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Great Canadian Heritage Discoveries

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Probably the two most famous pictures of the RCR helmet in action with the Canadians scrambling up the hillside during the attack at Sunnyside, west of Belmont, Jan. 1, 1900, and above, fighting on Bloody Sunday, Feb. 18, 1900, during the start of the Battle of Paardeberg.

One can already see the problem the men had with the helmet. When lying down the long tail of the helmet would dig into the back tilting it forward over the eyes so the wearer could not see to shoot. This rifleman is propped up high; if the shooting was fierce he would hunch down further, the helmet tipping forward over his eyes. As a result many Tommies reversed their helmets. Photos show them with the long tail at the front, and the less interfering brim at the back.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

It's a rare enough discovery to find an original pith helmet, but to discover that it is complete with all its original parts is amazing indeed...

Most pith helmets that turn up are stripped. Badges are the first things to disappear, along the line, as they are removed for kids to play with or for selling to a dealer. To find the original badge on this one is wildly exciting.

Likewise with the chin strap...

These somewhat vulnerable straps are often the first thing to go missing on a helmet down the passing decades because they are so fragile. So most times they are gone from Victorian pith helmets that survive.

Often helmets have replacement ones, jury-rigged by some militaria dealer who claims it is genuine...

But the age-burn on this one suggests it is definitely in period, and hasn't been tampered with. The circumstances of this collection - having been owned and safeguarded by James into the 1960s - has also helped to preserve its integrity.

A special treat is finding - so faint no one had seen it before - James' signed name on the worn chin strap, confirming in print what condition had already made us suspect - that it was the original.


Chin Strap, Pith Helmet, Pvt. JRD McKerihen, C Co, RCR - 1900
Orig. leather - Size - 42 cm (as shown)
Found - Toronto, ON
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

What a fabulous discovery is a one of a kind Great Canadian Treasure from the Boer War - the personal helmet of Pvt. James McKerihen, C Co. Royal Canadian Regiment.

Genuine Canadian Boer War pith helmets, in any condition, are extremely rare to find, especially named ones, which this one, with two signatures, is.

This one is especially important because it is in fine shape and complete in all respects:

- it is named to Pvt. James Reid Dill McKerihen of C Co. RCR

- it comes with its original khaki cover, provided to camouflage its original white material

- its original CANADA badge

- its original leather chin strap - signed

- its interior leather sweatband - signed - with cork spacer

- its original vent cap

It is the helmet that James wore on the March to Pretoria, and during the Battles of Zand River and Doordrecht.

It is also the helmet he wore to the RCR Farewell Service, in Westminster Abbey, and waved in the air when Queen Victoria came to bid the RCRs farewell at Windsor Castle, one of her last public appearances before she died a few weeks later.

This helmet gazed on Queen Victoria.


Pith Helmet & Cover, Pvt. JRD McKerihen, C Co, RCR - South Africa 1900
Orig. pith helmet - Size - 23 cm
Found - Toronto, ON
Prov - McKerihen Coll

A collection like this is valuable because, since it bears a soldier's signature, we can confirm the materials, construction of the equipment and uniforms that were issued to the troops, and use it as a standard for rejecting bogus items that militaria dealers try to sell, deceptively, as "real Boer War items."

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Photo - James McKerihen & the Royal Canadian Regiment Cheer Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle - Dec. 1900 (detail)
Orig. photo - Image Size - 22 x 29 cm
Found - Toronto, ON
Prov - McKerihen Coll
One of five large mounted souvenir photos (30 x 37 cm) that James kept of the regiment's farewell thanks ceremony presided over by Queen Victoria. James is there wildly cheering and waving his helmet in honour of the Queen for whom he fought in South Africa.

The left side of the helmet - cover removed - shows the construction and basic shape of the Canadian Boer War pith helmet.

Unlike the cover, which is made in six vertical, pie-shaped sections, the helmet is basically covered with cloth in four sections, with two seams crossing at the top, that is, two seams per side; none down the centre line.

On top of the dome sits a ventilator, with three large openings to permit hot air to escape, quite a necessity in the African summer when temperatures might hit forty.

Near the bottom a band of fabric encircles the helmet below which the brim section angles out ever so slightly. When the cover is added this profile disappears; photos often show helmets with extremely straight lines from peak to brim.

American pith helmets of the period are are forever being passed off as British when they are clearly noticeably different in construction. See below

The right side of the helmet shows where the seams from the other side cross over to form a four part covering..

The bottom edge of the brim is sewn up with edging material.

The helmet is made from thick and very hard material covered with a heavy cloth that was originally white in colour. Through time, and from campaigning, the white has turned more to cream.

On each side a brass grommet, with a threaded hole, are anchor points for the chin strap on the inside.

But we failed to find the holes to hold the helmet badge if James was on parade without the campaign cover on his helmet...

Perhaps the answer lies in a bag of badges, shoulder flashes, collar dogs, and some 20 tunic buttons that also came with the lot.

