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Canada, The South African War (The Boer War), 1899-1902

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Canada & The South African War, 1899-1902

The South African War (1899-1902) or, as it is also known, the Boer War, marked Canada's first official dispatch of troops to an overseas war.

In 1899, fighting erupted between Great Britain and two small republics in South Africa. The two republics, settled by Boers (Farmer in Afrikaans), descendants of the region's first Dutch immigrants, were not expected to survive for long against the world's greatest power. Pro-Empire Canadians nevertheless urged their government to help. The war, they argued, pitted British freedom, justice, and civilization against Boer backwardness.

While many English-Canadians supported Britain's cause in South Africa, most French-Canadians and many recent immigrants from countries other than Britain wondered why Canada should fight in a war half way around the world. Concerned with maintaining national stability and political popularity, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier did not want to commit his government. Yet the bonds of Empire were strong and public pressure mounted. As a compromise, Laurier agreed to send a battalion of volunteers to South Africa.

Over the next three years, more than 7,000 Canadians, including 12 women nurses, served overseas. They would fight in battles from Paardeberg to Leliefontein. The Boers inflicted heavy losses on the British, but were defeated in several key engagements. Refusing to surrender, the Boers turned to a guerrilla war of ambush and retreat. In this second phase of fighting, Canadians participated in numerous small actions. Gruelling mounted patrols sought to bring the enemy to battle, and harsh conditions ensured that all soldiers struggled against disease and snipers' bullets.

Imperial forces attempted to deny the Boers the food, water and lodging afforded by sympathetic farmers, taking the war to the civilian population. Canadian troops burned Boer houses and farms, and moved civilians to internment camps. In these camps, an estimated 28,000 prisoners died of disease, most of them women, children, and black workers. Civilian deaths provoked outrage in Britain and in Canada. This strategy eventually help to defeat the Boers.

In total, from 1900 to 1902, 7,368 men would serve in Canadian units in South Africa, of whom 89 were killed or died of wounds. Some 252 were wounded, 135 more died by accident and disease. In total, 267 who served with the Canadians in South Africa are listed in the Books of Remembrance. The Canadian government claimed at the time that this overseas expedition was not a precedent. Later history proved otherwise.

Canadian Units

The 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment

The 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry was Canada's first volunteer contingent sent to South Africa, and was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel William D. Otter. The battalion landed at Cape Town on 30 November 1899, and in mid-February 1900 joined the British 19th Infantry Brigade. The Battalion played an essential role in defeating the Boer force at Paardeberg in February 1900. Paardeberg was the first major British victory of the war. It also saw action at Israel's Poort, Thaba Mountain, Doorn Kop, and marched into Pretoria, the enemy capital on 29 May as part of Lord Roberts' conquering army. With the men's enlistment period ending, the battalion embarked for home at Cape Town on 7 November 1900, reached England on 29 November, and returned to Canada on 23 December, where it was promptly disbanded.

The Royal Canadian Dragoons

In December 1899, a second contingent consisting of horse-mounted infantry and field artillery, organized into two squadrons. The core of the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles squadron was men from the Royal Canadian Dragoons. This unit numbered 371 men, divided into two squadrons and a headquarters staff.

In 7 November 1900, Leliefontein was the most desperate situation faced by Canadians during the war. The number of decorations, including Victoria Crosses to Lieutenants H.Z.C. Cockburn and R.E.W. Turner and Sergeant E.J. Holland, all of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, attests to the intensity of the fighting.

Canadian Mounted Rifles

The 2nd CMR had been built around the North West Mounted Police by its' commissioner. It was a unit of 'picked police, ex-police and cowboys' to fight in South Africa, later re-badged after arrival in country at the Canadian Mounted Rifles. The battalion distinguished itself and earned a reputation for aggressive scouting. It was one of two horse-mounted infantry raised for the second contingent, numbered 371 men, divided into two squadrons and a headquarters staff.

