WARS – BOER (SOUTH AFRICAN) WAR, 1899–1902
New Zealand offered troops for service in South Africa before the war began in October 1899; this action of Seddon's Government showed a new conception of imperial unity. The war fell into two stages. In the first, after initial reverses, the British Army defeated the Boer commandos as a field force and by September 1900 had occupied the main towns of the Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and their railways. The second phase of the war was the unexpectedly difficult subduing of guerilla bands. The open country (or “veldt”) was ringed with blockhouses, cleared of people, stock, and food, and combed almost yard by yard in a series of immense drives. Highly mobile and skilful in ambush, the fighting burghers at length surrendered in May 1902, largely through starvation.
New Zealand mounteds took part in both phases. Ten contingents of volunteers, totalling nearly 6,500 men with 8,000 horses, sailed for Africa (the Ninth and Tenth, over 2,000 men, arrived too late to see much service). The term of service was one year. The cost was slight, under £500,000 including money raised by public subscription, Britain bearing the rest. Seventy New Zealanders died in the war as the result of action; 25 were accidentally killed; 133 died of disease; wounded numbered 166. Doctors, nurses, and veterinary surgeons also served, and some teachers helped to educate Boer children in internment camps.
The first three contingents (737), the First and Second recruited from the peacetime Volunteers, took a full part in Lord Roberts' operations in 1900 against the main Boer armies. At Slingersfontein, in January, some First Contingent men held a hilltop salient against a determined assault by superior Boer forces whom they dispersed with a bayonet charge in one of the few hand-to-hand engagements of the war; it was named New Zealand Hill in their honour. The three contingents also distinguished themselves at Sanna's Post, Diamond Hill, and Rhenoster Kop. The Fourth Contingent (467) joined the Rhodesian Field Force in May 1900 via Portuguese East Africa. One of its men, Farrier Sergeant W. J. Hardham, in January 1901 won the V.C. for rescuing a wounded comrade under heavy fire. The Fifth Contingent (527) also joined in Rhodesia. The Sixth Contingent (579) and the Seventh (594) arrived in early 1901 to replace time-expired troops. The Eighth Contingent reached Africa in March 1902, still in time for some arduous service.
At Langverwacht (or Bothasberg) in February 1902 the Seventh Contingent was engaged in severe action. A British drive was enclosing a large force of Boers who under cover of night used a screen of cattle to approach the driving line; they struck with overwhelming force a section held by New Zealanders who suffered 65 casualties in a unit of about 80. Although some 600 burghers rode through the gap thus made, the Boers also suffered heavily and the remainder of their force surrendered shortly afterwards.
New Zealanders were well suited to service as mounted riflemen in Africa and, in common with other Commonwealth contingents, were highly valued by their British commanders. Partly because of a persistent belief in a short war, very little by modern standards was done for the welfare of the troops.
by David Oswald William Hall, M.A., Director, Adult Education, University of Otago (retired).
- “The Times” History of the War in South Africa, Amery, L. S. (ed.), (7 vols., 1900–09)
- The Great Boer War, Doyle, A. C. (1901)
- The Colonials in South Africa, 1899–1902, Stirling, John (1902)
- Diary of the Second New Zealand Mounted Rifles, Cradock, M. (n.d.)
- The New Zealanders in South Africa, 1899–1902, Hall, D. O. W. (1949).