‘They, said we could not do it‘ (based on the true story of the men of 1SACC who fought valiantly in German East Africa and in Palestine during WW1) by M Adeel Carelse is a book I have waited patiently to get. It is only available from the author in South Africa (copies will soon be available through the GWAA though), and after various hiccups the book was waiting for me on arrival after a 3.5 year gap.
In the book, Adeel imagines and describes his grandfather’s military experience in the First World War. With much information being scarce, he turned to the novel as the medium for telling his grandfather’s story. Because of this, the numerous editing and proofing issues can be forgiven. One of the most telling is the use of HMSAS – this is a World War 2 designation – in World War 1 South Africa was completely reliant on the British navy for its sea/coastal protection. Similarly reference to Task Force 344 on Durban beachfront – cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, gunboats and minesweepers and the German Surface Action Group are post-World War 1, although ships in the 1914-18 war were convoyed where possible.
At the end of the book, Adeel sets out what he used to compile the account: his own military naval experience. This explains the real sense of being there – the training and conditioning of soldiers to survive on the battlefield is palpable. So who is or was Adeel’s grandfather and why is his story important.
688 Sgt Charles Henry Carelse served in the 1st Cape Corps in the 1914-1918 war in East Africa, Palestine and Egypt. In addition to surviving the war, young Carelse was awarded the DCM for bravery on the Rufigi Delta in December 1916.
His citation in the London Gazette of 3 October 1918 reads:https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/30932/data.pdf
88 Pte. C. Carlse [sic], Cape Corps.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When severely wounded he remained with and kept in action hie machine gun until relieved, and when his comrades wanted to carry him out of action he refused their assistance, telling them to remain with the
The tale traces the family and social experiences of – Carelse, his brother and friends as they leave school and decide to enlist.
We join them on the training ground with all its harshness and deploy with them to the realities of war – death is and maiming are not avoided. How the families and friends, at home and on the battlefield, deal with the loss and home comings are raw – one reads so many clinical histories or accounts of war, that when one is brought face to face with the human element, it hits home – hard. This is one of the strengths of Adeel”s book.
There are numerous factual inaccuracies about the Cape Corps in the text, so for anyone wanting to find out more about the role of the Cape Corps, the following texts are the best to date.
- Difford, Ivor D – The story of the 1st Battalion Cape Corps (1915-1919)
- Harmse, Kyle – The Cape Corps: South Africa’s Coloured Soldiers in the First World War (MA dissertation, 2017).
- Janet Szabo – forthcoming
Original documents can be accessed at:
- The National Archives, London: (search on Cape Coloured)
- SANDF Doc Centre, Irene
Personnel records. The following Carelse are listed at the SANDF Doc Centre, in Irene – CH Carelse’s card was not included in those I saw (must check the spelling given the London Gazette spelling and on his medal card WO 372/23/50401).
194 John Carelse, B Coy, 1 Cape Corps, Oudtshoorn
798 C Yster Carelse, D Coy, Cape Corps EAEF, Robertson
916 James Errol Carelse, 2 Cape Corps (none religion), Tulbach
951 Mones Carelse, Cape Corps 20th Coy, EAEF, Vredesdorp
1215 Lawrence Carelse, Reinforce Coy, Cape Corps, 1 Cape Corps, Woodstock
2348 Hewuf Carelse, G Coy, Reinforce Cape Corps (C of E), Worcester
2389 Abel Carelse, G Coy, Reinforce Cape Corps (C of E), Belvue Estate, Cape Town
6051 Stephan Carelse, 2 Cape Corps (Dutch Reformed), Phillipstown
6198 Johannes Carelse, 2 Cape Corps (none religion), Tulbach
6468 Adrian Carelse, 2 Cape Corps (Dutch Reformed) Wynberg, Cape Province
6481 Raymond AG Carelse, 2 Cape Corps (C of E), Caledon
They, said we could not do it, is an important novel in that it highlights a population group in South Africa who are often neglected and ignored.
South Africa saw men serve in the two Cape Corps units in East Africa, Palestine and Egypt. In addition men served in the Cape Corps Labour Battalion in myriad roles, and in the Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Company (see https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/south_african_troops_in_europe_and_the_middle_east_union_of_south_africa.)
457 lost their lives in East Africa (163) and Palestine, mainly at Square Hill (51 on 20 September 1918).
9 were awarded Distinguished Conduct Medals for bravery in East Africa and 1 Military Medal. 1 DSO and 6 Military Crosses to officers
1 Military Cross, 6 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 2 Military Medals for Palestine.
This out of a total ____ armed South Africans to serve in all capacities. The book contains the following lists:
- 1SACC Roll of Honour (20 officers, 14 NCOs, 423 other ranks)
- Decorations and awards, including Mentioned in Despatches for East Africa and Palestine
The role of the Cape Corps in the Middle East was recognised in early December 2022. Adeel unveiled the plaque commemorating the Cape Corps’ service.