This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 15, 1999. Partner content is not updated.The first contingent of 1,000 troops sailed from Quebec City 100 years ago, on Oct. 30, 1899. Another 7,638 young soldiers and 12 nurses followed over the next 2½ years. Their destination: South Africa, to join British troops battling the Afrikaner republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State.
Boer War Remembered
The first contingent of 1,000 troops sailed from Quebec City 100 years ago, on Oct. 30, 1899. Another 7,638 young soldiers and 12 nurses followed over the next 2½ years. Their destination: South Africa, to join British troops battling the Afrikaner republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State. By the time Britain prevailed in the Anglo-Boer War on May 31, 1902, the young Canada had paid dearly for its first involvement in a foreign war. At the front, 284 Canadians died in battle or from disease; another 252 were wounded. At home, tensions were heightened between French and English - Quebec opposition to supporting a British colonial venture at one point erupted into a three-day riot in Montreal. But a century later, as the nation again evokes the Remembrance Day motto, "Lest we forget," on Nov. 11, those first Canadian combatants are a distant, fading memory.
Declaring Nov. 5 to 11 Veterans' Week, Veterans Affairs Canada called on Canadians to honour and remember the achievements and sacrifice of those who served the nation. "As we prepare to say goodbye to the 20th century," says a statement from the federal department, "our Veterans' Week theme this year will cover Canada's military history throughout the past 100 years - A Century of Valour." But nowhere does the statement refer to the sacrifices of the first Canadians to fight abroad for what they believed to be their nation's interests - precisely a century ago. Only now has Canada made a commitment to help maintain the graves of the 261 Canadian war dead buried in South Africa. Even so, a British representative on the commission responsible for maintaining the memorials to foreign participants in the war dismisses Canada's initial commitment of $3,000 as inadequate.
The manager of the war graves division of South Africa's National Monuments Council, Jean Beater, says many of the Canadian graves are in well-maintained municipal cemeteries. But the Canadian dead are scattered across 51 sites, including some on isolated farms. According to the council, in one cemetery in Petrusburg in Free State province, the lettering on five Canadian graves has virtually disappeared through erosion. Another isolated grave site in Mpumalanga province, in eastern South Africa, is so overgrown and neglected that the council has placed it on its priority list.
"The Canadians have asked us to look specifically at sites where there are Canadian graves," says Beater. "Some graves will require attention because they need to be reinscribed, and it's possible some graves in remote areas are worse off than we realize." It may be some time, she says, before the council is able to get to see all those sites and discover the extent of the maintenance needs.
This week, a delegation from Veterans Affairs is visiting South Africa and will begin the job of assessing what must be done to get all graves in good order. "I have made appointments to visit some of the sites," said André Smith, director general of the department's commemorative division in Charlottetown. "We're of the mind that we are responsible for those graves."
Canadians who participated in the South African War did so as volunteers in regiments funded by wealthy patrons or the British government. They acquitted themselves well - at a battle in Leliefontein in 1900, soldiers of the First Canadian Mounted Rifles and the Royal Canadian Dragoons won three of four Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadian troops during the war. Returning soldiers generally received a hero's welcome, and many communities erected monuments to honour the Canadian sacrifice. In 1902, a group led by Lady Minto, the wife of the governor general, the Earl of Minto, raised private funds to record and mark the graves of Canadian troops. The War Memorial Association project sent 180 polished-granite headstones to South Africa, each marked with maple leaves and engraved with "Canada." At the time, says Smith, South Africa also received $6,000 to care for the graves.
While Britain and Australia have contributed funds regularly for the upkeep of the graves of their dead, New Zealand and Canada have not. The matter came to a head last month when the Canadian High Commission received a letter from the South African monuments council inquiring about financial assistance. "We've said OK, and sent some money as an initial payment," says Smith, adding that the $3,000 is just a start. The aim, he says, will be to make local arrangements for the upkeep of all sites, whether they contain many Canadians or the graves of just one or two.
Acknowledging that Canada's participants in the South African War have not had their due recognition from Veterans Affairs, Smith cites several reasons. For one thing, until the collapse of the apartheid regime in 1996, Canada had had limited relations with South Africa for many years. Within South Africa, he adds, there was no infrastructure to ensure that all the graves were maintained. And despite the lives lost, Smith says, Canadians do not have the same kind of attachment to the South African War as they have to conflicts since then. For whatever reason, "we haven't done as much as we should have," says Smith. "I can tell you we are coming to terms with our responsibility to remember these men and women."
One symbolic step will take place this week at the Stellawood Commonwealth War Cemetery in the South African city of Durban. There, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien will attend a Remembrance Day ceremony while taking part in a Commonwealth heads of government meeting. Also on hand to honour Canada's "century of valour" will be representatives of the four main Canadian regiments that took part in the Anglo-Boer War.
In February, members of one of those regiments, Lord Strathcona's Horse, will visit South Africa to unveil a memorial in Lydenburg, in Mpumalanga province, to commemorate comrades killed during the war. They will also unveil new headstones to commemorate two soldiers who previously did not have personalized markers. "With our new view towards relations with South Africa," says Smith, "we will see a more positive manner in commemorating the people who took part in that war."
But Canada's efforts still fall short of the mark, according to Janice Farquharson, a member of the British war graves committee of the National Monuments Council. With only three full-time staff members, the council can barely cope with its current workload, monitoring and maintaining 40,000 war graves across the country. "To be honest," she says, "$3,000 is peanuts. A lot more could be done not only to maintain and monitor these grave sites, but also to make the locations more tourist friendly." With Canada turning a fresh eye to sacrifices made a century ago, the fallen appear to be about to receive their due - "Lest we forget."
See also SOUTH AFRICAN WAR.
Maclean's November 15, 1999