South African War

The Prelude

The cause of the war in South Africa between the Boers and the British Empire is hard to pin point. There were many grievances between the two peoples as well as other factors that made war desirable.

Probably the most significant factor was the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886. At that time the area we know as the Republic of South Africa today was four separate states. The Cape Colony and Natal were important British holdings. The Orange Free State and the Transvaal had gained independance from Britain in the 1850s but had been annexed again in the late 1870s. Both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal were populated by Dutch Afrikaners known as the Boers. They had migrated inland to escape the growing British influence in the Cape Colony.

When gold was discovered, large numbers of mostly British immigrants started to flood into the Transvaal. The Boers feared that they would lose their autonomy so they began to enact discriminatory policies against the “Uitlanders” as they were called. The most important of these policies was changing the requirement for citizenship from five years to fourteen years of residency. The British saw this as intolerable. Publicly they claimed that Britons were being denied their rights. Less obvious was the desire of the British mining companies to gain some political control to reduce taxes and ease trade restrictions. The British government also saw the horn of Africa as strategically important to the most powerful maritime nation of the day. They were not prepared to allow an unfriendly neighbour to control the vital ports in the area.

War Is Declared

The British began to move troops into the Cape Colony to “protect” their citizens’ rights. In response the Boers mobilized their forces along the border. President Kruger issued an ultimatum on October 7th, 1899 that called for the British to withdraw their troops. This was exactly what the British wanted. They rejected the ultimatum and prepared to attack but they were surprised when the Boers invaded on October 12th and attacked the towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley.

Great Britain was happy to be at war. They expected to make quick work of an army made up of mostly farmers. What they failed to recognize was that the Boers were excellent fighters. They were tough men who knew the country and could move quickly. They were better marksmen than the British soldiers and they were equipped with the best German rifles available. Their army also had better artillery than the British although their shells were notoriously poor.

The Boers also had an advantage in the tactics they chose. Rather than waste men on decisive engagements, they preferred to surprise the British troops by firing on them at long ranges from the protection of kopjes or small hills. As the British tried to perform their familiar battlefield manoeuvres the Boers would continue to pick them off. When the British finally got their attack going and started to close in on the Boers they would pick up and ride away. At first the British thought they were winning these battles. Their troops would say that the Boer is scared of the cold steel of the bayonet. The casualty statistics told a different story. The British loses were terrible while the Boer loses were light.

Reality finally struck home for the British in early December of 1899. “Black Week” saw some of the worst defeats the British Army had ever experienced. Lord Fredrick S. Roberts was dispatched from London to take command from General Sir Redvers H. Buller. He arrived on January 10th and orchestrated several important victories in early 1900 to turn the tide of the war. By January 1901 he felt that the Boers were practically defeated so he turned command over to his Chief of Staff, General Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener to finish the job.

Although they had suffered greatly, the Boers were far from defeated. They broke down into their commandos and continued to fight a guerilla war that frustrated the British Army until May of 1902. To gain victory, Kitchener had to implement a scorched earth policy. He built lines of blockhouses and created concentration camps. His soldiers scoured the countryside rounding up all women and children, and killing or confiscating all livestock to deny food and supplies to the enemy. Thousands died of disease and starvation in the camps. It was an appalling way to win a war but it ultimately proved to be successful. On May 31 st, 1902 a peace agreement was signed.

The Canadian Contribution

When war was declared in South Africa, Canadians clamoured to sign up. Initially, Britain did not believe it needed any help from its colonies. However, as a gesture of good will, Britain accepted an Infantry battalion of 1,000 men to serve for one year. Canada could have easily given twice that number but no one was willing to pay for them. A Special Service Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment was raised from all across the country. Toronto provided C Company of which 30 men, including the Company Commander, came from the Queen’s Own Rifles. The soldiers were selected, equipped and moved to Quebec to sail to South Africa on October 30th.

