Australia in the Second Boer War

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Date: 1899 to 1902
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Australia in the Second Boer War

The Second Boer War (the first war was in December 1880-March 1881), known to the Boer as the Anglo-Boereoorlog / Anglo-Boer War, and in South Africa today as the South African War, was fought by British and Boer forces between 11th October 1899 and 31st May 1902. The war saw participation by Australians in support of the British Empire. The first European settlement in southern Africa was founded at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, and governed by the Dutch East India Company until its bankruptcy in the late 1700s, and thereafter directly by the Netherlands. The British occupied the Cape three times during the Napoleonic Wars as a result of political turmoil in the Netherlands, and the occupation became permanent after British forces defeated the Dutch at the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806. Many Boers, farmers, who were dissatisfied with aspects of British administration, in particular with Britain's abolition of slavery in 1834, elected to migrate away from British rule. Britain annexed the Natal Colony in 1843 and the Boers established two new colonies, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal). By 1890, the main question was in regard to who would control and benefit most from the very lucrative Kimberley diamond mines and Witwatersrand gold mines (discovered by an Australian!). Over 50,000 British citizens had flocked to the goldfields, to find they were denied civil rights and victimised by the Boer government (shades of Victoria's 1850s goldfields). The Boers were being supplied modern weaponry and munitions by Germany, which also held the German West Africa Territory adjoining Cape Colony. Tensions escalated, negotiations failed, a Boer ultimatum declared and ignored, and the Boer government declared war on Britain on 12th October 1899.[1]

The first troops provided from the Australian colonies sailed within weeks and were involved in major action by January 1900. The first Australian troops to arrive, however, were NSW Lancers who travelled directly from England where they were then training. Thousands more ex-patriot Australians, who were already working in the South African gold and diamond mines, also signed up to fight a war that was far from 'conventional', with the Boer adopting 'commando' practices; mostly dressed in attire that blended into the country (as opposed to the very colourful British uniforms), and hitting fast and hard and then withdrawing to lay-up for another opportunity. Each Australian colony sent units to the war, mostly very effective mounted infantry. Following Australian Federation on 1st January 1901, the new Commonwealth Government sent a further eight battalions. All Australian troops were volunteers as there was no draft or conscription.[1]

It is generally accepted by historians that the war comprised three phases:

  1. pre-emptive strikes in 1899 by Boers into British-held territory in Natal and the Cape Colony, besieging the garrisons of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley. The Boers then won a series of tactical victories.
  2. the British launched a successful offensive to relieve the sieges. After Natal and the Cape Colony were secure, the British were able to invade the Transvaal, with the republic's capital, Pretoria, ultimately captured in June 1900.
  3. the Boers conducted a hard-fought guerrilla war for two years, attacking British troop columns, telegraph sites, railways, and storage depots. To deny supplies to the Boer guerrillas, the British adopted a scorched earth policy: clearing whole areas, destroying Boer farms, and moving civilians into concentration camps.

The war ended when the Boer leadership surrendered and accepted the British terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging in May 1902. Both former Boer republics were incorporated into the Union of South Africa in 1910, a self-governing unitary-state dominion of the British Empire.[1] Australian mounted infantry troops were widely considered to be the most effective on the British side, and with a higher degree of bush craft, horsemanship and riflery than many British units, were best able to match the Boers tactics of high mobility warfare. Their success led directly to the formation of the Australian Light Horse.

  • Australians involved in the campaign: 16,398 soldiers in 'official' military units, 65 nurses, plus 5,000-7,000 in 'irregular' units raised within South Africa.
  • Australian soldiers who died in action, or of wounds: 251
  • Australian soldiers who died of disease: 267
  • Irregular soldiers who died in action, of wounds or of disease: 500 (approximate figure)
  • Australian soldiers taken prisoner: 200 (approximate figure)
  • Australian soldiers missing in action: 43
  • Horses: 16,314
Australian horsemen

