Skip to content | Skip to document navigation

Research Guides


The Boer War: Australians and the War in South Africa, 1899–1902


5. Controversies

Wilmansrust

In June 1901 four companies of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles were ambushed and routed by a small party of Boers at Wilmansrust in the eastern Transvaal. As if this were not shocking enough at a time when serious fighting was assumed to be over and Australian men were thought to be equals of the Boers in cunning and bravery, reports began filtering back to Australia that the British army officer in overall command of the Victorians had called the survivors of the ambush cowards and wasters; that some Victorians had said their commanding officer ought not be obeyed; and that three had subsequently been sentenced to death for mutiny.

The reports proved to be true, though the sentences had been immediately commuted to imprisonment. The Commonwealth Government received no official advice of the mutiny until after the sentences were passed. There were protests against British army generals having the power of life and death over Australian citizen soldiers, but little official documentation on reactions to the affair has survived.

CORRESPONDENCE FILES, 1901–06
Melbourne
A number of files from the early Victorian Department of Defence were transferred to this series when the department ceased to operate and its officers transferred to the Commonwealth in July 1901. Perhaps 100 files from this series, which documents the establishment and early civil administration of the Commonwealth Military Forces, concern the war. Most deal with the return of contingents, casualties, medal entitlements, and the resumption of normal military duties by officers and men who continued with peacetime citizen soldiering.
Series: B168
Quantity: 9 metres
Recorded by: Department of Defence [I] (CA 6)
Report by Major McKnight on the Wilmansrust affair, 1901
Includes McKnight's opinion that the contingent's members 'did their work loyally and well and, had the regiment been handled with even an ordinary amount of tact,… no trouble would have arisen' afterward between the men and their commander.
B168, 1901/3859
Papers re members of 5th Victorian Contingent being sentenced [courts martial] for insubordination in South Africa, 1901–02
Regrettably there is no trial transcript, but the file contains press clippings, parliamentary questions, a list of Australians tried in South Africa from April–June 1902, and a letter from one of the mutineers.
B168, 1902/919
CORRESPONDENCE FILES, 1885–1901
Melbourne
Perhaps 5 per cent of these general correspondence files on the administration of Victoria's military forces are relevant to the Boer War. Most are thin and concern the personnel rather than policy aspects of officer appointments and the return of wounded soldiers.
Series: B3756
Quantity: 4.93 metres
Recorded by: Victorian Department of Defence (CA 1340)
Copy of Minute from Governor-General to Prime Minister – Re Telegram of condolence from Duke & Duchess of Cornwall for heavy losses sustained by Victorian Mounted Rifles near Wilmansrust, 1901
'The Duchess and I are deeply grieved to hear of the heavy losses' and 'heartily sympathise with the whole State in the sad event'.
B3756, 1901/3426

Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers

The Commonwealth Government's ignorance of matters of life and death for its soldiers would again embarrass it when some officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers, a non-Australian irregular unit raised in South Africa, were tried and found guilty of murdering Boer prisoners, a German missionary and one of their own men. Harry 'Breaker' Morant, who had lived in Australia for ten years before the war and had achieved minor celebrity for his horsemanship and verse writing, and Peter Handcock, a Bathurst blacksmith, were executed by firing squad. Another Australian, George Witton, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Robert Lenehan, the Sydney lawyer who commanded the unit, was sent back to Australia in disgrace. There was a popular belief around the British Empire that Morant and the others had been made scapegoats, that Handcock had only been following orders, and that Witton was innocent. Again there were protests that British army officers should wield the power of life and death over Australian citizen soldiers. Some of the popular disquiet is revealed in the following records.

