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The Boer War

Boer War memorial, Brantford, Ontario,
Photo by J. Gray (2009)

The Boer War, also known as the Second Boer War or the South African War, began in 1899 when the British declared war on two independent states in South Africa.  These two states, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, are inhabited by Afrikaners, white Africans of Dutch, German, Flemish and French heritage.  The Afrikaners were often referred to as "Boer's", a term simply meaning "farmer".  When war finally erupted, after years of tension between Britain and the two states, all of the Empire's dominions, including Canada, were called upon to send troops to assist.  Although the conflict lasted only three years, it is a significant in Canadian history as the first time Canada's troops were deployed overseas.

Background of the Conflict

"It is our country you want"
-Transvaal President Paul Kruger

Following the Napoleonic Wars, in the early 1800s, Britain seized the Cape Colony of South Africa from the Dutch.  To protect the important sea lanes leading the Britain's lucrative trade in India and the Far East, a naval base was established at Simonstown.  This base was home to the South Atlantic Naval Squadron, and the most important Royal Navy establishment in the southern hemisphere.  Several thousand Afrikaners lived in the Cape Colony, and soon came to resent the British administration.  Considering themselves racially superior to the black and coloured African natives, the Afrikaners also resented government authority.  They feared the British would soon be imposing their religion and legal systems upon them, and forever changing their way of life.  Tensions between the British and the Afrikaners flared when English was declared the official language of the Cape Colony in 1827, and again when slavery was abolished in 1833.

In an effort to break free of the British, over 14,000 Afrikaners, along with their oxen, wagons, and black labourers, began moving north, into the African interior.  In what became known as "The Great Trek", the Afrikaners settled into two republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.  By 1852, the British recognized the independence of the Transvaal, and two years later, acknowledged the sovereignty of the Orange Free State.

In 1869, near the city of Kimberley, diamonds were discovered.  Both Britain and the Orange Free State claimed the territory, with the dispute being settled seven years later, when Britain purchased the diamond rights.  In the Transvaal, the economic situation was much different.  Almost bankrupt, and with their treasury empty, the territory allowed themselves to be annexed by the British.  The British promised to put the fiances back in order, allowed limited autonomous government, and, most importantly, rid the territory of the aggressive Zulu tribes.  Once the Zulu's had been crushed by the British in 1879, the Transvaal was again demanding its independence. British Prime Minister William Gladstone refused the request, which led to an uprising in 1880, sometimes referred to as the "First Boer War".  In January, 1881, the British suffered a humiliating defeat at Majuba Hill, and soon began to withdraw, restoring independence to the Transvaal.

In 1886, five years after regaining its independence, gold is discovered in the Transvaal.  Fortune hunters, mostly British, and supported by wealthy investors, descend on the area.  These English speaking migrants, known to the Afrikaners as "Uitlanders", or outsiders, are refused citizenship and voting rights by the Transvaal government.  In addition, the gold mining companies are heavily taxed, and Transvaal President Paul Kruger fears the British will again try to absorb his territory into their empire.  In 1895, an armed raid is launched against the Transvaal, supported by Cape Colony Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes, and led by Leander Starr Jameson.  The "Jameson Raid" is a failure, but the Afrikaners were now certain that the British would take their land by force.  In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm threw his support behind the Kruger government, and thousands of Germans were living in the Transvaal, German mining companies were building backed by German investors.  Kaiser Wilhelm encouraged the Afrikaners to resist the British.  By 1899, after conferences failed to prevent war by diplomatic measures, British troops were beginning to mobilize.  In October, 1899, ten thousand British soldiers were stationed in South Africa, with fifty thousand more on the way to reinforce them.  The British claimed their interests lay in the protection of Uitlanders rights.  The Afrikaners felt that they were being attacked for their gold.  President Kruger issued an ultimatum, demanding all British troops be withdrawn and their reinforcements recalled.  The ultimatum was ignored by London, and it seemed a military showdown was inevitable.

Canada's Political Situation

"It was not so much to actually assist England as to show the world the unity
of the Empire, and to show that if one part of the Empire is touched, all are hurt."

-Canadian Pvt. George Shepherd

Public opinion in Canada was divided on the issue of sending Canadian troops to South Africa.  Many English speaking Canadians believed that Canada had a duty to support the British Empire, and deploy a contingent, while in Quebec, many French Canadians were opposed to the idea.  Initially,  Canada's Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier discouraged the idea of sending a force to Africa, questioning the costs involved, as well as the constitutional right to send troops abroad.  In Europe, and the United States, there was also much opposition to Britain's war against the two states.  In London, politicians of both parties opposed the war, questioning the motives behind it.  Even British army officers expressed their dislike at the idea of fighting for capitalists, and gold.  "I am afraid we are fighting chiefly for the benefit of a lot of money grubbing, German Jews," commented Captain Ballard of the Norfolk Regiment.

