Beyond the Vaal: a Story of the Transvaal War
Military war games were regularly played out on the roads and byways around
Penrith, St Marys and the Hawkesbury. Local part time soldier and teacher at Mt
Pleasant Public School, Lieutenant Frank De Meyrick, took leave while on training
duties and was first Lieutenant of the Penrith Volunteer Corps. Over Easter 1892 he
took part in war games between the Sydney and Parramatta cavalry squadrons and
De Meyrick was ordered to hold the Nepean Bridge where his men fixed bayonets.
A skirmish ensued leading to De Meyrick being stabbed. After a good night out in
Penrith’s hotels and a sleepover in Gow’s shed, the men happily marched on back to
Parramatta and Sydney to their jobs and families and De Meyrick went back to his
school and family. In 1894 De Meyrick was promoted to Captain of the local corps.
He died just a few months later.
Support for Britain and the Empire in South Africa was willingly provided by
the Australian colonies when war was declared in October 1899. The colonies had
increasing fears of German, French, Russian and Japanese interests in its region. To
the British though, Australian volunteer soldiers were an unknown factor. They were
accepted more as a demonstration of British Empire unity than for any need. Locally
military enthusiasm never diminished. Men like Sudan veteran and local hotelier Percy
Hallett, who never let an opportunity pass him by, told campaign stories and showed
off his medals. He regularly attended Penrith’s K Company Volunteer Corps smoke
concerts. These concerts entertained about a hundred men who would smoke and
speak of politics while listening to live music. Charles Hannington, another Sudan
veteran adorned his Orchard Hills home with military paraphernalia to the delight
of his neighbours. Similarly Colour-Sergeant Louis Bevin and his friend, railwayman
Joseph Grundy, both veterans of the Sudan campaign, were regular attendees at local
military concerts. On 21 December 1899 Penrith’s new Drill Hall in Henry Street
was opened by Mayor Michael Long in the presence of Penrith K Company. A smoke
concert followed and a toast to the British Forces rang out. Colour-Sergeant Bevin
responded and announced that fifteen local men had volunteered to go to South Africa.
The first reference in the Nepean Times to the South African conflict appeared on
14 October 1899. A detailed map of the outbreak and background information kept
local readers well informed. In order to encourage readership Colless introduced a
serialised fiction story, ‘Beyond the Vaal: a Story of the Transvaal War’. On 24 October
the first departure of troops caused considerable interest and special trains carried
people from the outer lying areas (like Penrith) into Sydney. From this point, the war
appeared in every issue of the local newspaper until 25 May 1901 when it reported the
Australian troops were returning home. In an effort to show support local women’s
groups, led by Mayoress Sylvia Player, collected clothing and comforts for the soldiers.
Schools made handkerchiefs, while the Daughters of Temperance donated money and
individuals like the Riley sisters knitted socks.
Penrith volunteers for South Africa passed their medicals with Dr Dundas on 23
December 1899 and were sent to Sydney on the early train the following morning. On
6 January 1900 a civic send off was arranged in the Penrith Drill Hall. At eight o’clock
the reception began and an hour later the hall was ‘thrown open to all comers of all
sexes’. More than 500 people attended this farewell. Local member Samuel Lees
toasted ‘our departing colonists’ to tumultuous cheers. He went on to say they were
ready to fight for the Queen and to do their part for the British Empire. He presented
each of the men with a good supply of tobacco and a silver mounted briarwood pipe.
Full of enthusiasm and with no knowledge of the realities of war, one Penrith soldier
stated, ‘If I have to stop a bullet, I will be doing my duty for my country’. The ‘noble
spirit’ of these young men was not lost on those present.
Sergeant Gates reported to the gathering that the Penrith contingent was together
in camp and he hoped they would remain together in South Africa. Six soldiers from
Penrith were present as well as Edwin (Ted) Ransley from St Marys. Privates McAlpine,
Mason, Agland and Perritt all said they were ready to do their duty and thanked the
crowd for the splendid reception. Ransley felt he was ‘almost a stranger and a trespasser’, belonging to St Marys and the only one going from there. The following morning 400 people gave the men a resounding send-off at the railway station. An accompanying band and choir led by John Tipping sang, ‘God Be With You Till We Meet Again’.
