The Boer War
The Boer War is known outside of Canada as the Second Boer War, and also as the South African War both in Canada and abroad (though not in South African Africa where it is known to some as the Anglo-Boer War, or in Afrikaans as the Anglo-Boereoorlog or Tweede Vryheidsoorlog (Second War of Independence). (The first Boer War had been fought from 16 December 1880 to 23 March 1881.)
The war was fought from 11 October 1899 to 31 May 1902 and marked the second overseas employment of soldiers of the Canadian Army (the first had been the Nile Expedition of 1884-1885, though these soldiers served in a combat support capacity rather than in a combat role). The war was fought between the British Empire and two independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic). The war resulted in the two independent republics being absorbed into the British Empire.
When the British government asked for Canadian help, the opposition party in Canada was strongly in favour, while French-Canadians were widely opposed. The Liberal government was split, and Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier eventually sent infantry and mounted units. While Canadians did not served in the earliest clashes of the war, they did develop a good reputation at Second Battle of Paardeberg and later at Leliefontein, where three Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross and one the Queen's Scarf.
The war remained deeply unpopular in Quebec, where many people viewed it as crushing a democratic minority group reminiscent of French-Canadians themselves. The war would later become notorious for the inauguration of modern concentration camps.
The discovery of gold on the Witwaterstrand in 1886 brought with it a flock of businessmen, mainly British, whose ideals clashed with those of the puritanical Dutch people who founded the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The Boers, as they were known, feared losing control of their fledgling countries at the voting booth, and pledged not to permit Uitlanders ("outsiders") the right to vote. Harshly taxed and treated under the civil law code, the expatriate Britons in South Africa were able to drum up support in the British Isles, mainly by promise of profits from the gold and diamond resources yet untapped in the colonies. In 1899, Britain demanded that its citizens be enfranchised.
The Boers struck first in the belief that war was inevitable. Their military was a citizen's militia, similar in idea to Canada's but different in make-up. The Boers were excellent horsemen and hunters, able to make good use of terrain, cover, and concealment. Organized into small groups they called "commandos", Boer soldiers crossed into Natal and the Cape Colony on 12 October 1899 and fought a series of successful skirmishes, placing Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith under siege.
When the second Boer War broke out in late 1899, Canadian Parliament was not in session, and the government of Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier refused to commit to a coherent position on the matter; opinions among the population were split as to whether the British use of force in South Africa was legitimate protection of democratic rights among individuals, or simply British imperialism. After a leak to the press of a mistaken telegram of thanks from the British government to Canada, for an offer of troops she had not made, Canada was forced to announce a contribution of 1,000 men to the cause in October 1899.
Historians struggled ever since the war to explain both the cause of the war, and Canada's participation in it. After 1918, some historians interpreted Canada's involvement as the result of a British conspiracy, tied in with several Canadian officials of British heritage, including the Governor-General and the General Officer Commanding the Canadian Militia. In the 1950s, the notion of a conspiracy was exposed as mythical, and in the 1960s, still other interpretations began to emerge, defining Canadian "imperialism" simply as an expression of Canadian patriotism.4
Whatever the motivation, beginning on 9 December 1899, British forces in South Africa had experienced what they called "Black Week", which prompted the British government to appeal for more troops. Two battalions of mounted rifles and three batteries of artillery were offered as a second contingent from Canada. A privately raised cavalry regiment was also mustered for service.
Canadian Contingents: South Africa and Halifax
Second (Special Service) Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry - 1000 men were raised under Lieutenant Colonel Otter (the senior soldier in Canada, with combat experience at the Battle of Ridgeway, the Fenian Raids of 1866, and command of a column in the North West Rebellion of 1885), sailing for south Africa sixteen days after formation. The battalion landed at Cape Town on 30 November 1899, and in mid-February 1900 The Royal Canadian Regiment, as it was becoming known, joined the British 19th Infantry Brigade. It saw action at Paardeberg, Israel's Poort, Thaba Mountain, Doorn Kop, and marched into Pretoria, the enemy capital on 29 May as part of Lord Roberts' conquering army. The war passed into a guerrilla campaign, but the 2nd Battalion had signed enlistment papers for "six months, or one year if required." The Regiment embarked for home at Cape Town on 7 November 1900, reached England on 29 November, and returned to Canada on 23 December, where the battalion was promptly disbanded.5
In December 1899, as the RCR was getting acclimatized in South Africa, two mounted Units - the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles and 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles - were raised in Canada, along with three batteries of artillery. The two mounted battalions (rebadged in August 1900 after arrival in South Africa as The Royal Canadian Dragoons, and the Canadian Mounted Rifles, respectively) numbered 371 men each, divided into two squadrons and a headquarters staff. The Royal Canadian Field Artillery sent three batteries designated "C", "D" and "E" in early 1900, each battery with six 12-pounder field guns. Finally, a privately raised cavalry regiment titled Lord Strathcona's Horse, with 600 men divided into three squadrons, arrived in Halifax in March 1900 to sail to South Africa. These units served throughout 1900, with the Second Contingent leaving South Africa on 12 December 1900. The Strathcona's left the country in early January 1901. The first Victoria Cross ever awarded to a soldier in a Canadian unit was that bestowed on Sergeant A.H.L. Richardson of Lord Strathcona's Horse, for actions taken on 5 July 1900 at Wolve Spruit, when Richardson rescued a fellow cavalryman under heavy enemy fire, lifting him onto his horse and carrying him to safety.
