Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Farmers' War

In my travels recently I've photographed two memorials to soldiers killed in the South African War (1899-1902).  I've been wondering whether there is any lesson we can draw from it.
South African War memorial, Mooroopna, Victoria, Australia
South African War memorial, Murchison, Victoria, Australia

Of all the conflicts before World War One, the South African War had the greatest involvement for Britain's colonies.  Paterson's poem 'With French to Kimberley' now sounds cringe-makingly jingoistic but it captures the mood of the time -

His column was five thousand strong -- all mounted men -- and guns:
There met, beneath the world-wide flag, the world-wide Empire's sons;
They came to prove to all the earth that kinship conquers space,
And those who fight the British Isles must fight the British race!
From far New Zealand's flax and fern, from cold Canadian snows,
From Queensland plains, where hot as fire the summer sunshine glows --
And in front the Lancers rode that New South Wales had sent:
With easy stride across the plain their long, lean Walers went.
Unknown, untried, those squadrons were, but proudly out they drew
Beside the English regiments that fought at Waterloo.
From every coast, from every clime, they met in proud array
To go with French to Kimberley to drive the Boers away.
I wonder what the colonial soldiers really made of the war.  As a conflict that relied heavily on irregular warfare and mounted infantry, it was particularly suited to men who had been farmers and drovers, mounted police and bushmen. 
Image from here
They must have noticed that people against whom they fought were essentially the same: countrymen (the conflict is often called the Boer War, from the Afrikaans word for 'farmer'), citizen-soldiers, and with a sense of their distinctiveness as a colonial people.
Boers at Spion Kop, 1900 - Project Gutenberg eText 16462.jpg
Boer militiamen at Spion Kop, 1900.
Image from here
The war bears comparison with another conflict: the Texas War of Independence.  Both were (at least in part) about vindicating the rights of settlers in a host-state.  In both, the settlers' demands would alter the host-state forever.  And in both, all sides had reasonable but irreconcilable beliefs about what ordered liberty should mean.
Flags of the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State
Images from here and here
I don't think we can draw any sort of lesson from the memorials that I started with.  All we can draw from them is a feeling, or a sensation, of tragedy.  The memorials tell a story of brave people in dusty uniforms and equally dusty civvies, shedding each others' blood to vindicate what they believed justice demanded.

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