CORRESPONDENCE FILES, ANNUAL SINGLE NUMBER SERIES, 1903–38
Canberra
The Department of External Affairs was concerned with immigration and foreign relations. One early file in this vast series concerns the Bushveldt Carbineers case:
Series: A1
Quantity: 184.92 metres
Recorded by: 1903–16: Department of External Affairs (CA 7)
Position of the following cases – Hazelton, Witton, Horses for South Africa, New Caledonia Convicts, Kanaka Deportation, Ashmore Islands, 1907
Atlee Hunt, the departmental head, reports back to Australia from London that 'the War Office will not depart from their decision' that Witton must remain in prison.
A1, 1907/5457
APPLICATIONS FOR LITERARY AND DRAMATIC COPYRIGHT (WITH EXHIBITS), 1907–1969
Canberra
Most items feature the application for registration, a statement of address, the examiner's report, the accompanying exhibit and related correspondence.
Series: A1336
Quantity: 607 metres
Recorded by: 1907–1912: Australian Industrial Property Organisation [AIPO], Central Office (CA 555)
George Ramsdale Witton Scapegoats of the Empire, 1907
This application refers to the first-hand account of the Breaker Morant affair written by Witton after his return to Australia.
A1336, 227
CORRESPONDENCE AND PRINTED MATTER ARRANGED ACCORDING TO SUBJECT ('SPECIAL PORTFOLIO'), 1888–1936
Canberra
Around 200 items in this large series of correspondence between London and the Governor-General of Australia are relevant. Most are transcriptions of cables from the Secretary of State for Colonies in London and Kitchener in South Africa during the war's final stages, often concerning the return of Australians from South Africa.
Series: A6661
Quantity: 10.26 metres
Recorded by: 1900–28: Governor-General (CA 1)
Handcock, Morant and Witton, 1902
Includes a copy of Kitchener's coded cable sent in response to Barton's request for an explanation of the harsh treatment of Morant, Handcock and Witton. This cable was published in newspapers Australia-wide when it was received, and has been cited in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates and subsequent publications. The published translation of the cable includes the sentence 'There were, in my opinion, no extenuating circumstances'. The translation on file however states 'There were, in my opinion, extenuating circumstances'.
A6661, 665
RECORDS OF THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE CENTRAL REGISTRY, 1900–38
Australian War Memorial (AWM)
An artificial series culled from early Commonwealth defence department records (B168), many relating to the raising, administration and records of the Australian Commonwealth Horse contingents.
Series: AWM3
Quantity: 3.25 metres
Recorded by: 1900–01: Victorian Department of Defence (CA 1340); 1901–21: Department of Defence [I] (CA 6); 1921–38: Department of Defence [II] (CA 9)
Correspondence regarding Major Lenehan being reprimanded after his Court Martial for neglect of duty in South Africa, 1902–04
Records the tussle between early Commonwealth governments and their military advisers, principally Hutton, over whether Lenehan should surrender his officer's commission in the Commonwealth Military Forces after returning to Australia in disgrace.
AWM3, 02/673
Correspondence regarding the courts martial of Maj Lenehan, late Commanding Bushveldt Carbineers in South Africa, and Commanding 'B' Battery Field Artillery in NSW, 1903–04
Includes Hutton's harsh opinion of Lenehan.
AWM3, 03/673
CORRESPONDENCE FILES, 1901–06
Melbourne
A number of files from the early Victorian Department of Defence were transferred to this series when the department ceased to operate and its officers transferred to the Commonwealth in July 1901. Perhaps 100 files from this series, which documents the establishment and early civil administration of the Commonwealth Military Forces, concern the war. Most deal with the return of contingents, casualties, medal entitlements, and the resumption of normal military duties by officers and men who continued with peacetime citizen soldiering.
Series: B168
Quantity: 9 metres
Recorded by: B168, 1901/3859 (CA 6)
Lt G R Witton – release from prison; Major Lenehan – missing funds, 1902–03
A petition 'humbly submit[ing] there was no criminality in a young and comparatively inexperienced Lieutenant, with no previous experience in the field, less than a month with his corps, less than a week with his detachment, placing faith in and yielding obedience to the distinct assurances and positive commands of two superior officers, having vastly better means of knowledge, and with all the advantage and power of rank and authority'.
B168, 1902/2085
DESPATCHES AND CORRESPONDENCE FROM SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE COLONIES TO GOVERNOR-GENERAL, 1901–11
Canberra
There are two relevant despatches:
Series: CP78/1
Quantity: 5.94 metres
Recorded by: Governor-General (CA 1)
Despatches and other papers from Secretary of State to Governor-General, imposed numbers 300–320, 1902–09
Dispatch 316 concerns appeals by Witton's father and the Labor Party to have Witton retried and compensated for false imprisonment.
CP78/1, 9
Despatches and other papers from Secretary of State to Governor-General, imposed numbers 374–412, 1903–13
Dispatch 382 concerns Prime Minister Barton's request for full details from the imperial government of why Lenehan was reprimanded, and Prime Minister Watson's restoration to Lenehan of his former military rank.
CP78/1, 12
CORRESPONDENCE FILES, MULTIPLE NUMBER SERIES, 1906–13
Melbourne
A tiny portion of the vast routine correspondence of the department, subsequent to that held in series B168, addressed administrative matters arising from the war, largely the award of medals.
Series: MP84/1
Quantity: 37.26
Recorded by: Department of Defence [I] (CA 6)
Major Lenehan's case not to be re-opened, 1911
Defence Minister Pearce declines a request to press the imperial government to exonerate Lenehan.
MP84/1, 142/3/5

