In January 1900 it was announced that the Imperial Government had accepted the offer of a corps, to be known as the Australian Bushmen, which would be furnished by the Australian colonies. This regiment, which was the quota of New South Wales, was about 530 strong, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Airey, DSO. Four companies sailed on the Atlantian and one on the Maplemore on 1st March 1900. On arriving in South Africa the regiment was despatched by sea to Beira, and landed there on 14th April 1900. This was sometimes designed as the 'Citizen's Bushmen Contingent', as contrasted with the 'Imperial Bushmen Contingent', a later contribution.
The 'Bushmen' who landed at Beira included the 4th and 5th New Zealanders, Colonel Airey's Regiment from New South Wales, and contingents from the other Australian colonies. Mr Green, chaplain of the regiment, in his 'Story of the Bushmen' (Sydney, 1903) says that it was announced that, apart from the New Zealanders, the other contingents would be divided as follows: 1st Regiment, New South Wales, Colonel Airey; 2nd Regiment, Victorians and West Australians, Major Vialls; 3rd Regiment, Queenslanders, Major Tunbridge. But the Victorian and West Australian Regiment was more generally designated the 3rd Bushmen. The different corps were very much split up and mixed up before they had gone far into the Transvaal; while a composite regiment was formed of one squadron from each of the 5th New Zealand, 3rd South Australians, 3rd Tasmanians, and 'D' squadron of the 1st NSW Bushmen. This composite regiment did excellent work under Lord Erroll and Lord Methuen. (See 3rd South Australian Contingent.)
To get to the Transvaal the Bushmen contingents had to cross a strip of Portuguese territory and the whole of Rhodesia. At Marandellas a camp was established in which the units could be collected and equipped, but the climate was unfavourable for horses, and many died. Their owners had to perform the long journey to Bulawayo on foot. In accomplishing as they did 300 miles in twenty days, these 'foot-sloggers' did well. From Bulawayo to Mafeking the railway was used.
Having entered the Transvaal from the northwest corner, the NSW Bushmen, apart from 'D' squadron, in various detachments, crossed, via Zeerust, to the district about Rustenburg and then to that north of Pretoria, where for some months they did good service under Major General Baden-Powell and Major General Plumer. About 4th July Hanbury-Tracy was holding Rustenburg with a mixed force of 120 men. In his telegraphic despatch of 8th July 1900 Lord Roberts spoke of an attempt made on Rustenburg by Boers under Lemmer, "who were eventually driven off with the assistance of Colonel Holdsworth, 7th Hussars (attached to the British South Africa Police), who made a rapid march of 48 miles from the neighbourhood of Zeerust with Bushmen under Colonel Airey on hearing that Rustenburg was likely to be threatened". The enemy suffered heavy loss, and 5 prisoners were captured. Our casualties were—Bushmen, 2 killed, Captain Machattie and 3 men wounded". Three hundred of the Australian Bushmen accompanied Holdsworth, and 'C' squadron, Machattie's, did most of the fighting. At this time there was fighting daily in the north-west of the Transvaal. On 9th July Lieutenant Gells with 'B' squadron of the NSW Bushmen was engaged at Megato Pass. In his telegram of 16th July Lord Roberts said: "Baden-Powell reports that a patrol of Australian Bushmen encountered a party of Boers on the 13th and drove them back with loss. Sergeant Ryan (Ryrie?) wounded on shoulder". And on the 22nd July, at Roster's River between the Megato Pass and Elands River, there was very heavy fighting. In Lord Roberts' telegram of 24th July he said: "Baden-Powell reports from the Megato Pass on the 22nd that Colonels Airey and Lushington, with only 400 men, drove 1000 Boers from a strong position and scattered them with considerable loss". Mr Green, in 'The Story of the Bushmen', gives some interesting details: he says that Baden-Powell had ordered Colonel Airey to go back to Elands River on the 22nd for a convoy. Airey's force was about 300 strong, made up in equal proportions of men from the New South Wales, Queensland, Victorian, and West Australian Bushmen. The Boers lay low while the advance-guard passed and then opened a heavy fire on the main body. The men instantly opened out a little and lay down in the grass, where they held on for eight hours. Captain C W Robertson was shot in the head while directing 'B' squadron, NSW Bushmen, and Lieutenant Eckford, who succeeded him, was wounded. Surgeon Lieutenant Colonel Ingoldsby and 2 officers of the Queenslanders were also wounded. Two English ladies resident in the neighbourhood, Miss Bach and Miss Macdonald, boldly entered the firing-line and dressed wounds. Airey sent back for reinforcements, but the message was wrongly delivered or misunderstood. Miss Bach rode in as a second messenger, and 200 Australians under Colonel Lushington and Captain Fitzclarence, VC (Bechuanaland Protectorate Regiment), came out, and the enemy were driven off.
