The South African War began on October 11, 1899. The conflict was between the British and the Boers, the descendants of Dutch Protestant farmers who had been the first White settlers in the region.
In support of Britain, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier offered to send soldiers and military equipment, and pay for their transportation to South Africa. In turn, the British paid the wages for these volunteer soldiers and for their return home after their service.
A thousand Canadians formed the first contingent that sailed from the city of Québec on October 30, 1899. The second contingent, made up of two regiments and three artillery batteries, sailed in January and February 1900. Other contingents of men and equipment sailed from Canada in March 1900, March 1901, January 1902 and May 1902.
The Canadians received their “baptism of fire” at the Battle of Paardeberg on February 18, 1900, where they distinguished themselves in the first significant British victory of the conflict. In all, 18 Canadians were killed and 68 more were wounded on the first day of the battle. It was Canada’s bloodiest single day of fighting in the war.
Canadians took part in many smaller actions throughout the war, such as the Battle of Leliefontein on November 7, 1900, which involved 3 Victoria Cross recipients.
Five Canadians earned the Victoria Cross, the highest award for military valour in the British Empire, during the war: Sergeant Arthur Richardson, Lieutenant Hampden Cockburn, Lieutenant Richard Turner, Sergeant Edward Holland and Lieutenant William Nickerson.
Prince Edward Island’s Georgina Pope led the Canadian Nursing Sisters in South Africa. It marked the first time Canadian women served with the military overseas, with 12 Nursing Sisters helping the sick and wounded in South Africa.
It is estimated that 300,000 horses died during the South African War.
More than 7,000 Canadians volunteered for service during the South African War. Approximately 280 died, most due to injury or illness brought on by the harsh conditions, and more than 250 were wounded.
The South African War ended on May 31, 1902, with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging.