Some war reminiscences: Interview with “Banjo” Paterson [re. the Boer War, 6 October 1900]

[Editor: An interview with Andrew Barton (“Banjo”) Paterson about his experiences in the Boer War in South Africa. Published in The Western Mail, 6 October 1900.]

Some war reminiscences.

Interview with “Banjo” Paterson.

Mr. A. B. Paterson, the “Sydney Morning Herald” war correspondent, arrived in Sydney on September 11. Nearly a year ago (it was at the end of last October) he sailed from Sydney by the Kent, which conveyed a contingent of Australians to Table Bay, and amongst the men on board the transport at the time the opinion prevailed that the campaign would be a short and decisive one. That was before the defeat at Colenso, the repulse at Magersfontein, and the disaster at Stormberg — three events which in themselves ware sufficient to falsify the anticipations of October last. Mr. Paterson at an early stage of the war realised that a condition of affairs which necessitated military operations in every part of the great sub-continent, against a successful foe, and amidst a hostile population, would not allow of a speedy termination of the campaign, and contrary to first expectations he had for eight months to virtually remain in the saddle, travel from Cape Colony to the Modder, from the Modder to Bloemfontein, thence to Pretoria, back to the Orange River Colony near the mountainous borders of Basutoland, and even then return to Australia before the fire of rebellion has been totally extinguished.

This long itinerary, embracing a total of something like 3,000 miles, enabled him to witness some of the most dramatic incidents of the war — the march to Kimberley, the capture of Cronje, the battle of Abraham’s Kraal, the occupation of the capitals of two Republics, and, finally, the capture by Sir Archibald Hunter of 4,000 men, who comprised the principal remnants of the Free State army, now, it is believed, only represented by the few roving commandoes still reluctant to submit to what they themselves recognise to be the inevitable.

Speaking to a Press representative Mr. Paterson referred at first to the operations in the Colesberg district. The Australians to whom he was attached, were sent there after the arrival at Capetown.

“It was constant fighting day and night,” he said. “But it most be remembered,” he added, “that it was no part of Lord Roberts’s plain of campaign to drive the Boers directly out of that mountainous region. As a matter of fact, no attempt was ever made to do so. General French, who commanded in the district, earned the commendation of Lord Roberts for having completely fulfilled his mission, which was to prevent a further Boer advance into Cape Colony, whilst the preparations for a more brilliant and effective military coup were being made elsewhere. Just before the invasion of the Free State was commenced a couple of thousand men were left in the district to do the work that 5,000 had previously been engaged in. What happened then is well known. The 2,000 men had a difficult task before them. That was the time Major Eddy was killed, and another unfortunate incident occurring owing to a blunder, by which a party of Wiltshires were left isolated. All the Australians in camp volunteered to go to their rescue; but they found the Wiltshires had been so cut up that they had no other alternative than to fight their own way back. They managed to do it against tremendous odds and without the aid of artillery.”

Leaving the Colesburg district, Mr. Paterson went round to the western borders of the Orange River Colony, and commenced the march to Kimberley with the advance cavalry division under General French. It was a weary, dispiriting four days’ toil — first eastwards over the veldt across the Reit River, and thence northward to the Moddor. 60,000 troops were on the move, and there was to be no turning back. The terrific heat of an African summer blazed down upon the advancing army. Many men fainted from exhaustion, many horses dropped dead, and others were left on the roadway in agony. As one, two, and three days passed the lamentable mortality of the transport animals increased, and the long route was indicated by their carcases left on the open veldt to be food for the birds of prey. It was a magnificent movement, Mr. Paterson said, but only from the standpoint of generalship. Division followed division at long intervals, and the dashing cavalry was, according to the plans laid down, always far ahead of the lees mobile foot regiments. At the expiration of four days Kimberley was relieved amidst the exultations of the inhabitants, and the irrepressible general of the flying column soon afterwards started back into the Free State, as it was then called, to head off the retreating general, whoso position at Magesfontein seemed previously to defy all attack.

“A namesake of mine was first into Kimberley,” Mr. Paterson said. “We did not know at the time that Magersfontein had been abandoned, and the people would not go down the line to the Modder from fear of being made prisoners. I went down with three Cape policemen and despatched some cable messages, and when I again found the cavalry division General Cronje was at bay.

“Cronje fought hard. His trenches, or burrows, were absolutely shell proof — some of them 10ft. and 12ft. underground and they were cleverly constructed so as to provide complete shelter. The tremendous force of artillery brought to bear upon the laager killed very few, if any, of the secreted Boers. But the spectacle was wonderful. Throughout the long days the firing of cannon was continuous and the stillness of the nights was periodically broken by the roar of lyddite shells, which is louder and has a more lugubrious effect than the discharge of a heavy gun. At Paardeberg Lord Kitchener, before the Field-Marshall arrived, ordered an impossible attack, which resulted in 1,100 British casualties, principally to the Gordon Highlanders and the Canadians, and which, I believe, cost Lord Kitchener a great deal of his popularity with the army. You know the rest of the story about Paardeberg — how Cronje capitulated and the Boer Arms received a staggering blow”

Of the series of fights which followed the capture of General Cronje and the arrival at Bloemfontein, Mr. Paterson speaks of Poplar Grove and Abraham’s Kraal as the most important. In both of these engagements the Australians were well in the front. “We buried 120 Boers at Abraham’s Kraal,” he stated. “That shows that their losses were heavy.

