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South African War

( Originally Published 1924 )



DURING the summer of 1899 the distant grumblings of a war storm in South Africa reached Canada. It seemed so far away that it did not, at first, awaken any echoes. It is true that a delegate from South Africa had visited Canada, but his appeal for aid to the Uitlanders fell upon deaf ears, except those of the British Empire League, over which Colonel George T. Denison presided so ably. But the people began to prick up their ears when Colonel Sam Hughes, 111. P., drew attention to the offer of assistance from Queensland. To tell the truth Canadians were not very much pleased that the first offer of armed aid should come from another colony, for they considered Canada to be the eldest son of the Empire family. Other colonial offers flowed into the office of the Secretary of State from the Colonies, the Right Honorable Joseph Chamberlain. People began to ask where Canada stood in this matter. The Government of Sir Wilfred Laurier still remained silent. Sir Charles Tupper was then leader of the Opposition in Parliament. He returned from England in September and immediately began to agitate for sending a contingent to South Africa in the event of war. People began to get excited. Canadians have always been willing to take their share in defence, as in 1812, the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, as well as in local military disturbances. They are not a warlike people, but the spirit of the United Empire Loyalists, of the old soldiers of 1812 and of the Napoleonic wars who had settled in Canada and laid the foundation of British Canada, is still strong. It is too much to say that Canadians all think Imperially, but there is a large and substantial element of the population, irrespective of creed or political affiliation, who regard the Empire as a great entity, something to love, and if necessary, to die for. Hence, when a call to arms conies it meets with an immediate and whole-hearted response. This Loyalist and Imperialist element of the population became more and more restive and asked why did not the Government act?

During July and August a number of individual officers offered their services in raising troops. Among them were Lt.-Colonels Sam I Hughes; Rowland Gregory, of St. Catharines; Lloyd, of Newmarket; Cooke, of Montreal, and others. Still the Government maintained silence.

Early in October an article appeared in the Canadian Military Gazette which stated " If war should he commenced in the Transvaal, which seems most probable, the offer of a force from the Canadian Militia will be made by the Government." Sir Wilfred Laurier, as Leader of the Government, immediately denied it. Major-General Hutton was blamed for inspiring this article, but the proof of having done so was not brought home to him. However, he tendered his resignation soon afterward and was appointed to a command in South Africa.

On October 3rd Mr. Chamberlain cabled Lord Minto as follows: "Secretary of State for War and Commander in Chief desire to express high appreciation of signal exhibition of patriotic spirit of people of Canada, shown by offers to serve in South Africa, and to furnish following information to assist organization of force into units suitable for military requirements. Firstly, units should consist of 125 men; secondly, may be infantry, mounted infantry or cavalry; in view of numbers already available, infantry most, cavalry least serviceable." There had been up to that time no Government offer, only certain officers had volunteered.

The interesting effect of all this was that the Canadian Ministers were called upon to act. On October 13th, the following Order-in-Council was passed: "The Prime Minister, in view of the well-known desire of a great many Canadians who are ready to take service under such conditions, is of the opinion that the moderate expenditure which would thus be involved for the equipment and transportation of such volunteers may readily be undertaken by the Government of Canada without summoning Parliament, especially as such expenditure, under such circumstances, cannot be regarded as a departure from the well-known principles of constitutional Government and Colonial practice, nor construed as a precedent for future action.

"The Prime Minister, therefore, recommends that out of the stores now available in the Department, the Government undertake to equip a certain number of volunteers, not exceeding 1,000 men, and to provide for their transportation from this country to South Africa, and that the Minister of Militia make all arrangements to the above effect."

It will thus be seen that the initiative in this Imperial matter was taken by individual officers and that the Government was forced by public opinion to send the contingent. There is this to be said for them, that once the ice was broken they did not hesitate to offer a second contingent, which was accepted.

