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Research Guides


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


Introduction

The National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia ensures that full and accurate records documenting Commonwealth Government activities are created and kept. From this massive body of information, the Archives selects, cares for and makes available to all those records of continuing value. This collection constitutes the archives of the Commonwealth Government – a vast and rich resource for the study of Australian history, Australian society and the Australian people.

The collection spans almost 200 years of Australian history. The main focus of the collection is material which documents Federal Government activities since Federation in 1901. There are also significant holdings of nineteenth-century records which relate to functions transferred by the colonies to the Commonwealth Government at the time of Federation and subsequently. The records described in this guide are a small but significant part of the collection.

Access to the National Archives collection is provided free of charge in public reading rooms located in each capital city. Researchers are assisted by specialist reference staff and are provided with reference tools to help them identify and use the records in the collection. These reference tools include the RecordSearch and PhotoSearch databases,guides, publications and fact sheets. Researchers unable to visit a reading room may seek information and help by telephone, mail, facsimile or email.

RecordSearch and PhotoSearch provide information about agencies, persons and series as well as descriptions of over two million individual records. They are available for online searching in reading rooms located in all offices of the National Archives, at the Australian War Memorial and on the National Archives website.

The National Archives website provides more information about the Archives, its collection and the services it offers. A visit to the site will help you determine whether the Archives holds records relevant to your research. Fact sheets on various topics are also available on the Archives website.

The Boer War

The question of who would dominate South Africa was disputed throughout the nineteenth century. Black Africans were pushed aside by white Europeans, who fought among themselves for the subcontinent. Dominance seemed to pass to the British Empire when it ousted the Dutch by 1806 and gradually built up two settler colonies, Cape Colony in the south and Natal in the south-east. But the Boers, as the mostly rural descendants of Dutch and other early European colonists were called, 'trekked' inland, established two republics called the Transvaal and Orange Free State, and defied further British encroachment in a short war fought in 1881. Encroachment of a different sort soon followed. Cecil Rhodes, a diamond millionaire and fervent imperialist, seized the land north of the Transvaal, soon known as Rhodesia. The Boers could no longer trek northward to escape British influence. The discovery of gold in the Transvaal's Witwatersrand district brought a rush of immigrants from around the world, and especially from English-speaking societies, to exploit the new riches. The Transvaal Government welcomed the 'Uitlanders' (foreigners) but would not grant them the vote for some years, lest they chose British over Boer rule.

Most white citizens of the British Empire were unmoved by Rhodes' escapades and by the Uitlanders' lack of voting rights. But an influential minority thought differently. Some saw the Uitlanders as ordinary workers and Britons who had been unjustly denied political rights. The imperial government in London and other powerful supporters and shapers of the empire wanted to reverse the humiliation of 1881, win control of the gold mines, and strengthen the empire by transforming those of its white men who currently trained part-time as citizen soldiers into the British army's reserve. War in South Africa might achieve all these aims provided the Boers could be manoeuvred into the role of aggressors. Alfred Milner, Governor of Cape Colony, goaded the Boers into attack. Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for Colonies in the imperial government, asked the governments of the settler colonies, including the six colonies in Australia, to raise small contingents from their citizen soldiers to fight beside the British army. The colonial governments agreed, not always enthusiastically. In October 1899 the Boers invaded Natal and Cape Colony. The Boer War had begun.

The war is conventionally divided into three phases. During the first, which lasted until early 1900, the invading Boers, mostly farmers armed with rifles who rode small horses for mobility, routed the British army and the first of its citizen soldier auxiliaries, most of whom were recruited in South Africa among the Uitlanders. In the second phase, which lasted for most of 1900, the British army was heavily reinforced by contingents of mounted soldiers from Britain and the settler colonies, many of whom had had no previous military experience but, being mostly rural men, were thought able to fight the Boers on equal terms. This vast khaki force rolled back the Boers from British territory, invaded their republics, and captured their gold mines and capital cities. The war seemed over. Lord Roberts, the British commander, handed over what now seemed a police action to his chief of staff, Lord Kitchener, and returned to England a hero. Many of the contingents returned home in triumph.

But the Boers fought on, dispersing into small, highly mobile parties or 'commandos' which ambushed their enemies. Kitchener called for reinforcements from Britain and the colonies and organised powerful mounted columns which swept the countryside, seizing supplies, burning farms, and imprisoning women and children. His methods disillusioned some of his soldiers and provoked protest back home, but they wore down Boer resistance. Peace was declared in May 1902. The Transvaal and Orange Free State became part of a united British South Africa. The gold mines returned their rich yield to British investors. Plans were drafted to form a reserve for the British army from white men around the empire, though nothing came of these plans. The Boers were offered partnership in ruling the new dominion, and were assured that the imperial government would never push through the policy they most detested – granting legal equality and the vote to black and 'coloured' (mixed-race) Africans.

