Cecil got to fight in the Boer War thanks to his hat

Name: Cecil Ewens
Date: 1900-1901
Unit: South Australian Busmen's Corps
Location: South Africa

When the Boer War started in 1899, many young Australians made an instant decision to offer their services as soldiers, but actually getting into the various army units that were to head for South Africa wasn't as easy as you might expect.

Cecil Ewens was determined to take part in the war as soon as he heard the South Australian Bushmen's Corps was to be formed. Having caught the coach down to Adelaide from his home in Port Augusta, he fronted up at the Exhibition Building where the recruiting office had been set up.

He joined a long line of hopefuls and watched in amazement as man after man was turned down without a word being said. He knew that only 14 more men were needed to reach the required compliment of 100 men.

"After a certain amount of manoeuvring, I passed the different severe tests, unnecessarily so, without trouble, hundreds being turned away," Cecil wrote in his diary.

"While passing I might state that some splendid bushmen and fit for the greatest hardships were turned aside for some petty disfigurement while a few others with no bush experience were passed in.

"I entered the Exhibition Building in about the middle of a large number of men & filed along a rope. Took my hat off in the building, eventually it came my turn to be called over to the selectors, or waved on out as dozens had been before me.

"Looking across at the Bushmen's Judge & Jury, I was astounded to see the hand waving for me to pass on out without as much as a question. After having travelled over 500 miles [800km] in post haste to join this contingent, this reception was a stunner. In fact I was dumbfounded for the moment," he wrote.

"The hand kept on waving so out I went by the door at the rear. Gathering my thoughts together for a moment outside, I resolved to enter the building again by the front door. Entering, I found that the crowd of men had diminished considerably.

"This time I kept my hat on & well over my eyes. The same performance was still going on waving them out with an odd one being called up now & again to be questioned etc.

"My turn at last came again, this time I was called before the 'bench' without a demure and went through the rest of the performance without a hitch. The doctor examined my teeth as carefully as a horse dealer would an eight-year-old 'prad' at an auction sale.

"Made to strip every vestige of clothing off, do a cake walk up & down the room in front of him, jab his finger here, jab his thumb there and eventually passed me out as sound & fit."

Cecil went into camp the next morning and just over a week later found himself on board the SS Maplemore heading out to sea. The voyage to South Africa was one to be remembered

"not for pleasure but with abhorrence and disgust," according to Cecil Ewens. "Fully 75 per cent of the food dealt out from the ships stores to the Troopers was simply scandalous; a tramp would not offer such food to a blackfella's dog in this country," he wrote.

"The salt pork was absolutely rotten and the unfortunate troopers who happened to be on fatigue duty had to go below and handle the putrid filth, long since recognised as pork."

Cecil wrote that the 'tea' was undrinkable and the biscuits full of weevils. Naturally complaints were made and the men were called on deck and given a lecture by the ship's captain to the effect that they would thank their lucky stars if they fared as well in South Africa.

Once the troops had finally disembarked, they were concerned for the welfare of their horses. These were loaded onto trucks and travelled several hundred kilometres in appalling conditions, with a number of them dying.

"This was one of the many, many errors committed in South Africa during the war that came under my notice," he wrote.

One of the first actions involving the South Australians occurred near Ottoshoop, not far from Mafeking.

"Left camp about 6am, our Squadron being advance guard to the guns," Cecil wrote. "Heard firing about 7am, the Boers firing on the scouts. At 7.30 the guns began to play on the enemy. Shortly after that we were up to our neck in it, the enemy soon retired, our guns being too accurate.

"About 3.30pm the New Zealanders, N.S. Wales, Victorians, Tasmanians and ourselves charged a string of kopjes [hills] at a hard gallop which we took in great style, the guns pouring in shells the while.

"The Boers retired from their position in confusion but the country was very rugged here, they soon secured cover elsewhere. Saw three dead Boers during our charge."

A few days later they were in the thick of things again.

"Started out at 5am to give the Boers a shaking up. Our column under Brigadier General Douglas on the left, another column under Lord Errol on the right - composed of NSW, Tasmanian and South Aus Bushmen, some Imperial Victorian B. Our squadron had an important position as per usual, advance guard & scouts and started the ball rolling, our scouts being fired upon.

"We had four 15 pounders, 2 pompoms and some Maxims with us but they were not used during the day. We soon began to play upon them [the Boers] and they retired quickly. No damage done to our side.

"After hauling that lot of Boers, we went to some houses and burnt down the lot. Gave the women short notice to remove their goods. But a lot of different articles were burnt also.

