By Roy Bassett
The United States was not the first country to underestimate a conflict when George W. Bush waved a Mission Accomplished banner in 2003 during the early weeks of his Iraq invasion. Great Britain was so confident the Boer war would be short-lived because of its military power it ordered the mint to produce the Queen’s South Africa Medal with the dates 1899-1900. The war didn’t come to an end until 1902.
It is estimated that 50 of the 1899-1900 medals were actually awarded at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to members of Lord Strathcona’s Horse, who had returned to Canada before the end of the war. The dates were removed before any further medals were issued, although a few retained a trace of the years and are known as “Ghost Dates.”
A total of 178,000 Queen’s medals were awarded to all persons who served in South Africa between October 11, 1899, and May 31, 1902. The 3,802 Canadians who saw active service while serving in Canadian units qualified for the Queen’s South Africa Medal.
The Boer War began Oct. 11, 1899 when the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State declared war on Great Britain after a long-standing dispute between Britain and the Boers, and ended May 31, 1902.
It began with the Boers invading British Territory in four places, Natal, Mafeking, Kimberly and Cape Colony. Three towns were singled out to attack in the Boer strategy, Kimberly, Mafeking and Ladysmith. Within a few months, the names of these small towns became known throughout the world. The battles so fought were of such importance that six of the 26 clasps later issued related to Kimberly, Mafeking and Ladysmith.
Canada entered the war on Oct. 13, 1899, with an offer of 1,000 troops to support Great Britain, demonstrating her loyal devotion to the Empire. Just 19 days after hostilities commenced, the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry embarked on the S.S. Sardinian followed soon after by many other Canadian units such as Mounted Rifle Regiments and batteries of artillery.
On April 10, 1900, the Lord Strathcona’s Horse under the command of Lt. Col. S.B. Steele, North West Mounted Police, arrived at Cape Town. Great Britain was at its height in military power and it was anticipated the war would be quite short in duration. How wrong they were. Two different dies were used for the Queen’s South Africa Medal resulting in three different types of the medal.
Type 1: Struck by die 1 with the two dates on the reverse; Type 2: Struck by die 1 with dates removed; Type 3: Struck by die 2.
Type1 and 2 are identified on the reverse by Britannia’s hand pointing to the R in Africa. On Type 3, Britannia’s hand points to the letter F in Africa.
With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, King Edward V11 replaced her as monarch. This led to the minting of a second medal known as the King’s South Africa Medal which, with very few exceptions, was issued with two clasps, South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902. The King’s South Africa Medal was never issued without the Queen’s medal and was awarded to all personnel engaged in operations in South Africa in 1901 and 1902, during which numerous skirmishes with isolated guerrilla bands took part.
Throughout the war, many battles were fought in different parts of South Africa. To indicate participation in any of the separate battles and/or present in any of the five States, 26 clasps were issued to be attached to the medal, the maximum number any one person could be entitled to is nine.
The clasps are: Cape Colony; Orange Free State; Natal Relief of Ladysmith; Rhodesia; Driefontein; Relief of Mafeking; Wepener; Defence of Kimberly; Defence of Mafeking; Talana; Transvaal; Elanslaagte; Johannesburg; Defence of Ladysmith; Laing’s Nek; Belmont; Diamond Hill; Modder River; Wittebergen; Tugula Heights; Belfast; Relief of Kimberly; South Africa 1901; Paadeberg; South Africa 1902.
The clasps were sent separately to the recipients and sometimes a medal will be found without clasps, or the clasps are loose on the ribbon. It would be prudent to conduct research to verify the clasps to the entitlement of the recipient. The following are the Canadian Units entitled to the Queen’s Medal and eligible clasps: Royal Canadian Regt of Infantry: Cape Colony – Relief of Mafeking – Paardeburg – Orange Free State – Johannesburg – South Africa 1902.
1 Canadian Mounted Rifles: Cape Colony – Orange Free State – Transvaal – Johannesburg – Diamond Hill – Belfast – South Africa 1902.
2 Canadian Mounted Rifles: Cape Colony – Transvaal – South Africa 1902Royal Canadian Dragoons: Cape Colony – Relief of Kimberly – Orange Free State – Transvaal – Johannesburg – Diamond Hill – Belfast – South Africa 1902.
Royal Canadian Field Artillery: Cape Colony – Rhodesia – Relief of Mafeking – Orange Free State – Transvaal – Belfast. Lord Strathcona’s Horse: Cape Colony – Natal – Orange Free State – Transvaal – Belfast – South Africa 1901 – South Africa 1902
Medical Staff: Cape Colony – Orange Free State – Johannesburg.10 Field Hospital: Cape Colony – Johannesburg – Transvaal – South Africa 1902.Canadian Postal Corps: Cape Colony – Orange Free State – TransvaalCanadian Staff: Cape Colony – Orange Free State.
Of the 3,802 Canadians who received the Queen’s South Africa medal, only 160 received the King’s South Africa Medal with the two clasps, making a pair of the Queen and King’s South African medals to a Canadian in a Canadian Unit relatively rare. The King’s medal, with the exception of about 600 nurses and a very few men who received the medal without clasps, was awarded with two clasps. One clasp medals are known but are very rare. Five of the clasps were termed “State” bars, namely: Cape Colony, Natal, Rhodesia, Orange Free State and Transvaal. These were awarded to those who served in the various States in which many small actions were fought. The most rare bar is that for the Defence Of Mafeking, followed by Wepener, Defence of Kimberly and Rhodesia. The rest are considered common. The small town of Mafeking was under siege by a force of 8,000 men under General Piet Cronje for 217 days. The British force of 1,300 officers and men were under the command of Colonel Robert Stephenson Baden-Powell. The clasp, Defence of Mafeking was issued to all the troops in the garrison of Mafeking between Oct. 13, 1899, and May 17, 1900, making it the most rare of all the clasps awarded.
The many variations of the medal and bars realize values, which range from $100 to $2,000, to British recipients. Medals named to Canadians in Canadian Units are valued about 35% higher, while those to the Lord Strathcona’s horse, with dates on the reverse (Type 1), would have a value of between $4,000 and $5,000. It is very important to ensure that the recipient of the medal is entitled to the attached claps when you consider the variance of the values of the clasps.
For instance, a Rhodesia clasp on a medal to a Canadian is valued at approximately $500; a Relief of Mafeking clasp, $600, and a Johannesburg clasp $180. Should you ever find a medal with nine confirmed clasps to the Royal Navy, the value would be $2,000; to the British Army, $1,000, and to a member of a South African or Indian Unit it would be $3,000.
Complete research is an absolute necessity when considering the purchase of these medals. If you are, or wish to become, a collector of the South African medals, the book British Battles and Medals, by John Hayward, Diana Birch and Richard Bishop, published by Spink and Son, is an invaluable source of information.
For more information on medals awarded to Canadians, try The Canadians: Those Who Served in South Africa 1899-1902, by Gary A. Roncetti, C.D. and Edward E. Denby, published by Edward E. Denby and Associates. It contains the names of all Canadians who served during that war. It might be hard to find, as only 1,000 copies were printed.
1 – A Boer War “ghost” coin, with faded 1899-1900 dates
2 – Queen Victoria and King Edward V11 medals with clasps
3 – Relief of South Africa medal, with clasp
Roy Bassett is a veteran of the British Army (1950s) and a retired Toronto policeman. He can be reached at email@example.com