea in full marching order. Between thirty and forty attended. Soon the launch "Mars" put in an appearance from Queenscliff with Lieut.-Colonel Charles Umphelby, O.C.R.A.A., on board. (Lieut.-Colonel Umphelby was killed on active service at Drie-fontein in 1900.) The O.C. inspected the men, and picked out one here and there; when he came to me he looked me up and down, and remarked that I was too "big and heavy," and all my hopes were dashed to the ground. We congratulated those whom we thought were the fortunate ones, and hoped for better luck ourselves should another contingent be required.
As time went on, and reports came to hand of hard fighting and much tougher work than had been anticipated, I got more tired than ever of barrack-room soldiering, and hankered for something more real and exciting. Another call was made, another contingent was to be sent; my prospects began to brighten, but only two men were selected from the R.A.A., two quartermaster-sergeants. With the third contingent no opportunity was given to me to join. Shortly after a fourth contingent was raised, to be known as the Australian Imperial Regiment. The qualifications for the Regiment were bush experience, and that every man should be able to ride and shoot. The "machines," or the men who could merely drill and move their arms and feet as though they were worked on wire, without having the above qualifications, had no place in this contingent. I was among the successful applicants from the R.A.A., as I had been born in the bush, could ride almost as soon as I could walk, and had learned to shoot almost as soon as I learned anything. My actual military experience was gained during the twelve months I was with the R.A.A.
As soon as selected, I, with my comrades, was sent to the Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, for examination and tests. While there it was my duty to assist at the Mounted Police Depot, receiving, breaking, branding, and trucking remounts prior to sending them into camp at Langwarrin, also attending with horses at the Domain for the riding test. This riding test seemed to be looked upon by the general public as a kind of circus, and was attended daily by thousands of spectators. The track was about half a mile round, and the test was to commence at a trot, break into a gallop, and negotiate three jumps. A man could judge fairly his chance of success by the applause or "barracking" as he passed the crowd. There were many good horsemen among the recruits, men who could ride anything anywhere, and not a few who could rarely have seen a horse, much less have ridden it over a jump. One little recruit, with a very theatrical appearance, known by the sobriquet of "Bland Holt," had a great struggle to get his halter on his horse, and when it came to putting on the bridle, which was one of the Mounted Police pattern, and rather a complicated piece of harness to a new chum, he got terribly tangled up. After about ten minutes struggling, panting, perspiring, and much whoo-whoaing, he succeeded in hanging the bridle on with the bit over the horse's ears. At this stage an Artilleryman went to his rescue and saddled his horse for him. When his turn came to ride, he led his horse before the examining officer, and with much difficulty succeeded in climbing into the saddle, and started off at a walk. "Trot!" shouted the officer. The horse quickened its pace, and "Bland Holt" and his hopes of doing yeoman service for the Empire fell to the ground.
This was one of many similar incidents which took place during the fortnight the riding test lasted. About the end of March, 1900,1 received orders to go into camp at Langwarrin, During the encampment there I acted as assistant to Camp Quartermaster-Sergeant Creaney, of the Hastings Battery. My duties were principally to requisition for rations and forage, and furnish returns to headquarters of any lost or worn-out equipment. On 3rd April I received my first promotion, and was made lance-corporal, and posted to the squadron under Captain J. Dallimore, This officer was very highly esteemed by all, and for bravery during the war he was promoted to the rank of major, and earned the D.S.O. While I was at Portland Prison, some years later, I learned, with the deepest regret, that the major had been accidentally drowned while fishing at Warrnambool shortly after his return to Australia.