Back in Canada, the government was being pressured by the pro-war media, with such influential papers as the Ottawa Journal and the Toronto Globe calling for a token offer of Canadian military assistance.  Institutions such as the Canadian Club of Toronto, influential cabinet ministers, and others also joined the call for Canada to send troops.  The Minister of Militia, Frederick Borden, assured the Globe that Canada was prepared to deploy a contingent, pending approval from the cabinet.  Despite growing public opinion in English Canada to participate in the war, Laurier remained confident hostilities would be averted.  However, while returning by train from a political visit to Chicago, he learned that war had commenced.
A plan to send 1,200 Canadian infantry, cavalry and artillery troops had been devised, approved by the Minister of the Militia, and the information was released to both the Canadian public, and the British War Office.

Following his return to Ottawa, Laurier called a cabinet meeting, which lasted for two days.  The members themselves were divided on the issue, with those opposing the plan expressing concerns over costs, lack of consultation, and a belief that the British were attempting to force Canada to participate.  Others, such as Borden, and Post Master General William Mulock, were strongly in favour of sending a Canadian contingent.  The supporters further believed the Canadian force should be recruited, equipped, transported, and paid with Canadian funds.  This would, they believed, enhance Canada's status within the British Empire, and announce to the world that Canada was no longer a "mere colony", but a mature nation.  In addition, they believed the Canadian contribution should not be limited to small companies, which would be absorbed into the British units, but a full battalion, commanded by senior Canadian military officers.
The official plan laid out by the Militia Department called for a smaller force, numbering just over 1,200 men, including one battalion of infantry, a squadron of cavalry, a battery of artillery, and 300 horses.  Six field guns would also be provided.  Lieutenant Colonel William Dillon Otter, Canada's most experienced professional soldier, was selected to command the Canadian troops. The Militia Department further believed the battle experience the troops would gain could help in the building of Canada's permanent army.

Recruiting in Canada

Canadian Lieutenant's Uniform, Boer War
Hamilton Military Museum,
Photo by J. Gray (2009)

"A much larger force could have been recruited.  My chief difficulty was to restrain those who seemed determined to force their services upon one and would scarcely take no for an answer."

- Frederick W. Borden,
Minister of Militia and Defence

In the end, the decision was made to send a contingent of Canadian troops, which would "number not more than 1,000 infantry volunteers", divided into eight companies of 125 men each.  The British government would be responsible for paying the men, as well as the costs of transportation to Africa, and back to Canada again.  The cost of recruiting and equipping the contingent would be covered by the Canadian government.  Designated the 2nd Special Service Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, the men were placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Otter, who would answer to British authorities in the field, as well as Canadian military authorities back in Ottawa.  The first contingent, known as the "valiant 1,000", would be accompanied by two medical officers, one English and the other French.  In addition, the contingent would also be accompanied by three chaplains, four newspaper reporters, a Red Cross officer, members of the Canadian Postal Corps, and four nurses.

In major cities across Canada, recruiting offices were opened, seeking volunteers between the ages of 22 and 40, preferably with infantry experience, who were taller than 5'6 and able to pass a medical examination.  Enlistees would be signed to a contract of one year, or until the termination of the war, whichever came first.  Response was overwhelming, and many white collar professionals, as well as working class men, attempted to join the special battalion.  Some militia officers even resigned their commissions, volunteering to enlist and serve as privates in the conflict.  With such a response, large numbers of applicants were turned away, including artillery officer John McCrae, who would later find fame in the First World War as the author of the poem "In Flanders Fields". 

The British army had recently abandoned their well known red coats, and replaced them with khaki uniforms.  The uniform worn by the Canadian contingent would be similar, but in order to maintain a distinctly Canadian look, they were provided with maple leaf cap badges.  The Canadian troops also wore Sam Browne belts, and other Canadian made equipment, as well as white helmets, which the men dyed brown with coffee. Only the first contingent would wear the helmet, with later troops switching the the Stetson headgear.  The uniforms of the first contingent were produced  in Hamilton, Ontario, by W.E. Sandford Manufacturing, and were made of a canvas material that was  uncomfortable, fell apart easily, and faded to an off-white colour.  As soon as they were able to, the Canadian troops replaced these uniforms with better quality, British made gear.

