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Strathcona's Horse: Warriors from Canada's West

For the strong young North has sent us forth to battlefields far away, And the trail that ends where Empire trends is the trail we ride today. But proudly toss thy head aloft, nor think of the foe tomorrow, For he who bars Strathcona's Horse, drinks deep of the cup of sorrow.

From 'Strathcona's Horse' By Dr. W.H. Drummond

It can be argued with some certainty that the year 1900 marked a high-point of Imperial sympathy throughout Britain's vast dominions. It was a golden age of prosperity, general peace and a sense of contentment with one's place in the world. The advent of the Second Anglo-Boer War, that many today argue was the beginning of the end for the Empire, prompted the manifestation of this Imperial sympathy from many diverse groups within that Empire. One of the clearest examples of this was the founding of private regiments for service in that conflict. Strathcona's Horse was one of those units.

Like many other irregular units of the Imperial Army in the Boer War, a citizen of definite Imperial sympathies raised Strathcona's Horse. From Canada's still 'wild' west came men of a tough mettle, led by a tough hero, to help in their Empire's cause. They were brought together by Donald Smith, later Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, a man whose wealth and station were owed as much to his own sense as to the Empire which allowed that intelligence to work. Together, these men, their leader, and their founder presage, in some aspect, Canada's coming of age as a nation.

Donald Smith

Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, was a visionary and nation builder. He was born and raised in Forres, Morayshire, Scotland, near what is today the Glenfiddich Scotch distillery. He immigrated to Canada in 1838 at the age of 18. Through some family connections he found employment with the Hudson's Bay Company. A combination of shrewdness, family help and tremendous hard work helped young Mr. Smith up the ladder in short succession. By the lSSCs (now Sir) Donald was a very important character in Canada, representing the Canadian Pacific railway, the Bank of Montreal, the Hudson's Bay Company and sitting as a Member of Parliament. He was incredibly wealthy by any standards and by the time of the Boer War he had been made Canada's High Commissioner in England. This was as much for his skills as a moderator and negotiator as for his strong support of intra-Imperial trade laws and alliances. It was for his work in this capacity that he was raised to the peerage by Queen Victoria, inventing the word 'Strathcona' as his title, and adding 'Mount Royal' to represent his adopted home of Montreal. (1)

It can be said with certainty that Lord Strathcona's business acumen was only rivalled by his strong sense of Imperial co-operation, and the events of the infamous 'Black Week' shook him, and many others, deeply. Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada's Prime Minister, did not mirror this sentiment. Laurier, with his power base in francophone Quebec, was wary to upset his constituents who as a rule did not lend much support to Imperial entanglements, and who strongly believed that Canada should have no truck with Queen Victoria's 'Little Wars'. While much of Canada clamoured to join the fight, and eventually succeeded in forcing the despatch of contingents, Laurier wished strongly to limit Canada's contribution. (2) His political life depended on it.

Lord Strathcona, not able to sit idly by, began to think on the best way to help the Empire. Along with men such as Lt. Col Dugald Lumsden3, Lord Strathcona realized that the Boers were not a foe to be beaten with regular infantry. Their quick and sharp guerrilla style of warfare had to be countered with like tactics. Where better to find men to fight in this war than Canada's Northwest Territories? This land, now represented by the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Yukon and Northwest Territories, was still very much a land of hard living ready settlers. The economic base was still prospecting, ranching and farming. Most young men grew up on the back of a horse, ready hands with a rifle and used to a life of long hours and living in the rough. They were ideal for the purpose.

The Regiment

Strathcona's position as a representative of the Dominion government prevented him from pressuring Laurier directly to increase Canada's contribution to the war effort. But this same position, and his tremendous wealth, did allow him to act as a private individual in support of the Empire. On the 31st of December 1899 Lord Strathcona formally made the offer to form a mounted Regiment from Canada's western territories. To Laurier this was a fabulous offer, for it allowed him to placate Imperial sentiment without inflaming Francophone sensibilities against the war. Accordingly, he accepted the offer on the 3rd of January 1900 as did the Imperial War Office only 10 days later. Immediately, Lord Strathcona cabled General Edward Hutton, Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Militia:

Have presented mounted regiment to Imperial Government for service in South Africa. Request you kindly raise same, mount same, equip same in Canada. Please draw on my account Bank of Montreal 150,000 pounds. My friend, Sir Edward Clouston, will provide all that is necessary. (4)

The process began at once. Reflecting Laurier's desire to avoid further active support of the War effort, Strathcona's Horse was not to be part of the Canadian army. Rather, they were held on strength as an Imperial unit, with their pay and rations supplied by the Imperial army once they entered the South African theatre. Along with Lumsden's Horse, the Strathcona's were the only other irregular Imperial unit whose officers held Queen's Commissions in the Imperial Army. (5) Until they reached South Africa, however, the welfare of the fledgling unit was entirely the responsibility of its founder.