To confuse unit designation, another battalion of Canadian Mounted Rifles was raised and badged as the 2nd Battalion, or 2nd Regiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles. The earlier CMR was thereafter known as the 1st CMR, again, not to be confused with the 2nd contingent unit raised in Canada and later known as the Royal Canadian Dragoons in South Africa. The later 2nd Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles, was paid for by the British and raised in Jan 1902. It would serve briefly in South Africa, participating in a number of major drives that resulted in the destruction of the Boer forces in the western Transvaal. While its tour of operations had not been long, the 2nd Regiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles had proven to be a worthy successor to the units of the first and second contingents.

In April 1902, the British requested a fourth contingent of 2,000 men from Canada. The 3rd, 4th, 5th & 6th Regiments, Canadian Mounted Rifles arrived in South Africa after the war had ended, however, and returned to Canada in July 1902 at which time they disbanded.

Brigade Division, Canadian Field Artillery

The brigade division of the Canadian Field Artillery in the second contingent grouped together three batteries, designated "C", "D" and "E". Each battery consisted of three sections, each of two 12-pounder breech-loading guns, and was manned by a core of Permanent Force soldiers, with additional members from the Militia. The militia for "C" and "D" batteries came from Ontario and Winnipeg, while "E" battery had militia from Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Although usually out of the limelight, the three batteries saw much action.

"D" and "E" Batteries arrived in Cape Town aboard the SS Laurentian in February 1900, and were soon sent north to form part of a column based at Victoria West under Colonel Sir Charles Parsons. In March and April they took part in an operation in the Kenhardt district, covering 700 miles (1,100 km) in six weeks, seeing little action, but much heavy rain. On 29 May, "E" battery was part of another operation under Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Warren, when it was attacked at Faber's Put. The Boers were eventually driven off, though the battery had one man killed and eight wounded. In his subsequent despatch Warren particularly mentioned "E" Battery's Major Ogilvie and Captain Mackie. By the end of June "E" Battery had been split up into sections and was stationed along the Kimberley–Mafeking Railway.

In July 1900 "D" Battery moved to Pretoria to operate in the Transvaal in a column commanded by Colonel Ian Hamilton, and saw much action, with a section particularly distinguishing itself at the battle of Leliefontein, when 100 men of the Royal Canadian Dragoons and 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, bolstered by a single Colt machine gun and the two 12-pounders of the battery, repelled an attack by 200 mounted Boers while covering the withdrawal of the main column. Three Victoria Crosses were won during the engagement.

"C" Battery arrived at Cape Town aboard the SS Columbian in March 1900, but within two weeks were re-embarked to sail to Beira, from where they travelled by train, cart, and forced march to join Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Plumer's column 70 miles (110 km) south of Otse by mid-April to take part in the relief of Mafeking. Colonel Baden-Powell, the garrison commander at Mafeking, sent a telegram to the Canadian Government stating : Mafeking relieved today, and most grateful for invaluable assistance of Canadian Artillery, which made record march from Beira to help us. From the end of May the battery operated with Plumer's column in the Zeerust district until November, seeing action regularly.

The unit never operated as a whole, with the batteries, and sometimes even sections, operating independently, often for months at a time, and it was only reunited when it regrouped to return to Canada in June 1901.

Strathcona's Horse

Lord Strathcona offered to raise a regiment at his own expense for service in the British Army in South Africa. A cadre of mounted police joined Strathcona's Horse, among them the legendary Superintendent Sam Steele .

10th Canadian Field Hospital

The third Canadian contingent was the only one to take a field hospital with it to South Africa. The 10th Canadian Field Hospital provided outstanding medical services during its stint in South Africa.

