The Australian Boer War Memorial
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The Boer War

Background   Boer Offensive   British Offensive   Guerrilla War   War's Conclusion   Australia  


From 1835 a large section of the Boer population of Cape Colony packed their wagons and trekked north in search of a new land. They were spurred on by dissatisfaction with British rule in the Cape. They ultimately formed two largely independent republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal or South African Republic (SAR), although the Britain still claimed sovereignty over the whole of South Africa.

In the first Anglo-Boer War in 1881 the Boers inflicted a humiliating defeat on the British garrisons in the Transvaal and on a force from Natal commanded by General Colley. The Gladstone government in Britain had no desire to escalate the war and an agreement was reached which gave the Boers independence but under British 'suzerainty'. This meant that the Boers had self government but external affairs were subject to ratification by the British Crown. Thus Queen Victoria in 1882 ratified the Treaty between the SAR and Portugal which made possible the construction of the Eastern Railway line linking Pretoria with Lourenco Marques on the Portuguese East African coast.

The Boers were a farming race and this arrangement worked until, in 1886, gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand by the Australian, George Harrison. A great influx of prospectors, miners, settlers and adventurers from around the world poured into the Transvaal. They came from Australia, California, Canada, Britain and the Continent and India as well as from the South African Colonies at the Cape and Natal. The City of Johannesburg sprang up from nothing and by 1896 its population had reached 102,000 people. The total white population of the Transvaal was only 245,000.

The Boer government of the Transvaal steadfastly denied citizenship rights to these new residents even though they provided most of the revenue of the formerly bankrupt Republic. Conditions for citizenship were progressively tightened to put it beyond the reach of non-Boers until in 1894 full political rights and privileges were reserved for those domiciled in the Republic prior to May 1876 and to their children. Non whites were not eligible for citizenship.

A petition on rights with over 18,000 signatures was received by the Raad (Parliament) with loud laughter. Another petition signed by over 35,000 received similar treatment. The disgruntled Johannesburg people set up a revolutionary committee which included the prominent Australian, Walter Karri Davies, and Percy Fitzpatrick, author of the South African classic JOCK OF THE BUSHVELDT. Many of the people formed themselves into militia units. Australians were active on the Rand and an 'Australian Corps' attracted 800 recruits and had its own orderly room.

In 1893 Percy Fitzpatrick wrote the book 'The Transvaal From Within' which detailed the injustices being perpetrated on non-Boers in the Transvaal and the corruption and nepotism in the Government. The miners began to plot an uprising and smuggled in arms and ammunition. The situation progressively deteriorated until in 1896 the ill advised and ill fated 'Jameson Raid' was defeated by the Boers and the slide to war accelerated.

As relations grew worse, Paul Kruger's government in the Transvaal formed an alliance with the Orange Free State and additional British forces were despatched to South Africa. On 10 October 1899 the British Government received an ultimatum from the Boers demanding that the additional British forces be removed from the British colonies at the Cape and Natal. The ultimatum gave the British 48 hours to act or the Boers would declare war.

 First phase: The Boer offensive (October – December, 1899) go to top of page

The terms of the ultimatum could not be accepted by Britain and, on the expiry of the 48 hours, the Boer forces invaded the British colonies and within a short time had besieged the important towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith.

Siege life took its toll on both the defending soldiers and the civilians in the besieged towns as food began to grow scarce. A substantial number of Australians were caught up in the siege of Mafeking and were to be found largely among the Town Guard, the Bechuanaland Rifles and the Protectorate Regiment.

Major British reinforcements were arriving under Generaal Redvers Buller. He originally intended an offensive straight up the railway line leading from Cape Town through Bloemfontein to Pretoria. Finding on arrival that the British troops already in South Africa were under siege, he split his Army Corps into several widely spread detachments, to relieve the besieged garrisons.

The middle of December was disastrous for the British army. In a period known as Black Week (10 – 15 December 1899), the British suffered a series of devastating losses at Magersfontein, Stormberg, and Colenso.

At the Battle of Stormberg on 10 December, British General Sir William Gatacre, who was in command of 3,000 troops protecting against Boer raids in Cape Colony, tried to recapture a railway junction about 50 miles south of the Orange River. But Gatacre chose to assault the Orange Free State Boer positions surmounting a precipitous rock face in which he lost 135 killed and wounded, as well as two guns and over 600 troops captured.

