Thursday 20th of February 2003 03:51 AM 
Essay [20]
Canada's Boer War: A Fight for Human Rights. 'Long legged Canadians' Told to Slow Down 100 Years Ago.
By Christy McCormick

Few today will recall Canada's heroic role in the Boer War that ended a hundred years ago on Saturday May 11 with a final treaty at the end of May. It remains a troubled memory for Canada. Although it is little known or cared about, Canada's small army played a crucial role in restoring human rights and ending ethnic cleansing in a conflict which is still called an "imperial adventure."

On educational websites, it is widely assumed Canada joined the Boer War (1899-1902) to participate in a mean-spirited imperial adventure to get gold and diamonds for Britain. The barest reading of history, however, shows most Canadians felt the war was a just one and continued to do so throughout the campaign.

What upset English Canadians was that Dutch Africans were driving out 60,000 Anglo Africans from their homes in Johannesburg, the biggest city in the Boer-controlled state of Transvaal. But most French Canadians overlooked this and tended to side with the Boers in their quest for independence.

As Senior Dominion, Canada set the tone for Australia and New Zealand. Had Canada refused, and there was division in the Empire, Boer commandos might well have been encouraged to take Durban before British troops landed, bringing about a defeat.

The Dutch Africans who lived in the British Cape and Natal provinces were nearly half the population, and would have joined the Boer rebellion had the British faltered. Faced with this stark humiliation, the British Empire might well have lost Canada to the U.S. as the Tory-voting French Canadian clerical party feared.

This minority French Canadian view saw that the US had expelled Spain from the Americas in the quick-and-dirty Spanish American War the year before. Americans had made it plain that they wanted to throw out the British under the Monroe Doctrine. But because most Canadians were pro-war over the anti-war sentiments of their Liberal government, none of this occurred.

Anglophone Europeans had become the majority in Johannesburg at about 55 per cent. Most worked in the nearby Rand gold fields they had developed since the 1880s. But few could vote or get a fair hearing in a Boer court even though their taxes provided the bulk of public revenue. It was a situation rather like Montreal's.

By any measure Canadian intentions were noble and the performance of our troops, superb. In the Battle of Paardeberg, the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry turned the war around after unbroken string of British defeats as the Boers surprised the world with their skill and daring.

A common Canadian post-war boast was: "Of course, the British were losing. We hadn't arrived yet." This was partly true. Superior physical fitness was demonstrated on the march when British orders came down to tell "those long-legged Canadians" in front to slow down so the others could catch up.

A simple explanation for the higher Canadian standard was an unintended consequence of the Liberal decision to send as few troops as possible. While Britain drafted as many soldiers as it could from the few available, Canada carefully cherry picked the best from the many who volunteered. At first, the government would only authorise 1,000. Australia, with half Canada's population, sent double the number of troops. Even tiny New Zealand did better.

But even the unwilling Prime Minister Wilfried Laurier reflected majority's mood in his send-off speech to the troops at Quebec City in October 1899. "It is inspiring to reflect that the cause for which you men are going to fight is the cause of justice, of humanity, of civil rights and religious liberty," Laurier said. "This is not a war of conquest or subjugation, but it is to put an end to the oppression by a tyrannical people."

The Boers had been preparing for war more than a year. They had modern artillery and new magazine rifles to arm waves of well-provisioned horsemen grouped into commandos, each numbering up and down of 2,000. The key issue was the vote for the Anglo-Africans in the Boer states, which hinged on an ever-lengthening residency qualification that increased from two years to 14. When the British insisted on a vote, the Boers refused. When war loomed, the Boer began shooting and bombing their Anglo-Africans residents, driving them south by train, horse and foot.

With eleventh-hour peace conferences failing and refugees streaming south, Alfred Milner, the South African governor, called for more troops. The Boers demanded the troopships be turned back. The British ignored the ultimatum and the Boer commandos swept south into Natal to drive the British into the sea. They first walloped a divided British force and bottled up its remnants at Ladysmith and there it would stay until rescued the following year.