The Australian involvement in the war

Image 1: Patriotic fervour on display in the streets of Sydney.

Image 1: Patriotic fervour on display in the streets of Sydney.
NAA: B580, box 4
Enlarge image - View image gallery

Thousands of men who had lived in Australia at least part of their lives, many of whom were Uitlanders, fought in the war in irregular units raised in South Africa. Their actions were not part of the official Australian war effort, which ultimately saw six waves of small contingents despatched from Australia to fight.

The British army treated these contingents as it treated all units of specially-raised troops which arrived in South Africa, whether from the settler colonies or from Britain: as irregular troops, to be kept in small formations and placed under experienced generals. Australian governments had no control over their contingents once they sailed for South Africa. They did not want it, if only because it would make them partly responsible for the war's conduct and so liable to any domestic criticism of the war, while it would also upset the careful cost-sharing arrangements which saw the imperial government, and so the British taxpayer, meet almost all costs of keeping the Australian soldiers fed, clothed, equipped and paid.

By the close of 1899 the first wave of Australian contingents were being employed in South Africa guarding lines of communication. Some were briefly formed into an Australian regiment, an unpopular move because a large unit of irregulars was thought unlikely to be allowed to see much fighting. This and other preconceptions changed in December 1899 when the Boers inflicted three defeats on the British army during what was dubbed 'Black Week'. Fearing that this blow to British prestige would spark a general war between the great powers, the imperial government and leading citizens around the empire called for more contingents of citizen soldiers, ones that could ride and shoot as expertly as the Boer farmers. Most Australian colonial governments raised a second wave of contingents, now entirely composed of mounted riflemen who, like the Boers, rode horses for mobility but dismounted to fight.

Ordinary Australians, supervised by their governments, raised further contingents whose members had little experience as part-time citizen soldiers but were supposed to possess rough martial virtues inculcated by years of frontier life. The third wave, called 'citizen's bushmen', was raised, equipped and trained partly at public expense. The fourth wave, called 'imperial bushmen', relied almost entirely on the British taxpayer. The second, third and fourth waves of contingents, accompanied by 40 nurses, sailed away to thunderous applause from massed crowds. The war was now popular in Australia, especially given fears that continued defeat in South Africa might prompt Russia, France or Germany to attack the British Empire and pick off its isolated colonies.

The second wave of Australian contingents joined in Roberts' advance against the Boer capital cities. Some were in General John French's punishing cavalry ride that relieved Kimberley and its diamond mines from a Boer siege in February 1900. Some fought in the last real battle of the war a few days later at Paardeberg. Most rode in the mounted brigade led by Edward Hutton, who dreamed of forming an empire-wide citizen army after the war using Australians as its cavalry. The bushmen contingents assembled in Rhodesia as part of a Rhodesian Field Force formed to help prevent a Boer invasion. When the invasion failed to arrive, the bushmen rode south to relieve besieged Mafeking. They missed the chance to participate in a victory which led to wild rejoicing across the empire, but some won brief fame when they resisted a Boer siege at Elands River during thirteen days in July–August 1900. Wherever they fought, these contingents were deployed in much the same way: as squadron-sized units of horsemen which swept the countryside, searching for an elusive enemy and seeking to deny him provisions and support by looting and burning his farms.

Contingent members signed up to serve for a year, and from October 1900 most began to return to Australia. Kitchener's call for more troops resulted in a fifth wave of contingents (known as 'draft' contingents) being raised early in 1901. In theory the Australian colonies had passed their defence powers immediately to the new Commonwealth Government on 1 January, but a Commonwealth defence department was not formed until March, a General Officer Commanding not appointed until late in the year (it was to be Hutton), and Commonwealth Military Forces were not formed from the six colonies' military forces before mid-1903. So the draft contingents were raised by the colonial, now retitled State, governments, and given state identities – though there was some confusion over whether to describe them as bushmen and whether to count them as fifth or as fifth and sixth contingents. Most fought as regiment-sized formations led by their own officers. They conducted an even dirtier war than their predecessors, unbroken by clear victories and besmirched by the humiliating defeats of Wilmansrust and Onverwacht.