At the Battle of Magersfontein on 11 December, 14,000 British troops, under the command of Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen, attempted to fight their way to relieve Kimberley. The Boer commanders, Koos de la Rey and Piet Cronje, devised a plan to dig trenches at the base of the hills rather than on the summit to fool the British and to give their riflemen a greater firing range. The plan worked and this tactic helped write the doctrine of the supremacy of the defensive position, using modern small arms and trench fortifications At Magersfontein, the British were decisively defeated, suffering the loss of 120 British soldiers killed and 690 wounded, which prevented them from relieving Kimberley and Mafeking at that stage.

But the nadir of Black Week was the Battle of Colenso on 15 December where 21,000 British troops commanded by Buller himself, attempted to cross the Tugela River to relieve Ladysmith where 8,000 Transvaal Boers, under the command of Louis Botha, were awaiting them. Through a combination of artillery and accurate rifle fire, the Boers repelled all British attempts to cross the river. The British had a further 1,126 casualties, and lost 10 artillery pieces to the Boers during the ensuing retreat. The Boer forces suffered 40 casualties.

 Second phase: The British offensive of January to September 1900 go to top of page

The British suffered further defeats in their attempts to relieve Ladysmith at the Battle of Spion Kop of 19 to 24 January 1900, where Buller again attempted to cross the Tugela west of Colenso and was defeated again by Louis Botha after a hard-fought battle for a prominent hill feature which resulted in a further 1,000 British casualties and nearly 300 Boer casualties. Many Australians fought on this front in a number of irregular units, Imperial Light Horse, Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, Imperial Light Infantry, Bethune's Mounted Infantry, South African Light Horse and a number of others. Buller attacked Botha again on 5 February at Vaal Krantz and was again defeated.

It was not until further reinforcements arrived on 14 February 1900 that British troops commanded by Field Marshal Lord Roberts could launch counter-offensives to relieve the garrisons. Kimberley was relieved on 15 February by Lieutenant General John French's Cavalry Division, which included the New South Wales Lancers, Australian Horse and A Squadron of the new South Wales Mounted Rifles. At the battle of Paardeberg (18 February to 27 February 1900), Roberts surrounded General Piet Cronje's retreating Boer army, and forced him to surrender with 4000 men after a siege lasting a week. Among the British troops were the 1/Queensland M.I. and the Australians in French's Cavalry Division. Meanwhile, Buller at last succeeded in forcing a crossing of the Tugela, and defeated Botha's outnumbered forces north of Colenso, allowing the Relief of Ladysmith the day after Cronje surrendered.

A further front opened in the north-eastern Cape where Free State Boers had invaded and were established in Colesberg. It was here that the recently arrived Australian units were placed. First the NSW Lancers and Australian Horse were engaged at Arundel (December 1899) and Slingersfontein (January 1900). They were withdrawn shortly afterwards to join General French in his drive for Kimberley. They were replaced by their countrymen, who arrived as Mounted Infantry. These units soon found themselves in action. Battles at Pink Hill, West Australia Hill and round the town of Rensburg involved Victorians, South Australians, West Australians, Tasmanians and New South Welshmen. With the fall of Colesberg on 1st March 1900 the advance on what was loosely named the Central Front could continue to Bloemfontein.

Roberts meanwhile continued his advance into the Orange Free State from the west, capturing Bloemfontein, the capital, on March 13. He later sent a small force under Colonel Mahon to work with Colonel Plumer to relieve Mafeking on May 17, 1900. The 3rd Queensland Bushmen Contingent, acting as escort for the Canadian Artillery, served with Plumer's relief column which came from Rhodesia to the north. The relief provoked riotous celebrations in Britain and in Australia.

After being forced to delay for several weeks at Bloemfontein due to shortage of supplies and enteric fever (caused by poor hygiene, drinking bad water at Paardeburg and appalling medical care), Roberts resumed his advance in early May. All the Australian forces south of the Vaal river were part of Roberts' advance. He was forced to halt again at Kroonstad for 10 days, due once again to the collapse of his medical and supply systems, then finally captured Johannesburg on May 31 and the capital of the Transvaal, Pretoria, on June 5. (Before the war, the Boers had constructed several forts south of Pretoria, but the artillery had been removed from the forts for use in the field, and in the event the Boers abandoned Pretoria without a fight.)

With the relief of Mafeking on 17th May the British were able to open another front to the west of Pretoria, and it was here that the recently arrived Australian Bushmen's Contingents were sent via Beira and Rhodesia, to assemble.

