OTD: Canadian troops join British column for Battle of Leliefontein

On today’s date in 1900, the Canadian Mounted Rifles, the Royal Canadian Dragoons and one section of the Royal Canadian Field Artillery’s “D” Battery – with two 12-pounder field guns – joined a British military column.

In the early hours of the morning on Nov. 6, 1900, the formation was travelling south out of the eastern Transvaal town of Belfast, South Africa, to disperse a large Boer commando group camping about 30 kilometres away near the Komati River. After forcing the Boers back across the river, the British and Canadian soldiers camped overnight near a farm named Leliefontein; however, because the Boer forces were stronger than expected, British Major-General Horace Smith-Dorrien issued orders for a return to Belfast in the morning.

The commander of the Boer forces rallied reinforcements and planned to meet the British column, which he assumed would continue its advance the following day.

The engagement that took place on Nov. 7, 1900 became known as the Battle of Leliefontein, which was part of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Three members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons—Sergeant Edward James Gibson Holland, Lieutenant Richard Ernest William Turner and Lieutenant Hampden Zane Churchill Cockburn—were eventually awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions that day.

Another 32-cent stamp (SC #1007) celebrated the Royal Canadian Regiment as well as the British Columbia Regiment.

BATTLE OF LELIEFONTEIN

To disguise his withdrawal, Major-General Smith-Dorrien assigned the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the two 12-pounder field guns of “D” Battery as his rearguard. This assignment was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel François-Louis Lessard, of the Dragoons.

“The Dragoons were seriously under strength, mustering no more than one hundred men and a horse-drawn Colt machine gun. However, the Canadian horsemen and artillerymen were experienced, and had worked together long enough to operate as a team,” reads the Canadian War Museum website. “The Dragoons deployed in a line four or five kilometres across covering the rear of the departing British column with the guns and the machine gun in the centre.”

Once the Boer commander realized the British column was retreating, the commando group’s reinforcements began to focus on the Canadian rearguard provided by the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the “D” Battery field guns. A series of attacks on the rearguard culminated in a charge by 200 mounted Boer fighters “firing from the saddle,” according to the Canadian War Museum, adding there were concerns the Canadian line would break and the two field guns would be captured.

“The charge was only beaten off by the gallantry of a small party of Dragoons and the fire of the machine gun, which killed the two Boer commanders. The Boers continued to attack, but the loss of their leaders had disoriented them, and as the Canadians neared the rear of the retreating British column, the Boers lost momentum.”

“Leliefontein was the most desperate situation faced by Canadians during the war,” concludes the website. “The number of decorations, including Victoria Crosses to Lieutenants H.Z. C. Cockburn, R.E.W. Turner and Sergeant E.J. Holland, all of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, attests to the intensity of the fighting.”

DEVELOPING CANADA’S ARMED FORCES

Canada’s professional armed forces were officially only seven years old at the time of the Battle of Leliefontein as they were created by the Militia Act of 1883.

Four regular units date back to this time—two regular units (the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Royal Canadian Dragoons) and two militia units (the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and the British Columbia Regiment).

In 1870-71, the British armed forces pulled most of its regular troops out of Canada, which—less than five years after Canadian Confederation—was left to perform its own military functions.

Initially, the Canadian government created two artillery schools rather than a standing army.

“The schools helped militia artillery units maintain their standards, but with no professional instruction of their own, standards dropped in the militia infantry and cavalry units,” reads a press release issued by Canada Post in 1993. “The Militia Act of 1883 rectified the situation, providing for a professional force not to exceed 750 men. This group was to include three batteries of artillery, one troop of cavalry, and three companies of infantry, which would ‘serve as practical Schools of Military Instruction.’ The Infantry School Corps later evolved into The Royal Canadian Regiment, and the Cavalry School Corps became The Royal Canadian Dragoons. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles and The British Columbia Regiment also originated in 1883, thanks mainly to the initiative of officers in Winnipeg and on the West Coast. It is fortunate that the four units appeared in 1883. Within two years, three of them sent men to engage in the North West Canada Campaign in 1885.”

1983 TWO-STAMP SET

In 1983, Canada Post honoured the 100th anniversary of the four Canadian Forces regiments with a se-tenant pair of stamps (Scott #1008a). Based on a painting by William Southern, one of the 32-cent stamps features the Royal Canadian Regiment and the British Columbia Regiment (SC #1007) while the other stamp depicts the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles (SC # 1008). The stamps feature illustrations of the uniforms worn by the four regiments before the turn of the century. Ralph Tibbles, also of Toronto, designed the stamp format and typography.

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