The South African War

The South African war was was New Zealand’s first opportunity to take part in an overseas war, and most New Zealanders were eager for the colony to become involved. Indeed, Premier Richard Seddon, reflecting the mood of imperial patri­otism, pledged troops weeks before the conflict began.

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Why the enthusiasm for military action? One of the editors of One Flag, Ian McGibbon, of the History Group of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, writes that identification with Britain lay at the heart of the colonial response. Most settlers were of British stock, and felt bound by a “crimson tie” of unity to their kith and kin, wherever they might reside. Moreover, many were aware that grow­ing German strength repre­sented a nascent challenge to British hegemony—and Germany supported the Boers. Here was a chance “to prove our devotion to the Empire,” Seddon told Parliament on September 28, 1899. It was our duty “as Englishmen” and as “a por­tion of the dominant family of the world,” said Seddon, to rally to the British cause.

War at that time was widely regarded as honour­able, even desirable. An editorial in the New Zealand Herald of October 14, 1899, stated that without war the peoples of the British Empire “should lose our virility, and sink into un­honoured ease and sloth,” as the Romans did. “In an age like ours which is essentially an age of nationalism and money-making and pleasure-seeking,” the Herald continued, “war is the an­tiseptic which prevents the putrefaction of the whole social system.” This said, the grounds for war were flimsy. Probably the real reason for the con­flict lay in a politically avari­cious desire “that the British flag shall float throughout all portions of [South] Africa.” The existence of two inde­pendent Boer states­ Orange Free State and the South African Republic, or Transvaal—thwarted this ambition.

The pretext for hostilities was the alleged ill-treatment of British citizens in the South African Republic, where many had migrated after gold had been discovered there in the 1880s. To protect against possible takeover by British immigrants (who had come to outnumber Boers), the government of the republic had introduced franchise restrictions on immigrants. The immigrants themselves were not especially upset by the restrictions, but Britain demanded they be lifted, and shipped extra troops to the neighbouring Cape Colony to give weight to its words. The Boers, believing invasion was imminent once their offers of compromise had been rejected, staged a pre-emptive attack.

In New Zealand, the details of the issues were not a matter of great concern. If Britain saw fit to fight, that was good enough for most. The comments of two Ministers of the House of Representatives—“Britain never draws the sword except in a good cause,” and “I do not know what the quarrel is, but I believe our cause to be just”—summed up the local attitude. It was not our place, Seddon told Parliament, “to question the action of the British Government.”

Although the great ma­jority of the New Zealand populace favoured the war, there were dissenting voices. One was that of the chief parliamentary reporter, J. Grattan Grey, who wrote to Seddon that if war eventu­ated “it would be one of the most unjust and unrighteous wars recorded in history. I could not, however, believe that the British nation would allow itself to be deluded by a band of greedy and grasping capitalists into undertaking a war against a people whose right to self-government has been fully recognised . . . Does anyone . . . believe that but for the gold and diamond discoveries in South Africa the Boers would not have been disturbed in their isolation?”

Seddon had him sacked, but Grey was not alone in seeing the hand of capital­ism behind the conflict. In “The Blight of Jingoism,” Wellingtonian James Grove wrote that “it is a very few wicked men in England that have made all the trouble, and who do not scruple to let flow the blood and treas­ure of England to gratify their own selfish and base lust for gain.”

A number of Irish, who had long regarded the English with antipathy, were sympathetic to the Boers. Wrote Tim Armstrong, ac­tive in the Thames Miners’ Union, “it would be crimi­nal on my part if I helped rob the people of South Africa of the very freedoms that Ireland had been fight­ing for, for hundreds of years.”

At a conference of the National Council of Women (NCW) in Dun­edin in 1900, several leaders came out against the war. President Kate Sheppard said it was up to women to make sure the “combative element [in men’s hearts] be used to fight for great moral reforms” rather than for any other reason.

The NCW’s most emphatic speaker against the war was Wilhelmina Sherriff Bain, who gave an address entitled “Peace and Arbitration.” Arbitration was a notion whose stocks had risen during the 1890s, a development that had culmi­nated in a peace conference at The Hague in 1899 which had discussed the arms race between the Great Powers, ways of reducing armaments and international arbitration of disputes.

The NCW was one of the few organisations in the country to espouse peace as a general policy, notes Megan Hutching in her es­say “New Zealand Women’s Opposition to the South African War.” The organisa­tion considered it was not in women’s interests to raise children only to have them “fight in wars and be maimed or killed.” Women had arbitration skills that they used to settle domestic disputes, and those same skills were needed to settle disputes between nations. International arbitration was simply women’s domestic skills writ large.

Two years before the Dunedin conference, the NCW had passed a resolu­tion protesting Britain’s use of its colonies as “a recruiting ground for Euro­pean militarism.” Hutching considers this “a remarkable statement in patriotic times when Great Britain was still seen as ‘Home.’”

