Rupert Lowe, 4th Victorian Mounted Rifles.
On hearing that Captain Chirnside was recruiting horsemen for the Boer War, I promptly slipped on my riding breeches and enlisted as a roughrider in the 4th Victorian Imperial Bushmen's Regiment. After some weeks hurried training at Langwarren we rode to Melbourne, survived further elimination tests and embarked in the troopship Victorian.
How a splendid horse for South Africa came my way makes a good story. It began seven years earlier, during a finishing year at Geelong College where I foolishly acquired an enlarged great-toe joint by jumping down the stone entrance steps. The toe only needed an osteopath's attention, but in those days I didn't know that such useful people even existed. At Langwarren training camp the Sergeant Major, who was not joining our contingent, noticed that the heavy army boots hurt my foot, so he !et me off and acquired the army issue two pairs of No. nine clodhoppers for himself. When we got marching orders he asked in a friendly fashion, "Do you want a good horse?", "Rather", and with no more words he passed over his heavily built bay mare. She must have been half-thoroughbred and distinguished herself by bolting twice on the march into Melbourne and on to Flemington showgrounds. She proved a treasure and carried me gallantly through nine months of tough campaigning, and down to De Aar in Cape Colony where she took the fatal blue-tongue fever. I named her after Lindsay Gordon's equine heroine in his fine poem The romance of `Britomarte'.
Three weeks lonely voyage without once sighting land brought us to Beira Bay in East Africa. The heavily laden Victorian lay well off shore from this uninviting fever ridden Portuguese settlement. Unavoidable delays in disembarking a mounted regiment kept us in camp nearby at Bamboo Creek for a full fortnight. Jungle melodies new to Australian ears enlivened the night, and hyenas occasionally prowled among the horse lines, but these shy and cowardly carrion eaters molested nobody.
Leaving the Portuguese, the mosquitoes, flies and fevers behind without regret we boarded the famous Beira railway, which had cost hundreds of lives to construct, and halted at Umtali in Northern Rhodesia. The long open road ahead looked inviting and our poor horses badly needed exercise and relief from cramped conditions, so we gladly unloaded them from closed railway trucks securely netted in against the dreaded African tse-tse fly and trekked right through to Salisbury, the Capital. Passing Gwalo town en route, where the plains were literally strewn with bones of cattle slain in a single night by rinderpest, we reached Bulawayo. This fine new town had sprung up on a site once occupied by King Lobengula's kraal, that wily old warrior of Matabele War fame. Headquarters orders here directed the regiment eastward to patrol the Transvaal border lest the Boers - following their old tactics should again trek northward away from trouble. We often marched by night resting till long after midday and thus avoided the direct rays of Africa's ever-torrid sun. It is amazing how much sleep or semi-sleep can be gained on trained horses jogging along in close army formation through the gloriously starlit night.
Big game country this, as we neared the swift Limpopo or crocodile river necessitating double guards and bonfires nightly whenever we pitched camp near the river. Lions sure did roar out in the jungle, but our preventative measures kept them from carrying off horse or mule for their supper. Nothing could persuade nor force our Kaffir camp boys away from the protective fires even if we accompanied them for, said they, `Simba likes dark meat best.' Doubtless a soldier's hat and uniform arouses these savage brutes suspicion, hence the natives well-proved statement. Just about dark one evening, I was told off to take out a wood-party for cookhouse requirements. Lion yarns had gone around however so I told the captain that the fatigue party refused going into the jungle without an armed guard. The guard accordingly turned out with fixed bayonets and I kept my loaded revolver at the ready, but the wood came home safely and no-one encountered Simba the terrible, though a little previously Trooper Pike and I sent on ahead to locate a camping ground, had seen a large crouching animal emerge from cover. Looking back Pike yelled, `Go for your life, it sprang at your horse.' We did go and soon after met an officer from Fort Tuli, who shouted, `Have you seen the lion - why didn't you shoot it?' Well, in that fading light, with only army rifles and hard nosed bullets to shoot it we were well content to just `beat it'. Our lady lioness (for the critter had no mane) might well have had the better of the deal. When no longer sufficiently active to catch antelope, old lions will lie thus in ambush waiting for some toothsome morsel to come along the track.
