Military Cemetery At Springfontein, South Africa

Boer War, 1899-1902

European colonialism was at the heart of this conflict. From early in the nineteenth century the southern tip of Africa had been shared between the British and Dutch settlers and the relationship was an uneasy one. The Afrikaners or Boers, were descendants of the original seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch settlers. The discovery of gold and diamonds in the Boer republics in the 1880’s further intensified the rivalry, as British subjects traveled into Boer territories in search of wealth. The unease spilt over into the first Boer War that was fought between the British and the Boers from 16 December 1880 until 23 March 1881.

Years Active

Australians Served

Australians Killed
The Victorian Infantry in Belmont, South Africa shortly before action in the Boer War.

The second Boer War broke the uneasy truce since the end of first war hostilities. As loyal subjects of the British Empire, around 16000 Australians volunteered to fight for “the mother country” against the Boers. The onset of the war was pre-Federation, when Australia was still made up of six colonies and each of the colonies sent contingents to support Britain. Partially as a consequence of this, enlistment detail is notoriously inaccurate. In many cases, formal enlistment did not occur until arrival in Africa.

Fig. 1

Post-Federation in 1901, an additional three contingents were raised by the new Commonwealth of Australia but most arrived too late or were still at sea when the war ended on 31 May 1902, with a British victory. All Boers became British subjects upon the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging. Ironically, within nine years South Africa became a self-governing dominion led by former Boer generals.

Approximately 600 Australian soldiers died in the Boer War; about half from military action and half from disease.

The Boer War spawned the first military folk-heroes in Australia, including the legend of Private Harry (“Breaker”) Morant which became the subject of books, a stage play and a 1980 film adaptation by Australian Director Bruce Beresford.

Battle Horses

A horse being offloaded in a sling at Port Elizabeth, South Africa (known then as Cape Colony) during the Second Boer War.

Horses played a vital role in the Boer war. Reputedly over 360 000 horses were shipped into South Africa, as well as vast numbers of mules and donkeys.

In the field of battle, horses had many roles including the carriage of infantry, cavalry conflict where the soldier stays on his horse and as gun-horses which dragged large guns to the front. Different breeds of horses were better-equipped naturally for these various tasks. The breeds and varieties of horses actively engaged in the Boer War included Argentinian and Burmese ponies, English chargers and Cape horses.

The uniquely Australian colonial horse, “The Waler” was the preferred mount for Australian troops. Approximately 16 000 were shipped to the Boer War; in approximate alignment to the number of Australian troops. The Waler arose from cross-breeding of a number of breeds brought to the new colonies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and was considered a versatile work-horse, with good weight-carrying capabilities, speed and endurance.

Walers were bred not just for domestic needs but to supply a lucrative export trade, initially to the British army in India. The term “Waler” was coined by the British in India for those horses that were bred in the colony of New South Wales, but breeding of the Waler was not limited to north of the Murray river. In fact, Walers were reputedly bred and supplied to the British and then Australian army from Gidney’s Farm, which formed part of the contemporary Aintree site.
The Boer War conditions took great toll on horses. Many were ill-equipped for the tasks they were required to undertake. Approximately 60% died in combat or as a result of mistreatment or disease. Many were slaughtered for their meat.

This was the initial engagement of the Waler horse in combat. From this bloody beginning the breed later became legendary for its feats of endurance and courage with the Australian Light Horse regiments during World War 1, when approximately 121 000 Walers were engaged in the North African desert campaigns and later France.

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