The New Zealanders who served in the South African War not only had to endure the stress of combat but also the harsh climate and landscape of southern Africa. The rural farmland, known in Afrikaans as veldt, was where much of the conflict took place.
Life on the veldt was made tougher by the extreme contrasts in temperature. New Zealand soldiers often endured severe daytime heat, then at night slept out in the open with only an overcoat to protect them from the freezing cold.
Soldiers on trek begin their day as early as 4 a.m. and could spend up to 12 hours out on patrol. To preserve their mounts, they often switched between riding and leading their horses by foot. This method allowed mounted troops to cover at least 30 km a day.
Because their success relied upon their mobility, the soldiers were forced to carry only a limited amount of supplies. Water was scarce and rations simply consisted of hard army biscuits, bully beef, sugar and tea. Rations were supplemented by whatever food could be acquired through foraging or looting. Because meals in South Africa were four times the price of any found in New Zealand, soldiers were often forced to spend much of their pay on additional food.
Accompanying this was the ever-present threat of being ambushed by Boer forces. Those who were wounded while on trek often had to endure a three-day journey before they reached a hospital. Because of the unsanitary conditions the threat of infection was constantly present.
Trained in the British manner of warfare, the New Zealand soldiers found themselves fighting against an unconventional enemy in an unfamiliar terrain. Although they relied upon their mounts the New Zealand contingents were not cavalry. Instead, they operated as mounted infantrymen and used horses as a means of getting as close as possible to the enemy lines before engaging them on foot.
The New Zealanders expected the enemy to fight by their rules and were often outraged when the Boers refused to do so. On occasion Boer forces would lure them close by flying a white flag of surrender before opening fire. In other instances soldiers would approach what they believed were fellow troops, only to discover at the last moment that they were Boers wearing stolen British uniforms. Despite this they respected the Boer as a capable fighter and worthy opponent.
While the British army acted as a disciplined and cohesive force, the Boers fought as independent groups of commandos. The commando units were not formally structured and men could simply leave their unit to join another on their own accord. Although they excelled in guerrilla warfare, the Boer strategies were not suited for engaging heavily defended areas such as the towns held by the British.
As the war dragged on the Boer tactics were undermined by a lack of ammunition and supplies. Their weaponry deteriorated and shots taken at the enemy had to be carefully measured due to a shortage of ammunition. With no official uniform other than their own personal clothing, they were reduced to wearing animal skins or stolen British khakis as replacements. The British considered the latter to be a breach of combat protocol and any Boers that they caught wearing khaki were tried and executed.
Although the Boers treated any Imperial soldiers they took prisoner with respect this did not extend towards native Africans who, if caught fighting on behalf of the British, were instantly executed. There were many New Zealand soldiers who were horrified by such actions.
The Boers have absolutely no excuse this kind of conduct … black scouts are employed by both parties and yet whenever they catch ours they shoot them like dogs the despicable curs … It’s done simply for spite, nothing else, for the average Boer thinks no more of a darkie than he does of a dog, often times not so much.
Private Henry Gilbert, Seventh Contingent in Kingsley Field, Soldier Boy (2007)