Remembering Canada’s first veterans
This Remembrance Day, we look back at those Canadians who served in wars. The first war that saw Canadian troops sent overseas began on Oct. 11, 1899, and continued until May 31, 1902. The Boer War was controversial, generally supported by English Canadians, but questioned by those of French heritage, which put then-prime minister Wilfrid Laurier in a quandary as to how many troops to supply.
The war was fought by the British against the two small, independent Boer (or Afrikaner) republics. The Afrikaners were descendants of Protestant Dutch, French and German refugees who had moved there in the seventeenth century. When forced into the interior by the British earlier on, they established two nations, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. It is widely believed the British instigated the war because they wished to appropriate land that held a wealth of gold and diamonds. The British, on the other hand, justified the war with the rhetoric that they wished to protect the Uitlanders or foreigners, who were immigrants from Britain and its colonies employed to work the mines. It was a bloody war that claimed an estimated 60,000 lives, including 270 Canadians.
The first wave of Canadian soldiers sent overseas comprised 1,000 volunteers. On Oct. 10, 1899, the Stratford Daily Beacon ran the headline, “War is Certain Now.” On Oct. 12, it was reported that “Twenty Men Wanted. Lieut.-Col. White of the 28th Asks if Stratford Can Furnish Twenty Men in Case a Canadian Contingent Go To Transvaal.” Men from the area rushed to submit their names. Of the 20 requested, three were chosen. From Stratford, Harry Ballard was in the first wave sent to battle. The other two chosen were G. Graham and E. W. Peart, both of St. Marys. Eventually, another 6,000 soldiers, nurses and specialists would be sent over the next few years.
On the home front, women set up a “Patriotic Fund.” The Beacon, in 1900, announced that “The Ladies Have Collected $266.50 Patriotic Concert at Avonton Realizes $25 – Over $300 Expected From G. T. R. Employees.” The local treasurer was the British Mortgage Loans Co., which had already remitted $250, while another local contributor, Perth Mutual Fire Ins. Co., donated the incredible amount of $500. Meanwhile, the federal government answered the question on many minds: How much would it cost to mail a letter to the front? The answer was one penny.
When the war finally came to an end, with the Boers surrendering, the Beacon ran the headline “Peace Proclaimed,” on June 12, 1902. It was reported that “This morning when the news became general in the city flags were displayed”… on public institutions and elsewhere. ”Outside of this there was no demonstration whatever.”
This could not be said of other communities in Perth County. For instance, in Mitchell, a victory at just one battle, the Siege of Kimberley, resulted in “a great wave of excitement and rejoicing passing over the town when the news was received of the relief of Kimberley.”
Four Canadians received the Victoria Cross, 19 the Distinguished Service Order and 17 the Distinguished Conduct Medal. One of Canada’s nursing sisters, Georgina Pope, was awarded the Royal Red Cross. In many communities the first war memorials were erected, perhaps, foreshadowing what was yet to come.
Stereoscopic image,series 1901 – Heroes of Paardeberg welcome Canadians disembarking at Halifax, N.S.