Headstone from Elands River : New South Wales Citizens Bushmen

Place Africa: South Africa, Transvaal, Elands River
Accession Number REL/03377
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Heraldry
Physical description Stone
Maker Unknown
Place made South Africa: Transvaal, Elands River
Date made c 1900
Conflict South Africa, 1899-1902 (Boer War)

Slate headstone from site of the siege of Elands River in Transvaal with a roughly shaped triangular apex. The stone has shallow chiselled writing: 'IN/ MEMORY OF/ S.SGT. MAL. MITCHELL/ TpR. DUFF TpR. WALKER./ TpR. WARDDELL/ OF N.S.W. 4/8/00'. The headstone was originally placed behind the grave containing the bodies of the men, which was marked by an oval of whitewashed stones, with similar stones in the centre shaped into a cross and 'RIP'.

History / Summary

This slate headstone was found, discarded, by Boer War historian R L Wallace in 1965 while researching the role of Australians in the conflict. It originally marked the final resting place at Elands River of four members of the NSW Citizens Bushmen, Sergeant Major James Mitchell, and Troopers James Edwin Walker, James Daniel Duff and John Waddell, who had left Australia to much fanfare barely six months earlier. The four were among eight casualties from Commonwealth contingents who were either killed, or died from wounds received, during the siege of the Elands River Post between 4 and 16 August 1900. The Elands River Siege ranks as one of the most significant actions by Australians during the War in South Africa.

Following the relief of Mafeking in May 1900 and the fall of Pretoria the following month, it was generally regarded, even among many Boers, that the end of the war was imminent. This was reinforced when Major General Baden-Powell's forces moved through Western Transvaal, meeting only slight resistance. Baden-Powell placed garrisons in the Western Transvaal, along the road between Mafeking and Pretoria, to secure supply lines and to be used as bases for patrolling troops sent to disarm local sympathisers. In July thoughts of a quick end to the war were dashed when Boer commando units inflicted heavy losses on the British forces. Wallace notes in 'The Australians at the Boer War', that by the end of the month 7000 Boers in the Western Transvaal had reorganised and were creating havoc with Baden-Powell's supply lines.

Interruptions in supply resulted in a backlog of an estimated 100,000 pounds worth of stores, including a hundred and more than 1500 horses and mules being retained at the small Elands River staging post, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hore. On 27 July, the garrison swelled to over 500 men, of whom nearly 300 were Australians, with the arrival of a detachment from 'A' Squadron of the NSW Bushmen, joining contingents from Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania, and from Rhodesia.

Although the garrison’s officers knew that the stores at Elands River were a tempting target for a large band of Boers known to be in the area, news was received on 3 August that General Lord Carrington with a party of 1000 men were on their way to escort the garrison and its stores and livestock back to Zeerust. That evening, to celebrate their pending relief, the garrison relaxed with a concert. While the men were distracted by the entertainment the Boers, under General De La Rey, began to surround the post. Early the next morning they struck. A protracted siege of the post ensued. It was wrongly reported on a number of occasions during that time that the post had been lost.

On the first day of the siege Trooper John Waddell, of 'C' Squadron NSW Bushmen, and Trooper James Daniel Duff of 'A' Squadron, were killed. Carrington's column arrived on 5 August only to be forced into retreat by De la Rey's waiting forces. Trooper James Edwin Walker of 'A' Squadron was killed the following day. On the morning of the 8th, Squadron Sergeant Major James (Mal) Mitchell of 'A' Squadron suffered a serious shrapnel wound to his leg, leading to the amputation of the limb. He died four days later. The Elands River Post was finally relieved by a column led by General Kitchener on 16 August. The garrison had held out for 12 days against a determined enemy force that was approximately five times larger and with far greater fire power.

The siege of Elands River has been described as one the greatest achievements of the Australians during the course of the war in South Africa. The author, Arthur Conan Doyle, then working as a doctor with the British forces in South Africa, wrote in his book 'The Great Boer War': 'When the ballad-makers of Australia seek for a subject, let them turn to Elands River, for there was no finer resistance in the war.' An officer of General Broadwood's Cavalry Division wrote with even greater enthusiasm: 'Oh! I do hope Great Britain will show its gratitude to these Australians for the brightest page in the history of the war...I tell you these men deserve anything the old country can give them. I am sure there is nothing like it in the history of the world. Bravo, the colonials!'

Mitchell, Walker, Duff and Waddell were originally together in a single grave at Elands River, which was marked by this stone. Their bodies were later exhumed and reinterred in individual graves at Swartruggens Cemetery.

Further recommended reading

Robert L. Wallace, The Circumstances Surrounding the Siege of Elands River Post: A Boer War Study. Glebe, Wild & Woolly Pty Ltd, 1992.

Craig Wilcox, Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Robert L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra, Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Publishing Service, 1976.

James Green, The Story of the Australian Bushmen (Being Notes of a Chaplain), Sydney, William Brooks & Co. Ltd, 1903

David Hallett, 'Birth of the Digger: The Siege of Elands River', Wartime, Issue 15, Spring 2001.