While wandering around central Johannesburg’s Braamfontein Cemetery, I came across an imposing monument to British soldiers who lost their lives in the South Africa’s Boer War of 1899 to 1902.
From Britain’s perspective, the war was all about the maintenence and control of empire. Meanwhile, for Britain’s Afrikaans-speaking ‘Boer’ opponents the war was fought to defend the independence of the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State . For both sides the ownership of the valuable diamond and gold mining territories were at stake. As for the position of the native Black Africans, unsurprisingly they barely got a look-in. In total, tens of thousands of people – soldiers and civilians – lost their lives either in battle or from disease or hunger.
Amongst at the names engraved on the monument and on nearby individual headstones are those of some of the many Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders who died in the South African war. As this was seen as a war in defence of a Greater Britain, it seemed reasonable to ask and expect the queen’s imperial subjects to do their bit.
Beneath the shade of eucalyptus, oak, cypress and other foreign trees that were introduced to Braamfontein Cemetery and northern South Africa’s grass veld over a century ago, one particular Boer War headstone caught my attention: that of Major Harold Lithrop Borden, of the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles. While the other headstones typically indicate only the name and rank of the deceased, along with the date of death, Borden’s somewhat grander stone at least hints at what might have really driven him to volunteer to enlist to fight in a far-off land.
Harold Borden was born in Canning, Nova Scotia and interrupted his medical studies at Montreal’s McGill University to go to war. As Harold’s headstone states, he was the son of Sir Frederick Borden, Canada’s Minister for Militia; on 16 July 1900 he was killed during the Battle of Witpoort, fighting alongside fellow Canadians and also with Irish and New Zealand troops.
It is impossible to know whether Sir Frederick actively encouraged – or perhaps even discouraged – his only son from enlisting. Nor do we know how Sir Frederick reacted to the field report that stated that Harold was “killed while gallantly leading [his] men in a counter attack upon the enemy’s flank at a critical juncture of his assault upon our position”. Was he proud? Did he wrestle with at least a glimmer of guilt? But he certainly managed, perhaps hiding behind a colonial Briton’s stiff upper lip, to serve another eleven years as Canada’s Minister of Militia.