Calgary’s first major public art piece, this magnificent equestrian statue was unveiled on June 20, 1914, by a party including future Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. It is dedicated to the prairie soldiers who fought in the Boer (South African) War and never returned home.
Officially referred to as the “South African Monument” on the admissions card for opening day attendees, this statue is also known as the Boer War Memorial. Its conception was fueled by the discovery a frozen man in 1909 in a field outside Calgary. His only identifying feature was a piece of paper indicating he had served in South Africa during the Boer War as a member of the Strathcona’s Horse regiment. Other veterans of the war, upon hearing of this, decided to raise funds in order to give the man a proper burial. Soon afterwards, however, the man’s family in England managed to establish his identity and refunded the burial money to the veterans. This refunded money became the core financial inspiration for what would become the majestic statue in Central Memorial Park.
The statue is unusual in that it is scaled to be 50% larger than life. The sculptor was world-famous French-Canadian Louise-Philippe Herbert (Hébert), who was responsible for eight of the fourteen commemorative monuments in Montreal and Quebec City. The South African Monument was his final major art piece, but it was also his first equestrian subject. In order to do it justice, he had a “typical” Albertan horse sent to his Quebec studio from Alberta. He also made trips out to Alberta to see the horses in their natural habitat in order to better replicate their movements in his statue. As for the rider, there have been many speculations, including Lt. Col. Russ Boyle, Calgary saddler Eneas McCormick, and the “official” answer of Thomas Henry Johnson, a recently-arrived British soldier from Ireland who was “provided” to Johnson. Perhaps the most likely explanation that has been suggested is that Herbert started the statue with Johnson while in the studio in Quebec before he met McCormick during a visit to Alberta. As a result, the finished rider is an amalgamation of different persons, representing truly all of the soldiers in the Boer War to whom the monument is dedicated.
It has been said that this monument was funded wholly by public subscriptions. Primary source documents from the Calgary city archives, however, suggest that this was far from the case. In fact, the committee in charge of the South African War memorial project appeared to have run into significant financial difficulties and had to depend nearly entirely upon funds from the City of Calgary, amounting to at least $15,000. It appears that efforts to encourage Calgarians to subscribe to the project were not undertaken as enthusiastically as they could have been in the run-up to the project’s completion, and plans to ask for subscribers after the June 1914 unveiling were rudely interrupted by the First World War.
The Boer War
One of the first wars that the young country of Canada had the face was the Boer War of 1899-1902. Fought between the British Empire and the Dutch settlers (“Boers”) of the Boer Republics in South Africa, Canada became involved when the pro-Empire feelings of the country’s Anglo population outweighed those of the more isolationist Quebecois, labour, and farmer groups. However, recognizing the divided nature of his country’s attitude towards the conflict, then-Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier compromised by calling for a volunteer-only force that would be Canada’s contribution to the British Empire’s efforts.
Thus formed the Second (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry (2 RCRI). Consisting of 1000 men evenly-split between eight companies, the enthusiastic but mostly un-trained troops were, in the words of their commanding officer Lt. Col. William Otter, “capable of not much more than forming ranks and marching without getting out of step too often.”
Despite their inexperience, the 2 RCRI gave an excellent account of themselves in their first major battle at Paardeberg Drift on the north side of the Modder River, February 18-27, 1900. The Canadians were responsible for creeping near the Boer lines at 2am on the 27th. Just as they were about to reach the Boers, they hit a tripwire, resulting in a fusillade of lead being fired into them by the Dutch settlers.
The phrase “Retire!” was heard, and some of the Canadians began to retreat back to their lines. Others, however, of the two Maritime companies remained in place and continued to fire into the Boer lines. This sustained fire was sufficient to convince the Boers’ General Cronje of his position’s futility and he soon surrendered his 4,000-strong element of the Boer army. Considering the two Canadian Maritime companies consisted of no more than 250 men – mostly new recruits – it was no surprise that the morale boost to the British and Canadian contingents was quite significant.
The 2 RCRI and subsequent Canadian contributions soon achieved a reputation for being able to punch above their weight. Despite the lack of “barrack yard polish”, “they more than make up for it in spirit and dash and a certain air of self-reliant readiness to hold their own”, opined Lt. E.W.B. Morrison of the Royal Canadian Field Artillery.
From Western Canada came the Strathcona’s Horse, a roughly 500-men and 600-horse regiment raised and funded entirely by a private individual: Donald Alexander Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, or simply known as Lord Strathcona. Comprised of experienced riders and North-West Mounted Police (the precursor to today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police), the Strathcona’s required relatively little training and was one of the most battle-ready forces to enter the South African theatre. Their mobility and hardiness made them one of the most effective forces available to the British, especially in the latter phase of the war when the Boers, having realized their inability to face British forces head-on, turned to hit-and-run guerrilla operations…perhaps a foreshadow of what the Canadian Forces would face at the turn of the next millennium.
VALOUR CANADA wishes to acknowledge The Poppy Fund, Calgary Foundation and Veterans Affairs Canada for their generous funding of MONUMENTAL CANADIANS.