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South African War

by Jock Phillips

The South African War, which began in 1899, was the first war to which New Zealand sent soldiers to fight overseas. The country saw it as an opportunity to show its loyalty to Britain, and to show off their strong and adaptable soldiers.

Origins of the war

The South African War (1899–1902) was the first occasion on which New Zealand sent soldiers to an overseas war; it established traditions and precedents for subsequent conflicts.

Seddon’s war

Premier Richard Seddon was a great enthusiast for the war. He moved the parliamentary motion offering the troops, was present at most departures, insisted that the 1st Contingent arrive in South Africa before other colonial forces (although in fact a group of Lancers from New South Wales beat them) and, after the 1st Contingent, he personally appointed the officers. He made his own son, R. J. S. Seddon, lieutenant in the 4th Contingent – despite his lack of experience – and then replaced another officer with his son to command the North Island regiment of the 8th Contingent.

The war, also known as the Boer War or the Second Boer War, arose from Britain wanting to assert control in South Africa, while the Boer (who were descended mainly from Dutch settlers – boer means ‘farmer’ in Dutch) wanted to preserve the independence of their territories of the South African Republic – also known as Transvaal – and the Orange Free State. The issue was intensified by the fact that Transvaal was the site of major gold and diamond mines, and Uitlanders (foreigners, including British settlers) faced citizenship restrictions and did not have voting rights in Transvaal.

New Zealand enthusiasm

Although most New Zealanders knew little about southern Africa, there was huge enthusiasm for participation in a war against the Boers. Even before war was formally declared, the New Zealand Parliament became the first colonial legislature (though not the first colony) to offer troops. War was declared on 13 October 1899, and only eight days later a crowd said to be over 40,000 farewelled the 1st Contingent of troopers with patriotic music and ‘extraordinary scenes of enthusiasm.’1

There were a number of reasons why New Zealanders were so supportive of the war:

  • Most Pākehā New Zealanders had either migrated from the UK or were the children of migrants, and an appeal to Englishmen’s rights struck a responsive cord. In Parliament Seddon spoke of the ‘crimson tie’ to Britain.2
  • Imperial rivalries with Germany and Japan heightened loyalties to the British Empire, and it was strengthened by ideas of racial competition. In farewelling the troopers Seddon hoped that ‘our race … would, could and should be the dominant race of the world.’3
  • War was seen as restoring the ‘virility’ of the nation’s men in an era of cities and materialism.
  • The war was a way for New Zealand to gain international recognition.

Opposition was minimal – confined to some critics of capitalism such as Tommy Taylor, a few supporters of Irish nationalism, pacifists such as Wilhelmina Sherriff Bain, and J. Grattan Grey, the chief Hansard (parliamentary) reporter, who lost his job as a result.

  1. New Zealand Times, 23 October 1899. Back
  2. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol. 110, p. 75. Back
  3. New Zealand Times, 23 October 1899. Back

New Zealand’s contribution


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.

Khaki contingents

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.

The troopers in South Africa

First year of war

In the early stages of the war the Boers cut the railway linking Cape Colony with Rhodesia, and besieged both Ladysmith and Mafeking. The British responded by advancing north from Cape Colony. Johannesburg was captured on 31 May 1900, and Pretoria, the capital of Transvaal, on 5 June. By October both the Orange Free State and Transvaal had been annexed. It was assumed that mopping up would finish the war by the end of the year. The first five New Zealand contingents served in these operations.

A noted engagement for the New Zealanders came just over a month after the 1st Contingent had arrived, when 60 of them were occupying a hill overlooking Slingersfontain camp along with a Yorkshire regiment. When the Yorkshires came under severe attack, some of the New Zealanders charged with bayonets and the Boers turned and fled. In recognition of their efforts, the hill was renamed ‘New Zealand Hill’.

Last shots

Four days after the peace treaty was signed, two officers of the 9th Contingent, lieutenants Robert McKeich and Henry Rayne, rode out of camp to go shooting. They were surprised by three Boers who demanded they hand over their rifles and clothes. The Boers did not believe that peace had been declared and when McKeich resisted he was shot dead. Rayne shot one Boer dead, mortally wounded a second, and seriously wounded the third. Rayne was also wounded. McKeich, a butcher from Lawrence, and the two Boers were the last men killed by gunfire in the war.

Guerrilla war

Expectations of a quick victory were misplaced. With the British holding the main towns and railways, the Boers, moving fast and operating as small commando groups, sallied forth in quick guerrilla operations. The British responded by clearing the countryside of stock, burning crops and rounding up both Boer and African civilians into concentration camps, including women and children. This was partly so they could not supply food and support to the guerrilla fighters. The Six and Seventh contingents were involved in this.

This was not wholly successful, so in the final stages of the war the British left the women and children in the country, built blockhouses and began systematic sweeps to defeat the Boer guerrillas. In February 1902 the Boer leader Christiaan de Wet attempted to break the encroaching line. His men attacked at night with an advance screen of cattle at Langverwacht Hill, or Bothasburg as it was also known, in the Orange Free State. Members of the 7th Contingent were heavily involved and of some 90 men, 24 were killed and 41 wounded, making this the most costly action of the war for New Zealanders.

Eventually, on 31 May 1902 – not long after the 9th and 10th contingents had arrived – peace terms were signed.


Most of the men who served in South Africa had undergone little training and were quickly into action. The 1st Contingent saw fighting within two weeks of arrival and they had little time to acclimatise. This seriously affected the horses, which were otherwise of superior quality.

The troopers’ equipment was poor, and on trek they had inadequate food – hard dry biscuits, bully beef (canned meat), sugar and tea. They tried to supplement this with much foraging. Their clothing quickly became ragged and was not replaced, which led men of the 6th Contingent to strike. They were not issued with soap and their clothing quickly became infected by lice. Often they had no blankets, and while it could be hot during the day on the veldt (open plains), it could be bitterly cold at night.

A lousy war

An officer of the 6th Contingent wrote: ‘My men … had to make the shirt, drawers and socks last six months without a change; and as opportunities for washing them seldom occurred, they became infected with vermin, which nearly distracted them. It was no uncommon sight to see a whole regiment, when halted for a few minutes, take off their shirts and go ahunting for the little pests.’1

Adding to the strain was the lack of rest and recreation, which explained why most troopers were keen to return home at the end of their 12-month term.

Sickness was rife – men suffered from malaria and typhoid (or enteric fever), and when they were wounded on the trek far from hospitals sepsis (infection) often developed. There were also riding accidents.


Not surprisingly 133 troopers died from disease (over half from enteric fever), which represented more than half of the total deaths of 230. Of the other casualties, 71 were either killed in action or died of wounds, and 26 were accidentally killed – 16 of these were members of the 8th Contingent who died in a railway accident at Machavie. The 8th Contingent returned home in a ship that had not been properly disinfected, and many arrived home suffering from measles and pneumonia.

  1. Quoted in John Crawford and Ellen Ellis, To fight for the empire: an illustrated history of New Zealand and the South African War, 18991902. Auckland: Reed in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1999, p. 68. Back

The legacy


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.

Military characteristics

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.

Military traditions

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.

  1. Quoted in D. O. W. Hall, The New Zealanders in South Africa, 18991902. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, War History Branch, 1949, p. 88. Back

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How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'South African War', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012