Review: They, said we could not do it – M Adeel Carelse

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:
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
gun.

https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/30932/data.pdf

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.

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.

Loadshedding – An African phenomenon

I recently returned from two months in South Africa where one of the dominating factors was ‘loadshedding’ – ‘Have you downloaded Eskom se push?’ I was regularly asked. ‘You need to plan your day around loadshedding, especially when visiting the archive.’ Well, it was easier said than done on many an occasion. I would leave one place in darkness (no electricity) only to arrive at the next place some half an hour’s drive away, to be in darkness there. Planning seemed pointless to a large extent. It was time to implement project ‘African Adventure’. This had stood us in good stead travelling elsewhere on the continent – effectively, it’s a go-with-the-flow approach and make-do, as the Afrikaans would say – ‘maak ‘n plan’ or make a plan. So, providing there was hot water for coffee, I wasn’t too perturbed. Watching and experiencing how people reacted to the situation and our African Adventure approach was insightful – and again highlights the wealth divides in the country. I should also point out that loadshedding is not unique to South Africa. We experienced it regularly in Tanzania, had it on our visit to Ghana years back and during 2021, I heard a previous President of Sierra Leone talk of it being common in that country too.

The reasons for loadshedding appear numerous: mismanagement (linked with corruption) often being touted as the main reason, selling electricity onto other countries to boost national income, theft of cables especially copper for sale on the illegal market, and sabotage to undermine the ruling party’s position. Take your pick.

While in the other countries mentions, there did not appear to be any distinguishing between who was loadshedded and who not, in South Africa, depending on one’s location, determined the extent to which one was loadshedded. The National Archive in Pretoria, being within the same grid as the Union Buildings (government administrative centre) and various other government buildings suffered no loadshedding, whilst the military archive in Irene, 20 minutes away, was regularly loadshedded. While there was sufficient light in the reading room to continue working, getting files out of the repositories was a challenge – staff being reliant on phone torches to locate the required document (budgets are extremely tight). Areas where police stations were found also seemed to escape loadshedding, although not hospitals – they were reliant on generators.

Visitors to the country were generally protected from the loadshedding experience – hotels used generators and apart from reduced wi-fi access when the towers did not have enough time to recharge or the hotel chose to limit the service during loadshedding, life continued as ‘normal’. Some archives, public buildings and businesses used generators too – darkness would descend for 20 seconds during which someone invariably announce ‘don’t panic, light will be back in 20 seconds.’

Local experiences however, varied a bit more – some houses have generators or inverters to tide them over, others have turned to gas stoves which use gas cylinders or they have a single small cylinder big enough to boil a kettle or take a pot or pan. A few have turned to solar panels for generating power although this seems to be more expensive than the other options. Others have chosen to take a chance and plan around the likely hours of electricity being switched off – even hours seem to be the mark and unless there’s a major issue, power will be out for two hours, twice a day. A few days whilst we were there, we experienced 8 hours a day with no electricity – 2 x four hours. This was rather frustrating as computer batteries invariably ran out as did internet connection as wi-fi towers did not have sufficient time to charge and on occasion water too was switched off as reservoirs were unable to pump sufficient water for onward distribution. Generally, people were tolerant – annoyance was expressed at the 8-10pm slot which interfered with television watching.

What surprised me the most, was how insistent some groups were to continuing with electronic approaches when a return to good old paper would have removed many a frustration.The mad dash to find alternatives when electricity went down was something to behold.

This made me wonder how much easier some had it – most notably those who did not have the advantage of all the mod-cons. In my first week back in SA, we were launching a World War 1 project in KwaZulu-Natal where some semi-rural schools had little electricity to start with and few houses had access to the supply. Teachers were used to doing things the ‘old way’ with chalk and blackboard, and few textbooks (most definitely not something I expected to see 25 years after the end of apartheid). I heard of some using candles as opposed to the lights which could store electricity and come on when the power went off. I imagine fires for cooking are common in some areas too. Thankfully, South Africa is generally a warm country, so the need to keep warm are reduced.

There has been some suggestion that the UK is likely to suffer electricity outages. Given the huge reliance on technology and things electronic, I wonder how people will manage…especially with the move to store so much ‘in the cloud’. And all those who have migrated to escape the African loadshedding? While the existing inequalities are inexcusable, I somewhat suspect that those who are least well-off are coping better with the challenges posed by loadshedding, and provide a timely reminder that ‘progress’ is not always for the best. Here’s hoping the loadshedding can be sorted and not only for those in South Africa…and with it a reduction in the ever-widening gap between those who have and those who don’t.

Will we ever learn?

A leader in The Natal Daily News of the 15th January, 1949, though lacking the authority of a Judicial Commission, was of a very thoughtful nature and was representative of much opinion at the time. It read:

“These riots stem directly from our communal shortcomings which have been both material and spiritual. On the material side it is the flat failure to deal with the harsh facts of physical existence that has prepared sections of the community to react with murderous violence when certain stimuli are applied. When people are ill-housed, packed into congested areas, deprived of proper transport, subject to political frustration and some degree of economic exploitation, then the ground has been well prepared for terrorist outbreaks. When the particular people so treated are people whose way of life has been changed utterly in little more than a generation, the danger is multiplied. On the spiritual side, in turn, the faults are equally obvious – and equally black. Our politics are deeply sectionalised, our outlook is coloured with prejudices and discriminations. There are natives who can pretend, not without some foundation, that any anti-Indian measures they take can earn the covert sympathy of many Europeans and are justified by their harsh words. “Hatred has been sown and the harvest, though dreadful and shocking, should not surprise us.’

