Victoria and the Scottish Horse

On Saturday 28 October 1899 over 250,000 Melburnians, over half of the city’s then population, turned out to farewell the 1st Victorian Mounted Regiment and the 1st Victorian Mounted Infantry, the forerunners of five Victorian Government troop contingents to sail for the South African War.[1]

But in time, several ‘non-government’ forces were also raised in Australia and despatched to the far-away conflict.

One with a special connection to Victoria, was the Scottish Horse regiment sponsored by the Marquis of Tullarbardine.

In 1992, the late Melbourne historian John Price published ‘Southern Cross Scots’ the definitive story of the Australians in the Scottish Horse and a major source for this address.

Lord John George Murray, the Marquis of Tullabardine in Perthshire, Scotland, was serving in the British Army in South Africa in the opening months of the Boer War. When the Caledonian Society of Johannesburg called for recruits with Scots heritage to join a Scottish Horse regiment, he was granted permission by Kitchener, his former commander in the Sudan campaign, to seek new recruits among Scotland’s diasporas. The recruiting drive reached out to British colonies everywhere and in early 1901 Tullarbardine’s recruiting agent Colonel Creagh, arrived in Melbourne.

On 15th January, he staged a recruitment meeting attended by 300 people at Phair’s Hotel in Collins Street, where the enlistment terms and conditions were outlined. Successful recruits had to be between 21 and 28 years of age, be first class riders, accustomed to rough bush life, unmarried and under 13 stone in weight. Uniform, equipment and pay of 5/- a day were to be provided on arrival in South Africa and upon completion of their six months service, they would receive a free passage home. By 30 January, Creagh had received applications from over 1000 potential recruits. The Victorian Government had reluctantly offered to supervise medical exams, shooting and riding tests, but had firmly stipulated, ‘that should any volunteer for the Southern Horse get killed, or maimed through service, his family could claim no compensation.’ After much pruning of numbers, on 6th February, the ARGUS published the names of the 250 successful candidates and instructed them to report to Victoria Barracks for the necessary examinations and tests.[2]

The vast majority were Victorians, but every Australian colony was also represented. Other enlistees included 25 New Zealanders, some UK residents, a few South Africans, and even two Americans. Their occupations included dentists, drovers, farmers, jockeys, labourers, and solicitors. Of a rarer breed were the carriage painters, bicycle builders, rope-makers, and circus performers, as well as a noticeable number whose occupation was listed as ‘gentleman.’[3]

Some enlistees were sailors from the recently returned China Naval Contingent, which had served in 1899 – 1901 during the so-called ‘Boxer Rebellion.’ [4]

On 15 February 1901 the final contingent of 250 men, all in civilian clothes and with no fanfare, were quietly transported to Port Melbourne for their month-long voyage to South Africa. On arrival in Cape Town the Scottish Horse recruits spent the first month being kitted out and taking part in training programs. Tullabardine noted that all the troops had arrived in good health and that he never wished to see a finer body of men.[5]

By this stage of the war, military operations had settled into a pattern of guerilla warfare being conducted by roving bands of Boer commandos. The British forces responded by building blockhouses and conducting vigorous and aggressive patrolling with large mobile mounted columns, to try to contain the Boers. It was also increasingly recognised that colonial horsemen were performing extremely well, had more individuality and were able to find their way about the country better than their British counterparts. In scouting and reconnaissance work, the Australians were seen as superior to any troops in the field.[6]

But before the multi-national Scottish Horse took part in any active service, the GHQ at Pretoria decided to split them into the 1st and 2nd Regiments and send them to different fields of battle. The 1st Regiment containing the least number of Australians, was allotted to Brigadier General Dixon’s column of about 1450 men, which with field artillery support, operated to the north and west of Johannesburg in the Transvaal. The 2nd Regiment, with about 200 Australians in it, operated in eastern Transvaal and east of Johannesburg and was allotted to the column of Lt. Colonel George Benson.

