Arthur Johnston, standing, with a friend in their uniforms for service in South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Warren Sommer)

Remembrance Day: Langley played a part in Britain’s war in South Africa

The last living veteran of the Boer War died in Aldergrove at age 111

If you attended a Remembrance Day celebration in the late 1980s in Aldergrove, you would have seen a veteran seated near the Cenotaph, elderly even compared to the First World War vets around him.

George Frederick Ives would be on his feet for the moment of silence, and his identity as a Boer War veteran announced to the crowd, as well as his age – well over 100.

Ives died in Aldergrove’s Jackman Manor at the age of 111 on April 12, 1993, the last surviving Boer War veteran and the oldest man in Canada at the time.

The Boer War, now known as the South African War, is today not well remembered in Canada, swamped by the memories of the far larger First and Second World Wars. But people from Langley fought in battles half a world away, and other veterans later immigrated and settled in Langley, shaping the community.

The 1899 to 1902 war saw the British Empire fight two independent republics founded by Dutch settlers in what is now South Africa. It was largely fought over the resources of the southern tip of Africa, including gold and diamond mines, and routes for railroads.

The war began with major battles, but soon became a guerrilla war, with the Boers fighting the numerically superior British in hit and run raids. The British adopted a scorched earth policy, and put thousands of Boer settlers into “concentration camps,” the first use of the term in history.

Some Canadians served in the war, including Lord Strathcona’s Horse, which was funded by Canadian business magnate Donald Alexander Smith.

Only one Langley resident, a man named Otway John James Wilkie, is definitely known to have signed up to serve overseas in the South African War, said historian Warren Sommer.

Wilkie, the son of an Anglo-Irish civil servant, born in 1861 moved to Canada in 1879 and convinced his parents and adult siblings to follow him, with the family settling in Langley. A B.C. Provincial Police officer, Wilkie enlisted with the New Westmisnter Contingent, survived, and returned with campaign medals.

“Not having had enough, he enlisted in the Canadian Army in the Great War, as did his son,” noted Sommer. The senior Wilkie had to lie about his age – taking off 10 years – to serve in the Medical Corps.

One of the most notable South African War veterans in Langley was Arthur Thomas Johnston, an Ontarian who served there from 1901 to 1903.

He too was a member of the B.C. Provincial Police, but that came after his war service. Johnston came to Langley in the early 20th century and ran a general store on the ground floor of the old Murrayville community hall, before it was destroyed by fire.

He too re-enlisted for the First World War.

“Art was famous for being the founder of the 31st B.C. Horse, which was a militia unit,” said Sommer.

The mounted unit spent its time locally training in Murrayville and Milner, and rounding up citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who were trying to leave Canada to return home to serve in their military, which was allied with Germany.

Johnston arrived in the trenches as a major, the highest ranked Langley man to serve in the war. He died there, in his first week, hit in the head by a sniper’s bullet.

READ MORE: Tracing Langley’s legacy of the Great War

Many of the veterans in Langley had immigrated to Canada after the conflict, as Ives did.

A former jockey, Ives was just 19 when he joined the 1st Imperial Yeomanry, and Victoria was still Queen.

A British documentary crew visited him shortly before his death, but after he had made his last visit to Great Britain in 1992, where he had tea with the Queen Mother and met Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher.

“We had plenty of veterinarians, but very few doctors,” Ives said. “A horse cost 40 pounds, so they looked after it, but a man only cost a dollar.”

He served as a cavalry scout, then after the war decided to emigrate. In 1990, he told the Vancouver Sun that he flipped a coin – heads Canada, tails New Zealand. The coin came up heads, and Ives became a farmer in British Columbia. He would raise six children with his wife of 76 years, Kate.

The South African War left its mark on Langley in the form of other settlers like Ives, as well as in the name of one of the town’s neighbourhoods – Milner.

In 1910, a new station of the B.C. Electric Railway Line was to open near Glover Road and 216th Street. Locals debated whether the station should be named Berry, after a prominent farming family. But schoolteacher William John Mufford had read a biography of Lord Milner, a British diplomat and civil servant who had been active in South Africa before and during the war.

Impressed, the Mufford family voted en masse for Milner, and the name of a man who never set foot in Langley was attached to one of its neighbourhoods.

One reason the war is less well known is that it was fought over gold, territory, and control of African colonies.

“It was pure aggression on the part of the British Empire,” said Sommer.

Yet in that era it was possible “legally and psychologically” to be both British and Canadian, he said.

“In the early 20th Century, British Columbia was the most British of the provinces.”

The province’s citizens, many recent settlers, considered themselves British subjects, at least until after the First World War, when attitudes began to change about Canada’s independence and its relationship to Great Britain.

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A photo from the Langley Advance Times archives in the 1950s or 1960s showed a gathering of veterans of the Boer War, with the participants identified, back row from left to right: Ben Williams, John Simpson, Sam Cudman, Walter Smallwood, Imes or Ines Alfast; seated from left to right: George Bulcher, James Musgrave, and Allan Turnbull. A photo from the Langley Advance Times archives in the 1950s or 1960s showed a gathering of veterans of the Boer War, with the participants identified, back row from left to right: Ben Williams, John Simpson, Sam Cudman, Walter Smallwood, Imes or Ines Alfast; seated from left to right: George Bulcher, James Musgrave, and Allan Turnbull.

Otway Wilkie, a Langley police officer, joined up to fight in South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Warren Sommer)

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