This Week in History


Lord Strathcona's Horse Sailed for the South African War

For the week of Monday March 12, 2001

On March 17, 1900, the Lord Strathcona's Horse Regiment set sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to fight in the South African War (Boer War). This was Canada's first overseas war and when it was over communities across the country commemorated the deeds of the ordinary soldier.

The troops of Lord Strathcona's Horse aboard the SS Monterey en route to South Africa

The troops of Lord Strathcona's Horse aboard the
SS Monterey en route to South Africa

© LAC / C-171

When war broke out between Britain and the two independent republics of South Africa — the South African Republic and the Orange Free State — on October 11, 1899, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier hesitated to involve Canada. Many French-Canadians saw it as Britain's war and opposed involvement, while the majority of English-Canadians supported the British Empire. The British Colonial Office also pressured Canada to contribute. Bowing to pressure, Laurier sent a token contingent of 1000 volunteers to South Africa. In December 1899, as British casualties mounted and English-Canadians rallied to the cause, Laurier was compelled to authorize the recruitment of a second contingent.

In January 1900, Sir Donald A. Smith, Lord Strathcona, Canada's high commissioner to Britain, offered to finance a private mounted regiment at his own expense. Laurier agreed. More than 500 recruits formed the regiment, coming mainly from the North West Mounted Police and western Canada.

By the end of the war, 8300 Canadians had been mobilized. Most were young men captivated by the thought of adventure in a far-off land. Also included were medical personnel, among them the first corps of female nurses. Together with the British forces they won the war, bringing all of South Africa into the Empire.

Monument to the Heroes of the South African War

Monument to the Heroes of the South African War
© François Brault, Fonds Brault / Concordia University
Alain Guérin & Danielle Lalonde

Many Canadians celebrated these military accomplishments. Local communities honoured soldiers by raising money to support their men in the field and their dependants at home. In the aftermath of this war, the first of the 20th century to impact communities across the country, they financed monuments to honour the ordinary soldier. This broke the long tradition of honouring only the achievements of particular regiments or individual military leaders. In fact, a greater number of monuments were erected to the South African War than to any previous conflict involving Canadians. One of the most memorable examples was erected in Montréal. This tradition of commemorating the ordinary soldier reached its fullest expression in the First World War and continues to this day.

Sir Donald A. Smith, Lord Strathcona, is commemorated as a person of national historic significance in Montréal, Quebec.

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