South African WW1 remembrance days

While some African countries seem to be moving away from 11 November as the day to remember those who died making the(ir) world a better place such as Nigeria and Egypt, South Africa seems to be adding days.

That we have a one-two minute silence on 11 November was thanks to South Africa’s own Percy Fitzpatrick. In the past, the day tended to focus mostly on the Western Front of World War 1 and South Africa’s involvement in World War 2, in particular North Africa and Italy. Today, the East Africa campaign of 1939-1942 is getting greater recognition while South Africa’s involvement in the campaign of the same name of 1914-1918 remains relatively glossed over in the public domain. Today, 11 November, in line with the more integrated South Africa, is more inclusive in its remembrance across the armed forces of the republic.

In addition to 11 November, we have:

20 February – Mendi Day when the 600+ souls who perished when the SS Mendi was sunk, or as I prefer to think of it Labour Day, commemorating all South African labour who served, survived and died during the First World War.

20 September – Battle of Square Hill when the Cape Corps suffered huge losses in helping the Allies gain a victory in the Middle East in 1918.

And then we have not quite a day, but the figure of Jopie Fourie who symbolises the rebellion and opposition to the British Empire.

I’ve written about these in various articles, but more recently, in response to someone reading one of my articles, I have come to realise another date in the military calendar:

20 July – commemorating South Africa’s losses at Delville Wood in 1916. Whilst this has been the feature of 11 November public commemoration until recently, it has been a feature of military commemoration for some years. Now, 20 July is becoming more well known as this 2018 article shows, at least in Pretoria.

Other posts: Delville Wood and Square Hill ; SS Mendi Shroud ; Aragon vs Mendi ; Dove to remember ; Why remember ;

Publications: The end of the war in Africa

Remembering the war dead ; Some thoughts on African war burials


How often have you thought of taking up ox-taming as a career?

It’s not something I’ve explicitly thought of but I have been subconsciously aware that there is a skill to getting oxen to move specially when pulling big loads up steep hills as in the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

So, it was with some interest that I read this article on South Africa’s Famous Ox-Tamer, William Kenneth Shuman. Although he was born after World War 1, the article provides some insight into the skill required and the relationship between the driver and the ox. This relationship has been supported and explained by Marthe Kiley-Worthington in her autobiography Family are the Friends you Choose in which she explains how she managed to get Cape buffalo (Africa’s indigenous bovine) to operate in the same way.

During the Great War in Africa, next to the carriers, ox-wagon was a major means of transporting goods between bases and the front line – many oxen succumbing to tsetse fly or sleeping sickness. In addition there was ‘beef on the hoof’ to move as herds of live cows were moved to provide fresh meat for the forces in base. Herding this number of bovine required skill and an intimate knowledge of the animal concerned. For this specialist labourers were brought in from South Africa in particular, mostly part of the Cape Labour Corps – a group we know even less about than the Cape Corps. While most of these labourers were coloured, there were white farmers and others who were employed as conductors to oversee the drivers. With the introduction of motorised vehicle units where similar terms seem to have been used, the contribution of these skilled cattle-men has been relegated to the depths of memory.

With little bits of information continuing to come to light through archival investigation, we might yet obtain an clearer picture of those, other than the veterinary staff, who looked after the animals on campaign. That cows were important was brought home recently when I transcribed the Kirkpatrick report (24min zoom video; transcript) into conditions in East Africa. One of the big complaints concerned milk and its availability.

Review: Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – Martin Plaut

A biography on Dr Abdurahman has been a long time coming so it was with some keen anticipation that I was looking to get a copy of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman: South Africa’s First Elected Black Politician by Martin Plaut.

Abdurahman was one of the characters who has featured from quite early on in my research into South Africa’s involvement in the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918. Dr A was the man behind the formation of the Cape Corps which was to see two units serve in East Africa and later a contingent in Palestine. This in addition to the Cape Boys who provided labour in the various theatres where South Africans served. Dr A, leader of the African People’s Organisation, was a tenacious person – in a year he sent 32 letters to the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence encouraging them to employ the Cape Coloured in the war. Eventually writing to the Governor General, and a change in attitude to the war in Africa, the South African Union Government saw its way to recruit Cape Coloureds as Imperial troops. Martin touches on this but sadly from my perspective didn’t do more on Dr A and the Great War. Partly this is due to scarce material – finding out more about Dr A has been on my ‘to do’ list for 20+ years.

Martin’s book has therefore been welcome in putting the meat onto the bones of the man. This has been a challenge given the scarcity of material – as noted in the introduction, the late discovery of Dr A’s private papers yielded little as they were illegible. The focus of the book therefore falls into what has been available in the public domain resulting in a book which explores South Africa’s race relations and collaboration between cultural groups within South Africa, particularly those who were not white. This is a vital contribution in understanding or exploring the relationship between the ANC (formed 112 as the SANNC) and other political parties.