As Mr Green remarks, there are some 'white flag' stories connected with this action. According to him a small party, an officer and 10 men, occupied an isolated position and could not leave it. As they were suffering casualties, apparently for no object, the officer put up a white flag. Colonel Airey hearing of this seemed to think his force were bound by this white flag. Major Vialls of the West Australians (who was already proving his splendid worth, and had earned his nickname, 'Old Biltong'), and his men protested, 'stamped and swore', and as the enemy evidently did not take the incident seriously and continued to fire, any idea of the force surrendering was soon abandoned. The losses of Airey's force were 6 killed and 22 wounded. Captain Robertson was an officer of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, who was on the Australian station when war broke out. Having volunteered for service with the New South Wales men, he was accepted, and proved himself a most gallant leader of mounted infantry.
About 100 men of the 1st NSW Bushmen, chiefly from 'A' squadron, under Captain Thomas and Lieutenants Zouch, Cope, Cornwall, and Bronowski, were in the garrison of Elands River, which made a splendid defence under Colonel Hore, 4th to 16th August (see Rhodesia Regiment). The detachment had about a dozen casualties, including Sergeant Major J A Mitchell killed. After the relief of Colonel Here's force the garrison were taken to Mafeking to refit. Thence they were railed via De Aar and the Orange River Colony to Pretoria, where Lord Roberts inspected and congratulated them on 1st October.
In October 1900 the 1st NSW Bushmen, minus 'D' squadron, were about Pienaars River, in which district they saw a good deal of skirmishing. One squadron, 'A', was present at the battle of Rhenoster Kop, 29th November (see New Zealand Contingents). The detachment with Plumer saw further fighting in this district during December and January; as on 13th January, when the enemy attacked a convoy. In this affair Sergeant Major Weir and one man were severely wounded. A part of the regiment, including 'A' squadron, accompanied General Plumer to Cape Colony, and took part in the pursuit of De Wet in February 1901. They saw a great deal of fighting (see 4th Victorian Contingent), and had casualties on various occasions. While Plumer was in the south the other portion of the regiment did outpost work about Pienaars River and generally north-east of Pretoria.
In March it was announced that Plumer would lead an expedition to the Pietersburg district in the north of the Transvaal. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd regiments of Australian Bushmen accompanied Plumer, excepting 'D' squadron of the 1st, which was still in the Western Transvaal. The expedition was most ably managed, and was very successful, much loss being inflicted on the enemy at slight cost.
The doings of 'D' squadron were much akin to those of the 6th Imperial Bushmen, to which reference is made (see also 3rd South Australian Contingent). The composite regiment did much good work. 'D' squadron had losses on various occasions. They had several men wounded between Ottoshoop and Elands River on 5th and 6th August 1900, when Carrington attempted to relieve Hore, and were after that in very many actions in the Western Transvaal. In the first quarter of 1901 they had casualties on various occasions.
On 13th April it was announced that the Australian Bushmen would now return, their year of service being complete, and shortly afterwards they entrained for Cape Town.