One hundred and twenty years ago on October 11th 1899 the Boer War broke out in South Africa. All Australian colonies were quick to respond and ten days later crowds of volunteer soldiers marched through Sydney’s streets enroute to join troops from the other Australian colonies embarking for South Africa. Australia was committed to helping Britain fight the Boer War and record crowds lined the streets in most Australian cities in an emotional farewell.
Much is known about the Australians who enlisted in the Boer War. Less, however, is known about the many young Australians who made their own way across to South Africa and volunteered for irregular units in the war. While more than 16,000 Australians formally enlisted in a colonial contingent to fight in South Africa many young Australians denied enlistment because of age, and excited by the prospect of defending the British Empire, made their own way across the Indian ocean to South Africa often aboard transport cargo and mail ships. On arrival many sought enlistment in an irregular unit attracted by the offer of 5/- a day plus the added incentive of a free passage home.
While we do not know the number of young Australians who made their own way to South Africa it would appear that between four and five thousand young Australians signed up for six months or one year in one of the many irregular units in Cape Town or Natal such as Brabant’s Horse, The Imperial Light Horse or Bethune’s Mounted Infantry. Unlike the formally raised regiments, the young men who enlisted in irregular units enjoyed a degree of independence and liberty of spirit which on occasions could easily evolve into rampaging or even brutality.
Some, as Wilcox in his book on the Boer War has mentioned, waged war more like Cossacks embracing looting as a basic right. Of the 16,000 Australians recruited into formal regiments more than 500 would be killed in action or died from fatal illnesses while 882 were wounded in action. Of the young men who made their own way to South Africa and served in irregular units 400 would be killed in battles while a handful lingered on in South Africa after the war concluded.
Edward Presgrave was one such young Australian. Presgrave excited by the prospect of fighting for the British Empire in South Africa and denied formal enlistment in an Australian unit because of his age, accompanied by his father, made his own way across the Indian Ocean to Cape Town. On arrival in Cape Town in early May 1900 Presgrave enlisted as a trooper in Brabant’s Horse, an irregular mounted unit. Presgrave served in Brabant’s Horse until the 16th of March 1901 when he enlisted in the Scottish Horse four days later.
In mid- May Presgrave and Brabant’s Horse were engaged in pursuing the Boer commander Malan in the Cape Colony and then in scouting activities further north. Quite possibly Presgrave was part of an attachment charged with pursuing the Boers who had derailed a supply train south of the Klip River. In early 1901 Brabant’s Horse was operating in the south-west of the Cape Colony in response to an emerging threat by the Boers to extend guerrilla warfare into the Cape Colony.
Honourably discharged on March 16th Presgrave was part of the wild celebrations by hundreds of Australians in Cape Town, some whom had just arrived, others who were waiting to go home. Within a few days along with a number of other Australians Presgrave signed up with the Marquis of Tullibardine’s Scottish Horse.
Presgrave was discharged from the Scottish Horse on September 27th 1901 and while relatively little is known of his movements he remained in South Africa and eventually drifted up to the northern borderlands of the Cape Colony near the Orange River and the border of what was then German South-West Africa. Finally he settled in the small town of Upington and started a small business as a contractor.
By this time the Boer War had rolled to a close although post-war South Africa remained in somewhat of a turmoil. Across the border in German South-West Africa the Germans were about to become involved in a genocidal war again the Herero and Nama people who had risen in revolt. It was here over the next couple of years that Presgrave would make a name for himself supporting the Nama people in their revolt.
It would appear that Presgrave spent some months living with Jakob Morengo and his supporters in the Karasberge Mountains across the border in German South-West Africa in 2005. Morengo was one of the real heroes in Namibia’s struggle against German colonial power. Of Herero-Nama parentage, mission-educated he spoke English, German, Afrikaans and the Herero and Nama languages. A true “man of the people” who fought for what he passionately believed in – land, liberty and livelihood. Presgrave may have even acted as a “secretary” to Morengo but certainly helped supply him and his supporters with arms, ammunition and cattle. He also fought alongside Morengo in battles against the Germans at Narudas and Narus in 1905 as well as at Leeukop near Bisseport.
Presgrave’s support for the Nama did not go unnoticed by the Germans who eventually hired two Boers to entice Presgrave over the border where they shot him and left him for dead. Presgrave apparently survived for the next 12 hours only to be finally killed by a German patrol the following morning. It was a short life for Presgrave but one marked by commitment and sacrifice. Presgrave most certainly demands some recognition as a young man who struggled for something he believed in. He struggled against overwhelming odds in his support for Morengo and the Nama people with courage and determination. He deserves our recognition and should not be forgotten.
Today is the 120th anniversary of the start of the Boer War.
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