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dave obee The anniversary of the end of the Boer war

By Dave Obee
June, 2002

One hundred years ago, Victoria was celebrating the end of the war that helped Canada come of age as a nation.

The Boers had finally surrendered, bringing an end to the South African War after 30 months of fighting. The "Boer War" had been the first time Canadian troops left North America to fight.

The news arrived in Victoria by telegram in the morning of Sunday, June 1, 1902.

"Immediately the news was received it was made public," the Daily Times reported the next day. Telegrams were quickly sent to the pastors of city churches so they could report to their morning services that peace had arrived.

Victoria residents looking for the latest news went to the offices of the Times and the Daily Colonist. Staff members at both newspapers posted bulletins in their windows; a century ago, that was the most efficient way to spread breaking news.

At noon, the fire bells rang out to ensure that no Victoria resident could be unaware that there was reason for great rejoicing.

"The late-rising citizen had no need to ask the whys and wherefores of the decoration and demonstration," the Times said.

"Instinctively everyone knew that at least the desperate Boers had become convinced of the futility of prolonging a hopeless struggle, and had agreed to the terms laid down by Lord Kitchener."

By early afternoon, special editions of both the Colonist and the Times were on the streets, and the celebrations began in earnest.

"Quickly little crowds gathered on the streets to talk over the declaration of peace, and others hurried townward when the ringing of the bells told them of the news," the Colonist said the next day. "It was the sole topic of conversation."

A thanksgiving service was quickly planned for that evening. It was due to begin at the Drill Hall on Menzies Street at 9 p.m., but people started gathering there three hours early.

The crowd was estimated at 3,000 people by the time the doors were finally opened at 8:30 p.m.

It was a joyous evening. After the band started the service by playing the hymn Abide With Me, there were speeches by Victoria's mayor, Charles Hayward, and Rev. Elliott S. Rowe, the pastor of the Metropolitan Methodist Church.

Several songs were sung. Highlights were Signor Salvini's performance of The Death of Nelson, and Rev. W.L. Clay's reading of each verse of Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past before the entire congregation joined him to sing the hymn.

A special guest was B.C.'s lieutenant-governor, Sir Henry Joly de Lotbiniere, who had received official notice from Ottawa that the war was indeed over.

The quick celebration marking the return of peace may seem remarkable by today's standards, but it was subdued in comparison to the jubilation shown in Victoria when the war began.

When the first soldiers from here went off to the war, for example, their names were published several times in the newspapers, and a major fund-raising drive was launched.

At the end of the war, the newspapers reported that some soldiers from Victoria were still on duty in South Africa, but didn't bother to name them.

Of course, the end of the war wasn't the only news at the time. The city had just finished celebrating Victoria Day, in memory of the beloved monarch who had died just 16 months earlier. Plans for the coronation of King Edward VII were proceeding; he had not yet been stricken by the illness that would cause the coronation to be delayed.

In Victoria, reclamation work beside the bridge over James Bay was proceeding as planned. The bridge would soon be replaced by a causeway, and James Bay itself would be filled in to become the site of The Empress.

And there was yet another fundraising drive -- this time, for the residents of Fernie, in the East Kootenay, where a coal mine explosion in May had killed more than 100 people.

So the people of the Victoria area had other things on their minds. Maybe that's why only 3,000 people bothered going to the Drill Hall.

In October 1899, following a banquet at the same hall, a crowd estimated at 10,000 people -- roughly half Victoria's population -- gathered at the harbour to say goodbye to the first 26 soldiers, members of the Fifth B.C. Field Battery, heading off to fight.

In early 1900, the Drill Hall was pressed into service again, this time for the selection of the local men who became members of Lord Strathcona's Horse.

In the early weeks of the war, Victoria -- along with the rest of Canada -- seemed to be caught up in patriotic fever, and in the adventure of it all. If any thought was given to the harsh realities of war, it was not reflected in the newspapers of the day, or in the many special events that were held to honour the departing men.