Colonial contingents

  • New South Wales:
    • Australian Horse (not to be confused with the Australian Regiment or Australian Commonwealth Horse – see below), upon arrival in December 1899 this mounted infantry unit under the command of Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Kenneth MacKay joined the Australian Regiment; the unit withdrew from South Africa by late March 1901.
    • New South Wales Citizens' Bushmen consisted of four mounted rifle squadrons and underwent several name changes, from the New South Wales Citizens' Bushmen, to the Australian Bushmen Contingent, and then finally the 1st Bushmen Regiment. The unit was raised in early 1900 and funded by public subscription, hence 'citizens' in its title. It was the third contingent sent by New South Wales to the war. Four squadrons left Sydney on the Atlantian on 28th February 1900 and a fifth on the Maplemore the following day, all under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Airey. There were a total of 530 officers and men. The regiment's A Squadron and Headquarters participated in the relief of Mafeking in May and the relief of Rustenburg in July. B, C, and D Squadrons, took part in the action at Koster's River on 22nd July, attempting to relieve the Elands River garrison, which included A Squadron. In 1901 the regiment operated in the Transvaal region and the advance on Pietersburg. It embarked at Cape Town and returned to Australia on 9th June 1901.
    • New South Wales Imperial Bushmen was a regiment, consisting of six mounted rifle squadrons, raised in the New South Wales regions of Cootamundra, Gundagai, Wagga Wagga, Young, Hay, Cooma, Moree, Cobar, Tenterfield, and Bourke for service during the Boer War; under the command of Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Kenneth MacKay, the unit departed Sydney for South Africa aboard the Armenian on 23rd April 1900, serving in Rhodesia and West Transvaal. Lieutenant Colonel (later Colonel) Haviland Le Mesurier took over as commanding officer in November 1900. Later, the regiment's name was changed to the 6th Imperial Bushmen. The unit returned to Australia on 17th July 1901 aboard Orient.
    • South Wales Infantry: the only infantry contingent sent from New South Wales to the war was raised from NSW's colonial infantry regiments, who were part-time soldiers, and three men from the field artillery, who were to work as transport drivers. The company left Sydney under Major (later Lieutenant General) James Legge with A Squadron (under Major (later Major General) John Antill), NSW Mounted Rifles on board the steamship Aberdeen on November 1899. At the beginning of February 1900, while the company was at Naauwpoort, the unit was converted into E Squadron, NSW Mounted Rifles (see below).
    • New South Wales Lancers: a half squadron of this light cavalry regiment had been in Great Britain where they participated in the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria; when war was declared those who volunteered were transported to South Africa. The Lancers' commanding officer in country was Major (later Major General) George Lee. Three further drafts were despatched from Sydney. The Lancers participated in a counter-invasion of the Orange Free State that eventually lifted the Siege of Kimberley in 1900. Prior to The Great War, the lancers were re-designated as the 1st Light Horse Regiment.
    • 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions, New South Wales Mounted Rifles: a company of the regiment served in the Second Boer War from late 1899, before they were amalgamated into the 1st NSW Mounted Rifles, as A and E Squadrons. B, C and D Squadrons arrived in South Africa in February 1900 aboard Southern Cross. In 1901, the 1st Battalion embarked on board the transport Orient, departing Cape Town on 13th December 1900. The 1st Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Guy Knight. Two more battalions of NSW Mounted Rifles, the 2nd (under Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier General) Henry Lassetter) and 3rd (under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Cox), were then sent to the war. There were eight veterans from the Sudan among the regiment. Re-designated as the 2nd Light Horse Regiment after the war.
    • Field Battery: embarking for South Africa on 30th December 1899 in the transport Warrigal, A Field Battery took 148 horses. Five men were veterans of the Sudan. The battery was equipped with six 15-pounder guns and was organised into three field sections with two guns each. The battery served in South Africa for eighteen months and on 12th August 1901 left Cape Town on board Harlech Castle. The battery commander was Colonel (later Major General Sir) Sydenham Smith.
      • 70 officers and 5,423 other ranks; 97 killed in action /died from wounds and 99 died from disease.
  • Queensland:
  • South Australia:
  • Tasmania:
  • Victoria:
    • 1st Battalion, Victorian Mounted Rifles arrived late November 1899 under the command of Major (later Colonel) Duncan McLeish and later, Lieutenant Colonel William Reay, and formed part of the Australian Regiment
    • 2nd Battalion, Victorian Mounted Rifles were in country from February to December 1900; Colonel Tom Price was instrumental in establishing the concept of mounted infantry / light horse and raised the VMR in 1885.
    • 3rd Battalion, Victorian Citizens' Bushmen: the battalion was in country from April 1900 to April 1901 under the command of Major William Wood Dobbin.
    • 4th Battalion, Victorian Imperial Bushmen arrived at Mozambigue and Rhodesia in May 1900 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Kelly and returned to Australia June 1901.
    • 5th Battalion, Victorian Mounted Rifles were in country from March 1901 to 1902 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Otter.
      • total all ranks was 2,425 with 64 killed in action / died of wounds and 41 died of disease.
  • Western Australia:
    • 1st Battalion, Western Australia Mounted Infantry arrived in South Africa in mid-November 1899 and were despatched to Natal under the command of Major Hatherly Moor. One Private, Frederick Bell, later received the Victoria Cross for valour during a second deployment in 1901. The battalion departed for home in October 1900.
    • 2nd Battalion, Western Australia Mounted Infantry, under the command of Major Henry Lionel Pilkington, were in country from March to November 1900.
    • 3rd Battalion Western Australia Citizens' Bushmen, under the command of Major Henry Vialls, in country from April 1900 to April 1901.
    • 4th Battalion Western Australia Imperial Bushmen, in South Africa from June 1900 to June 1901 were commanded by Major James Rose.
    • 5th Battalion, Western Australia Mounted Infantry, in South Africa from April 1901 to April 1902 were commanded by Captain Herbert Darling.
    • 6th Battalion, Western Australia Mounted Infantry, in country from May 1901 to April 1902, were commanded by Captain John Campbell. Lieutenant Frederick Bell received the Victoria Cross for valour on 16th May at Brakpan, Transvaal.
      • a total of 941 all ranks, with 26 being killed in action or dying from wounds and ten dying from disease.
  • Australian Regiment: not to be confused with the later Commonwealth Horse, was a combined (for logistical purposes) force of 1st SA Mounted Rifles, Tasmanian Mounted Infantry, 1st Victorian Mounted Rifles and WA Mounted Infantry, under overall command of Colonel (later Major General Sir) John Hoad; the 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry joined them in December 1899 as did NSW's Australian Horse.

