Patriotic Spirit Against Adversity
This is a long narrative poem by Banjo Paterson depicting the British cavalry’s heroic relief of the besieged town of Kimberley during the Boer War. Paterson utilizes vivid imagery, patriotic sentiments, and a driving rhythm to capture the daring mission led by General French.
The poem opens dramatically with Kimberley surrounded and outnumbered 10 to 1 by Boer forces. Paterson conveys the urgency of their distress signal calling for reinforcements.
When the order comes to march to Kimberley’s aid, the British cavalry sets off on an epic trek across the veld and past the Boer armies, rather than directly engaging the enemy as expected. Paterson revels in depicting their bold flanking maneuver.
He highlights the diverse Imperial forces united in this venture – soldiers from England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada representing the far-flung British Empire. Patriotic spirit imbues the undertaking.
Paterson memorably depicts the adverse conditions they endure – scorching heat, lack of water, heavy gunfire at river crossings. He builds up the valor and perseverance of the troops pressing onward despite obstacles and casualties.
The rhyming verses and repeating phrases like “to drive the Boers away” give the poem a rhythmic, driving pace fitting the subject. The eventual relief of Kimberley is treated as a triumphant moment of British solidarity and might.
Based on real events during the Second Boer War
Paterson’s epic poem ‘With French to Kimberley‘ closely aligns with the real relief of Kimberley, imagining the determination and sacrifice of the imperial troops. While romanticized, Paterson captured the strategic boldness and relief felt in this victory that helped turn the tide in the war.
- In 1899, the town of Kimberley was besieged by Boer forces trying to seize control of its valuable diamond mines. The town was subject to shelling and short on supplies.
- The British commander Lord Methuen attempted a front assault on the Boers in late 1899 but was repelled at the Battle of Magersfontein.
- General John French was then dispatched in February 1900 to lead a cavalry division on a daring flanking march to relieve Kimberley and outmaneuver the Boer armies.
- French led a mixed force of British, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian troops on the arduous trek across the veld and river crossings, eventually breaking through to Kimberley.
- This was seen as a major triumph of British cavalry tactics and boosted morale, while allowing Kimberley’s diamond wealth to remain in British hands.
While glorifying imperial might, Paterson also illustrates the human costs and sacrifice required, giving the victory a somber undercurrent. Overall, it captures a key moment in Australia’s Boer War experience through vivid balladry.
With French to Kimberley
The Boers were down on Kimberley with siege and Maxim gun;
The Boers were down on Kimberley, their numbers ten to one!
Faint were the hopes the British had to make the struggle good—
Defenceless in an open plain the Diamond City stood.
They built them forts with bags of sand, they fought from roof and wall,
They flashed a message to the south, “Help! or the town must fall!”
Then down our ranks the order ran to march at dawn of day,
And French was off to Kimberley to drive the Boers away.
He made no march along the line; he made no front attack
Upon those Magersfontein heights that held the Scotchmen back;
But eastward over pathless plains, by open veldt and vley.
Across the front of Cronje’s force his troopers held their way.
The springbuck, feeding on the flats where Modder River runs,
Were startled by his horses’ hoofs, the rumble of his guns.
The Dutchman’s spies that watched his march from every rocky wall
Rode back in haste: “He marches East! He threatens Jacobsdal!”
Then north he wheeled as wheels the hawk, and showed to their dismay
That French was off to Kimberley to drive the Boers away.
His column was five thousand strong—all mounted men—and guns:
There met, beneath the world-wide flag, the world-wide Empire’s sons;
They came to prove to all the earth that kinship conquers space,
And those who fight the British Isles must fight the British race!
From far New Zealand’s flax and fern, from cold Canadian snows,
From Queensland plains, where hot as fire the summer sunshine glows—
And in the front the Lancers rode that New South Wales had sent:
With easy stride across the plain their long, lean Walers went.
Unknown, untried, those squadrons were, but proudly out they drew
Beside the English regiments that fought at Waterloo.
From every coast, from every clime, they met in proud array
To go with French to Kimberley to drive the Boers away.
He crossed the Reit and fought his way towards the Modder bank.
The foemen closed behind his march, and hung upon the flank.
The long, dry grass was all ablaze and fierce the veldt fire runs;
He fought them through a wall of flame that blazed around the guns!
Then limbered up and drove at speed, though horses fell and died;
We might not halt for man nor beast on that wild, daring ride.
Black with the smoke and parched with thirst, we pressed the livelong day
Our headlong march to Kimberley to drive the Boers away.
We reached the drift at fall of night, and camped across the ford.
Next day from all the hills around the Dutchman’s cannon roared.
A narrow pass ran through the hills, with guns on either side;
The boldest man might well turn pale before that pass he tried,
For, if the first attack should fail, then every hope was gone:
But French looked once, and only once, and then he said, “Push on!”
The gunners plied their guns amain; the hail of shrapnel flew;
With rifle fire and lancer charge their squadrons back we threw;
And through the pass between the hills we swept in furious fray,
And French was through to Kimberley to drive the Boers away.
Ay, French was through to Kimberley! And ere the day was done
We saw the Diamond City stand, lit by the evening sun:
Above the town the heliograph hung like an eye of flame:
Around the town the foemen camped—they knew not that we came;
But soon they saw us, rank on rank; they heard our squadrons’ tread;
In panic fear they left their tents, in hopeless rout they fled—
And French rode into Kimberley; the people cheered amain,
The women came with tear-stained eyes to touch his bridle rein,
The starving children lined the streets to raise a feeble cheer,
The bells rang out a joyous peal to say “Relief is here!”
Ay! we that saw that stirring march are proud that we can say
We went with French to Kimberley to drive the Boers away.