Things went on apace in camp. The equipment department worked night and day transforming the civilian recruit into the puttied khaki soldier. Camp life was very pleasant at Langwarrin, for our friends used to come by the score, and bring well-filled hampers to picnic with us, and at night a large camp fire would be lighted and a concert held, while there was no fear of the enemy coming upon us unawares. On Sunday we were besieged by thousands of visitors, who begged earnestly from the soldiers a button or badge or some little keepsake as a memento. I myself was the recipient of several new coins, of coins with holes in them and battered halfpennies, which I was informed by the givers would bring me good luck. I am afraid I was born under an unlucky star, for if there is such a thing as luck, it did not come my way. I also received a presentation from a few of my old friends of a very nice silver-mounted letter wallet, with fountain pen and all the material necessary for a war correspondent, in order, doubtless, to keep them posted up with my experiences and doings and the number of Dutchmen I succeeded in despatching. The time passed very pleasantly, but there was another side to this—it rained in torrents for several days without ceasing, and the camp and horse lines became a veritable quagmire. It was then decided to move the camp and transfer the troops to the show-ground at Flemington. It was a memorable "trek" when we moved out for Flemington in the pouring rain; it damped the ardour of many a "contingenter," and numbers "handed in their kits." I was sent on with a fatigue party to prepare rations and forage for the rain-soaked troops and horses. But this was only for a few days; we had scarcely settled down when we were moved again to Langwarrin, and by the end of April all was in readiness for embarkation.
Lieut.-Colonel Kelly, of the Victorian Field Artillery, had been selected to command the regiment. We left Langwarrin in full marching order about midday on 28th April and reached Mentone, where we bivouacked. In the morning my horse's nosebag was missing, but I found it some months later on the South African veldt. We arrived in Melbourne about noon on 29th April, and expected to embark the same afternoon on the transport "Victorian," lying at the Port Melbourne pier. Through some hitch, the boat was not ready to receive us, and we were again quartered at the show-ground at Flemington. On Tuesday, 1st May, we broke up camp. It was a glorious and never-to-be-forgotten day, and our march through the city was signalised by an unparalleled demonstration of popular applause. The streets were packed, and in places the troops could only pass in single file. Handkerchiefs, sweets, and all kinds of good th ings were pressed upon us as we passed through the crowd.
On arrival at the pier, the work of embarking the horses was at once commenced, and over 700 were shipped and stalled in less than four hours. Getting the troops on board was a more difficult matter, as there was so much leave-taking and so many good-byes to say. The boat was cleared of visitors and put off from the pier, anchoring for the night opposite Williamstown. All on board was confusion and bustle, and many of the crew had been having a jolly time and were incapable of performing their duties. We got nothing that night in the shape of rations; fortunately we had our haversacks to fall back on, which provided sufficient for the day. Later on hammocks were brought out and slung. It was a new experience for me to sleep in one, and I fancy I must have slung mine too slack, for when I got into it my head and my feet almost touched, and I think I must have resembled a mammoth wood-grub in repose. We weighed anchor about 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning, and passed the heads about 11 a.m. I saw many of my old Queenscliff comrades signalling and gesticulating from the forts as we passed through the Rip. The pilot was next put off, and we were soon under way in earnest for South Africa. Cape Otway was the last glimpse we had of the home land, and owing to the "Victorian" keeping well out to sea, no more land was sighted until we were off the coast of Madagascar.
As this was my first experience of a sea voyage, I fully expected that a bout of sea-sickness would be part of the programme, but such was not the case as far as I was concerned, and when I saw scores of my comrades hanging limply over the side and lying like dead men about the deck, I congratulated myself in the words of the Pharisee, "Thank God I am not as other men are." Everything on board was soon got into ship-shape order, and we lived fairly well. A large quantity of fruit and butter bad been sent on board as a gift for the use of the troops, and was greatly appreciated as a welcome addition to the bill of fare.
My duties were to assist the regimental quartermaster-sergeant, and superintend the distribution of the horse feed. This was stowed in the hold, hoisted up daily, and portioned out to the different squadrons. The horses were a splendid lot, and stood the voyage remarkably well, only one dying during the trip.
When about three days at sea a batch of stowaways made their appearance; they looked a motley and grimy crowd as they emerged from the coal bunkers. They were paraded before the ship's captain, who put them to work on the coal for the remainder of the voyage. On arrival at Beira they joined the Mashonaland Mounted Police. A little later we were paraded before the medical officers and vaccinated; it affected some very badly, and for a time they were quite incapable of doing any duty.
After about five days out I was agreeably surprised when I was informed that I had been promoted to the rank of sergeant. I was put in charge of a squad to instil into them the contents of the "Red Book" on Infantry Drill. At times, when the boat gave a roll, more turnings were gone through than were set down in the drill book.