On 3rd October 1899 it was announced in Canada that in the event of a war between Great Britain and the Boer States the Canadian Government would offer a contingent. On the same date Mr Chamberlain telegraphed to the Dominion Government that the Imperial Government accepted the offer. He stated that the force should be in units or companies of 125, the senior officer to be of a rank not higher than Major, and that infantry would be preferred. The two conditions mentioned were for the purpose of allowing the companies to be attached to battalions of the regular army. Before the campaign commenced and for some time afterwards the War Office had a prejudice, quite unfounded as it turned out, against allowing volunteers or irregulars to be embodied or mobilised as distinct battalions or regiments, on the ground, doubtless, that they imagined that only regular troops under regular officers could stand on their own legs. The history of the war proves how very far from the truth this view was. The two obnoxious conditions were withdrawn, at the request of the Canadian Government, and steps were at once taken to raise a regiment of infantry. Its title was the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry. The 2nd was to distinguish it from, and yet connect it with, the battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry which formed part of the permanent military force of the Dominion. On 30th October 1899 the battalion, 1039 strong, under Colonel W D Otter, sailed from Quebec on the Sardinian, and on the 29th November the ship arrived at Cape Town. On 1st December the regiment entrained for De Aar, where for a few days they formed part of the garrison along with the 2nd Battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. The battalion soon again got a move nearer the enemy, first to Orange River, and on the 9th and 10th December to Belmont—the locality of Lord Methuen's first battle. The next two months were mainly spent on the lines of communication between Orange River Bridge and Modder River. The work was of the kind usual to such service: making defence posts more perfect, repairing the lines, making and enlarging sidings, as well as outpost and patrol work. On 31st December 1899 'C' Company was chosen to be part of a force under Colonel Pilcher, consisting of about two companies Queensland Mounted Infantry, a section of Royal Horse Artillery, about 50 men of the Munster Fusilier Mounted Infantry, two companies of the Cornwall Light Infantry, and the company of the Royal Canadians, under Lieutenant Barker. The object of the expedition was to capture or break up a rebel laager near Douglas. For a great part of the way the Cornwalls and Canadians rode in waggons, the remainder of the force being mounted. About 9.45 am on the 1st of January 1900 the enemy were found.
The Canadians were on the right flank of the attack, and, like all the troops engaged, did excellently. Forty-two prisoners and the whole of the camp and its supplies were captured.
The two months spent on the lines were of the greatest value to the regiment. They were beside regular soldiers, they had military work, and the different ranks got to know one another. Without such knowledge esprit de corps cannot exist. When Lord Roberts was ready to start from the Modder he formed the 19th Brigade from the 2nd Battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and the 2nd Battalion Shropshire Light Infantry, the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, and the Royal Canadians. The first two named, like the last, had been on the lines. The Gordons had already fought at Magersfontein with Lord Methuen. The brigadier was Major General Smith-Dorrien. The brigade formed part of the IXth Division under Major General H E Colvile, the other brigade of the division being the Highland, so that the Canadians were in the best of company.
On the 13th a march of 15 miles from Gras Pan to Ramdam was done; on the 14th one of 12 to Waterval Drift on the Riet River. The Canadians gave valuable assistance in hauling the naval guns across the drift. Here the battalion was inspected and complimented by Lord Roberts. On the 14th and 15th the division moved north-east, Lord Roberts' intention being, apparently, to move it on Kimberley, skirting the left flank of Cronje's position at Magersfontein, as French with the cavalry had done. But on the 16th it was known that Cronje had left his fortress and was marching rapidly to the east. A force of mounted infantry, Kelly-Kenny's Vlth Division and Colvile's IXth Division, were at once hurried in pursuit, and French was ordered to leave Kimberley and head Cronje. The cavalry leader had been fighting all the 16th, but starting with Broadwood's Brigade on the 17th he was able to head the Boer waggons at Koedoesrand Drift on the Modder about mid-day, G and P batteries dropping some shells into the Boer column. French had, of course, to conceal the smallness of his force, and fortunately the enemy were too exhausted to make any great effort to ascertain or test his strength. That night Cronje might possibly have moved away, but he did not: next morning the Vlth and IXth Divisions were ready to close with him. The Boer laager was on the north bank; French was on the same bank, but farther east; the British infantry were on the south bank. The river was flooded on the morning of the 18th, and it was 9 o'clock before General Colvile could get the 19th Brigade across the river to attack from the west and north-west. Kelly-Kenny's men were attacking from the south and south-east, Hannay's Mounted Infantry from the east, while the Highland Brigade, under General Hector MacDonald, were doing all that men could do to push in from the south-west. After crossing the Canadians were next the river, the Shropshire Light Infantry on their left, with the Gordons still farther to their left. The Cornwalls were in reserve. The Canadians were opposed by a force of Boers hidden and entrenched in the scrub by the river. Colonel Otter extended his regiment for the attack, A and C companies being the first firing line, but soon all the supports were pushed in. Major Buchan commanded the firing line. Nothing could have exceeded the gallantry of officers or men, and by all accounts all possible skill was exhibited, but the Boer fire was too powerful. Individuals got within 400 yards, but the line as a whole stuck outside that distance. During the forenoon some companies of the Black Watch and Seaforths also crossed the river and fought alongside the Canadians, but at no point of the huge crescent which the British formed could the troops get actually into the trenches. In the afternoon Lord Kitchener, who, according to various accounts, including that of the German staff, was somewhat impetuous and ill-timed in his orders, asked Colvile to make a more determined assault. The only troops available were the Cornwalls. Under Colonel Aldworth they, assisted by the other regiments, again charged the scrub, but without success. Colonel Aldworth was killed, and the battalion lost severely. On the 19th it was found the enemy had diminished his perimeter, withdrawing from the scrub he had held so tenaciously all the 18th. On the 16th to 18th the Canadians lost Captain H M Arnold (died of wounds), about 20 men killed, and Lieutenants J C Mason and Armstrong and about 70 men wounded.
