Sunday 27th of October 2002 11:46 AM 
 
 
Essay [17]

100 YEARS AGO THIS APRIL: MARCHING TO PRETORIA AT LAST AS CANADIANS FIGHT BATTLES ALONG THE WAY.
By Christy McCormick



Canada's foot soldiers languished in Bloemfontein as the first Canadian mounted troops arrived with artillery at Cape Town as April, 1900 dawned in South Africa.
The Boer War was more than six months old and Canada's reputation stood in high after its foot soldiers had won the Battle of Paardeberg, providing the first good news of the war and removing the last major obstacle before Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State. It was the first good news of the war, and the entire British Army accepted that the greenhorn Royal Canadian Regiment had won its spurs . Having taken marched into Bloemfontein unopposed on March 30, it was soon became clear that too many men, horses and oxen had gathered around too little water. Enteric typhoid had also broken out, a disease that would kill more Canadians than the Boers did. By the time, the march to Pretoria commenced, the 1,000 storng 2nd Bn. RCR had been reduced to less than half - mostly because of disease.
The supposedly beaten Dutch-South African forces suddenly captured the town's waterworks, and the 40,000-strong British army was forced to dig inadequate local wells.
Back in Cape Town, Canada's mounted men's first duty was escorting prisoners of war from holding pens to a ship bound for the big POW camps in St. Helena, the South Atlantic island where Napoleon had spent his last days. After Bloemfontein, all eyes were on Pretoria, the capital of Transvaal, whose severe exercise of the powers of internal independence had been so outrageous they had provoked ultimatums and counter ultimatums, and eventually led to war.
English Canada still supported the war, but French Canada was divided into war- tolerant Conservatives and anti-war Liberals. The important man against the war was Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. But he faced an election that year, and voters had to be appeased by more sending troops.
Gold and diamonds are often said to be the root of the conflict, but most Canadians believed the British Empire was a civilizing influence and the Boers needed civilizing, especially after driving out 60,000 anglo refugees from their territories. The Anglos, or "uitlanders," as they were called, paid most taxes, but couldn't vote even in Johannesberg where they formed the majority. Perhaps seeing his fellow French Canadians in a similar situation vis-a-vis their English compatriots, Laurier was reluctant to send troops, and only sent half the number Australia sent despite having double the population.
Meanwhile Field Marshal Frederick Lord Roberts was mustering his big army, soon to be augmented by another 1,000 mounted men from Canada when they were ordered north to Bloemfontein. Defeated by the Canadians at Paardeberg, the Boers regrouped and soon the British were surprised that they had re-captured most of the colony and had even taken 600 British prisoners of war.
Roberts didn't need more artillery, so he left the new Canadian guns at Cape Town. But Canada's C Battery soon had a daring and rewarding mission that took some time to hatch. They started to sail to Mozambique, and would later cross Zimbabwe to relieve the besieged mining town of Mafeking.
The rest of the Canadian artillery was sent to the flies and sand on the railway line between Cape Town and De Aar where their main enemy was typhoid and boredom.
The Bloemfontein army was soon marching on Pretoria, with an expected stop-over at Johannesberg. The Canadian mounted men then came under fire for the first time on April 22. The Royal Canadian Dragoons were advancing when they saw a farm house flying a white flag. Taking no precautions, they moved forward and were fired upon. They then regrouped, counter-attacked, but the Boers had fled. Angry at the abuse of the white flag, the Dragoons burnt the farmhouse.
Many Canadians wanted to join up and go to South Africa, but foot-dragging Ottawa sent as few men as it dared. Many who were refused made the voyage to South Africa at their own expense and found places in South African regiments. Lt. Col. Sam Hughes, MP, Canada's defense minister in World War I, had been rejected at home, but went on his own to win distinction as an "good intelligence officer" and an "excellent leader of irregular mounted troops." At the urging of the war-tolerate French press, Laurier recruited soldiers to replace Britain's Leinster Regiment in Halifax, thus freeing the unit for war service and ending British military presence in Canada.
The march to Pretoria began slowly. Two columns moved north on either side of the railway tracks from Bloemfontein to Pretoria. Like bookends, the Canadian foot soldiers were on the extreme right while Canada's cavalry was on the extreme left.
But first, the Canadian infantry was tasked to clear the Boer threats on the right, with its partners in the 19th Brigade, the Shropshires Light Infantry, the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and Gordon Highlanders. While the Canadians helped, the Shropshires did the heavy work in knocking out the Boers from the Bloemfontein waterworks. The Canadians then moved on to Tabanshu, eliminating another big menace on the right flank, a large Boer force at Yster Nek. There, on April 25, the Royal Canadians made a frontal assault while their brigade partners and South African mounted units attacked on the flanks. It worked, but the Canadian CO, Col. William Otter, was wounded in the throat, and his second in command, Maj. Lawrence Buchan took over. The foot soldiers of the Royal Canadian Regiment were by then a smaller unit, at half strength at 450 because of casualties and typhoid. A 100-man re-enforcement draft which came with the Second Contingent of artillery and mounted men, had not arrived yet, though it had reached Bloemfontein.

So ended April, 1900, in Canada's Boer War.

 

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