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(This paper replaces and supercedes the article which featured in the Canberra Times, 31 may 2017, and which was previously posted here.)

A poorly considered war memorial: The new National Boer War Memorial in Canberra

Robert Eales

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Historical Association, Canberra, 5 July 2018

The National Boer War Memorial, inaugurated on 31 May 2017 on Anzac Parade, Canberra


Anyone who speaks critically of a war memorial - as I propose to do about this memorial – is bound to feel conflicted. And I do have mixed feelings as I present this paper.

In recent conflicts, there are survivors to consider. That does not apply in this case. But there are families and descendants. First, and most importantly, one must be sensitive to their very understandable wish for tangible recognition of the the loss of loved ones and friends, the  sacrifices and suffering, of this or previous generations. A memorial addresses this valid and sometimes deeply felt need, and thus I go into this discussion with a certain degree of regret.

Then there are the particular circumstances of this memorial. It is the product of a citizens’ initiative. The campaign to raise the money, led by Colonel John Haynes, was long and difficult, and the commitment to see it through to realisation is admirable.

Finally, in deference to this memorial, the product has merit - at least when taken out of context. The memorial is dominated by four well-executed sculptures of men on horse-back, all larger than life and evocative of the Australian bush as much as the South African veld. In an avenue of prominent war memorials, it is unique, aesthetically interesting, distinctive and memorable.

But these are not the only considerations that apply. Monuments and memorials are part of our cultural landscape. They tell the visitor, and reinforce in the resident, something of who we are. In reminding us of the past, they also say what is important to us, what matters to us and what our values are. They do this by what they include as well as by what they exclude. The new National Boer War Memorial makes a statement on behalf of all of us.

And when considered from this perspective, it makes me uncomfortable.

The misgivings about a Boer War memorial go back a long way. Ken Inglis, in his comprehensive book on Australian war memorials, notes that there was opposition to the Boer War in Australia at the time it was fought. When reports arrived of what the soldiers were really doing in South Africa, the misgivings deepened. ‘It was’ he writes, ‘an assignment of which Australians might not easily feel proud.’[1] He notes that there was no state memorial to this war in Queensland, New South Wales or Victoria by 1914 when a bigger war usurped the nation’s attention. Now there are modest Boer War memorials in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, all erected after the fund raising proved difficult and amid a lack of public enthusiasm.[2]

So, what were the misgivings? Are they still relevant? And how should we now think of this war?

The first point to make is that Britain and its Empire, the side we fought for, were the aggressors in this war. The Boers made strenuous efforts to avert war. Those efforts were rebuffed repeatedly, and we invaded nevertheless. Let’s recap the history briefly.

White settlement in South Africa began in 1652 where Cape Town is today. The settlement spread from there, along the east coast and into the hinterland and it progressively developed its own, distinct culture. Dutch remained the dominant language although a local patois was evolving, the origin of the modern language, Afrikaans.

Britain’s persecution and torment of these people began a century and a half after the initial settlement and a century before the Boer War began. In 1795, it temporarily occupied the Cape by agreement with the House of Orange. Then in 1806 it returned and took the Cape by force.

At first slowly, then with increasing resolution, Britain set about anglicising its new possession and, in consequence, supressing the Cape Dutch culture. Initially, government business was bilingual, then conducted only in English. Courts began to sit only in English. Teachers were paid only if they taught in English.

Existing democratic institutions were abolished, locally and centrally, to be replaced by administrative rule. Officials were often recruited in England, spoke only English, and took their directions from the administration at Cape Town or the Colonial Office in London. Local views were generally not sought, local cultural sensitivities were not understood, and local imperatives were not appreciated.

Ministers of religion were recruited in Scotland, sent to the Netherlands to train in the Dutch Reformed church then appointed to congregations in the Cape Colony to preach, preferably in English. This, at a time when their church was the heart of their society and a bastion of their culture.

The abolition of slavery is something we would all applaud. But here it was handled particularly badly, with too few funds provided to compensate all Cape slave owners. More importantly, the compensation was payable only in London. Collecting it was, for most, impossible. It was yet another slight.

By the 1830’s many had had enough. Sparsely settled lands to the north beckoned. Many colonists sold their properties, packed their wagons and left the Cape Colonial territory, hoping to be free of the British once and for all. The migration became known as the Great Trek. It was, of course, an invasion of the lands of indigenous peoples, the kind of thing white people did all over the world in those times; here in Australia, in New Zealand and in the Americas.

