Australias military involvement in the Boer War

What was the Boer war?

There had been rivalry and bad relations between the British and the Dutch-Afrikaner settlers (known as the Boers) since the British acquired the Southern tip of Africa in the early 19th Century, around about the time of the Napoleonic wars.  In an effort to escape British rule the Boers travelled North from the Cape to form the republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. This however did not make relations any easier and it lead to the subsequent  Boer war in 1880-1881.

The boers inflicted heavy losses on the British and came out of the conflict holding onto their independence in the Transvaal. However, when gold and diamonds were discovered in the Boer republics, the rivalry was heightened still further. The British wanted rights to the new wealthy territories and wanted to force imperialism. The Boers by contrast did not want anything to do with the Empire. This reopened the conflict in 1899 when the Boers attacked in order to prevent a British conquest.

When did Australia enter the Boer war?

As a colony within the British Empire, Australia offered troops to assist in the confrontation. Some of the Australian soldiers who joined the fighting were already in South Africa when the war broke out, some joined British or South African colonial units and some made their own way to the Cape and Joined local units. Recruitment also took place in Australia itself.

How were Australian fighting units involved in the Boer War?

Overall Australians troops served in mounted units and joined the Boer War in five clear waves:

  1. The first group was raised in response to the outbreak of the war in 1899
  2. The second wave was called the “bushman” contingent where the soldiers were recruited from much more diverse sources. This was financed by public subscription or wealthy individuals.
  3. The third wave was actually paid for by the Government in London and could be termed the “Imperial” contingent
  4. The fourth wave – the draft contingents – were raised by the state governments after Federation on behalf of the new Commonwealth government, which was as yet unable to do so.
  5. The last wave which was near the end of the war – the Australian Commonwealth Horse contingents – was raised by the new federal government.

Australian campaigns during the Boer War

Although it was reported that the Australian forces suffered from poor training and hastily raised contingents they fought alongside the British in the 1900 counter-offensive which resulted in the taking of both Boer capitals. Also 500 members of the Queensland Mounted Infantry and the North South Wales Lancers took part in the relief of Kimberley in the same year. Australian troops were valued for their ability to “shoot and ride”.

Conditions for Australian troops during the Boer War

Conditions were exceedingly poor for both Australian soldiers and horses and many died from disease, exhaustion or starvation. Because of quarantine regulations Australian Boer War casualties could not return home. By mid-1901 the Australian forces were involved in campaigns which involved long night rides followed by an attack on a Boer farmhouse or encampment. The Australian Infantry soldiers spent long days in the saddle with little time to bathe or change their clothing which led to lice being a constant issue. The temperatures on the South African Veld were extreme, ranging from relentless heat during the day to freezing cold at night. Of the estimated 16000 Australian men who fought in the Boer War 282 died in action and 286 died of disease or related causes.

The Boer war ended in May 1902.

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