The Boer War
Home Radio Television CBC Learning
CAPH banner left CAPH banner centre CAPH banner right
Seeking an Identity
The Boer War
History Home
The Boer War
Canada gets its first taste of battle when it fights with Britain in South Africa
At the turn of the 20th century, the Boer War held all the promise of noble and heroic adventure for thousands of young Canadian men. And for the nation it was an opportunity to show the world what Canada could do.
In 1899, Canada agreed to send volunteers to serve under British command in the Boer War. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada C-007986, Montreal soldiers of C Company South African Constabular)
In 1899, Canada agreed to send volunteers to serve under British command in the Boer War. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada C-007986, Montreal soldiers of C Company South African Constabular)

The war began in 1899 as a conflict between the British army and Dutch settlers - called the Boer - in South Africa. When Britain asked its colonies for help, English Canada pressured Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to send an official contingent to serve the British mother country.

A compromise was reached and Canada agreed to send volunteers to serve under British command in the Boer War. It represented the first large group of Canadian soldiers to serve overseas.

English Canadian men eagerly to sign up. John McCrae had just graduated from medical school but was preoccupied with thoughts of the distant battle.

"Ever since this business began," he wrote to his mother, "I am certain there has been not 15 minutes of my waking hours that it has not been in my mind ... I shall not pray for peace in our time. One campaign might cure me - but nothing else ever will, unless it be old age."

McCrae was one of 8,000 Canadian men who volunteered for service. On January 4, 1900, the young lieutenant led 54 volunteers from his hometown of Guelph, Ontario to war.

By July, McCrae had his first taste of battle.

"21 July 1900, Our baptism of fire," McCrae wrote in his diary. "They opened on us from the left flank ... One shrapnel burst over us & scattered on all sides of us. I felt as if a hail storm were coming down & wanted to turn my back, but it was over in an instant."

The only casualty from McCrae's first battle was a horse. During the war, more men died of disease than in combat, due partly to poorly run field hospitals.
During the Boer War, more men died of disease than in combat. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada C-006097, Field hospital at Paardeberg Drift)
During the Boer War, more men died of disease than in combat. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada C-006097, Field hospital at Paardeberg Drift)

"For absolute neglect and rotten administration, it is a model," McCrae wrote of the British hospital. "I am ashamed of some members of my profession ... Every day there are from 15 to 30 Tommies [British soldiers] dying from fever and dysentery. Every one that dies is sewn up in a blanket, and four shillings are taken out of the pay for the blanket. The soldier's game is not what it's cracked up to be."

Despite the hardships, Canadian soldiers distinguished themselves fighters in the war, showing tenacity, stamina and initiative. In contrast, British leadership proved poor. Despite their military superiority, the Boer's guerrilla tactics frustrated the British army.

British troops finally resorted to burning the Boer farms and putting civilians, including women and children, into badly run concentration camps. The last Boer guerillas surrendered in May 1902. The British kept South Africa, but the war had been a debacle.

For English Canada, the war was viewed as the country's initiation on the world stage. At home, people had followed the war enthusiastically, taking pride in Canadian achievements. They formed a "Patriotic Fund" for the families of the 244 Canadian soldiers who died during the war, and erected monuments honouring the men who fought.

When the soldiers marched home, they were treated as Canadian heroes. From the battlefields, English Canada emerged as a prouder more confident nation.

top of page


Last Topic:
Questioning Ties to Britain

Current Topic:
The Boer War

Next Topic:
French Canada's New Voice
Politics of Compromise
Wilfrid Laurier is the master of conciliation but his luck eventually runs out
read more ...

Questioning Ties to Britain
As the British Empire goes to war, Canadians debate their allegiance to the Crown
read more ...

French Canada's New Voice
Outspoken politician Henri Bourassa helps shape a new French Canadian nationalism
read more ...

Horror of Modern Warfare
Canadians soldiers are front and centre during some of the first gas attacks during the First World
read more ...

"In Flanders Fields"
A Canadian soldier writes a haunting poem about the tragedy of war
read more ...

history home | explore the episodes | biographies | teacher resources | bibliography | games and puzzles | sitemap | contact us
cbc home | tv episode summaries | merchandise | press releases | behind the scenes | audio/video

copyright � 2001 CBC