Friday 20th of December 2002 09:35 AM 
 
 
Essay [10]

100 YEARS AGO THIS JANUARY CANADIANS JOINED HANDS WITH AUSTRALIANS IN THEIR FIRST BATTLE OF THE BOER WAR
By Christy McCormick

On New Year's Day, 1900, on a ridge 400 miles north of Cape Town, 100 men from Toronto fought Canada's first battle of the Boer War at a place called Sunnyside.
Australian Mounted Infantry joined the Canadian foot soldiers, then dismounted and together they fixed bayonets and charged into the Boer camp. They took the objective and 42 prisoners. No Canadian was hurt, but the Australians lost a man.
The Queenslander newspaper quoted an Australian trooper: "The Canadians erected a cross over his grave. The inscription was 'To the memory of Private McLeod, the first Queenslander to fall. Erected by his Canadian comrades.' I need scarcely say how that little touch of kindness to our dead comrade was appreciated by us all. It was characteristic of the Canadians -- good chaps that they are."
The Boer War was popular in Canada, but not with the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. With English Canada pro-war and French Canada divided into anti-war Liberals and war-tolerant Conservatives, and with an election looming, Laurier had to placate his war-fevered electorate by sending more troops.
While gold, diamonds and greed are said to be the root of the war, Canadian enthusiasm was bouyed by the belief that the British Empire was a civilizing influence, and the Boers needed civilizing after they abused their Anglo minority and drove out 60,000 refugees from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Before that, Anglo "uitlanders" in Johannesburg, the big city in the Transvaal, paid most of the taxes, but could not vote, or secure English schooling. Yet they were in the majority and paid most of the taxes and faced hostile Dutch-speaking courts.
The Australian-Canadian battle was planned by the commander of the Canadian foot soldiers, though a British officer commanded and only 100 Canadians went along with the 550-man column. They marched out secretly to catch the Boers menacing remote farmers on the day they threatened to return -- Jan. 1. The rest of the column was British, Irish, South African and Australian. After marching 22 miles, scouts reported on the Boers' whereabouts. The force arrayed itself undetected close to the Boer camp. Then artillery announced the attack with a shell burst in the middle of the camp. The Boers fired back as the Canadians "dashed" 700 yards on foot over open country to seize the ridge behind which lay the camp. Then 200 mounted Australians joined them and they both charged in together on foot.
Back at camp, the stay-at-home 650 Royal Canadians resented Toronto's C Company. The CO, Lt. Col. William Otter was a Toronto man and allegedly favored C Company. They got new uniforms first, marched in the glorious Cape Town parade, and then they returned from Canada's first battle without a scratch.
Col. Otter had his own problems, too. His second-in- command, Maj. Lawrence Buchan, got away with defying his order to join the British front. Insubordinate it may have been, but it avoided Canadian involvement in Magersfontein, the worst disaster of the war. Another problem was that senior British officers raided the Royal Canadian Regiment for mounted troops, and even lured Canadian officers to become aides to British generals.
The Boers did well in those early days of a war that would go on till May, 1902. The Dutch South Africans either won battles or lost them at trivial expense while British won or lost expensively. The Boers were also besieging the British-held mining towns of Kimberley and Mafeking as well as the army town of Ladysmith.
Field Marshal Frederick Lord Roberts and General H.H. Kitchener had by then taken over from General Redvers ("Reverse") Buller, whose stagnant triple- front plan had been abandoned. Instead, the army would attack the Boer capitals of Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State and Pretoria in the Transvaal. This, it was felt, would draw Boer forces from the towns they were besieging to defend their own capitals.
Men on foot were not catching men on horses, so London asked Canada for mounted troops and not foot soldiers. From Halifax, the Second Canadian Contingent had set sail with Canada's state-of-the-art field guns and two mounted regiments. One was from the North West Mounted Police called the Canadian Mounted Rifles, and the other, a creature of the army, was called the Royal Canadian Dragoons. There were also four female nurses and a five-man postal corps.
Mid-January, British Columbia offered to raise 100 mounted troops; and Britain agreed to defray costs. But Ottawa put its foot down. Provinces were not to raise military forces. But Ottawa couldn't stop railway tycoon Lord Strathcona, Canada's High Commissioner to London, from offering to raise a Canadian cavalry regiment at his own expense and place it in the British Army beyond the reach of foot-dragging Ottawa.
No expense was spared on Lord Strathcona's Horse: six-guns, western saddles, Spanish spurs, field glasses, and Her Majesty's cowboys had the best hand- picked horses Canada could provide.
In the field, defending the first capital Bloemfontein was the Boer General Piet Cronjé and his large marauding commando. It would make a stand at Paardeberg in February, bringing glory to Canada's reputation, and the first good news of the war for Britain.

And so ended the month of January, 1900.

 

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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.