Life

HISTORY: First Canadian to fall

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

Barrie's James Halkett Findlay's portrait from his days as a student at university in Guelph.

Barrie's James Halkett Findlay's portrait from his days as a student at university in Guelph.

There was nothing to prepare the men from Simcoe County who were part of the Royal Canadian Regiment for its role in the Second Boer War.

The South African campaign seemed more suitable to the men from Australia next to whom they fought.

Private James Halkett Findlay was the first candidate to be chosen from the hundreds of volunteers at the Toronto armouries, Oct. 20, 1899, according to a Toronto Star article.

The commanding officer of the Canadian contingent was looking not for the biggest men but for those with barrel chests, strong legs and backs and bright minds. Findlay, a university student who belonged to the militia's artillery branch, proved himself a good candidate.

The 35 Battalion, Simcoe Foresters (later Grey and Simcoe Foresters) were one of the key units to provide men for the Royal Canadian Regiment. And the RCR gave the British their first success of the war. But it came at a high cost.

Findlay died Feb. 18, 1900, a day that would be known as Bloody Sunday. It was a day of incredibly high casualties for the Commonwealth forces, primarily because the commander insisted on a series of unco-ordinated attacks. The British commanding general became ill prior to the battle. His chief of staff, Lieutenant General Herbert Kitchener took over, ignoring the advice of Lieutenant General Thomas Kelly-Kenny, who wanted to lay siege to the Boers and bombard them into surrender, which would have led to far less risk to the Commonwealth troops.

Past assaults against dug-in Boer positions had always ended with high Commonwealth losses, and this was no exception. Reports stated that not a single Commonwealth solider came within 200 metres of the Boer line. As night came, two dozen officers and 279 men lay dead and another 59 officers and 847 men were wounded. It was the costliest day of the war.

Rev. Father O'Leary, the Roman Catholic chaplain to the RCR, wrote about the battle to his brother in Ottawa.

"... oh that wild mad charge against the invisible enemy ... Hell let loose, would but give a faint idea of it. On, on we would rush through the hail of bullets, the air alive again with deadly missiles.

On we rushed madly, wildly tearing, through brambles, stumbling over prostrated comrades, eager in the delirium of bloodshed and destruction, which had seized on all of us, to reach the enemy's trenches. And above the din of battle, that savage soul-stirring cheer...

Like tigers our brave boys bounded over the open, but it was not to be."

O'Leary also described the search for dead and wounded in a dark landscape where any light would attract deadly gunfire.

"From all directions, faint moans could be heard for 'water, water.' Accidently someone would stumble over a friend. Then what pathetic scenes would take place -- a message for home: 'tell mother"¦ etc. etc.' or perhaps 'don't leave me, it won't be long.'"

Somewhere on that field, Barrie's Findlay lay dead with dead and wounded members of his "C" Company, Royal Canadian Regiment. He was shot through the heart, and was the first Canadian to die in the war.

The men and horses had arrived just before the battle from a series of forced marches through rugged terrain in blazing heat. The horses, for the most part, newly arrived and not acclimated to the environment, were weighed down with equipment. The men were no better off, all hauling gear and supplies, the last march being over 20 miles. Beasts and soldiers were exhausted, but instead of being allowed to rest, they were plunged into battle.

On Feb. 19, the British commander, Field marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, was back in charge. After a day of negotiations, Roberts considered frontal assaults again, but many of the Commonwealth commanders resisted.

The Boer commander was put under siege and by the last week of February, he'd lost almost all of his livestock and horses. They were dumped in the river, which caused widespread illness among the Commonwealth troops who got their water from downstream of the Boer camp.

The Royal Canadian Regiment was given the task of attacking the Boers to end the siege. Instead of waiting for daylight, the Canadians decided to attack at night.

On Feb. 26, the Canadians and the Royal Engineers made their way in darkness to high ground 60 metres from the Boer lines. On Feb. 27, the Boers awoke, looking up into the entrenched Canadians. More than 4,000 Boers surrendered.

After the war, the Canadians erected a memorial to the contingent in South Africa, and back home a plaque commemorating Private James Halkett Findlay's sacrifice. It's now located in St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, on Owen Street in Barrie. Andrew Findlay, a reverend in Barrie, the father of the private, donated $25 towards the memorial in South Africa.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs historylab.ca, podcasts and can be reached at tom@historylab.ca.



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