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Canadian Boer War Era Soldier - WO J Diffey, ASC & CAMC - 1899-1918

Fabulous Collection - Militaria memorabilia from a century ago is easily found, and is almost always, in bits and pieces: a set of medals, a ribbon bar, souvenir coins, a Victoria chocolate tin, a soldiers photograph, a veteran's reunion button... But sadly, almost always, these are unnamed, mostly anonymous historical castaways from soldiers whose names no one remembers anymore.

To find all these items named and belonging to one identified and photographed Canadian Victorian soldier makes this an unprecedented and a fabulously rare treasure trove of historical memorabilia from a turbulent time in Canadian history.

James Diffey was the quintessential Canadian soldier of the Victorian - Edwardian - Georgian eras.

He was born a Brit, in Woulham, Kent, on Aug. 20, 1875, and, like many of his generation, volunteered to serve in the British Army to fight the Boers in South Africa.

James served in the ASC, the Army Service Corps, a huge division of the British Army that handled the transportation, housing, and feeding of the fighting troops.

Somewhere down the road he ended up in Canada, living in Toronto, when World War I broke out.

On March 31, 1915, at the age of 40, he volunteered again, this time in the Canadian Army. James signed up in the Canadian Army Medical Corps and became a Warrant Officer.

In Commemoration of Paardeberg Day, Feb. 27, 1900





Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Driver James Diffey, Army Service Corps, South Africa 1900 (left)
Orig. photo - Size - 9 x 13 cm
Found - Wingham, ON
Prov - James Diffey Collection

A Mystery - Which one is James Diffey? - The photo - mounted in an exquisite Victorian brass frame - was part of the lot belonging to James Diffey, who was still alive in 1962, and attending Boer War reunions. We assume it was he who signed the back and sent it to someone special. But which one is he?

Is he the figure that dominates the picture with a leopard skin hat band and sitting while the others attend at the sides?

So we went to his attestation paper in the National Archives to see if it could help.

His birthday was in 1875, making him about 25 when the photo above was taken during the Boer War. That eliminates the man in front of considerable girth and age; he appears to be in his late thirties, probably early 40s.

The men in back fit the profile better.

The man on the right seems to be a corporal; James Diffey was a Driver - inscribed as DVR on his medals. That would tend to shift attention to the man on the left.

The documents lend even stronger support that this is James. It lists his height in 1915 - some 15 years later - as a very short 5 foot 3 1/2 inches. The man on the left is the shorter of the two, and is standing tall on both legs, while the one on the right is taller, even though he is slouching on one leg. And his hair is black or dark while James Diffey is listed as having light brown hair.

James Diffey is on the left dressed the way he looked on the day he watched the Canadians take the Boer Surrender at Paardeberg, on Majuba Day, Feb. 27, 1900.

Hype! Hype! Hype! say the sceptics... How do you even know one of the men is James Diffey? A fair question...

Well we are certain no one but James signed the caption on the back of the photo. He wrote the letter "D" in his highly unique style on his Attestation Paper fifteen years later - three times. We know he was married by 1915. Was this a present from South Africa to his wife in their courting days?

The men are all holding Martini-Henry rifles, the single shot weapon that subdued the locals in every corner of the British Empire, from 1871 to 1888, when the Lee-Metford magazine rifle was adopted. It would fight the Boer War. But the Martinis were used as secondary rifles for many years after, including for hunting big game, which the men above may very well be taking a pause from...
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
J Diffey Queen Victoria Chocolate Tin - South Africa, 1900
Orig. chocolate tin - Size - 9 x 16 cm
Found - Wingham, ON
Prov - James Diffey Collection
The Queen made a present of chocolate for all her soldiers in South Africa in 1900, packed in foil and straw inside the distinctive tin above. These tins are not really all that rare.

But named tins - those that have a provable provenance to a named solder - are extremely rare. And ones named to a Canadian soldier are the rarest of the rare.

Often sellers, eager for a sale, point to holes, gouges, and imperfections in an item as proof of "battle scars." All bogus of course. This tin has a very bad gouge top left, which we believe was a real "transport scar" when James was slinging his kit off and on the transport train accompanying Lord Roberts' march to Paardeberg and then Pretoria and Diamond Hill. James kept all his memorabilia in such fine shape that this gouge is not ascribable to grandchildren at play.

Below, another tin with chocolate still inside.

