South Africa’s Boer War 1899-1902 represents a number of Australian ‘firsts’: The first time Australians fought under a Commonwealth banner; were awarded the Victoria Cross and wore the Rising Sun badge overseas. It was also the genesis of the Light Horse or more correctly, the Mounted Infantry and it heralded the role of Australian women in war. Yet over a century later this conflict continues to fascinate and frustrate those seeking to find more on Australia’s involvement in the conflict.
The Boer War had its origins in the First Boer War of 1880-81 between the British and the Afrikaners or Boers. The outcome only brought an uneasy peace. Matters came to a head with the 1896 Jameson Raid (with more than a few Australians involved) and other unrest. Inevitably war broke on 11th October 1899 between Great Britain and the Boers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The war lasted until 31st May 1902 with more than 70,000 lives lost. It was the largest African campaign ever fought by the British and in terms of cost and numbers involved, surpassed all other pre World War One conflicts including the Crimean War. Apart from the two World Wars it claimed the most Australian lives.
The war falls into three distinct phases. Firstly the Boer offensive against the Cape Colony and Natal and laying siege to some major town centres. There was savage text book fighting at this time with mainly British infantry regiments and others like the New South Wales Lancers and Australian Horse. The British lost heavily in some set piece battles such as Talana where the troops were decimated by Boer tactics and wisely directed fire.
Secondly there were British counter strikes and the capture of the Boer capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria. Many Australian State raised Bushmen contingents became involved in the associated advance into the Orange Free State and Transvaal with the lifting of sieges at Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith. The Australian contingents including the Queensland Mounted Infantry, New South Wales Bushmen and Doyle’s Scouts were all mounted with the exception of some artillery and medical corps elements. They excelled in mobile warfare however, significant losses were inflicted on the Australians at places like Eland’s River.
Unable to win by conventional means, the Boers then developed a unique type of guerilla warfare. The Boer Commandos delivered hit and run strikes wherever they chose while the British conducted great sweeps trying to eliminate the wily Boer farmers. More tedious for the British was mounting guard on long supply routes, clearing Boer farms and herding civilians into concentration camps. In this third phase the Australian troops came into their own. They were at home living off the land like their foe and could match his initiative and ingenuity thus avoiding set piece battles and the associated carnage. Even so there were major actions such as the debacle at Wilmansrust when half the 5thVictorian Mounted Rifles Contingent was overrun and captured on 12th June 1901.
With growing strength and Kitchener’s cruel scorched earth policy the British gained the edge on the Boers. By the time the first Australian Commonwealth Horse Contingents arrived in 1902 there was little capacity to fight left among the ragged ranks of the Boers. Peace was finally signed at Pretoria on 31st May 1902.
Whilst it seems there is much material available to study Australia’s role in the Boer War the task can be surprisingly frustrating. For example officially only 16,500 Australians served, but to that figure should be added another 7,000 Australians who fought in Irregular units like the Scottish Horse or Bethune’s Mounted Infantry. Thankfully the task of recording more fully the Boer War continues among a dedicated group of researchers and historians. So if you can’t find your Boer War story or man, don’t despair because the publicly available information is growing and is far more extensive than many realize. Read on and you will be pleasantly surprised just how much material is available on Australia’s part in the Boer War.