Boer War Day

Boer War Day was on 31 May and marked the 110th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the Second Boer War. So why should we remember a war that for most of the last century has been termed 'a forgotten war'? We should remember because it marked the beginning of Australia as an independent nation and it played a pivotal role in forming our national character.

At the start of the war in 1899, Australia was comprised of six self-governing crown colonies in the final stages of forming a federation. In June 1899 the people of all colonies except Western Australia had voted in favour of federation and in 1900 Western Australia joined them. By then Australians, including the first servicewomen to serve overseas, were already serving alongside Britons, Canadians and New Zealanders as part of an imperial force. The British commanders particularly valued the Australians for their horsemanship, bush skills and initiative. The Australians were becoming known for a special type of Australian mounted infantry, which would become the Light Horse of the First World War. And for the first time Australians and New Zealanders fought together, as they would in future conflicts.

Following Federation on 1 January 1901, the Australian Commonwealth Horse was formed, and the first version of Australia's rising sun badge appeared. And the Australian tradition of raising specific, volunteer forces to serve overseas was established. As would happen later in the 20th century, men were recruited from individual states but they fought as Australians. In all, some 23,000 Australians, including 60 women, served in the Boer War. In that war, 589 Australians lost their lives and 1,400 sustained serious wounds. Australia also lost its first servicewoman when Sister Frances Emma 'Fanny' Hines died of pneumonia. She died of pneumonia—but it was probably really exhaustion—in August 1900. It is sobering to think that almost half of all deaths were from disease or accident.

The Boer War was also the first of our wars to be commemorated by public memorials. These were later erected in small towns and country areas that are today sparsely populated. In many cases they list the names of all local citizens who served, with special recognition of those who died. Although there are local memorials all over Australia, to date no specific national memorial to the Boer War has been built. The reasons for this are many. But now, more than 100 years after the event, steps are being taken to correct this. Very soon Canberra may have its own memorial to the Boer War on Anzac Parade, which pays homage to the troops and the horses who fought so valiantly all those years ago. For the last several years, the members of the National Boer War Memorial Association have been working extremely hard to build a fitting memorial on ANZAC Parade. The site for the memorial was dedicated in 2008 and in March of this year the design was announced following its approval by the Canberra National Memorials Committee. The memorial will recognise that all Australian troops in the Boer War were mounted or dependent on horses to tow their ambulances, their artillery and their supply wagons. It will recall their endurance and sacrifice.

To commemorate Boer War Day this year, a special service was held at St John's Church in Reid here in Canberra to commemorate two local citizens who served in the war: Sergeant William Bradshaw Galliard Smith and William Frederick Young. I was also in attendance at the ACT Committee of the National Boer War Memorial Association's commemorative ceremony at the new site of the National Boer War Memorial on ANZAC Parade. The design for that site is quite extraordinary. It is like a 3D memorial that goes right back towards St John's in Reid. It is a beautiful memorial and I am very much looking forward to seeing it opened.

In a few weeks I will also be attending an ACT Reserves commemoration ceremony for the Boer War. This evening I ask that we all remember the brave men and women who served in Australia's first national war, the Boer War, 110 years ago.

Download a copy of this speech.

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