The Commonwealth Horse

Forerunner of the famed First World War Australian Light Horse, was the Australian Commonwealth Horse, a regiment of eight battalions authorised by the Commonwealth Government and formed in 1902:

Other units involving Australians

Australians also fought in units that were either privately raised or were raised in South Africa, but were not official units of the Australian colonies, or of the Commonwealth of Australia:

  • Bush Veldt Carbineers, an irregular mounted infantry regiment of the British Army, raised in South Africa in February 1901; the 320-strong regiment was commanded by an Australian, formerly a Captain of the 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles, Major Bob Lenehan. The unit was 43% Australian, including the officers, 'Breaker' Morant (see below), Peter Handcock and George Witton.
  • Scottish Horse: some 300 Victorians joined the Marquis of Tullibardine's private Scottish Horse in South Africa from March 1901 following recruiting by the Caledonian Society of Melbourne. At Brakenlaagte 93 Victorians, members of the 2nd Battalion, were engaged as they were defending the artillery, and continued their task until they ran out of ammunition.
  • Cameron’s Victorian Scouts: was a specially picked and trained group of 24 men of the 3rd Victoria Bushmen raised by Lieutenant John McLeod Cameron, for special service as scouts, snipers and bodyguards.
  • Canadian Scouts: were commanded by Royal Canadian Dragoon, Major Arthur 'Gat' Howard, and operated from late 1900 and throughout 1901 in Transvaal. Howard was killed in February 1901. Over 100 Australians served with the Canadian Scouts.
  • Doyle’s Australian Scouts: raised by Captain Richard Dines Doyle DSO, who had previously served in the war with the 6th NSW Imperial Bushmen and the 3rd NSW Imperial Bushmen. There may have been 65-70 unit members, who gained at least eight Mention in Despatches later in the war.
  • Hasler’s Australian Scouts: were privately commissioned in July 1901 and was commanded by British Army Captain (later Brigadier General) Julian Hasler; some thirty former members of the 3rd Contingent New South Wales Imperial Bushmen and 2nd Contingent New South Wales Mounted Rifles comprised the unit, who acted as an advance guard of Colonel (later Major General) Edward Ingouville Williams (later Ingouville-Williams)' column and were cut up at Leeuwfontein on 28th July 1901. Little else is known of the unit.
  • Kitchener's Horse: named in honour of Lord Kitchener, operating in South Africa from late 1899 to late 1900.
  • Kitchener's Fighting Scouts: appears to have operated from August 1901 to beyond the end of the war in May 1902, possibly to July 1902.