There was an extra CANADA badge with its lugs deformed...

Of note here are:

- the leather sweat band adjusted by a string tie, which, when rolled over, also bore James' signature & regimental number

- the solid but perforated cork spacer between the leather sweatband and the helmet

- the ventilator, inside & out with three ports

- the War Department stamp in lime inside the dome

- the original chin strap

The extra badge's top lug had been clipped off long ago, and the bottom one bent upwards almost 90 degrees off the original horizontal. From the patina it was clear that James had done this himself for some purpose...

Did he and the other men do this to permit them to wire or bolt the badge through the threaded hole in the brass grommet that held the chin strap on the inside?

This might explain why so many badges are found with the lugs broken off or bent...

The khaki cover is actually a complex assembly, made up of 18 different sized patches sewn together. A central seam runs fore and aft, dividing three assembled sections on each side.

The front of the cover over the brim of the helmet is on the right and is shorter than the longer rear of the cover over the longer tail of the helmet.

The cover, when fitted over the helmet, is held on by means of a draw string that snugs the edge of the cover under the edge of the brim of the pith helmet.

The rounded lugs of the CANADA badge pierce through the middle panel of the left side central section.

Below a close-up view of a genuine helmet badge that actually heard gunfire on the battlefields of South Africa, the cries of the wounded, and the cheers in the square in the Transvaal Boer capital of Pretoria as thousands of troops - including hundreds of Canadians - cheered Lord Roberts on June 6, 1900.

Boer War Memorabilia - Pvt. JRD McKerihen, C Co. RCR, 1900 - 1

1 2 3 4 5 6

Four British Boer War era pith helmets show the essential characteristics of the type. Above two with the same four sectional coverings as the McKerihen Canadian, including the chin strap grommet and top hook. The one top left is a slightly earlier type with a more US dome style profile. British helmets - including the Canadian one - have a less rounded, more pointy, sloping crown.

British tails also tended to be more square, the US more rounded.

Left and below two more six part khaki covers, and the left one removed, showing some British and Canadian helmets used six part cloth coverings.

British Boer War Era Pith Helmets

Coming Soon... (Courtesy of the McKerihen Family Collection)

Pvt. James Reid Dill McKerihen's:

- signed RCR Canadian Contingent wedge cap

- RCR Canadian Contingent canteen

- collection of RCR and militia buttons, badges, and shoulder flashes

- signed Queen's Own Rifles militia wedge cap

- souvenir shells, bullets, clips, and casings from the battlefields of South Africa

- signed souvenir brass buckled Boer Staats Artillerie leather belt

- signed souvenir program from the farewell service in Westminster Abbey in 1900

- souvenir photos of the RCR meeting with Queen Victoria in Dec. 1900

- souvenir menu of Boer War reunion Toronto, 1960

A Comparison: The Canadian Pith Helmet - 1899 The American Pith Helmet - 1898

Note the peaked, sloped - instead of the domed - profile; the central - instead of the forward - massing; all seams at the side in an "X" pattern - instead of a main central, fore and aft seam in a "+" pattern; squarish - instead of rounded - tail.

Below, 1870s Royal North West Mounted Police helmet, showing an earlier British service style which foreshadows the later Boer War version.

Four different US helmets, of the 1898 Spanish American War era, which militaria dealers are always mistakenly trying to sell as British helmets, show the essential characteristics of of the type that differentiate them from British versions.

They are also use four part cloth coverings, but with the seams running down the centre of the helmet instead of in the X pattern used by the British.

The crowns are much more round domed than the British more sloping profile.

The tails are more rounded than the British square look.

The underside of the four helmets from left down show the rounded tail of the US version.

The brass vents - Canadian left - vary in the two types of helmet as well.

The spacers used to separate the headband from the helmet differ too.

The US helmets use cork discs whereas the British and Canadian used a corrugated or perforated one-piece spacer.

Original pith helmets were white because in the tropics it reflected the rays of the sun and made them cooler to wear. But they were also very easy to see a long way off as the sun made them highly reflective.

During the Zulu Wars of the 1870s, when campaigning against spear-throwing "Fuzzy-Wuzzies," this was not a problem, as nothing could harm you further away than a Zulu tribesman could throw a spear... Military theorists counted personal courage, above concealing yourself from the enemy, of prime importance.

Even as late as 1898, at the Battle of Omdurman, in the Sudan, against the Dervish tribesmen, the British soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder shooting their rifles, not as individual marksmen seeking a definite target, but more as one giant shotgun, against an enemy that had to come close to use knives and spears. The British Tommy was not then trained in individual marksmanship.

The Bullet That Ended the Era
of White Khaki Helmets

It was the arrival of the highly accurate German Mauser rifle, in the hands of skilled Boer marksmen, that brought to an end the the age of white helmets on military campaigns at the end of the Victorian era.

Careful Mauser sharpshooters could pick off the white helmets a mile or more away. White on helmets, straps, pouches, and horses, suddenly reduced the life expectancy of anyone using them or standing nearby.