Arrival in South Africa

Canadian troops board SS Sardinian in Quebec
photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

On October 30, 1899, the first Canadian contingent departed Quebec City on board the SS Sardinian, a converted cattle ship.  A total complement of 41 officers, 1,010 men, and seven horses began the long journey to southern Africa, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Otter.  A cheering crowd of supporters lined the dock, along with a military band, assembled to see the troops off, while the cannons of the Citadel provided a thirty gun salute for the men.  From across the country, Canadians had provided the soldiers with gifts of tobacco, whiskey, books, games, and bibles in both English and French, for the long sea voyage.  Once the ship had left Quebec and the cheering crowds of supporters, the men began to settle into shipboard life.  Built to accomodate seven hundred, the crowded vessel was home to the men, as well as nurses, reporters, the ships crew, and horses.  The equipment belonging to the troops, and a month's worth of provisions, crowded the congested ship even more, and the men began to fight and argue among themselves.  The ship lacked medical equipment, carried insufficient supplies of fruits and vegetables, and the water supply was so scarce, it had to be guarded.  The men ate and slept in their hammocks or cots,
in close quarters, and the lower deck of the vessel stank of stale food, paint and seasickness.  The men attempted to stay clean by taking daily showers from salt water hoses, and their entertainment consisted of reading, writing letters, or gambling in card games.  The long voyage finally ended on November 29, 1899, when the Sardinian docked at Cape Town.  Boarding trains the next day, the Canadians began a forty hour rail journey, arriving in Belmont, where they joined the rearguard of the British Army.  The contingent remained camped at Belmont for the next two months, battling boredom, restlessness and disease.

While the Canadians were camped at Belmont, in mid-December, the British suffered three major defeats, in a period that became known as "black week".  Underestimating the Boers, the outgunned and outnumbered British were shaken and humliated by these losses.  Their command structure was reorganized, the troops rearmed, and new strategies were developed.  While the British began renewed assaults, the Canadians were tasked with guarding prisoners, protecting the railway lines, rounding up stray cattle, and other garrison duties.  In addition, the Canadians at the camp were battling sandstorms and lice, and suffering the effects of the poor food and hygene.  The food was of such low quality that many Canadian soldiers purchased their own supplies from local markets, at highly inflated prices.  Many Canadian soldiers fell ill, from fever, food poisoning, and other ailments. The hospital at the camp was un-sanitary, and many of the troops cared for their sick comrades themselves rather than see them placed in the hospital.  Insubordination, theft of food, drunkenness, and sleeping on guard duty saw a large number of the men court martialled, and punished in various ways.  Even Colonel Otter began to worry about the health and welfare of his men, complaining of the "villainous water" and lack of medical care for the sick.  The war was fought in a climate the Canadians were un-accustomed to, with vicious sandstorms, brutal heat, and a never ending thirst. 

The Canadians two months of boredom at Belmont came to an abrupt end on February 8, 1900, when the British commander in chief, Lord Frederick Roberts, announced they would be joining his march to Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State.  Assigned to the 19th Brigade of Infantry, the Canadian contingent would be joining British troops from the Gordon Highlanders, the 2nd Kings Own Shropshire Light Infantry, and the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. Marching between eighteen and twenty miles per day, the Canadians were part of a 37,000 man procession, snaking its way across the African plains.  Accompanying the troops were fourteen thousand horses, and over twenty thousand mules.  Carrying a rifle, bayonet, and forty pounds of kit, the men wore stiff, chafing uniforms, ill fitting shoes, and survived on meals of salted pork and biscuits.  Finally, after a brutal week of marching, the troops reached Paardeberg Drift, on the banks of the Modder River.  Entrenched on the opposite bank was the Boer "General" Piet Cronje, with four thousand men under his command.  Cronje and his force were determined to stop the British advance on Bloemfontein.  The Canadians were ordered to cross the Modder River, and prepare to engage the Boers.

The Battle of Paardeberg

"Dawn of Majuba",
by R. Caton Woodville

"Those men can go into battle without a leader. They have intelligence
and resourcefulness enough to lead themselves",

-British General, referring to Canadians at Paardesburg

The British commander, Lord Roberts, had fallen ill and command of the force was taken by Lord Herbert Kitchener. Despite his officers recommending a bombardment of the Boer positions, Lord Kitchener prefered a more aggressive assault which he had hoped to take in a pincher movement, with troops flanking from both sides and a frontal assault.  Along with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, the Canadians would be part of the deadly frontal attack.  Cronje, along with 4,000 Boers, which included women and children, had concealed themselves in bush and vegetation on the opposite banks of the Modder River.  They survived an artillery bombardment by Sir John French's guns on February 17th, and by the next morning, were preparing for Kitchener's attack.