The contingents were all reliant on the Non-Permanent Active Militia (N.P.A.M.) to fill their ranks. The experience of the 1st Hussars, a part-time cavalry regiment from in and around London, Ontario, was typical. Six Hussars, eager to fight, even if it meant as infantry, joined "B" Company of the RCR when it stood up in London in October 1899 and went overseas. Major Arthur Hamilton King and 14 of his Hussars joined "A" Squadron of the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles in December, King taking a drop in rank in order to fill one of the limited number of officer positions. He sailed as a troop leader.
By late October 1900, the war was supposed to be over, but the Boers had changed over to guerrilla fighting. The Royal Canadian Dragoons were operating at Belfast in the Transvaal under the command of Major-General Horace Smith-Dorrien, DSO, astride the rail line running from the Transvaal capital of Pretoria to the Indian Ocean. Protecting this strategic communications line was a powerful force of cavalry, infantry and artillery under Smith-Dorrien, and raiding parties were sent out to intimidate local farmers and kill or capture guerrillas. On hearing of a major concentration of Boers assembling thirty kilometres south, two columns were dispatched on 1 November. Smith-Dorrien commanded the eastern column (5th Lancers, 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, artillery and three troops of the CMR) and the western column was under the command of an infantry officer (King's Shropshire Light Infantry, artillery, Royal Canadian Dragoons). The columns marched 25 kilometres through sleet and mist, but fatigue and exposure forced a withdrawal without contacting the main enemy body. Cold weather was as much an enemy as the Boers, who managed to harass the columns with their excellent German small arms. On 6 November, Smith-Dorrien launched another column from Belfast, towards a Boer farm named Leliefontein.7
The column, including British infantry and artillery as well as Canadian mounted troops, was met by a force of 300 Boers. Sergeant Edward J.G. Holland, manning a horse-drawn Colt machine gun, covered the retreat of the slow-moving baggage train.
At this point a column of mounted Boers intervened; two troops of Dragoons under Lieutenants R.E.W. Turner and H.Z.C. Cockburn, who had dismounted in order to fire their weapons effectively, were located with the Colt machine gun. A group of Boers were obliged to also dismount at 250 yards range while others continued in their charge. Sergeant Holland managed to mount his gun while Smith-Dorrien finally recognized what was happening at the rear of his column. British infantry arrived with troops of the CMR to push the Boers off. Turner and Cockburn were both wounded, and they, along with Holland, were awarded the Victoria Cross.9
Turner went on to command the 2nd Canadian Division in the First World War, retiring as a Lieutenant-General, Holland served in that war as a major, in command of Borden's Armoured Battery. Lieutenant Cockburn died a year before the next war started, in 1913, when he was kicked in the head by a horse.10
In January 1902, a 2nd Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles, paid for by the British, would serve briefly in South Africa. In total, from 1900 to 1902, 7,368 men would serve in Canadian units in South Africa, of whom 89 were killed or died of wounds. Some 252 were wounded, 135 more died by accident and disease.
The 3rd (Special Service) Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry consisting of 1000 men was raised and sent to Halifax to replace the British garrison there and free them for war service. This battalion served from March 1900 to September 1902 when it was again relieved by a British battalion.
Historian J.L. Granatstein selected 12 key military events that shaped Canada for an article in Legion Magazine in 2012. The Boer War was included. His summary read:
Battle Honours for the war were awarded to units of Canada's regular army (known as the Permanent Active Militia) in December 1905. The Royal Canadian Dragoons received battle honours for "North-West Canada 1885" and "South Africa 1900", and The Royal Canadian Regiment received "Saskatchewan", "North-West Canada 1885", "South Africa 1899, 1900" and "Paardeberg", reflecting the service of these regiments in all military campaigns they participated in to date, including the North-West Rebellion in 1885.
On 15 June 1933, additional bestowal of the South Africa battle honour, with appropriate dates, was made to units of the Non-Permanent Active Militia that had contributed troops to the South African war. Entitlement to the honour was based on the size of the contingent they raised; these contingents were earmarked for specially raised forces.12 The example of the 1st Hussars was given above. As another example, the 1st Regiment Prince of Wales Fusiliers was granted the Battle Honour "South Africa 1899-1900" for the services of eighteen soldiers and one officer with the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, RCR, a soldier serving with the 1st Battalion, CMR (who forewent his commission to do so), a lieutenant serving with Strathcona's Horse (who had been a captain with the 1st P.W.F.), a lieutenant with the 4th Contingent (Reinforcements), and ten troopers of the South African Constabulary.13