NWORA Remembrance Vol.4 - NE99

NE99

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Forget-me-not 63 C hristmas, according to a popular song, is "the most wonderful time of the year." For many it's a serious time - a church time. But for all people parted from loved ones it's a sad time. And this sad feeling is often more intense when Christmas falls on a Sunday, as Christmas Eve did in 2000. It was a sad day in Kingston that Christmas Eve, Sunday, 24 December 1899. For the locals were reeling from the shock of the mind-boggling Boer defeats of British troops during the preceding "Black Week" in far away South Africa. Above all, Kingstonians feared for the lives of the 60 or so Kingston men of "D" Company, Second Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) serving as part of the British Army in South Africa, men whose whereabouts were unknown. This was Canada's first war-time Christmas. It was the first Christmas of national soul-searching while facing the horrors of modern warfare. Canadian thoughts on the birth of the Prince of Peace were entwined with visions of violent mass death. Christmas 1899 was our first Christmas of searchlights, barbed wire, ambush from trenches, machine-guns, pom-poms, quick-firing field guns, smokeless powder and accurate long-range rifles: A modern war without modern medicine. What had gone wrong with our stern lesson to put down the uppity Boers? In October many had boasted it would be over by Christmas. But the Boers were no bow-and-arrow people. For the first time in 40 years the enemy was as well-armed as the British. The Boers were fighting for their own land and were good at it. They taught the lesson: This was no war for foot-slogging or cavalry charges. The unthinkable had happened. By the end of Black Week (10-15 December) 16,000 British regulars had been butchered, taken prisoner or bottled up in widely separated actions at Magersfontein, Stormberg and Colenso. Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley were still under siege. Eleven guns had been lost. Britain was humbled before the world. Irish and American volunteers embarked to join "Blake's Brigade" and help the Boers. On Sunday, 17 December, the War Office in London ordered all Britain's reserves to South Africa - 106,000 men. The Boers and their helpers were to be crushed. On 21 December the call went out for a second Canadian contingent. But where were the Royal Canadians?... After a month at sea, the RCRs had landed in Capetown on 29 November. They moved up-country at once by open train, confident they'd whip the Boers and eat Christmas dinner in Pretoria. Christmas Eve, however, was to find most of these armed college boys, shop clerks and factory hands still alive, but in a sorrier - perhaps, wiser - state. Forty hours and 500 miles after landing, the weary, parched, freezing and near-blinded men tumbled out of their open trucks. Their bodies were still on the rolling sea; their sea-legs wouldn't stand. Remembrance Vol.4 by Terence Cottrell BA(Hons), MA, JD.

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