British observers believed the war to be all but over after the capture of the two capital cities. However, the Boers had earlier met at the temporary new capital of the Orange Free State, Kroonstad, and planned a guerrilla campaign to hit the British supply and communication lines. The first engagement of this new form of warfare was at Sanna's Post on 31 March where 1,500 Boers under the command of Christiaan De Wet attacked Bloemfontein's waterworks about 23 miles east of the city, and ambushed a heavily escorted convoy which resulted in 155 British casualties and the capture of seven guns, 117 wagons and 428 British troops.[6]

After the fall of Pretoria, one of the last formal battles was at Diamond Hill on 11 _ 12 June, where Roberts attempted to drive the remnants of the Boer field army beyond striking distance of the city. Although Roberts drove the Boers from the hill, the Boer commander, Louis Botha, did not regard it as a defeat, for he inflicted more casualties on the British (totalling 162 men) while suffering around 50 casualties.

The set-piece period of the war now largely gave way to a mobile guerilla war, but one final operation remained. President Kruger and what remained of the Transvaal government had retreated to eastern Transvaal. Roberts, joined by troops from Natal under Buller, advanced against them, and broke their last defensive position at Bergendal on August 26. As Roberts and Buller followed up along the railway line to Komatipoort, Kruger sought asylum in Portuguese East Africa (modern Mozambique). Some dispirited Boers did likewise, and the British gathered up much material. However, the core of the Boer fighters under Botha took the guerilla campaign into the mountains of the eastern Transvaal. Under the new conditions of the war, heavy equipment was no use to them, and therefore no great loss.

 Third phase: Guerrilla war (September 1900 – May 1902) go to top of page

By September 1900, the British were in control of both Republics, except for the northern part of Transvaal. They however found that they only controlled the ground their columns physically occupied. As soon as the columns left a town or district, British control of that area faded away. The huge territory of the Republics made it impossible for the 250,000 British troops to control it effectively. The vast distances between the columns allowed the Boer commandos considerable freedom to move about. The Boer commanders thrived under a guerrilla style of warfare. The commandos were sent to their own districts with the order to act against the British there whenever possible. Their strategy was to do as much damage to the enemy as possible, and then to move off and vanish when enemy reinforcements arrived. It was during this early stage of the war, the 1st September 1900 to be exact, that a small party of Tasmanians, acting as escort to an Army Service Corps unit sent to round up cattle at Warmbaths, 100 kilometres north of Pretoria, was ambushed by a Boer commando. The Tasmanians behaved magnificently, rescuing under fire men who had been unhorsed and wounded. The result was two Victoria Crosses and two Distiinguished Conduct Medals, the most decorated incident involving Australians in this war.

Western Transvaal

The Boer commandos in the Western Transvaal were under the astute leadership of General Koos de la Rey. He had many competent commandants to whom he gave freedom of action and they gave the British a difficult time. The Australian Bushmen were very active in this area and were hard pressed to protect the garrisons and convoys in the area.

When General Christiaan De Wet invaded the Cape Colony in January 1901, many Australian Bushmen were sent south to join the 16 British columns sent to pursue him. This relieved the pressure on the Boer commandos in the Transvaal and for the two months that De Wet was in the Cape, it was a time of great difficulty for British garrisons, particularly in the Western Transvaal. Australian Bushmen had a setback at Hartebeesfontein in February 1901, and the initiative taken by the Boers lasted well into the first quarter of 1902. In May 1901 the 2nd regiment NSWMR was ambushed by de la Rey at Korannafontein, west of Klerksdorp, and lost 12 men killed and wounded and 26 prisoners. The Boer attacks prompted Lord Methuen, the British second-in-command after Lord Kitchener, to move his column from Vryburg to Klerksdorp to deal with De la Rey. On the morning of 7 March 1902, the Boers attacked the rear guard of Methuen's moving column at Tweebosch. Confusion reigned in British ranks and Methuen was wounded and captured by the Boers. The Boer victories in the west led to stronger action by the British. In the second half of March 1902, large British reinforcements were sent to the Western Transvaal. The opportunity the British were waiting for arose on 11 April 1902 at Rooiwal, where the combined forces of Gens. Grenfell, Kekewich and Von Donop came into contact with the forces of Gen. Kemp. The British soldiers were well positioned on the mountainside and inflicted severe casualties on the Boers charging on horseback over a large distance, beating them back. The area was to be the last of the strongholds held by the Boers and was only secured by the final drives of May 1902.

