Friday 20th of December 2002 09:42 AM 
Essay [08]

By Christy McCormick

Whatever the 1,000 Canadian soldiers heading for war in November 100 years ago had to face, it would not be winter as they sailed away from approaching winter into the dawn of a new summer in South Africa. Angry that Canadian troops were going at all, Quebec nationalist MP Henri Bourassa broke with his anti-war prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Laurier's Liberals had bowed to English Canadian enthusiasm and reluctantly set about raising a Second Contingent of troops. The First Contingent, the 2nd Special Service Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment was commanded by Lt.-Col. William Dillon Otter, which turned to be a better political choice than a military one. The stay-at-home 1st battalion was Canada's only regular infantry. There was also a British regular battalion at Halifax, the Prince of Wales Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians) and a small detachment of which at Esquimalt in British Columbia. A battalion of the Leinsters had been recruited in Canada in the 1850s in response to the Sepoy Mutiny in India, and afterwards was regarded as the unit Canadians joined when enlisting in the British Army.

2RCR, as we now call the First Contingent, was raised from across the country with A Company coming from British Columbia and H Company from Nova Scotia and B, C, D Coys. etc. coming from points in between. Now one knew then, but this company recruiting would undermine regimental loyalty and foster company favoritism, causing resentment in the field in months to come.

As Canada's soldiers stood in ranks at railway stations across the country, the bands played Rule Britannia and Soldiers of the Queen. They had received an additional $25 to $50 each and $100 per officer from their cities and towns, augmented by money from employers, clubs and friends. One donor paid $1 million in insurance at $1,000 per head, covering death and injury in battle. This attests to the popularity of the war.

Privates were paid 50 cents a day, double that of British soldiers, but half of that was withheld until their return or paid to widows and orphans. This was a practice that continued with the Canadian forces serving overseas through World War II.

There wasn't the khaki to make 1,000 uniforms and the 1,000 valises bound for 1RCR was reassigned to 2RCR. Pith helmets were white for the Quebec City dockside parade, but stained coffee colour on board. En route, the troops trained, running around deck, shooting at overboard targets while the officers potted away on an indoor pistol range. Cocky, and full of themselves, having needed militia or Permanent Force training, they saw themselves as the pick of Canadian manhood. Packed like sardines, they laughed at the ship's name, Sardinian. High spirits were dampened though when a hard-drinking man fell dead from a heart attack after a brisk topside workout on Nov. 3.

Meanwhile, London continued to seek a bold declaration of support from Canada - something Prime Minister Laurier refused. But the foot-dragging government was unable to contain public clamor and authorized the raising of a Second Contingent, having failed to satisfy Canadians with offers of a nursing corps and postal service. Like French Canadians, the enemy Boers, or Dutch South Africans, were the first European settlers. They had come in 1652 about the time France was developing Canada. France lost Canada to Britain in 1760 and Holland lost South Africa to the British in 1792 in the Napoleonic Wars. Then, when Britain banned slavery in 1833, angry Boers trekked north in wagon trains to escape British rule, creating the Orange Free State and the South African Republic of Transvaal. But international law held that colonists cannot legally establish a new sovereignty by leaving an old one, but only extend the existing sovereignty to which they are subject. While heightened by the gold rush and diamond finds of the 1860s, this root of the Anglo-Boer dispute predates it.

London strategists of the big-war and the small-war schools quarrelled as the Boers won victory after victory. On Nov. 1, the Boers defeated an equal number of British troops, who suffered a loss of 1,300 men. The northern gold town of Mafeking had already been besieged in October, when the typhoid-ridden town of Ladysmith was surrounded on Nov. 2. Back in Canada, news of British defeats only sparked more English enthusiasm. But there was a change in French Canada's view, too. French nationalists, led by the ruling Liberal Party, remained anti-war, but French Conservatives, the pro-church party, softened. They feared a British defeat in South Africa would embolden the United States to seize Canada that might end Catholic control of education in Quebec. As the U.S. had just thrashed Spain out of the Americas and Pacific the year before, it was a fashionable fear of the time fear among many French Canadians in 1899.
Militarily, the Boers had introduced their tactical surprise, mounted infantry armed with rapid-fire magazine rifles. In response, Britain now wanted mounted men -- as well as Canada's small, but state-of-the-art, artillery brigade.

Five days before the Canadian infantry sighted Cape Town's Table Mountain on Nov. 29, the diamond town of Kimberley was also beseiged. On Nov. 30, 2RCR paraded on South African soil, marching three miles to Green Point Camp with Anglo-Cape Towners cheering them through the streets. Except for the Guards regiments, Cape Town newspapers said Canadians were the best troops they had seen with their "light, springy devil-may-care sort of swagger."
Dismissed from duties that night, and with a half a month's pay in their pockets, they returned to Cape Town. Many got drunk, but did not offend greatly. Meanwhile news of another big British disaster was coming in from the north.

So ended November, 1899, 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.