The Australian Army’s inauspicious birth. From the Boer War to the Afghanistan War.

Nov 26, 2020

With such intense focus on the army’s record in Afghanistan we might look more closely at its history. It had an inauspicious birth on the first of March 1902 in South Africa, three months before the end of the Boer War.

The contingents from the six states which had been engaged in hostilities since late in 1899 came together to b constituent parts of the new federal army.

They had been deeply involved in the second phase of the war as the Imperial forces ravaged the Veldt in an attempt to repress the Boer’s highly effective guerrilla campaign. In doing so they became usually willing participants in a campaign that scandalised public opinion in both Europe and the United States and which flew in the face of the rules governing the treatment of civilians in war which been set out in detail in the First Hague Convention on the International Settlement Disputes which finished its deliberations just three months before the outbreak of war.

The Imperial army showed no restraint. Thirty thousand houses and farm buildings were burnt along with 40 towns and villages. All the personal property—furniture, clothes, pictures books and even pianos were thrown on bonfires or stolen and carried away. Farm machinery was smashed or otherwise disabled. Standing crops were burnt. Portable stores were commandeered. Tens of thousands of domestic animals were slaughtered or led away to be consumed by the soldiers. Dams were cut and fencing was demolished. In their diaries and letters home the young Australian men wrote expansively about torching the houses, stealing anything of value and smashing up the furniture to be used in camp fires.

But the pillage was not the worst of it. The Imperial troops took into captivity everyone they came across—women ,children ,old men and African servants and marched or ferried them in wagons to the nearest railway station to be carried to the open air prisons rapidly set up on the Veldt. There were officially called concentration camps. There were 34 of them. The death rate was catastrophic during the time the army was in charge—160,000 Boers were impounded; 28,000 died; more than 22,000 were children. More than 100,000 Africans were held in even more ramshackle camps. At least 14,000 died 80% of them children. Four times more children died in the camps than the number of Australians who died in Japanese prison camps during the Second World War.

The Australians had a bad reputation for ill- treating Africans and routinely shooting any they thought might be spies. One study of the war concluded that a substantial proportion of the assaults upon Africans attached to the army and upon Indian and Chinese civilians could be attributed to the colonial contingents ‘ notably Australians.’ And shooting of Boer prisoners may have been much more common than historical accounts suggest. A British soldier recorded in his diary in November 1900 one such incident. Twelve Boers had surrendered to a contingent of Australian mounted infantry members of which ‘ coolly walked up and bayoneted all the lot—no prisoners with them.’

All was forgiven or more likely forgotten when in 2002 Australia commemorated the centenary of the war. Farewelling an army contingent setting off for official events in South Africa the Minister for Veterans ’Affairs Dana Vaile declared:

Those Australians who served in the Boer War began the fine military tradition that

would be followed in wars and conflicts over the next century, from Gallipoli to members

of the Australian Defence Force serving today as part of the international coalition

against terrorism.

The war was swept up in the cavalcade of commemoration initiated and financed by the federal government which culminated during the centenary of the First World War. A statue was placed in a vacant location on Canberra’s Anzac Avenue, the mint issued a commemorative coin and official gatherings were held all over the country on the 31st of May which has now been named Boer War Day. In his official address on Boer War Day in 2015 Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove declared:

These men and women were the first to serve Australia in battle, and they did us proud

……….In a difficult war far from home, our Boer War veterans showed what it was to be

an Australian. In this centenary year, their deeds are as important and relevant as ever

and they are widely regarded as fathers of the ANZACS.

What can one say?

Is it simply a matter of inexcusable ignorance or a deliberate official policy to wash out of our historical memory the truly egregious behaviour of the Australian and other Imperial forces in South Africa which at the time shocked the world and a great many of the most prominent intellectuals, writers and artists in Britain itself.

But it draws attention to a profound problem created by what has been called the militarisation of Australian history, a project supported, often enthusiastically, by both sides of national politics. Our civil, social and political achievements have been overshadowed by what our armed forces have done in overseas wars. A whole generation of young Australians has been told that the nation was founded on the shores of Gallipoli, that our warriors are the exemplars of national virtue. The lavishly funded War Memorial now promotes itself as the embodiment of the nation’s soul and there seem to be few people in public life willing to question that self-aggrandising fantasy.

And it all has a purpose. The implicit message is that it is perfectly normal for the country to intervene in wars far from our shores. The ANZAC legend itself makes it easier for governments to go to war and makes it difficult for sceptics to carry out appropriate assessment when the diggers return. War is thereby normalised as something which we Australians routinely engage in and we always acquit ourselves well. How rarely we engage in serious assessment of what our assorted wars have achieved. We are even less able to seriously debate the morality of carrying war into countries like the Boer Republics that we knew very little about and which presented no conceivable threat to our homeland

It therefore comes as a shock to our self-perception when we are finally forced to confront the brutal reality of war, when the veil of gauzy romanticism is ripped away. We would have been for better prepared to confront the truth about Afghanistan if we had always known about the infamous circumstances attending the birth of the national army.

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