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Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Canadian Trooper (Lt. John McCrae) 1898
Orig. charcoal sketch - Image Size - 41 x 51 cm
Found - Rochester, NY
Original frame & glass, backed with cedar shakes, contained newspaper dated May 14 (1900). Sketch possibly signed "John McCrae 98."
A Mystery Trooper: At an auction in Rochester, New York, we were lucky to discover this original charcoal sketch, a full 16 x 20" in size. We could tell this was probably a Victorian Canadian trooper, that it had not been apart in 100 years, and that someone had lovingly kept frame, glass, and picture, in marvelous condition.

The back of the picture was covered in rotting old paper that just fell apart when we tried to remove it. It was ancient! How could we ever figure out who it was or when and by whom it had been drawn?

When we removed the cedar shake backing, a rotting newspaper appeared which featured mostly sports stories datelined May 14 - no year anywhere.

From short clips we found out that people were planning budgets for 1901, so it had to be before that. The Queen was alive, so it had to be 1900 at the latest. A Canadian company had won a contract to make 30,000 uniforms for South Africa, so it had to be after October 1899, when the war started. There was talk of the war soon being over, and that Charles Tupper might win the next Canadian federal election. We knew one was slated for 1900. Conclusively it was May 1900.

A Canadian Officer: What regiment is he? Does his uniform or saddle gear identify him? He has one shoulder pip so he is either a lieutenant or a major. Is he too young to be a major? Is that a Canadian artillery uniform of the period?

Lt. John McCrae - 1898


John McCrae:
At the bottom right, very faintly is a name and date that might read "John McCrae - 98."

How likely is that?

Does the trooper look like Canada's famed poet of World War I?

Does he resemble McCrae as he looked in 1900 when he was in South Africa as an artillery lieutenant - below.

We have now definitely established that the trooper is a British or Canadian artilleryman, like John McCrae was in 1898.

Which moves us more definitively towards the view that the trooper could very well be Lt. John McCrae of the Canadian Artillery.


Left
is a portrait of Corporal Tom Bull of the Royal Field Artillery, taken c 1899, contemporarily with the McCrae portrait.

Note the similarity in uniform: wide red stripe on dark trousers, high leather boots and spurs, the white belt webbing, the 1885/90 pattern cavalry sword, in a dual looped scabbard, in its saddle holster.

The horse harness is similar: the saddle wallets, martingale and belly strap, the unique bridle set-up on the horse's head, including halters, bits, and buckles.

The only real difference is McCrae is wearing a barrack cap, and Bull sports the artillery pillbox.

Clearly then, the soldier in the McCrae portrait is properly accoutered the way John McCrae would have been as he sat his horse in 1898 prior to going to the Boer War as an artillery man.


Left is an 1885 pattern cavalry sword used by a Canadian trooper in South Africa; it has Canadian markings. It still has khaki stains on the scabbard.

The original version of this sword was denounced by troopers because they said it bent on impact. After the failed Khartoum expedition of 1885, to rescue Gordon, the pattern was modified (in 1889) to increase the weight. In 1890 a new pattern, based on this version, was introduced, and also badly received. In 1899 another version was produced which proved to be just as unpopular and useless in action, and apparently thoroughly disliked by the cavalry in the Boer War.

The reason for this are hard to understand since the British rarely ever got near enough to Boers to use it. For that reason, also, he Boer War marked the end of the usefulness of swords in the field.


Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Left a fine view showing how a contemporary British lancer from the 1880s was properly outfitted.

This is Arthur Rhodes, from Zelma, Saskatchewan, who served in a British lancer unit. Charging Fuzzy Wuzzies armed with spears, knives, and bows, was very romantic in 19th century India and Africa. Lancers practiced "pig sticking" at the full charge. For close in work they would switch to the sword.

Lancer units were sent to the Boer War and marched with Lord Methuen on Kimberley. The 16th Lancers were with Lord Roberts on the march to Bloemfontein.

Go to Lancers

But, faced with deadly Boer rifle fire from over a mile away, the profession where a man charged in with a long stick, lost its relevance.

Clearly shown here is the complicated setup of halters, bridles and bits shared by all three mounted men.

Also of note is the brass breast plate on the martingale.


Cabinet Card (detail), Arthur Henry Rhodes - c 1890
Orig. cabinet card - Size - 11 x 17 cm
Found - Kingston, ON



Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A rare view of a British cavalry martingale complete with the brass breast plate featuring the Victoria crown. This breastplate also appears to have been used on artillery horses during the 19th century.


So John McCrae's horses in South Africa would have worn this.

This one is a souvenir brought back from London, by a RNWMP member who rode in the Coronation Parade of 1911.

He probably traded a British colleague, something Canadian for it, perhaps a scalp...

 

Go to Horse Brass

Breastplate Martingale, British Cavalry, c 1890
Orig. martingale - Size - 1.4 m
Found - Vancouver, BC






A Lock of Hair:
Is that his distinctive forelock of hair that McCrae has left in a poor photo taken in South Africa, but which is clearly there, and which is so distinctly captured in the sketch right?

The Wedge Cap: Above are fellow Canadians aboard Sardianian, who left for South Africa a few months before John McCrae, showing the wide variation possible in wearing a barrack cap, sideways, forwards etc.

Comparing photos of John wearing his wedge cap, does the charcoal portrait reflect his personal style in putting it on?

Is that the side angle he wore it at? Was that the forward tilt he used? Was that the way he positioned his chin strap?

In the group photo right he is in the front row aboard ship, bound for South Africa.

McCrae left in his pre-mustache days in Guelph, before the war, with some of the men named on the ribbon above.

In the bottom photo with his dog Bonneau, in 1918, he is plumper, and 18 years older but you can compare the ears.



He died later that year but lives on forever as the poet who wrote "In Flanders Fields," as fine a pro-war poem as has ever been written...

Great Canadian Mystery Solved!

Could this be a charcoal sketch of McCrae, or by him?

We know that McCrae was a skilled artist, as well as a poet.

Or could it be both, a self portrait he executed for someone special, who kept it in loving memory, long after he had passed on?

A Secret Admirer: Does this explain why frame, glass, and sketch, are in mint condition after more than 106 years?

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Welcome Home Ribbon 1901
Orig. silk ribbon
Size - 5 x 19 cm
Found - Port Perry, ON
This ultra rare ribbon lists the boys from Guelph who went off under Lt. John McCrae as artillerymen to fight in South Africa, in 1900, during the Boer War. Their picture is bottom left.

In spite of its battered condition - think how you'd look after 105 years - this is a rare treasure, and probably the only one still surviving, with the name of Canada's most famous poet.

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