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Dragoons remember the heroes of Leliefontein

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer


The Royal Canadian Dragoons paraded before family, friends and past members Saturday to honour the 112th anniversary of the remarkable action in the South African War which earned the regiment three Victoria Crosses.

Despite a brisk arctic-like air blowing off the Ottawa River, the armoured soldiers were stoic as they stood motionless as Canada's most senior cavalry regiment came together to mark one of its most monumental days.

The crowd of family members and dignitaries joined the troops in their silence as the Guidon, the banner carrying its treasured battle honours, was marched on the Worthington Parade Square. Boasting a strength of four armoured reconnaissance squadrons and a headquarters squadron, the unit was inspected by retired colonel Georges Rousseau, the Colonel of the Regiment, and Gen. Walt Natynczyk, formerly the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) for the Canadian Forces.

"Leliefontein is really a homecoming," Rousseau said when he addressed the parade. "It's really our Thanksgiving. Once a year we gather as a family to commemorate the past as well as celebrate and reminisce over the year's events. Looking back as a family we've had our shares of success."

Leliefontein holds significance for the Dragoons. On Nov. 7, 1900, in a fiercely contested British withdrawal from the banks of the Komati River 30 kilometres south of Belfast, the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD) and First Canadian Mounted Rifles were tasked to cover the withdrawal of the larger British force. The Dragoons were holding a plateau two miles long when they suddenly became aware they were almost encircled by the enemy. The heroic actions of Sgt. Edward James Gibson Holland, Lieut. Richard Ernest William Turner and Lieut. Hampden Zane Churchill Cockburn prevented the artillery guns from being captured by the Boers, earning them the Victoria Cross.

In his message to the regiment, Maj.-Gen. Jim Ferron, commander of the Canadian Contribution to the Training Mission in Afghanistan and the senior serving Dragoon, touched on that day 112 years ago when the RCD became the only unit in the Commonwealth to have three soldiers win the Victoria Cross in a single day.

"It's true the Regiment was already nearly 17 years old on that fateful November day," Ferron stated in his written message. "The Battle of Leliefontein represents a remarkable event in our regiment's history. This single action serves as the most notable demonstration of our regiment's devotion to duty and prowess in battle. These heroic Dragoons set the standard for all who follow, a standard we need to strive to maintain today."

The regimental colonel congratulated the troops for an outstanding parade that concludes a week of sportsmanships and comraderie. Rousseau noted that since the 1970s the Leliefontein weekend has always marked a gathering of many from across the armoured corps.

He touched on several successes over the past year including the gathering of RCD Association in Kingston, the various exercises undertaken in the regiment's post-Afghanistan training plan and the participation of 90 members in this year's 2 Canadian Mechanize Brigade Group Ironman Competition. He also congratulated Natynczyk and his predecessor, Gen. Rick Hillier, both former commanding officers of the RCD, on their back-to-back tenures as Chief of the Defence Staff.

"We witnessed the end of a seven-year Dragoon dynasty in the office of the CDS. It's the first dynasty and it's up to you to make sure we get a second," said Rousseau noting Natynczyk and his wife, Leslie, leave behind a legacy that will be unmatched for some time.

The parade also saw the presentation of the Leliefontein Awards marking the achievement in soldiering by several members of the regiment. The descendants of Sgt. Holland also donated to the regiment an 1854 Winchester Rifle carried by the senior non-commissioned member during his time in South Africa. The event concluded with an impressive demonstration of the regiment's capabilities - a roll past of armoured Coyote reconnaissance vehicles - symbolizing the unit's preparedness to carry on with the spirit of Leliefontein well into the future.

Sean Chase is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist

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