Apart from more on the First World War, there are two aspects of the book I felt a little challenged by – one being Dr A’s Muslim identity and the other the use of the term African. Dr A was a Muslim – his first wife, a Scot, was married under Islamic law in Britain. Martin mentions a second wife with no records being available. All indications are, given his continued relationship with Nellie, that his second marriage was also under Islamic law. This was acceptable in South Africa, although such marriages are still not legally accepted (despite the emphasis on human rights etc in the 1994 Constitution, 2000 legal comment; 2020 position). While perhaps not important for the question Martin was answering, for my work on WW1 in Africa, this is an important aspect. Research to date suggests that the rank and file enlisting in the Cape Corps had to renounce their Islamic faith – for dietary purposes. Yet, looking at medical registers of the time, patients note Islam under religion. How did they reconcile these positions? Dr A walked/lived life both as a Muslim and as a ‘Westerner’ achieving at the time what few others were able. How did he do this? What debates did he have with himself, friends, family etc in walking this tightrope of different cultures? And even more controversially at the time of the 1914 outbreak of war, how did he reconcile the British Empire being at war against the Ottoman Emperor of which by marriage he was linked? My quest continues… Few historians, if any, in South Africa are working on related topics making this a rich research field for anyone interested.

And then the term ‘African’. While Martin has gone some way to use terms interchangeably, namely black, Coloured, Indian, white, there is still an overwhelming tendency to refer to black South Africans as African. This is something I probably need to write a more considered paper on as the term (politically acceptable and promoted in Britain, the USA and Europe) encompasses so many cultural groups. The term Afrikaner translates to person of Africa aka African, the Coloured, Cape Coloured or Cape Malay (an accepted term in South Africa – interestingly even people born in the 1980s to mixed couples were officially registered as ‘Cape Coloured’) is African in origin culturally and ethnically. So while the term jars as a single group descriptor and gave me a roller-coaster of a read, Martin has gone some way to mediate the cultures he writes for and knows (South African and British) in mixing the terms.

I’ve noted the gaps above but these should not prevent you from exploring Dr Abdullah Abdurahman by Martin Plaut. A far greater window has been opened on the man which gave me the hook to explore Islamic marriages in SA (there are some very interesting legal papers on the issue for anyone interested in trawling the web). For anyone visiting Cape Town and District Six in particular, the book is definitely worth reading for background – and then visit the District Six Museum to experience some of the transformation of the area Dr A represented for so many years. A remarkable man with a remarkable wife and daughter to boot.

A film insight into South African culture

Over the last while, I’ve ended up watching a number of films covering life in South Africa from about the 1960s. All the films (except three) were released post-Apartheid and all, except three, were based on real events. What links them all together is their common story of humanity – discovering that the ‘other’ is human and have their own struggles to deal with on the road to recognition and acceptance. As someone who lived through much of this going through similar transitions, all these films resonated, including those events I was not aware of at the time. All credit to the actors and directors for the research they undertook to reflect the people they were representing as realistically as they did.

The Angel, the bicycle and the Chinaman’s finger (1992) – fiction (adapted from a theatre production which I saw at the time)

Beat the Drum (2003) – fiction

Cry Freedom (1987) – the Steve Biko and Donald Woods story

District 9 (2009) – science fiction (I saw this just before watching District Six – do the same, I need say no more)

District Six (2003) – fiction based on forced removals in Cape Town (film of theatre production which we saw when the stage show came to London; David Kramer is an incredible story teller and commentator on South African life) . A relook (Kanala) at the time was released in 2016 which is covered in the link.

Goodbye Bafana (2007) – Mandela’s prison guard’s conversion

In My Country (2004) – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Invictus (2009) – South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup win (and the poem) Sitting in the post-match traffic jam on our way somewhere, the atmosphere was something out of this world, leading me to think ‘South Africa is going to be all right’ – watching the film 11 years after its release made me realise how much Mandela and Louis Botha were similar personalities (although Jan Smuts and Mandela have more in common) and that South Africa lost two great leaders way before their work of reconciliation was done. Will we ever see such leaders again?

Katrina (1969) – The story of a Coloured woman having her true identity revealed and its consequences. Based on the novel Try for White by Basil Warner

Novelist: Alice Mabel Gibbs (Morrison) aka Joan Kennedy

Alice Mabel Gibbs (Morrison after she married) aka Joan Kennedy (1885-1965) published one of the earliest historical fiction accounts of the South West Africa campaign of 1914-1915. She has a prolific list of books, including autobiography Myself the Pilgrim (1952) suggesting that her book on the South West Africa campaign, Sun, Sand and Sin published in 1916 was her first.

1885, 12 April – Born
?? – married Hans Hamilton Morrison
1941 – Registered in Jersey, La Vieille Maison, St Aubin
1956 – Hans Hamilton Morrison dies in Le Quesne
1965 – dies in Le Quesne

The book was not favourably in South Africa at the time based on correspondence in the South African National Archives. It was mentioned in The Dominion newspaper of 7 December 1916 on page 4 under the heading “War Books of interest and value” while an synopsis is available at World Radio History.

Joan Kennedy never visited South Africa, in the foreword to the book she notes after giving a broad brush overview of how the men came to be in South West Africa: Thousands responded to the call and from one and another of these warriors who wore the green-lined helmets my tales have been garnered. Not all tell of privations – far from it. A man will rather confess to making an ass of himself than place on record his claim to the title of hero. So there is humour and nonsense, and it is only sometimes that tragedy peeps through. To the boys who told the tales, I dedicate this little collection.

World War 1 Africa Books

Sun, Sand and Sin (Botha’s War) (1916)