Orange Free State

While the British occupied Pretoria, the Boer fighters in the Orange Free State had been driven into a fertile area in the north east of the Republic, known as the Brandwater Basin. This offered only temporary sanctuary, as the mountain passes leading to it could be occupied by the British, trapping the Boers. A force under General Hunter set out from Bloemfontein to achieve this in July 1900. The hard core of the Boers under Christiaan de Wet, accompanied by President Steyn, left the basin early. Those remaining fell into confusion and most failed to break out before Hunter trapped them. 4,500 Boers surrendered and much equipment was captured, but as with Robert's drive against Kruger at the same time, these losses were of relatively little consequence, as the hard core of the Boer armies and their most determined and active leaders remained at large.

From the Basin, de Wet headed west. Although hounded by British columns, he succeeded in crossing the Vaal into the Western Transvaal, to allow Steyn to travel to meet the Transvaal leaders.

Returning to the Orange Free State, de Wet inspired a series of attacks and raids from the hitherto quiet western part of the country. Many Boers who had earlier returned to their farms, sometimes giving formal parole to the British, took up arms again. Although the Australian units were engaged in the Transvaal and the Cape, those serving with the South African Colonial Irregulars were active in the chase of De Wet. In late January 1901, De Wet led a renewed invasion of Cape Colony (referred to above under the Western Transvaal.) This was not successful, because there was no general uprising among the Cape Boers, and de Wet's men were hampered by bad weather and relentlessly pursued by British forces. The Australian Bushmen under Colonel De Lisle, were among the 16 Columns sent after De Wet and they nearly caught him. He lost his artillery to an Australian unit. De Wet's men escaped back across the Orange River, almost by a miracle.

In August 1901 the South Australians distinguished themselves at Grootvalliers farm when they scattered a Boer commando led by Jan Smuts. There were two DSOs and two DCMs awarded for this encounter. In September 1901 the 5th Queensland Bushmen, who were part of Colonel Plumer's column operating against de Wet's commandos in the south west of the Orange Free State, were ambushed by General Wessel's commando at Mokari Drift on the Caledon River and had 16 casualties, 2 of which were officers killed.

Christiaan de Wet was the major prey. He was constantly on the run from British mobile columns but he made skilful use of his rearguard and frequently turned on his pursuers and dealt them a heavy blow. In late 1901, De Wet overran an isolated British detachment at Groenkop, inflicting heavy casualties. This prompted Kitchener to launch the first of the "New Model" drives against him.

The British had first erected lines of blockhouses to protect the railway lines. They now built fresh lines of these, linked by barbed wire fences, to prevent free Boer movement across the veld. They also allowed "New Model" drives. Unlike the earlier inefficient scouring of the countryside by scattered columns, a continuous line of troops could now effectively sweep an area of veld bounded by blockhouse lines.

De Wet escaped the first such drive, but lost 300 of his fighters.

Eastern Transvaal

Two Boer forces fought in this area; under Botha in the south east and Ben Viljoen in the north east. Under Commandant Muller a commando swept in on the recently arrived 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles camp at Wilmansrust in June 1901 and inflicted the heaviest defeat of Australian forces in the war. Botha's forces were particularly active, raiding railways and even mounting a renewed invasion of Natal in September, 1901. After defeating British mounted infantry at Blood River Poort, Botha was forced to withdraw by heavy rains which made movement difficult and crippled his horses. Back in the Transvaal, he attacked the 2nd Scottish Horse, which had a large number of Australians in its ranks, at Bakenlaagte, and inflicted a heavy defeat. This made his forces the target of increasingly large and ruthless drives by British forces, and eventually, he had to abandon the highveld and retreat to a narrow enclave bordering Swaziland.

To the north, Ben Viljoen grew steadily less active. His forces mounted comparatively few attacks and as a result, the Boer enclave around Lydenburg was largely unmolested. Viljoen was eventually captured.

Cape Colony

After he escaped across the Orange in March 1901, de Wet had left forces under Cape rebels Kritzinger and Scheepers to maintain a guerilla campaign in the Cape Midlands. The campaign here was one of the least chivalrous, with intimidation by both sides of each other's civilian sympathisers. Several captured rebels, including Scheepers, were executed for treason by the British, some in public. In most cases though, the executions were ostensibly for capital crimes such as the murder of prisoners or of unarmed civilians.

Fresh Boer forces under Jan Christiaan Smuts, joined by the surviving rebels under Kritzinger, made another attack on the Cape in September 1901. They suffered severe hardships and were hard pressed by British columns, but eventually rescued themselves by routing some of their pursuers and capturing their equipment.

From then until the end of the war, Smuts increased his forces until they numbered 3,000. However, no general uprising took place, and the situation in the Cape remained stalemated.

