New Zealand’s entry into the South African War released great national pride in the country’s contribution to the empire, and the achievements of the men in battle strengthened these sentiments.
The figure of Zealandia – a woman representing the country – became a common motif, and appeared on two memorials to those who fought in the South African War. Beneath the Zealandia memorial at Waimate the inscription runs: ‘in Commemoration of the South African War in which New Zealand represented by her 6500 volunteers for the first time took part in the battles of Empire and assisted to maintain the prestige of the British flag.’ The patriotism unleashed by the war was not one independent of Britain, but rather a nationalism which was defined by New Zealand’s contribution to the British Empire.
British plaudits for the New Zealanders in South Africa were endlessly recited in New Zealand. The Times claimed ‘that after they had a little experience they were, by general consent, regarded as on the average the best mounted troops in South Africa.’1 The nationalistic impulse was reflected in a desire that the New Zealand contingents serve in one national unit rather than be divided among various forces, as occurred with the early contingents.
Mateship in action
The only New Zealander to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the war was Farrier Sergeant William Hardham of the 4th Contingent. In January 1901 Hardham faced heavy fire to go and give help to a wounded fellow trooper whose horse had been killed. Hardham mounted the soldier on his horse and guided him to safety. Another hero because of his concern for his mates was Private Henry Coutts, who rescued a wounded non-commissioned officer in an ambush in March 1900. He was awarded a scarf knitted by Queen Victoria.
In defining the achievement of their soldiers, New Zealanders came to define themselves – or at least their men. It was claimed that the New Zealanders were physically large and strong, and able to endure privation. They were seen to be adaptable and able to think for themselves, as compared with the passive over-disciplined English Tommies. They were gifted amateurs and volunteers so different from the class-bound British professionals. They were also considered a supportive group who looked after their mates.
The high reputation of the troopers established certain military traditions in New Zealand, such as the belief in a volunteer army rather than a professional one. This was an important precedent for the later world wars. The idea that New Zealanders were ‘natural soldiers’, who did not need extensive training, was perhaps less helpful in future.
The war also provided experience for a number of soldiers who became significant leaders in the First World War. These included Alfred Robin, commander of the First Contingent, Edward Chaytor who served in the 3rd and 8th contingents, and Herbert Hart who served in the 9th Contingent.
The war encouraged an increase in military activities at home. There was a rise in the number of Volunteers from 7,000 in June 1899 to 17,000 in July 1901. There was an even more dramatic increase in school cadets. In 1897 there were only 2,138 cadets. In 1902 the cadet system was centralised under the department of education and military drill was made compulsory two years later. By 1907 there were over 15,000 school cadets.
A long wait
In 1901 a staff officer, Major N. L. D. Smith, compiled a report as a first stab at a formal history of the New Zealanders in South Africa. In 1902 a Christchurch journalist, W. D. Campbell, began to write a history but gave up. In 1903 an army officer, Captain J. R. Macdonald, also began the task and then abandoned it. In 1909 Lieutenant F. E. Beamish apparently completed a historical account, but it was lost. In 1931 J. A. Shand wrote a long history, but it was judged unpublishable. Finally, in 1949 D. O. W. Hall, a member of the War History Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs, completed a short (97-page) official history.
Remembering the war
Within several years of the end of the war communities throughout the country put up about 50 memorials. They commemorated both the war and those who had served or died in South Africa. They expressed the ideals which the war had represented – fern leaves intertwined with oak leaves, British lions and union jacks were common motifs, and in Dunedin a heroic trooper protected his mate.
In 1920 a South African War Veterans Association was formed, which lasted until 1980.
Written histories of the war had to wait rather longer. There were several published reminiscences by veterans, but the first official history did not appear until 1949 – 50 years after the declaration of war.