Friday 20th of December 2002 09:23 AM 
 
 
Essay [16]

100 YEARS AGO THIS MARCH CANADIAN FORCES REINFORCED IN SOUTH AFRICA, BUT SENT TO DIFFERENT AREAS.
By Christy McCormick



With Canada's victory at Paardeberg Feb. 27, there were still battles to be fought on the way to the Orange Free State capital of Bloemfontein. But after the Battle of Paardeberg, Canadians were given a rest and saw little action on the way to Bloemfontein as March 1900 dawned in South Africa.
The recently introduced bolt-action magazine rifle gave the advantage to defenders, allowing small numbers of Boers to slow down the 40,000-strong British army. With a flick of wrist the rifle could be reloaded and cocked. They were accurate for more than a mile. Typically, the Boers fired from sheltered positions and when the British closed in, after suffering heavy casualties, the Boers simply mounted up rode off with little loss, only to take up new positions and recommence the action.
At home, Canadians remained enthusiastic about the war. They wanted to support the British Empire, of which Canada was "Senior Dominion." They also wanted to rescue fellow anglos, or "uitlanders" as the Boers called them, from the abuse inflicted by Dutch-speaking, and internally independent state of Transvaal and to a lesser degree, the Orange Free State.
About to surrender Bloemfontein, and having lost 4,000 men after Paardeberg, the Boer governments, headed by the hawkish Transvaal president Paul Kruger and the more dovish Orange Free State president Christein Steyn, sought terms on March 5, offering to cease hostilities if their separate independences were recognized.
London said No. This represented no change from the Boer position at the start. The British promptly renamed the “Free State” captured province Orange River Colony and annexed it to the British South Africa. What is remembered of the Canadians' otherwise uneventful march to Bloemfontein from Paardeberg is an amusing order from the high command that filled our soldiers with pride -- even it was meant as a scolding. "Those long-legged Canadians" were ordered to slow down so the rest of the army could keep up.
From first to last, observers remarked how much bigger, stronger and fit the Canadians seemed to be. This had less to do with the quality of Canadian manhood than with Ottawa's anti-war policy. By keeping the Canadian contingent small (Australia with half the population, sent twice the men), many applicants competed for the limited number of places in the regiments, and consequently, the Canadian force was the cream of the crop. After Paardeberg, the Boers were reeling. Paardeberg was their first big setback. With the capture and death of leading Boer officers, younger men took command and avoided the pitched battles the British sought and adopted a hit-and-run campaign of harassment that marked the rest of the war. On March 16, Lord Strathcona's Horse sailed from Halifax for Cape Town with 28 officers, 512 men, and 599 horses together with a 101-strong draft of foot soldiers for the Royal Canadian Regiment. Sadly, 163 of the hand-picked horses died en route of pneumonia. The Strathconas were kept in Cape Town until June for remounts.
Lord Strathcona was Canada's High Commissioner to London at the time. He had come to Canada as a young man from Scotland as Donald Smith, and worked for the Hudson's Bay Company, leading a quiet heroic life in the northern bush. At 49, with his substantial but unspectacular life savings, he quit the Bay and came to Montreal to make a fortune in railways. Lord Strathcona entertained his own lavishly equipped regiment at his new palatial home in Montreal.
The Strathconas, now part of the Canadian Army (first Canadian troops in Kosovo) did not start off that way. As Ottawa wouldn’t authorize more Canadian troops, the unit began its life in the British Army. But they thoroughly Canadian for all that. Her Majesty's cowboys had everything, though, western saddles, Spanish spurs, revolvers and binoculars -- all paid for by Lord Strathcona himself.
Meanwhile in South Africa, Canada's first mounted unit to arrive, the Canadian Mounted Rifles, and an artillery regiment, took to the field on March 13 in a sideshow operation. One battery, equivalent to a 100-strong infantry company, went to Victoria West 400 miles north of Cape Town, and from there westward to Carnarvon. Their presence dispersed Boers along the way to Kenhardt, and turned back without a shot fired, though they lost a man when he was drowned after falling from a horse into the swollen Hartbeeste River.
On March 30, Bloemfontein fell without resistance, and all focussed on the march to Pretoria.

Thus ended Canada's Boer War in March 1900.

 

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