The Empire Calls

The SS “Surrey”, sailing from Auckland, New Zealand, to South Africa during the Second Boer War, 1899 – 1902.

14 January 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch recalls an incident before the sun set.

Chris Whyte, former secretary of London Rowing Club and one of the ‘LRC Irregulars’, has recently returned from New Zealand where he saw a painting that he thought would appeal to HTBS Types. In an e-mail to me, Chris wrote:

I thought you might be interested in the attached picture as a coda to your writing on Rowers and WWI. It shows ‘At the Empire’s Call’ which hangs in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, built (rather splendidly) as Auckland’s Memorial to its war dead from WWI and later WWII and other conflicts. The picture isn’t well described in the gallery but shows a troop ship about to embark for the Boer War. The rowing interest comes from the various racing boats which have gone out on the water to see the ship off …. I believe the NZ participants in WWI were seen off in a similarly enthusiastic style from Wellington Harbour, although whether rowers came along I don’t know.

Detail from ‘At the Empire’s Call’.
More detail from ‘At the Empire’s Call’.

There were/are five rowing clubs in and around Auckland that could have seen the SS Surrey off: Auckland RC (1869), North Shore RC (1874), Waitemata Boating/Rowing Club (1883), St George’s RC (1883) and West End RC (1884). Also, a club called City RC existed in Auckland in 1893 at least. Considering that Auckland’s population was only 50,000 in 1890 (and only 1.4 million now), this is a remarkable number of clubs.

Members of St George’s Rowing Club, Panmure, Auckland, pictured in September 1901. Note the three men in military uniform. Picture: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1-W266.

The painting shows the temporary troopship, the SS Surrey, sailing from Auckland, New Zealand, to Durban, South Africa, on 1 February 1902, carrying the Eighth NZ Contingent, North Island Division, a total of 45 officers and 951 men. The Eighth Contingent was formed in response to British requests for more New Zealand troops to fight the Boers in South Africa. Unlike other contingents, men were not required to be members of the New Zealand Volunteer Force. More than 4000 men applied to join the Eighth, but only 1000 were selected.

The ‘Auckland Star’s’ contemporary description of the departure of the SS Surrey is here. Though generally upbeat, the paper complains that ‘It would…. have been much better had there been a separate steamer to carry the horses. It really is packing the ship too much to crowd hundreds of horses into the space the men should have.’ A photograph of the Surrey (or similar contemporary troopship) is here.

A New Zealand trooper of the Second Boer War. New Zealanders were well suited to serve as mounted riflemen in South Africa and, in common with other contingents from the Empire, were highly valued by their British commanders. The mobility of mounted soldiers allowed them to keep up with the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of the Boer kommandos.

According to the government-run, New Zealand history website:

Eager to display New Zealand’s commitment to the British Empire, Premier Richard Seddon had offered to send troops two weeks before fighting began….

Seddon hoped that such displays of colonial solidarity would deter the Boers from fighting. He believed that New Zealand was not only bound to Britain but relied on the strength of the British Empire for its own continued security. With only five members (of the New Zealand House of Representatives) voting in opposition, the proposition was passed…

Hundreds of men applied to serve, and by the time the war began in October 1899, the First Contingent was already preparing to depart for South Africa….

By the time peace was concluded 2½ years later, 10 contingents of volunteers totalling more than 6500 men (plus 8000 horses) had sailed for South Africa, along with doctors, nurses, veterinary surgeons and about 20 schoolteachers. Seventy-one New Zealanders were killed in action or died of wounds, with another 159 dying in accidents or from disease.

Gisborne (a city on the east coast of the North Island) supplied this section of the Fourth Contingent. On 28 December 1899, Private George Bradford of the First Contingent became the first New Zealand soldier to lose his life in an overseas war.

Writing in the New Zealand Defence Quarterly in Spring 1999, John Crawford stated:

In many ways, the South African war set the pattern for New Zealand’s later involvement in the two World Wars. Specially raised units, consisting mainly of volunteers, were dispatched overseas to serve with forces from elsewhere in the British Empire. The success enjoyed by the New Zealand troops fostered the idea that New Zealanders were naturally good soldiers who required only a modicum of training to perform creditably. The war also strengthened New Zealanders’ sense of national identity….. At the same time, the war enhanced the ties of sentiment and shared interests which bound New Zealand to Great Britain and the other parts of the British Empire.

Boer kommandos (possibly including some of my relatives). Initially, the British were contemptuous of a loose collection of farmers who had never read a manual of war. Soon however, the skill and tenacity with which the Boers resisted a great Empire was admired by many, particularly the French and the Germans. Picture: Reddit/Tinus le Rou.

The 8th New Zealand Contingent returned home in July 1902.

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