In Dunedin, Bain con­demned war in general for the heavy burden it placed on countries for the financ­ing of standing armies and navies. Past, present and fu­ture international slaughter consumed some 80 per cent of international wealth, she claimed, to say nothing of the loss of human capital.

She went on to denounce the South African war specifically, saying that the country had thrown itself impulsively and unadvisedly “into the mêlée of old-world turmoil,” choosing the best of its young men and ship­ping them across the oceans “to slay boys of 16 and old men of 70, or be slain in the attempt.”

Bain then moved that the NCW “deplore the milita­rism which is extending its ravages over the world” and “strenuously advocate the establishment of a perma­nent Court of Arbitration, which shall adjudge the claims of the strongest and weakest States on the basis of equal justice to all.”

The motion was carried and Bain’s speech generally supported by the NCW, but it was decried in many newspapers, resulting in a little judicious backtracking next day by Sheppard. At the following year’s conference, war was still an issue but the South African conflict was not addressed so forthrightly and Bain was not a speaker.

Some women went to the war as nurses, but they received rather different treatment from that of the troops, notes freelance archivist Ellen Ellis in her chapter in One Flag. Although there were immedi­ate volunteers, their offers were declined by London for a time. (British authorities also refused to allow Maori to enlist, claiming it was “a white man’s war”—although a few with Pakeha names enlisted anyway.) Once they were allowed to go, most nurses had to pay some or all of their expenses, the only assistance coming from local fundraising efforts. Instead of travelling on troop ships with the doctors, the first four nurses left from Lyttel­ton with a cargo of oats.

Once in South Africa, the women were shocked by the conditions they encountered. “The place was a hotbed of fever, and the dreaded enteric [typhoid] raged everywhere; and no wonder, with no sanitary arrangements whatever, ani­mals lying dead everywhere, water bad, buildings covered black with flies, and patients covered with vermin”—and this was a description of a military hospital. At the end of the war the nurses had to fight to receive pensions as given to the troops.It is worth noting that the 6000-odd New Zealand men sent to South Africa were vol­unteers, and not fully funded by either the British or New Zealand governments. Their expenses were undergirded by public fundraising.

The New Zealand forces, along with those from other colonies, played a vital role in the fighting. The British had been dismayed to discover early in the conflict that even their best infantry battalions were always “outflanked, out­manoeuvred and very often beaten, by mounted Boers.”

Although the British had loftily expected the conflict to be “an apology for a war,” they soon discovered they were seriously mistaken. The Boers proved to be tough fighters, and the South African War became the bloodiest conflict between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the outbreak of the First World War a century later.

The British eventually mustered 440,000 troops, including 52,000 from South Africa and 30,000 from other colonies. That most of the colonial forces were cavalry and had some experience of hard rural living was perhaps the salvation of the British campaign, and among the colonials, the New Zealanders were especially well regarded.

Although the war started with reverses for the Brit­ish, with help from a steady stream of colonial reinforce­ments the tide was eventu­ally turned, so that by mid-1900 it was thought that the fighting was all but finished. After all, Bloemfontein, the Free State capital, had been taken, and so had Johan­nesburg and Pretoria, the capital of Transvaal.

But the conflict was about to adopt a new and bitter form: guerrilla warfare. The British decided that the only way to beat the Boers was with a scorched earth policy, and set about destroying every building and animal that could be of assistance to the enemy. Some 30,000 farmhouses and 40 towns were burned to accomplish this end. The elderly men, women and children who were their inhabitants were shipped by cattle truck to 50 concen­tration camps. Inadequate shelter, poor food, cold and disease led to a mortality rate that peaked at 40 per cent of the inhabitants per year. In total, 27,927 Boers died in the camps—1676 mainly elderly men, 4177 women and 22,074 children under 16—along with 14,154 blacks, writes South African military historian Ian van der Waag. The prospect that continuation of the war would eradicate a whole gen­eration was one of the main reasons the Boers ceased fighting.

Late in 1901, world at­tention became focused on the prison camps, which reflected little credit on “civilised” Britain. Condi­tions were quickly improved, and the death rate dropped. As part of the rehabilita­tion of the camps, schools were set up in them. During the first half of 1902, 20 New Zealand teachers were sought, and 220 women volunteered their services. Candidates were required to be “fit and healthy single women with at least ten years’ teaching experience, used to classes of 40 or more and able to teach singing. They must also be used to the outdoor life and of the Protestant faith.” Since these teachers followed the Tenth Contingent of fighting men, they were dubbed “The Learned Eleventh.” Several of the chap­ters deal with Australian, Canadian and South African perspectives on the war. Reference is made to the notorious Bushveldt Carab­ineers, whose leaders, Harry “Breaker” Morant and Peter Handcock, were court-martialled and executed for shooting prisoners—an outcome many Australians consider smacked of political expediency.

Though the conflict it documents took place over a century ago, One Flag con­tains much of interest and relevance to today. Are we all, like the imperial British, about to pay dearly for more of Kipling’s simple lessons in arithmetic? Education is expensive these days, but war must still be about the costliest way to obtain it.

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