Medical Corps

Nellie Gould, Penelope Frater & Julia Johnston

An Army Medical Corps (AMC) was formed under the command of Colonel (Surgeon General Sir) William Williams, who had originally organised and established the various units of mounted bearers, bearers, and field hospitals, etc, with their field medical equipment, ambulance and wagon transport, in so efficient a condition as regards personnel, material, and horses, that upon orders to deploy no difficulty was experienced in embarking expeditiously. The role of the various colonial medical corps and, in 1901-02, the Australian Army Medical Corps was pre-hospital care, including emergency battlefield care, initial wound surgery, post-operative care, rehabilitation, and preventative medical support. Four contingents, three from Williams' NSW AMC and one from the new Commonwealth AMC deployed to the war. Victoria and Queensland also sent smaller medical teams.[2]

  • first contingent: embarked on 28th October 1899 comprising six officers and 80 other ranks, with 51 horses, five ambulance wagons, and twelve carts; four died; six officers and 76 others returned.
  • second contingent: embarked on 17th January 1900; nine officers and 85 other ranks, 52 horses, five ambulance wagons, and twelve carts aboard the Moravian, and the mounted bearer unit comprising two officers, 23 other ranks, 33 horses and six carts aboard the Southern Cross; two died; eleven officers and 106 others returned.
  • third contingent: embarked on 17th March, 1901 comprising five officers. 48 other ranks, with 54 horses and two ambulance wagons; three were struck off the strength in South Africa.
Neville Howse VC
  • fourth contingent: a Commonwealth government medical contingent, recruited from NSW, QLD, SA, VIC, and WA, embarked on 11th February 1902 comprising 183 all ranks, with 75 horses, four ambulance wagons, and sixteen carts; one officer and 24 other ranks were struck off the roll in South Africa.

Surgeon (later Surgeon General Sir) Neville Howse VC, in 1901, became the first soldier in the Australian Military Forces to be granted the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest decoration for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces. Howse was then a Captain in the New South Wales Army Medical Corps. He returned to South Africa in 1902 with the AAMC as a Major.


More than sixty Australian nurses served in the Boer War. Whilst some went officially, others were funded privately or at their own expense. [3] The colonial nursing services and, in 1901-02, Australian Army Nursing Service came under the direction of the respective Medical Corps; the intention being to provide a pool of trained civilian nurses who had volunteered for military service during wartime. [4] The nurses came from New South Wales (fourteen from January 1900 to August 1902) under Lady Superintendent Nellie Gould; Queensland (at least seventeen); South Australia (nine served from March 1900 to March 1902 under Sister M S Bismead); Victoria (ten served from April 1900 to March 1901 under Lady Superintendent Marianne Rawson; one died from disease); and Western Australia (eleven from April 1900 to 1901 under Mary Ann Nicolay).

Three nurses, including Marianne Rawson and Sister Elizabeth Nixon, were awarded the Royal Red Cross for exceptional service to the sick and wounded under extreme conditions. The Boer War marked the death of Sister Frances Hines, the first Australian servicewoman to lose her life in war.[5]

Military chaplains

Eighteen military chaplains accompanied Australian troops to the Second Boer War, either with the Australian Military Force or with one of the Colonial Military Force contingents. Their work set the 'template' for army chaplaincy in future conflicts, including church parades and voluntary worship services, ministering to the wounded and sick on the battlefield and in the hospitals, administering last rites, burying the dead and arranging internment in war cemeteries. Arguably, the best known chaplain is Chaplain James Green who, in February 1900, was commissioned as Wesleyan chaplain to the NSW Citizens' Bushmen. When the contingent returned home in June 1901 he served with troops in training before re-embarking with the 1st Australian Commonwealth Horse. At Eland's River, he was captured by the Boers but his imprisonment was short lived. Father Francis Timoney died in England as a result of complications from an operation for throat cancer. [6]

War correspondents

William Lambie, veteran correspondent

There were several war correspondents representing newspapers at home who accompanied the soldiers in the field, including but not limited to:

  • William Lambie, a veteran correspondent from the Sudan Campaign and Samoan revolt, arrived in Cape Colony as correspondent for some Victorian newspapers. Although a keen proponent of Federation, he did not live to see that happen when he became the first Australian war correspondent to be killed on military service in February 1900.
  • A well-known war correspondent, who sailed for South Africa in October 1899, was poet, A B 'Banjo' Paterson, who wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
  • Lieutenant Colonel William Reay wrote articles as a war correspondent for The Herald and the South Australian Register until he returned ill after the capture of Bloemfontein. From Australia he published Australians in War (1900), which was widely distributed to Victorian soldiers.
  • On 24th October 1899, just two weeks after war was declared in South Africa, nurse Agnes Macready bought her own steamship ticket and departed Sydney aboard the Warrrnambool for Durban, keen to assist with nursing soldiers wounded in the Boer War. Prior to leaving Sydney, The Catholic Press commissioned Agnes as a special correspondent. She filed reports for the newspaper on her experiences in South Africa; often critical of the British treatment of Boer women and children.
  • Horace 'Jack' Spooner lost his life to typhoid fever in May 1900 after submitting articles to his newspapers from the beginning, at Natal, to Cape Colony and Orange Free State.
  • Wesleyan Chaplain James Green took to sending regular reports to the Sydney Morning Herald following the death, illness or evacuation of many newspaper correspondents; indeed for some time he was the sole Australian war correspondent.
  • Roman Catholic chaplain, Father Francis Timoney, would today be called a 'whistle-blower', broadcasting his outrage at 'punitive British policies that were being carried out against civilians and infrastructure ... cruel operations and their destructive effects ... prisoners began to be shot'.


