From October 1899 to the end of May 1902 a bitter conflict raged across the South African veldt between Britain and her Empire and the two largely self-governing Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. This ‘Boer War’ was a pivotal event in Australia’s history. The war was fought at a time of growing national consciousness for an Australia declaring its own nationhood.
As part of the British Empire, the Australian colonies offered troops for the war in South Africa. Australians served in contingents raised by the six colonies and, from 1901, by the new Australian Commonwealth.
Australians served mostly in mounted units formed in each colony before despatch, or in South Africa itself. The Australian contribution took the form of five “waves”.
The first were the contingents raised by the Australian colonies in response to the outbreak of war in 1899, which often drew heavily on the men in the militia of the colonial forces.
The second were the “Bushmen” contingents, which were recruited from more diverse sources and paid for by public subscription or the philanthropy of wealthy individuals.
The third were the “Imperial Bushmen” contingents, which were raised in ways similar to the preceding contingents, but paid for by the imperial government in London.
Then were the “Draft Contingents”, which were raised by the state governments after Federation on behalf of the new Commonwealth government, which was as yet unable to do so.
Finally, after Federation, the Australian Commonwealth Horse and medical staff contingents were raised by the new Federal government.
Three additional contingents were raised by the Commonwealth Government in 1901, but as they did not embark until 1902, most arrived too late to see action; indeed, some were still at sea when the war ended on 31 May 1902.
Colonial troops were valued for their ability to shoot and ride, and in many ways performed well in the open war on the veldt. There were significant challenges, however, with the relatively poor training of Australian officers, with contingents generally arriving without having undergone much training and being sent on campaign immediately. These issues were by no means restricted to Australia, however, and were also faced by many of the hastily raised contingents sent from around the Empire.
As the ‘Fathers of ANZAC’, one of the most significant outcomes from Australia’s participation in the Boer War was that from that time onwards the Australian Government has insisted that Australian troops be kept together in Australian formations, commanded by Australians where practicable, and that appointed Australian National Commanders would have the right of access to the Australian Government over any issue. This model was critical during the two world wars and an essential pre-condition to the development of the Anzac spirit.
2016 marks the 115th anniversary of the battle at Wilmansrust on 12 June 1901. The left wing of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles had made a temporary camp for the night when it suffered a surprise attack by a Boer Commando. The Imperial Officer in charge had ordered out an inadequate cavalry picket to warn the camp of any impending danger; a fact which was criticised by the subsequent enquiry. The Victorians were in their swags or preparing for a very early start next morning and their rifles and ammunition were with their saddlery a short distance away, when the attack began. They were mercilessly cut down by the Boers, but many did manage to get their weapons and defend in the poor light. A “cease fire” order, later known to have originated from an English speaking Boer, brought the attack to an end. At the end of the action 18 of the Victorians had been killed and 42 were wounded – the largest Australian loss in a single action of the war.
Australians at home initially supported the war, but became disenchanted as the conflict dragged on, especially as the effects on the Boer civilian population became known. The court-martial and subsequent execution of Harry “Breaker” Morant and Peter Handcock also increased anti-war sentiment in Australia. But despite the controversies the desire to recognise those who had served and sacrificed in the name of their new nation remained strong.
Indeed, that sense continues today over a century since the end of the war. I am very pleased that fundraising for the National Boer War Memorial on Anzac Avenue in Canberra has received some recent impetus. With less than $300,000 required to completely fund the project I implore everyone to encourage friends and relatives to make a donation so that the dedication may proceed in 12 months’ time.
Many of you will be aware that our own Victorian South African War Memorial, located not far from here, will need to be relocated to make way for the Domain Station of the Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel project.
This memorial is more correctly named the South African Soldiers War Memorial, and honours the soldiers who fought and died in the Boer War. Like the forthcoming National Boer War Memorial this Victorian Memorial took some time to come to be realised. A campaign to raise funds from the public began in 1911 and some thirteen years later the grey granite obelisk memorial was dedicated in 1924.
In all, just over 23,000 Australians served in South Africa and nearly 1,000 died in action, or from wounds, or from disease. Victorians comprised almost a quarter of these figures.
The South African Soldiers’ War Memorial is of historical, aesthetic and social importance to the state of Victoria. Its size and landmark position imbue the memorial with a strong, symbolic presence. It is the only memorial built in Victoria to commemorate all Australians who took part in the war, rather than local soldiers. The South African Soldiers’ War Memorial is significant as the major memorial associated with the Boer War in Victoria. It deserves our highest respect.
The Boer War was the first full commitment of troops by all the Australian Colonies to a foreign war, and with the formation of the Australian Commonwealth on the 1st January 1901 it became our country’s first military involvement as a Nation. The service and sacrifice of Australians in this war deserves to be respected and remembered.
Marcus Fielding was born and raised in Melbourne. He joined the Australian Regular Army in 1983 and graduated from the Royal Military College Duntroon as a Lieutenant in 1986.
In the following decades of military service Marcus held a broad range of senior appointments in Army, defence and interagency organisations in a number of locations throughout Australia and overseas.
Marcus has participated in four operational deployments. In 1992 he directed operations to clear land mines in Afghanistan. In 1995 he coordinated infrastructure construction projects in Haiti.
In 1999 and 2000 Marcus directed security operations and coordinated the repatriation of displaced persons as part of the Australian-led international force in East Timor. For his work in East Timor, he was awarded a Commendation for Distinguished Service.
In 2004 and 2005 he was the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment in Townsville – a unit of some 400 soldiers that formed part of the high readiness brigade of some 5,000 soldiers.
In 2008 and 2009 Marcus spent nine months in Baghdad as an ‘action officer’ in the Headquarters Multi-National Force–Iraq. He published a book of his experiences in Iraq titled Red Zone Baghdad.
Colonel Fielding transferred from full-time to part-time service with the Australian Army in 2011. He now runs his own small business in Melbourne and provides specialist advice to a range of organisations.
Contact Marcus Fielding about this article.