3 November 1900
It is said that Canada became a nation at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 during World War I when the Canadian Expeditionary Force took the German-held high ground amidst fierce fighting—an achievement that had eluded British and French forces in three years of fighting. Although there is no disputing the heroism and the accomplishment of the Canadian soldiers, some historians maintain that the significance given to Vimy Ridge in the development of Canadian nationalism is a modern invention. It also overlooks the impact of an earlier war on Canadian national confidence. That war was the South African War, also known as the Boer War.
The Boer War was a nasty colonial conflict that pitted Britain against two Boer (Afrikaans for farmer) republics called the South African Republic, also known as the Transvaal, and the Orange Free State. There were actually two wars. The first, in which the British got a drubbing, lasted from 1880 to 1881, while the second more famous one lasted from 1899 to 1902. The wars resulted from British imperial designs over southern Africa butting up against the desire by Boer settlers for their own independent, white republics. Thrown into the mix was the discovery of gold in Boer territories, an influx of foreign, mostly British prospectors and miners (called uitlanders) who were denied political rights by Boer governments who feared being swamped by the incomers, rival British and Boer economic interests, British fears of German interference in southern Africa, and the ambitions of Cecil Rhodes, the premier of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.
The South African war began in October 1899 after talks between the British government and the Boer governments failed. Boer soldiers invaded the British Natal and Cape Colonies and subsequently laid siege to ill-prepared British troops at Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberly. The attacks galvanized pro-British sympathies throughout the Empire, whipped up by nationalistic newspapers. Australia and New Zealand sent troops to assist the Mother Country in its hour of need.
In Canada, public opinion in English Canada was likewise strongly in favour of Britain and the uitlanders. The Ottawa Evening Journal said “Britain, a democratic monarchy, is at war with a despotic republic, and seeks to give equality to the people of the Transvaal.” Pressured by English Canada, the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier agreed to send 1,000 volunteers to support the British cause over the opposition of many French Canadians including fellow Liberal party member Henri Bourassa, who resigned his federal seat in protest. Bourassa later founded the newspaper Le Devoir. This was the first time Canada had committed troops to an overseas war. In 1884, Canadian volunteers, many from the Ottawa area, had agreed to serve as non-combatants in the relief of “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum, Sudan.
In Ottawa, imperial sentiment was strong, even reportedly among its francophone population. One such resident opined that “French Canadians had no reason to be other than loyal to England…England had dealt fairly with us and we should be unhesitatingly be loyal.” Another said “Every British subject, whether of French or any other extraction, should be willing to bear the responsibilities of Empire.” Of the first 1,000 volunteers to serve in South Africa in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry under the command of Colonel Otter, sixty-seven came from the Ottawa area.
The Ottawa contingent, “D Company,” left the Capital for Quebec City by train in late October 1899 under the command of Captain Rogers, formerly Major Rogers of the 43rd Regiment based in Ottawa. Rogers had served with distinction in the North-West Rebellion. A crowd of 30,000 saw the volunteers off “to defend the honour of Britain.”
Many Ottawa residents took a special train to Quebec City to see their boys off on the Sardinian for South Africa on 30 October 1899. The Journal was moved by the occasion to write: “Descendants of the men who fought with Montcalm and Wolfe marched side by side to play their part in the great South African drama.” Before boarding the ship, the Canadian contingent was fêted at the Quebec City Drill Hall. The Ottawa volunteers cheered “Hobble, gobble, Razzle, dazzle, Sis boom bah, Ottawa, Ottawa, Rah. Rah. Rah.” as if they were going to a football game.
Over the next year, the soldiers of the Canadian contingent proved in battle that they were second to none. The Canadians distinguished themselves at the Battle of Paardeberg where after nine days of bloody fighting in late February 1900, British forces defeated a Boer army. It was their first major victory of the war. The Boer general, Piet Cronjé, surrendered when his soldiers woke to find themselves facing Canadian rifles from nearly point blank range. In the dead of night, the Canadian troops had silently dug trenches on the high ground overlooking the Boer line. In the fighting, the British forces sustained more than 1,400 casualties, of which 348 men died. Thirty-one Canadian soldiers lost their lives in the battle, including two Ottawa men. Many more were wounded. Boer losses amounted 350 killed or wounded and 4,019 captured. Canadian forces subsequently distinguished themselves in the capture of the Transvaal capital, Pretoria.
