Saturday 17th of August 2002 12:06 AM 
 
 
Essay [09]

100 YEARS AGO THIS DECEMBER: CANADIAN INFANTRY ENJOY FIRST MEETING WITH AUSTRALIA'S MOUNTED TROOPS
By Christy McCormick

While the 1st Canadian contingent planned more training near Cape Town on Dec.1, 1899, news of a fresh British disaster brought orders to go north closer to the battle area.
The news only intensified enthusiasm in Canada for sending more troops. With Quebec opposition to the war softening, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had always been against the war, reluctantly had authorized a fresh contingent.
At the Cape Town railway station, Australian troops entrained with the Canadians Dec.3. Crowds cheered and a newspaper spoke of the Canadians' "light, springy devil-may-care sort of swagger."

Lord Methuen's disaster at the Modder (mud) River against the Boer's General Piet Joubert lost him 460 men against the Boer loss of 80. English Canadians backed the war because they supported British rule in South Africa and sought to rescue Anglo-South Africans from abuse by the Boer government of the Transvaal. Johannesburg Anglos, attached to gold mining, formed the city's majority, paid most taxes, yet could not vote, or have English schools, or expect fair play in the Dutch-speaking courts. The Boers argued they were independent and could do what they liked, but the British disagreed. Like French Canadians, the Dutch South Africans had been transferred to British sovereignty by international treaty, but the Boers never accepted this. After trundling nearly 500 miles across the Great Karoo, a brown barren expanse spotted with hills, the Canadians reached desolate De Aar, where they joined Britain's Cornwall Light Infantry. A sandstorm swept the camp Dec. 7 and for 12 hours they sheltered in tents, but sand got in every crevice of their bodies. They helped build fortifications and a railway siding. They met the famous Canadian military railway man and engineer, Lt.-Col. Percy Girouard, hero of the Sudan.

All was not well though. Maj. Lawrence Buchan, second-in-command, refused his colonel's order to move troops north to the battle line. The men sat in the blistering sun and then in a downpour as Col. William Otter and Buchan raged at each other. Buchan prevailed.
British disasters mounted. On Dec 10, Lt.-Gen. Sir William Gatacre was repulsed at Stormberg with a loss of 700 men. To the north; Lord Metheun, trying to relieve the seige of the gold mining town Kimberley was again repulsed at Magersfontein with a loss of 900.
The rapid-fire magazine rifle, allowing long-range accurate shooting from distant sheltered positions was the chief cause. Large bodies of attacking British troops could be cut down a mile before reaching an objective. When they got too close, the Boers simply mounted up and rode off.

The Canadians then went to replace the famous Gordon Highlanders in another rear guard position, missing the Magersfontein disaster, the biggest of the war. They found the Gordons' camp a mess, with its "scantily covered latrines pregnant with fever." Five hundred Canadians then moved to Belmont to protect farmers from intimidation. But such forays were rare; most of the time there was not much to do. Disease, enteric typhoid, also afflicted scores of them.

At Belmont, they met the Australians again. A Special Correspondent of the Queenslander newspaper wrote of the Dec. 30 encounter of the Queensland Mounted Infantry: "We arrived at Belmont. The Canadians ... had our tents up for us, and gave us a hearty and homely welcome. They are just what I expected to see: that is, physically, a splendid body of men, with the heartiest good feeling for all other colonists. I should say they averaged 5ft 9. They look fit to go through anything." The British high command now realized that men on foot chasing men on horses didn't work. They now wanted mounted troops from Canada. Thus, the Canadian Mounted Rifles, 750 in all. There would also be 539 from Royal Canadian Artillery, which was small but expert and state-of-the-art.

The Canadian Mounted Rifles soon split into two regiments, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, a creature of the army and the Canadian Mounted Rifles formed by the Mounties, the North West Mounted Police. They had new smokeless Lee-Enfield magazine rifles and police revolvers, but the handguns were taken from the Dragoons when one was caught shooting seagulls. Police pay, 75 cents a day, applied against 50 cents for foot soldiers. In both cases, pay was double British rates. But half was withheld until they returned, or would go to their widows and orphans. Canada's first military female nurses had also arrived, one with nursing experience in the Spanish American War the year before. They were disappointed not be joining the Canadians, and were instead sent to a small hospital outside Cape Town to treat cases of enteric fever -- but not for long.

So ended December, 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.