A volley of rifle shots rang out across the red dusty road, causing William’s horse to startle. Taking a moment to calm the animal, he swung it around so he could see the source of the sound.
Two British soldiers stood by the road’s edge, in front of a sign that read “No Trespassing.” Two or three yards beyond the sign lay three dark lifeless forms on the ground. Walking his horse closer to the scene, to his horror, a native woman lay on her side, along with two children face down, their hands entwined. A broken clay pot dispersed water into the red earth beside them. All three wore bullets wounds to their torsos. They were void of life.
“Good God Men,” he shouted down at the two soldiers, “why did you shoot them? They weren’t armed!’
Pointing at the sign, they nonchalantly replied, “Obviously they can’t read.”
As it turned out, the local natives couldn’t read English. The sign was marking a dump that was placed on a former thoroughfare the locals used to go about their daily lives. The decision of the British to shoot those poor innocents of the conflict changed William’s view on the War. He quickly learnt that the British were a law of their own and often, a very cruel force indeed. So much had changed since he was farewelled in Brisbane last November.
Seated in his saddle, donned in his khaki military clobber, his polished knee boots and silver spurs, William felt taller than his five feet and ten inches. Buoyed by the escalating euphoria that rolled along Brisbane’s crowded Queen Street, he listened to the shouts, the choruses of “Long Live the Queen,” and “Hurrah for the Motherland.” The muffled songs and jubilant cheers accompanied the booming bleating brassy beat of trombones and drums along with thousands of marching feet and horses hooves.
It was a moment to behold and one that filled him with unprecedented pride. His slouch hat set at a jaunty angle and adorned with the distinctive emu plume, set him apart from other infantry men who marched on foot. On that warm day in November 1899, he was riding his horse into to Australian history books. He was a representative of the Australian Spirit, he was the embodiment of the Australian bush. He was a Light Horseman.
(Click on link: Troop Parade Queens St, Brisbane, Nov 1899)
It was indeed an impressive sight with onlookers lining both sides of Queen Street, all jostling for position close to the road’s edge. The street itself was aflutter with flags and a teeming sea of green khaki as William walked his horse to the collective beat of marching hooves and feet. As people cheered, arms waving and some running alongside, he kept his hand gripped tightly on the leather reins and his eyes straight ahead, hoping the deafening noise would not upset his horse. William was marching with the First Queensland Mounted Infantry to Brisbane’s Port where the “Cornwall” was awaiting to transport them across the seas to South Africa. He had answered the call from the Motherland, to help fight the Boers.
(link to video loading horses: http://aso.gov.au/titles/historical/loading-horses-ss-cornwall/clip1/)
From the crowded deck of their transport, they waved their final goodbyes to the crying, cheering crowd who swarmed the dock. Perhaps William gave little thought to what lay ahead. Africa, a continent full of unknowns was awaiting his free spirit. It was a dark continent, rich in native history and culture which would have appealed to his enquiring mind. He was setting off on an adventure to see the world. At last he had a chance to prove himself as a soldier. Only weeks later, however, reality would dim his adventurist spirit.