Canadians in the South African War 1899-1902

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 2993542)

Canadians at the Battle of Paardeberg, South Africa, February 1900. Painting by Arthur Henry Hider.

The Second Boer War 11 October 1899 – 31 May 1902), also known as the Boer War, the Anglo–Boer War, or the South African War, was a conflict fought between the British Empire and the two over the Empire's influence in Southern Africa from 1899 to 1902. Following the discovery of gold deposits in the Boer republics, there was a large influx of "foreigners", mostly British from the Cape Colony. They were not permitted to have a vote, and were regarded as "unwelcome visitors", invaders, and they protested to the British authorities in the Cape. Negotiations failed and, in the opening stages of the war, the Boers launched successful attacks against British outposts before being pushed back by imperial reinforcements. Though the British swiftly occupied the Boer republics, numerous Boers refused to accept defeat and engaged in guerrilla warfare. Eventually, British scorched earth policies, and the poor conditions suffered in concentration camps by Boer women and children who had been displaced by these policies, brought the remaining Boer guerillas to the negotiating table, ending the war. (Wikipedia)

A total of around 8000 Canadians arrived in South Africa to fight for Britain. These arrived in two contingents: the first on 30 October 1899, the second on 21 January 1900. A third contingent of cavalry (Strathcona's Horse) embarked for South Africa on 16/17 March 1900. They remained until May 1902. With approximately 7,368 soldiers in a combat situation, the conflict became the largest military engagement involving Canadian soldiers from the time of Confederation until the Great War. Eventually, 270 of these soldiers died in the course of the Boer War.

The Canadian public was initially divided on the decision to go to war as some citizens did not want Canada to become Britain's 'tool' for engaging in armed conflicts. Many Anglophone citizens were pro-Empire, and wanted the prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, to support the British in their conflict. On the other hand, many Francophone citizens felt threatened by the continuation of British imperialism to their national sovereignty. In the end, to appease the citizens who wanted war and to avoid angering those who oppose it, Laurier sent 1,000 volunteers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Otter to aid the confederation in its war to 'liberate' the peoples of the Boer controlled states in South Africa. The volunteers were provided to the British if the latter paid costs of the battalion after it arrived in South Africa. The supporters of the war claimed that it "pitted British Freedom, justice and civilization against Boer backwardness". The French Canadians' opposition to the Canadian involvement in a British 'colonial venture' eventually led to a three-day riot in various areas of Quebec.

Commonwealth involvement in the Boer War can be summarised into three parts. The first part (October 1899 – December 1899) was characterised by questionable decisions and blunders from the Commonwealth leadership which affected its soldiers greatly. The soldiers of the Commonwealth were shocked at the number of Afrikaner soldiers who were willing to oppose the British. The Afrikaner troops were very willing to fight for their country, and were armed with modern weaponry and were highly mobile soldiers. This was one of the best examples of Guerrilla style warfare, which would be employed throughout the twentieth century after set piece fighting was seen as a hindrance by certain groups. The Boer soldiers would evade capture and secure provisions from their enemies therefore they were able to exist as a fighting entity for an indeterminate period of time.

The end of the First part was the period in mid-December, referred to as the "Black Week". During the week of 10–17 December 1899, the British suffered three major defeats at the hands of the Boers at the battlefields of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. Afterwards, the British called upon more volunteers to take part in the war from the Commonwealth. The second part of the war (February–April 1900) was the opposite of the first. After the British reorganised and reinforced under new leadership, they began to experience success against the Boer soldiers. Commonwealth soldiers resorted to using blockhouses, farm burning and concentration camps to 'persuade' the resisting Boers into submission. The final phase of the war was the guerrilla phase in which many Boer soldiers turned to guerrilla tactics such as raiding infrastructure or communications lines. Many Canadian soldiers did not actually see combat after they had been shipped over to South Africa since many arrived around the time of the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902. (Wikipedia)

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3300001)

The 5th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles having a tug-of-war at sea on a troopship, likely returning from South Africa, June 1902.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3300015)

Horses for the contingents in South Africa at Durban Camp, June 1902.