Other controversies

Other controversies, now long forgotten, also arose from the war. Some officers, notably Percy Ricardo of Queensland and S Inglis of Western Australia, were accused of cowardice. Some soldiers were accused of looting and brutality, notably those returning to Australia on the troop ship Aurania. When 17 soldiers died during or after returning on another troop ship, the Drayton Grange, a public outcry prompted a royal commission. Some of these controversies are well documented.

CORRESPONDENCE FILES, ANNUAL SINGLE NUMBER SERIES, 1903–38
Canberra
The Department of External Affairs was concerned with immigration and foreign relations. One early file in this vast series concerns the Bushveldt Carbineers case:
Series: A1
Quantity: 184.92 metres
Recorded by: 1903–16: Department of External Affairs (CA 7)
Introduction of Asiatics into South Africa to work Johannesburg mines, 1903
Correspondence reflecting Australian and New Zealand government disquiet that Asian miners might replace European ones after the war, lending credence to a commonly perceived wisdom of the day that the war had been a capitalist-Jewish conspiracy to secure cheap non-European labour.
A1, 1903/864
SUBJECT BUNDLES OF GENERAL CORRESPONDENCE FILES RELATING TO THE AUSTRALIAN CONTINGENTS IN THE SOUTH AFRICAN (BOER) WAR, 1899–1911
Canberra
Nearly 700 subject bundles on the war, mostly thin, separated from the late Victorian (B3756) and early Commonwealth (B168) defence departments' general correspondence. Most concern the raising and administration of early Victorian draft contingents and Australian Commonwealth Horse contingents, the appointment of officers, the return of invalid soldiers from the war, pay, gratuities, compensation and medals to be awarded. There are some officers' reports from the front.
Series: A6443
Quantity: 3.54 metres
Recorded by: 1899–1901: Victorian Department of Defence (CA 1340); 1901–11: Department of Defence [I] (CA 6)
Replies to queries of Minister of Defence on certain statements of the Acting Commandant, Western Australia, as to conduct of Lieutenants Inglis and Harris while on service in South Africa, 1900–02
Accusations that two Western Australian officers were cowards.
A6443, 64
Recovery on account of deficient medical stores, Drayton Grange, 1902–03 A6443, 577
CORRESPONDENCE AND PRINTED MATTER ARRANGED ACCORDING TO SUBJECT ('SPECIAL PORTFOLIO'), 1888–1936
Canberra
Around 200 items in this large series of correspondence between London and the Governor-General of Australia are relevant. Most are transcriptions of cables from the Secretary of State for Colonies in London and Kitchener in South Africa during the war's final stages, often concerning the return of Australians from South Africa.
Series: A6661
Quantity: 10.26 metres
Recorded by: 1900–28: Governor-General (CA 1)
Aurania – Troops returning in, 1902 A6661, 678
RECORDS OF THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE CENTRAL REGISTRY, 1900–38
Australian War Memrial
An artificial series culled from early Commonwealth defence department records (B168), many relating to the raising, administration and records of the Australian Commonwealth Horse contingents.
Series: AWM3
Quantity: 3.25 metres
Recorded by: 1900–01: Victorian Department of Defence (CA 1340); 1901–21: Department of Defence [I] (CA 6); 1921–38: Department of Defence [II] (CA 19)