That war can be hell became clear soon enough, when four local men died in the controversial Battle of Paardeberg, which was won by Canadians and their allies. And a few months later, a fifth local man died of injuries from another battle.

It's hard to say how many Victoria men were involved in the South African War, because some of the men who signed up here had lived in the city only a matter of months, and some people from here signed up in Vancouver. And after the war, this area became home to many Boer War veterans from Canada and the British Isles.

There is no question, however, that the five local casualities were significant in terms of this country's contribution to the war effort. Only 89 Canadians were killed in battle, less than the number who fell victim to disease. (While several Victorians became ill, none died as a result.)

Here are some of the local men who fought in South Africa:

Monson Goridge Blanchard. A veterinary surgeon and a dominion government inspector. He was born in Windsor, N.S., on Jan. 24, 1867. He was involved in yachting and rifle shooting, and was a lieutenant in the Second Mounted Infantry. He had served in the Ontario Field Battery until 1887, when he moved to Victoria and joined the Fifth Regiment. Wounded in Roodevaal June 7, 1900; died of his wounds in Rhenoster, June 15, 1900.

Arthur Maundrell. Killed in action Feb. 18, 1900. From Winnipeg, he belonged to the 35th battalion. He came to Victoria with a circus, and in June, 1899, started working for Richard Bray, who ran a livery stable on Johnson Street.

William Ironside Scott. Killed in action Feb. 18, 1900; his heroics on the battlefield are legendary. A native of London, Ont., Scott came to Victoria in about 1891 and was well known as a member of the James Bay Athletic Association. He had also been on the street car that plunged into the water in the Point Ellice Bridge disaster in 1896, and saved three or four lives by repeatedly diving to the wreck. Scott was an employee of the Colonist, and was to have been married to Emily Ray, another Colonist employee.

John Henry Somers. Killed in action Feb. 18, 1900. A native of Ontario, he was about 25 years old and lived with his parents in Gordon Head. He had been employed at the Vancouver bakery and in carpentry work.

John St. C. Todd. Killed in action Feb. 18, 1900. About 25, he came to Victoria from San Francisco. He returned to San Francisco before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, and enlisted with the U.S. forces. He went with K Troop of the U.S. Cavalry to the Philippines. He returned from the Orient in October 1899, and had been in Victoria for just three days before enlisting for the South African War. A letter from him was published in the Colonist on March 2, 1900.

Harry S. Brennan. He wasn't one of the original 26 -- he beat them to the front. He had been an engine driver on the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway before leaving for South Africa in about 1895. Brennan was driving trains in Bechuanaland when fighting broke out, and enlisted as soon as he could. He was the only British Columbian at the siege of Mafeking, and on Aug. 23, 1900, became the first Vancouver Island soldier to return home from the war.

Frank Finch-Smiles. An actor who delighted Victoria audiences on many occasions after arriving here in 1898. Previously in the drama profession in New York and on tour. About 35 years old, he had been in the volunteer service in England. Rated as severely wounded -- shot through the left knee -- Feb. 18, 1900. Later appeared in several Hollywood movies, including the 1925 science-fiction classic The Lost World.

William Herbert Brethour. Born March 29, 1879, the son of John and Jane Brethour, who were pioneers of North Saanich. Before he left, he was given a gold watch by the community. The Victoria and Sidney Railway gave free passage to anyone who went to Victoria to see him off. Brethour died in the Yukon in about 1916.

Arthur Carter. A native of London, England, Carter came to Victoria with his widowed mother in 1891. His brother-in-law was the well-known former lacrosse player, Harry Morton of the Garrick's Head saloon. Carter drove an express wagon before heading off to war. He contracted fever in South Africa. He died in Victoria in 1942.

Frederick Temple Cornwall. The son of former Lt.-Gov. C.F. Cornwall. Prominent, the newspapers said, in athletic and social circles. In 1909, he married Emily Olivia Pelly in Armstrong. He died in Vancouver in 1961.

