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Conflicts : The South African War

On 5 October 1899, the Premier of South Australia, Charles Cameron Kingston, sought the Parliament's approval for a proposal to equip and despatch a contingent of 125 South Australian volunteers to aid the British war effort in South Africa.

For most of the 19th century, British and Dutch-Afrikaners (the Boers) had co-existed in separate colonies in southern Africa. But in the 1880s their underlying rivalry led to war. In the first South African war of 1881, the Boers defeated the British, who then accepted the independence of the Boer-dominated Transvaal.

The subsequent major discovery of gold and diamonds in the Transvaal led the British to demand that non-Boers in the Transvaal be given the vote. Negotiations between the parties failed and, on 11 October 1899, Boer forces invaded British territory besieging Kimberly, Ladysmith and Mafeking. So began the second South African ('Boer') War.

Kingston's proposal to send a small contingent of South Australian volunteers to assist the British did not receive unanimous Parliamentary support. In the House of Assembly, members criticised it as an expensive symbolic gesture of support for the Empire; in the Legislative Council it required the President's vote to pass the motion.

In contrast, public support for the British cause was overwhelming. Adelaide poet Ellie Wemyss, on hearing of the proposal to send a contingent to South Africa, composed Advance Australia in which she called on the men of South Australia to 'Show their countrymen throughout the Empire...That our boys have the spirit of Britons,' and to fight 'For the sake of the down trodden people'. South Australians needed little encouragement. Even before the final decision to send a contingent had been made, 141 men from Adelaide had sought a place.

The South Australian historian AP Haydon, in an essay South Australia's First War, examined the reasons why the colonists were so enthusiastic in their support for this conflict. Between 1899 and 1902, 1,169 South Australians served in South Africa in six colonial contingents and, following Federation, as members of three composite Commonwealth battalions.

Corporal McBean, who enlisted with the Fourth Imperial Bushmen's Contingent in 1900, was a typical South Australian volunteer. His account of his experiences begins,

Being on the White Cliff opal fields when the first contingents left Australia, I thought how much I'd like to go too, little dreaming that a few months later, I would be one of Australia's representatives in South Africa... About this time the authorities were forming a 4th Cont., so I decided to have a try for this one. Luck favoured me and with the help of a bit of cheek and self-assurance I managed to get in.

PM Wells also enlisted with the Fourth Imperial Bushmen's Contingent. His diary includes detail of the action the Contingent saw. His entry for Sunday, 26 April 1900 reads,

Turned out 2.30 AM to attack surround boers. Engagement lasted nearly all day. Unfortunately were misled by su guide & on going to the wrong bridge were mistaken for Boers & fired on by the 5th contingent. Result Trooper Bennier killed. Heavy firing all day.

One volunteer who joined the Second South Australian Contingent in 1900, Harry 'Breaker' Morant, is of particular interest. In April 1901 he was appointed a lieutenant in an irregular regiment, the Bushveldt Carbineers.

Craig Wilcox, in his article 'Ned Kelly in Khaki' (Weekend Australian, 23 February 2002, Magazine, pp. 20-22) describes the events that led to the court martial and execution of Morant and fellow Australian, Peter Handcock, by a British Army firing squad for the murder of unarmed Boers. Wilcox's article traces the way 'His [Morant's] death gradually took on the dimensions of martyrdom and his story mutated into a cautionary tale of what can happen when Australian soldiers' lives are given over to foreign wars and foreign generals.'

The experiences of the South African War did not dampen the enthusiasm of volunteers such as Trooper Magor who observed in a letter to fellow South Australian, Thomas Wemyss, 'War isent a very nice game there are better games than war but still I don't mind it I like it alright'. He goes on to say, '...I wouldent mind going to China for a while to fight the chows it would be better than fighting the Boers'.

The conflict with the 'chows' referred to by Trooper Magor was the British attempt to protect imperial interests in China in 1900. That conflict, known as the Boxer Uprising, had also aroused the interest and sympathy of the Australian colonists, and a contingent of 560 Australians left Port Adelaide in August 1900 to support the British.

Just 12 years after the conclusion of the South African War, on 14 August 1914, the First World War commenced. This time hundreds of thousands of Australians answered the call to support the Empire. Whereas in the war of 1900-1902 there were 59 South Australian casualties, the losses in the First World War were counted by the thousands, including some 'Boer War' veterans.

Advance Australia [poem]
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Boer War Soldiers
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Committee - Bushmen's Corps
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Corporal Jack McBean
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Diary of Percy Wells
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Diary of Trooper Jack McBean : [extracts]
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Dreaming of home [poem]
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Letter from Lord Methuen
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Letter to T.B. Wemyss
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Letter to T.B. Wemyss
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Non-Commissioned Officers of the 2nd South Australian c
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Our soldier boys : [extract]
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