They had barely settled again before the British cast avaricious eyes over these newly occupied lands. It is beyond our present scope to detail the complicated history of these territories between the Great Trek and the outbreak of the Boer War, but a few highlights will give a flavour:

  • In 1843, Britain invaded and annexed the republic of Natal that the Boers had conquered from the Zulus with much sacrifice and bloodshed.

  • In 1848, it annexed the land between the Orange and Vaal rivers, proclaiming the Orange River Colony.

  • In 1852, after some strife, it signed a convention recognising the right of those living north of the Vaal to ‘govern themselves without interference’.

  • In 1854, it reversed the annexation of the Orange River Colony and withdrew, thus creating the Orange Free State,

  • In 1871, it annexed the Kimberley diamond fields, a part of the OFS. Soon diamonds were the largest export by far, not of the poor Boer republic, but of the more prosperous Cape Colony.

  • In 1877, Britain annexed the Transvaal, then the South African Republic, notwithstanding the solemn convention of 1852.

  • In 1881, the Transvaal Boers revolted and evicted the British by force.

  • More solemn conventions were signed in that year and again in 1884, the second of which stated, ‘It is a cardinal principal of this settlement that the internal government and legislation of the South African Republic shall not be interfered with’.

  • Two years later, in 1886, gold was discovered in the southern Transvaal in copious quantities. A gold rush ensued and a substantial gold mining industry began to develop.

  • In 1895, Cecil John Rhodes launched the Jameson Raid, a privately funded invasion of the South African Republic. Though privately funded, its aim was to make the territory British. It was an ignominious failure but an ominous portent of what was to come.

When Sir Alfred Milner arrived in 1897 as the new British High Commissioner for South Africa, based in Cape Town, he looked on this chequered history and saw incompetence on the part of his predecessors. He resolved to sort things out once and for all, capture the Boer territories for Britain, include those rich gold fields in the Empire, and, in the process, do his own career no harm.

On the other side, the Boers were utterly sick of the duplicity and the unrelenting trouble Britain had caused them. Their resolution to remain independent ran deep. With revenue from the gold mines, they bought the best arms available in substantial quantities: rifles from Germany, big guns from France. They imported expertise, established a munitions factory and trained their gunners to shoot accurately.

On the other hand, the Boers did everything they could to avert war. Britain was immensely more powerful than they could ever be, and war would be disastrous. As Milner’s sabre-rattling continued and war clouds gathered, they invited him to a peace conference in Bloemfontein in the middle of 1899. He attended, but when it seemed the Boers would accede to his stated, overt demands, he abruptly walked out. Without war, his unspoken objective – conquest - could not be achieved.

Still the Boers tried to avoid war, pleading directly with London for international arbitration. Repeated approaches and ever greater concessions were rebuffed. Arbitration was refused. Instead Britain mobilised, sending troops to Southern Africa.

This is the deplorable background. In October 1899, with British forces converging on the republican borders from the east, south and west, the Anglo-Boer War broke out.

My first main point is therefore that the memorial commemorates a war in which we were morally on the wrong side. Britain was unambiguously the aggressor, driven by colonial expansionary aims.

It began badly for Britain. To launch the invasion, ten thousand soldiers had been despatched to augment the troops already in southern Africa. The Boers defeated the advancing columns and laid siege to British garrisons at Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking.

A further 50,000 troops were then sent under an experienced field commander, Sir Redvers Buller. But in December 1899, these forces, too, were defeated on three fronts, all in the space of one week. It was a great shock, and London now understood the gravity of what they had started. Appeals for assistance were despatched to all parts of the Empire. Here, in Australia, the call was heeded by all the yet-to-be-united colonies.

That response and later troop commitments are the genesis of the National Boer War Memorial. It is safe to say that the volunteers who went from these shores had no appreciation of the troubled history that proceeded the war. Nor, in all probability, did the politicians who cheered them on, fed only on Milner’s propaganda and driven by the wish to demonstrate how British these colonies really were.

With reinforcements arriving from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere, and especially from Britain itself, the imperial side assembled overwhelming power under yet another Commander in Chief, Lord Roberts. These combined imperial troops then conquered the capitals of the two republics, Bloemfontein and Pretoria. But, contrary to expectations, the war did not end there. The Boers fought on.