Sergeant James Kennedy of A Company went to South Africa as a Private in C. Coy, RCR. At the request of some friends, he consented to chart down a brief account of his experience in South Africa. He writes, in part, as follows:

The voyage out to South Africa was rather uneventful, each day being taken up with drills, and training in the handling of the rifle, etc.. The voyage was as pleasant as possible, considering there were nearly double the number of men packed into the Sardinian that she could comfortably carry. We arrived in Table Bay one month from the time we left Canada. We marched out to Green Point, where we spent one day, and then entrained for up country. The people of Cape Town gave us a most enthusiastic send off, loading the cars we were in with cakes, fruit and liquids galore. Each company of the regiment was divided into four sections. In C. Co., No. 1 section was composed entirely of Queen’s Own men, No. 2 of Grenadiers, No. 3 of men from rural corps, and No. 4 of 48th Highlanders. We were like young bears, with all our troubles before us.Our first halt was at De Aar Junction, a dusty, dirty hole. A sand storm was blowing about all the time we were there. From De Aar we went to Orange River Station, and the next day to Belmont. Here we spent many weeks of hard training, some days drilling hard, at other times out on route marches to harden us all to the work before us.A flying column under Colonel Pilcher left Belmont on the 31st of December, 1899, to relieve the town of Douglas, which had been occupied by a Boer commando. C Company was the only company of the Royal Canadians that was taken. After a lot of hard marching and thirst we came up with the enemy on a small kopje. I was in the supports, and although the bullets were whizzing over my head now and then, I did not have the satisfaction of firing a shot. Right in front of me was another Queen’s Own man, Weir, peacefully banging away. Finally we rushed the laager and the game was up. We captured over 40 prisoners, and I had the doubtful pleasure of being on sentry over them until the following day.We went on to Douglas, gathering up the loyal part of the population, and started back to Belmont. Then the old routine went on again at Belmont — guard, picket, outpost, drills and route march until February 8th, when the regiment was inspected by General Smith-Dorrian. The Canadians had been brigaded in the 19th brigade, along with the Gordon’s, the Cormwalls and the Shropshires.On February 13th, as well as I can remember, we received orders to move. We passed a number of places that to me now are but a dim memory. I remember the names of Ram Dam, Riet River, Klip Drift, and Jacobsdale, and then a name that is stamped not only on my brain but all over my carcass, and that it is Paardeberg. We had marched all the previous day and all night, and in the morning came up with the Boer position, where Cronje and his Warriors had outspanned and laagered to receive us. We had marched about 38 miles in the previous day and night over a loose, burning sand, with only what water our water bottles held, and we arrived at Paardeberg about daybreak on the morning of Sunday, February 18th. We were permitted to lie down when we halted, but not to take off any of our kit. But as my feet were sore or I took off my boots, rolled myself up in a blanket and went to sleep, but only to be wakened and told to get ready to march again. We had a small issue of rum, some half-done coffee and a bite of biscuit, and then off we went. We first formed up in column, and got a few words of caution. Then, “quick march.” When we started off most of us felt tired and worn out, but as we came up closer to the enemy’s position and could hear the steady booming of the heavy guns, interspersed with the rattle of rifles and maxims, the soreness and fatigue disappeared and in its place a certain buoyancy came over us. When we thought we were just about in the fight we were swung about, and, after making a considerable detour, we came up to the river, across which a rope had been stretched to assist in fording. Some of the Highlanders, who passed over ahead of us, were carried off their feet and had trouble to prevent themselves being drowned, the Modder having a very strong current. When it to came to C Company’s turn to cross we put what little valuables we had in the crown of our helmets, slung our rifles across our shoulders., linked arms, and plunged into the coffee-colored water. Bugler Williams being rather short, Jordan and myself got him on our shoulders and carried him across the water, and we were sometimes up to our chins. On arrival at the other side of the river we found ourselves rather mixed up, Gordons, Cormwalls and Shropshires, having broken into our company coming across. I had to sprint some distance before I came up with C Company, which had in the meantime been extended.You could hear the steady boom-boom of the 4.7 naval guns and the rat-tat-tat of the maxims. Soon something would go “ting,” beside your ear, and of course you ducked your head. Then as we got closer to the Boers we began to advance by rushes. We had been extended to about ten yards interval, so as to minimize the casualties. Each Sergeant was in the center off his section, the Lieutenant in the center of his half-company and the Captain in the center of the company, and we always kept one eye on the center. When we saw the men there jump twenty or twenty-five yards we did likewise. Now the Modder River has quite a curve about Paardeberg and as we advanced we came towards the river again. Finally the right of the Canadian line had got within about seventy-five yards of the River, while the left was about seven hundred yards away. Here we lay nearly all day, and to add to our misery a drizzling rain came on. Not that it could make us any damper then we were, but it made the ground bad to lie on. Then, out came the sun and we were nearly steamed to death. So we lay their all day seeing nothing to fire at, each man being behind a stone, an ant hill or anything that would offer the slightest cover. Corporal Hoskins and myself lay together for quite awhile, and if either of us stuck up our heads to take a look the bullets began to patter pretty fast around us. There was a small depression on the ground to my right, and in the afternoon a Highlander came running up to take cover in it. As he reached the edge he fell forward on his face, dead. But soon other sights drove it out of my head. The trees on the other side of the river were filled with Boer marksmen, but not one was visible, we fired all day on their position, but had no idea what we were hitting.

