The Canadian Way of War: Serving the National Interest

By Colonel Bernd Horn | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
The Primacy of National Command:

Boer War Lesson Learned by Bernd Horn and Ronald G. Haycock

In October 1899, after much debate, Canada joined Britain in a war in South Africa. The Anglo-Boer War, as it became known, lasted an unexpected two and a half years. It turned into a major conflict that consumed hundreds of thousands of British and colonial troops including well over 8,000 Canadian volunteers. For Canada, the experience indelibly influenced the structure and training methodology of the Canadian military, but it had an even greater pivotal effect on military and political thought. In addition, the war highlighted the cleavage in national support for imperialist ventures — a chasm that would divide the country many times over the next several decades. However, it clearly accented a nation coming of age.

The war shattered a long-held myth of British military supremacy and colonial inadequacy in regards to questions of armed force. As such, the perceived impotence and apparent incompetence of the British Army had a dramatic effect on Canada’s political leaders and military commanders. Successive defeats and repeated pleas by Britain for more troops destroyed the idolized image of the unconquerable empire. It quickly became apparent that the prophesy of the nationalist Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Hughes, that quintessential Canadian militiaman, Tory Member of Parliament (MP), and official opposition militia critic, was correct when he predicted in 1899 that “British regular soldiers were so incompetent that they would be defeated by the Boers … If British officers persisted in their outmoded military ways, the old plugs of Boer farmers would surely defeat them.”1

Moreover, the shortcomings of the British Army in South Africa, particularly the failure to provide adequate accommodation, food, and proper medical attention, were not lost on the soldiers of the Canadian contingents. There were also deaths and casualties among the Canadian ranks and the question soon arose — were these sacrifices done in the

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