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Research Guides


The Boer War: Australians and the War in South Africa, 1899–1902


Appendix 4: Suggestions for further research

Much of Australia's Boer War history is unknown, and will become better understood when researchers begin to exploit relevant material in the National Archives of Australia. There is much work to be done, with many questions suitable for tackling in an honours thesis or journal article.

Some characteristics of the members of Victorian contingents to the war are known through Max Chamberlain's work entitled 'The characteristics of Australia's Boer War volunteers' (Historical Studies, vol. 20, no. 78, April 1982, pp. 48–52). Other important characteristics, such as prior military service, are unknown, while other contingents remain unstudied. Nor has there been a comparison made with non-Australian troops. We do not even know how many Australians fought in the war. The accepted number is, in fact, merely a tally of enlistments into contingents leaving Australia. Many soldiers enlisted twice, and many more joined non-Australian units in South Africa. A careful statistical study of the muster rolls held by the National Archives should fill these gaps, and can be checked against Chamberlain's work and Murray's Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa.

We know surprisingly little about the experience of Australians at the front, where actions, some of which have been studied, were few. The typical experience consisted of a cramped voyage to a South African port, a cramped rail journey into the interior, a difficult adjustment to unfamiliar officers and discipline, endless patrols on horseback, a few weeks in hospital with a gastric illness, more patrols, and another long, cramped, rail and sea journey back to Australia or enlistment into a local unit being raised in Cape Town or Pretoria. Soldiers' letters, of which the Australian War Memorial has many, and officers' reports, of which the National Archives has some, could be studied and a full evocation made of Australians at the front. What they made of their imperial colleagues, their enemies, and their black labourers would be interesting to know. All this should, ideally, be checked against the experience of at least one non-Australian unit in the war so that institutional (Australians were citizen soldiers, and much that seemed odd about the 'Tommies' derived from the latter being regular soldiers) or even simply human characteristics are not mistaken for nascent national ones.

The home front, apart from dissent against the war, has been lost to sight. A fine study could be made of the more numerous supporters, the ordinary men and women who helped raise contingents, farewelled them, filled the coffers of the patriotic funds, read the war news, celebrated when Mafeking was relieved, and welcomed home their local boys. Also forgotten are the businesses which clamoured for, and won, war contracts. An economic historian might want to investigate whether war contracts helped pull some businesses fully out of the 1890s depression, and whether the export of 5 000 or more rural men eased the unemployment which accompanied Australia's worst drought. The National Archives and the State archives have much correspondence on war contracts, while local newspapers are the best source for the war's impact on ordinary Australians.

The initial commitment to war made by Australian colonial governments from July to October 1899 is well known. What of the subsequent commitments made in late 1899, early 1901 and early 1902? Regrettably there is little useful material in the National Archives, though the State archives may hold material and the press at least gives an insight into the popular mood which at times forced the politicians' hands.

The personal aftermath of war, again little known, might be understood through the pension and medical records held by the National Archives, the Australian War Memorial and the state archives, notably the Queensland State Archives. Correspondence on the erection of war memorials is also common and, as Ken Inglis has shown in his recent book Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (Miegunyah Press at Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1998), reveals community aesthetics and martial attitudes.


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