In contrast to the first wave of contingents the drafts were easily recruited, partly from veterans, mostly from young single urban men. Was military service proving a useful employer during mediocre economic times? Were some Australians developing a taste for war? Other Australians were hardening their attitude against it. The judicious support for the war during October 1899 and the war fever of December 1899–January 1900 had given way after Mafeking Day in May that year to a prevailing indifference and increasing distaste. Opposition to the barbarities of guerrilla fighting blended with doubts about the justice of the war to produce a small but vocal anti-war movement among the liberal middle class and some trade unions. But when Kitchener again called for troops early in 1902 the Commonwealth Government obliged. Hutton organised eight battalions of what after some indecision were called the Australian Commonwealth Horse, and despatched them to the front. As with the draft contingents there was an oversupply of recruits, but few saw any fighting and half had not even arrived in South Africa by the signing of the peace in May. It was a quiet end to a war in which a total of 10 000 soldiers or more had served in Australian contingents (the conventional figure of 16 500 double-counts the thousands who enlisted twice). Five hundred had died, half from disease.

Records of the involvement

Many Australian soldiers and nurses wrote letters and diaries and took photographs of what they saw at the front. Australian newspapers reported the course of the war and the doings of Australians in action. Australian journalists wrote books about the war and what it meant for Australia. Such records are plentiful and rich in reflection on the justice and wisdom of the war as well as on its conduct. In contrast, official records in Australia seem sparse, mundane and tight-lipped – testimony to the state's small jurisdiction a century ago, to the absence of any compelling need to mobilise civilians or even persuade them to support the war, to the primacy of the imperial government in making policy decisions about the war, and to the role of the British army in deploying and disciplining the Australian contingents.

The most common records relating to the war created by Australian governments documented the routine administration of their contingents. Recruiting, training and shipping contingents generated nominal rolls, pay sheets and thousands of red-taped files on small procedural matters. The return of the contingents to Australia and the distribution of pensions and medals generated more such records. There were some documents from the front. Regular reports (the ancestors of the 'war diaries' of the two world wars) were sent back to Australia by at least some officers commanding contingents, while matters of controversy on or near the battlefield provoked inquiries, protests and official decisions which in turn produced records, some of which were sent to Australia.

Such records were scattered across the continent and divided among a variety of Government agencies. Records on the first five waves of contingents were generated and kept by colonial governments, of which only Victoria maintained a defence department; by colonial military headquarters, each headed by a commandant and staffed by a dozen or so clerks and senior officers; and by the contingents themselves. Only when the Commonwealth Government's defence department took control of military matters from the colonies did that department begin to create a large amount of its own records on the war. Only in 1902, when the war was almost over, did it become responsible for raising any contingents.

The relative paucity and diffusion of official Australian records of the war was made worse when many records were lost or deliberately destroyed, not through any fears that official secrets and methods might become known, but because the records concerned seemingly mundane matters relating to a conflict which seemed minor and trivial in the wake of the First World War. Notable among the records lost or destroyed were most officers' reports from the front. In addition to the records in the custody of the National Archives and the Australian War Memorial, serious researchers must be prepared to scour the collections housed in state archives across Australia and, if they want to fully understand military operations, in archives in South Africa and Britain (for a brief discussion of these records see Appendix 2).

The opening of the Australian War Memorial in 1941, and the establishment of the Archives Division of the Commonwealth National Library in 1948, created two national repositories for surviving Australian official records on the war which attracted not only surviving Commonwealth documents but also some long-forgotten colonial material. The National Archives and the War Memorial together – and they may be considered together, as their official records can be found by using the National Archives RecordSearch database – hold the largest single collection of Australian official records of the war. This scattered, incomplete, yet invaluable collection is the subject of this guide.

Using this guide

The guide first describes the large general series of records relating to the war which ranged across policy, administration, war service and repatriation. It then considers aspects of the war for which smaller series and specific items from the large general series are relevant. Those aspects are: the commitment of the Australian contingents; the raising and supporting of the contingents by civil and military officers in Australia; the contingents in the field; controversies arising from the war, such as the defeat at Wilmansrust and the subsequent mutiny, and the trial and punishment of officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers who had an Australian connection; and the aftermath of war, involving the return of Australian contingents, the distribution of medals, gratuity payments and pensions, and the memorials and histories devoted to their memory.

Family historians should consult Appendix 1 before reading the body of the guide and beginning their research.

Description of the records

To fully understand a record it is often helpful to know certain things about it in addition to its contents. For example, it helps to know who created the record, when it was created and what other records exist that deal with the same general subject or issue. This information provides the context of the record, which helps researchers to interpret what the record is really about, determine its relevance, and decide how accurate or complete it might be. The National Archives documents this contextual information for each record in the collection using the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) System.

Under the CRS System records are described and controlled as series. A series is made up of items, which are the individual files, volumes, maps, cards, diaries, etc that were received into custody by the Archives from the creating department, agency, or individual. Series usually consist of many items, but can occasionally consist of just a few or even a single item.