The most important decision, however, was the choice for the Commanding Officer of the regiment. For this critical role an officer of immense reputation, strength and experience was found; Samuel Benfield Steele, former superintendent of the Northwest Mounted Police. Sam Steele was already on his way overseas when he received a telegram from Dr. Frederick Borden, Minister of Militia, on the 25th January. He was supposed to be second-in-command of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, but the chance to command his own unit, with his own choice of officers and men, was too good for him to pass up.
With the venerable Sam Steele as the CO, recruitment proved to be no problem. The mounted police infrastructure at his disposal for recruiting made things go quite smoothly, not at all hindered by the news that the celebrated Steele was to command his own regiment. Volunteers called from every quarter and, in proof of Steele's almost international fame, 600 Arizona cowboys offered to join and pay for their own equipment if only they could serve under Steele.6 Their offer was turned down, but this did not hamper recruiting efforts. Within five days of the call for recruits, Strathcona's Horse was up to its full complement of 537 all ranks, only 15 days had passed since Steele had received Borden's telegram. (7)

In Steele's words, the recruits were the very pick of the cowboy, cowpuncher, ranger, policeman and ex-policeman of the territories and British Columbia. (8)

Included in the ranks were the dissolute son of a Duke, a fugitive from American justice, and several disgraced former officers from the British army who came on as troopers. There were graduates from the Royal Military College of Canada, professors, journalists as well as men who were functionally illiterate. It was an interesting cross-section of a young nation.

While recruiting was underway, so was the equipping of the Regiment. Lord Strathcona's large bank draft (later to double the initial amount) was put to use immediately by Major Robert Belcher, who was to be second-in-command of the regiment. (9) The best horses were gathered from all of the Northwest Territories, the finest saddles purchased, and a special order of revolvers bought from Colt directly. Their rakish Stetson hats, the Strathcona calling card during the war, were only issued later in South Africa. In the words of Sam Steele:

No corps left Canada, and it is doubtful whether there was any in the field in South Africa, so thoroughly clothed and equipped as that placed at the service of the Empire by Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal (10)

Along their way to embark in Halifax, the Strathcona's were lauded by the many strong imperialists of the day who feted them at even the shortest railway stops. In Moncton, New Brunswick, the mayor presented a lovely silken flag with the words:

With hearts filled with loving patriotism, we give this flag to you., .let the call be made upon [the Strathcona's] to jeopardise their lives, without counting the cost, it will be answered as of old: 'Their's not to make reply, Their's but to do or die'

To you this bit of silk will be a sacred symbol, .it will remind you of your loyalty and devotion to God, the Queen and Empire....(11)

South Africa

On board the S.S. Monterey, the Strathcona's departed Halifax on 17 March and arrived 23 days later, after losing many horses to disease while at sea. After a few weeks of training in Capetown and one aborted mission, they were attached to the 3rd Mounted Brigade under Lord Dundonald, and served in Sir Redvers Buller's Natal Field Force.

The baptism of fire came, with some significance, on 1 July 1900, Dominion Day (now Canada Day). It was in this engagement that no. 509 Trooper Jenkins was killed by a bullet through the chest. As well, Major Howard, OC A Squadron, was captured along with his batman, Private J. Hobson. It was a rough day for the Strathcona's, but better days were definitely ahead. More successful ventures were indeed not long in coming. In July of 1900, while leading a small column of Strathconas up to the front, Sergeant Arthur Richardson's column of 38 Strathconas was attacked by a Boer commando of roughly 80 men. One Trooper MacArthur was shot from his horse and Richardson rode to within 30 yards of the pursuing Boers to rescue the fallen trooper. His hat, shirt, saddle and horse were riddled with bullets, but Richardson succeeded in making it to safety, having lost none of his small command. For this act of bravery he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to a Canadian in the Boer War, the first to a Canadian in a Canadian unit, and the second to any Canadian. It was a great moment in Strathcona history.

