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Background to the Boer War

11 Oct 1899 Boers Advance into Natal and Cape Colony to signal the Start of the Second South African Boer War 1899-1902

The domination of Africa south of the Zambezi had been long disputed. The Dutch settled it in the seventeenth century and the British established a preserve and then formal rule of Cape Town in 1806 and followed by 50 years expansion into Cape Colony and Natal.

In the 1830’s the Boers (Dutch and European farmers) trekked inland to establish the two rural republics of the Orange Free State and the Sth African Republic (Transvaal). Britain asserted jurisdiction over them resulting in the First Boer War of 1880-81 in which the Boers defended Transvaal and won.

The discovery of gold in the Rand in 1866 south wester of Pretoria, the capital of Transvaal, transformed the area into a rich state and Johannesburg was established as a flash city inhabited by many who had fled the world depression of the 1890’s. This included around 1000 Australians which established a strong link with many Australians at home. With their lack of vote and personal prosperity, the foreigners (Uitlanders) who had flocked to the goldfields established a Reform Committee and the Australian Walter Karri Davies, encouraged the formation of Militias. Several hundred Australian entered an ‘Australian Corps’ which supported the Jameson Raid from Rhodesia on 29 Dec 1895.

Cecil Rhodes with faint British approval sponsored the ill-fated incursion of 600 men from Mafeking in Rhodesia towards the Rand in order to prompt British protection, occupation and ultimately annexation. The attempt failed dismally with surrender of the fort to the Transvaal authorities on 2 Jan 1896.

Because of this increasing tension between the British and Boer settlers and a growing fervour within the white societies of the British Empire throughout the world, now militia units began to form in Australia over the next 3 years.

The 1897 celebration of the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee in London focussed popular commitment to the Empire and Joseph Chamberlain (Chief of Colonial Office) proposed a limited military co-operation between militias and permanent forces and British regulars.

“There was a small but sustained trickle of offers from Australian militiamen to fight in India, or Africa, or anywhere the British army was serving, although almost everyone still considered the militias to be home-bound. Kenneth Mackay, who had written of untrained Australian bushmen defending their continent, was no longer so sure about untutored worth. Around the time of the diamond jubilee he raised a cavalry regiment, the Australian Horse, to prepare the bushmen for war, and hoped they would one day serve not only an Australian federal militia but also a British imperial army. It was a perfect expression of the compatibility of colonial nationalism and imperial loyalty.” [1]

In March 1899 A Squadron of New South Wales Lancers left Sydney for six months full-time training in England with General Sir Redvers Buller’s troops at Aldershot.

In autumn 1899 a meeting of Uitlanders including Australians, met in Johannesburg to express their grievances and urged mayors around the white empire for support.

On 3 July 1899 Chamberlain called the governments of Canada, NSW and Victoria suggesting they formally commit mounted troops for a “military demonstration against the Transvaal”. Capt Cox offered the Sqn of NSW Lancers and on 6 Jul 1899 Qld Commandant suggested his government send 250 Mounted Riflemen.

The Transvaal government offered the Uitlanders the vote, however conditions on the Rand worsened and many Uitlanders moved to the Cape, joining irregular corps of volunteers such as the Imperial Light Horse organised by the Australians Karrie Davis and Wools Sampson in Aug/Sept in Natal.

War seemed inevitable. South Australia and NSW offered contingents and Victoria seizing the political moment organised a meeting of state commandants in late Sept 1899, with a view to raising an Australian Contingent.

2 Oct 1899 Orange Free State mobilised to support the Transvaal.

5-25 Oct 1899 saw state parliaments debate the Australian Contingent with mixed levels of support; Qld and SA agreed by only 1 vote.

“A whole infantry battalion such as the commandants dreamed of was not required. Nor was much in the way of mounted troops, however much they were said to be an Australian specialty. Manageable numbers of dutiful military apprentices were wanted – company-sized units, preferably foot soldiers that could embark by 31 October and be attached to regular regiments on arrival. They would be paid at the usual low regular army rates, and any wounded or invalided man would be eligible for a regular army pension. Chamberlain put these conditions into more diplomatic language and cabled them to the colonies on 3 October. When the cables became public they seemed a firm and flattering appeal from London for inexpensive aid, although the failure to ask for a horde of mounted riflemen puzzled some Australians. At the same time, news broke that Cox’s Lancers were the toast of London for having offered to go to war with the rest of the Aldershot troops. After a few doubts and squabbles amongst their ministries – McCulloch threatened to resign if Turner did not act – all six colonial governments began planning to raise contingents more or less according to War Office specifications while appealing to their parliaments for endorsement and funds.”[1]

The British Regulars in South Africa, joined by Karri Davis’ Imperial Light Horse, tried to drive the Boers out of Natal.

General Buller’s expeditionary force, including the Sqn of NSW Lancers, went on the offensive in Natal and eastern Cape and the west and were soundly beaten by the Boers at Colenso, Stormberg and Magersfontein between 11-15 Dec 1899 (Black Week). A crisis was imminent and Australian popular commitment to the war began to escalate and a second contingent to support the war was raised without much fuss.

“More than 3000 Australian volunteers helped the British army march over the Boer republics by mid June 1900. The great majority belonged to the first and second batches of contingents that left Australia from Oct 1899 to Jan 1900. The rest were irregulars like those in the Imperial Light Horse, and this last group was the first to be tested in war”.[1]

[1] Wilcox, Craig. Australia’s Boer War. The War In South Africa 1899-1902. Oxford University Press in conjunction with AWM, Australia, 2002, ISBN 0 19 551637 0

  

Major John Baines RFD - 2010

 

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