Lord Roberts arrived on the 19th, and with that unfailing good judgment which he showed on every occasion decided that further assault was uncalled for. He ordered his force to sit down and bombard the enemy, advancing by spade work. On the night of the 21st the Shropshires made what General Colvile calls a fine advance, establishing themselves within 550 yards of the enemy, but further progress was found impossible without starting a new set of trenches.
On the 22nd Lord Roberts wired to Lord Minto: "The Canadian Regiment has done admirable service since its arrival in South Africa. I deeply regret the heavy loss it suffered on the 18th, and beg that you will assure the people of Canada how much we all here admire the conspicuous gallantry displayed by our Canadian comrades on that occasion".
On the 26th General Colvile got Lord Roberts' sanction to try a fresh advance that night, and as it was the turn of the Canadians to occupy the trench it was theirs to do the rest. 'A' Company was sent across the river to hold a post on the right of the advance. B Company was to hold the original or then existing trench. The remaining 6 companies under Lieutenant Colonel Buchan, at one pace interval between men, were to advance in two lines at 15 paces distance between the lines. When discovered the front rank was to lie down and fire, while a half company of the Royal Engineers and the rear rank dug. A party of Gordons with fixed bayonets were to support if necessary, but not to fire. The Shropshires, 2500 yards to the left, were to fire on the Boer trenches when the advance was discovered. The line, moving with wonderful silence, had got about 65 to 80 yards from the enemy's trenches when they were discovered, and the Boer fire broke out. The front rank lay down and returned the fire so well that the enemy shot wildly. The spademen worked like heroes, and when daylight came the Boers found a new trench practically commanding their own at 80 yards. Lord Roberts in his telegraphic despatch said: "At 3 am to-day a most dashing advance was made by the Canadian Regiment and some Engineers, supported by the 1st Gordon Highlanders and 2nd Shropshire, resulting in our gaining a point some 600 yards nearer to the enemy, and within about 80 yards of his trenches, where our men entrenched themselves and maintained their positions till morning,—a gallant deed worthy of our Colonial comrades, and which I am glad to say was attended with comparatively small loss. This apparently clinched matters, for at daylight to-day a letter signed by General Cronje, in which he stated that he surrendered unconditionally, was brought to the outposts under a flag of truce". Without indulging in comparisons it seems to be admitted that the work of 'G' and 'H' Companies under Captains Macdonell and Stairs was superlatively fine; although it may be, as General Colvile points out, that the ground favoured these two companies.
This very telling incident put beyond all question the splendid military value of the Canadian Contingent. Their losses on the morning of the 27th were 8 non-commissioned officers and men killed, 1 officer, Major Pelletier, and 29 non-commissioned officers and men wounded.
During the remainder of the advance to Bloemfontein the IXth Division had comparatively little fighting to do.
When Lord Roberts commenced his northern advance the Division was broken up and the 19th Brigade was put under General Sir Ian Hamilton, as part of his army of the right flank.
At Yster Nek or Israel's Poort on the 25th April the enemy were found occupying a strong position. The Canadians and Grahamstown Volunteers (Marshall's Horse) advanced to about 800 yards, lay down under a heavy fire, and held the enemy in front while other troops worked round the flank. In the evening the Boers fled. The Canadians and Marshall's Horse were praised by Major General Smith-Dorrien and by Lord Roberts in his telegram of 27th April. The losses of the Canadians were few in number, but unfortunately Colonel Otter was wounded in the throat while steadying the fire-line at a critical point.
The regiment was present in the numerous other engagements which fell to the lot of Ian Hamilton's army on the way to Heilbron, and after he had crossed the front of Lord Roberts' army. At Doornkop or Florida, on 29th May, when the 1st Gordons added to their glorious reputation, the Canadians were in support and had some losses.
After Pretoria was occupied the regiment did not see a great deal of fighting. For a time they were garrison at Springs. In his telegram of 29th June Lord Roberts said that Springs was attacked on the morning of the 28th, and that the Canadian Regiment, which garrisoned the place, beat off the enemy. After De Wet broke out of the Wittebergen or Brandwater Basin, about 16th July, they were moved down the line to take part in an attempt to surround De Wet. Thereafter in August under General Hart they took part in the pursuit of that ever elusive foe, and did some very trying inarches on the north side of the Vaal.
The brigade having been broken up at Krugersdorp, the Canadian regiment was taken back to the east of Pretoria. On 26th September Lord Roberts telegraphed, "17 officers and 319 men of the Royal Canadian Regiment left Pretoria this morning en route to Canada". But in his telegram of 25th October in regard to the ceremony of proclaiming the annexation of the Transvaal, Lord Roberts was able to say, "The Colonies were represented by the Royal Canadian Regiment, the New Zealand Mounted Infantry, the Bodyguard, Roberts' Horse, and various details". It was satisfactory that a substantial portion of the regiment were still in South Africa when the interesting ceremony took place.
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