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The Canadian Army in South Africa

For the week of Monday February 13, 2006

Starting on February 18, 1900, Canadians distinguished themselves in combat at the Battle of Paardeburg, Canada’s most famous engagement in the South African War. This conflict marked the first occasion that the Canadian army was dispatched overseas.

The Canadian victory in Paardeberg on February 27, 1900
© Department of National Defence, Canada

The South African War broke out in October 1899. It was a war of independence for control over territories rich in diamond and gold deposits. The conflict pitted the Boers, descendants of Dutch Protestant farmers living in the Transvaal and Orange Free State republics, against the British, dubbed “Uitlanders” (foreigners), who were primarily based in the Cape and Natal colonies.

The Canadian government of Wilfrid Laurier responded reluctantly to London’s request for assistance. As a compromise, the Prime Minister agreed to provide a small contingent of troops, with the British covering half the expedition’s expenses. In the end, Canada sent the 2nd Special Service Battalion, the 1st and 2nd Battalions, Canadian Mounted Rifles, and three artillery batteries. In total, nearly 8,400 Canadians served in this war, where a number of soldiers served with distinction.

The South African conflict fanned nationalist sentiment in Canada. Initially, this imperialist war was seen as supporting the mother country, but national pride soon developed throughout the Dominion. However, the conflict also created tensions at home and deepened Canadian duality. Canadian opinion was divided over the issues of showing allegiance to the British Empire and sending troops abroad. Most Anglophones supported both positions, while minorities, mostly Francophones led by Henry Bourassa, opposed them.

The Royal Canadian Regiment crossing the Modder River to Paardeberg, 1900 credit:www.canadianheritage.ca, id #20808

The South African War had a significant impact on the development of Canada’s armed forces. Despite their low numbers and inexperience, Canadian soldiers played a major role and earned a sterling reputation. The Battle of Paardeberg, for example, resulted in the capture of nearly 10 percent of Boer forces. This first victory also led to the fall of Pretoria, the capital of Traansval. The conflict highlighted the need to build a modern army in Canada, leading to the professionalization of the military. Permanent nursing, engineering, signal, service and ordnance corps were added to army medical corps already in place.

Peace was signed at Vereeniging on May 31, 1902. Canadian casualties numbered 244 dead, with over half lost to disease, and close to 252 wounded. Canada and the South African War is a National Historic Event commemorated in 2005.

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