A Matter of Honour – the 5VMR in the Boer War

On 9 March 2016 Dr Robin Droogleever, the President of the Anglo Boer War study Group of Australasia, spoke at the monthly MHHV speaker program presentation.
Robin was born in England but spent most of his youth and early adult life in Natal, South Africa. He developed a keen interest in both the Boer War and the Zulu Wars during this period. He moved to Australia in 1981 and established the Anglo Boer War Study group in 1993. Robin has written and co authored several very well researched books on the South African conflict and is regarded and held in high regard as the best historian on the Boer War in Australia.
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Robin’s presentation was titled ‘A Matter of Honour-The 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles (VMR) in the Boer War’. His research on this unit particularly on the defeat it suffered at Wilmansrust was outstanding.

With original and present day photos he debunked the myth that the 5th VMR had run from the action. The report of the action by Colonel Stuart Beatson, the commander of the column that the 5th VMR was part, was forensically examined and shown to be completely false. Beaton’s description of the Victorian’s as ‘damned fat, round shouldered, useless crowd of wasters, white livered curs’ did nothing to endear the Australian fighting for the Empire in South Africa. It appears that the British officer class viewed the Australian contingents as unruly larrikins and this attitude came out in British reports.

The degree of research on the South African conflict that Robin has undertaken is mind boggling, even to the point of including a photo and a brief biography on every one of the members of the 5th VMR in his book on the campaign.

Every month MHHV seem to be out doing themselves with the quality of the speakers and even though the numbers were down for this presentation (due to a clash with a Boer War Association’s Annual General Meeting) those that attended were given a rare treat.

Peter Fielding   April 2016

The 5th VMR was the largest of the eight contingents sent by Victoria to the Boer War.  It also suffered the most casualties, most notably at the action at Wilmansrust after which it was accused of cowardice, as a ‘damned fat, round shouldered, useless crowd of wasters . . . white-livered curs . . . You can add dogs too.’ Dr Droogleever investigates the charges and the record of the 5th VMR

Dr. Robin Droogleever is the President of the Anglo Boer War Study Group of Australasia and has written a number of books on the Boer War. He edited Banjo Paterson’s letters From the Front and has written a number of regimental histories including of Thorneycrofts Mounted Infantry in the Boer War; the campaign record of the Victorian Bushmen in the Boer War, titled That Ragged Mob, and a similar history of the 1st and 2nd Victorian Contingents to the Boer War, titled Colonel Tom’s Boys. The regimental history of the 5th Victorian Contingent, titled A Matter of Honour, will be published in 2016.  He co-authored a resource book on the Boer War with Max Chamberlain titled The War with Johnny Boer.

Synopsis of the talk – A Matter of Honour – the 5VMR in the Boer War.

THE 5th VMR has not fared well at the hands of Australian historians who have condemned it as a unit which brought the good name of the Australian soldier into disrepute. After what was at first a negative knee jerk reaction to the defeat of the left wing of the unit at Wilmansrust in June 1901, the truth finally prevailed and the unit was ultimately to regain not only its own honour but the honour of the Australian soldier. Strangely enough, it is not the extraordinary hard work undertaken to regain that honour that historians applaud but they prefer to judge the unit solely on its defeat at Wilmansrust. Colonel Stuart Beatson, in whose column the 5VMR, had been placed, led the attack, and the public was denied the truth of events before, at and after Wilmansrust. Australian newspapers found it impossible to get any official report into the disaster for months afterwards and it was during this time that most of the mischief developed.

I accept that the 5VMR had problems but on close inspection they were very little different from the problems that earlier contingents had faced. The men who joined up were from the same mould as those who had fought bravely before in the earlier contingents so there was little reason to believe that they could be justifiably termed ‘white livered curs and wasters’ as Beatson called them. As more and more was learnt about the real reasons for the easy victory of the Boers at Wilmansrust, it became clear that the conclusions made by the court of inquiry into the disaster were not a true reflection of circumstances. At the heart of it was Beatson but even his role has been distorted by the passage of time and evidence was to be mis-used by the Victorian press to the extent that he became a villain of the very worst type. The mud had not only stuck to the 5VMR; it was now all over Beatson as well. Much of that mud still sticks to both today. The ‘Digger’ website which claims to speak for the Australian soldier past and present, has a photo of the 5VMR monument with the question ‘Monument to Cowards?’ What a question to pose! It is simply an insult that I hope this talk will set aside for the rubbish that it is and show listeners that this was not only a unit which regained its honour but is a unit that we can certainly be proud of.

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