The Issues Crystallize

Canadians in Battle

Majuba Day

2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, Paardeberg Drift, 27 February 1900

Caption: 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, Paardeberg Drift, 27 February 1900

On 13 February the British army had begun a big, sweeping movement that rapidly led to the encirclement of the Boers under Cronje. On the 18th an incautious Canadian charge across deserted ground was stopped short by enemy fire after less than 200 metres. On the 26th the Canadians relieved an English battalion in a line of trenches located some 600 metres from the Boer positions. On 27 February they were ordered to advance. As they did so, they were seriously battered. Four of the six companies fell back, while the other two hung on to their new positions. Demoralized after several days, their opponents had no choice but to surrender to the Canadians, which they did in early morning. At Majuba 19 years earlier to the day, the British had met defeat at the hands of the Boers, the consequences of which included the creation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal republics north of the Cape.

The Canadians were congratulated for this feat even though it had required neither strategy nor prior organization, nor even participation by a large number of men. The exploit assumed mythic proportions that are still maintained a century later. 39

The members of the initial contingent were rarely at the heart of the action, even when they participated in taking Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, and in skirmishes in the course of which Otter was wounded. Their one-year contract had nearly expired when, to please his imperial masters, their leader gave them to understand that the Canadians were prepared to stay until the war came to an end. The men had not been consulted about this, and when they heard the rumour they bridled. Redoubling his efforts, Otter secured the participation of 261 Canadians, most of whom had been in the permanent force before volunteering for South Africa or were members of recently arrived reinforcement troops whose contracts had barely begun. Few were satisfied with their fate or with Otter, yet several of his officers offered to stay. Oscar Pelletier, wounded once again, boarded SS Idaho on 1 October 1900 at the head of over 400 men returning to Canada 11 months after they had left it. On 2 November they landed in Halifax amid euphoria. The 3rd RCR Battalion, which had been raised in Halifax to replace the British soldiers the mother country had decided to use in South Africa (another component of Canadian support for Britain), welcomed the 2nd Battalion, which paraded with its Halifax H company in the lead.

The remainder of the first contingent left South Africa on 7 November. After 22 days at sea en route to Britain, the men were entitled to 10 days' leave and were received by Queen Victoria. The volunteers then re-embarked to cross the Atlantic to Halifax, arriving there on 23 December 1900. On the 31st, the 2nd Battalion RCR was disbanded.

The capture of the capitals of the two Boer republics did not end the fighting. At this stage a complete British victory was more or less assured, though a number of Boers did not see things that way. The ones who kept fighting were viewed as rebels, not soldiers. All the same, their many attacks on the long, vulnerable British lines of communication provided the Canadians with a number of opportunities to distinguish themselves.