One battle of the South African War 1899-1902 typifies all the qualities that Australia has come to interpret as synonymous with the Anzac legend, but it occurred almost fifteen years before Australian soldiers ever landed at Gallipoli. This was the Siege of Elands River, a twelve day siege of a supply depot defended by soldiers from five of the six Australian colonies.
One item in the Australian War Memorial’s collection relating to this battle is the headstone that was placed over the graves of Sergeant-Major James Mitchell and Troopers James Daniel Duff, John Waddell and James Edwin Walker, all of the New South Wales Bushmen, killed at Elands River.
The Siege of Elands River began on the 4th of August 1900 when over 2500 Boer commandos under the command of General Koos de la Rey surrounded the camp. The Boers had at their disposal five modern artillery pieces as well as three 1pdr ‘pom-pom’ guns and two Maxim machine guns. The men who were besieged within the compound numbered about 500, almost 300 of which were Australian, 200 Rhodesians and a few British and Canadians, with some civilians and native porters sheltering within the perimeter. Under the overall command of British Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hore, their only heavy weapons were, two machine guns and old muzzle loading 7pdr gun.
The camp was a supply depot, which held supplies estimated at around £100,000, including 1500 head of livestock and horses. It was an appealing target for the undersupplied Boer forces.
With only small warning, the defenders began construction of defensive trenches as far out from the camp as possible. A hospital was constructed out of biscuit boxes and a Red Cross flag was raised over it. At the time of the initial attack the trenches were not able to provide adequate protection to the men and were made mostly of rocks piled up into a defensive wall.
The Boers began their attack with an artillery and pom-pom gun barrage. In a trench commanded by Captain James Francis Thomas, who would later gain fame for defending Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock during their court martial, the first Australian fatalities would occur. Trooper John Waddell was hit in the chest by a pom-pom shell, he died within a few minutes. Only a couple of minutes later James Duff became the second Australian to be killed during the battle, also receiving a pom-pom shell to the chest, he was killed instantly. Sergeant-Major James Mitchell was in a nearby trench when he was wounded in the leg. He moved to Captain Thomas’ trench where his wound was bandaged, the Boer fire was too intense to contemplate moving him to the hospital so he remained at the front lines.