This Week in History


An Elite Canadian Corps: Samuel Steele and the Strathcona’s Horse Regiment in South Africa

For the week of Monday March 15, 2004

On March 17, 1900, Colonel Samuel Benfield Steele, leading the troops of Strathcona's Horse, left Halifax on board the Monterey, bound for South Africa to help the British continue their battle with the Boers begun in October. Boers were descendants of the Dutch immigrants who settled in South Africa in the 17th century. The word "Boer" means "farmer."

Colonel Samuel Benfield Steele, commander of the Lord Strathcona's Horse
© Glenbow Archives / NA-118-55

Strathcona's Horse Regiment was raised in the winter of 1900 with funds provided by Lord Strathcona, Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. A former North West Mounted Police inspector, Colonel Steele was the archetypal rugged cowboy of the Canadian frontier at the time. Descriptions of him emphasized his fondness for alcohol as well as his strength, bravery and heroism. His 519 men were recruited exclusively from Western Canada and several of his officers served in the North West Mounted Police.

To meet the demands of the type of war awaiting them - one characterized by the use of guerrilla tactics - Steele chose his men carefully: proud cavalrymen with field experience in Canada. Thus, in the minds of Canadians, members of Strathcona's Horse were much more than Westerners with weather-beaten faces; they were considered an elite corps. The men arrived in Cape Town on April 10, 1900, and served as scouts for the British troops who were trying to capture oncoming enemy commandos.

Sergeant Arthur H. L. Richardson, first Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross
© Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) Museum

Like all wars in history, the South African conflict had its share of heroism. On July 5, 1900, at Wolve Spruit, Sergeant Arthur Richardson of Strathcona's Horse earned the British Empire's highest military award, the Victoria Cross. In his heroic act, Richardson rescued a wounded comrade, while riding a lame horse under heavy enemy fire.

Strathcona's Horse left South Africa in January 1901, before the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging which ended the war on May 31, 1902. Soon after, Colonel Steele was awarded the Royal Order of Victoria. He also became Companion of the Order of the Bath and commanded the Second Canadian Division during the First World War. He died of the Spanish Flu in England in 1919. Sir Samuel Benfield Steele was designated a person of national historic significance in 1938.

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