This corps, strength 230 all ranks, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel J Rowell, CB, sailed on the Manhattan on 1st May 1900, touched at Beira, were sent on to Durban, and landed at Port Elizabeth, Cape Colony, on 19th June 1900. They were very soon to see brisk fighting and to gain distinction.
About the middle of June Lord Roberts commenced operations to encircle the Boers who were in the Wittebergen or Brandwater Basin, a mountain stronghold in the north-east of the Orange River Colony. Rundle, with the Vl11th Division, and Brabant, with the South African Colonial Division, were holding the line from Senekal eastward to the Basutoland border. Clements and Paget, a little farther west, were about Lindley, the south-west point of the Boer stronghold. These masses of men either could not or were not allowed to live on the country, hence huge convoys of supplies had to be sent from the railway. On 23rd June a very large convoy left Kroonstad for General Paget's force at Lindley. The escort was commanded by Colonel Brookfield, 14th Imperial Yeomanry, and consisted of 200 of that corps, 114 other Yeomanry, 400 Imperial Bushmen—namely, two squadrons 4th South Australians, Colonel Rowell; one squadron 4th West Australians, Major Rose; one squadron 4th Tasmanians, Captain R C Lewis; 27 Rimington's Guides; 93 Prince Alfred's Guards; 2 guns 17th Royal Field Artillery; 4 guns CIV Battery; half battalion Yorkshire Light Infantry; and the 3rd East Kent (Buffs) Militia. The whole of the Australians were treated as one regiment under Colonel Rowell. To Colonel Brookfield the writer is indebted for many of the particulars now given.
On the morning of the 26th Theron's Scouts suddenly attacked the convoy near Elands Spruit, but they were driven off. In the afternoon, near Swartz Farm, Piet de Wet attacked. Colonel Rowell's men were ordered to dismount, and advancing with 'great go', the enemy was again driven off. On the 27th the convoy marched sixteen miles, the escort being engaged practically all the day. Near Lindley the traction engines stuck in a spruit. Colonel Rowell's men were rear-guard, and were heavily pressed by the enemy, who endeavoured to cut off the Tasmanians who were rear-screen; but the City Imperial Volunteer Battery did good work, and Colonel Brookfield having sent a fresh squadron to Rowell's assistance, he was able to keep the Boers off the convoy. Next day Lindley was reached. The 4th South Australians had several casualties on the 26th and 27th.
It was only to be expected that the Yorkshire Light Infantry, who had done very fine work in Lord Methuen's earlier battles, would do all that soldiers could do; but Colonel Brookfield could not have been so confident about the Militia and Yeomanry and his absolutely untried Bushmen, who had not, before this, fired a shot in earnest. In a despatch to General Kelly-Kenny, commanding in the Orange River Colony, the chief of the staff said that Lord Roberts was of opinion that the march of the convoy had been "conducted with skill and foresight, that no precautions were neglected, and that the behaviour of the troops was creditable to all ranks. His Lordship is glad to observe that besides the regular troops employed, a Militia Battalion (3rd Buffs), the corps of Imperial Bushmen, the Imperial Yeomanry, and the City Imperial Volunteer Artillery, distinguished themselves on this occasion".
Colonel Brookfield and most of his troops now joined General Paget's command. On 3rd July Paget had a very stiff engagement with a strong force of the enemy. The action has been called Barkin Kop, Baken Kop, and Leeuw Kop, and phases of it are well described by the authors of 'The HAC (Honourable Artillery Company) in South Africa' (Smith, Elder, & Co: London, 1903). In the course of the fighting the guns had been taken to a ridge, and during a pause in the action the escort had been removed to the rear. The Boers, with great skill and secrecy, delivered a sudden and fierce counter-attack, in which they gained temporary possession of the guns. The authors of 'The HAC in South Africa' say: "Captain Budworth managed to reach his pony, and galloped back at once to call upon the Australians to return. That he succeeded in bringing them back, and promptly too, reflects the highest credit on him, and also, be it added, on the men he had to deal with. Who ordered their retirement it is impossible to ascertain; but it is just to say that when called upon to come back again they did so willingly: and it is common knowledge that it requires more courage, both moral and physical, for troops in retreat to rally and face fire than to sit tight and suffer it from the first". For some time there was great cause for anxiety, but "the period of imminent danger did not last long. It was over from the moment that, owing to the Australian fire, the Boers left the disabled guns and retreated".
Colonel Rowell having got a broken rib through his horse falling, he was unable to be present on the 3rd. Major Rose, of the West Australians, commanded the Bushmen, and he was wounded. The Tasmanian squadron having been kept on other duty near Lindley, only joined their comrades as the Boers were driven off. The South Australians had on the 3rd about a dozen casualties.