It was an accepted fact during this guerilla phase of the war that, of the sixty or so British columns traversing the South African veldt, there was none with a finer record than that commanded by Benson. This column was soon seeing action and on 30 April 1901, near the Dullstrom-Roodekrantz district, they encountered a Boer raiding party. In the resulting action, the Scottish Horse’s 2nd Regiment suffered their first fatal casualty, when Cpl John Blackham of Melbourne was killed, and five other Scottish Horse soldiers were wounded. Undeterred, the column continued their aggressive patrols, which resulted in the capture of copious quantities of Boer supplies, arms, and ammunition.

Meanwhile, on 30th May 1901, Dixon’s column including the 1st Regiment, was attacked near Vlakfontein by a large force of over 1,500 Boer horsemen, who set fire to the grassland to cause panic and to function as a smoke screen for their attack. The 200 men of the Scottish Horse were heavily involved in defending the column, which suffered nearly 50 killed and over 120 wounded, including an Australian from Broken Hill. The Boers left 41 dead on the field and were forced to hastily flee when British reinforcements arrived.

The command of Dixon’s column then passed to Colonel Kekewich, who was opposed in his area of operations by the very formidable Boer commanders General Koos De La Rey and Commandant Jan Kemp. Kekewich’s column continued active patrolling of their allotted area with little major action again until September of 1901. Meanwhile, after more routine patrolling, on 3rd July 1901 the 2nd Regiment, and its parent column under Colonel Benson, reached a major hill named Houtboschkop, similar in appearance to Mt Macedon, where they encountered a small force of Boers in a running engagement. In the resulting firefight, Sergeant John Gange of Melbourne was twice Mentioned in Despatches for bravery under fire, the first Australian member of the Scottish Horse to be so recognised.

Benson’s column then made its way towards the town of Elandskoof to intercept an enemy party. The Boers feigned flight before turning on the Scottish Horse advance guard, and in the close quarters combat that followed on 30th May, three Victorians were killed. Such was the intensity of this fighting that a British Lieutenant was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first for the Scottish Horse, and two Australians were Mentioned in Despatches and promoted.

Over the next few weeks, Benson’s column continued to chase and break up numerous Boer commando units. In a firefight at the Laatse River on 15th July, Scottish Horse member, Lt. Oliver Kelly from Western Australia, although seriously wounded, earned the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for displaying great courage and devotion to duty. In this action, five Scottish Horse men were wounded and another two were Mentioned in Despatches and promoted. Benson’s column continued to employ a highly successful technique when pursuing the Boer. The column would often cover vast distances in a single night, causing the Boer constant anxiety, as they were often lax in posting sentry posts and would be caught sound asleep. John Price wrote, ‘The format was always identical, and with a headlong rush the mounted and yelling British would charge into a sleeping camp creating as much havoc as possible, followed by an extended pursuit of those trying to escape, as far as a horse could carry a man. As a result, the Boer lost many men who were often left without horses on which to escape. More importantly, was the psychological effect on enemy morale, for between each military activity, the Boer guerillas relied upon long rest spells to recover.’ [7]

As September 1901 arrived, 200 of the Scottish Horse returned to Australia as their six months terms of service had expired. However, Tullarbardine’s agents re-enlisted many of the expired men, as well as nearly 100 new recruits in Melbourne. This was no mean feat as the Australian Government had now prohibited recruiting for ‘foreign’ regiments, such as the Scottish Horse. When the new recruits sailed for South Africa, the men wore their ordinary civilian clothes and as ‘Indulgence Passengers’ travelled free of charge on the ship, only paying for their meals.

Once on the high seas and out of Australian waters, they were then sworn in as members of the Scottish Horse. Meanwhile, back in South Africa, on 30th September, Kekewich’s 930 strong column on a patrol about 150km north of Vlakfontein, reached a river crossing known as Moedwil. Along with infantry and other mounted regiments also guarding this crossing, were about 400 troopers of the 1st Regiment of the Scottish Horse. Not long after arriving, they were attacked by a Boer force of over 1,000 mounted men, and a heated battle ensued, with the Scottish Horse being involved in both mounted and unmounted fashion. British casualties amounted to over 60 killed and 130 wounded with Scottish Horse casualties being 20 men killed or wounded. Sadly, amongst these casualties was the 1st Regiment’s only Australian death in battle for the entire war, that of Trooper James Affleck from Penrith in NSW.