From Chris Coulthard-Clark's excellent book, The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, it is ascertained that Australians fought in the following actions during the Second Boer War: [7]

  1. Belmont, Cape Colony, 23 Nov 1899: the first action within which Australian forces participated in the Second Boer War was at Belmont Station; close to the Orange Free State border. A detachment of 29 troops of the New South Wales Lancers under Second Lieutenant Septimus Osborne (attached to Lieutenant General Lord Methuen's 8,500-strong force) came under fire whilst patrolling. Private Henry Schultze, of St Arnaud, Victoria, was one of 75 British troops killed in the subsequent battle; he was a soldier in the British Army's 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards.
  2. Graspan, Cape Colony, 25 Nov 1899: also known as the Battle of Enslin; Second Lieutenant Septimus Osborne's 29 NSW Lancers 'saved the day', putting in an exceptionally high rate of fire during a Boer counter-attack, earning the nickname 'The Fighting Twenty-Nine'. Victorian-born Midshipman Cymbeline Huddart, serving with the Royal Navy's Naval Brigade died that night of wounds received. He was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross as the Victoria Cross then could not be awarded posthumously.
  3. Modder River, Cape Colony, 28 Nov 1899; at the railway station near the junction of the Riet and Modder Rivers, Methuen's force again ran into Boer defensive positions. The Fighting Twenty-Nine of Second Lieutenant Septimus Osborne once more saw action whilst defending the artillery battery. Once more, there were no Australian casualties, although one trooper had his horse shot from under him.
  4. Magersfontein, Cape Colony, 11 Dec 1899; was the scene of a major defeat for Lord Methuen's force. The NSW Lancers were now joined by a detachment of Victorian Mounted Rifles. Whilst the British suffered large losses, there were again no Australian casualties. The Lancers, defending the artillery against snipers were some of the last to be extricated from the battlefield.
  5. Sunnyside Camp, near Douglas, Orange Free State, 1 Jan 1900; two companies of the Queensland Mounted Infantry (QMI) were attached to a British / Canadian / Australian force attacking a laager (camp) of some 180 Boers near the border township of Douglas. A scouting patrol of five QMI ran into fire; the result being two Australians killed and two wounded for fourteen Boers dead and 38 prisoners. The QMI company commander was Captain (later General Sir) Harry Chauvel.
  6. Slingersfontein, Cape Colony, 16 Jan & 9 Feb 1900; two engagements occurred here, close to a major British camp in central Cape Colony. In the first, a twenty-one strong patrol of NSW Lancers and Australian Horse were ambushed by Boers, resulting in two fatalities and fourteen captured. During the latter engagement, a patrol of twenty Western Australian Mounted Infantry (WAMI) made a gallant stand against 400 ambushing Boer commando, evacuating under cover of darkness after three deaths and six wounded (one of the wounded died a month later). The scene became known as West Australian Hill.
  7. Pink Hill, Cape Colony, 12 Feb 1900; 75 Victorian Mounted Infantry (VMI), twenty South Australians and about 100 British infantry, the left flank of British General Grobler's force, were attacked in this central Cape Colony region by some 1,500 Boers. After defending for several hours it was clear they needed to withdraw. Upon doing so, the count was five Australians dead, 20 wounded (one of he wounded died the following day) and three captured. The right flank had also been pushed back, causing the whole British force to withdraw.
  8. Kimberley, Orange Free State, 13-15 Feb 1900; a major operation to break the Boer siege of this diamond-producing town involved 500 Aussies of the QMI, NSWMR, and NSW Lancers, as part of a force of 45,000 British combat troops. The Australians were part of the right flank and saw some heavy fighting, helping to force the Boer withdrawal.
  9. Paardeberg, Orange Free State, 17-27 Feb 1900; the same British force, ultimately forcing the surrender of 4,000 Boer fighters, in some way changed the face of this war with the British now numerically the stronger and more organised; the demoralised Boers resorted to guerilla warfare to prolong the now inevitable result. A section of the Boer surrender, of some 209 fighters, were received by NSW Medical Corps surgeon, Major Thomas Fiaschi, who was appointed Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and mentioned in despatches.
  10. Poplar Grove, Orange Free State, 7 Mar 1900; a Boer rearguard action designed to slow Lord Roberts' advance. Troopers of the NSWMR and QMI helped divert attention from Roberts' main attack.
