SAffers as Imperial Service troops (WW1)

Following on from my piece on Sourcing SAffers who served during World War 1, here I set out why they fought as Imperial Service troops and not SAffers.

The reasons for the South Africans fighting as Imperial Service troops is grounded in South African politics of the time – in effect the struggle between the South African Party led by Louis Botha and Jan Smuts who supported the British Empire against JBM Hertzog and the newly formed National Party which was anti-Empire. I’ve addressed this in my two books and in a recent talk.

By all accounts (it’s not conclusively clear yet but everything points in the right direction) Smuts suggested the SA troops go to EA rather than Europe and the Governor General took this forward. Kitchener was desperate for manpower in Europe and hoped that the SAfs would go there as he felt it was pointless taking the war forward in EA. Discussions had started in April 1915 already but because of the forthcoming elections, Botha was reluctant to do anything overtly given the outburst in 1914 when discussions were taking place over the invasion of GSWA which resulted in rebellion.

Hertzog and his followers were challenging any expenditure of the government in support of the war as the nationalists felt it should be used in SA. Recruitment was also proving a bit of a challenge as a number of SAfs who were prepared to fight for the Empire felt they should stay in SA to counteract the nationalist vote. As a result, SA couldn’t guarantee the numbers the War Office demanded for complete control, a position which was exacerbated when Smuts realised they hadn’t taken the need for replacement troops into account. He, therefore, felt he didn’t have the bargaining power to insist on SA taking complete control of the campaign.

The decision to make the troops Imperial was so that Britain could pick up the payment of the men and thereby prevent a nasty fight in parliament and the possible collapse of Botha’s government. As it was the SAf troops were paid 3s a day compared to the 1s a day the British were paid. SA contributed to some of this cost but Britain picked up the majority of it. Technically, as the troops were all Imperial they sh/could have been distributed across other battalions etc however, SA fought to keep them as distinct units in order to ensure SA was recognised as a country in its own right in the same way as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland. This was one of the big reasons behind a recruitment push in late 1916/early 1917 for Europe. Delville Wood and other European battles had so depleted the SA troops that if reinforcements were not found quickly, Smuts would lose his argument for keeping the battalion together. The South Africans were able to scrape enough recruits to keep the units distinct. This was also part of his reason for orchestrating that South African General Jaap van Deventer become commander of the forces in EA in place of British General Reginald Hoskins. It was all for the betterment of SA.

This obviously then fed into the bigger picture of Smuts fighting for SA’s right to sign the peace treaty as a separate power within the Empire, which they did, along with Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Later came the 1926 Balfour Declaration and the 1931 Statute of Westminster giving greater independence to the dominions – to the extent that on the outbreak of World War 2, the Union could decide which side it would support.

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