Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day as it was then called, formally began with the First World War. But for what triggered Canada's first remembrance day, we need go back to February of 1900.
Canada's war history in the post-Confederation period began in South Africa, at the battle of Paardeberg – "Horse Hill" in translation from Afrikaans.
As one of our men on horseback put it, "the bullets came as thick as rain" that day. Paardeberg was deemed a decisive clash in the Boer War. Canadians commemorated our war dead from the conflict every Feb. 27 until the end of the First World War, when the new remembrance day began.
Today, the Boer War is seldom recalled – for good reason, some think. Even the governor-general of the day, Lord Minto, wrote privately that it was not appropriate for Canada to be part of such an unjust conflict.
But just or not, Canada's first war was of much national significance. It enhanced Canada's pride and its standing in the British Empire. It also provoked searing English-French tensions over whether to participate, setting a template for wars to follow.
The war was chiefly about gold. Fortune-seeking settlers of British origin were being denied basic political rights in the Transvaal, where major gold deposits had been discovered. Their treatment prompted the British to take up arms to subjugate the Dutch-speaking Boer population. Even though their own military resources overwhelmed those of the Boers, the Brits called for help from Commonwealth members.
As Lord Minto saw it, if the war proceeded, it would be "the most iniquitous we had ever engaged in … The fact is, if we fight we fight for Rhodes, Beit and Co. and the speculators of the Rand, it makes me sick." As for Canadians, "I don't see why they should commit their country to the expenditure of lives and money for a quarrel not threatening imperial safety."
Lord Minto's private views, recounted in Gwynne Dyer's insightful new book, Canada in The Great Power Game, were hardly the same as his official ones. Publicly, he pressured Canada to fight.
In English Canada, fervour for the Empire ruled the day. But in Quebec, there was no such sentiment. The Boers' wish for more control of their own resources, language and autonomy could have been seen as echoing those of the Québécois themselves.
With an election coming, prime minister Wilfrid Laurier had to walk a fine line. Ottawa would not send a military contingent, but it would financially support a volunteer force through an order in council that didn't require parliamentary approval. This compromise didn't prevent three days of rioting by students in Montreal or bitter opposition from the Liberals' Quebec lieutenants, but the ever-smooth Laurier prevailed in the election.
At Paardeberg, about 900 Canadians took part in a blitz to seize key Boer positions. Depending on whose version of events is believed, it was either a Vimy Ridge in miniature, with the Canadians forcing a Boer surrender, or they were just lucky to be in the right place at the right time for an easy mop-up operation. In the press, where war verdicts were rendered, the Canadians were hailed as defeating a 4,000-strong Boer army and giving Britain its first significant victory in the war.
About 5,000 Canadians saw active duty in the Boer War. Two hundred and twenty-four perished. As the conflict went on, even the English Canadians who signed up had begun to express reservations about it. Six of the eight companies refused to extend their military service beyond a year. One soldier wrote of how foolish he had been: "I risked my life so that a few rich men could have full control of the gold and diamonds of the Transvaal. I was taken in by a lot of propaganda."
The majority of Canadians didn't see it that way, however. Since Canada was dependent on Britain for so much, wasn't it right, they thought, to give something in return? They were proud of their boys. The country's war history had begun well enough. It merited a day of remembrance.