(Published previously on December 31, 2009, in the Westmount Examiner and later in Connections, the journal of the Quebec Family History Society)
Although many Montrealers pass it virtually every day, very few know anything of the century-old Strathcona and South African Memorial (its full name) in Dominion Square. Set precisely in the centre of the celebrated downtown park (now under extensive renovation), the unique monument was unveiled at exactly eleven, the morning of May 24, 1907 – Empire Day, as it was known then. The ceremony, both civil and military in nature, was indeed impressive.
Several military bands provided the requisite musical context for the historic event. The troops, once massed on the grounds, gave the general salute to the airs of “God Save the King” while a firing party of sixty shot three volleys in honour of the occasion. The first was to the initial eight bars of “The Dead March in Saul” while an additional eight were performed during the second salvo. The very familiar ‘Last Post’ and ‘Lights Out’ accompanied the final barrage.
The monument is to commemorate the sacrifice made by the approximately 8300 Canadians who served in the 1899-1902 conflict in South Africa – infantry, mounted troops, and artillery. Of these, 135 never returned to Canada, either being killed in action or dying of disease in that far off land.
The memorial was designed by George W. Hill, a well-known sculptor from the Eastern Townships. For his work, Hill created a dashing military figure replete with the typical uniform worn by the men who fought at the time of the Boer War. The warrior is further portrayed tempering a bucking cavalry charger, not a mean feat given the reputation of the horses for their bellicose nature. The pedestal itself is made of granite while the statue was forged of bronze in Paris.
Letters to the editor from the period reflect some concerns, particularly about the positioning of the monument in the square and the absence from the memorial of the names of those Canadians who made the supreme sacrifice. Generally speaking, however, most Montrealers were pleased with its presence in the heart of the city.
Of the three contingents, which left this country to participate in the war, perhaps the most famous was Strathcona Horse consisting of three squadrons of 597 men of all ranks. It was essentially a private regiment, the expenses for which were raised by one man – Lord Strathcona, who had succeeded Sir Charles Tupper as Canada’s High Commissioner to London. Strathcona had a reputation for generosity in Montreal, what with the Royal Victoria College on Sherbrooke Street and the Royal Victoria Hospital being just two among many gifts given by him to the city. He also served as President of the Bank of Montreal and had been one of the major contributors to the financing of Canadian Pacific Railway. With regard to his regiment, and reflecting the instructions of Strathcona himself, the men selected to serve were to be from Western Canada, unmarried, and expert horsemen, “half-way between cavalrymen and cowboys”. They were frequently referred to as Strathcona’s ‘Rough Riders’ and were the last to sail for South Africa, leaving Halifax on March 1, 1900 under the command of one Colonel Steele.
Of the memorial itself, a former Quebec Deputy Minister of Education wrote in 1945: “G. W. Hill designed an outstanding figure in bronze of a member of the famous Strathcona Horse in the distinctive uniform worn during the South African war holding in check a prancing charger. It commemorates the heroic devotion of those who fell in that war and the valour of the Strathcona Horse, five hundred strong, that was raised during the Boer War for service in South Africa by Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, fur trader, member of parliament, railway genius of Montreal and philanthropist.
The monument renders grateful tribute to all who participated and records the names of Kimberley, Paardeberg, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Mafeking and other places rendered famous by British arms during the war. The base of the monument bears bas reliefs of the battles of Paardeberg, Konati River and Belfast.”
In all, the statue is 3.6 metres high while the dimensions of the memorial itself are 10 metres in height (including the sculpture) by 6.5 metres in width.
The Boer War ended in 1902 when a peace treaty was signed at Vereeniging on May 31 of that year.
Below, Lord Strathcona’s Montreal residence on the north side of Dorchester Street, between Fort and St. Mark (Montreal Standard, February 17, 1906)