But because the Boers hesitated on their way to Durban, the British soldiers managed to land in time and with difficulty, restore the front. Suffering one defeat after another with a big one at Magersfontein, the battered British Army picked itself up and turned east towards Bloemfontein, the Boer capital of the Orange Free State.

Between the British and the city stood another Boer force, threatening to inflict yet another disastrous defeat. At this time the Canadians caught up with the army for the first day of the 10-day Battle of Paardeberg Drift. It was their first overseas battle and one that would make their reputation.

At first, the Canadians, like the British, played into the hands of the Boers' simple, effective strategy. The Dutch Africans shot rapid-fire, long-range rifles at soldiers running towards them over open ground. After a leisurely day's shoot, killing many British and now Canadians, the Boers mounted up and rode off giving up their worthless positions. Canadian soldiers charged the Boers and were shot down as briskly as the British - 60 Canadian casualties, 20 dead. It was the worst Canadian battlefield loss of the war.

But nine days later, the Canadians took frontline duty again, preparing to charge into the Boer riflemen. But instead, they crept out at night, stealthily advancing to high ground above the Boer camp. There, they quietly dug trenches. At dawn, the Canadians fired down into the camp and won a quick Boer surrender. After that, the Boers had no force to protect Bloemfontein Nor was their much opposition on the way to Pretoria, the capital of the other rebel state, the Transvaal.

But to ensure there would no serious opposition, the British gathered an army of 40,000 after taking Bloemfontein. But with the soldiers and their animals fouling the small town's water supply, typhoid spread rapidly. By the end of the war, the disease killed more Canadians than the Boers.

Our Royal Canadian Field Artillery batteries were star performers, too. They were split up by battery and sent to various points around the country. One battery played the key role in lifting the Siege of Mafeking. The heroic tale of a gold mining town fending off a Boer attack from the first days of the war had filled the world press. Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, who later founded the Boy Scouts, was the town's heroic commander.

Canadian field guns made a daring end run by ship to Mozambique with an able New Zealand force. From there, they crossed into Zimbabwe by train where they met the Rhodesian Field Force and together marched from the north on the besieged mining town, surprising the Boers who expected them from the south. Canadian gunners astonished all with quick firing accuracy, forcing the Boers to cut and run. When the siege was over, there were wild parties from Montreal to Melbourne. "Toronto the Good" shut down for a three-day bacchanalia.

As our artillery at Mafeking became the stuff of legend. Canadian horsemen demonstrated the arts of forward scouting as well as amazing soldiers from other countries with their dash at rounding up cattle, a routine jobs of the war that provided a chance for Empire to see real cowboys at work.

The Boer War also brought many firsts. Camouflage, or "mudlark," uniforms replaced colourful battlefield costumes of olden days. Female army nurses first appeared. The machine gun was introduced and proved its worth. Trench warfare made its debut, too. And cavalry, that is, men fighting on horseback, met the beginning of its end as a battlefield player because new rifles could bring down horses long before cavalry troopers got into sword-swinging range. Newsreel film made took its first faltering steps and decades of compulsory education produced soldiers who wrote home in masses for the first time. This itself produced a sensational media war in which great newspapers became larger than life.

Technically, the Dutch Africans, or Boers, lived in the British suzerain territories with internal independence, but not sovereignty. Critics called it a "shadowy suzerainty." But for most Canadians it was clear cut. Boers were British subjects like it or not. Like French Canadians, Dutch Africans had been consigned from one sovereignty to another by widely recognised international treaties, the Treaty of Paris in the Canadian example and the Congress of Vienna in the case of the Boers. Thus, as individuals, Dutch Africans and French Canadians were British subjects and had no right to set up sovereign states.

But the Boers claimed otherwise, saying they had escaped British jurisdiction by trekking north into unclaimed territories. They called their first it the Orange Free State, and from there some set out further north to form a new state called South African Republic of the Transvaal There had been earlier military conflicts and it was accepted that the Afrikaner states had internal independence under the crown.

For Canadians - French and English - the Boer War filled their respective newspaper headlines. But attitudes were starkly different. "Three French Canadians die for England," morosely reported Montreal's La Presse in 1900. "Soldiers of the Queen!" proclaimed a Toronto Mail headline over upbeat war stories.

