This Week in Peterborough: 1900

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Canadian soldiers in action in South Africa in early 1900. (photo via the Canadian War Museum)

So here we are, in twentieth century, and for Canadians in the spring of 1900, the big news was all about the events taking place in far-off South Africa.  The Second Boer War had broken out in October of 1899, between the British Empire and the Dutch settlers of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic.  The conflict is far too complicated to try to explain in detail here (the short version of the main cause is: “gold mines”) — rather, we’ll take a bit of a look at some of the aspects of it that were attracting attention in Peterborough around this time in 1900!

Click on, for the Boer War, and a very few other matters.

The major action underway in mid-April of 1900 was taking place at a town called Mafeking (now Mahikeng), which had been under siege by a large force of Boers.  The outnumbered British defenders, under the command of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell (later founder of the Boy Scout movement), had been holding out since November.  On April 12th, the Peterborough Review reported that Baden-Powell had been killed, although it also emphasized that this was an unconfirmed rumour.  Indeed, Baden-Powell was very much still alive, and the siege of Mafeking would be broken a month a later.

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Postcard commemorating Baden-Powell and the Siege of Mafeking. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Accurate reporting of what was happening in South Africa was, in fact, something of an issue.  All of the Peterborough newspapers this week in 1900 reported on a battle at a place called Meerkatsfontein, wherein 600 British soldiers had apparently been killed or wounded, plus another 900 captured, at almost no cost to the Boers.  However, the only reports of this battle were coming from the Boer side, and there was considerable disagreement over such basic matters as the location of Meerkatsfontein (the confusion continues; when I googled “Meerkatsfontein” all I got were newspaper reports on this alleged battle).  In the end, like the rumour of Baden-Powell’s death, the stories turned out to be false.

For Canada, the Boer War represented the nation’s first major overseas military action since Confederation, and of course the local papers were full of accounts of the Canadian troops were up to.  On April 11th, the Peterborough Review reported on the arrival of Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiment in South Africa* — “all well,” stated the article, although it also noted that 163 horses had died on the trip.

One of the very interesting sources of information on Canadians in the Boer War that turned up in the papers this week in 1900 was a letter from Sam Hughes, published in the Review on April 14th.  Hughes, born in Darlington (not far from Peterborough) remains a controversial and colourful figure in Canadian history.  A Member of Parliament for the North Riding of Victoria County, he was reportedly among those who helped convince Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier to send troops to South Africa.  Hughes himself served in the Boer War, and was Canada’s Minster of Militia and Defence when World War I brok out.  His tenure in that position was, frankly, disastrous, and doubtless we will find out more about it further down the road.

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Sam Hughes, at about the time of the Boer War. (photo via Reddit)

The letter from Hughes that was reprinted in the Review deals largely with the Battle of Paardeberg, which had been fought between the 18th and 27th of February.  Soldiers of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry were heavily involved, eventually forcing the surrender of the Boers, but also suffering casualties from an ill-conceived charge against a fortified position.  Hughes’ account of the war ranges from bloodthirstiness (“Wasson… got in some really handsome bayonet work”) to bravado (“I would accept nothing in which I would not be representative in the fighting line”), and given the writer’s reputation we have to take much of it with a grain of salt.  However, Hughes was also willing to be critical of the British commanding officers, referring to that aforementioned charge at Paardeberg as “another one of those very beautiful incidents in Britain’s wars, heroic, but damnably foolish.”  Such comments did not endear Hughes to the top brass, and within a few months he would be sent back to Canada for indiscipline.

As you might expect, the drums of patriotism and Imperial feeling were being thumped fairly hard in the press.  As only one example, the April 11th Review quoted a speech of Assiniboia West Member of Parliament Nicholas Flood Davin, in which he went on at some length on the topic:

“[Membership in the British Empire] explains that grand rush of noble feeling which encircles, permeates, unites, so many cities, countries, islands, continents, with their millions of souls, as with an electric chain of countless links around one flag of freedom and order.”

Full of patriotism the newspapers may have been, but they were certainly willing to criticize the conduct of the war when they felt it necessary.  The Peterborough Times, on April 11th, got downright sarcastic in describing one encounter between British troops and the Boers:

“Warned of the presence of the enemy, [British] artillery and baggage with a cavalry escort, proceeded gaily into a deep ravine and were surprised to find that the Boers had got there before them and were so ill-mannered as not to let them pass.”

The newspapers did not spare their readers from the horrifying side of warfare, either.  In the April 12th Revew, we find an article entitled “An Awful Thirst,” describing, in extremely graphic terms, the death by sniper fire of a soldier attempting to get a drink of water from a river.

Peterborough’s own soldiers (the 57th Battallion of Infantry “Peterborough Rangers”) did not take part in the Boer War, but there were nonetheless Peterborians involved in the fighting.  That meant, of course, the possibility of telegrams bearing sad news, and one such arrived on April 11th.  It reported the death of a Peterborough native and long-time resident named Alan Burritt, who had been serving as a lieutenant with the 12th Lancers, a British regiment.  Lt. Burritt had died of a fever near Kimberley, South Africa.

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Peterborough Review, April 11th, 1900.

Almost lost in the talk of the war was that this was Holy Week in 1900 — Good Friday fell on April 13th, and Easter Sunday on the 15th.  Perhaps surprisingly, there was not much mention of the holiday in the newspapers, at least apart from the fairly ubiquitous Easter ads (see above for one example).  The papers did list the times of the Easter church services around Peterborough, but beyond that, very little.

And there was scant coverage of anything else of import, for that matter.  Spring was in full bloom by this time, so the summer sports people were getting set up for the new season.  Peterborough’s City Baseball League was among the organizations preparing, and according to the April 11th Review, among the new teams would be “the Crescents, a strong combination from Ashburnham and the South End.”  And Peterborough and the Kawarthas was becoming more and more of a summer tourist destination as the new century began.  On April 14th, the Review mentioned the meeting of the local cottagers’ association, discussing what sorts of improvements needed to be made for the new season (the connection between the railway and the steamship at Lakefield was of particular concern).

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The excursion steamer “City of Peterborough” on the Otonabee, c. 1900. (photo via McCord Museum)

Next time, we will deal with late April of 1901, and there will doubtless be more talk of South Africa!

*Among the soldiers in that regiment, incidentally, was my great-grandfather.

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