The British army scrambled for khaki covers to camouflage the white painted domes of their helmets from unwelcome attention when campaigning in enemy territory.

The underside of three British Helmets illustrate the different sweatband spacers they used instead of the US cork disc separators.

The left one also shows how the khaki cover was overlapped and snugged under the brim to hold it tight.

All show the squarish British tail.

The two below also show that four part coverings, with the seams running at right angles to the helmet, were also used by British manufacturers.

To identify they type you must use a combination of characteristics to tell whether what you have is of British or American manufacture. Named helmets are, of course, much more valuable because they are confirmed to a person and place in history.

The helmets show the chin strap hook over which the hole in the end of the leather strap fits.

The WD with the arrow on the brim is very likely bogus, added by the magic marker of some militaria dealer hoping to snag a live one.

War Department designations, if they appear, are usually machine printed - not hand done - on the material inside the dome, not on the brim where it is easier to write...

The fresh looking chin strap here may also be a repro, since these are often missing.

The one above shows age burn, including edge chaffing, and is probably original. The one left is suspiciously new looking, and in conjunction with the fake WD, probably a recent addition as well, though the helmet itself is probably old and maybe even War Department issue. But it may never have left the wilds of England...

American Boer War Era Pith Helmets

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Souvenir Mauser Clip & Shells - James McKerihen 1900
Orig. Mauser clip & casings - Size - 57 mm
Found - Toronto, ON
Prov - McKerihen Coll

The accuracy of the Mauser bullet, against officers and men, sporting white helmets and shiny swords and medals, caused huge casualties in the opening months of the Boer War. In desperation men painted their swords, bayonets, and white webbing with khaki. The Scots Greys even painted their horses. And khaki covers for pith helmets became the norm.

The Mauser is distinguishable, from its British .303 counterpart, by the notched or indented base (referred to as "unrimmed." In action it was decidedly superior.

The Mauser clip was revolutionary, and a great improvement on the British Lee-Metford magazine. During a battle, once a Canadian had emptied the rifle's magazine, it effectively became a single shot weapon; he had to load each bullet one at a time. No soldier could carry extra heavy and bulky Lee-Metford magazines; but a Boer commando easily carried a bandoleer of a dozen or more lightweight Mauser clips.

The Boers loaded their rifles with clips of five shells. In the same motion it took a Tommy to load one bullet, a Boer could slip in a clip of five. In firepower one Boer was as effective as five Brits.

The advantage was actually far greater. British soldiers were still trained to shoot as a group, with individual accuracy not prized as much as producing a wall of fire against an approaching enemy.

The Boers, being hunters by nature, prized sharp shooting as a personal skill from long practice at filling the family larder with wild game. When a Boer shot he meant to hit; when a Tommy shot he hoped to hit...

James, like many men who fought in the Boer War, was a souvenir junkie. He collected shells and bullets of all different kinds from the battlefields where he fought, principally at Zand River, and Doordrecht, which cleared the way for the triumphant march into Pretoria.

A monument for one of his fellow soldiers who fell at Zand River today graces the front of the huge Woodstock, Ontario Court House, one of Canada's finest masterpieces of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture.

Zand River was one of the RCR's biggest battles, as the Boers made a stand on the north shore of the river which blocked the advance of the British Army towards Pretoria.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Bust, Pvt. George W Leonard, RCR - FC Dunbar, Beachville, ON
Orig. monument - Size - life size
Found - Woodstock, ON

The sculptor of the bust was FC Dunbar, a local artist from the nearby town of Beachville. He made the plaster cast which was then sent to the US where a foundry made the bronze casting which sits on the pedestal today.

It may very well be that the sculptor knew George...

George Leonard's bust faces the school where George used to go, the schoolyard in which he played and laughed, only a few years before he decided to volunteer to go fight for the Queen in far off South Africa, and never came back...

In 1904, when the monument with his bust was dedicated, the vast throng that congregated to remember him, was captured for posterity by the photographer from an upstairs window, looking across to its pedestal in front of a magnificent Canadian architectural treasure, the Woodstock Court House completed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style.

It was a unique event in the history of the town - the citizens were mourning, not a professional soldier who courted death as part of his job description, but a volunteer soldier on a one year contract to serve his community.

People from the town gathered, civilians all, who remembered one of their own, off civvy street, who had put down the tools of his trade - the pen as he was a clerk - to pick up the tools of war in the service of his Queen.

Even the rows of uniformed soldiers in the crowd were civilians - members of the Canadian Militia - who the next day were back at blacksmithing, teaching school, clerking in the bank, or slinging beer at the local hotel.

Like almost all of Canada's soldiers at the turn of the century, they were part time militiamen, weekend soldiers at best, and at most spending a few weeks in the summer at Camp Niagara boning up on their military skills.

They had to be ready, just in case those American Fenians decided to cross the border again and make trouble...

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