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The Boer War

Around 16,000 Australians volunteered to fight for Britain against the Dutch-Afrikaner, or Boer, settlers in South Africa from 1899 to 1902. It remains Australia's third-worst conflict in terms of casualties.

Trooper Farquhar George Williamson, 1902

Trooper Farquhar George Williamson, 1902. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P01065.001.

When the Boer War broke out in 1899, Australia was made up of six colonies that were on the verge of becoming a federation. The war was seen as an opportunity for Australia to show its commitment to Britain and to define its identity.

The first Australian troops and their horses sailed in late 1899 and were involved in major action by January 1900. After Australian Federation in 1901, the new Commonwealth Government sent a further eight battalions. In addition to the Australian troops who travelled to serve in the Boer war, thousands more Australians, who were already there working in the gold and diamond mines, also signed up to fight in what was often a bloody guerrilla war. All were volunteers as there was no draft or conscription.

The Boer War saw advances in weaponry and medicines but also the use of guerrilla tactics that destroyed the lives and homes of civilians. A total of 606 Australians died in the two-and-a-half years in South Africa; that is more than the number of casualties in Vietnam over 10 years.

Australians at home generally supported the war. However, public enthusiasm began to wane after 1900 as people became aware of civilian casualties. The conviction and execution of lieutenants 'Breaker' Morant and Handcock in 1902 further diminished support.

An outline of the Boer War

The Boer War took place in the area that is now South Africa. The British held a territory they called Cape Colony. The Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers, held Transvaaland Orange Free State.

The main commercial and strategic reasons for the war were that the British wanted the gold mines of the Boer states. A British raid in 1896 on the Boers, called the Jameson Raid, resulted in the Boers declaring war on Britain on 11 October 1899. Despite capturing a number of British towns early on in the campaign, the Boers lost their strategic offence early in the conflict. Subsequently, the Boer commandos turned to guerrilla warfare, which the British responded to in kind, and the war became a brutal and drawn-out affair for the next two years.

Australian Light Horse in Boer War uniform

Tumut, NSW. 25 April 1999. Robert Cooke, a member of the 21st Light Horse Association and the NSW Mounted Infantry, on his horse Minny on Anzac Day. Robert is dressed in original Boer War dress, commemorating the centenary of the conflict. His mount is wearing all genuine Boer War equipment. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. PAIU1999/056.28.

The British reinforced their army and received support from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India. Many battles and sieges were fought. Under the command of Lord Kitchener, the British gained control in open battle by late 1900.

Eventually Britain won the war and, with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902, all Boers became British subjects. However, within nine years South Africa became a self-governing dominion led by former Boer generals.

Australia's engagement in the Boer War

Most Australians served in mounted units from the colonies and later from the Commonwealth, known variously as Bushmen, Mounted Rifles, Imperial Bushmen, The Australian Commonwealth Horse and the Light Horse. The Australian troops were highly valued by the British for their riding and shooting skills. Australian soldiers gained a reputation among the Boers as dangerous shooters who remained level-headed under fire.

The Australian troops' reputation for bravery, toughness and cool-headedness during the Boer War was the foundation for the Australian warrior image that later became the ANZAC legend of World War I.

The reputation of Australian soldier was established in actions such as the Battle Of Brakfontein on the Elands River, in August 1900. At Brakfontein, fewer than 500 Australian troops led by Colonel Hore defended their depot against an attack from at least 2,500 Boers. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish other unique Australian involvement from the British records. However, the 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen were engaged in action at the farm Onverwacht in the Bankkop range of hills, 30 kilometres east of Ermelo in 1902.

Casualties and awards

Breaker Morant

Private Harry B. (The Breaker) Morant, Adelaide, 1900. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: A05311.

As the war dragged on, Australians became disenchanted. The suffering of the Boer civilians and the court martial of Lieutenant 'Breaker' Morant and Lieutenant Handcock in 1902 made the war less popular.

Harry Morant and Peter Handcock were lieutenants in a unit of the Bushveldt Carbineers. They were convicted of murdering twelve Boer prisoners and were executed by a firing squad in Pretoria, on 27 February 1902.

Morant and Handcock admitted that they shot the Boers, but they maintained that they had been ordered by their British commanders to do so and not to take any prisoners alive during their campaign. Although there was no proof that the soldiers were ordered to shoot the Boer prisoners, the case remains infamous today, and is seen by some as a symbol of British military injustice.

Of the 16,000 troops sent by Australia to the war, at least 600 died, about half from disease and half in action. Five Australians were awarded Victoria Crosses for bravery in battle.

More than 60 Australian nurses went to the Boer war. Some were provided by governments or by privately raised funds, while others went at their own expense. The nurses served to aid the sick and wounded under very harsh conditions. Three were awarded Royal Red Cross medals. The Boer War marked the death of a nurse, Frances Hines—the first Australian woman to die in war.

Advances and setbacks in weaponry and warfare

The Boer War saw the use of guerrilla tactics and the introduction of many new advances in weaponry and warfare, as well as the introduction of medical advances such as antiseptics and X-rays. It was also the first 'official' war in which Europeans engaged which resulted in civilian casualties.

It was seen as a watershed event by for the British Army in particular as the British Empire had previously been fighting ill-equipped and ill-organised (albeit brave) native forces. 'The Boers were a fast and highly mobile guerrilla force, using the new smokeless cartridges in their German Mauser rifles which greatly concealed their positions; and they employed hit-and-run tactics that not only caused losses the British couldn't afford, but thoroughly frustrated the Empire's view of a 'fair fight'.'

Boer guerrilla tactics and the British Allied response

From late 1900, Boer commando units waged a guerrilla war against the British. Known as the Boer 'bitter-enders', these guerrillas blew up trains, train lines and bridges. They ambushed British troops and garrisons.

A stone block house, South Africa

A stone block house, South Africa, c. 1901. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P02307.004.

The British Army responded by using a combination of overwhelming force and ruthless tactics. They established blockhouses across the countryside to surround and expose the Boers. They burned farms and confiscated food that they suspected could be used to sustain the commandos. Boer women and children were taken to concentration camps.

Eventually, faced with starvation, the last of the Boer commandos surrendered in May 1902.

Weapons technology in the Boer War

Observation balloons had been used in earlier wars, but proved very effective for the British in South Africa where rough terrain provided cover for ambushes and hidden movement of Boer commandos.

As the Boers favoured attacking and derailing trains, the British developed armoured trains that could be defended by many men firing from inside the carriages.

The Boers were also quick to adopt new technology and for much of the war they had more superior guns, rifles and ammunition than the British. The Boers were armed with German Mauser Rifles which were deadly at 2,000 metres. They had smokeless cartridges that allowed the Boers to snipe at British forces and remain unseen.

'Pom-Pom' guns were large, fast-firing guns mounted on carts. They could fire up to 60 one-pound shells per minute. Similar weapons were used on both sides.

Medical advances in the Boer War

The Boer War saw the wide application of antiseptics and use of modern surgical, medical and nursing procedures. These saved the lives of many wounded soldiers that would have previously died of infections. X-rays, which had been only recently discovered by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, were used to locate bullets and shrapnel and to diagnose fractures.

Memorial

The Boer War is the only major war not to be commemorated on Anzac Parade although a site has been reserved leading up to the Australian War Memorial. The Government has tasked the Boer War Memorial Project committee to establish a national memorial and is relying mainly on donations to do so.

Useful links

Official records

Light Horse museums and historical re-enactment units

Links to South African sites

Last updated: 8th January 2008

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