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In 1899, on the eve of the Boer War, Captain Charles Cox from Parramatta took 100 Australian cavalrymen to train with the British army in England. These military apprentices became British soldiers as well as Australian ones. But everything went wrong. Publicity got in the way of cavalry drill which, in any case, the Australians were allowed to shirk. The debacle ended with Cox volunteering his little command for the Boer War, with the British making him get the consent of his government and his men, and finally with a murder on a lonely farm in South Africa. There was no more talk of Australian fighting men morphing into colonial members of the British army. Still, the newspapers said the venture was a brilliant success, that Australians had proved themselves natural warriors, that the British Empire was stronger for what happened-all of which Australians rejoiced to hear. It was, in the end, a kind of victory.
New book A Kind of Victory explores the training of Australian cavalrymen by the British Army
A strange but significant episode of Australian military history that saw the British Army try and fail to train 100 Australians how to fight on horseback has been captured in a new book.
The doomed plan was part of a scheme to supplement the British Army with soldiers from other forces in the empire.
But everything went wrong. The Australian soldiers acquired most of the smartness but few of the skills, for reasons ranging from disease to distractions and supposed national differences.
Erskineville author Craig Wilcox, 54, researched and wrote A Kind of Victory, which features beautiful pictures and illustrations from the National Library.
"We had lots of horse soldiers at that time, but we didn't have many cavalry and cavalry was an art then," he said.
"When you think about it now cavalry sounds quaint and ridiculous, but they were using horses for all kinds of purposes, in the way we use jeeps or parachute gliders to take them to a certain point on battle field and to charge.
"Australians were going overseas to learn the whole range of the art of being horse soldiers, but I suspect they didn't learn much at all. They learned to look like cavalry and hold themselves like it, but did they learn the art of it and for really interesting reasons."
Mr Wilcox said the British told the soldiers they needed to learn how to ride and sit on a horse properly, but were rebuked with many of the Australians saying they had being riding since they were children.
"The Brits came to decision that these are Australians and they just ride differently and they want them to be like bushmen even though most of them were from city and towns and got the train or tram or bicycle to work," he said.
"So they end up living up to that which undercuts their training, so they are stuck with the infantry and don't go out with cavalry."
Stories of soldiers like Jack Ford, from the Northern Rivers, who travelled to Britain were also fascinating.
Mr Ford decided he wanted to go with the squadron to England, riding 80 miles to rouse his captain from bed at 4am so he could be issued with the right equipment, Mr Wilcox said.
"He then rode another 20 miles to Ballina to catch a steamer to Sydney to join his comrades in time to get on the ship to England," he said.
"Or Jim Johnson, by all accounts a lazybones and a grumbler who tried to quit the squadron before leaving Australia and was put under arrest.
"Before leaving England, when the Boer War broke out, he said he couldn't make up his mind about going to war or not - and then he went anyway. I wish I could find out what happened to him afterwards."Mr Wilcox said the book shows there was Australian military history before Gallipoli and it was a long, colourful and interesting one.
Boer War brings Aussie to the fore Railways clerk takes Australians to train and fight overseas
It's one of Australia's least-known military forays.
In 1899 Charles Cox, who had been a railways clerk at Parramatta, took 100 Australian cavalrymen to England.
They were to spend six months training with Britain's elite at Aldershot army barracks, and hopefully acquire some of their polish.
There was no government assistance. The men had to raise enough for their fares and upkeep.
But things didn't quite work out as they should have.
Still, the colonials were acclaimed by the public. They paraded before Queen Victoria at Aldershot.
‘‘They were cheered and cheered again by spectators, entranced at the sight of the colonials''.
The Australians were beset by flu and measles.
Cox didn't join the rest of the squadron in the riding school.
‘‘He has not been in Aldershot for the last three weeks'', Trooper Ven Vernon griped five weeks into training.
If Cox chose not to learn the craft of a cavalry officer, he was careful to present himself as one.
‘‘Among his first purchases in England were two riding crops- swagger sticks as they were called - to be combined artfully with a vigorous tread, a ferocious moustache, and a forage cap perched on the head at some impossible angle''.
As the Boer War approached, Cox offered to take his men to South Africa.
But it was necessary for each man to sign that he was willing to go.
Forty seven men signed, but in the end 70 went ashore with Cox in Cape Town in November 1899 and faced action against the Boers.
There was uproar among farmers and further afield when Cox ordered a trooper to shoot dead an unarmed native.
But Cox survived and in 1901 returned to South Africa from New South Wales with a new contingent of 1000 men.
In World War I Cox won command of a mounted brigade and became a general. He died in 1944.
The book is richly illustrated.
Australia and its role in empire
Many Australians view our national history in presentist terms. That is to say, past events are viewed through the lens of current ideas and perspectives as though the way we think about a subject now is the way it has always been viewed.
When coupled with the lack of context with which we often approach past events this leads to some serious distortions in our understanding.