Those from the Nepean district who volunteered included: Henry Gates, Arthur
Gates and his future brother-in-law Walter Bowditch, Henry Agland, Albert Breeze,
Frederick Colless, George Colless, Archibald McAlpine, Henry McGarrity, Archibald
Mason, David Noakes, Leo O’Donnel, James Perritt, Edwin Ransley and his nephew
Thomas Ransley, Henry Sheens, Wilmond (William) Arnold Kelly, Charles Paterson,
Brisbane Wilshire, William Rafter and Jack Greenow from Mulgoa. Frederick Timmins
from Yarramundi and Oswald Stanton also served in the Army Medical Corps. Six
horses travelled with the first group, among them three police horses from Penrith,
one used by Sergeant Charles Thorndike. His son John had joined and served in the
New South Wales Mounted Rifles. Sergeant Thorndike had arrived in Penrith when
he was transferred from Mudgee to replace the murdered Sergeant Beatty.
Men from Penrith K Company 3rd Regiment V. I. in camp, 1899, published in the Nepean Times 12 May 1900.
CaptainThomas Waldron of Penrith K Company was presented with a valuable horse for the use of the Bushmen’s Contingent. The editorial in the Nepean Times in the same issue as the send off believed the year’s outlook was not promising. Although the economy locally was improving, the war between Britain and the Boers ‘somewhat interfered with everything’. The strength of the Boers with the support of other nations like Germany, France, Austria, Netherlands and Russia against Britain surprised the editor. However he had no doubt Britain would prevail, well supported by its colonies. This conflict also revealed the developing alliance between Britain and the United States of America in world affairs.
In January 1900 Ted Ransley, writing to his friend Montague Bennett of St Marys,
announced he had passed all the tests and was accepted for service in South Africa.
He added, ‘my shooting was good and also my riding. There are seven Penrith chaps
in the same tent as myself; I know them all well. We camp together, drill together and
will fight together. I do feel lonely to think that I am the only St Marys boy that has
faced the music, but I will try to uphold the credit of that little town’. On arriving
in South Africa he not only recognised local men and others from the Hawkesbury,
Camden and Mudgee, he also knew the horses! Andrew Thompson’s black horse, Fred
Harvey’s blue roan mare and Sergeant Thorndike’s black steed were among those he
recognised from the district.
Private Arthur Gates became the eyes and ears of the Boer War for the people of the Nepean district. He wrote prolifically for the Sydney newspapers and especially the Nepean Times, which published his correspondences. He also kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photographs. The experiences of the sea voyage, the long
marches, the people, towns and enemy skirmishes were all revealed in the Nepean Times in the words of local men in their letters to family and friends in the district. On 7 July 1900 Trooper Brisbane Wilshire wrote to his mother Lavallette Wilshire of Emu Plains. His father was Police Magistrate Frederick Wilshire. Brisbane wrote: ‘We have just completed a 300 mile march through rough country and dirty roads, and I now have some knowledge of the jungles of Africa which lie between Beira and this place [Buluwayo] and have heard with my own ears the roar of the king of beasts (the lion) at night in his natural lair’. Bombardier Frederick Colless wrote to his brother in Penrith musing that he may stay in South Africa after the war. Trooper Mason wrote to his brother-in-law William Shaw of Penrith from Bloemfontein saying he had been at the front of fighting since he landed. He heard that Betts (enlisted in Victoria), Rafter, Jim Perritt and Ted Ransley all had fever and that it was rife in Bloemfontein. Mason also wrote that the men had been remounted on horses from South America that he thought were worse than mules.
Robert Breeze of Lemongrove received a letter from his brother Albert who wrote in January 1900: ‘I was one of the first to open fire on them. It is the roughest time I have ever had and rough country too’. Breeze went on to say the guerilla tactics used by the Boers were not an easy method to fight. However the British found the Australian soldier
was adept at this and came to appreciate their fighting skills.
Breeze further quipped:I am killing Boers with a rifle, not a two-foot stick as they do in the far west … nobody knows what war is like till they get a taste of it; it nearly deafens you; and hearing the bullets whizzing through the air, it is wonderful how so many missed. But it is a terrible sight to see killed and wounded on a battlefield. Betts and I are all right so far’.
Albert Breeze, 6 January 1900.
Writing of his experiences, Leo O’Donnel stated in a letter to his wife Rose (Andrews) in Penrith dated 8 December 1899: ‘I have seen what war is like, but one experience in a lifetime is quite sufficient for me’. He was held up in the besieged city of Mafeking. In his last letter to his wife before leaving South Africa, O’Donnel wrote, ‘Well, I have seen a great deal more than most people of this war … I have been dispatch rider, mounted
trooper, foot policeman, scout, helped with the ambulance, hospital guard, cook when
there was no one else to do it, and officer in charge; so you see I have had a pretty
fair turn as a soldier. And now to turn away from war and speak of home … I will be
pleased to see Sydney’.