Charlie Pike, standing six feet in his socks and proportionately built, got rated as hard on horseflesh, so on the long trek south to cape Colony became a transport driver, his huge wagon usually overloaded being drawn by a dozen Hungarian remount (but more about our friend Pike later). Rhodesia teemed with game; absurdly tame partridges and guinea fowl appeared in great numbers, herds of antelope, startled by our scouts would sometimes rush clean through the marching column causing wild excitement with strict orders not to fire lest a stray bullet should find the wrong target. Big baboons climbed the high rocks and barked defiance at us, lesser monkeys swung from branches beside the river where loathsome crocodiles lay basking on the sandbars, chameleons we often carried on our helmets, where they sat quite still occasionally changing colour and looking both ways at once, fore and aft, in a most uncanny fashion; they terrify the Kaffir boys who think they are spooks and won't handle or come near them.
Snakes and lizards abounded; one day the cook spotted an eleven-foot Mamba coiled round a bough above his kitchen, it took a dozen shots to get it down. Black and green mambas are the most dreaded snakes in Africa and on occasion they even stalk and attack both man and beast. Large brown scorpions crawled out from under stones towards evening and enjoyed hiding among boots and blankets, no monotony in camp life by the Crocodile River.
Returning from patrol along the Limpopo and Northern Transvaal (for the Boers had not obliged by trekking north as anticipated) on the long dry road back to Bulawayo, our regiment wit waxed eloquent:
We searched every hill and kopje, aye and all along the spruits, But never a Boer we sees at all so divil a wan we shoots, And we walked to save our breeches till we wore out all our boots, And every now and then we washed our faces.
At one stage, half-rations were necessary when the supply wagons didn't turn up. A few goats roamed the hills above forts Tuli and Manzimyama, perforce we turned these into stew, they being too tough for more direct mastication. McConachie's ration -- a luxury much talked about but seldom seen -- gave place to plain army biscuit, `hard as brick', but nutritious and satisfying when pounded well with the bayonet handle, simmered with bully beef, if you were lucky -- curry powder added to taste. `Iron rations', though a bit monotonous, kept most men strong and fit. Our Captain [E. Tivey, who became a General in World War 1] paraded his company and requested that every man should drink his rum issue as a fever preventative [a very popular potation and known at sea as `splicing the main brace']. Our particular brand tasted so awful that I persisted in trading mine for an extra biscuit, quite easy for it took several tots to make an addict feel at all `happy'. Later I noted that not `yours truly' but the other fellow had succumbed to the African fever!
Christmas on the march
Christmas Day 25 December, 1900. We camped and organised a sports day, the chief and ever popular item being a boxing competition -- light hitting and sparring for points. Well, all morning they banged away till only three stalwarts remained -- Charles Moore being the favourite. After rest and refreshment Sergeant Sanderson came into the ring seeking for a knockout. Tall and strong he made it a rushing bout, but never a blow got home. Moore danced nimbly away watching his chance then hooked the Sergeant, just one to the chin, it proved sufficient. Last man in -- short thick set and powerful -- he tried much the same tactics as Sanderson, with identical results. He couldn't hit the favourite, who cleverly evaded each attack, waited for an opening, then got one home which knocked the other man right out under the ropes, where he lay wondering just what struck him. Light tapping for points you say. Well the pace may have been a bit merry, but that's how they did it in the army. Poor Charlie Moore, who also aimed at being the regiments crack swimmer, but here he bumped into Frank Felstead -- a lighter built man with just the right build for surging through water with little apparent effort, so Corporal Moore had to rest content with second place and he was a bad loser. It is sadly true that army life sometimes mars rather than makes a man. Though university trained, gifted and well fitted to lead men and gain respect from his comrades he failed, got `too big for his boots', looked upon the wine when it was red, lost his stripes, and later on, down south struck real trouble. One wintry day in Cape Colony when our patrols chased a Boer Commando among the Zoorburg ranges, Moore rode his horse onto the skyline, contrary to orders, and a Boer sniper picked him off. Poor fellow, he only lived for two days. We buried him there in the bitter cold as snow fell, driven by high wind along the mountain pass. That was my first snowy experience, tho' I've seen plenty since -- both in old and new worlds -- I prefer reading about the beautiful snow.
Southward for action
Back at Bulawayo the regiment received orders to march south and everyone seemed eager for the real active service ahead. The first brush with the enemy occurred at Zeerust where we lost our Colonel. Too eager for the fray, he entered the firing line where a leaden bullet from a Boer elephant gun gave him a `blighty one' in the thigh and he regretfully learned the doctor's verdict; `invalided out for the duration.'
We passed through Mafeking, here the only remaining evidence of the long world famous siege was where a Boer `long tom' shell had pierced the conspicuous white wall of the local convent. Much ado about very little -- we thought.
One evening when nearing the Orange River, we crossed the British Yeomanry lines and camped nearby. Early next morning a great stir arose for a high ranking English officer's pet Basuto pony had gone missing and was later spied by `himself' trotting merrily along in Trooper Pike's wagon team of hungry Hungarian remounts. `Halt', roared the Brigadier, pointing an accusing finger at the driver:
`What's your name?'