Early on the morning of February 18th, a day which would become known as "Bloody Sunday", Kitchener began his assault.  At 7am, Kitchener confidently told his officers they would capture Cronje's position by ten-thirty, and soon be on the road to Bloemfontein.  Despite the fears and objections of his divisional commanders, Kitchener prepared to attack.  Initially out of the range of the Boer's Mauser rifles, the further the Canadians advanced, the more accurate the enemy rifle fire became.  For the next hour, the Royal Canadians moved forward in short rushes, finally coming to within four hundred yards of Cronje's trenches.  Pinned down by Boer sniper fire, the Canadians were forced to lie prone under the sweltering sun, for five hours.  The weather changed while the Canadians were pinned down, drenching the troops in a cold rain storm, before the sweltering sun returned. By 5pm, British Lieutenant-Colonel William Aldworth ordered his men to charge the Boer positions, and the Canadians were included in his suicidal attack.  Aldworth himself was killed, and his men gained only a distance of 200 yards.  Along with Aldworth, his adjutant and a large number of British soldiers, the Royal Canadians suffered casualties of twenty one dead, and sixty wounded.  It would be the costliest Canadian battle since the War of 1812.  Finally, after darkness fell, the Canadian troops were able to retreat for food and rest, while stretcher parties were sent out to retreive the wounded, and the dead were buried in a mass grave.

To the relief of his officers and men, Lord Roberts had recovered from his illness, and joined the men on Monday, February 19th.  Kitchener was removed from command, and re-assigned to the supervision of supply lines.  Prefering to seige the Boer positions, rather than risk more casualties in direct attacks, Roberts and his men skirmished with the Boers for the next eight days.  Cronje and his force had hoped to break out and escape to Bloemfontein, but were trapped by the British and Canadian troops.  The seige began to take a toll on the enemy morale, and several of Cronje's men had suggested a surrender.  However, despite the seige and a second British artillery bombardment, the Boers remained determined, and held their position.

Paardesberg Exhibit, Canadian War Museum,
photo by J. Gray

On February 26, at 2am, six companies of the Royal Canadians were ordered by Roberts to lead a night attack on the Boer positions.  Supported by the Gordon Highlanders, the Shropshires, and the Royal Engineers, the Canadians were ordered to rush the enemy trenches, a distance of six hundred yards, with bayonets fixed.  They were within one hundred yards of their objective when an enemy sentry noticed them, and the Canadians were soon under fire from the Boers.  The Boers and Canadians exchanged gunfire for nearly fifteen minutes, before four of the six Canadian companies retreated in panic.  The remaining two companies continued to exchange fire with the enemy, until the sun began to rise.  Suddenly, a man emerged from the Boer trenches waving a white flag. The demoralized Boers had had enough, and began leaving their positions to surrender.  Eventually, more than 4,000 men, women and children had given up, with Cronje himself surrendering to Lord Roberts.  The Royal Canadians were credited with Cronje's surrender, and praised by Lord Roberts for their gallantry.  "Canadian now stands for bravery, dash, and courage," the British officer remarked.  Colonel Otter and his men were also praised by Queen Victoria herself, as well as politicians in Canada and London.  The victory not only removed one of the best Boer officers from the war, but it also opened up the road to Bloemfontein.

Although Private Richard Thompson, a Canadian medical student, was recommended for a Victoria Cross by Colonel Otter, none were awarded at Paardeberg.  Instead, Pvt. Thompson received a Victoria Scarf for his bravery in carrying a wounded comrade out of the line of enemy fire.  The scarves, knitted personally by Queen Victoria, were presented to men displaying courage in the field.  Only eight were awarded during the war, with Private Thompson being the only Canadian recepient. Today,  Pvt. Thompson's Victoria Scarf is still on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

The Second Canadian Contingent

Lord Strathcona's Horse monument, Calgary, Alberta,

The Canadians had learned from the first contingent that infantry was being used to fight a war where cavalry and artillery would be more beneficial.  The Boers had been fighting a guerilla war, mounted on horseback, and moving faster than the slow moving infantry forces, and British officers had been asking for artillery and mounted sharpshooters.  They also saw the need for a fast moving contingent of horsemen that could keep up with the mounted Boers, and also to be used in scouting roles, and looked to Canada to provide such men.  The Canadian militia offered to send two battalions of mounted rifles, one of which consisted of cavalrymen from the Permanent Force, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Francois Lessard. The second battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Lawrence Herchmer, was recruited from the cowboys, ranchers and adventurers in Canada's western provinces.  The two troops would be known as the 1st and 2nd Battalions, Canadian Mounted Rifles. In addition to the mounted riflemen, the Royal Canadian Field Artillery would provide three batteries, primarily recruited from men in eastern Canada.