Within months some of the men began to return to Australia invalided. Corporal Thorndike arrived back June 1900, receiving a civic reception and welcome by the Mayor in the Drill Hall. In August 1900 privates James Perritt, William Rafter and Oswald Stanton received a very warm welcome back. Stanton (who had served in the Army Medical Corps) had arrived a week earlier and as he had served as secretary of the Penrith Civilian Rifle Club, a procession of thirty Rifle Club members mounted on horseback paraded him around the town. Mayor William Player and Member for Nepean Samuel Lees led the reception party. In December 1900 another soldier, Trooper Archibald Mason of the Mounted Rifles, received a reception in the Penrith Drill Hall where Mayor Player led the complimentary speeches. After the reception Trooper Mason headed to the Royal Hotel with his friends. He had fought through Pretoria and while firing on a locomotive had his foot crushed. Later he contracted enteric fever.
One man from the Penrith district died while serving in South Africa. Trooper Edwin (Ted) Ransley was a son of William and Eliza Ransley from Llandilo. Ted died
from enteric fever and was buried at Sterkstroom on 27 April 1900. Before leaving with the second contingent he was afforded a rousing send off by the St Marys townsfolk, ‘a large percentage being ladies’, according to the Nepean Times reporter. He received a parting gift of a silver matchbox and from his Druids Lodge mates, a silver mounted pipe. When his friend Thorndike took ill from enteric fever Ransley nursed him back to health before falling fatally ill himself. His friend, Arthur Gates, ‘rescued’ a Union Jack for Ransley, who had wished to present one to the St Marys Mechanics Institute. It had flown over Bloemfontein after its capture. On 19 July Thomas Ransley wrote to his parents about the death of his uncle Ted. He also described his experiences around Bulawayo. Going into the town one night, he observed: ‘It was lit up with electric light just the same as Penrith’. He was happy to receive copies of the Nepean Times and
was pleased to say that he had the copy containing the Nepean contingent supplement and thought the photos looked good. After a year of fighting Ransley wrote to his father of the encounters: ‘The Boers are terrible cowards – they will not stand … The Australians proved themselves good men’.
Harry Harbord ‘Breaker’ Morant, hero or villain of the Boer War, was a friend of the Colless family before the war. In December 1897, while breaking in Tom Dobson’s brown mare in the Nepean Times yard in Station Street, it reared and fell on him. Morant broke his leg and while he recuperated he stayed above the Nepean Times office. An Englishman, Morant had lived eight years in Australia, working as a drover and horsebreaker whose renowned skill with horses earned him the nickname ‘The Breaker’. Articulate, intelligent and well-educated, he was also a published poet, with some of his poems appearing in the Nepean Times, under the authorship of The Breaker. During service in the Boer War, Morant participated in the summary execution of several Boer prisoners and a German missionary. He was unsuccessfully defended at his court-martial by Captain James Francis Thomas, who had lived at Erskine Park as a child where his parents farmed before moving to Tenterfield. In the only article in the Nepean Times about Morant’s execution, the author stated Morant was ‘noted for his dash and resolution’. His controversial court-martial and execution on 27 February 1902 shocked Australia and in the century since his death the story of the Breaker has reached folk hero status in Australia.
This conflict and the death of a local man roused the thoughts of a local community:
how would they remember him and others like him? A letter to the editor from Alfred
Reid published in the Nepean Times on 24 November 1900 proposed a monument
be erected to the memory of Ransley. It was a poignant moment and, perhaps, the
first that recognised the community’s need for a common place to grieve, reflect and
memorialise the sacrifice of its young men. The monument came in the form of an
understated tablet in the St Marys Mechanics Institute. The prevailing sentiment in
Australia upon the return of the soldiers was that the men had proven themselves equal,
if not superior, to the British soldier and that ‘the very nature of their surroundings
here had taught them how to take care of themselves’. Few were interested in the Boxer Uprising in China, which the powers of Europe were keen to suppress. The Boxers were a secret organisation bent on ridding China of ‘foreign devils’. Local man Arthur Bennett served in the Australian naval contingent sent to assist British forces.
Stacker, Lorraine Penrith, the makings of a City, Halstead Press, 2014