New Zealand and the South African War – First overseas conflict…
A tight corner, a New Zealander painting, circa 1900
The South African War (or Second Anglo-Boer War) was the first overseas conflict to involve New Zealand troops. Fought between the British Empire and the Boer South African Republic (Transvaal) and its Orange Free State ally, it was the culmination of longstanding tensions in southern Africa.
Eager to display New Zealand’s commitment to the British Empire, Premier Richard Seddon offered to send troops two weeks before conflict broke out. Hundreds of men applied to serve, and by the time war began in October 1899, the First Contingent was already preparing to depart for South Africa. Within a few months they would be fighting the Boers.
By the time peace was concluded two and a half years later, ten contingents of volunteers totalling over 6500 men (plus 8000 horses) had sailed for Africa, along with doctors, nurses, veterinary surgeons and a small number of school teachers. Seventy-one New Zealanders were killed in action or died of wounds, with another 159 dying in accidents or as result of disease.
The South African war set the pattern for New Zealand’s later involvement in the two world wars. Specially raised units, consisting mainly of volunteers, were despatched overseas to serve with forces from elsewhere in the British Empire. The success enjoyed by these troops fostered the idea that New Zealanders were naturally good soldiers, who required minimum training to perform well.