When the Archives registers a series it gives it a series number and describes the creating agency, the subject matter of the series, its date range, the format of the individual items making up the series, their quantity (expressed in shelf metres), where they are held and details of related series. The following figure sets out the manner in which the records are described throughout the guide.

1 CORRESPONDENCE FILES, ANNUAL SINGLE NUMBER SERIES, 1929–
2 Canberra and Sydney
3

This series constitutes the main correspondence series of the Attorney-General's Department, and accordingly contains a large amount of material.
Series: A432
Quantity: 2054.7 metres in Canberra; 352.6 metres in Sydney
Recorded by: Attorney General's Department (CA 5)

4 Naturalization by State – Constitution Section 117, 1902 A432, 1929/2612
5 This file contains the Attorney-General's opinion on s. 117 of the Constitution. In Deakin's opinion, s. 117, while preventing any state from imposing a disability on the resident of another state, did not oblige state governments to recongise as British subjects people naturalised in other states.  

Key

  1. This information gives the series title and the date range of the records which make up the series. The series number is shown on the right-hand side.
  2. This shows the location of the series (ie the office of the National Archives where it is held) is also shown.
  3. This gives a brief overview of the contents of the series, the series number, the total volume of records in the series (In some cases only several items within a series will relate to the topic, but in other instances the entire series will be devoted to it), the department or agency which created the series, and the period during which this department or agency was in existence. The 'CA' (Commonwealth Agency) number is a unique identifier allocated by the Archives to each agency. This number can be used to retrieve more information about the agency and the records it created from RecordSearch.
  4. This shows the title given to an item from this series by the creating agency. Sometimes additional information appears in square brackets. This indicates information that has been added by the Archives to clarify the meaning of the title. The dates of the earliest and latest document on the file are also shown. The item's series number and identifying number appear on the right-hand side. These numbers must be quoted if a copy of the record or access to it is requested.
  5. Where included, this describes the main contents of each item. Note that it does not describe every document on the file. Because of the number of records listed in this guide, contents description has had to be limited. However, where possible, an attempt has been made to describe those items assessed as having special significance.

How the records are described

The records described in the guide include the original item number allocated by the creating agency together with the series number, and these must be cited in any inquiry about the records. Together the series and item numbers provide a useful shorthand way of referring to a specific record item. Details about how to cite the records described in this guide are given under Citing the records.

Individual files can be located electronically by file number or by keyword-in-title searches using the RecordSearch database, which is available in all Archives reading rooms, at the Australian War Memorial, and on the Archives website.

Access to the records

Researchers are welcome to visit the National Archives reading rooms and the Australian War Memorial Research Centre to examine the records described in this guide. Before you visit, please make sure that the record is held by the reading room you plan to visit. There is no equivalent of the inter-library loan system for archives. To safeguard the records, they are not moved between the Archives offices and to see the records you will need to visit the reading room in the city shown as the location of the records.

In addition, given that the reading rooms of some of the Archives offices are separate from the main repository area, it may also be beneficial to pre-order any material you wish to see to ensure that it is ready upon your arrival. To pre-order records please telephone, write to or email the reading room listed as holding them. Contact details of all offices of the National Archives and the Australian War Memorial are given in Fact Sheet 1.

If you cannot visit a reading room you may arrange for a representative to do so on your behalf (see Fact Sheets 40–45, Research Agents), or alternatively you may wish to obtain a photocopy of the record. To obtain a copy you may telephone, write to or email the relevant reading room. Staff are happy to give photocopy quotes for specific items. Please be sure you have the specific series and item numbers for the records you wish to have copied. Copy charges are set out in Fact Sheet 51.

Citing the records

The correct citation of archival records is important both when requesting them from the Archives and when referring to them in written or published works. The correct method of citation will not only help staff of the Archives to locate the records more readily, but will also help other researchers to find the material you have used if they wish to examine it for themselves.

The correct form of citation for records held by the National Archives is expressed as follows: the name National Archives of Australia followed by a colon, the series number followed by a comma, and then the item number. An example is:

National Archives of Australia: MP744/11, 1900/4047

The name National Archives of Australia may be abbreviated to NAA provided the full name has been used in the first citation.

Where to obtain more information

If you are unsure about how to request access to any of the records described in this guide, or if you have any other questions, request a copy of our booklet Getting Started, or access it on our website. Alternatively, contact the reading room in your state or territory by telephone, mail, facsimile or email. The contact numbers and addresses for all National Archives offices are given in Fact Sheet 1.

Holdings of relevant material by other organisations in Australia are noted in Appendix 2.

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