During the South African War (Second Boer War), the "2nd (Special Service) Battalion" was raised from across the country to contribute Canada's First Contingent in this war, with Otter in command.  This battalion was quickly disbanded in 1900 upon its return to Canada, even though they were considered by many British officers to be the best infantry battalion in the country.  The “3rd (Special Service) Battalion” was also raised at this time, in 1900, and was employed as a garrison force in Halifax until 1902 when it was also disbanded.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3194539)

Troops of the Royal Canadian Regiment crossing Paardeberg Drift.

In the Boer War, the Toronto company of the 2RCRI fought Canada's first overseas battle at Sunnyside, Cape Colony, on 1 Jan 1900, defeating a Boer commando in an action led by Australia's Queensland Mounted Infantry.  The unit then joined and played an instrumental role in the victory at the Battle of Paardeberg (18–27 Feb 1900), including an advance by night towards the enemy lines, quietly digging trenches on high ground 65 yards from the Boer lines.  On 27 Feb 1900, the Boers, staring into the muzzles of Canadian and British rifles, surrendered, thus removing the commando blocking the way to the first Boer capital, Bloemfontein, Orange Free State.  This date has since been celebrated by the Regiment as Paardeberg Day.  Having delivered the first unqualified good news of the war for the British Empire, the Regiment also distinguished itself on the march north, arriving first at the gates of Pretoria.

During the South African War Private Richard Rowland Thompson was awarded a Queen's scarf, one of the four presented to soldiers of the Dominions, a further four scarves crocheted by Queen Victoria went to non-commissioned officers of the British Army.

In October 1901 the regiment received new colours from the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V) during his visit to Canada, and the regiment's name was changed to The Royal Canadian Regiment.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3407158)

Nursing Sister Minnie Affleck, First Canadian Contingent, South African War, 1900.

Following the formation of the Canadian Army Medical Department in June of 1899, the Canadian Army Nursing Service was created and four Canadian nurses were dispatched along with the volunteer force of 1,000 other Canadians to South Africa.  They were granted the relative rank, pay and allowances of an army lieutenant.  Before the war was over on 31 May 1902, eight Canadian Nursing Sisters and more than 7,000 Canadian soldiers had volunteered for service in South Africa.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3217003)

Canadian Nurse Deborah Hurcomb, 2nd Canadian Contingent, 1900, Boer War.

(Author Photo)

12-pounder 6-cwt Breechloading Mk. I Gun, Boer War “D” Battery.  RGF BL 12-Pr 6 Cwt I, 1896, No. 97. Canadian War Museum.

(Author Photo)

5-inch Breech-loading Mk. I Howitzer, weight 8-3-8 (988 lbs) on the barrel, similar to others like it in service in South Africa during the Second Boer War. The breech is stamped (BL 5" How, No. 65, RGF 1899).  The right trunnion appears to be a separate part of the gun carriage assembly, not the gun, and is stamped (RCD 1800, Reg. No. C.4597).  This was the first British gun to use Recoil Absorbers.  The gun is mounted on an iron Mk. I carriage with wooden wheels.  The iron trail is stamped with a different part number, (I, RCD 1900, Reg. No. C.4594, No. 27).  This gun stands in Royal Artillery Park, facing the Citadel in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

(Author Photo)

German Boer War 75-mm Krupp QF Field Gun, Boer War Trophy, (Serial Nr. 1888), stamped 1892, in the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.  British forces captured this gun at the November 1900 Battle of Bothaville.  It was one of six guns imported for the Orange Free State Artillery Corps in 1892.  It was given to Canada as a war trophy, and was displayed on Parliament Hill in 1906.

(Author Photo)

Broadwell 65-mm Rifled Breech Loading Mountain Gun, Model 1873, mounted on an 1890 Nordenfelt 3-pounder Carriage.  Fort Frontenac, Kingston, Ontario.  Known locally as "the Kirby Gun" because it was rescued from Petawawa by then Colonel “Kip” C de L Kirby after being sent there for the ranges from storage at Fort Henry.  It was presented to the Canadian Land Forces Command and Staff College at Fort Frontenac, Kingston by Brigadier-General Kirby in 1979 when he was the Commandant of the college (1977-1979).  (BGen C de L Kirby, PPCLI, born 16 Oct 1924, died on 17 Mar 2011 in Kingston).  The gun is a war trophy allocated to Canada after the Boer War.

If you found this valuable, consider supporting the author.