No one will deny that the Imperial Government did not actually require the co-operation of the troops from Canada, Australia and New Zealand as a military necessity; but, as a demonstration of the unity and solidarity of the British Empire, it served a notice to foreign powers that if any portion of the Empire was attacked all were united in resisting the attack. In accordance with terms of the Order-in-Council, a battalion was recruited, composed of men who had served at least one year in the militia, the majority of the non-commissioned officers coming from the Royal Canadian Regiment, which was placed under the command of Lieut.-Colonel W. D. Otter (now Major-General Sir William D., K.C.B.). It was given the name of the 2nd Special Service Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment and was concentrated at Ottawa. By a strange anomaly it was uniformed in rifle green. The battalion was reviewed at. Quebec by the Governor-General (the Earl of Minto), embarked on the S.S. Sardinian on October 30th, 1899, and sailed direct. to Capetown, where it arrived on November 29th. The battalion was given a great send-off at Quebec by the crowds who lined the streets and wharfs. The night. before it sailed was the " wettest " night. I have ever seen. The bar of the Chateau Frontenac was crowded to suffocation by a thirsty crowd which was noisily patriotic.

I saw the ship sail and almost the last man to get on board was Lieut.-Colonel Sam Hughes (afterward Sir Sam, K.C.B., Minister of Militia and Defence). He was in plain clothes, because General Hutton, with whom he had had a grand quarrel, had refused his offer of service; but Hughes had sufficient influence to be given transportation in spite of the general's opposition.

The Canadian Red Cross Council had been called together very soon after the outbreak of hostilities and I was sent to Quebec to learn what we could do to help. The regiment was amply provided for, but I put on board some additional medical comforts and stores.

The fall of 1899 was a dark one for British arms. Battle after battle had been fought, ending either in defeat or in stalemate. General Sir Redvers Buller, who was in chief command, seemed unable to grapple successfully with the problems of the campaign, nor were the generals under him more successful. Tactically and strategically the war was a mess. Hence Buller was superseded in the chief command and Field-Marshall Lord Roberts was sent out to bring order and victory out of chaos.

In the meantime the Canadian Red Cross had become active. Branches were formed in all parts of the country. Funds, clothing and stores were collected and sent forward, but as we did not know how or by whom they were distributed, and how money could best be used, it was thought wise to send me out to South Africa as Canadian Red Cross Commissioner—permission having been given by the military authorities in England at the request of the Canadian Government. Having ordered my kit in London, to be delivered at Capetown, I sailed in the S.S. Laurentian on my birthday, January 21st, 1900, from Halifax, with the 2nd Batteries, Royal Canadian Field Artillery; a detachment of the 2nd Battalion of Mounted Rifles; a section of the Post Office Corps; some attached officers and details. Among the officers was my friend "Gat." Howard, whom I had met in the North-west Rebellion. He had the rank of Major in the Canadian Militia and was under orders to organize a machine-gun unit. He was a Connecticut Yankee, a jovial soul and a brave officer. We had some very jolly times in his cabin, for he was a champion cocktail mixer. The last time I saw him was among the kopies north of Bloemfontein during Lord Robert's advance. Within a week from that time he was killed in an obscure skirmish.

We had about six hundred horses on board, arranged in temporary stalls on three decks. Slings had been made to take them off their feet, but in spite of these many were so much injured, during the gales we met, that they had to be shot. Most of these horses had been brought from the West in open cattle cars and being chilled and in poor condition, influenza broke out among them. It was pitiful to see these beautiful creatures sicken and die. Every clay some (lied and were thrown overboard at dusk.

Our ship had formerly been known as the Polynesian, or "Rolling Polly." She was too long for her beam and although bilge keels had been fitted on, she rolled frightfully in a heavy sea, and as the horses swayed with the roll of the ship, this added to her instability, so that it was almost impossible to avoid being thrown out of one's berth. The death rate among the horses steadily increased. When we reached the tropics we were followed by sharks, whose triangular fins could be seen at all hours cleaving the surface of the sea. They seemed to know that a meal was awaiting them. We arrived in Table Bay on February 25th, having made the 7,000 miles in exactly four weeks. The Bay was crowded with shipping, transports, supply boats and ships of war. We lay off in the harbor until morning. The moon was. full and gave a most brilliant light, so that the sand dunes at the upper end of the harbor looked like snow, which illusion was increased by a strong wind blowing the sand in clouds like drifting snow. We landed next morning, when we realized it was midsummer, for the thermometer registered 107 degrees on the wharf. The batteries were marched to Green Point, where they went into camp, while he went to the Mount Nelson Hotel. It was a gay place, filled with officers on duty and on leave from the front and ladies galore, dressed in the latest Paris modes. Except for the uniforms of the officers, some of whom wore arm slings and others used crutches and sticks, it was hard to believe a war was going on. Everywhere there was laughter, gaiety, dancing, and music, punctuated by the popping of champagne corks. One lady claimed to have come out to nurse the wounded, accompanied by two maids and twenty-four trunks of clothing. Stories were told of the "work" of these amateur nurses. One handsome Guardsman, it was said, had put up a sign over his bed, " I have had my face washed nine times this morning-, so please let me die in peace." Many prominent people were there, among them were Rudyard Kipling; Winston Churchill; Richard Harding Davis and his pretty wife; General Ivor Herbert, late G.O.C. Canadian Militia ; and many others.