  11. Driefontein, Orange Free State, 10 Mar 1900; NSWMR, NSW Lancers and Australian Horse were tasked with reconnoitring the enemy's right (northern) flank; one Australian was killed by a sniper operating from a farmhouse flying a white flag. Also killed was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Umphelby, attached to British artillery as a special service officer.
  12. Karee Siding, Orange Free State, 29 Mar 1900; having taken Bloemfontein, the capital of Orange Free State, Lord Robert's force cleared the hills about. Troopers of the NSW Mounted Rifles (NSWMR), NSW Lancers and Australian Horse engaged the enemy, with casualties to the NSWMR and Australian Horse.
  13. Sannah's Post, Orange Free State, 31 Mar 1900; was the site of Bloemfontein's water pumping station. A strong Tasmanian ounted Infantry contingent, under Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Cameron engaged the enemy, losing two killed, two wounded and five captured.
  14. Houtnek, Orange Free State, 30 Apr-1 May 1900; during this two-day delaying action, four troopers of E Squadron NSWMR, under the command of Captain (later Major General) William Holmes, became casualties; a further trooper was fatally wounded as they made their withdrawal.
  15. Coetzee Drift, Orange Free State, 5 May 1900; the NSWMR were tasked with a difficult assignment including crossing the Vet River under fire; the QMI were also involved, as were the 2nd Western Australian Mounted Infantry, who came under fire from three Boer artillery batteries.
  16. Zand River, Orange Free State, 10 May 1900; a squadron of the NSWMR, part of a mounted infantry brigade under the command of Major General (later Lieutenant General Sir) Edward Hutton, as well as units of the 1st Australian Horse, NSW Lancers and NSW Army Medical Corps were part of this action as Lord Roberts' force closed in on Mafeking.
  17. Mafeking, Cape Colony, 17 May 1900; 100 troopers of the 3rd QMI, under the command of Captain Charles Kellie, were involved in the lifting of a seven-month long siege of Mafeking, a town in the northwest of Cape Colony and adjacent to the Transvaal border; some 1,000 British soldiers under Lieutenant Colonel (later Lieutenant General Lord) Robert Baden-Powell, had been 'locked-in' by a force of some 5,000 Boers. The action caused jubilation throughout the British Empire.
  18. Diamond Hill, Transvaal, 11-12 Jun 1900; during this major action a troop of NSW Lancers was inadvertently shelled by British guns, luckily without casualty; an NSW ambulance was not so lucky, being damaged by British artillery whilst moving on the front line; NSWMR (under Lieutenant Colonel Guy Knight) and WAMI (under Major Hatherly Moor) made an assualt on Rhenosterfontein kopje with the loss of two officers and six troopers.
  19. Leeuw Kop or Bakenkop, Orange Free State, 3 Jul 1900; saw South Australian, Tasmanian and Western Australian Imperial Bushmen under Major James Rose involved in an offensive to dislodge Boer fighters; the 4th SA Imperial Bushmen, under Captain A Edward Norton, were successful in driving off Boer burghers who had captured three artillery guns; Rose and a dozen South Australian troopers were wounded.
  20. Palmietfontein, Orange Free State, 19 Jul 1900; was a running fight over some thirteen kilometres that included elements of NSWMR, WAMI and NSW Medical Corps; five Western Australians, including Major Hatherly Moor, were killed in this action and a number wounded.
  21. Koster River, Transvaal, 22 Jul 1900; a detachment of 270 New South Wales, Queensland, Victorian and Western Australian bushmen under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Airey DSO (a veteran of the 1885 Sudan Campaign) was ambushed by 1,000 Boers; during the seven hour battle, during which 200 of their horses were either shot or stampeded, Airey felt the need to surrender, however, was opposed by Western Australian Major Harry Vialls; a further detachment of 200 Australians rode to their aid; 39 casualties included six killed, 26 wounded (three later died of their wounds), and seven missing.
  22. Stinkhoutboom Farm, near Vredefort, Orange Free State, 24 Jul 1900; NSWMR and NSW medical corps who were part of a mounted brigade, came into contact with Boer commando; three Australians were killed and several wounded; Surgeon (Captain) Neville Howse was the first Australian to undertake an action of gallantry, in rescuing a wounded trumpeter who lay in the line of fire, that would result in the award of the Victoria Cross.