"I was one of four tolled off to do the burning & of course we caught all the poultry handy. I felt rather sorry for the women but some Boers sniped at our patrol a few days before out of one of them.

"After doing this we advanced in extended order and drove the Boers back. They would not stand and have a shot at us. Captured 21 prisoners during the day, most of them were on foot and hid in the scrub, holes, trees etc."

Replacement horses, or remounts, were in constant demand but were generally snapped up by other units, much to the disgust of the South Australians who blamed their officers for not doing something about it.

"The remounts arrived early and after the usual delay we made a start for the main camp, riding one & leading three horses apiece, 30 of us in charge of a Victorian Imperial Bushmen Lieutenant.

"I picked a good horse, as I thought, out of the mob & rode him out. On arriving at the camp we were lined up and the staff picked out every good horse as they thought. We then took them over to the Imperial Yeomanry lines & exchanged these horses for theirs. I exchanged three then told them that the one I had saddled was one of their cast offs. Through this bit of manoeuvring I managed to stick to the remount I picked out in Ottoshoop.

"This was another case of the many gross injustices that came under my notice during my term at the front," Cecil wrote. "Our men without horses at this time, had actually to take the sore-backed, badly knocked about horses that the Yeomanry had just exchanged away."

In September the squadron took part in a big battle.

"About 11am we were ordered to get our horses in & saddle up," Cecil wrote. "Started out and were advancing in squadron column towards some kopjes about 3 miles [5km] out that we knew the Boers occupied.

"Got within 2000 yards [1800m] when they began to pour the volleys in. We then dismounted and got behind cover and poured volleys into them NSWB, NZ & Victorians were further along the ridge on our right, with big guns. Ten minutes later our squadron alone was ordered to charge a kopje across open country about half a mile nearer the Boers. Directly the horses were brought up, the Boers turned most of their fire on them.

"We mounted in double quick time, the bullets making one continual hiss the while. Our captain wanted us to dress up in line under this hail of bullets, but directly we heard what was wanted we let a yell out of us and charged across.

"The big guns poured in shell and raked the kopjes. Luckily only one horse was killed, two others wounded. The owner of the horse that was killed had to run the last two hundred yards for shelter under the kopje.

"We took up a position on the kopje and began returning the Boers fire which was very warm. About quarter of an hour afterwards we got the order to retire again much to our disgust.

"We galloped back again all scattered out in a terrific hail of bullets. My beautiful mount went dead lame on me again. I was one of the first to make the charge on the kopje but was quite 200 yards [180m] behind when the others reached it. In the retirement I simply cantered back and was very little further than halfway when the others pulled up.

"No mistake, the bullets did kick up a din, our own forces firing over my head and the Boers keeping up an incessant fire from behind. One hundred packets of crackers going off near your ear at once would be only a mild comparison."

In mid December the squadron was near Lichtenburg.

"Had hardly got into bed when we were ordered out again at 12 o'clock," Cecil wrote. "Started out at 1.30am and picked the Boers up at sunrise but they were not speaking and went for all they were worth.

"Colonel Merritt went out in a slightly different direction with a portion of the mounted men. Of course we started after the Boers, our regiment going out on the right flank. We galloped for about seven miles [11km] before we caught up to part of the convoy, 8 waggons & some scotch carts all loaded with different stuff. Unfortunately our squadron was on the left flank so were not in the waggon catching, although we got plenty of stock.

"We then halted for about two hours, then started to return bringing in 1000 head of cattle & the same number of sheep."

On Christmas Day the cook made some plum puddings.

"I believe the officers gave some silver to put in them," Cecil wrote. The puddings turned out very well and I managed to find sixpence in my slice. Had a spell in the afternoon after a very rough week."

But the rest didn't last long. At 2.30am on Boxing Day they were called out again and chased a group of Boers who managed to escape into the bush.

Despite expecting to be sent home at any time, the squadron continued to be involved in the fighting. While at Mafeking on 23 January 1901, they heard of the death of Queen Victoria.

The diary ends on 26 January 1901.

After the war, Cecil returned to Australia and after marrying his wife Emily, worked on Bungaree Station about 160km north of Adelaide in South Australia where they had five children. They later moved to Caroona Station about 50km further north. Cecil Ewens died in 1944.

[No changes have been made to the spelling or grammar in quotations taken from Trooper Ewens' diary]

The material for this article was supplied by Robert E Ewens of South Australia
8/01/2002 10:47:16 AM

Last updated: 31 May 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Cecil got to fight in the Boer War thanks to his hat, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 September 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/cecil-got-fight-boer-war-thanks-his-hat
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