The fighting was almost continuous and before long the Strathconas had earned a fearsome reputation amongst Boer and Imperial troops alike. Due to the large stirrups on their California stock saddles, the Boer called Strathcona's Horse 'the big stirrups', and knew them to be one of the few Imperial formations that was both fast enough to catch them and brave enough to come to blows. More ominously, other Imperial troops came to call the Strathconas 'The Headhunters' for their uncommon desire to 'scrap' with the Boers at close quarters. (12) It was a well-earned nickname.

With resistance in Natal ended, Buller's force was broken up. On October 14th the Strathconas joined General Barton's 6th Brigade in the 'first hunt' for Boer leader Christian de Wet. (13) Here they learned of the true nature of guerrilla operations from de Wet's skilled commandos, but learned to fight back with equal skill and speed. On one notable occasion they almost captured one of the famous Boer 'long torn' guns, but had characteristically outdistanced their own support. Yet on other occasions Steele proved himself a dangerous enemy to the Boer. On the 10th of November he succeeded in surrounding a large part of a retreating Boer convoy and, though most of the commando escaped, captured vast amounts of cattle and ammunition.

On the 29th of November the Strathconas joined the 'second de Wet hunf on the southern border of Orange Free State. This five week campaign was their hardest yet, with 18 and 20 hour days in the saddle. On numerous occasions the nimble Strathconas rode down the Boer column, but had equally outstripped their own support. Their success was well known and they had become something of a legend. A London Daily Express correspondent wrote that

Of all the regiments, British or Colonial, regular or irregular, Strathcona's Horse among the Boers were the most dreaded, and, strange to say, the most respected. (14)

Return to Canada

Early in January 1901, their uniforms in tatters and most faces looking tanned and gaunt, the Strathconas finally received word that their terms of service had expired and that they were to return to Canada, via the United Kingdom, as soon as possible. Without some small reluctance they did, leaving behind 26 killed in action or died of wounds, one missing and 26 wounded. They had equally earned many high honours, adding several CMG's, DSO's, DSMs and other awards to their illustrious VC. South Africa had put Canada's west and her hard-riding men most certainly on the map.

The reception the Strathconas received on their arrival in England exceeded all their expectations. Crowds lined the streets as the Regiment passed, feting them as heroes and showering them with flowers and gifts. At a parade attended by a collection of the Empire's greatest nobles, including Lord Strathcona, King Edward presented the Strathcona's with the King's Colour, an honour normally reserved for Infantry Regiments, with the words:

It was the intention of my late mother to present you with this colour. I do so now, and ask you to guard it in her name and mine.

These words marked the end of the first chapter in the Strathcona's splendid history.

Afternote

Now titled Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians), the Regiment has made a notable contribution to Canada, the Commonwealth and the Empire over the last century. In both World Wars, in Korea and with NATO and the UN, the Strathcona's have fought very well, earning two more Victoria Crosses and many other high honours. Today they are garrisoned at the newly renamed Steele Barracks in Edmonton, Alberta. Though they are now equipped with Leopard C2 tanks and Coyote Armoured Cars, they maintain the only equestrian unit in the Canadian Forces. The Strathcona Mounted Troop, of 20 horses and 25 men, performs musical rides, equestrian demonstrations and fulfils ceremonial duties throughout western Canada.

While presenting his colours to the Regiment, the King made a notable remark -

Be assured that neither I nor the British nation will ever forget the valuable services you have rendered in South Africa. (15)

It would appear, indeed, that they have not. Throughout September of this year they will mount the lifeguard at Buckingham Palace, the first unit of the Commonwealth, outside the UK, to do so. It is a grand honour to end a proud century of service.

Notes

1. Beckles Wilson, The Life of Lord Strathcona, 1915, page 482.

2. Desmond Morton, 1900: A new Century Begins, The Beaver, January 2000, page 25.

3. Conrad Bailey, India Plays the Game, Soldiers of the Queen, Issue 96, March 99, page 24.

4. Wilson, page 519.

5. Department of Militia and Defence, Sessional Paper 35a, Canadian Forces in South Africa, page 156.

6. Sam Steele, Forty Years in Canada, Toronto, 1915, page 340.

7. Robert Stewart, Sam Steele: Lion of the Frontier, Toronto, 1979, page 239.

8. Stewart, page 238.

9. Wilson, page 519.

10. Sam Steele to Minister of Militia, 23 March 1901, Sessional 35a, page 155.

11. Sessional 35a, page 161.

12. Stewart, page 251

13. Richard Cunniffe, The Story of a Regiment, Calgary, 1995, page 75.

14. Stewart, page 251.

15. Steele, 359.

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen' issue 101, June 2000

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