Papers relative to the looting by troops of Aurania and correspondence regarding a claim by Miss Weiss, 1902–03
Claims for compensation against rowdy soldiers returning to Australia on the Aurania.
AWM3, 02/1265
Papers dealing with the damages by troops ex Aurania at Albany. Further claims for payment made, 1902
Lassetter, in charge of the Aurania, blames the practice of enlisting into Australian units 'deserters from the mercantile marine and the scum of the earth' for much of the trouble in Cape Town.
AWM3, 02/1354 part 2
Correspondence regarding the conduct of Lts Mecham and Taylor and the burning of a Boer woman's house at Villiersdorp, 1902 AWM3, 02/1520
Correspondence regarding the appointment of a Royal Commission into the arrangements made for the transport of troops returning from service in South Africa aboard the transport Drayton Grange, 1902 AWM3, 02/2064
Conduct of Captain Shields AMS. His action in writing to the press regarding the happenings aboard the Drayton Grange on which he was acting PMO on the voyage from South Africa, 1902 AWM3, 02/2213
Papers relating to the Royal Commission into the arrangements made for the transport of troops returning from service in South Africa aboard the SS Drayton Grange and the non-landing of Trooper Burkett at Adelaide from the SS Norfolk, 1902–03 AWM3, 02/2915
RECORDS ARRANGED ACCORDING TO AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL LIBRARY SUBJECT CLASSIFICATION, 1864–1970
Australian War Memorial
A large artificial series created from Australian War Memorial records once given library catalogue numbers, including some kept originally by World War I official medical historian A G Butler. A few relevant items, nearly all concerning the administration of Victorian contingents:
Series: AWM27
Quantity: 17.8 metres
Recorded by: 1927–70: Australian War Memorial (CA 616)
Papers concerning conditions aboard the troopship Drayton Grange returning troops from Durban South Africa to Australia, 1902 AWM27, 270/8
CORRESPONDENCE FILES, 1901–06
Melbourne
A number of files from the early Victorian Department of Defence were transferred to this series when the department ceased to operate and its officers transferred to the Commonwealth in July 1901. Perhaps 100 files from this series, which documents the establishment and early civil administration of the Commonwealth Military Forces, concern the war. Most deal with the return of contingents, casualties, medal entitlements, and the resumption of normal military duties by officers and men who continued with peacetime citizen soldiering.
Series: B168
Quantity: 9 metres
Recorded by: Department of Defence [I] (CA 6)
Lt Col Ricardo – libel claim against the Observer, 1901 B168, 1901/2538
Lt S Inglis – charges against whilst serving in S. Africa, 1901
Official inquiry into accusations that Inglis had 'left his men in a hole', refusing to advance with them into the firing line.
B168, 1901/3915
Lt S Inglis – charges against , 1901
Attorney-General Deakin's doubts about the competence and jurisdiction of the Inglis inquiry.
B168, 1902/2029
Tpr H P Parker – medical expenses illness contracted Drayton Grange, 1903
A claim that the postwar death of a member of the Scottish Horse was caused by overcrowding and insanitary conditions on the Drayton Grange.
B168, 1903/2052

TOP OF PAGE