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Category: Boer War

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New Zealand and the Boer War

The South African or Second Boer War was a pivotal point in New Zealand's military history. It involved more than 450,000 imperial and colonial troops and claimed more than 80,000 lives.

The war was the culmination of long-standing tensions between Great Britain, the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. In 1877 Great Britain had annexed the Transvaal, which was in a parlous state. 

In the First Boer War of 1880-81 the Boers of Transvaal rebelled against British rule, and after defeating local British forces in a series of engagements were granted a limited form of independence.

<<< 3 NZ soldiers of the 10th New Zealand Contingent to the Boer War

The discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886 led to the influx of thousands of mainly British Uitlanders (foreigners). The Transvaal's refusal to grant the Uitlanders citizenship led to increasing tensions with Great Britain, which were exacerbated in 1895 by the abortive Jameson raid.

Although the dispute over rights of the Uitlanders was the immediate cause of the war, it was in essence a clash between the British desire to dominate South Africa and the Boer desire for independence.

On 28 September 1899 the New Zealand Parliament approved a Government proposal to offer Great Britain a contingent of just over 200 mounted riflemen to serve in South Africa in the event of war. The British Government gladly accepted New Zealand's offer of assistance.

Within a few days hundreds of men from New Zealand's tiny regular forces and it's Volunteer Force had applied to serve in the contingent, and were training at Karori, Wellington, when war broke out between Great Britain and the Boer Republics on 11 October.

Commanded by Major Alfred Robin, the contingent arrived in South Africa on 23 November and was soon in action with French's cavalry division near Colesburg. 

On 28 December Private George Bradford became the first New Zealand soldier to lose his life in an overseas conflict when he died of wounds received in a clash ten days earlier.

The highly mobile and well-armed Boer forces began the war by attacking the British possessions of Natal and Cape Colony. They besieged the towns of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith, and in December inflicted a series of defeats on the British in what became known as "Black Week." The British government responded by sending it's two most famous generals to South Africa - Field-Marshall Lord Roberts as Commander-in-Chief and General Lord Kitchener as his chief of staff.

"ROUGH RIDERS" - News of the British reverses led the New Zealand government to organise a Second Contingent. 

The government also agreed to the dispatch of a Third Contingent, largely organised and paid for by a committee of prominent Christchurch citizens and other members of the public. 

This contingent sailed from Lyttleton on 17 February 1900, and the following month the Fourth Contingent, raised in a similar manner by a committee of Dunedin citizens, sailed for South Africa. These contingents were known as "Rough Riders," because they consisted mainly of men who were not volunteers but were good horsemen and marksmen.

Lieutenant William John Berry, the commanding officer of the Napier Guards Rifle Volunteers, enlisted in the Third (NZ) Contingent on 10 February 1900. Berry was a 29 year-old saddler who was married with two children. He sailed from Lyttelton on 17 February 1900 amid scenes of great excitement, but fell ill shortly after his arrival in South Africa, dying of pneumonia in Johannesburg on 10 June 1900. 
New Zealand Defence Force Archives

In its early stages in particular, the war enjoyed overwhelming public support in New Zealand. Large sums were raised to organise and equip the Third and Fourth Contingents and provide comforts for the New Zealand troops. Most Maori supported the war, and many expressed a wish to serve in South Africa but were, in theory, barred from serving in South Africa by the British policy of not employing "native" troops in the conflict. In fact, the New Zealand authorities generally ignored the British ban and a significant number joined the New Zealand contingents.}

On 15 January 1900 a detachment from the First Contingent distinguished themselves when they smashed a Boer attempt to seize a hill overlooking their camp at Slingersfontein. Their gallant conduct was recognised by the site of the action being renamed New Zealand Hill.

The same month the reinforced and reorganised British forces took the offensive. Kimberley was relieved by a mounted force, which included the New Zealand contingent, on 15 February. Later in the month Roberts decisively defeated the Boers at Paardeberg and the siege at Ladysmith was lifted.

On 13 March Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State fell to British forces which included the New Zealanders.

 Private Henry Coutts was awarded one of the four service scarves knitted by Queen Victoria for presentation to colonial soldiers who performed acts of bravery for rescuing a wounded comrade during a Boer ambush near Bloemfontein.

The New Zealanders took part in the advance through the Transvaal to Johannesburg and Pretoria, which were both in British hands by early June. Great Britain annexed the Orange Free State on 28 May 1900 and the Transvaal on 25 October 1900. On 29 November, the Second and Third Contingents showed considerable bravery and had five men killed and 21 wounded in a battle at Rhenoster Kop, east of Pretoria. This action, in which the British forces rather foolishly and unsuccessfully attacked a Boer force occupying a very strong position, was the last conventional battle of the war. The bulk of the First New Zealand Contingent left South Africa in October or December 1900.

