One hundred and twenty years ago, several hundred Canadians became the first men in Canadian uniforms to fight in a Canadian unit overseas.
The first significant battle these men saw was the Battle of Paardeberg of the South African War. This battle, and Canada’s participation, had a lasting impact for decades to come and helped to pave, in some small part, the way for future international wars Canada would take part in.
But it was not such a welcome engagement in the start, and there was a fierce debate prior to Canada’s participation in the South African War.
At the turn of the 19th century, Great Britain was engaged in a war with the Boer people in what was known as the Boer War or South African War.
“Everyone thought that this war would be over in a matter of weeks. Britain was, of course, the superpower of the day, and there was no way the Boers would survive. But, of course, they did,” said Dr. Tim Cook, historian with the Canadian War Museum.
The Boers were able to find battle tactics to best suit their style and handed England defeat after defeat. As Britain lost both battles and face, it made a call to the dominions to support the mother country, and Canada responded.
However, before committing, there was a fierce debate in the country with much of French Canada and even the prime minister of the time, Wilfried Laurier, against the idea. However, there were enough Canadians who chose to volunteer for the fight that a fighting unit was eventually sent over to Africa.
The Battle of Paardeberg, fought on the banks of the Modder River in South Africa, was the first action the Canadians saw in the War. The 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment consisted of 31 officers and 866 men of other ranks.
On Feb. 18, 1900, British forces began to besiege the Boer army. The first day of the assault turned out to be one of the bloodiest days for Canadians in the entire war, with 18 dead and 60 wounded. The British then decided to wait the Boers out.
On the night of Feb. 26, the Canadians and British led a surprise attack on the Boers, which sooner turned gravely bloody. The fighting units were ordered to turn back, but two Canadian companies held their ground through the night.
These companies were able to pinpoint the Boer line and lay down a line of fire. On the 27th, the more than 4,000 Boers surrendered to the British. This was the first major victory England had seen in the war, but it came at the cost of 35 dead Canadians.
“The Canadians had done well. The surrender on the 27th was largely attributed to the Canadians,” said Cook, the author of 11 books on Canadian military history in the First World War.
The Battle of Paardeberg and the achievements of the Canadians soon became a source of national pride for Canada.
“There were celebrations across Canada and Paardeberg, that name, became an important one for Canadians. Canada had stepped up and defended Britain, we were a martial country, and we could send soldiers. It was a point of pride,” noted Cook.
In fact, the significance of this battle was so great that it inspired the first remembrance day ceremonies in Canada. From 1900 until the end of the First World War, Canadians gathered on Feb. 27, not Nov. 11, to commemorate “Paardeberg Day” and the achievements of Canadians in the South African War.
Even Laurier gave a moving speech stating that the battle “revealed to the world that a new power had arisen in the West.”
In the decades to come the First World War and the Second World War and the achievements of the Canadians on those occasions dwarfed the Battle of Paardeberg, and Paardeberg Day soon faded into the background. However, it is no doubt that at the time, the battle was the most significant achievement in Canadian military history.