Boer War

Australia and the Boer War, 1899–1902

During the Napoleonic wars Britain acquired the southern tip of Africa which was shared between British colonies and independent republics of Dutch-Afrikaner settlers, known as Boers.  It was an uneasy relationship between the two nationalities and when gold and diamonds were discovered in the Boer republics, British subjects flooding into the Boer territory in search of wealth, provoked the situation.

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 or, from 1901, by the new Australian Commonwealth, serving mostly in mounted units formed in each colony.  Those who enlisted were mostly from the country areas, young men who could ride well, shoot well and live off the land.

The Australians at home initially supported the war, but became disenchanted as the conflict dragged on, especially as the effects on Boer civilians became known.

The conflict in South Africa is generally divided into three phases:

  • The early phase, from October to December 1899, when the British armies, mainly infantry, were defeated or besieged by highly mobile Boer mounted troops
  • The second phase, from December 1899 until September 1900, which involved a British counter-offensive, resulting in the capture of most of the major towns and cities of South Africa
  • The third and longest phase, from September 1900 to May 1902, when the war was mainly a guerrilla conflict between British mounted troops and Boer irregulars.

It is generally thought that about 16,000 Australians fought in the Boer War.  The nature of the conditions under which the war was fought can be deduced from the fact that in the Australian contingents, 282 died in action or from wounds sustained in battle, while 286 died from disease and another 38 died of accident or other unknown causes.  Six Australians received the Victoria Cross in South Africa, and many others received other decorations.

SOURCES: Australian War Memorial