Before Vimy, there was Paardeberg
"Where is the Canadian who does not thrill with pride at the mention of Paardeberg? Where is the Canadian who does not know the whole story; who does not see plainly, in imagination, the whole picture in all its glorious tints, with background of loyalty and colouring of blood?"
"Every schoolboy knows the tale and longs for manhood; every school-girl, with blanching cheek but kindling eye, has heard how the raw, undisciplined sons of Canada led the way and forced the victory."
Thus reads the opening paragraphs of the chapter covering the battle of Paardeberg in Russell C. Hubley's small book "G" Company; Everyday Life of the R.C.R. (Witness printing House, 1902). And yet, the Battle of Paardeberg is almost unknown to Canadians outside those who still celebrate it annually.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge has often been described as a formative moment for young Canada, but the same sentiments and heightened nationalism was also felt after the victory of British forces over Boer General Piet Cronje, the first major victory of the South African War (the Boer War). What few realize is that Canadians, the first Canadian unit to fight on foreign shores, were in the forefront of that battle, and on its concluding day were in the leading charge to force the Boer surrender.
On the 27th of February, 1900, the following telegram from Sir Alfred Milner, Governor of Cape Colony, was read to the House of Commons by Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier at the start of that day's session:
"Cape Town, Feb 27, 1900 – Cronje surrendered at daylight. Congratulate you on noble share taken by troops from your colony."
"Her Majesty the Queen desires you to express to people of Dominion her admiration of gallant conduct of her Canadian troops in late engagement and her sorrow at loss of so many brave men."
Paardeberg was recognized across the Empire as a Canadian feat of arms. The battalion raised by Canada for the South African War was the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment (The RCR). A unit of over 1000 soldiers, but how was it raised from a Regiment that totaled no more than 400 at the time?
The 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment was raised from across Canada. From "A" Company in British Columbia and Manitoba to "H" Company raised in Nova Scotia. There were 1158 all ranks. Of 55 officers (including Nurses), only 8 were originally from The RCR. Of the 1103 non-commissioned officers and soldiers, 76 were originally of The RCR, and of those, 58 were Corporals and Privates.
The remainder? Over 90% of the unit were Militia soldiers and officers. These soldiers of the Militia came from 120 different original units and corps, including 82 different Militia infantry units. They also came from 6 cavalry, 15 artillery, 1 engineer and 2 medical units.
For actions in South Africa and the Battle of Paardeberg, The Royal Canadian Regiment would receive the theatre battle Honour "SOUTH AFRICA 1899-1900", and the Battle Honour "PAARDEBERG." In addition, twenty-six regiments of the Canadian Militia would be awarded the Battle Honour "SOUTH AFRICA" because of the size of their contribution to the Canadian contingents in South Africa.
Focus for a moment on those Canadian soldiers who served in South Africa. It is important to realize that the soldiers of the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, were mostly soldiers of the Canadian Militia, and that they came from every province across our great nation. The pan-Canadian make-up of that unit is the same mix of Canadian origins that would be so well hailed after the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the next war.
Vimy Ridge was certainly an important milestone in Canadian history, as much for the act as for the evolving historiography surrounding it in the century since. But before Vimy, there was Paardeberg.
Every year, The Royal Canadian Regiment continues to celebrate the Canadian role in the victory at Paardeberg.