Along towards five o’clock in the afternoon the word was passed along to prepare to charge, shortly followed by the command “charge.” We all fixed bayonets and charged, and such hell of bullets which greeted us when we jumped to our feet was appalling. I charged down to the bank of the river and observed that the surface of the water was being well rippled up with bullets. As there seemed no possible way of crossing, and no sense in doing so, I turned and charged back to cover, making even faster time then on my advance. The first Toronto man I saw wounded was John Ussher of the Queen’s Own Rifles and he was being carried off by his chum, Private McGivern, Queen’s Own Rifles, and Lieutenant Marshall of Hamilton, under a heavy fire. I also saw Fred Anderson, Queen’s Own Rifles, run up and help a wounded man. Mr. Fred Hamilton of the Globe lay a short distance to my right rear, nearly all day busy making notes and paying no attention to the bullets singing around him. When I returned from the charge, Anderson and myself were close together and as he had heard there was good shooting on the left he proposed we go there, and as I was sick of being shot at without seeing anything to shoot back at I readily agreed. Off we went on the hunt for trouble and I at last got it. We got down among the trees on the river bank, and keeping well under cover made our way quite a distance to the left. Here we saw the first Boer I had really seen in action. He was sitting behind a tree on the opposite side of the river quietly firing away. I was within 150 or 200 yards of him so I dropped to one knee and let bang, but never touched him. My sights had got raised going through the undergrowth. I got him on my second shot, and almost instantly I felt as if I had been struck with a sledge hammer between the shoulder and elbow of the right arm. A bullet had hit me, fracturing my arm in two places. Shortly afterward I was struck above the knee of the right leg. Anderson went to try and get a stretcher for me, and faced almost certain death in doing so. But luckily he got through without a scratch. I rolled over on my face and tried to creep to a hollow behind me, but was again struck in the middle of the back, the bullet coming out down my right thigh taking away the power of my right leg for the time being. I was now utterly helpless and soon got another bullet through my right shoulder, fracturing the tip. Still another went through the arm and ripped up the side of it. Two were expanding bullets, making small holes where they entered and great cavities where they escaped.I lay their alone until about midnight, when I heard voices near me, and recognized friends. They gave me a drink and tied my arm to my side with their hankerchiefs, which greatly eased the agony I was suffering. I had a good drink of rum, which pulled me together. I had nearly bled to death by this time, but the rum put new life into me. They left me and I contrived to get on my feet with the help of my rifle, but immediately pitched on my head. I think I must have lost consciousness for a while; anyway I was too weak to try another attempt. That was the longest and lonelyest night I ever put in. It seemed like years. Towards morning I heard a voice in the distance calling “Jim,” “Jim Kennedy.” I tried to answer, but was unheard. In a few minutes they called again right beside me, and I sang out, “I’m here.” It was Jordan, Sergeant Beattie, who afterwards died at Bloemfontein, and some others. Jordan, who was a medical student, constructed a stretcher out of his coat and some rifles, and they got me on it, and off we went. The noise having stirred the Boers to fire again, we had to do warily. Poor Beatie, ever mindful of the comfort of others, finding my head hanging down, took he is bandolier, swung it around his neck and made a support for my head. They got me about half way in when they had to lay me down, the jarring of the rough-made stretcher causing me much agony. Some went for a stretcher while the others, Jordan and Tom Morse of Stanley barracks, lay down on either side of me to keep me warm. After a time a stretcher was procured and I was taken around by the bivouac to bid the boys good-bye. Here the Young brothers, Bob and Harry, with two others, took charge of me and carried me down to the ford, where the wounded were being ferried across. Here they turned me over to the Medical Service Corps, or, as our men called them, the “poultice wallahs.” That finished my career as an active combat.