After further heavy fighting, Bethlehem was taken on 7th July. In his account of the taking of Bethlehem, the Press Association correspondent said: "Three hundred Bushmen, mostly South and West Australians, joined in the attack and behaved most gallantly". When De Wet broke through the cordon, 16th July, the contingent took part in his pursuit to the Reitzburg Hills. At Palmietfontein on the 19th there was a sharp engagement, and on the 24th at Stinkhoutboom the South Australians lost 3 killed and several wounded. On the 18th the 4th Tasmanians were detached from the regiment.
De Wet having crossed to the north of the Vaal, the 4th South Australians were taken to the Transvaal. In November they joined General Plumer (see 1st, 2nd, and 3rd New Zealand and 4th Queensland). The 4th Imperial Bushmen were now together again, and under that heading are given some features of the work they did when referred to in despatches by that name. The regiment was again commanded by Colonel Rowell. In February the South Australians had several casualties in Cape Colony during the pursuit of De Wet.
In March, April, and May 1901 the 4th South Australians distinguished themselves in the operations between Pretoria and Pietersburg; and when General Plumer, after the occupation of the latter town, was moving southwards, Captain F W Hurcombe gained notice for his bold and successful leading. Unfortunately, on an occasion when he was far in advance with only a few men, he fell among a party of the enemy concealed in a mealie field. It was said that before he would surrender Captain Hurcombe had to be knocked down by a clubbed rifle. During May the 4th South Australians had casualties on various occasions in the Eastern Transvaal.
The contingent, still under Colonel Rowell, sailed for home on 7th July 1901.
This was a composite corps containing:
- The 4th South Australian Contingent, Lieutenant Colonel Rowell commanding. (See that Corps.)
- The 4th West Australian Contingent, Major J Rose.
- The 4th Tasmanian Contingent, Captain R C Lewis, DSO.
The regiment was long with General Plumer in different parts of the seat of war, and did very good work, particularly in the operations north of Pretoria, and in the Eastern Transvaal. As stated in the despatch of 8th March 1901, when it was clear that De Wet was to attempt a serious invasion of Cape Colony, Lord Kitchener, about the end of January 1901, railed Plumer's troops from Brugspruit in the Eastern Transvaal to Cape Colony; and it was largely due to them that De Wet was driven out of the Colony (see 4th Victorian Contingent). Both the South and West Australians suffered some casualties in the numerous rear-guard actions which the Boer commandos fought. After pursuing the remnant of these commandos northward, Plumer's men were again entrained at Brandfort for the district north of Pretoria, to take part in the expedition to Pietersburg. In Lord Kitchener's despatch of 8th May 1901 he says: "On the night of the 24th April a very gallant act was performed by Lieutenant Reid, Imperial Bushmen Corps, who had been detached from General Plumer's post at Commissie Drift, on the Olifants River, Transvaal. This officer, when in charge of a patrol of 20 Australians, located a Boer laager some 15 miles SE of the drift, which he surrounded, and boldly attacked at dawn. The enemy at once surrendered, Commandant Schroeder and 41 other prisoners, with a maxim, being taken". This is certainly one of the very finest exploits undertaken by any small body during the whole war, and shows a boldness and initiative that was far too often absent from the doings of the regulars. Lieutenant Reid ran the great risk involved in his action, but his fearlessness was rewarded with success; and further, he was serving under a General who was most quick to recognise pluck, skilfulness, and the all-important quality of willingness to take risk. Lieutenant Reid belonged to the South Australian Contingent.
On the Pietersburg trek, and after the occupation of that place, the 4th Imperial Bushmen contributed largely to the success of Major Vialls, who operated generally in advance of General Plumer's force, and took many prisoners and waggons, and one gun.
Some of the 4th Imperial Bushmen were in the escort to a convoy which "was heavily attacked by some 400 of the enemy on the Bethel Standerton Road on 25th May". The escort under Colonel Gallwey "fought with great gallantry, and completely foiled the enemy's repeated efforts to press into close quarters". — Lord Kitchener's Despatch of 8th July 1900, para 8.
The following Mentions were gained under the heading 4th Imperial Bushmen:—
8th May 1901.—Lieutenant H A Reid, for the exceedingly smart manner in which he effected the capture of a force double his number, together with a maxim gun. Sergeant P J Williams and Private T H Porter (promoted Corporal) volunteered to carry despatches from General Plumer to General Beatson, a distance of 60 miles through enemy's country; they got there and returned safely, though fired on, burning a Boer field forge en route.
8th July 1901.—Trooper G De Kehyr, during attack on convoy near Bethel, May 25, carried a man out of action on his own horse, thereby incurring great risk. Sergeant Major J S Brigman, Sergeant B C Philliphant, gallantry on same occasion.