This Foreign Service helmet is not a standard pattern. Rather than being made from cork pith, the body of it is constructed of woven fibre. The fibre body is covered with six panels of faded khaki cloth with a padded hatband, between brim and crown, rather than a pleated puggaree. Inside it are the remains of a label with the text “HAROON SAIT / [missing text] OTH [missing text], space, [missing text] ONTR [missing text]” (possibly CLOTHING CONTRACTOR) and a crescent moon suggesting that it was made in India. As well as the printed label around the, now missing, vent base, inside the body of the helmet the owner’s details “PTE S MCLENNAN” and “NSW” over “83” are hand written in black ink. The domed vent button at the top of the helmet is missing as is the liner or sweatband. The whole structure is weakened and there is evidence of insect damage.
This battered relic appears to be the only surviving example of the Foreign Service helmets issued to the first Australian colonial contingents to arrive in South Africa for service in the war. The Australians arrived in Africa wearing slouch hats. As they deployed to the front near Colesberg in January and February 1900, the British Field Force commanders decided that they could be mistaken for Boers and so demanded that they be re-issued with Foreign Service helmets. This particular helmet was issued to No.83 Private Simon McLennan of the 1st NSW Infantry.
Simon McLennan from Sydney, in the colony of New South Wales, was 19 when he enlisted in the colonial contingent to serve in the war against the rebellious Boer republics. He was the only son of a widowed mother. Simon had three sisters Lydia, May and Dorothy.
McLennan’s contingent embarked from Sydney on 3 November 1899 aboard the Aberdeen. After breaking their voyage at Port Elizabeth they disembarked at Cape Town on 7 December. Two days later they became part of a composite colonial unit with the title “The Australian Regiment” at Belmont and marched to the front.
On 1 February 1900 they were converted to mounted rifles at Naauwpoort. There the men were given Indian cavalry remount (horses) and it may be that Indian-made Foreign Service helmets were also issued. The unit was retitled E Squadron, 1st NSW Mounted Rifles.
Through February and March they were in frequent contact with the Boers around Colesberg. In a skirmish at Mader’s (or Maeder’s) Farm Private Simon McLennan was mortally wounded. He died of wounds in a British field hospital on 3 March 1900. He was one of the first soldiers, and probably the youngest, from this colony to die on active service in the Second Anglo-Boer War.
McLennan was subsequently reinterred in the British Military Cemetery in Colesberg. His name is listed on the central monument in that cemetery.
Back in Sydney a ceremony was held at his parish church. Private Simon McLennan’s name is listed among the fallen on the wall of St John’s Church in Paddington, Sydney. For over a decade after the war McLennan’s mother and sisters would remember him in the ‘In Memoriam’ column of the Sydney Morning Herald.
How his helmet came to be in the museum at Colesberg no one can remember. But we can only hope that the museum can take care of this significant piece of our shared history.
By Brad Manera