The Boer War

THE ANZACS AT Gallipoli have not only eclipsed the greater Australian involvement on the Western Front, but have occluded another war altogether. This is the Boer War – more properly the Second Boer War – fought in South Africa from 1899 to 1902, where our troops actually saw real action in Africa, unlike the Sudan contingent of 1884. There would be some twenty thousand Australians involved, a proportion of the population equivalent to the number who served in Vietnam. And importantly, there are a number of ways the war cast a long shadow over Australia.

It was in South Africa that the distinctive qualities of Australian soldiers were first identified: tenacious fighters able to live off the land, sceptical of military rules and procedures, and in matters of discipline (as a British officer put it) ‘curiously lax’. Even so, the Boer War slipped from public consciousness relatively quickly. Although some two hundred monuments went up across the country, a number were shifted and some disappeared. The national monument in Melbourne – a plinth near the Shrine of Remembrance – is often overlooked even by historians. (A new one is currently being erected in Canberra.) The longer they lived, the more Boer War veterans felt sidelined. Some young people even thought it had been a foreign war.

There are a number of reasons why the war quietly faded away. Collect-ive memory of the Boer War was soon swamped by the Great War. The total 518 deaths were eclipsed by those killed at Gallipoli alone in a week or two; given this, it is not surprising that the Australian War Memorial should have seen its commemoration as effectively beginning with the later conflict. The Australians in South Africa were integrated with British regiments, took no distinctive part in major battles and, embarrassingly, lost slightly more men to disease than to enemy action. The low profile of the Australian contingents in the war contributed to its relegation.

Moreover, in important respects, this was a colonial war. The first Commonwealth contingent did not set out till it was nearly over; the soldiers’ affiliations were usually with the colonies (then states), and they preferred it that way. Even so, South Africa was also seen as an Australian frontier: volunteers, much better paid than the British soldiery, were keen to follow Australian miners there, and hopefully make their fortune. When, in 1902, the shire of Kilmore in Victoria faced the expenses of celebrations for both the new king and the impending peace in South Africa, it opted for the latter. Compared with ‘opening up a new country in South Africa’, Edward VII’s coronation ‘was a secondary matter’.

COMING WHEN IT did, the Boer War crystallised a double, British–Australian identity. The ‘union’ with the motherland was ‘now cemented by their blood’, proclaimed the British colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain. Indeed, Chamberlain held out the prospect of Australia being consulted with regard to the postwar settlement in South Africa. In 1900, he conceded that the projected High Court, rather than his preferred (British) Privy Council, should be empowered to deal with Australian constitutional issues. This concession was made the day before Mafeking was relieved. It was a receipt for military aid; or perhaps, given that the future founder of the Boy Scouts was still cooped up in the besieged town, a proficiency badge.

The new Australian federation was felt to have been ratified by participation in the war. And at that moment – in contrast to the Canadians, say – something entered Australia’s DNA.

Ever since, we have rushed to volunteer troops for overseas service, in support of a great and powerful friend. (I do not refer here to Menzies’ famous 1939 statement, ‘Great Britain is at war; therefore Australia is at war’. That was a simple statement of contemporary legalities.) Nor has this impulse been confined to the conservative side of politics alone.

In 1990, Bob Hawke was quick to announce the sending of battleships to the Persian Gulf, in support of America’s first Iraq war. He did not have the approval of the full Cabinet, and his was a rather broad interpretation of a Security Council resolution. Similarly Tony Abbott, in the way conservative leaders somehow manage to coincide their Washington visits with first-class crises, easily slid in 2013 into offering our support in Iraq. Since then, of course, troops have been despatched. And unlike the United Kingdom – or following Hawke’s initiative in the Gulf War – there was no debate of the issue in parliament.

Of course, such a commitment is helping an ally. But as people need reminding, ANZUS is not NATO. There is no strong commitment to military aid in the event of attack, just consultations. And so we have to demonstrate our attachment to America again and again, to prove our worthiness. The assumption is abiding affinity, a convergence of interests – as was assumed in the British Empire at its peak.