These words appear in the regimental history of The Durban Light Infantry, vol 2 by AC Martin (p423). This concerned the relationship between South African black and Indian, both resident in Durban. There were said to be 700 black African refugees ‘at Jacobs Native Location and at Lamontville. There had been instances when Indians attacked Africans. At Clairwood a mob fell upon and killed 3 Africans. At Overport an African was shot by Indians who were patrolling the area in a car’ (p422). The immediate cause of the violence referred to above was an argument on 13 January between a young 14 year old black African and a slightly older 16 year old Indian shop assistant. When the latter hit the former, he fell through a window cutting his head. The following day, full scale conflict between the two groups erupted and the Durban Light Infantry was called to help restore order. It turned out that the rumour had spread that the young black lad had been decapitated… This reminded me of a seven year conflict we’d been told about in northern Ghana back in 2000, which was caused by an argument between two women over a chicken. And then in SA, during the 1914-1918 war, we have the attacks on German and other foreign residents simply because their home country was at war against the British Empire and then the sinking of the Lusitania – no consideration given to the value the foreigners had made to their new adopted country, which they now saw as home. Outbreaks of random violence seem a regular occurrence.

So, what was striking about the quote at the beginning? I had never heard about the 1949 troubles – it got buried in later troubles. We know of Sharpeville (1960) and Soweto (1976) followed by all those of the 1980s and 90s which merge and then the more recent xenophobic attacks. The other striking point was what the author saw as the causes of the conflict. How little we have learned from the past – despite and in spite of believing that ‘history repeats itself’ and ‘we should learn from the past.’ Why haven’t we? We seem to think each outbreak of unrest is unique, but history shows invariably it’s the same causes underpinning the violent outbreaks.

Lord Kitchener tried to circumvent this cycle by finding ways to improve the situation of the poorest in Egypt when he was in a position to do so. Reduce the wealth gap and provide people with opportunities to improve themselves economically, and through education, and they will likely be more content. He left before he fully achieved this, but I understand that in North Africa, he is looked upon more favourably than in the UK because he tried to improve the lot of those least able to initially help themselves because the systems were against them.

Rather than giving lip-service to learning from the past, isn’t it time we found a way to make it a reality?

King Lewanika and Suffragettes

King Lewanika of Barotseland died in February 1916. This led to a series of articles in the Cape Times, one being the front page of The Weekly Cape Times and Farmers’ Record, 18 February 1916.

The short article concludes: ‘It is also to be noted that Lewanika long ago settled the Suffragette question by a stroke of genius. It was ordained that once a year on one day, the head woman be permitted, in the presence of other women, to have full and free licence to criticise the Council of the nation without check or interruption. It is said that the head woman exercised this right with immense satisfaction, and that her criticism of the men was complete and scorching. In witnessing the discomfiture of the men on that glorious day the women forgot their wrongs and their rights.’

I wonder what the Suffragettes made of this? It would be interesting to know if the head woman gathered the views from a range of other women or if she only spoke for herself.

The power of the female voice as expressed in the article resonated with Ian Hamilton’s statement about women being powerful before they put themselves on the pedestal, and also Louis Botha’s attempts to find a way out for the Boer rebels who were being pressured by their wives to make a stand against the government in 1914. He resorted to offering options – imprisonment or government service leaving the men to decide which was the lesser of the two ‘evils’.

Given the general shortcomings in our democratic processes today, I wonder if our forebears did not miss a trick back in the day when women were demanding a greater say. Is there a clue in these past experiences to help give all marginalised a greater voice while preventing new discriminations? Democracy has never been for everyone, even in its first formation it was discriminatory and promoting one group above another does not solve the equality dilemma. Perhaps we can take something from the implied messages of these few instances commenting on the power of women before they were permitted to enter the Councils of men, and design a system that works for all, irrespective of gender or background. I keep dreaming…

Novelist: Herman Charles Bosman

While Herman Charles Bosman was not old enough to serve in WW1 and had not started writing stories by then, his short stories deal a lot with the 1899-1902 2nd Anglo-Boer War and subsequent life in the Groot Marico area of the old Transvaal. The closest he got to writing about the war was the 1914/5 rebellion in South Africa, in a short story entitled The Prophet in his Mafeking Road (1947) collection where he refers to Siener (Prophet) van Rensburg whose influence over Koos de la Rey led to the 1914 Afrikaner Rebellion. General Kemp, according to Bosman, was also a staunch follower of van Rensburg.

Bosman’s own life story is interesting as he was sentenced to death killing his step-brother, a sentence that was commuted to hard labour in the Marico area in 1926, aged 21. He tells his story in Stone Cold Jug.

1905, 5 Feb – Born Kuils River, Cape Town
1926 – Death sentence commuted to hard labour
1947 – Mafeking Road (Malinda on racism in the collection)
1951, 14 Oct – Died Edendale