Tuesday 25th of February 2003 08:41 PM 
 
 
Essay [03]

A CENTURY AGO THIS OCTOBER: CANADIANS MUSTERED TINY ARMY FOR SOUTH AFRICA AS BOERS ADVANCED.
By Christy McCormick


Even before the Boers mobilized against the British 100 years ago on Oct. 2, 1899, their mounted rifleman were arrayed along the Orange Free State-Natal border in readiness to strike south while another force headed for Mafeking in the north west to seize the isolated gold mining town.
Most Canadians wanted to join the fray. They were horrified by the plight of 60,000 anglo refugees driven south from their Johannesburg homes by the Boers. Anglo-South Africans. who discovered and developed the gold fields and diamond mines in the northern Dutch republics, had been intimidated, refused the vote and denied access to English schools even though anglo taxes paid for most Boer public works.
But Dutch-speaking South Africans had spent much of their history trying to escape British rule by moving farther into the African interior. Now faced with anglo subjugation through the ballot box, the Boers did what they could to make the anglos feel like unwelcome guests in a house they had largely built.
The British dismissed Boers claims to sovereignty. While Boers had support from Britain's rivals, Russia, Germany and France, even these countries could not agree to the principle on which claims to sovereignty relied. Sovereign countries, like Britain, insist that their subjects cannot create new sovereignties by establishing themselves elsewhere. Instead, they extend the sovereignty to which they were already subject.
But Canada's Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose French Canadian supporters felt something of the same hostility towards Anglo-Canadians as the Boers felt for Anglo South Africans of the Rand gold fields. Like the Boers, French Canadians had been handed from one sovereign power to another by international treaty. But however strong Laurier's anti-war sentiments were, the Canadian prime minister faced opposition from his mostly anglo electorate, stirred as it was, by sensational reports of Boer atrocities as well as by a pro-war governor general, Lord Minto, and a pro-war opposition leader, Sir Charles Tupper.
Then on Oct. 3, The Canadian Military Gazette published an army contingency plan for war in South Africa. There was an immediate scandal. On the same day, London cabled Ottawa thanking Canadians for their "offer" of troops, by which they meant the sundry letters and telegrams from patriotic individuals and militia units. But Canada, unlike Australia's Queensland colony, had made no real offer beyond a watery parliamentary support in principle resolution in July, 1899. Even so, Laurier was stuck. To accept London's invitation to dispatch soldiers to re-supply British regiments went against Liberal policy. To refuse was as good as handing over the government to the opposition as another election approached in less than a year. To suggest, as some did, that those who wanted to fight, muster themselves into military units, would have given license to raise private armies in Canada.
On Oct. 9, came the casus belli, the Boer ultimatum. It demanded British troops, then docking at Durban that very day, be turned back, and that all differences arising between the Dutch republics and Britain be placed before international arbitration.
With no British compliance, the Boer's Commandant-General Piet Joubert, crossed the Orange Free State border two days later with 10,000 men -- not far from Dundee where the forward British garrison stood. Boer forces were closing in for what was soon to become the famous Siege of Mafeking.
With war declared, the reluctant Canadian prime minister passed an Order-in-Council on Oct. 13 to raise a military contingent. But it would not be as drafts for depleted British regiments, but the 1,000-man 2nd Special Service Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, the 1st Battalion being Canada's entire Permanent Force at the time.
The raising of the unit was a remarkable achievement. Within 17 days, the well-drilled body stood smartly turned out in new uniforms including white pith helmets at the Quebec dockside, awaiting their reluctant prime minister's words of farewell: "Upon this occasion," said Laurier, "it is inspiring to reflect that the cause for which you men of Canada are going to fight is the cause of justice, the cause of humanity, of civil rights and religious liberty. This was is not a war of conquest or subjugation. It is not to oppress the race whose courage we admire, but it is to put an end to the oppression imposed upon subjects of Her Majesty in South Africa by a tyrannical people."
On Monday, Oct. 30, the converted cattle boat, the SS Sardinian steamed for Cape Town. Along with 1,000 troops and an 80-man crew, it carried three newspaper correspondents, and a contingent of YMCA staffers, chaplains and sundry officers hitching a ride to the war.
What they would not know until many days later was that British troops had won a dreadful pyrrhic victory at Talana, and were forced to withdraw to Ladysmith 70 miles from the coastal city of Durban on the Indian Ocean. In that battle, the 18th Hussars entirely disappeared. After being surrounded by mounted riflemen, they had surrendered with a loss 500 men and horses. British infantry lost 51 dead and 203 wounded. All had fell back on Ladysmith, leaving wounded behind, including their dying commander, Maj. General Sir W. Penn-Symons. By Oct. 30, the Boers also had besieged Mafeking, had a victory at Nicholson's Nek, when a British night attack went badly. That was the first time equal numbers of British and Boers engaged, and the Boers had won, ending in a total British loss of 1,300 men.
So October ended 100 years ago.

 

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Further Reading

Buchan, Lawrence. With the Infantry in South Africa: A Lecture Delivered at the Canadian Military Institute. 3rd February, 1902. n.p.: n.d. 17 pp.

Canadian's in Khaki; South Africa, 1899-1900; Nominal Rolls of the Officers, Non-Commisioned Officers & Men of the Canadian Contingent and Strathcona's Horse with Casualties to Date and also R.M.C. Graduates with the Army in South Africa. Montreal: Herald Pub. Co., 1900. 127 pp.

Hart-McHarg, William. From Quebec to Pretoria with the Royal Canadian Regiment. Toronto: W. Biggs, 1902. 276 pp.

Hubly, Russell C. "G" Company, or Everyday Life of the R.C.R.; Being a Descriptive Account of Typical Events in the Life of the First Canadian Contingent in South Africa. St. John, N.B.: J. & A. McMillan, 1901. 109 pp.

Labat Gaston P. Le Livre D'or (The Golden Book) of the Canadian Contingents in South Africa; with an Appendix on Canadian Loyalty, Containing Letters, Documents, Photographs. Montreal: n.p. 1901. v.p.

Marquis, T. G. Canada's Sons on Kopje and Veldt: an Historical Account of the Canadian Contingents Based on Official Dispatches. Toronto: The Canada's Sons Pub. Co., 1900. 490 pp.

McCormick, A. S. The Royal Canadians" in South Africa, 1899-1902. n.p.:n.d. 13 pp.

Miller, Carman. Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902. (Canadian War Museum Historical Publication no. 28.) Montreal: Canadian War Museum and McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1993. 541 pp.

Roncetti, Gary A., and Edward E. Denby. "The Canadians"; Those Who Served in South Africa, 1899-1902. n.p.: E.E. Denby, [1979]. 248 pp.

Miller, Carman. Canada and the Boer War. N.F.B. of Canada [1970]. 18 pp

Ottawa's Heroes; Portraits and Biographies of the Ottawa Volunteers Killed in South Africa. Ottawa: Reynolds, 1900. 49 pp.

Reid, Brian A. Our Little Army in the Field: The Canadians in South Africa, 1899-1902. St. Catherines: Vanwell Publishing Ltd, 1996.

Sentiments of Celebration: Commemorating the Jubilee of the South African War, 1899-1902, and the "Peace of Vereeniging", May 31st, 1902. Toronto: 50th Anniversary South African War Committee, 1951. 85 pp.

Souvenir: Toronto Contingent of Volunteers for Service in Anglo-Boer War. Toronto: Toronto Print Co., 1899. 1 vol., unpaged.