The corollary is that we have no sixth sense, as other countries do, of how their activities will be read internationally. Reintroducing knights and dames while turning back asylum seekers – when the two are placed alongside – can look very much like a White Australia hankering after the late British Empire. Similarly, the recent change in designation of East Jerusalem from ‘occupied’ to ‘disputed’ is not, given its singularity, the action of a country used to conducting a sophisticated foreign policy. The sending of troops overseas, effectively beginning with the Boer War, has induced in us a sense of always being secondary players – with diminished responsibility. Sharing some premises with British embassies, as is planned, will only strengthen the perception that basically we behave like a satellite. Of course, it is justified on economic grounds as cost cutting. That is precisely the kind of folly that happens when countries think of and describe themselves as economies, rather than nations.

As sport looms ever larger in Australian life – the Christian citadel of Good Friday has just fallen to the AFL – so too has there been some convergence with the military. For some time now, there has been a special Anzac Day football match – televised complete with advertisements recruiting for the army. Meanwhile, sporting teams seeking to build team spirit as well as raise fitness have deliberately chosen to walk the Kokoda ‘Trail’. Military and sporting consciousness seem to have accelerated together in recent years. Both draw on group identification and stirring individual action, united in the concept ‘Team Australia’. The effect is that Australians seem to be slipping into regarding war as sport with guns. This attitude was implanted, loosely, by the cheery departures of the colonial contingents to the Boer War. It has subsequently taken root because, while Australia was attacked during World War II, no actual engagement has been fought on Australian soil. War for us has always been a series of away matches.

AUSTRALIA’S INVOLVEMENT IN the Boer War may have been marginal, compared with the world wars that followed. But now that our soldiers have fought in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, together with unilateral operations elsewhere, it looks less aberrational. Limited actions (hopefully) are more likely to be the style of Australian participation in future wars. The Boer War is thus coming to be seen as more and more in the mainstream.

Country towns tell it true. In some of them, later war memorials
take their alignment from the Boer War one. Indeed, in the case of Casino, NSW, the later wars are but additions to the ‘Mafeking Lamp’ standing at the town’s main junction; the war becomes almost generative of Australia’s later military involvements.

Coming as it did just as we were entering Federation, the Boer War caught Australia on the hinge of history. Protocols for notifying the Australian government of important decisions involving our soldiers were not yet in place: Prime Minister Edmund Barton heard of the execution of Morant and Handcock only from a returning soldier. Such disregard, as well as other tensions, fed a determination that, in future, Australian troops abroad would be under Australian command. Meanwhile there remains what some see as the unfinished business of the Morant affair.

Scapegoats of the Empire, George Witton (the third man) memorably entitled his 1907 account of the affair. The title encapsulates the argument that the Australian troopers were sacrificial victims to a broader cause. In Bruce Beresford’s film Breaker Morant (1980), the scriptwriter came up with the wicked line, said by a British officer of the Australians, ‘They don’t understand our altruism, sir’. And it is a striking fact – if generally unnoticed – that the two men were shot on the national day of the Transvaal republic. As the British were anxious to bring the war to a close, and induce the Boers to surrender, this is scarcely likely to have been a coincidence.

Even so, there are serious difficulties in endorsing the campaign to secure pardons for Morant and Handcock. That it should even be contemplated reflects the postmodern practice that history is no longer granted integrity – in other words, it is no longer protected by the recognition expressed in the old saying d’autre temps, d’autre moeurs (other times, other customs). Apart from that, the argument that the pair should be pardoned on the basis of irregular procedure in their trial is fallacious. Narrowly, it might be correct – various legal worthies have argued so. But this totally disregards the subsequent enunciation and elaboration of war crimes, which would place any such pardon against the spirit of the later development of the laws of war.

Besides, if one is to judge the affair by the military law of 1902 – as has been urged – then the question of context must also be considered, which is exactly why tampering with history is a dodgy practice. The stickiest of the charges the three faced was the murder of the missionary Mr Heese, of which, for want of evidence and a serviceable alibi, they were acquitted. The enormity of this offence has paled with time, as secularism has advanced. But Mr Heese was not only an unarmed civilian; he would have commanded enormous respect as, the expression went, ‘a man of God’.

The ghost of ‘The Breaker’ still rides. And the shadow of the Boer War still falls, however long.


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