The country was vast, the population thin. Most of the British soldiers were infantry – on foot; the Boers, in contrast, were all mounted. Moreover, the Boers had local knowledge and local sympathies. This meant that Roberts and his successor, Kitchener, did not have the means to corner and defeat their adversaries. So, instead, they attacked the static, civilian population.

This is where problems with this war get more serious.

Roberts did it locally, punitively, in response to attacks on his men, but Kitchener sought a comprehensive solution. He decided to clear the countryside. His soldiers, including Australians, formed lines 50 to 70 km long, advanced across the land and removed everything that could sustain human life. Farms were burnt to the ground, crops were destroyed, livestock was confiscated or simply killed, farm equipment was removed, wells were poisoned, and farm dams breached. Small towns and villages suffered a similar fate. There were several such ‘drives’ and each continued for months. By the end of the war, the countryside in the two republics was wasteland.

There was, of course, a complication. There were people on those farms and in the villages. While the men were mostly in the Boer forces fighting for their countries, the Boer women and children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled were still at home when the troops arrived. And there were black people on the farms and in the villages, too, men, women and children.

Banjo Paterson, was over there, a war correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald. In the beginning, he was an ardent imperialist, writing enthusiastic stories of the great things our men were doing. But as events unfolded, he began to think differently. After he saw pleading women and terrified children being evicted from their house, and all their possessions going up in flames, he wrote no more from over there. He came home.

At first, the unfortunate victims we simply abandoned besides their burnt-out homesteads with no food, shelter or transport. As they drifted into the towns, often in a pitiful state, a different approach was adopted. They were rounded up and railed off to camps. Blacks and whites. The total number in the camps exceeded 200,000 by the end of the war. Kitchener called them ‘concentration camps’.

The camps were appalling. At least 42,000 people died in them, many more than all the soldiers who died on both sides. By far the majority of the fatalities were those of children, especially little children. In one camp where detailed information is available, virtually no child under the age of four survived.


My second and final point is therefore that the way the Empire conducted the war, was ignominious, outside the conduct of civilised warfare.


Which brings us back to the new memorial in Canberra.

On the wall in the foreground of this memorial there are extracts from the diary of an Australian trooper in the Boer War. They are enshrined in bronze and the last page shown refers to his participation in farm burning.

The memorial belongs squarely to the tradition of romantic militarism. Stephen Pinker describes this attitude to war well. In this view, he says, ‘war is glorious, thrilling, spiritual, manly, noble, heroic, altruistic’.[3] As one looks at the four men on horseback, it is clear that the creators wished to evoke exactly such a view of what the Australian soldiers did in South Africa. But there is nothing noble, heroic or altruistic in destroying farms, burning homes and committing women and children to desolate camps. An appropriate memorial would reflect the moral ambiguity of what we did over there.

The fact that the events commemorated in this monument coincided with the founding of Australia as a nation lends added significance to the way we remember them. Is this really who we are? Is this how we want the world to see us?

This is not just a matter of aesthetics or historical validity. Since the time of the Boer War, we have again engaged in wars that for Australia are ‘unnecessary’, to use Henry Reynolds appropriate and relevant term[4], wars that were or still are also morally compromised. Many Australian lives have needlessly been destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people have suffered or died in countries we have helped to devastate … again.

Surely when we erect war memorials, they could be such as to encourage Australians to be more thoughtful about the wars we choose to engage in. Acknowledging the moral ambiguity of the Boer War does not demean Australia. On the contrary, it would enhance our stature as a mature, informed, self-aware nation. We could have had a memorial that more appropriately reflects our values in this, the 21st century.

I am sure these comments are controversial, and I look forward to your questions and comments.


[1] Inglis, K S, Sacred Places, War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, 2nd Edition, p 61, Melbourne University Press, 2008.

[2] Carolyn Holbrook, Carolyn, doctoral thesis, The Great War in the Australian Imagination since 1915, Ch 1.

[3] Pinker, Stephen, Enlightenment Now, The case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, p165, Allen Lane, 2018.

[4] Reynolds, Henry, Unnecessary Wars, NewSouth Publishing, 2016.



Dr Robert Eales is the author of The Compassionate Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War, Middle Harbour Press, Sydney, 2014, ISBN 9780992527624.


© Robert Eales

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