The 1st Scottish Horse were reported as behaving extremely well during this conflict, especially notable as there were many new draftees among their number. Meanwhile, the 2nd Regiment was about to be tested as never before in the war. The formidable Boer commander, Botha knew that to survive, he must gather all his men together, to try to destroy Benson’s 1500 strong force as it left Middelburg heading south in the direction of Johannesburg. In addition to supplies, the column comprised infantry and mounted troops, as well as four artillery pieces and two pom-poms, an automatic Vickers-Maxim quick-firing gun that fired a one-pound shell. With about 650 infantry troops defending the convoy at close range, the 950 mounted men including the Scottish Horse, roamed freely to better protect the supply convoy of 350 slow moving vehicles, which included 100 ox-wagons. On gently undulating land, the column broke camp at 4.30am on Wednesday 30th October 1901 and a convoy of slow ox-wagons began to move out. Almost immediately, the Boer horsemen began to attack the column’s rearguard, front and flanks.

At 5.30am a lighter British convoy with two field guns as a rear-guard also began to move out, protected by three and half companies of infantry, and the mounted Scottish Horse. The gap between the convoy and rear-guard became greater in the muddy conditions as a few ‘straggling’ wagons constantly became bogged. The heavy driving rain limited visibility and eventually the column, including the rearguard with its Scottish Horse troopers halted.

The entire force had now become spread out over three separate farms, including one called Bakenlaagte. The large force of 2000 Boers now pressed home their attack and continued to pour in a deadly fire on the rearguard. The Scottish Horse dismounted and with the infantry withdrew to a better defensive position on slightly higher ground. They were ordered to hold the ridge and to defend and save the guns, and the British troops formed a straggly line on both sides of the two guns to do so. The Boers moved relentlessly forward with deadly gun fire and from a distance killed all the gun crews where they had stood.

The Boers then surrounded the position at close range and continued to pour in a murderous fire on all the troops. By this time Benson and his senior officers were either dead, mortally wounded or seriously wounded. The sheer weight of numbers and British casualties meant that the mass of Boers finally captured the two guns. A message was somehow got to the remaining two British guns a little distance away, which now began to shell the captured position causing even more casualties on both sides. As the day came to an end, the British resistance on the ridge completely petered out and the Boers dragged the captured guns away, stripping the British bodies of their clothes, boots, arms, and any other valuables.

The total British casualties amounted to 238 men killed or wounded and 120 captured, while Benson died of his wounds the next day. At least 44 Boer were killed. Scottish Horse casualties at Bakenlaagte were 33 men killed, including eight Australians, with six of them being Victorians. Forty Scottish Horse men were wounded, with two Victorians being so severely wounded, they later died. Five Australians, including 4 Victorians, were dangerously wounded, but would eventually live. With ten Australian dead among the total casualties, the action at Bakenlaagte was the Scottish Horse’s most costly battle. Benson had been recognised as Kitchener’s best commander and although initial reports of the action were filled with despair, it gradually emerged, in the words of the famed Boer War historian Thomas Pakenham that: ‘Benson’s rear-guard, including the Scottish Horse, had fought heroically, losing many men killed and wounded and sacrificing themselves to save the main column.’[8]

After the deadly action at Bakenlaagte, life for the 2nd Regiment until the end of their time in South Africa in late May 1902, returned to that of constant, generally uneventful patrolling, the clearing of suspect farmhouses and the rounding up of isolated Boer parties. As for the 1st Regiment, command of their column passed to Major Leader in November 1901 and this column constantly trekked through the western Transvaal right up until the end of the war. One of their regular duties during January 1902, involved guarding the construction work of the line of blockhouses being built north-east of Pretoria. But the year still held much active service for the column. In early February 1902, 634 mounted troops from the column set out to capture the Boer Commander De La Rey at his suspected camp at Gruisfontein about 180 km north of Pretoria. On 5th February, the Scottish Horse were split into three columns and just before dawn they charged and attacked the Boer Camp from the north catching them by surprise. De La Rey was not there, but 114 Boers including their commander were captured. British casualties were slight and amounted to eight wounded, including Trooper George Stewart of St Kilda. Australian Scottish Horse troopers John Wallace and Percy Selby were Mentioned in Despatches for bravery.

