Boer War Temporary Exhibition

The AGC’s new temporary exhibit on items from the Second Boer War gives a glimpse in to the life of an Army Pay Corps soldier and his service during the conflict. It has led to discussion of the Second Boer War as a wider conflict, the Pay system in this period and the soldier, Staff Quartermaster Sergeant (SQMS) Charles Williams, himself.

The Second Boer War was fought between the British Empire and the Dutch Boer settlers in the Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in 1899-1902. The war began as the British wanted to unite their colonies of Cape Colony and Natal with the Boer Republics. The Boers, who were Afrikaans speaking farmers, fought to maintain their independence. 8,000 British soldiers and 4,000 Boers were killed in the fighting. Another 13,000 Britons, 15,000 people of colour and 30,000 Boers died of disease or malnutrition. The Boer Republics had no armies but instead relied on mounted militias known as commandos and guerrilla tactics. By the end of May 1900, Britain began to make progress, taking the Orange Free State – by October, Transvaal had also been taken. The Boers resisted for another eighteen months, using guerrilla warfare. The British introduced a scorched earth policy and confined Boer families, displaced by the war, to a network of concentration camps. These camps were different from the concentration camps used by the Nazis during the Second World War, focused on keeping people in a concentrated area and did not systematically kill them. These policies were received with widespread condemnation back in the UK so conditions began to improve. However, the impact of these extreme tactics did cause the Boers to seek terms. On the 31st May 1902, the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed with the Boers accepting British sovereignty with limited self-government. In 1910, the Boer Republics were fully integrated into the Union of South Africa.

Staff Quartermaster Sergeant (SQMS) Charles Williams was born in September 1866, and at the age of 20 joined the 2nd Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers. In December 1891, he transferred to the Military Staff Clerks, the precursor to the Army Pay Corps, at the rank of Sergeant on Probation and was posted in Curragh, Ireland. Upon its formation in April 1892, SQMS Williams transferred to the Army Pay Corps and was posted on exchange to Clonmel, Ireland. His record shows that he was a volunteer to serve abroad, and that he was now married and had extended his service. He received a promotion to Sergeant in 1895, and posted to Devonport in March 1897. There he was promoted to Staff Sergeant in April 1899 and again to Staff Quartermaster Sergeant in 1905. His final posting was to Exeter in 1907.

SQMS Williams

The Pay system during the Boer War was complicated. Paymasters were part of the Army Pay Department but other ranks were in the Army Pay Corps; they were not part of units but in local Pay Offices. The Chief Paymaster was based in Cape Town and had an organisation made of three elements who sent accounts to the District Pay Office, these are the District Office, the Branch Pay Office and Field Paymasters. The decision was made in London to place the entire responsibility for compiling soldiers’ pay lists in the hands of their regimental officers. During the war pay lists written by officers in the field could be lost, stolen, or intercepted by Boers, if they were completed at all. Sometimes, it was also impossible to get money to the regiments outside of cities as this could again be lost or stolen. Men were therefore returning to the UK having served for three years and not having been paid at all.

Boer War Ration Tin

A temporary exhibition of SQMS Charles William’s objects is currently on display in the museum. This exhibition includes two army books written in by SQMS Williams whilst in South Africa. One also has sketches done by his children. There are also ration tins which contain meat and cocoa paste. The sealant on these tins actually contains lead which means that Museum staff have to take precautions when handling them.

The objects on display have kindly been loaned to the museum by the family of SQMS Charles William.

This blog post was written by one of our volunteers, Emma.