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Does memorial tell the truth about Boer conflict?

The Boer War memorial on Anzac Parade… It consists of a diorama of four mounted men riding through the veldt. The bronze sculptures and the landscape are in the artistic tradition of figurative realism. Photo: Con Boekel


“The pristine veldt in the diorama lacks burning houses and crops, dead horses, dead sheep, field hospitals choked with soldiers dying of disease… and civilians dying in British concentration camps,” writes CON BOEKEL.

THE Boer War, our first national war, is memorialised on Anzac Parade – a national place.

Con Boekel.

The memorial consists of a diorama of four mounted men riding through the veldt. Memorial texts include poetry by Banjo Paterson, letters home from Private FH Booth and official interpretation.

The bronze sculptures and the landscape are in the artistic tradition of figurative realism. There is accurate detail with respect to tack, badges, equipment and uniforms. Black patination on the horses’ tails and khaki patination on the uniforms add to the realism. The diorama landscape mimics the veldt. Visual claims to representing realism are complemented by the interpretative texts.

The technical aspects of Louis Laumen’s sculpting and of the bronze casting are excellent. The sure-footed and curved flow of horses and men down a slight slope, along with the distribution of shapes, mass and negative spaces, combine to generate considerable aesthetic appeal. The values exhibited in the diorama are courage, willingness to sacrifice life, and military skill.

The emphasis on realism raises the question: “What were the realities of the Boer War?” Here, elements of the texts diverge from the diorama. Banjo Paterson wonders whether the war is “worth” the wounded and the dead. Booth refers to the large number of sick soldiers. Booth also expresses disquiet about burning crops and herding women and children away from their homes, but omits the systematic house burning, and the killing and looting of livestock. The interpretative texts refer to the numerous “civilians” who died in British concentration camps.

The interpretative texts omit mention of domestic Australian civilian opposition to the war and to elements of its conduct. Also missing is the cause of the war, which was the British determination to capture the Rand goldfields. There is no reference to Africans.

The interpretative texts provide three whole-of-war statistics: decorations awarded to Australians (167), Australians who joined (23,000), and Australians who died (1000).

The texts omit the following statistics: Boer fighters killed (6000), Boer women and children deaths in British concentration camps (26,000), African civilian deaths in British concentration camps (20,000), Boer farm houses burned (30,000), Boer sheep killed (3,500,000), and horse deaths on the Imperial side (300,000).

The Hague Convention of 1899 forbade the killing of enemy combatants who had surrendered, looting and collective punishment.

Thomas Pakenham in his magisterial “The Boer War” states: “It was an open secret that some of the irregular colonial forces made it a principle not to take prisoners.” 

Breaker Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers was one such force. Pakenham contrasts this with the military value and good conduct of the regular Australian contingents.

The four horses in the diorama are heroic in scale and magnificently fit. The service life expectancy of a horse was six weeks. Most died from disease, starvation and exhaustion. The pristine veldt in the diorama lacks burning houses and crops, dead horses, dead sheep, field hospitals choked with soldiers dying of disease, barbed wire, block houses, armoured trains, and civilians dying in British concentration camps.

The application of figurative realism, the artistic beauty of the diorama, the limited diorama subjects, the limited statistics, and the limited ambit of the interpretative texts, taken together, do not provide a realistic or representative picture of the Boer War.

This raises a key question: “How should a nation memorialise skill, courage and self-sacrifice delivered in the service of a war that was waged for gold, and the conduct of which included systemic elements that did not meet our then national values?”

We have come a long way. Our values are now expressed in the Rules of Engagement (ROE) of the Australian Defence Force. I believe that the vast majority of ADF personnel observed the ROE with skill, courage and dedication during the two decades of our latest national war, the Afghanistan War. This deserves memorialisation.

How might shortcomings raised by Boer War memorialisation help inform an Australian Afghanistan War Memorial?

Con Boekel majored in history at Monash University in 1968 and has not  stopped reading history since. He has an abiding personal interest in how war is presented and mis-represented.

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One Response to Does memorial tell the truth about Boer conflict?

Palmerston's Historical Lament says: November 18, 2021 at 11:52 am

Interesting. The Boer War experience for Australia is vastly different in many way to the Boer War experienced by the UK and by other members of Empire (eg Canada). For Australia, it started out as Colonial detachments and concluded as a Commonwealth commitment and one gets the sense that there was a lot of feeling one’s way along the path.

The British experience is transformational as it saw the end of the amateur officer class thanks to Black Week, and the development of the more professional Army as a result of the reforms and lessons learned. The BEF at Mons n 1914 were a vastly different creature and culture than at Modder River. (for a good contemporaneous read see F.W. Crum’s book, “With the Mounted Infantry in South Africa” 1903.)

But the revolution extends to medicine as well with x rays being used for the first time and numerous other advances that we would now consider crude. The climate and various terrains of South Africa also contributed to needless death from disease.

And that also applies to the Concentration Camps. Poor hygiene and poor food also led to deaths within the Boer civilian population and that needs to be confronted honestly. But also too the lessons learned by Empire on how to treat a hostile population; and this is where we can compare/contrast with the Bridges Plan of model villages in Malaya during The Emergency where we have a similar approach to a similar problem but a vastly different outcome.

There are multiple stories to be told and the AWM can do better with Colonial history because Australia as a concept did not commence its being on 25 April 1915, rather it has been an evolving narrative.

The way our Canadian cousins tell their story in the Ottawa War Memorial equivalent is worth looking at as they tell a story of country that pre-dates by includes Viking settlement but also includes the journey into a single Dominion.


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