The Canadian Scouts

The Canadian Scouts gained a reputation as a group of hard-riding, implacable, and death-defying soldiers. While not officially a Canadian unit, the Scouts never fully lost their Canadian character. It was a small, well-armed, aggressive unit of scouts formed in South Africa in 1900 by a group of Canadians who had finished their tours with other units. It was under the command of Major Arthur L. “Gat” Howard, Dec 1900 - Feb 1901; he had been a machine gun officer with the Royal Canadian Dragoons in South Africa, Feb - Dec 1900. Charles Joseph Ross DSO was 2nd in command to "Gat" Howard and took command after his death until the end of the war. Charles Ross was born in Orange NSW in 1857. From their formation to their disbandment, 1003 men served in the Canadian Scouts.

It was not an official Canadian unit but a mounted irregular force raised in South Africa by the British. As time went on it had many members from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Britain. The original members imbued the unit with a bit of a "wild west" attitude and the Scouts fostered this swashbuckling image. Unlike some other units they made no attempt to emulate Imperial units and eschewed British Army spit and polish. Rumours of unorthodox behaviour ran rife throughout the unit's short eighteen-month life, leaving the story of the Canadian Scouts surrounded by myths, some founded in fact and others the product of an active imagination. Nobody questioned the Scouts' ability to fight and any general would have been thankful to have them under his command in wartime.

After Howard was killed in action on 17 February 1901, at the age of 55, the unit continued as a corps of scouts but it evolved into an irregular mounted corps of four squadrons, a machine gun battery, a troop of Black South African scouts, and a transport column, in all about 475 men.

The South African Constabulary

British planning for the postwar period included a para-military force to police the conquered Boer republics. The South African Constabulary took part in many campaigns and experienced some hard fighting. At least 57 Canadians died and six won decorations while serving in its ranks. See: South Africa Constabulary, V.R. "Government Gazette Extraordinary," Pretoria, October 22, 1900. No. 24 of 1900.

Since Lieutenant-Colonel S. B. Steele, MVO CB, who commanded Lord Strathcona's Horse was not able to leave South Africa in time, so that Captain P. Fall, Lord Strathcona's Horse, also appointed to the Constabulary, was sent from South Africa to pass the men. On 26 Mar 1900, Canadian recruits for the SAC concentrated at Ottawa, consisting of Captain Fall, 21 officers and 903 other ranks, entrained for Halifax then sailed for South Africa. Lieutenant-Colonel Steele did not take over the command of the contingent, and it proceeded to South Africa under the command of Captain Fall, who was given the temporary rank of Major in the Militia. The Canadians were signed up officially in Pretoria 22 Oct 1900.

The 30 successful applicants for commissions in the initial intake were:

To be Captains:

Capt. H. E. Burstall, R. C. A.
Major C. C. Bennett, 6th Rifles.
Capt. F. W. L. Moore, 4th Regt., C. A
Capt. W. T. Lawless, The G.G.F.G.
Capt. T. O. Critchley, 3rd Batt., R.C.R.
Capt. A. H. Powell, RL.D.G.
Inspector W. H. Scarth, N.W.M.P.
Edward Reading, Sergt-Major R.C.D.
Capt. H. R. Poussctte, 26th Rcgt
Lieut. G. S. Beer, Rocky Mountain Rangers
W. L. McGiverin, late Pte. 2nd Batt., R.C.R.
Captain A. E. Swift, 8th Royal Rifles.

To be Lieutenants:

Lieut. J. C. Oland, 63rd Regt.
Lieut. A. B. Irvine, 90th "
C. P. Ermatinger, late Pte. C.M.R.
D. A. O'Meara, late Pte. 2nd Batt. R.C.R.
J. French, late Pte. C.M.R.
W. D. McCarthy, late Pte. 2nd Batt., R.C.R.
Veterinary Capt. W. J. Morgan, 5th Field Battery.
Capt. J. F. Foulkes, 5th Regt., C.A.
H A. C. Machin, late Sergt. 2nd Batt., R.C.R.
G. Hampson, 5th " Royal Scots."
R. B. Eaton, late Corp. C.M.R.
Cadet K. C. Folger, Cadet R.M.C.
R. R. Thompson, late Pte. 2nd Batt., R.C.R.
F. W. Burritt, late Pte. R.C.D.
Cadet C. R. E. Willetts, Cadet R.M.C.
F. T. St. George, D. of Y. R. C. Hussars.
J. R L Atwater, late Pte. 2nd Batt., R.C.R.
Lieut. G. R. Lightbound, 3rd Regt. Victoiia Rifles.
3rd (Special Service) Battalion

