The Issues Crystallize

Summing Up

Growing Canadian Nationalism

'Amazons Battalion,' St. John, New Brunswick, 1901

Caption: 'Amazons Battalion,' St. John, New Brunswick, 1901

We can draw the following conclusions about Canada's participation in the South African War: It fostered sociopolitical division at home; the men who took part in it returned home with a stronger sense of being Canadian; and the reputation of British military professionalism, so vaunted by British officers serving in Canada, had been seriously eroded. The clear difference between Canadians and British did not escape the few thousand men and women who went to South Africa. Food and water, distributed in accordance with English procedures, were often lacking. Similarly, in British military hospitals the sick and wounded were cared for in terms of rank more than need. The Canadian response to these observations would not necessarily have only positive effects, however, as the "national" choices made afterwards would be costly.

In sociological terms, the South African war saw a growing tendency for Canadian soldiers to serve under their own officers, even in the field - a development that cemented the relationship between these officers and the politicians in Ottawa and witnessed the first halting steps in the formation of a national chain of command linking Canadian soldiers with their own government. But that process was far from complete, and would not be absolutely so for many years. Indeed the problems created by divided loyalties and parallel chains of command would persist until the demise, finally, of the neo-colonial system under which Canada's military developed during the first half of the 20th century.

Therefore, contrary to what some have argued, imperial centralization did not altogether advance between 1899 and 1902. In many respects, Canadian nationalism was also stimulated by the experience. This does not mean that the debate between nationalists and imperialists was done with, however, especially since Bourassa's Nationalist League found its origins in that war.

More than 8,000 men and women, including members of the Halifax Battalion, participated directly in the Canadian war effort in South Africa. At least 270 of them died either in battle (89) or of illness (181), and 252 suffered slight or serious injuries such as the loss of a limb. 47 After the conflict, 16 widows, 24 orphans and 72 dependents of the departed requested contributions from the Patriotic Fund. This organization also received 712 requests from men whose incomes had been reduced because of injury or illness resulting from the war zone: 612 of them would receive monetary compensation. It must be emphasized that illness had been a more deadly enemy than the Boers ever were: Even if enteric fever was not always fatal, it weakened both body and soul.

On their return, most of these men bore memories of the horrors of combat, illness, fatigue, privation, monotony and discipline. Those men of the first contingent added to these memories the inexperience, confusion and disorganization of those early weeks when they had to take part on foot in a highly mobile campaign carelessly waged by the High Command. A long time afterwards, these troubling images would be replaced in their memories with those of adventure, endurance, courage and eternal friendship forged in the theatre of war. The four Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadians came as compensation for the efforts made by all.