Alexander C. Beach. A native of Staffordshire, he had lived in Victoria for two years. He taught dancing. He had been a soldier in South Africa before, serving with the volunteers in the Matabele campaign in Bulawayo in 1896. He later served with the Bechuanaland police. At the start of the Spanish-American war he enlisted in Troop A of the fourth cavalry, but was not sent to the front.

Clarke William Gamble. A member of the rugby football team. Gamble contracted fever in May 1900, and returned to Victoria on Sept. 11, 1900. Later became an engineer. He died in North Saanich in 1969.

Joseph Roger Northcott. The son of city assessor William W. Northcott and his wife Olive; a native of Victoria. Died in West Vancouver in 1955.

Seymour Hastings O'Dell. A veteran of two campaigns. He served with a British cavalry regiment, then was in the infantry in the Ashantee war. He also served in the civil war in Chile. He had lived in Victoria for about six months, and worked as the head clerk at the Driard Hotel. Later, he worked for the provincial government.

Cecil Morton Roberts. From England, and an employee for several years in the lands and works office in Victoria. He had no relatives in B.C. He married Georgina Penelope Storey in Victoria in 1902, and died in Victoria in 1961, aged 95.

Stephen Charles Court. From Wales, and well-known in the waterfront community. He was a mate on the steamer Willapa and later sailed on the Queen City and the Danube. Married Emily Rees in 1903. Killed in action in the First World War, September 1915.

John Hercules Dixon. A native of Christchurch, New Zealand, but raised in Auckland. He had had military training at the Auckland Collegiate Institute. Wounded Feb. 18, 1900. Died in Victoria in 1934.

Henry Smethurst. Born in Victoria in 1874; died in Saanich in 1967, aged 93.

Thomas E. Pooley. A native of Victoria, he was born about 1876, and spent eight years in England. He was not accepted for the first group of men, but was anxious to fight so he went to England to try to join there. He finally was accepted in the Strathconas, and got back to Halifax just in time to sail with them to South Africa.

G. Victor N. Spencer. The son of David Spencer, the proprietor of the Arcade dry goods store.

William C. Winkel. Born in London, age 23. Married Jessie Ethel Prescott in 1903. Died in 1959 in Victoria.

William Frederick Whitely. Born in 1878 in Victoria, died of fever in June 1900. He had lived in Victoria until a few months before joining the army in Vancouver. He was the stepson of H.W. Sheppard, the former chief of police.

Thomas Austin "Scottie" Cresswell. Also served in the First World War. In Victoria, was a sportsman and a manager of political campaigns. He died in Saanich in 1959.

David Livingstone McKeand. Also served in the First World War. He later became the first Canadian pension paymaster, then assistant director of the Northwest Territories and the Western Arctic Patrol. Died in Victoria in 1966.

Victoria also saw an example of great determination, as embodied in Robert Hyland of Telegraph Creek. Within a day or two of learning that war had been declared, Hyland set out over the frozen trail from Telegraph Creek to Wrangell, Alaska, where he caught the steamer Dirigo to Victoria.

Once here, he applied to join the Strathconas. He was rejected. But at least he got out of Telegraph Creek for a while.

There are still a few links between Vancouver Island and the South African War. For one thing, Ladysmith was named in 1900 after the site of a British victory.

And, more than a century ago, the Times reported on another event at the Drill Hall on Menzies:

"Citizens stood with bowed heads and emotion mingled with pride as the ensign drapery was drawn aside, and disclosed the tablet placed there in memory of Victoria's noble dead who are sleeping on the far-off veldt."

That tablet, honouring Blanchard, Maundrell, Scott, Somers and Todd, hangs today just inside the main entrance of the Armouries on Bay Street.

Dave Obee is editorial page editor of the Times Colonist newspaper in Victoria, B.C. This column appeared in the Times Colonist.

Reprinted courtesy the Times Colonist


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