Final days of the War

Towards the end of the war, British drives and offensives became more successful. This was due to the lines of blockhouses and wire fences which parcelled up the wide veldt into smaller areas. Also, the British were themselves using raiding columns to harass the Boers. Australian units were frequently in the forefront of these attacks. These columns relied heavily on intelligence given by native Africans, who were becoming increasingly hostile to the Boers. Using these various methods, Kitchener's forces at last began to seriously affect the Boers' fighting strength and freedom of maneuver. When the first of the Australian Commonwealth Horse entered the fray in April 1902 they were thrown straight into the drives. The 1st and 2nd ACH were used in the final drives against de la Rey in May 1902. Many of the men were veterans from the first year of the war.

Empire involvement

The vast majority of troops fighting on the British side came from the UK. However, many came from other parts of the Empire mainly from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Volunteers were plentiful and enthusiastic in Australia and all could not be accepted. In some cases ballots were used to reduce volunteer numbers. Those who failed to obtain a place in the Australian contingents usually made their way to South Africa as indulgence passengers or worked a passage and joined the irregular forces on arrival. Troops were also raised from the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape Colony

 Australia in the Boer War go to top of page

The Australian climate and geography were far closer to that of South Africa than most other parts of the empire, so Australians could adapt quickly to service in the war. Initially the British army wanted trained foot-soldiers from Australia rather than mounted infantry.

From 1899 to 1901 the six separate self-governing colonies in Australia sent their own contingents with the New South Wales Lancers being the first. The colonies formed the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, and the new federal government sent "Commonwealth" contingents to the war. The Boer War was thus the first war in which the Commonwealth of Australia fought.

Australia provided the largest number of colonial troops to the war. Enlistment in all Australian contingents totalled 16,175, though about a thousand men did a second tour of duty. A total of 267 died from disease, 251 were killed in action or died from wounds sustained in battle. A further 43 men were reported missing. Another five to seven thousand Australians served in "irregular" regiments raised in South Africa. Perhaps five hundred Australian irregulars were killed. In total, then, twenty thousand of more Australians served and about a thousand were killed.

Australian troops served mostly among the army's "mounted rifles".

When the war began some Australians, like some Britons, opposed it. As the war dragged on some Australians became disenchanted, in part because the sufferings of Boer civilians were reported in the press. In an interesting twist (for Australians), when the British missed capturing President Paul Kruger, as he escaped Pretoria during its fall in June 1900, a Melbourne Punch, 21 June 1900, cartoon depicted how the War could be won, using the Kelly Gang.  From that point on, the historical memory of Ned Kelly would help Australians fight future battles.

The convictions and executions of two Australians, Lieutenants Harry (Breaker) Morant and Peter handcock in 1902, and the imprisonment of a third, George Witton, had little impact on the Australian public at the time despite later legend. After the war, though, Australians joined an empire-wide campaign that saw Witton released from gaol. Much later, Australians came to see the execution of Morant and Handcock as instances of wrongful British power over Australian lives as illustrated in the 1980 Australian film Breaker Morant.

A few Australians fought on the Boer side. The most famous and colourful character was Colonel Arthur Alfred Lynch, formerly of Ballarat, Victoria, who raised the Second Irish Brigade and appears in an Australian novel by Antony O'Brien called Bye-Bye Dolly Gray.

 The War's Conclusion go to top of page

The Treaty of Vereeniging was a treaty signed on 31 May 1902 to end the Second Anglo-Boer War between the South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State on one side and Great Britain on the other.

This settlement provided for the end of hostilities and eventual self-government to the Transvaal (South African Republic) and the Orange Free State as colonies of the British Empire. The Afrikaner republics agreed to come under the sovereignty of the British monarch and the British government agreed on various details including the following:

To eventually give the Transvaal and the Orange Free State self-government (granted in 1906 and 1907, respectively).
To avoid discussing the native (Black) enfranchisement issue until self-government had been given (not completely achieved until 1994).
To pay the Afrikaners £3,000,000 (approx $3,000,000,000 in 2010 Australian currency) in reconstruction aid.
To imprison only Cape Afrikaner rebel leaders.
To allow the use of Dutch (later Afrikaans) in the schools and law courts.

Subsequent to the British government giving the Boer colonies self-government, the Union of South Africa was created on 31 May 1910. It later gained complete independence under the 1926 Imperial Conference and the 1931 Statute of Westminster. It became a republic in 1961.

Although the treaty is named after the town of Vereeniging, where the peace negotiations took place, it was actually signed at Melrose House in Pretoria.

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Text courtesy Robin Droogleever and Wikipaedia, Images Wikipaedia and New South Wales Lancers Museum.

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