Boer War

Kathleen’s Colonial Boys

Today I’m going to share one of the oldest postcards in my collection, one which also happens to include a message relating to New Zealanders fighting in the Boer War.

It is one of a small group that I found in a junk shop as a teenager and bought with my paper run money.  I remember at the time being impressed that the postcard was sent over 90 years earlier and thought how amazing it would be to one day have a century old postcard in my collection.  It sat safe in one of my albums during my turbulent “trying to get into the television industry” phase and now that I have it out of its protective cover for the first time in ages I am almost in denial when I realise it is now 112 years old.  A sobering reminder of how quickly the years have whizzed by!  Here it is:

Boer War PostcardLemuel Lyes Collection

Boer War Postcard
Lemuel Lyes Collection

The picture is typically patriotic, tugging on the heartstrings of an Empire that was sending its young men to fight in South Africa.  But as is often the case it is the message that I find the most interesting.  Here is a transcription:

Dear Kathleen,

You’ll be pleased to hear that the war is nearly over, so you will have all your dear Colonial Boys back soon.  What greater reward could be given them but to come home to England for the summer.

From Auntie Beattrice(?)

Where to begin with that!?!  Apart from being decidedly cute it is also laced with exactly the kind of stereotypical patriotism that you’d be forgiven for expecting from an individual in Victorian England writing to their niece in ‘the far colonies’.  It really does seem cliché.  However the most ironic part of the message is the reference to the war being nearly over.  Take a look at the reverse side of the card.

Boer War PostcardLemuel Lyes Collection

Boer War Postcard
Lemuel Lyes Collection

The card was sent from Battersea, United Kingdom on 2nd June 1900 and arrived in Nelson, New Zealand on 5th July 1900.  The ‘Rebel’ capital Pretoria was captured by the British in June 1900 but the conflict would then turn into a bloody guerrilla war which would continue for another two years.  When Auntie Beattrice sent this postcard to Kathleen there were 1796 New Zealanders fighting in South Africa.  That number would triple by the time the war ended.  Poor Kathleen would have to wait a bit longer for her dear Colonial boys to return as the war was far from over.

At the dawn of the twentieth century the British learned that capturing an enemy capital doesn’t always result in the end of a war but can instead simply mark a shift into a more unconventional, bloody and drawn out phase.  Sound familiar?

We can’t be too harsh on poor Auntie B.  There was no Wikileaks in 1900.  There was no internet and real journalism was still in its infancy.  Nationalism and patriotism were as strong as ever.  For example check the card again and read the quote from Shakespeare in the top right corner above the flags and soldiers in colourful uniforms.

“This England never did, nor never shall lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.  But when it first did help to wound itself, Come the three corners of the world in arms.  And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue, if England to itself do rest but true.”

Aunty B was simply reflecting the popular sentiment of the time and without access to any information other than what was fed to the British public you can hardly blame her for presuming that the war in South Africa really was drawing to a close, or that it was even a war that to be fought.  I like to think that in the age of twitter, blogs, television, internet and citizen journalism that we can’t use the same excuse.

And now for something completely different – I was recently interviewed about ‘History Geek’ on Jim Sullivan’s fantastic ‘Sounds Historical’ programme on Radio New Zealand.  You can listen to the interview here, towards the end of Part 1.  I’m still a novice when it comes to being interviewed but Jim was lovely and it was a privilege to be on the show.

© Lemuel Lyes

2 replies »

  1. One of the more extraordinary discoveries I ever made about NZ’s Boer War was in a letter by one of the soldiers – preserved in Turnbull. He was writing home to his Mum, to say that he wanted to be shot! Apparently he believed a wound would be a way of getting status. In point of fact, he WAS shot a little later – dead. We didn’t have too many casualties in that war by comparison with WWI, but it was still a tragedy of the first order. Wars always are. The rah-rah stuff that went with this one – product of a generation or so of social militarism – underscores just how much things have changed in the 112-odd years since.

    Congrats on the interview!

    • That letter sounds fascinating! The sentiment reminds me of the stories of Prussian schoolboys hoping to suffer an impressive dueling scar to wear as a badge of honour!

      I’ve always felt that the memories of New Zealand’s involvement in the Boer War have remained relatively neglected, left in the wake of the iconic campaigns of the World Wars. It is a topic I’d love to learn more about.

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