`Pike, it should be shark, that's my horse you've got there.'
Naturally enough, when the fine animal had wandered among his lean Hungarian, Pike commandeered it to strengthen his hard worked team. Basuto ponies were much prized for their speed and endurance. No less a man than Sir Patrick Hastings tells a yarn about riding his Basuto pony seventy miles and winning a race with that untiring animal on the same day, when he served as a private in the Boer War. Though ever too modest about his legal achievements, I fancy Sir Patrick `drew a long bow' on his marvellous steed that day. He further relates that when the Sergeant Major ran him up to the OC on some trifling charge and he argued himself clear, the irate SM exclaimed, `Astings you orta be a bloomin' lawyer.' `Thanks SM I will.' And so he did without fear or favour by nothing more but sheer grit and determination, eventually rising to be the Attorney General of England.
With Colonel Kelly invalided out OC's duties now devolved upon the Major. He unwisely adopted British Officer technique and made himself unpopular. He even went so far as to order that a trooper be tied up to a cart wheel for some breach of discipline, but ne'er a man could he find to even handle the rope, much less tie up a comrade. When night fell, the whole camp began barracking the major in a manner, which must have made his ears tingle. Calmer thoughts prevailed next morning and by common consent the incident was dropped.
The Old Queen passes
January 1901 found the regiment at De Aar Junction and here we learnt that the Queen had died -- dear old Queen Victoria! It was said that grieving for her lost Generals and gallant soldiers had hastened her end, and had she not earlier known much sorrow? Her Prince Consort, Albert the Good, ruling with her both wisely and well a vast Empire, after 21 years had succumbed to the overwhelming burden of State a prematurely worn out man, leaving her disconsolate indeed -- none more lonely though a Queen -- `Now I have no one to call me Victoria'.
In unison with every outpost of the far-flung Empire, we did her memory honour that day. The Coldstream Guards and the Black Watch were there and I can never forget their matchless drill -- the bowed heads upon reversed arms, the long hush, the regimental bands with muffled drums marching back and forth, back and forth upon that desert parade ground till the bugles sounded out The Last Post. A moving tribute to a much loved Queen.
At De Aar too, my gallant mare `Britomarte' left me, the blue tongue fever proving fatal. Almost her last exploit occurred on a Sunday funeral parade at which a certain trooper must attend. He quietly commandeered my horse for the event, whereon she promptly bolted with him and he no doubt felt particularly foolish at making so unseemly a spectacle on the solemn occasion of a comrade's funeral. A good horse can become a real comrade as mine had done, and many I rode before the campaign ended without ever finding her equal.
One lady horse indeed, though a really handsome chestnut, would kick without any provocation and had so violent a temper that I named her `Jezebel' and was glad when she knocked up under the strain -- sometimes forty miles in a day -- and had to be abandoned.
Just when leaving De Aar, Lieutenant McDonald, a canny Scot, had his eye on an upstanding 17 hands high horse, and kindly lent me his choice just to see if he was `all right'. The march coincided with a Boer concentration upon Phillipstown, a noted Dutch stronghold, and we set out `at the double' in full battle array. My new, tall horse promptly proved himself all right by tossing me off -- rifle, haversack, belt bayonet, bandolier and 100 rounds of ammunition thrown in -- and went careering down the straight. They caught him and brought him back to me, I piled the impedimenta onto a wagon, again climbed aboard `McDonald's Fancy' and succeeded in bringing him into camp a reformed character.
Our forced march upon Phillipstown proved a winner. Spreading out we occupied a range overlooking the whole area, opened fire in the nick of time and had the satisfaction of seeing enemy commandoes break away to the hills beyond. Next morning we entered the town without further resistance. Through an ill-judged decision four patrols were now sent out with the farcical order; `locate the enemy'. Three patrols located all right, ran into enemy ambush and got badly knocked about, four didn't locate, and including `yours truly', all got back to camp with whole skins.
The Boers were wonderful scouts and huntsmen, well mounted and knowing every inch of their territory, they skilfully evaded encounter on equal terms preferring to lie in wait among their everlasting rocky kopjes -- first a peaked one then a flat topper -- each and all a death trap with not a soldier but a cunning hunter hidden behind them. The English Yeomanry in particular fell a prey to their tactics. In fact English troops on the limitless open veldt, (who were much more at home in Piccadilly) generally felt a bit lost, and quite often did get lost, one Company earning for itself the unwanted nickname `De Wet's Own'. The Boers were unable to hold or travel fast with prisoners, so took all their arms and equipment and everything else they fancied and let them go with the warning not to return or they would fare worse and might even go home in pink!