The next morning Bugler Williams, whom Sergeant Kennedy helped carry across the Molder River, sounded the “Charge” and the Canadians led the 19th Brigade into the Boer lines. The Boers surrendered and Lord Roberts had his first major victory of the war.

The Canadian victory at Paardeburg was an important step in the relief of Kimberley. From there the Canadians marched on in the campaign to capture the Boer capital of Bloemfontein but did very little fighting. They continued to march all over South Africa until they reached the end of their engagement period in October 1900. Although the war was still going on, the men of the Queen’s Own serving with the Royal Canadian Regiment came home.

Back in Canada a second draft of 1,000 men was raised, but this time mounted troops were called for. A battery of Artillery also went but no more Queen’s Own Rifles were engaged.

The Aftermath

Battle casualties were light compared to the number of Canadians who died from disease in South Africa. There were 89 Canadians killed in action and another 135 who died of disease. A further 252 Canadians were wounded. The cost in lives overall in South Africa was appalling. The British Forces suffered 52,150 casualties of which 7,582 were killed in action or died of wounds and a further 13,139 died of disease. On the Boers side about 4,000 men were killed on the battlefield, 7,347 died in prisoner camps or on parole and a further 26,370 women and children died in the concentration camps. Although this was described as a “white man’s war”, thousands of Africans also died. The exact number is not known because the whites never bothered to count them but it is believed to be over 17,000.

The Treaty of Vereeniging specified that the Boers would;

  • End hostilities.
  • Surrender their independence.
  • Recognize the authority of Edward VII.

For their part the British agreed to;

  • The repatriation of the prisoners of war.
  • A general amnesty with a few exceptions.
  • Limited protection of the Dutch language in the courts.
  • Various economic safeguards such as the maintenance of property rights.
  • Honoring of the republican war debt to a sum of £3 million.
  • Generous relief for the victims of war.
  • Promise of eventual self-government and an agreement that no decision would be taken regarding the franchise of black people until after the introduction of responsible government.

This war was the first time that soldiers from the Queen’s Own Rifles fought on foreign soil. Although they did not wear their own cap badges they were recognized for their service and they earned a Battle Honour for the regiment.

During the next week the troops, inching forward, slowly closed the net on Cronje. It so happened that 27 February was Majuba Day. This was a Boer national holiday celebrating an earlier defeat of the British at Majuba Hill by this same Cronje. Naturally the thought occurred to the British commander that a successful attack on this day would wipe the slate clean. So at 2:00 am, in the pitch black darkness 27 February, the 19th Brigade put on a surprise attack. This was the first major engagement ever fought by Canadian troops overseas; so it is doubly interesting to record that the “Charge” at Paardeburg was sounded by Bugler D[ouglas] F. Williams, QOR of C. the Boers resisted stubbornly but by daylight the white flag was run up and Cronje surrendered to Lieutenant Colonel Otter. Lord Roberts rode down to congratulate the regiment personally.

Now the brigade headed for Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State. After much severe marching and several engagements, the city was reached and taken over. Enteric [Typhoid] fever broke out at this time. Two Queen’s Own men Sergeant A Beattie and Rifleman W. S. Blight died from it. From Bloemfontein the brigade headed towards Pretoria the capital of Transvaal. As usual, several engagements were fought on the way. In one of them at Israel’s Poort, Lieutenant Colonel Otter was wounded. Pretoria surrendered and during June the regiment took part in a grand march past Lord Roberts. An extract from Major General Smith Dorrien’s orders to his 19th Brigade says the following:

“The 19th Brigade has achieved a record of which any infantry might be proud. Since the date, it was formed [February 12, l900] it has marched 620 miles, often on half rations and seldom on full. It has taken part in the capture of 10 towns and fought 10 general engagements on 27 other days. In one period of 30 days, it fought on 21 of them and marched 327 miles.”

Some Queen’s Own Rifles who served in the South African War

Dedication of the South African War Memorial, Queen St (at University Ave), Toronto, 1908

One thought on “South African War”

We welcome your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

"In Pace Paratus – In Peace Prepared"

%d bloggers like this: