Friday 20th of December 2002 09:40 AM 
Essay [13]

By Christy McCormick

On a sandy stretch along the Modder River in late February 1900, Canadians won the battle that marked the turning point of the conflict in South Africa, after which the British started to win and the Boers started to lose.

But had 200 Canadian soldiers not held the line in a monsoon of rifle fire, the Battle of Paardeberg would have been Canada's disgrace and not its glory. Mysteriously, 400 men fled, leaving only 200 behind. How it happened is not known. Some claimed it was an order, but this was never established. The retreating men were stopped when fired upon by the Gordon Highlanders who mistook them for charging Boers.

The two companies of the Royal Canadian Regiment who stood fast, then advanced on the Boer commando, which soon surrendered. The surrender opened the road to the Orange Free State capital of Bloemfontein, which lay sparsely defended.

Canadians had fought a month before, having won a joint action with Australians at Sunnyside 400 miles north of Cape Town. But this was a small rearguard action, only involving 100 Canadian troops. At home, English Canadians supported the war. French Canadians were divided into anti-war Liberals, led by Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and war-tolerant, clerically-minded Conservatives, who supported opposition leader, Sir Charles Tupper.

Newspapers were filled with it. Popular writers like Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle were at the front. Everyone talked about it. Most Canadians were outraged that 60,000 Anglo Transvaalers had been driven from their homes in Johannesburg by rifle-totting Boers. They had been intimidated, refused the vote in the Dutch-speaking internally independent jurisdictions. Anglos were denied access to English schools and fair play in the courts, yet they formed the majority in the big city of Johannesburg and paid most of its taxes. The Anglos there were chiefly occupied in developing the vast gold fields of the Rand, which they also discovered.

Canada’s victory at Paardeberg was a two-part affair spanning several days. The first part opened with the Boer general, Piet Cronje, making a stand in the path the British Army marching on Bloemfontein. With nothing more for breakfast than coffee and rum, the Royal Canadians cheerfully went into action as a whole battalion for the first time, as part of a large British army. In water up to their armpits, the Canadians crossed the swiftly flowing Modder. There were 1,500 yards of sandy plain to cross with little cover beyond sparse bushes, dead ground and trees along the riverbank. They moved in short rushes and, eventually one company closed to 400 yards in withering rifle fire in a day-long firefight. A hard rain followed then a cold wind. The soaking, cold men charged again, but could not cover the last 400 yards. Buglers blew another charge, but to no avail. Night fell, but there was no advance. Total Canadian losses: 20 dead, 60 wounded -- 75 percent lost in charges. The Canadians had been reduced to 750, down 240 since they arrived in December though most were lost through typhoid, which killed more of them than battle throughout the entire war.

After a few days of quiet outpost duty, the Canadians were again ordered to the front at a new point along the river. Then they introduced an innovation that won the battle. Stealing closer to the enemy lines at night, they quietly dug fresh trenches 65 yards from the Boer firing line. It was a tricky business and they were nearly caught. At dawn they opened fire on the Boer camp below and the Boers fired back. Itwas at this point that four Canadian companies -- 400 men – mysteriously fled.
But 200 held and fired into the exposed Boer camp from surprisingly elevated and forward positions. Gen. Cronje surrendered. The entire Battle of Paardeberg accounted for half Canada's casualties in the war: 39 dead and 123 wounded. Other British casualties totaled 1,262, mostly incurred on the first day. That was the highest day's British loss of the entire war.
Because 200 Canadians held the line, and secretly dug forward trenches, Canada played the key role in what is now regarded as the turning point in the war --and the best day for the British since it began in October. The war was, and continues to be, unpopular with the Canadian Liberal establishment, but was extraordinarily popular with English Canadians at the time.

Prime Minister Laurier was foot dragging, but with an election expected in 1900, he was compelled to send 1,000 troops or lose Anglo votes to Sir Charles Tupper. It was an odd war in which the people were for and the government was against. This perhaps has much to do with the lack of commemoration on its centenary.


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