My first duty was to report my arrival to the Principal Medical Officer, Surgeon-General Wilson. He received me very kindly, but could not see what use he could make of me! My next was to make the acquaintance of the Chief Commissioner of the British Red Cross Society and his charming wife. Sir John Furley was the foremost man in Red Cross work in the British Empire and one of the founders of the British Red Cross Society and the St. John Ambulance Association. He received me very cordially and arranged for a warehouse for our Canadian stores. H talked the situation over with him and discussed the course which it would he best for me to pursue. As the Canadian troops were dispersed it did not seem to me that I could be of much immediate service to them. I visited the hospitals at Woodstock and Wynberg and found a few Canadians, whose wants I supplied. It looked like a period of inactivity, which did not suit my ideas at all. On the 19th Sir John Furley asked me if I would go to the front and distribute a carload of stores. I gladly availed myself of the opportunity. I left Capetown by the night train on the following evening, on the Government railway, which provided very comfortable sleeping cars. The railway is, or was, a narrow guage. It winds up and around the I leek Mountains, passing through several tunnels, until it reaches the central plateau, on which are situated DeAar, Bloemfontein and Kimberley. Here we came in contact for the first time with the evidences of the military occupation of the country, for we were roused out of bed to show our passes to the Military 'Transport Officer, who is often a subaltern with a high sense of his own importance, and very little other sense.

I arrived at the Orange River Crossing the following day. Here I found, to my surprise, Lieut.-Colonel Sam H lughes in temporary command of a camp of 5,000 men, mostly Imperials, General Settle, the commanding officer on the line of communication, being absent. Hughes greeted me very cordially and gave me a tent and a batman in the headquarters compound.

Forty-seven Canadians were in hospital there distributed some money and comforts among them and arranged to have some of the more serious cases sent down to Wynberg. All seemed to derive pleasure from the thought that it had been thought worth while to send some one out to look after them. It cannot he denied that the presence of the commissioner stimulated the interest taken in our sick and wounded by the medical officers and nurses under whose immediate care they were. Sick and alone among strangers our men expressed a lively satisfaction in this fact, yet I never heard any complaints of neglect, by the medical attendants, towards them. At the time of my arrival there were about 1,000 sick and wounded at Orange River, who were disposed in galvanized-iron huts.

On the night of the 22nd Z had my first experience of a South African thunderstorm. The thunder was ear-splitting and the lightning almost continuous, while the rain came down in sheets. It beat through the tent in a tine spray and those who had not loosened their tent ropes were nearly smothered under the fallen tents. Eleven men were struck by lightning that night and one man speared through and pinned to the ground by a broken tent pole.

About ten o'clock that night a long train drew up at the station loaded with wounded from Paardeberg. A few of the most severely wounded were taken out and the rest supplied -with beef tea, brandy, food, blankets, pillows and other comforts. It was a sad spectacle, the men bandaged, some bleeding, sitting or lying on the hard, uncushioned seats.

On learning that a train would pass through to Kimberley I determined to go forward, as the town, which had just been relieved by General Sir John (now Lord) French, was in great want of medical supplies. I left the following day and at Sand River had the experiences of travelling over one of Girouard's deviations about a mile long, the railway bridge having been blown up by the enemy. We had on board a dozen nurses, most of whom had the courage to make the trip. We whizzed down one and up the other side without mishap, although the train oscillated perilously. We arrived at Kimberley at night and I made my way to the Free State Hotel. The lion. George Peel (now Lord Peel) had been the Society's commissioner there, but as he had been obliged to return to England on account of ill health, I found myself the sole Red Cross representative there.

As ours was the first through train, the stores which I had were most acceptable. I set out next morning to hunt up sick or wounded Canadians and found twenty-six in the Drill I lall and others in the school house and city hospital. Many of these men -were in want of clothing, their own having been destroyed when they were wounded.

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