  23. Eland's River, Transvaal, 4-16 Aug 1900; saw the heroic defence of a staging post by Australian Bushmen, 141 of whom were from Queensland, 105 from New South Wales, 42 from Victoria, nine Western Australian and two Tasmanian; a heavy bombardment (1,700 shells) on the first day of the siege killed most of the 1,500 horses, mules and oxen; a relief column that included 1,000 NSW Imperial Bushmen was ambushed and 'sent packing'; Another relif column led by Baden-Powell were told that the garrison had surrendered, so left; eventually, a 10,000-strong relief column forced their way into the post and caused the Boers to flee. The siege was arguably the most notable action involving Australians in the war, who even received compliments from Boer General Jan Smuts. This was the engagement in which the Aussie troops earned the nickname 'Diggers', hastily digging trenches to escape the shelling. Arthur Conan Doyle, a British war correspondent at the time, wrote, "When the ballad makers of Australia seek for a subject, let them turn to Eland's River for there was no finer fighting in the war.".
  24. Warmbad, Transvaal, 1 Sep 1900; Trooper John Bisdee and Lieutenant Guy Wylly both of the 1st Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen were awarded Australia's first Victoria Crosses (Howse's award was granted afterward). Both were wounded in their gallant actions that put the safety of other soldiers before their own.
  25. Buffels Hoek, Transvaal, 16-17 Aug 1900; this action included four squadrons of Imperial Bushmen from all six colonies; five Australians were killed and eleven wounded.
  26. Bothaville, Orange Free State, 6 Nov 1900; NSWMR under Lieutenant Colonel Guy Knight and WAMI under Lieutenant Herbert Darling asisted a mounted column in an ambush of Boer commando resulting in seventeen Boer killed and 114 captured.
  27. Rhenoster Kop, Orange Free State, 29 Nov 1900; Bushmen from Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria were amongst a British column that attacked a 1,200-strong Boer commando force; the battle lasted all day and by the morning, after the Boer had withdrawn, it was discovered that British casualties of 85 far exceeded those of the Boer.
  28. Wolvekull Kopjes, Orange Free State, 14 Feb 1901; a column of 1,100 mounted troops, mostly Australians from Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, chased a Boer commando force but were hampered by heavy rain.
  29. Hartebeestfontein, Transvaal, 18 Feb & 21-24 Mar 1901; Victorian Imperial Bushmen were amongst a force that encountered Boer commandos; amongst the Victorians were three killed and eleven wounded. A month later another force was encountered nearby, during which the Bushmen took 140 prisoners, several guns and large quantities of rifles and ammunition.
  30. Grobelaar Recht, Transvaal, 15-16 May 1901; the 5th and 6th West Australian contingents experienced a severe engagement, losing five men killed and eight wounded (one of whom later died); Lieutenant Frederick Bell, of the 1st WAMI, who had already seen action at Slingersfontein, the relief of Johannesburg and of Pretoria, Diamond Hill and Wittebergen, was awarded the Victoria Cross when he placed a wounded soldier on his horse and defended his escape under fire.
  31. Wilmansrust Farm, near Boschmansfontein, Transvaal, 12 Jun 1901; a disaster suffered by 270 men of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles (under the command of British artillery Major Morris and not the VMRs Major William McKnight) when attacked in their bivouac; fourteen Australians killed and 42 wounded, however the Boers took over 100 horses (the remainder being either killed or stampeded); the Boers released their prisoners the following day as they had no facilities at which to keep them. Compounding the 'embarassment', three VMR members were court martialled for inciting mutiny, found guilty, sentenced to death commuted to imprisonment; they were released with their convictions quashed in October.
  32. Grootvallier, Orange Free State, 1 Aug 1901; a mounted force, including some 200 South Australians raided a laager comprising some 300 Boer commandos; whilst the Boer managed to escape, a large number of horses were captured; two South Australians were wounded.
  33. Bakenlaagte, Transvaal, 30 Oct 1901; a British column was attacked and crippled by more than 1,000 Boer commando; the column included 93 Victorians who belonged to the Scottish Horse; casualties were five officers and 28 men killed, and four officers and 36 men wounded.
  34. Geelhoutboom, Natal, 23 Nov 1901; Lieutenant Edgar Maygar was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
  35. Onverwacht kopjes, Transvaal, 4 Jan 1902; 110 men of the 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen under the command of Major Frederick Toll (who was commanded by British officer, Major J M Vallentin, who was killed in the action); thirteen Queenslanders were killed and seventeen wounded in a rout that still saw the Queenslanders praised for their courage.
"When the ballad makers of Australia seek for a subject, let them turn
to Eland's River for there was no finer fighting in the war."