The 500 strong Scottish Horse was now posted to became part of Col. Grenfell’s column and the stage was set for the 1st Regiment’s last major action of the war. The column was now located about 240 km southwest of Johannesburg, and in company with other large columns was tasked with trying to surround over 2000 Boer under the command of its leader Kemp. Unbeknown to the British, Kemp had also decided to take the initiative and tried to encircle the British column.

Early on the morning of 11thApril 1902, Grenfell’s column arrived at a spot called Roodewal farm. Due to their position on slightly rising ground, the Scottish Horse now became the nucleus of the entire British resistance. The 2000 mounted Boer horsemen advanced at the charge, but the British troops, including the Scottish Horse and their pom-pom gun held firm, and they poured volley after volley into the advancing horsemen, who eventually gave up the fight. With the Boer horsemen packed so tightly together, there was little chance of the British soldiers missing their mark. Consequently, Kemp’s force lost 110 men and fled the action.[9]

British casualties amounted to 5 killed and 41 wounded, but among the severely wounded were Scottish Horse Troopers Richard Merrett and Lawrence O’Reilly from Victoria. From this point on in South Africa, as the Boer resistance and commando numbers declined, the work of the 1st Regiment settled down to largely uneventful patrolling and mirrored that of its brother 2nd Regiment.

The Boer War ended on May 31st1902 with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging, and this led to the disbanding of the Scottish Horse in South Africa. John Price’s research showed that 3500 men had passed through both Scottish Horse Regiments, with 914 of them being Australians or New Zealanders. 149 had served in the 1st Regiment, and 765 in the 2nd Regiment. Their ages ranged from 17 to 45 and 126 men had died in the service of the Scottish Horse, 26 of them Australians and 20 of those being Victorians.

While most men who had served in the Scottish Horse returned to their home country, some 700 settled in South Africa, with at least 100 men becoming members of the Natal Border Police. Memorials exist to the Scottish Horse in Edinburgh, Scotland and in Johannesburg, South Africa, which bear the names of the 126 men who died while serving with the unit.

At the Primrose Military Cemetery at Germiston outside Johannesburg, is the memorial to the 33 men who died in the battle at Bakenlaagte. Sadly, no such memorial exists in this country for the 10 Australian Scottish Horse dead from that battle, or indeed the 26 Australians who gave their lives in the unit during the Boer War.

As we pause today to remember the service of the Scottish Horse, and in particular the 20 Victorians who died with this volunteer mounted force, our final words belong to a member of the Scots Guards who penned a poem about his brother unit which read in part:

‘In the dim and distant future when the years have rolled away,

And your prattling, toddling babies have grown old and worn and grey,

They will tell their children’s children of that famous yeoman force,

Once Scotland’s pride and glory: The Famous Scottish Horse.’ [10]





Address given by Dr Daryl Moran at the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne on Sunday 26th May 2024 to mark Boer War Day.


[1] Droogleever, R. ‘Colonel Tom’s Boys. Being the Regimental history of the 1st and 2nd Victorian Contingents in the Boer War.’ 2013. PrintBooks, South Melbourne. p. 15

[2] ARGUS. 6 February 1901. p.2.

[3] Price, J. Southern Cross Scots. BR Printing Pty. Ltd. Kensington. Victoria. 1992. p. 21

[4] ARGUS. 4 January 1901

[5] National Archives of Australia. Document. File dated 8/4/1901. No. 186

[6] Australian War Memorial: South African War 1899 – 1902. Campaign Series No. 2. Progress Press Canberra. p. 5.

[7] Price, J. Southern Cross Scots. p. 54

[8] Pakenham, T. The Boer War. Folio Society edition. London.1979. p.668

[9] Barthop, M. ‘The Anglo-Boer Wars – The British and the Afrikaners 1815-1902’. Blandford. 1991. p. 161.

[10] Price, J. Southern Cross Scots. p.86

Contact Daryl Moran about this article.

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