Our war in Africa

06. 827NEWSTHE 1899 Boer War was the first conflict where a WA soldier was awarded a Victoria Cross.

It was also the first war fought by the Australian commonwealth: 20,000 Australians served in the southern African conflict and 1000 died (many from disease).

Despite these arresting facts, the Boer War has become Australia’s “forgotten war”, its anniversary languishing under the shadows of Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.

The WA Boer War memorial association wants to address this imbalance, and is lobbying for a national memorial.

“Canberra is the only Australian capital without a Boer memorial, and yet it does have a memorial to the Spanish civil war,” says historian and association member John Sweetman.

“No-one in the state or federal government wants to pay for it.

“The Boer War was the first operation of the Australian Army—it deserves national recognition.”

Following the outbreak of hostilities between British forces and Afrikaaners in 1899, the WA government raised six mounted infantry contingents to fight alongside British troops.

Five mounted contingents sailed from Fremantle and the 1st infantry from Albany.

The battle of West Australian Hill, fought on February 9 in 1900, was the first conflict involving Western Australians in South Africa.

Of the 1000 Australian solders who died in the Boer War, 40 were from WA.

Mr Sweetman argues the war has been overlooked because of the relatively low number of casualties compared to WWI and WWII, not because of ethical qualms the Australian public may have had over the young country’s involvement. The British empire—fighting the Boers to secure land rich in gold—created some of the world’s first concentration camps there in 1900. Of the 42,000 who died in the camps, more than 22,000 were Boer children under 16.

Since 2010 the BWA has held an annual service  at the South African war memorial in Kings Park, commemorating the signing of the Anglo-Boer peace treaty which paved the way for eventual Afrikaans independence.

Last year’s commemoration and reconciliation service was attended by around 150, including South Africans, Australians and Brits.

Representatives from each community laid a wreath, including one placed by by a Boer woman and child in period costume.

“This service is all about reconciliation and peace,” Sweetman says. “Communities representing all sides attend. I hope that we get a national memorial to acknowledge this forgotten war.”

This year’s Boer War memorial will be held June 1 in Kings Park.

by STEPHEN POLLOCK

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