Donald Smith, better known by his title of Lord Strathcona, was serving as  Canadian High Commissioner to Great Britain when he offered to raise a battalion of mounted soldiers, at his own expense, to fight in South Africa.  Smith had amassed his great wealth from the Canadian Pacific Railway, purchasing of stocks, and a career in banking, and the man he chose to lead his personal cavalry was Sam Steele, a veteran of the Fenian Raids and Riel's uprising in 1870.  More recently, Steele had worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway, and served in the Northwest Mounted Police.  Like the men recruited for the Royal Canadian Rifles, Lord Strathcona wanted to project an image of rough-riding frontiersmen.  The Lord Strathcona's Horse, as his regiment became known, recruited men who were cowboys, ranchers, prospectors and frontiersmen. They were seeking expert horsemen, who could handle a rifle, and were hand picked for their toughness. With an authorized strength of 537 officers and men, the regiment had four times that number volunteering for service.  One man was said to have travelled over six hundred miles, on foot, to join Lord Strathcona's cavalry.  Smith's  mixed bag of recruits also included some university educated men, a newspaperman, and a fugitive from the United States.  A former officer with the Essex Regiment even resigned his commission to accept a sergeant's position with the Lord Strathcona's Horse.  

Lord Strathcona's new regiment was outfitted with western saddles, lassoes, revolvers, Lee-Enfield rifles, and Stetson hats, replacing the helmets worn by the first contingent.  When they were paraded before the Governor General, Lord Minto, he was appalled at the men, referring to them as "useless ruffians".  The men were quickly trained, and began preparing for their deployment to South Africa, volunteering for six months of service, with a possible extension to one year.

On the 21st of January, 1900, the first members of the 2nd Canadian contingent sailed from Halifax.  On board the ship S.S. Laurentian were two artillery batteries from the Royal Canadian Artillery.  They were followed on January 27th by the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Rifles, sailing on board S.S. Pomeranian.  The final deployment left Halifax in February, on board S.S. Milwaukee, and carried the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles, along with a third battery of artillery.  Also sailing with the second contingent were a number of Canadian artifacers, who would be employed in the care of the horses, equipment, and artillery.  Upon their arrival in South Africa, Lieutenant-Colonel Lessard's 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Rifles, were re-named the Royal Canadian Dragoons.  Herchmer's men, the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Rifles, were now known as the 1st Battalion.

On March 17, 1900, the Lord Strathcona's Horse departed Halifax on board the S.S. Monterey.  Steele's unit consisted of 28 officers, 518 men, and nearly 600 horses, and had arrived in South Africa by mid-April.  Like the first contingent, the second contingent and the Lord Strathcona's Horse had to endure a long sea voyage in a cramped vessel, as well as added duty of caring for their horses.  Many of the animals died during the trip, and the men were forced to dump the bodies overboard.

Queen Victoria's Gift to the Troops

Queen Victoria Boer War chocolate tin,
photograph by J. Gray

Concerned about the morale of troops serving in the South African War, including Canadians, Queen Victoria decided to send each serviceman a tin containing chocolates at Christmas, 1899.  In those days, chocolate was considered to be a luxury item, and Britain's three largest confectioners were contracted to manufacture the gifts. These three manufacturers, Cadbury's, Fry's and Rowntree, formed a temporary working relationship and were able to produce 40,000 of the tins.  The tins each contained an embossed image of Queen Victoria, and were inscribed with the words "I wish you a happy new year, Victoria".  They were then shipped to South Africa, and given to all army and navy personnel serving in the Commonwealth forces.

In some cases, the tins were used to send home belongings of those killed in the war.  Although small in size, they were able to hold such items as medals, jewellry, coins, photographs and letters.  Many others were saved by the troops, sometimes with the chocolate still inside, as souvenirs.  Many of the tins have been preserved to the present day, and can be seen in museums, private collections, or for sale in antique shops.  I was fortunate enough to obtain the tin pictured above from a British antiques dealer, and it still contains the original pieces of chocolate, which are now more than 100 years old.

Further Reading:

Berton, Pierre, "Marching As To War. Canada's Turbulent Years, 1899-1953", Doubleday Canada, 2001

Miller, Carman, "Canada's Little War", James Lorimer & Company, Toronto, 2003

Judd, Dennis, and Surridge, Keith, "The Boer War", John Murray (Publishers) Limited, London, 2002







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