Finding Private Johnston – Paardeberg, South Africa

Private Johnston’s great adventure ended abruptly on February 18th 1900. The 19 year-old militiaman had lied about his age to join the special contingent of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, recruited to fight Boers in South Africa. But on the first day of the first battle Johnston took a bullet in the head. Mortally wounded, he died nine days later. “8105 Pte. Johnston G.” reads the casualty list. “Died of Wounds, 27-2-1900. Buried at Paardeberg, S. of Modder River, 150 yds S.W. of ford, 200 yds. west of house used as hospital.” A century later, preparing to travel to South Africa and intrigued by that cryptic entry, I resolved to find out who he was, explore where he fought, and visit his grave.

My business would be in Cape Town but I decided to fly to Johannesburg, visit a friend in Pretoria, then see a 1,400 kilometre cross-section of the country by train, stopping half way for a couple of days at Kimberley. Aside from the spectacular “Big Hole” diamond mine and Galeshewe Township, famous for an anti-apartheid uprising in 1952, it’s just 50 kilometres from Paardeberg, where troops from the newly-created Dominion of Canada had fought together for the first time overseas. I’d rent a car and explore the battlefield.

The South Africa memorial beside Province House in Halifax lists Nova Scotians who died at Paardeberg. A check of their records identified one Halifax connection – Private Granville Johnston – who turned out to be the second-youngest of eight children of a Nova Scotian mother and an Irish sea-captain turned farmer. The teenager left his Black Point home on St. Margaret’s Bay to find work as a carpenter in Halifax, taking lodgings on Maynard Street and enrolling in the 63rd Halifax Battalion of Rifles, a militia unit in the newly-opened Halifax Armoury just around the corner. When Canada committed a battalion to Britain’s South Africa war in early October 1899, young men flocked to the colours, as much for adventure and opportunity as for the pay. The minimum age was 22 so Johnston, like many others, lied about his age. By October 27th the 125 Nova Scotians of “H” Company had reached Québec, joining hastily recruited compatriots from across Canada, bound for Cape Town.

Four months later, young Granville lay dying at Paardeberg while the bloody contest continued on the other side of the river. Thanks in large part to the “Royal Canadians” it ended with a Boer surrender on February 27th; the first Imperial victory of the war. Until 1919 that would be Canada’s day of remembrance for its overseas dead, and is still celebrated as Paardeberg Day by the Royal Canadian Regiment. For me it’s also the anniversary of a long-forgotten Nova Scotia teen losing his fight for life, far from home.

Canadians crossing the Modder

The attendant at a small museum at Paardeberg didn’t know where Canadian graves were, suggesting that instead I visit another battlefield where the Boers had won To be fair though, Canadians had been the enemy. Armed with a map showing the burial place, and a photograph of Canadians crossing the ford mentioned in the casualty list, I drove as close as I could, hoisted a backpack and set off to explore. Several hours of tramping the veldt under a summer sun turned up nothing. Late in the afternoon, hot, tired, scratched by thorns and disappointed, I sat on a flat rock for a break, a drink and a sandwich, mentally complaining to the Almighty because I’d felt sure I’d been destined to find this lad I’d grown to know.

Preparing to return to the car I realized that the stone on which my backpack was resting was almost identical to the one I’d been sitting on, and there were others, hardly visible under the coarse grass, all in line – I’d been sitting on the foundation of “the house used as a hospital.” Two hundred paces west led to train tracks coming off a railway bridge across the Modder. The bodies must have been moved somewhere else. But at least I’d found where Granville Johnston breathed his last.

As I got back to the car, a farmer I’d met earlier stopped to invite me to follow him home for tea. As we chatted, he suggested that an old fellow living on the other side of the river whose father had fought in the battle might know where Canadians were buried. A quick phone call confirmed that he did. Over we went, drank more tea and then, with sunset close and rain clouds threatening, formed a three-car convoy for a high speed drive down a dirt road, stopping at a white picket fence enclosing a scattering of Canadian monuments. One of them marked the last stop on Private Johnston’s journey, along with three others of his regiment who had also been buried near the field hospital.

Coming to know Granville Johnston, finding his grave thanks to men who would have been his enemies a century earlier, sharing the moment with the son of a soldier who fought him, a memory to savour. The setting sun was coaxing a rainbow from the clouds as we walked back to our vehicles. Never let it be said that I can’t take a heavenly hint – driving away I beamed a silent prayer of apology for being such an old doubter.

End of the journey