John Wilkinson was a decorated victim of a long forgotten conflict that contributed in many ways to the region
On January 6, 1903, a special reception was held at Guelph City Hall in honor of two distinguished soldiers.
One of them was Corporal John K. Minchin of Milton, paralyzed by a gunshot wound to his leg. The other, and the horseman who was truly the man of the hour, was King Sergeant John A. Wilkinson, who had lost his right arm and his right eye. Like their comrade-in-arms John McCrae, also present at the reception, they had fought in the South African War (aka the Boer War).
The South African War of 1899-1902 was not exactly Britain’s best hour. Even though the British won the war, the tough Afrikaner fighters gave the armed might of the British Empire all it could take. But it was the first foreign war in which Canadian soldiers fought. Over 7,000 men from communities across Canada, including Guelph, volunteered to fight for the crown, and 284 of them died. 252 others were injured.
In the words of Lieutenant-Colonel William Nicoll of Guelph, they stood up for the dignity of the empire and showed the world the true courage of Canadians. They were national heroes, and none more than Wilkinson.
John Wilkinson was born circa 1874 to a pioneer family in Puslinch. He grew up on a farm and attended Killean School. At fifteen, like so many other Canadian teenagers, he enlisted in the militia. Wilkinson enlisted in the “A” Battery of the Guelph First Field Artillery Brigade.
Wilkinson had clearly found his vocation in the army, especially as an artilleryman. He took an artillery course in Kingston and then won a silver medal in an artillery competition there. He was promoted to sergeant and was part of the Canadian artillery team that traveled to England in 1896 to compete for the Queen’s Prize. The Canadians won by beating teams from across the British Empire. They traveled up the Thames on the Royal Yacht Britannia to Windsor Castle where they had lunch with Queen Victoria.
By the time the South African War broke out, Wilkinson had been promoted to sergeant major. In 1899 he enlisted in the Canadian Mounted Rifles and volunteered to serve overseas. His regiment left Halifax for Durban on January 14, 1900.
Wilkinson participated in several engagements, including the Battle of Harts River, also known as the Battle of Boschbult. It was one of the last major engagements of the war, but also one of the bloodiest. On March 31, 1902, a British column of 1,800 men which included a company of Canadians faced a force of 2,500 Boers. The outnumbered British took up defensive positions around some farm buildings. In a battle that lasted over four hours, a group of 21 Canadians broke away from the main British force. Wilkinson and Minchin were with them.
Eighteen of these 21 soldiers were killed or wounded. Wilkinson received 10 bullets. An exploded bullet shattered his right arm below the elbow and a fragment of it blinded his right eye. He also lost hearing in his right ear. Wilkinson continued to fire his rifle until he ran out of ammo. Then he threw the bolt on his rifle so that it would be useless to the enemy if captured. He lay injured on the battlefield in cold rain for hours before being finally picked up by British stretcher bearers.
A doctor amazed that Wilkinson was still alive operated on him in a bell tent. The surgeon had no hot water and was working by the light of a lantern. Wilkinson and the other injured men stayed in this tent for eight days, then endured three days and two nights in mule-drawn wagons transported 98 miles to a military hospital.
In June 1902, Wilkinson was sent to Netley Military Hospital, England. There he received the visit of Queen Alexandra. Wilkinson was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, which ranked second in prestige after the Victoria Cross. On Lord Kitchener’s recommendation, he was presented to King Edward VII who awarded him the rank of king’s sergeant. Wilkinson was the only Canadian to receive this honor during the South African War.
Wilkinson returned home and in 1909 married Hattie Mae Bailey of Galt. Over the years, he served on the Puslinch Council, as Reeve of Puslinch Township and as Auditor of Puslinch and Nassagaweya Townships and Wellington County. The Wilkinson family eventually moved to Guelph, residing on Glasgow St., then Home St. and finally Mont St. They belonged to St. George’s Anglican Church. In 1938 Wilkinson opened the Wilkinson Insurance Agency on Douglas Street in downtown Guelph.
Wilkinson was introduced to royalty again on June 6, 1939, when King George VI and Queen Mary visited Guelph. After Wilkinson’s death on May 15, 1947, his widow received a letter of condolence from the King and Queen. Flags were hoisted at half mast at Guelph City Hall and Wellington County buildings in honor of the decorated South African War Veteran.