By Mike Smith
There’s no doubt in my mind that my love of Canadian history is one of the reasons I enjoy antique postcards so much. After all, whether or not the images on golden age (1900–1914) cards were made from contemporary photographs or drawn by artists, they provide wonderful snapshots of life in Canada during the entire Edwardian era and then some. And right at the start of the golden age, Canadian soldiers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel William D. Otter (1843–1929), were suffering the heat, enteric (typhoid) fever and Boer sharpshooters in what we now call the South African War (1899–1902).
Lt.-Col. Otter was a Canadian-born (Clinton, Ontario) career soldier with Battle of Ridgeway (1866) and North West Rebellion (1885) experience when he accepted command of the Canadian Contingent to South Africa on October 18, 1899. Hastily put together once Britain declared war on the Boers a week earlier, Otter’s 1000-man “army” was outfitted, trained and transported to Quebec City by the end of the month. The speed of this mobilization was nothing short of spectacular. Men who enlisted from as far away as British Columbia were among the contingent that left Quebec City for South Africa aboard the SS Sardinian on October 30th. Despite a rolling deck, bad weather and other annoyances like seasickness, Otter is said to have drilled his men for most of the month-long voyage. This was consistent behaviour from a man known to be a strict disciplinarian. In fact, he was so fond of rules and regulations, in 1880 he compiled what is considered to be Canada’s first home-grown military manual (see Figure 1).
By early 1900, Otter’s portrait had been reproduced on a terrific postcard by Toronto’s W. J. Gage & Co. (see Figure 2). Gage, well known to generations of Canadian students for its textbooks, was one of the few Canadian publishers that competed against Montreal’s J. C. Wilson & Co. for the patriotic postcard market during the South African War. Although Wilson would dominate the market, and as a result Wilson cards are much better known today, Gage’s Lt.-Col. Otter postcard is highly sought after by serious collectors. Although quite rare, copies do turn up at auctions from time to time but be prepared to open your wallets and purses, especially if the card is used in period.
For those collectors with shallower pockets (like me) there are several moderately priced Otter postcards worth pursuing. The best of the bunch shows him seated in the middle of the front row in a circa 1906 postcard of the Camp Niagara Headquarters Staff (see Figure 3). As luck would have it, Otter and all the officers in the postcard are easy to identify because the photo used to make the card was also included, with annotations, in a Camp Niagara souvenir booklet published in 1906 by F. H. Leslie. Leslie, who was the owner-publisher of the Niagara Falls Review for decades, is extremely popular with golden age postcard collectors. Starting around 1906, he published millions of cards of the Niagara area for local shops and tourist operations like the Niagara Parks Commission. These postcards, with the familiar “F.H. Leslie Limited” moniker on the back, were mostly made in Germany to a very high standard. Interestingly, although most of the photos in the Camp Niagara booklet were reproduced as postcards by Leslie, the Otter card makes no mention of him or any other publisher.
F. H. Leslie’s Camp Niagara booklet continually refers to “General Otter” indicating that the seasoned soldier would have had a few well deserved promotions after the South African War. For the record, in South Africa the Canadian Contingent played a significant role in the victory at the Battle of Paardeburg on 27 February 1900. In fact, British Commander-in-Chief Lord Roberts was so impressed with Otter and his men that after the battle he sent an official dispatch to the British Government stating, among other things, that “Canadian now stands for bravery, dash and courage.” When congratulations were sent to Ottawa from Queen Victoria, our country went bananas with pride and celebrations. The South African War veterans came home as heroes and by 1908 Otter was a Major-General and first Canadian-born Chief of the General Staff (see Figure 4). In 1910 Otter retired as a full general and was knighted in 1913 for his lifelong service to Canada.
Finally, I can’t resist showing Wayback Times readers one last Otter collectible. It’s a pinback button with his portrait (see Figure 5) which, like so many other South African War souvenirs, was marketed in Canada immediately after the victory at Paardeburg. I picked up this little gem for only $5 at the Goderich Sunday flea market last year. The vendor had no idea who he was but I certainly did!