Letters from the veldt
The imperial advance to Pretoria through the eyes of
Edward Hutton and his brigade of colonials
Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing 2020
Paperback 286pp RRP $29.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, December 2020
With a formidable introduction and Chapter 1 consuming more than 20% of the work, Stockings has admirably painted the state of the military in England and its dominions, as well as providing an encapsulation of Major General Hutton’s career prior to his arrival in South Africa in March 1900.
Posted to Natal in 1881 after the British defeat at Majuba Hill, Hutton admired the mobility and effectiveness of the Boer citizen-soldiers and commented to his superiors that the British needed trained mounted infantry to combat the Boers. He was tasked with planning a school to train mounted detachments for the British battalions. With a deteriorating situation in Khartoum in 1894, Hutton, based in Egypt, suggested using camels instead of horses for Khartoum’s relief. In January 1888 a mounted infantry regiment was raised at Aldershot under Hutton’s command and instruction.
Major General Hutton arrived in Sydney in May 1893 to command the New South Wales military forces in the midst of an economic depression. As he strove to develop a force of mounted volunteer soldiers, he was constantly frustrated by shortage of funds and ‘political interference’, leading to acrimony between himself and the Premier. Unaware of the politics involved in approaching federation for the colonies, Hutton’s agenda was mainly sidelined by the state premiers, and he left New South Wales feeling that his system for co-operation between the states could be adopted by Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and eventually by Britain. Arriving in Ottawa in August 1898, he worked to make Canada’s military forces more efficient. He became embroiled in Canada’s slowness in committing a contingent to the war in South Africa, and again crossed swords with his political masters. Embarrassing recall from Canada was averted by the War Office offering him a command in South Africa, and he departed Canada in February 1900.
Hutton was appointed to command the 1st Mounted Infantry Brigade (being part of a British Mounted Infantry Division in South Africa. It was a command that included four British mounted infantry battalions, two Canadian Mounted Rifle battalions, one New Zealand Mounted Infantry battalion, six mounted infantry/rifle battalions from Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, British Artillery, Australian Pioneers and a NSW Medical Team. This truly ‘imperial’ force was what Hutton had espoused for so many years. Unfortunately almost half of his brigade was allocated elsewhere, and at no time did he have it all under his direct control.
Dated and embedded in the narrative of the British advance from Bloemfontein through Johannesburg to a little beyond Pretoria are Hutton’s letters to his wife Eleanor in England. They even include orders of battle and battle maps, interspersed with his comments on renewing acquaintance with former officers and soldiers served with in earlier days, the condition of the men, their horses and the logistic difficulties faced. Frequently he was extremely critical of his superiors whom he considered far too timid in their approach and preparedness to exploit situations at little risk; he was constantly frustrated by being ordered not to pursue a withdrawing enemy and then having to constantly fight them again. Considering the massive size of the British force and the few casualties they suffered (with disease and illness causing far more casualties), it is questionable what level of engagement actually took place. With his brigade dismantled, Hutton left for England in early October 1900. He felt perturbed that the Boers had not really suffered any crushing defeat – which saw a Britain expecting to occupy territory, but actually having another 21 months of fighting ahead. Hutton was knighted (KCMG) on his return to England.
Reluctantly the Australian government offered Hutton command of the Federal Army of Australia. Arriving in January 1902, it was New South Wales and Canada repeated, with Hutton having no concept of needs outside his own, finally leading to his resignation at the end of 1904. He took to his deathbed (in 1923) ‘the same attitudes that had shaped his life: the same brilliance, determination, conviction, arrogance, blindness and self-delusion’.
With a fourteen-page Bibliography, impeccably referenced Endnotes and Index (people only), excellent maps and high-quality photographs of key players and troops in the field, this is an impressive work elaborating on military conditions and problems of 125 years ago. At the same time some insight has been provided into the evolution of Australia’s our own military force.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.