Boer foreign volunteers

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Boer foreign volunteers
Active 1899–1902
Country Numerous (see list below)
Engagements Second Boer War

Boer foreign volunteers were participants who volunteered their military services to the Boers in the Second Boer War.


Although there was a lot of sympathy for the Boer cause outside of the British Empire, there was little overt government support as few countries were willing to upset the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. As a result, no other government actively supported the Boer cause. There were, however, individuals from several countries who volunteered and formed Foreign Volunteer Units. These volunteers primarily came from Europe, particularly the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden-Norway. Other countries such as France, Italy, Ireland (then wholly part of the United Kingdom), and restive areas of the Russian Empire, including Poland and Georgia, also formed smaller volunteer corps. Finns fought in the Scandinavian corps.


The influx of foreigners into the country began simultaneously with the war, and it continued thereafter at the rate of about four hundred men a month.[citation needed] These volunteers would have come for a number of reasons, not necessarily because of any sympathy with the Boer cause, including soldiers-of-fortune, professional soldiers and adventurers. Some of the more famous volunteers were:

Ernest Douwes Dekker, Camillo Ricchiardi, Niko the Boer (Niko Bagrationi), Yevgeny Avgustus, Witold Ścibor-Rylski (other languages), Alexander Guchkov, Leo Pokrowsky, Major Baron von Reitzenstein, Viscount Villebois-Mareuil and the men of the two Irish commandos, the Irish Transvaal Brigade of John MacBride and John Blake, and the Second Irish Brigade of Arthur Alfred Lynch.

None of the foreigners who served in the Boer army received any compensation. They were supplied with horses, equipment, and food from the Boer Government, but no wages. Before a foreign volunteer was allowed to join a commando, and before he received his equipment, he was obliged to take an oath of allegiance to the Republic. A translation of it reads:

I hereby make an oath of solemn allegiance to the people of the South African Republic, and I declare my willingness to assist, with all my power, the burghers of this Republic in the war in which they are engaged. I further promise to obey the orders of those placed in authority according to law, and that I will work for nothing but the prosperity, the welfare, and the independence of the land and people of this Republic, so truly help me, God Almighty.

Second Anglo-Boer War[edit]

Part of the Scandinavian Memorial at Magersfontein, South Africa, in honour of the some 1400 Scandinavian volunteers who fought on the side of the Boers

At the time of the war, the Boers did not have the resources to record statistics about their forces. The statistics available were mainly collected by foreigners and by the testimony of the commanders. Table of foreign volunteers in the Second Anglo-Boer War[1]

Number Nationality
2000[2] Dutch
1350:[citation needed]
Scandinavian Corps
550 Germans
400 French
300 Americans
225[citation needed] Polish
200 Italians
200 Irish
200+ Russian-speaking[3]
unk.[citation needed] Australians
5400+ Known total*

In the early stages of the war the majority of the foreign volunteers were obliged to join a Boer commando. Later they formed their own foreign legions with a high degree of independence, including the: Scandinavian Corps (Skandinaviens Korps), Italian Volunteer Legion, two Irish Brigades, German Corps (Deutsches Korps), Dutch Corps, Legion of France, American Scouts and Russian Scouts.

However the free rein given to the foreign legions was eventually curtailed after Villebois-Mareuil and his small band of Frenchmen met with disaster at Boshof, and thereafter all the foreigners were placed under the direct command of General De la Rey.

The Italian Volunteer Legion of Camillo Ricchiardi[4] carried out the capture of an armoured train near Chieveley, Natal. Among the passengers who were taken prisoner was the young journalist Winston Churchill, whose life Ricchiardi spared by pretending not to see him dumping his pistol and dum-dum ammunition which had been declared unlawful on pain of death.[5]

While the vast majority of people involved from British Empire countries fought with the British Army, a few Australians fought on the Boer side.[6] The most famous of these was Colonel Arthur Lynch,[7] formerly of Ballarat,[8] who raised the Second Irish Brigade.[9] Lynch, charged with treason was sentenced to death, by the British, for his service with the Boers. After mass petitioning and intervention by King Edward VII, he was released a year later and pardoned in 1907.


  1. ^ Hillegas, Howard C. (1900). "Chapter IX - Foreigners in the War". With the Boer Forces. London: Methuen & Co. p. 257. 
  2. ^ Speech by the South African ambassador in The Hague on the 31st of May 1938, during the Dutch Remembrance of the Dead-Day of the Second Boer War. In the Netherlands, there was a special Remembrance Day between 1910 and 1939. This Remembrance Day was held on the 31st of May and was in honour of the Boer/Afrikaner and Dutch dead of the Second Boer War.
  3. ^ Avgustus, Yevgeny (2016). A Russian Fighting for the Boer Cause. Johannesburg: South African Military History Society. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-620-70253-9. 
  4. ^ Page of the South African Military History Society on the Italian participation in the Anglo-Boer War
  5. ^ Short biography of Riccardi with details of Churchill's capture (in Italian and English)
  6. ^ Boer War
  7. ^ Craig Wilcox, (2002) Australia's Boer War, pp. 263–266. (a critical exposé of Lynch's activities)
  8. ^ R.L. Wallace, Australians at the Boer War (1976) pp. 381–383, (a summary of Lynch's exploits in the Boer War)
  9. ^ Lynch is a character in a Boer War novel, Antony O'Brien, Bye-Bye Dolly Gray (2006).