This is especially true of our long, complex and continuing relationship with Britain and with the entity called British Australia. We are far too prone to reading our history backwards, ascribing contemporary nationalist assumptions and agendas to earlier generations who simply did not think or feel like that.
In his latest book, Craig Wilcox provides a small window into an older British Australia, illuminating a range of much bigger issues and offering a deeply insightful reading both of the specific events under scrutiny and of the broader whole into which they fit. His focus is a young militia officer, Charles Cox, and the process by which he and a squadron of the NSW Lancers went to Britain in early 1899 to train with the British Army - to learn their trade as cavalry and not, as the fashion then had it, as mounted infantry or light horse.
When the war in South Africa broke out late that year, Cox inveigled many of his men to volunteer for service there, while those who declined and returned to Australia were shabbily treated when they landed. All this has been known in outline for decades.Wilcox takes his readers well beyond the bald facts and investigates who went and why; what they did when they reached England and how the British public regarded them; the decision to serve in South Africa and, finally, the culmination, in which Cox was involved in the shooting of an unarmed African servant during a raid on a farm, the opprobrium of which followed him for many months though, ultimately, he was not called to account.
Wilcox has woven these events into a wider story of the colonial Anglo-Australian relationship. He draws extensively upon Cox's own papers for this period, supplemented by other contemporary sources to offer fascinating and detailed insights into one man, the men and women around him, and the times they occupied.
The highly readable style of the writing is magnificently complemented by the lavish illustrations, drawn from the National Library's own extensive holdings of visual materials from late 19th-century Australia. The result is a sensory feast, but more than that, the illustrations have been selected carefully to support and further inform the text.
This book extends a long-standing interest on the author's part, one earlier essayed in his Red Coat Dreaming (2009), an unjustly neglected gem. In that book Wilcox started from the premise that Australia's military history did not begin on a Turkish beach in April 1915 and that this earlier manifestation was clearly and undeniably British in both appearance and substance.
Where that earlier foray was suggestive and exploratory, this one digs deeply into motivation, self-image and aspiration. This applied to both parties in the relationship.
Australians like Cox sought the approbation of their imperial counterparts, which in turn seemed to give substance to British hopes for an imperial military system with substantial dominion contributions.
Those contributions would eventuate, in 1914, but outside any ‘‘system'' that sought to utilise the dominions as a strategic reserve for empire. Cox himself would prosper in those events, ending the Great War as a brigadier in command of a light horse brigade in Palestine. He became a senator in 1919, one of a group of former senior officers in the Nationalist Party and retained his seat through the interwar period. He remained a firm supporter of the British Empire and of Australia as an effective part of it.
Ultimately the bonds of loyalty, sentiment and common purpose loosened despite the best efforts of people like Charles Cox and countless others, British and Australian alike. This was not inevitable, and nor should those who believed in the worth of an imperial federation in the British world be regarded simply as fools or dupes. There are always choices and those choices lead in different directions.
Australians were British, but they were not Britons - something that the experiment with the squadron of the NSW Lancers helped to confirm. This did not stop large numbers of Australians (and for what it is worth, Canadians, New Zealanders, Newfoundlanders and a chunk of white South Africa) from bending their energies, and in many cases giving their lives, in the cause of that British identity between 1914 and 1918.
This is a deceptively simple point to make, but a very difficult one for modern Australians to fully grasp and really understand.Wilcox's elegantly written and beautifully presented book should help to lluminate the issues and assist us in really seeing them, in all their complexity.
Early in 1899 a squadron of NSW Lancers (about 100 personnel) went from Sydney to Aldershot to train with the British Army. The general aim was to learn how to be genuine cavalrymen. Although the scheme was declared a success these part-time citizen soldiers acquired few of the skills of the professionals.
The Boer War began as the Lancers' training finished, and after much deliberation, the majority of them fought in South Africa. Captain Cox commanded the squadron. It was an onerous task as there were many demands outside a normal captain's duties. In WW1 he commanded a mounted Brigade.
The basic idea of such a deployment of the Lancers arose at the time of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee. The concept was to begin sweeping places between a few regular and colonial regiments; it would not only advance the Empire and the regiment, but also entrench the Lancers as cavalry. There were varied Australian viewpoints, but eventually there was no obstacle to the start of a close relationship between the troops of the Empire.
In summary, the author has brought into the limelight a small step in our military history - an Australian military contingent training with an imperial British force.
Before Australians gave their lives by the thousands to help the British in World War I, there was another war - the Boer War.
In 1899 Captain Charles Cox took 100 cavalrymen to England, including men from the Berry Half Squadron.
They trained with the British Army, and when the time came to go to war in South Africa the issue arose as to who would be in charge - Australia or Britain.
Needless to say, British generals had their way and some Australians weren't happy.
Written by military historian Craig Wilcox and lavishly illustrated with posters, photos and newspaper articles from the period, the story of Australia's involvement in the Boer War sets the scene for the formation of Australia's own army and our involvement in World War I.