Family caught up in the Boer War

Name: Charles Haslett
Date: 1900
Unit: Civilian
Location: South Africa

Things were tough in Australia in the 1890s with little work available in the building trade, so Charles Alexander Haslett, faced with a number of debts, decided to leave his home in Sorrento, Victoria, and try his luck in South Africa, where he planned to make a fresh start.

Unfortunately his timing was poor, for having set sail with his wife Dora and their baby son Alexander, he arrived in South Africa just before the start of the Boer War.

Soon after war was declared he decided to send Dora and Alexander back to Sorrento, while he remained in South Africa. But the building trade was going nowhere so, having some experience as a photographer and journalist, he decided to travel with the troops working as a despatch rider and news agent to the Natal Field Forces.

Writing to his father in April 1900, Charles Haslett had obviously had enough of the fighting and described some of the action he had seen.

"I am awfully sick of this life, it is a dogs life but I had no choice," he wrote. "The Building trade was bad. All works were stopped directly the War started. However I have seen something to talk and think of to the end of my days. I have seen every fight for the relief of Ladismith. Our big guns fired on the Boer positions for three days. On the Third we advanced and the Boers let some of our men get up within 200 yards before a shot was fired then it was awfull, the Bullets hissed and pinged everywhere and the large shells Screaming overhead. It was simply Hell let Loose however I did not get hit. God only knows."

"Since Colenso day I have been very careful not to get in to Rifle Range the shell fire is not so dangerous. I have been under shell fire several times since. As well as Colenso I have seen the Battle of Spion Kop, Potgieters Drift, Hussar Hill. This was a very funny affair when the Boers saw our men approaching to them they made off and left their German Officer having breakfast. He made a lot of fuss about being neutral and all the rest of it but on being searched only two revolvers and a murderous looking knife was found on him. I tried hard to get the knife but while we were parlaying an Officer came up and he lost the lot.

"Well then the next fight was from Hussar Hill with all the big guns directed on Hlanwani but when our men advanced the Boers Bolted again then Buller crossed the Zugela for the fourth time. Well he gave them such a bad time on Groblers Kloof and the surrounding hills they fell back onto Monte Christo. Then Buller had to cross back over the Zugela and work back around Hlanwani and they drove them all along Monte Christo right back to Pieters. There he had them in a terrible plight and simply Murdered them. The first thing in the morning they hoisted the white flag, our fellows stopped firing. And about fifteen men and an Officer went to take them prisoners. When they got about 10 yds off The Boers fired killed & wounded the lot. When Buller heard of this he saw no more white Flags. Although they were popping up any where that it was a bit hot.

"The sights I saw on Pieters Hill after the fight I will never forget. I tried to Photograph it but was prevented by an Officer. The trench they had dug to fight in they were buried in. Our men just straightened them lengthwise and covered. No one knows who is buried like this. Well in that trench alone I could count 123 Boers and Germans, English and Irish all fighting against us. That is only one trench of a dozen similar. They have even tied their dead together and tied a weight on them and thrown them in the river (Zugela). Of course they have come up and our people have had to bury them. That was their last stand at Pieters. They Bolted through the night and left a clear road into Ladismith.

"If you could only see the positions from Colenso to Ladismith the whole world would never get the British out of (never). The Boers are arrant cowards, they are very good at setting traps but they take very good care that they are 20 to 1 if they come out into the open. Another thing they are very fond of doing is to find out where an outpost is stationed and perhaps a couple of old Boers Snipers will sneak down and shoot all night at anything that shows itself. Now our men go to a certain place in the daylight and directly it gets dark they move further in or away.

"One night last week at Sundays River a very good thing was done by one fellow in outpost. Two Boers had sneaked down for some sport. Well some of our Maxim Guns are very lightly made and one of our outposts had been allowed to take this with them so when it got dark nothing could move on our side of the river but crack would go a rifle. Our fellows were determined to bag these fellows so they slipped half way down hill with this Maxim and the fellows on top of the hill kept these amused till just the peep of daylight. Then these two got up to dip back and they played this Maxim on them. Bear in mind the Maxim fires 300 shots a minute anyway when they went for those two Boers they were simply riddled. Well those two with the Maxim instead of being praised they were scolded for going beyond the picket. The Army is simply rotten with red Tape. If they would only give our fellows a free hand Mr Boer would not be so cheeky but so far the Boers have Bluffed Tommy Atkins something awful.

"I am at Elandslaagte just now. Last Tuesday & Wednesday I suppose you may have got it in the papers by now they started quite unawares and gave us a good old shelling. You could not move from them. We had 3 killed and about 6 wounded and lost several horses. I was driving through the camp with my papers when they started but I kept on and came out alright. One poor chap lying in his tent got his arm carried away. I have not heard how he is getting on. The Boers have shifted back again so I don't expect we will see much more fighting from this side. I think this war will have a very sudden end. It is rumoured in Camp that Kruger himself is shot. How true it is I cannot tell. However before this reaches you there will be some big thing happen.

"I will tell you a little about myself. I have had a very bad time the last month, first the Fever then a cold and a relapse which nearly settled me. I laid in my tent with nothing but a Bottle of Enos fruit Salts for four days, then my mate came and he got me some quinine and I shook the fever off but I caught a very bad cold and had a relapse - even now if I cross the tent I perspire awfull. I have to change my Shirts every morning yet if you saw me just now you would never know me. I have a beard of four weeks growth and my face is all pinched up and my eyes right back in my head. I can tell you I do look a beauty. Some of the soldiers that knew me before ask me all sorts of Questions such as walking about to save funeral expenses and such like. I ate nothing whatever for three weeks just a cup of Bovril now & then.

"I have been punished out here but I thought there was the chance of getting square with all so I have done my best. Oh I nearly forgot to mention Dora tells me in letter that her Mother has cleared the ground for her. That will be so much off your shoulders too. I will do my very best to clear A Kerr & Co liability. I think I will do a good thing in Sorrento one way and another and hope to repay you for all the worry I have caused you. I hope to leave here in three months at the most. Remember me to Mother and all at home, hoping to see you all and in good health very soon."

Charles Haslett survived the war despite the ravages of fever. In fact, more Australians died of disease during the war than were killed by Boer bullets.

On his return to Australia, Haslett was reunited with his wife and son and went on to build a guest house at Sorrento. He gave a number of public talks about his experiences in South Africa, including one at Collingwood Town Hall on 23 August 1900 at which he recounted his experiences of battles, illustrated by 100 Limelight Views [lantern slides]. Admission was sixpence and one shilling. The show concluded with the singing of patriotic songs.

Dora died when she was only 43 and Charles Haslett remarried, eventually siring four more children, two sons and two daughters.

The material for this article was supplied by Marjorie Whitbourne [nee Haslett] of Victoria


Last updated: 31 May 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Family caught up in the Boer War, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/family-caught-boer-war
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