Canada replaced the British regiment in Halifax for the duration of the war with a Canadian unit, the 3rd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry. While the unit served exclusively in Canada, its strength is included in the overall number of Canadians raised for service during the South African War.

Canadian Personalities

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles W. Drury

A popular and efficient officer, Drury was known as the "Father of Modern Field Artillery in Canada" for his many innovations.

Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas D.B. Evans

He went to South Africa as second-in-command of the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles. Shortly afterwards he was appointed in acting command of the 2nd Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles. In the view of one modern historian, Evans was the "outstanding Canadian soldier of his generation."

Major Arthur L. ("Gat") Howard

An American, Major Howard was an aggressive, fearless leader who fought the Boers at close quarters. Howard's impressive military exploits were among the most dramatic in the history of Canada's participation in the South African War. His nickname came from his promoting the use of the Gatling Machine Gun. He had been a machine gun officer with the Royal Canadian Dragoons in South Africa, Feb - Dec 1900. He later founded and commanded the Canadian Scouts, Dec 1900 - Feb 1901. He was killed in action on 17 February 1901. Some claim that he was captured, robbed and then murdered by a Boer.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Hughes

Sam Hughes was a senior militia officer and an influential Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party. An intensely patriotic, strong-willed man, he disliked professional soldiers. In 1911, Hughes became Minister of Militia and Defence.

Lieutenant-Colonel François-Louis Lessard

A 'very popular and efficient' commanding officer, and an aggressive leader in combat, he was also fortunate to be able to count on officers and men of the highest standard.

Lieutenant-Colonel William D. Otter

As commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry in South Africa, his no nonsense, no frills approach to soldiering brought him into conflict with the less disciplined ways of his officers and men.

Nursing Sister Georgina Fane Pope

For five months after their arrival, the first group of nursing sisters, with Georgina Pope as senior sister, served at British hospitals just north of Cape Town. Nurse Pope served in South Africa, caring for injured British and Canadian soldiers.

Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel B. Steele

Steele was a charismatic, opinionated, hard-living individual who personified the popular image in the Victorian era of the rugged, larger-than-life frontiersman, with all his virtues and vices.

Victoria Cross Recipients

Sergeant Arthur Herbert Lindsay Richardson, VC, Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians), North West Mounted Police veteran
Edward James Gibson Holland VC (1878 - 1948), 7 November 1900 Leliefontein, Royal Canadian Dragoons. He later served in the Great War as a major, in command of Borden's Armoured Battery, Canadian Machine Gun Brigade.
Richard Ernest William Turner KCMG VC (1871 - 1961), 7 November 1900 Leliefontein, Royal Canadian Dragoons. He went on to command the 2nd Canadian Division in the First World War, retiring as a Lieutenant-General.
Lieut HZC Cockburn VC, 7 November 1900 Leliefontein, Royal Canadian Dragoons. He died in 1913, when he was kicked in the head by a horse.
William Henry Snyder Nickerson VC CB CMG (1875 - 1954), Royal Army Medical Corps



  • Greenhous, Brereton. "The South African War: We Stand on Guard: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army". Ovale Publications, Montreal, PQ, 1992. ISBN 2-89429-043-8
  • Jim Wallace with Capt. Mike Dorosz. "Knowing No Fear: The History of the Canadian Scouts in South Africa, 1900-1902, (The Boer War)." 2008. 244pp.



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