Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 39

John Crawford & Ian McGibbon (eds.), One flag, one Queen, one tongue: New Zealand, the British Empire and the South African War 1899-1902, Auckland University Press, New Zealand, 2003, xii + 225 pp., illustrations, tables, index, soft cover, rrp NZ$39.99 (approx A$34.80).

Reviewed by: FRANK BONGIORNO, University of New England

A major study of Australia’s involvement in the Second South African War is aptly called The Forgotten War. At least as far as Australia is concerned, the recent centenary of that conflict spawned modest memorialisation at the local level in stone and print; some dressing up in uniforms and re-enactment by enthusiasts for military olden days; the obligatory defence of Breaker Morant in yet another book on that well worn subject; and an official history of Australian involvement in the war. Nevertheless, South African War commemoration became a bit lost in the mafficking surrounding the Millennium and the Sydney Olympics, if not the Centenary of Federation. Compared with the later conflicts in which Australians have been involved — notably the two World Wars and Vietnam — the South African War, rather like the Korean War that occurred half a century later, barely registers in Australian popular memory. Only the Morant episode lives on and, as Craig Wilcox points out in his contribution to this collection, in a grotesquely “distorted and sanitised” form (p.162).

This impressive new book is the result of a symposium held in New Zealand in October 1999. It brings together the work of New Zealand historians interested in New Zealand’s participation in the war, and scholars from Canada, South Africa, Britain and Australia able to help place the New Zealand involvement in its appropriate imperial context. There are chapters on the origins of New Zealand’s involvement in the war; opposition to the war in New Zealand; the performance of New Zealand’s mounted troops; the social and geographical composition of the New Zealand contingents; the involvement of Maori and of New Zealand women in the war; and the impact of the war on the New Zealand military and society. Taken together, they provide a revealing snapshot of New Zealand society at the turn of the century: here, in action, is the “slice” approach to history.

For example, in his chapter on the origins of the New Zealand commitment, Ian McGibbon argues that at the heart of New Zealand’s involvement was a mixture of imperial and national sentiment, and a concern for the civil rights of the Uitlanders in the Boer republics. Stephen Clarke points to the critical role played by colonial commandants — Britons based in Australia and New Zealand — in promoting Australasian offers of troops to the mother country in her hour of need. Colin McGeorge, in his study of the social composition of the New Zealand forces, shows “that the typical trooper was a young, unattached man who had either been born in New Zealand or grown up here and whose education ended at Standard 6 or earlier in a state primary school”. The force, he argues, was “a remarkably representative sample, socially and geographically, of the male population” (p.116). In a chapter by Ashley Gould, we learn one respect in which it was not: Maori men were officially excluded despite the best efforts of Premier Seddon to persuade British authorities to revise their view that this was a white man’s war. Interestingly, Joseph Chamberlain, with all the practicality of the Birmingham shopkeeper’s son he was, commented that it would have been better if the New Zealand Government had just quietly “sent them without asking and mixed them up with others … no one would have known the difference” (p.121). In any event, Gould shows that some Maori did indeed make it to South Africa without causing much fuss.

Two chapters deal with women’s involvement. Megan Hutching surveys the brave opposition of some New Zealand feminists to the war, while Ellen Ellis tells the story of those New Zealand women, the overwhelming majority, who believed the war was just. Such women had few opportunities for direct involvement. The most common activities were displays of loyalty at civic functions and farewells, fund-raising and the provision of comforts for the troops — as well, of course, as giving up their husbands, sons and brothers. Ellis also explores the experience of New Zealand nurses, such as those who travelled, not in the official troopship, but with 25,000 sacks of oats on a ship bound for South Africa. Finally, she tells the remarkable story of those twenty New Zealand teachers who worked with Boer children in the atrocious British concentration camps.

John Crawford deals with the military aspects of New Zealand involvement, and explores the perception of contemporaries that the New Zealanders were the best mounted troops of the war. He makes a strong case for their effectiveness, arguing that the particular features of the war — and notably the need for large numbers of mounted troops — suited the New Zealanders admirably. Crawford also explores the impact of the war on the New Zealand military and society, arguing that it contributed to the militarisation of the dominion, whose people increasingly came to regard themselves as a warrior nation in its aftermath.

Perspectives from elsewhere in the empire are provided by other authors. Thomas Pakenham, the author of an accomplished history of the war, produces a lively essay on the significant contribution of the colonial forces in which he comments that the colonies provided two-thirds of all mounted forces on the British side. “Without them”, he comments, “the war would not have been won — or at least not won without many more disasters and humiliations” (p.68).

Craig Wilcox, who wrote the official history of Australian involvement in the war, elegantly provides an Australian perspective, but paradoxically reminds us that “[t]he view from Wollongong or Wagga Wagga was little different to that from Wellington or Winnipeg” (p.151). While this is undoubtedly so, Carman Miller’s study of “The Montreal Flag Riot of 1900” reminds us that the war could be traumatic for a settlement colony with a “mixed ethnic and linguistic heritage” (p.165). The relief of Ladysmith sparked violent clashes between British and French Canadian communities in Montreal, with university students playing a leading role. While, on balance, the war was a unifying experience for Australians and New Zealanders which gave a boost to their national identities, Miller shows that for at least one part of the empire it was a divisive experience. Malcolm McKinnon reveals that even in loyal New Zealand, there were dissenters, while Ian van der Waag, in a brilliant historiographical essay, suggests that contestation over the meaning of the war has been integral to modern South African history. In South Africa itself, this conflict is by no means a forgotten war.

Do we have anything to learn from the South African War, which so obviously seems to belong to an imperial “world we have lost”? There is an observation in Wilcox’s essay, presumably written well before the Iraq War and therefore without any intended reference to it, that suggests Australians, at least, might. On p.159, he says:

… the cheap price of their war effort against the Boer republics, the apparently conclusive victory they shared, and the supposed superiority that their fighting men sometimes showed, together helped to ensure that Australians felt their aspirations to distinctiveness and prosperity could be met within the empire, not outside it.