– Arthur Conan Doyle

Victoria Cross

Victoria Cross

Six Australians were granted the Victoria Cross, the British Commonwealth's highest award for bravery in the face of an enemy, during the Second Boer War. Listed in chronological order of the respective gallant action, they are: [8]

  1. Surgeon (Captain) Neville Howse VC (1863-1930), New South Wales, 24th July 1900 Vredefort, Orange Free State; retired as Major General Sir Neville Howse.
  2. Trooper John Bisdee VC (1869-1930), Tasmania, 1st September 1900 Warmbad, Transvaal; retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.
  3. Lieutenant Guy Wylly VC (1880-1962), Tasmania, 1st September 1900 Warmbad, Transvaal; retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.
  4. Lieutenant Frederick Bell VC (1875-1954), Western Australia, 16th May 1901 Brakpan, Transvaal; retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.
  5. Sergeant James Rogers VC (1873-1961), New South Wales, 15th June 1901 Thaba 'Nchu, Orange Free State; later seconded to the South African Constabulary when the 1st VMI returned to Australia. He later served with the 6th Commonwealth Horse. He was commissioned in the 3rd Light Horse Brigade during the First World War.
  6. Lieutenant Leslie Maygar VC (1868-1917), Victoria, 23rd November 1901 Geelhoutboom, Natal; as Lieutenant Colonel Maygar he was mortally wounded by German aircraft hours before the Light Horse charge on Beersheba in October 1917 and died the following day.

Campaign medals


Most Australian soldiers and nurses qualified for either the Queen's South Africa Medal (QSA), for service in South Africa during 1899-1902, or the King's South Africa Medal (KSA), for at least eighteen months service ending on or after 1st January 1902. To be eligible for the KSA, one had first to qualify for the QSA. Altogether, twenty-six Clasps were awarded with the QSA, to indicate participation in particular actions and campaigns; with nine Clasps being the maximum number that any soldier could be awarded. Two Clasps were awarded with the KSA: South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902.

Breaker Morant

Harry 'The Breaker' Morant

Somerset-born, Lieutenant Edwin Henry Harbord 'The Breaker' Morant (1864-1902) is quite likely the most well-known Aussie character of the Second Boer War, thanks mostly to the errant Bruce Beresford-directed 1980 motion picture, Breaker Morant. Harry, as he was known to all, was the quintessential Aussie larrikin; stockman, poet, and horse breaker of renown. As an officer, along with Peter Handcock and George Witton, seconded to the British Army's Bush Veldt Carbineers, he was found guilty by a British Court Martial of ordering the murders of twelve Boer prisoners of war. Morant and Handcock were executed by firing squad and Witton imprisoned. Their commanding officer, Major Bob Lenehan was also charged on two of the counts. The Boer War Memorial's article on Lenehan makes interesting reading. The Morant-Handcock-Witton case was highly controversial, but also highly publicised, with the possibility of Germany (who had provided most of the Boer weaponry and held the territory immediately to the north of the Cape Colony) entering the war on the side of the Boer; dependent on the perception of justice. Three months after Morant's and Handcock's executions the war was over. Most of the film is fictional, bearing little resemblance to Kit Denton's book, The Breaker. Of course, the film was not based on the book, but on a play by Kenneth G Ross.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Wikipedia: Second Boer War; accessed 31 Mar 2020
  2. Anglo Boer War: Australian Army Medical Corps; accessed 2 Apr 2020
  3. Australian War Memorial; accessed 29 Mar 2020
  4. Bassett, Jan. Guns and Brooches: Australian Army Nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1992.
  5. Australian War Memorial nominal roll: Frances Emma Hines; accessed 29 Mar 1900
  6. Gladwin, Michael. Captains of the Soul: A History of Australian Army Chaplains. Big Sky Publications, Newport NSW, 2013. ISBN 978-1-922132-52-9.
  7. Coulthard-Clark, Chris. The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 3rd ed 2001. ISBN 1-86508-634-7.
  8. Blanch, Craig and Pegram, Aaron. For Valour: Australians awarded the Victoria Cross. New South Publishing, Sydney NSW, 2018. ISBN 978 17422 35424.

See also

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