Below, James' Attestation Paper when he signed - three times - to agree to join the Canadian Over-Seas expedition in World War I.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Penny, Transvaal Republic, 1898
Orig. coin - Size - 31 mm
Found - Wingham, ON
Prov - James Diffey Collection
James Diffey, like other Boer War soldiers, brought home souvenirs of the war, to show off to the folks back home, that, unlike they, who had never been more than a few kilometres from where they were born, he had been to foreign shores and involved in exotic pursuits.

What could be better than coins from South Africa, bearing the likeness of the dastardly defeated insurgent President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal - the Republic of South Africa.

This Kruger Penny, unlike so many others, is absolutely mint, still bearing its original sheen; perhaps James "liberated" this from the South Africa Mint itself...

To see what souvenired coins usually look like check out Dave Gyles' treasure trove of dug coins right.

Paul Kruger Medallion - c 1898
Orig. medallion - Size - 39 mm
Found - Wingham, ON
Prov - James Diffey Collection
An ultra-rare medallion celebrating Paul Kruger's Fifteen Years as President of the South African Republic (1883-1898.)

James Diffey would not have bought this; he probably liberated it in some Boer farmer's house when his column stopped its wagons to water their horses at a homestead during its march on Pretoria.

Paul Kruger was portrayed, by the British and Canadian press at the time, much as Saddam Hussein has been in our day.

In fact Paul Kruger was a popularly elected President of a Boer-run democracy in South Africa, elected four times in a row since 1883.

What he did have in common with Saddam Hussein is that Paul was a weak, non-Anglo-Saxon foreigner who made the mistake of sitting on top of the richest gold - not oil - reserves in the world. And the most powerful country in the world - Britain then, not the US - wanted them and would cook up any excuse - no not WMD, Boer voting infractions - to grab them away from their rightful owners, to make the members of its military industrial complex - no not Cheney and Haliburton, the Chamberlains and their munitions factories - rich beyond compare.

Who says History does not repeat on me?

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Boer War & World War I Medals of Canadian WO James Diffey CAMC
Orig. medals - Size - ea 37 mm
Found - Wingham, ON
Prov - James Diffey Collection
The fabulous rack of medals of the perfect Victorian - Edwardian - Georgian Canadian soldier - Warrant Officer James Diffey of the Canadian Army Medical Corps:

Left to right, the QSA (Queen's South Africa Medal) with bars for Cape Colony, Paardeberg, Driefontein, Diamond Hill, and Wittebergen.

A five-bar QSA is rare enough that collectors demand to see paper work that the medal is not a fake, that the person was actually at those locations and entitled to all those bars. (Lots of people remove bars from other medals to make up a more valuable five, six, or seven bar medal.

A KSA, King's South Africa Medal, never had more than two bars. This reflected the changing nature of war. In the early months battles had been set-piece engagements with a beginning, middle, and end, that took on the name of the place - resulting in a ribbon bar.

By the end of the war, under King Edward, there were only guerilla hit and run operations - much like the war in Iraq. So naming the theatre of operations and the year was the best that could be done..

A set of Canadian medals bridging both first modern wars of the 20th century are rare too.

Most Canadians were only entitled to either a QSA or a KSA because their units only served under one monarch. Many soldiers who were in the Boer War were too old to fight in World War I; and most who fought in the Great War were far too young to have fought in the Boer War. As well so many died they never got the full complement of World War I medals either.

James Diffey was different: he fought the Boers under both Queen Victoria and Edward VII, and he was accepted for service in World War I, under George V, and lasted long enough to be entitled to the third medal, the 1914-15 Mons Star, as well as the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. He also received the MSM, the Meritorious Service Medal, for special acts of merit far right.

The 1914-15 Mons Star is a lacquered bronze medal issued to everyone who served in the theatre of war before Dec. 31, 1915. (James had signed up in August.) By 1918, and the deaths of millions, this was the elite service medal of the war for the survivors. Some 2,078,000 were struck.

An exploratory attempt was made to design ribbon bars for campaigns and battles - like for the QSA of the previous war - but proved an impossible exercise. Too many battles; too many campaigns; too many theatres of operation. War had gotten out of control.

Warfare had evolved so that it was no longer seen as the job of a select group of professionals, but the patriotic duty of every able-bodied man. In the process military medals were cheapened. What is the use of an award if everyone has one...

