New Zealand sent 10 contingents to the war, involving a total of about 6,500 men. The first five contingents of some 1,800 men set sail within six months of the start of the war. The last three contingents (about half the total who served) arrived at or towards the end of the war and saw limited action.
The men were required to be at least 5 foot 6 inches (167 centimetres) tall, and aged 25–40. The 1st Contingent was drawn from Volunteers (reservists). It was hoped that they would be all New Zealand-born, but in fact fewer than two-thirds were. Later contingents were drawn from those who volunteered, and were then given medical, riding and shooting tests. Because they were not trained, the 3rd and 4th contingents became known as ‘Rough Riders’.
The the first two contingents were paid for by the New Zealand government, the third by the people of Canterbury – who largely contributed the members of the first company of that contingent – and the 4th Contingent mainly by the people of Otago. Thereafter the contingents were paid for by the UK government. The occupations of the men who served were very representative of the male occupations of the country as a whole, and they came from all across New Zealand.
The troops were mounted riflemen, which meant that they used horses to travel to engagements but did not fight from their horses like cavalry. All the contingents except the 7th travelled to Africa with their mounts, and in all 8,000 horses went from New Zealand.
Premier Richard Seddon had wanted the 2nd Contingent to be half Māori, but this was rejected on the grounds that this was a ‘white man’s war’ and his offer for Māori to serve garrison (guard) duty elsewhere in the British Empire was also turned down. However, about 20 of the troopers were Māori with Pākehā names, and in New Zealand Māori were active in fundraising.
In their enthusiasm for the war in South Africa some New Zealand women dressed up in khaki costumes and slouch hats which imitated troopers’ uniforms – but with skirts. They also practised army drill. They were a precursor to the marching girls who became popular in the 1950s.
New Zealand women were as enthusiastic about the war as their brothers, but it was more difficult for women to find ways of serving. At least 35 went to South Africa as nurses, but apart from the first four, money for all their expenses had to be raised at home and they were confined to serving in large military hospitals away from the front. At the end of the war 20 women went to teach Boer children in the concentration camps they had been held in – they were known as the ‘Learned Eleventh’ contingent. In New Zealand women were significant in raising funds for the war and later for memorials; and they sent parcels of clothing and other goods to the men at the front.