Cape Colony Boers, now in full retreat and led by De Wet, Milan, and Scheepers were heading north for the Orange Free State with Australian Bushmen in hot pursuit, supported by other columns under General Methuen and Colonel Plumber. We overtook them at Orange River and captured their guns and munitions toiling through the river sand drifts. De Wet we never caught; he had a trick of leaving his ragged forces and making off in the night, giving rise to the quip; `Why did Kruger wear galoshes?' ... `To keep De Wet from defeat.'
One evening I learnt that the Queensland Contingent would camp nearby. Father had told me to look out for his friend Shadforth from Lawn Hill; accordingly I set off for their horse lines and there in the first tent was Shadforth himself, so by this happy chance meeting, we had a good yarn together. Our fellows seldom slept in tents, the wagons being far outdistanced. Camping procedure was simplicity itself; hitch your horse to the long rope-lines, give him a rub down and a nose bag of oats for supper, dump the saddle upright on the veldt first kicking aside all loose gibber stones to make a smooth patch for water-proof sheet and blanket, eat your tucker, then jam your head between the saddle flaps to keep the wind off your whiskers and sleep till morning, unless you are unluckily called upon for guard duty. Night guard never troubled me unduly; any lover of nature and wide-open spaces need not unwittingly slumber, the heavenly hosts are grand company. Stars seen through the African high-veldt atmosphere sparkle with extraordinary brilliance. In my limited experience the only air equalling its quality hovers over the Arizona plateau and Grand Canyon.
When leaving Phillipstown, strange to relate, I was still astride `Mac's fancy'; for reasons undisclosed the bold Lieutenant no longer seemed favourably impressed by his good looks; but the tall horse, green, quite untrained and unused to chasing Boer Commandos couldn't stand soldiering, eventually stood still and had to be abandoned to scratch his living off the land. It is hungry looking country at best, grows stunted bushes resembling Australian salt bush and raises only Angora goats and Ostriches. Their snowy plumes being still prized by sweethearts and wives, our hardier spirits occasionally captured a handsome cock bird and commandeered his fine feathers for export.
Forced marches are cruel on horseflesh; if your faithful steed can carry you and your load no further, off comes the saddle and you cast around for another mount. One day I rode five and reached camp rather late on a mule. Cruelty? True, but all war is cruel and this was at least a sporting go with the better side the winner and no `birds of prey' dropping deadly eggs upon you from the skies, nor poison gas in H E shells demonstrating man's utter inhumanity to brother man.
Nearing The Finish
Winter being now at hand and no further resistance in force by the enemy, we chased their elusive bands among the hills with varying success, and later drove off marauding Boers from around Graf Reinet and Grahamstown much to the citizen's relief. Grahamstown is a quiet, lovely old town, an ancient seat of learning, College students marched through our lines and feted the troopers with good fare including two cartfuls of pineapples, which made a great impression.
However the treeless land is unfavourable to the average Australian mind; you may ride for a week in Transvaal or Orange Free State and not pick up sufficient sticks to cook a decent meal. The flat topped rock bound hills give the landscape a gloomy, sinister look. Boer farmers never burn wood, their domestic animals and farm stock are all kraaled at night against attack from wild beasts. This leaves an ever-increasing crust of well-tramped manure, which hardens, into peat and burns without flame but with a pungent odour. Aloes or century plants often grow around their houses, which are flat roofed, with stone steps jutting out in front. The soil is fertile enough to grow fine vegetables, and fruit often of unfamiliar species, but why no nice trees for shade or shelter? It seems rather sad and rather stupid omission. The inhabitants are a backward looking lot anyhow, and opposed to change or progress, women massive in build without visible waistlines. And so, when the regiment again turns coastward we leave Africa with no vain regrets; through East London and Port Elizabeth we embark on the mail liner Orient and held out across the Indian Ocean for Australia and home. The old Orient being no troop ship we were simply squeezed into triple mess decks mostly below the water line with insufficient ventilation. Many men preferred sleeping on deck in the wintry seas, and some went down with pleuropneumonia, our two MOs being seemingly `too busy' for full medical duty now the war was over. Result: three months Melbourne General Hospital for me and a tediously long recovery.
After his recovery Rupert spent many years travelling the world and settled down for a few years in Geelong prior to enlisting in World War 1. He married in the 1920s, and apart from his service in the Citizen Forces in World War 2, in his own words he `stayed put.' Rupert Lowe died in Melbourne on the 22nd July 1965 aged 86 years.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2000|
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