The Boer War 1899-1902
The scale of Australian involvement in the Boer War is often not appreciated, yet it is believed that between 15 000 and 16 000 Australian men went to fight for British forces in this conflict over a period of about 3 years.
This conflict is more properly known as The Second Anglo-Boer War, as an earlier conflict had been fought in 1880-81.
Australia was not yet a commonwealth – most volunteers went in units raised by the separate colonies, including Western Australia. The war mostly required mounted troops, and thousands of horses went with the units.
By the mid-1800s, the Area now comprising the Republic of South Africa included the British colonies of Cape Colony and Natal, and the two Boer republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal. The Boer people were settlers of Dutch background (the word ‘boer’ means farmer in Dutch and in Afrikaans) who wanted to establish their own territory and did not want to live under British control or be subject to British rules, particularly in their relationships with indigenous peoples.
The discovery of gold and diamonds in the Boer republics in the 1880s upset the uneasy co-existence as large numbers of fortune-seekers headed north from the Cape. In 1899 war broke out. This went badly for the British at first but as countries in the Empire sent reinforcements, and the Boer fighters were cut off from supplies and outside help, the tide turned and the war ended on 31 May 1902.
There were large losses of life, and not only by soldiers – thousands of Boer women and children died in concentration camps set up by the British to prevent them helping or supplying their men who were fighting. Many thousands of indigenous people also died, and an estimated 300 000 horses. Neither side was very well supplied. As the Australian War memorial says:
The nature of the conditions under which the war was fought can be deduced from the fact that in the Australian contingents, 282 died in action or from wounds sustained in battle, while 286 died from disease and another 38 died of accident or other unknown causes.
West Australian militia units
West Australian volunteers made up six units totalling over 900 men, and also contributed a further 300 men to Commonwealth forces after federation. Forty men died in service there. Approximately 300 others took discharge in South Africa and more may have died serving in other forces later.
Two railwaymen are known to have enlisted in the WA units and been killed in service in the Boer War. They are included in the data searchable by name here.
They can also be found in the database which can be searched and sorted in different ways here.