After completing their one year tour of duty, the first Canadian contingent to fight in the South Africa War returned home aboard the transport ship Idaho. The men were paid off in Halifax with the government also providing them new winter clothes. A special train then carried the veterans westward, dropping off soldiers along the way. Many had brought mementoes home. One man carried a little monkey on his shoulder while another had a parrot in a wooden box. Captain Rogers of Ottawa’s “D” Company brought home a Spitz dog from Cape Town. With the Idaho having stopped in St Helena on the way to Canada, another officer brought home sprigs of the willow trees that grew at Napoleon Bonaparte’s grave.
Thirty-one Ottawa veterans arrived home at 2.45pm on Saturday, 3 November 1900. The famed “Confederation poet,” W. Wilfred Campbell, who lived in Ottawa, penned a poem to welcome them. Titled Return of the Troops, the first verse went:
Canadian heroes hailing home, War-worn and tempest smitten, Who circled leagues of rolling foam, To hold the earth for Britain.
The return of “D” Company was signalled by the ringing of the City Hall bell, a refrain that was taken up by church bells across the city. More than 40,000 flag-waving citizens were in the streets to watch their heroes arrive at the Elgin Street station and march to Parliament Hill to the tunes of Rule Britannia and Soldiers of the Queen. They were joined by other South African veterans who had been invalided home earlier. In the parade were elements of all regiments based in Ottawa, including the 43rd Regiment, the Dragoon Guards, the Field Battery, the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the Army Medical Corps. The parade was led by members of the police force, on foot, horse, and bicycle to clear the streets of well-wishers, followed by members of the reception committee. Also present were veterans of the 1866 and 1870 Fenian raids.
Along the parade route, homes and stores were bedecked with flags, bunting and streamers. Store fronts and window displays were also decorated in patriotic themes. In the window of George Blyth & Son was a figure of Queen Victoria in a triumphal arch with two khaki-clad soldiers standing in salute. In the background was a canvas tent. The words “Soldiers of the Queen” were written in roses in the foreground. Ross & Company displayed a crowned figure with a sceptre in her hand being saluted by two sailors. R.J. Devlin’s and R. Masson’s stores were lit with electrical lights with Queen Victoria’s cypher, “V.R.” displayed over their doors in large letters. The Ottawa Electric Company building on the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets was draped in bunting, flags and strands of electric lights. Above the main entrance there was a large maple leaf and beaver in coloured lights. Not to be left out, the usually staid citizens of Ottawa were also patriotically dressed. Women wore little flags in the hats while young men had flags for vests.
Parliament Hill was decorated to greet the return of “D” Company. The central block was ornamented by two large pictures picked out in electric lights on either side of the main entrance. On the left was a soldier charging with a rifle in hand with the word “Paardeberg” underneath. On the right was a trooper on horseback with the word “Pretoria,” underneath. Other emblems mounted on the towers included “VRI,” which stood for Victoria Regina Imperatrix, over the main entrance, as well as a crown, maple leaf and beaver. All were illuminated with electric lights. Strings of lights also stretched from the Victoria Tower in the centre of the main block to the east and west corners of the building.
The returning soldiers marched in the khaki uniforms that they had worn in South Africa. As they passed by the cheering multitudes, men from the crowd jumped into the ranks to shake the hand of a friend or family member. At times the police had difficulty in controlling the seething crowd. The Journal reported that on a couple of occasions, “the police, without warning, caught the eager relative of the long-absent warrior by the throat and hurled him back into the crowd.”
On Parliament Hill, the veterans were welcomed home by Lord Minto, the Governor General, who told the troops that he was proud “to be able to receive the Ottawa contingent into the Capital of the Dominion, the Ottawa representatives of the regiment that won glory for Canada at Paardeberg.” He then read out a message of thanks from Queen Victoria. This was followed by speeches from the Hon. W. R. Scott, secretary of state, and Ottawa’s Mayor Payment.
Ottawa sparkled that night. In addition to the lights on Parliament Hill that scintillated like diamonds, Sparks Street was ablaze with strings of Chinese lanterns strung across the road from Bank Street to Sappers’ Bridge. Electric lights illuminated Wellington Street. The words “Our Boys,” and “Welcome Home” were written in lights on the Victoria Chambers and the Bank of Montreal buildings.
