The Issues Crystallize

Canadians in Battle

Expanding the Canadian Contingent

Trooper, Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1900-1902

Caption: Trooper, Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1900-1902

Canada's military commitments were no longer limited to a company or a few reinforcements: On 2 November 1899 Canada placed a second contingent at Britain's disposal. On 16 December, after reversals at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso, the British accepted the offer. This time trained volunteers were used, and in contrast to the first contingent, which had been heavy and not very mobile, this one would be characterized by its mobility and striking force. A brigade of field artillery 539 strong was formed under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel C.W Drury. Two battalions of mounted riflemen were also formed, each with a strength of 371 officers and men. The first of these, later to become the Royal Canadian Dragoons (today an armoured regiment), was led by Lieutenant-Colonel François Lessard. The second was led by Lieutenant-Colonel L.W Herchmer. Conditions for payment of wages and provision of equipment were the same as those for the 2nd Battalion RCR.

The artillery brigade was divided into C, D and E batteries, which moved around to support various units, some of them Canadian. Of the three batteries, C, commanded by Major J.A. Hudon, saw the most action, hunting down small groups of vindictive Boers, especially in the northwestern Transvaal. On 16 May 1900, after a long and difficult approach, C Battery opened the road to Mafeking. When it left the Cape for Canada on 13 December 1900 its area of operation was still unpacified. "Enemy" homes and livestock had indeed been destroyed - though rarely by Canadians, it must be admitted - but the Boers were still putting up resistance.

D Battery would find itself in the middle of a big skirmish near Leliefontein. It was in the rear guard, accompanied by a handful of Royal Canadian Dragoons, when 200 mounted Boers attacked. The Canadians held their assailants at bay by fighting courageously with good co-ordination and flexibility. The British infantry fled, leaving them alone in inferior numbers, but this did not stop the Canadians from using the resources of the terrain to beat the Boers at their own game. Even though this battleground lacked the strategic or symbolic value of Paardeberg, the Canadians saved their guns and baggage while preventing loss of life among the British. The action would earn three Dragoons the Victoria Cross: Lieutenants H.Z.C. Cockburn and R.E.W. Turner and Sergeant E.J. Holland. Other Canadians would be decorated for this feat of arms. For some time during the First World War, Turner would have occasion to command one of the Canadian divisions in battle.

D Battery, commanded by Major WG. Hurdman, was the first to see action. It would campaign for 41 days and spend the rest of the year holding outposts, guarding railways and moving around. Its toughest enemy would be enteric fever. E Battery would be doomed to a similar fate in this war of skirmishes. 40

As for the two mounted rifle battalions, they covered great distances on policing-type missions that struck them as futile. In April 1900 both of these units were incorporated into the 1st Mounted Rifles Division commanded by Major-General Hutton. After pointing out the absurdity of relying on the combat effectiveness of militiamen who lacked training, Hutton had left his position as Major-General of the Canadian Militia. He was accordingly cautious about bringing Canadians into his force. The Canadian mounted troops took part in the advance on Pretoria. Afterwards, they were in almost constant contact with Boer patrols during operations in the eastern Transvaal.