Much to everyone's surprise, the war that was declared "practically over" after the fall of Pretoria on June 5, 1900 resumed for its longest and ugliest "guerrilla phase." It became a horse war, so Canadian infantry played a lesser role, strung out along rail lines to prevent sabotage. There were no fixed objectives like Bloemfontein or Pretoria. British "relief columns" went out on search and destroy missions, ostensibly to free towns from Boer control.

When Boer riflemen returned individually to their homes to be re-provisioned, the British responded by burning their farms and took the now homeless non-combatants into refugee camps called "concentration camps." Whatever is made of these unlovely facilities, they were always intended as refugee camps. They housed women, children and old men who were left standing on the rainy, wind-swept veldt after their farms were destroyed.

Canadian mounted troops, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, the Lord Strathcona's Horse and the Canadian Mounted Rifles, played their role in this ugly business. Many camp inmates died of illness and neglect. There were cases of abuse as this supposedly short-term solution in a war that was "practically over" became longer and longer term.

At the time the term "concentration camp" had no negative meaning. It was a value-neutral term to describe fixed concentrations of British troops. Nazis gave the term its evil spin. Thus, it is unfair that the British reputation suffers today for Nazi crimes committed 40 years later in very different camps that shared the same name.

Up till then, both sides had treated prisoners well. The British shipped them off to state-of-the-art POW camps in St. Helena, the South Atlantic island where Napoleon spent his last days. Boers had little use for prisoners and no means to provide for them. They were usually released after removing valuables and later, clothing.

Wearing the enemy's uniform is a standard capital offence in war. Thus, the removal of clothing, or uniforms, caused much shooting of prisoners who had taken British uniforms not to deceive but to replace their own rags. On the Boer side, there was a nasty practice of raising of white flags only to shoot advancing soldiers who had come to the surrender. A troop of Strathcona's Horse may have hanged a couple of Boers on the spot for it, but the record is unclear.

One day of horse heroics ended in what soldiers remembered as a "Wild West show," after which three Canadians won the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for gallantry. This was the Battle of Liliefontein in which Canadians saved the large British column of several thousand men.

The Royal Canadian Dragoons were heading the column chasing a Boer commando near Liliefontein, with a battery of Canadian 12-pounders. But it was next day, when they expected to have a quiet trot behind in rearguard, that they were massively attacked. Two hundred Boer horsemen rushed the hundred Canadians and were nearly victorious. One English regiment broke and ran. But the Canadian dragoons, joined by their gunners, and a troop of New Zealand mounted rifles, who appeared from nowhere, held the line and then withdrew in good order.

The final stage of the war came when General Lord Kitchener ordered a series of blockhouses to be built a quarter mile apart along miles of fencing. With groups of five to 10 riflemen at each blockhouse, the rest of the army's mounted infantry swept slowly in waves towards the blockhouses. They burnt farms along the way on a broad front with each horseman a 100 yards apart. Methodically, they drove the Boers towards the long line of blockhouses.

The plan worked. As the Boers approached the fence of blockhouses, infantrymen sheltered there could deliver rapid rifle fire turning the tables on the Boers. After chasing about, with the exhausted main Boer force ducking and dodging, the Dutch Africans were finally trapped and surrendered on May 11 1902.

What importance was South African War? Imagine a British defeat and the governance of fiercely religious Dutch African republics. The Boer version of freedom included the right to slaves; their president was convinced the earth was flat. Alone, such a state could not have produced today's South Africa, one of the world's modern countries. Much credit for whatever social progress has been made in South Africa must go to the Anglo-Africans, who might well have been driven out had Canada deserted the Empire.

Our soldiers were first rate and showed it. They provided a standard of excellence to look up to, and a standard that remains in force and at the moral core of today's Canadian army. And for that, we should be proud of our soldiers of long ago and for those who still fight much the same battles for much the same reasons today.

Christy McCormick is journalist and amateur historian with a keen interest in the Boer War.


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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.