On January 19, 1902, Corporal J.R. Page sat down in Wakkerstroom, Transvaal, to pen a note to relatives an ocean away in the Hokianga. For months, he and tens of thousands of other Imperial troops had been fighting stubborn, independent-minded farmers in southern Africa, in what was later known as the Second Anglo-Boer War. The campaign had not gone according to plan.
“We have seen a good deal of the seamy side of war during the last few weeks,” Page wrote.
“I saw a young, broad-shouldered chap, from the back blocks of Australia, lying dead, with several bullet holes through him. He still gripped his rifle by the muzzle, the stock broken off, and a few feet away a long-bearded veldt farmer lay dying, with his head smashed in… Here a man disembowelled by an explosive bullet, and who begged to be shot; there a dying Tommy dictated his last ‘scorched earth’ strategy. With it a dreadful new phrase entered the language: ‘concentration camp’.
Corporal Page’s letter reported something else: the “lively appearance” in wet, hot weather of typhoid. So many soldiers were sick, he said, that finding enough fit ones for camp duty was taxing. Medical conditions throughout the war were appalling, and of the more than 22,000 British fatalities, over half were the result of disease and infected wounds.
Page’s letter appeared in the Christchurch Star newspaper on March 26, 1902, by which time the Boers were all but defeated. He had earlier declared that he was almost certain to return to South Africa, which he thought “a grand country”. But it was no use going back until the war had ended, he said, “as one would have to join some regiment, and message to his people.” And everywhere dead and dying horses.
“I never expected to see such a scene at this stage of the war.”
The start had been quite different. Having goaded the Boer republics into war in October 1899, largely over control of the world’s richest gold fields, Britain confidently (and not for the last time in its history) expected victory by Christmas. But the Boer commandos had other ideas and they inflicted a string of early defeats. It wasn’t until mid-1900 that the last of the republics’ cities fell, at which point the Boers turned guerrilla, prompting the British to adopt a soldiering is no fun”.
The Anglo-Boer War was New Zealand’s first overseas military campaign (and the subject of the oldest surviving film in the Film Archive—recording the departure of the Second Contingent from Wellington in 1900). Since then, Kiwis have fought everywhere from the Korean Peninsula and the islands of the Pacific to North Africa, the battlefields of Europe and, most recently, Afghanistan.
No longer couched in the rhetoric of Empire, the call to distant fields is now met with professional determination rather than patriotic enthusiasm. And, as news from Kabul and elsewhere testifies, fighting enemies who don’t play by the rules is still “no fun”.