Serving the Nation
South African War, 1899-1902
Indian guide at the summit of Groundhog Mountain, British Columbia, July 26-27, 1899
The outbreak of the South African War in the fall of 1899 was greeted enthusiastically throughout the Empire. In Canada, thousands of young men and women volunteered to serve with the Canadian contingents or with British units. The men of the Mounted Police were no exception and the war would have a profound impact on the NWMP. Men clamoured to go and dozens gave no thought to re-engagement when their terms expired in late 1899 or 1900.
Commissioner Herchmer himself was determined to see active military service and assumed command of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, a unit that included a large number of NWMP; 13 of 19 officers and 134 of 352 men were members. He was not a very effective commander, fell ill, and was soon relieved of his duties. Herchmer returned home and discovered, much to his consternation, that he had been relieved of the commissionership as well.
Sam Steele took a leave of absence (and eventually retired from the NWMP) to supervise the organization and recruitment of Lord Strathcona's Horse. He went to South Africa, left the military and was appointed Commanding Officer of the South African Constabulary, a position he held until 1908. Over 250 mounted policemen left the NWMP to serve in South Africa. Most returned to Canada and the force, but a number of men took their discharge in South Africa, and several were killed in action or died of disease.
Sergeant Arthur Herbert Richardson, serving with Lord Strathcona's Horse, was the first member of the NWMP to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Others returned home with honours and awards, including Superintendent Gilbert Sanders who was twice wounded and awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and Sergeant J. Hynes, also of the Strathconas, who was a recipient of the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The Mounted Police had not served as a unit, as some would have wished, but they acquitted themselves well, drawing on their cavalry training, and their experience in the field. It was the first time that Mounted Policemen served outside Canada and the beginning of a long tradition of military and policing service in the 20th century.