The following Monday evening, another reception was held in honour of returning heroes at Lansdowne Park in the Aberdeen Pavilion. Close to ten thousand people cheered the Ottawa veterans. The biggest cheer was reserved for Private R. R. Thompson who had received the “Queen’s scarf” for bravery. The scarf was one of eight personally crocheted by Queen Victoria to be awarded to private soldiers for outstanding bravery in the South African conflict. Thompson had received his award for aiding wounded comrades at Paardeberg.
The Pavilion was decorated in bunting, flags and evergreen branches. Over the platform were the words “The heroes of our land. Their glory never dies. Ottawa welcomes her sons. Welcome to our heroes of Paardeberg.” The bands of the Governor General Foot Guards and the 43rd Regiment and the 200 member Ottawa Choral Society choir played and sang patriotic songs. After the speeches, Countess Minto presented each veteran with a golden locket.
Canadians everywhere basked in the reflected glory of their returning heroes from the South Africa War with celebrations across the country. Canada had done its part in preserving the honour of Queen and Empire. Moreover, Canadian soldiers were seen as equals of the finest in the British Army. The Journal wrote: “One year ago they left a country that was little known to the world, save as a prosperous colony; only one year, and they returned to find a nation; a nation glorying in its newly acquired honor, and a nation that does them homage as the purchasers of that honor.” In an editorial titled Patriotism and Loyalty, the newspaper added that “Canadians have always been both patriotic and loyal to the Mother Country.” But now “the fruits of confederation have suddenly ripened, and we have begun to feel our nation-hood.”
Canadian soldiers subsequently gained distinction in later battles in South Africa, including at Leliefontein and Boschbult. Four Canadians received the Victoria Cross for valour during the war. In total, more than 7,000 Canadian soldiers and twelve nurses volunteered to serve in South Africa, of whom 267 died and whose names are recorded in the Book of Remembrance of the Canadian service personnel who have given their lives since Confederation while serving their country. In Ottawa, 30,000 children donated their allowances to build a statue to honour the sixteen Ottawa volunteers who died in the conflict.
After the Imperial forces defeated Boer armies on the field in 1900, the Boers resorted to guerrilla warfare for the next two years before surrendering. The British responded with a scorched earth policy and placed Boer women and children in concentration camps. Owing to neglect and disease due to overcrowding, tens of thousands of civilians died. Non-combatant deaths exceeded 43,000 including Afrikaaner women and children and black Africans. More than 22,000 British and allied soldiers died in the three-year conflict, while suffering a similar number of wounded. Boer military deaths numbered more than 6,000.
BBC. 2010. “Second Boer War records database goes online,” 24 June, http://www.bbc.com/news/10390469.
Canadian War Museum, 2017. Canada & The South African War, 1899-1902, http://www.museedelaguerre.ca/cwm/exhibitions/boer/boerwarhistory_e.shtml.
Evening Citizen (The), 1900. “The Canadians Are At Halifax,” 1 November.
————————–, 1900. “The Boys Will Be Here On Time,” 3 November.
————————–, 1900. “It Was A Right Royal Welcome They Received,” 5 November.
————————–, 1900. “Form Paardeberg to Pretoria,” 5 November.
Evening Journal (The), 1899. “A Canadian Contingent,” 13 October.
————————————-, 1899. “Have Gone to Defend the Honor of Britain,” 25 October.
————————————-, 1900. “With the Ottawa Boys Down at the Citadel,” 30 October.
————————————-, 1900. “Return of “D” Company, 3 November.
————————————-, 1900. “Return of the Troops,” 3 November.
————————————-, 1900. “Patriotism and Loyalty,” 5 November.
————————————-, 1900, “Forty Thousand Glad Acclaims to Ottawa’s Brave Soldiers. 5 November.
————————————-, 1900. “Gold lockets Given to Ottawa’s Gallant Soldiers,” 6 November.
McKay, Ian & Swift, Jamie, 2016. The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, Toronto: Between the Lines.
Miller, Carmen & Foot, Richard, 2016. “Canada and the South African War,” Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/south-african-war/.
New Zealand History, 2017. South African War, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/south-african-boer-war.
Pretorius, Fransjohan, 2014. “The Boer Wars,” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/boer_wars_01.shtml.
South African History Online, 2017. Second Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/second-anglo-boer-war-1899-1902.