The British War Medal (1914-19) was a silver medal issued to anyone who left his native land to join the war effort waged by the British Empire. Some 6,600,000 medals were struck.

The British Victory Medal (1914-19) was struck in bronze and issued to anyone who entered a theatre of war. Some 5,720,000 were struck.

These latter three medals are so common that they are often referred to as "Pip, Squeak, and Wilfred."

The Meritorious Service Medal, first instituted in 1845, came along with an annuity paid yearly to the recipient who had to be a senior NCO, above Sergeant. This medal was not just for showing up for work, as the others were, but for performing above the standard.

A Question - Why, you may ask, does James Diffey's ribbon bar not reflect all his medals?

Possibly to keep his ribbon bar from looking too outlandishly large. But probably also to display his most valuable medals: the South African medals of his youth, and the Mons Star, which only the original volunteers could get. So many, many of them had died.

Everybody got Squeak and Wilfred. James was also proud of his Meritorious Service Medal.

For comparison see the medals below.

To see the medals and memorabilia of other Canadian Wold War I soldiers:

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
The large pinback shows that Boer War veterans were still gathering 62 years after the conflict had started. And James Diffey was there at 87 years of age.

The last official British reunion took place in 1981 with only six veterans in attendance ranging in age from 98 to 103.

The wives seemed to fare much better. One of the very last, the spouse of Canadian Boer War trooper Otto Moody, "Muggie," Elizabeth Reeve Moody, died at the age of 100, in Chamblee, Georgia, on Jan. 26, 2004, and sharp as a tack to the very last.

She was in all likelihood the very last surviving wife of a veteran of the Great Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

Boer War Reunion Pinback, 1962
Orig. pinback - Size - 57 mm
Found - Wingham, ON
Prov - James Diffey Collection

To see what souvenir coins - unfortunately anonymous ones - from places like Paardeberg, usually look like:

Dave says he is lucky, in that his contract work for Canadian Government departments, like Veteran's Affairs, and clients, like the Museum of the Regiments, and the Royal Canadian Regiment, gives him enviable access to the richest dig sites in South Africa.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Ribbon Bar, James Diffey CAMC
Orig. ribbon bar - Size - 13 cm
Found - Wingham, ON
Prov - James Diffey Collection
Ribbon bars, used in place of the full medals, on formal dress occasions, are assembled by taking a section of ribbon to represent the medal it is replacing. Ribbon bars, for Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian medals, are fairly easily found, part of the detritus of much unnamed militaria that is out there, but not really coveted, even when containing a top medal, like the DSO, alongside the QSA, and KSA, below.

Which is why having a named ribbon bar for a Victorian Canadian soldier - this one belonging to Warrant Officer James Diffey, Canadian Army Medical Corps - is wonderful in the extreme. To have one in mint condition, especially one so lovingly sewn together and sporting its original pin - another rarity - makes it a priceless item.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Queen's South Africa Medal, QSA - 1900
Orig. medal - Size - 37 mm
Found - Wyomissing, PA
A highly unusual QSA featuring an astonishing nine bars; only a rare few have been reported and only 1 ten bar.
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Queen's South Africa Medal, QSA - 1900
Orig. medal - Size - 37 mm
Found - Toronto, ON
A typical QSA featuring two bars.
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
King's South Africa Medal, KSA - 1902
Orig. medal - Size - 37 mm
Found - Toronto, ON
A typical KSA featuring its customary two bars for South Africa 1901 & 1902. The obverse carries the bust of Edward VII; the reverse is the same as for the QSA left.
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
QSA, Mess Medal - 1900
Orig. medal - Size - 19 mm
Found - Barrie, ON
Mess medals are tiny - only 19 mm compared to 37 mm - made small so that at meal times, the big clanking medals don't knock over the wine glasses when you're reaching across your partner to grab the gravy boat...

This medal was worn by John Goldi, in memory of the departed Boer War veterans, at the Royal Canadian Regiment's 100th Anniversary Ball marking the victory at Paardeberg, in the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, ON, Feb. 26, 2000. Among the thousands of medals on parade it was the only QSA.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Place Mat, RCR Centennial Paardeberg Ball, Feb.26, 2000
Orig. paper mat - Size - 22 x 36 cm
Found - Ottawa, ON
The place mat, showing the bend in the Modder River where the RCRs were located during the nine day siege of General Cronje's laager. Some 5,000 Boer men, women, and children surrendered.