It seems peculiar that one war might be fashionable, while others are discarded, brushed over or jammed in the back of the public memory. Why is it, for example, that we almost never discuss the Boer War? We sent 23,000 soldiers there, 1000 of whom never came back. We also sent more than 40,000 horses, which were somehow swallowed up by the African continent and also did not return. In the middle of the Boer War, we became a nation. And yet it remains the forgotten war. For decades now, veterans’ associations have been pointing to the neglect of the Boer War, and most recently have bemoaned that while Anzac Day celebrations are wildly popular, the crowds are thinning for November’s Remembrance Day; where we mark and honour conflicts other than World War I.
It was Britain’s fight, but we joined it. And many extraordinary men served in the Boer War alongside Australian bushmen and indigenous soldiers. Author Arthur Conan Doyle – the creator of Sherlock Holmes – worked as a medic. Lord Baden Powell commanded a garrison during a 217-day siege on Mafeking. A somewhat conflicted Mahatma Gandhi – who sympathised with the Boers but supported the empire – organised the Indian Ambulance Corps.
And this newspaper sent one of Australia’s finest writers, Banjo Paterson, there as a war correspondent. Paterson wrote a ream of colourful dispatches, and reported on brushes with then British war correspondents Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling. Paterson described Churchill as “the most curious combination of ability and swagger” adding: “Persons burdened with inferiority complexes might sit up and take notice.” So in the middle of a year spent remembering Anzac, dissecting Anzac and eulogising Anzac in an outpouring of archives, documentaries, a new (doubtless best-selling) Peter FitzSimons biography, multimedia extravaganzas and tributes during the centenary of World War I, it seems pertinent to flag one war we almost never mention.
A few weeks ago, in Parliament, Labor’s Anna Burke urged us, to not forget the Boer War, and “the beginning of Australian military history”, in 1899. Burke also flagged the work the National Boer War Memorial Association has done by raising funds for a memorial on Anzac Parade, to feature “1.5 times life-size mounted troopers in bronze”, and due to be completed next year. Excellent. Here is an opportunity to discuss, and remember a war in an entirely fresh and different way. So along with the bravery of those who fought on our behalf in a foreign land, what else do we need to remember about the Boer War this Remembrance Day?
First, the reason for going to war at all were pretty thin. The British government vowed to protect the rights of the minority Uitlanders in the Transvaal, who had few rights – and no vote under the government and most of whom were British citizens. But really it was about control of the region’s wealth. Large vats of gleaming gold had been discovered in the 1880s; Conan Doyle saw it simply as a bid for control of “one of the great treasure chests of the world”. Second, it was brutal. After some devastating, embarrassing defeats in the first couple of years, in 1900 the British began to systematically burn the homes of Boers in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, creating a horde of homeless women and children. Shortly before Queen Victoria died, the commander, Lord Kitchener, declared these refugees of scorched-earth policy – and those who had surrendered – would be housed in British camps – with whites and blacks separated.
In January 1901, welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse – whom Kitchener called “that bloody woman” sailed for South Africa, bringing clothes and food for women in detention. She was horrified by the death and squalor in tent camps she described as “living graves”, with little food, medicine or hygiene, teeming with typhoid and black water fever. By 1902, 28,000 whites and 14,000 Africans had died in these camps, double the number of men who died fighting. (In supporting Burke’s motion, Liberal Dennis Jensen said “Nearly a century later I recall the depth of animosity the Afrikaner people had towards the English as a result of that policy.”)
As historian Jenny de Reuck argues, the barbaric South African concentration camps “arguably set down a template for civilian suffering that subsequently the Herero of German South West Africa, the Jews of Europe, the Russians under Stalin, the Cambodians under Pol Pot and most recently the civilians in Rwanda and in all parts of Yugoslavia have endured.” Third, there were a great number of soldiers killed by what is bizarrely called “friendly fire”. Conan Doyle brought this up gingerly in his assessment of the campaign, suggesting “officers could be provided with a glass which would make it impossible to mistake Briton for Boer at so close a range”. Fourth, historians stress how this war underscored the importance of journalism. Reporters sliced through propaganda, and provided eyewitness accounts of battles. (It was also activist-publisher W.T. Stead who accused British troops of raping women, writing about “the smoke of the burning farmstead … the cries of the terrified children [and] … the sobbing of the outraged woman in the midst of her orphaned children.”)
Few truly drawn to history are interested in armbands of any sort. We are interested in telling the full stories; in war in all its maddening complexity, in grand visions muddied by short-sightedness, in military strategy undercut by imperialism, in women and children who suffered as well as the men, racism that separated black from white and the importance of recognising mistakes and the need to recall errors as well as heroes.
On Remembrance Day, this Tuesday, while saluting the fallen, in all conflicts, we must remember all scorched by war.