“I do not like claiming special credit for being the first to enter Bloemfontein, because war correspondents and other civilians go into these places when they know they will not be attacked, whereas officers and troopers have constantly to go where they are certain to be fired on. I can establish beyond doubt that I was the first to enter the city, if any special importance is attached to the matter. I brought the town council to surrender to Lord Roberts.

“Taking the general view of the journey from Bloemfontein to Pretoria, no one can deny its merit. It was a great military performance. Still so far as actual marching is concerned the Boers have performed some remarkable feats — of course in small bodies. The British Army is so hampered by transport that it cannot hope to vie with the Boers in mobility. And in connection with this matter I might give an explanation of something people are always asking about — how it is that the English, have driven the Boers from so many positions, and defeated them so often, have captured so few of their guns. When a commando is travelling through rough country it throws out a rear guard, and at the same time prepares for a flank movement on the part of the British. All day long their waggons are going away, whilst they manage to hold certain strategical positions till darkness sets in. Those were the tactics of De Wet during his late raids. Consistently he threw his rear guards out, and although he was supposed to be fleeing for his life his advance guard would be able to blow up portion of a railway line or do some other mischievous work.”

The main feature of the occupation of Johannesburg and Pretoria have been made familiar. Mr. Paterson, however, pointed out that “Karri” Davies was amongst the men who demanded the surrender of the gold-mining centre. A member of the old Reform Committee, who refused to accept any conditional pardon when imprisoned, and who refused to promise not to take up arms against the Republic, was not only able to do this but to organise a splendid regiment of colonial light horse and demand the surrender of the town in which he was formerly a prisoner.

After Pretoria the Australians were scattered all over the country. They were utilised as occasion required in guerilla warfare. Consequently Mr. Paterson joined the division under Sir Archibald Hunter, who succeeded in almost finishing the campaign in the eastern districts of the Orange River Colony.

Speaking generally of the war, Mr. Paterson said:— “The Boers were throughout in a disorganised condition. As a rule they fight in small commandoes. Each commandant has absolute control over his own men, and is very apt to withdraw them when things become uncomfortable. The withdrawal may have the effect of leaving other commandoes in a critical position. The Boers will not stand a severe rifle duel. At the same time it is only fair to say that they were as a rule in a minority. I did not see any dishonourable practice on the part of the Boers: but that they do indulge in such practices has been established by Lord Roberts and others.”

“There is no doubt the hospital arrangements failed signally,” Mr. Paterson stated. “I do not think the failure is attributable to the hospital people, but to the staff officers who took away from the medical authorities their transport and supplies. A man high in the Army Medicial Service said to me long before there was any complaint at all — before Cronje was caught ‘The army is taking away our transport and cutting off our supplies; there is sure to be a collapse and we shall get the blame. It ought to be borne by those who refused us necessary supplies and transport.’ All the same the Australian Field Hospital won a splendid name for itself right throughout the army.”

As to the campaign as a whole Mr. Paterson said that criticism generally could only be indulged in upon points that were controversial. “Still,” he said, “I think the mistake of the campaign has been the treatment meted out to those who surrendered. It has been of a character that helped to prolong hostilities. Men found on their farms with their Mausers buried in the gardens were given passes, whilst those captured from the commandos were transported. This had a doubly bad effect. The Boers have an abhorrence of transportation. They want to remain at home. Thus hundreds in the commandoes persevered in the opposition, dreading the consequences of submission, whilst the leniency and freedom accorded to burghers in other cases emboldened them to fly to arms a second time if a new commando was formed in their district. As to the military manouvres I do not think anything different could have been done, so far as my experience of the campaign will enable one to form an opinion. It was impossible to carry out any movement that the enemy could not see and could not prepare (according to their ability) to guard against. They were often able to anticipate a preconcerted move on our part. Although the Boer is an uneducated man, he is no worse than men elsewhere in a similar state of social development.”

As to the future of South Africa, Mr. Paterson does not anticipate any military trouble once the final surrender has taken place. “There will be no small insurrections or agrarian outrages. They are very sensible people, and are not likely under the new state of things to resort to arms. But as soon as they get votes they will use them for anti-English purposes. A bitter feeling will be left in the country for a long time. The Free Staters seem to be actuated by the same sentiments as the Transvaalers, and it is believed that the former fought with more determination than was shown by the northern kinsmen.”

Mr. Paterson met a number of the officers who served under Sir William Gatacre. He said they all think well of him, notwithstanding the reverse he suffered. The officers state that General Gatacre had an insufficient force, and did not have cavalry for scouting purposes, the rule, however, is for officers to eulogise their general.

Mr. Paterson bears no traces of having gone through an arduous campaign. As a matter of fact he increased a stone in weight. Of three horses which he took from Australia, one was purchased by the Prince of Teck as a remount, another fell sick at Bloemfontein, and the third was left in Basutoland, a splendid animal which carried the war correspondent right through the war.

At the Redfern Railway Station Mr. Paterson was welcomed by a host of friends. It is announced that he intends to deliver a series of lectures on the war.

The Western Mail (Perth, WA), Saturday 6 October 1900, page 43

[Editor: Corrected “itinreary” to “itinerary”; “occuring” to “occurring”; “Patersan joined” to “Paterson joined”; “perservered” to “persevered”.]

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