From late 1900 those Boer who were determined to continue their resistance to British rule split up into smaller commandoes and adopted guerrilla tactics. They kept control of most of the countryside in the former-Boer republics and abandoned their heavy equipment to make their forces more mobile. Roberts, and later Kitchener, responded by forming mobile columns to seek out and destroy the Boer commandoes. These columns also removed or destroyed agricultural supplies and livestock and rounded up Boer civilians who were incarcerated in concentration camps. The Second and Third New Zealand Contingents spent the last months of their service in South Africa on anti-guerrilla operations, which involved arduous treks interspersed with sniping, ambushes and skirmishes with a skilful and elusive enemy.

DISEASE RIFE - The Fourth and Fifth New Zealand Contingents arrived at Beira in Portuguese East Africa between 26 April and 10 May 1900. Congestion on the railway linking Beira with Rhodesia meant that the contingents had to spend several weeks at camps where malaria and dysentery were rife. Many men became seriously ill and as Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart Newall, the Commander of the Fifth Contingent, remarked in his diary, they "soon formed a rather sorry phalanx of warriors." 

The New Zealanders spent more than two months making an arduous journey by rail and on horseback to Bulawayo in Rhodesia and then to Mafeking.

Between August 1900 and May 1901 the contingents fought many skirmishes and conducted a series of arduous marches during operations against Boer commandoes in the western Transvaal. 

The most successful action was the capture of General De La Rey's artillery, supply column and 135 prisoners on 24 March 1901. Near Naauwport on 28 January 1901 Farrier-Sargent William Hardham rescued a wounded comrade under heavy enemy fire. 

<<< Hardham VC

For this act of exceptional bravery Hardham became the only New Zealander to be awarded a Victoria Cross during the war.

The Sixth Contingent arrived in South Africa on 13 March 1901 and was soon involved in a series of treks through northern Transvaal covering more than 640 kilometres. Men would spend 11 or 12 hours alternately riding and leading their horses, sleeping often in the open and surviving on hard army biscuits and bully beef, supplemented by livestock looted from Boer farms. Inadequate support for the mobile columns meant ragged uniforms infested with lice, and at the end of June the Sixth Contingent staged a "general strike" in protest.

The Seventh New Zealand Contingent, which had been raised to replace the Fourth Contingent, landed in South Africa on 10 May 1901. The contingent had some success with dawn raids on Boer laagers (camps), which were an important feature of British tactics in the latter part of the war. By late 1901 the number of Boer guerrillas who were still active had been substantially reduced, but thousands of the most determined and effective fighters were still in the field.

The British authorities in South Africa responded with a new three-prong strategy. Boer civilians were no longer to be rounded up and placed in insanitary concentration camps, where thousands had died of disease. Instead they were to be left in the countryside where the guerrillas would have to take responsibility for them. Protected areas were established which were guarded by lines of blockhouses linked by barbed wire entanglements. "New-model" drives were organised in which British columns established a cordon of men right across the area and then moved forward sweeping the Boers ahead of them towards the blockhouse lines.

It was during the second of the new style drives in eastern Orange Free State that the New Zealanders suffered their heaviest losses of the war in a desperate action at Bothasberg.  


Un-official medallion issued for the NZ Rough Riders. Originally gold plated.

TRAGIC ACCIDENT - The 1000-strong Eighth New Zealand Contingent arrived in South Africa in mid-March 1902. It took part in a major drive against Boer guerrillas, and in mid-April had 16 men killed and 11 seriously injured in a tragic rail accident at Machavie in the Transvaal. The Boers were now in a desperate military situation, and on 31 May 1902 their representatives signed a peace treaty with Great Britain. The Ninth and Tenth New Zealand Contingents arrived too late to see any significant action. On 4 June 1902 Lieutenant Robert McKeich became the last New Zealander to be killed in action when he was shot in an unfortunate clash with a group of Boers who did not know the war was over.

Of the New Zealand units which served in South Africa, 71 were killed in action or died of wounds, 25 were accidentally killed and 133 died of disease. An unknown number of New Zealanders lost their lives while serving with non-New Zealand units. More than half of the deaths were caused by typhoid fever - "the dread enteric."

New Zealand dispatched ten contingents with a total strength of 6,500 to South Africa. A substantial number of New Zealanders also served in the war with other colonial forces or with the British Army. Most of this group joined the many mounted units specially raised for service in South Africa, but others served in a wide variety of roles.

The New Zealand contingents were highly regarded. The Times History of the War in South Africa, for instance, concluded that after they had gained some experience, the New Zealanders were "on average the best mounted troops in South Africa."

In many ways the South African war set the pattern for New Zealand's later involvement in the two world wars. Specially raised units, consisting mainly of volunteers, were dispatched overseas to serve with forces from elsewhere in the British Empire. The success enjoyed by the New Zealand troops fostered the idea that New Zealanders were naturally good soldiers who required only a modicum of training to perform creditably. The war also strengthened New Zealanders' sense of national identity, which centred on the physical and military capabilities of the New Zealand male. At the same time the war enhanced the ties of sentiment and shared interests which bound New Zealand to Great Britain and the other parts of the British Empire.

By John Crawford - NZ Defence Quarterly - Spring 1999

Extracts from: To Fight for the Empire: An illustrated History of New Zealand and the South African War 1899-1902 by John Crawford with Ellen Ellis - in association with the Historical Branch Department of Internal Affairs - Reed Publishing


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