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

South Africans in WW1 Egypt

At last, some dates have been discovered…most texts referring to the white South African contingent which served in Europe make vague references to the unit having been diverted to Egypt before participating in the battle of Delville Wood. Few specify dates. Working through EWC Sandes’ book on the Royal Engineers in Egypt and Sudan (94MB), I made some discoveries on pages 330-332 which I share below, along with a few other snippets.

Having completed the campaign in German South West Africa on 9 July 1915, white South African forces were demobilised by the end of August except for those remaining to garrison the German territory. Those demobilised were free to join another contigent. Some went Britain direct to enlist with regiments there, others waited to see what materialised in East Africa having heard rumour that action there was afoot, and others enlisted in the white South African contingent under Henry Timson Lukin to serve in Europe as Imperial trooops, paid for by Britain. On route, the contingent was diverted to Egypt to help contain the Senussi who were using the opportunity to assert their independence.

On 4 February 1916, Lukin and his brigade arrived at Mutrah. The whole force was under command of Major-General WE Peyton who took over from General Wallace on 10 February. Lukin with a column of 4 squadrons, 3 battalions and a battery set out and on 26 February defeated the Senussi at Agagir, 14 miles south-east of El Barrani. In this they were supported by the Dorset Yeomanry. El Barrani was occupied the next day. By 14 Marc,h, Sollum was occupied and Captain Gwatkin-Williams and 90 others of HMS Tara were released from the Senussi and the returned to Alexandria and the white South Africans continued to England

The white South Africans continued to England where they joined the 9th Scottish Division in Europe by 23 April. They remained in reserve until called on to defend Delville Wood on14 and 15 July 1916.

Later, in 1918, after serving in East Africa, coloured South Africans served with the Cape Corps in Palestine. On route, this Corps arrived in Egypt in April 1918 for two months’ training after which they the British 160th Brigade which formed part of the 53rd Welsh Division. On 18 September they participated in the Battle for Square Hill. They were withrawn to Alexandria until September 1919 when they returned to South Africa.

 

Quiet recognition

Recently, I’ve been discovering acknowledgements to various forces which have tended to be kept out of the media spotlight.

The first was an article on Johannesburg’s oldest war memorial – one to Indian troops. It dates back to 31 October 1902.

And by the time I got to visit Delville Wood on Friday 16 March 2018, I had discovered that when the memorial was opened in 1926, there were three acknowledgements which didn’t make it into the white press. Thanks to Bill Nasson who discovered a newspaper record of it and referenced it in an article entitled Delville Wood and South African Great War Commemoration (English Historical Review, 2004).

  • Leo Walmseley laid a wreath to the carriers and labourers who served in Europe and Africa. Leo himself had been a pilot in the East Africa campaign.
  • Petals were thrown to remember the 250 Indian Stretcher Bearers from South Africa who served and
  • Major William Cunningham remembered the Cape Corps who had served in East Africa and Palestine.

The newspaper which carried the info was African World Supplement, xi Abantu-Batho, 1 October 1926.

It’s a pity such remembrance was done on the quiet but it shows that there are always some who stand out from the crowd.

Back to School and the Western Front

A two-day trip to the Western Front to learn about the First World War in Africa. This was the idea, but would it work? And how? As I know little to nothing about what happened on the European battlefields. Thankfully Dickie Knight from Anglia Tours would be leading proceedings and he knew a thing or two about the Western Front. We would double act with me ‘butting’ in when appropriate. But would this work to keep 40 ten-year-olds engaged?

By all accounts it seemed to, especially as the teachers and Christine Locke of Diversity House had worked with the young people to give them a basic knowledge base of World War 1 and Africa.

Our first stop was the French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette . This provided an opportunity to discuss the differences between French, British, Belgian and German colonial management. The French cemetery would further provide a visual comparison for when we got to the Commonwealth War Grave Commission sites.
In the same cemetery there were Muslim graves. Muslims had played an important part in both the European and African theatres. With information from The Unknown Fallen we were able to see the instructions French Minister for War had issued regarding burial practices. This helped explain why the graves faced a slightly different direction (east) to the others in their uniformity.
A visit to the Ring of Remembrance provided an opportunity for everyone to discover the reach of the war – by finding their name. For most tour groups, everyone would likely find at least one mention of a family name. However, this trip proved the claim false. One young lass couldn’t find mention of her name anywhere – she was Nigerian, and this opened a learning opportunity regarding which European powers used African troops in Europe and which did not. A subsequent search has identified a relative who participated in World War 1 (WO 372/2/182235) – I think there’s going to be one happy young person when she’s told, and I’m sure there’ll be another learning opportunity at school.
Lochnagar Crater provided further opportunity to see how engaged the young people were as they went round making links with things they spotted such as the board to Edith Cavelle – a school block has recently been named in her honour. In contrast, mention was made of Brett Killington’s project 64 stops where New Zealand miners burrowed to make accommodation undground.
Dickie’s interactive session on gas attacks brought much amusement when the gas masks were paraded. But this did not undermine the impact the horrors of gas has on the youngsters as shown by the insightful questions asked. Again links to the African campaign were made – no gas attacks but Lettow-Vorbeck notes in his memoirs that the Germans had to drink urine on occasion when water was scarce during their attacks on the Uganda Railway in 1914/5. While men in Europe feared gas, those in Africa feared wild animal attacks and jigger fleas.
Next day we were able to compare trench warfare practices between the different theatres. Newfoundland Memorial Park introduced us to trenches and how these where used in Africa were different. The experience of the Inuit sniper John Shiwak provided a link to how black Africans must have thought when faced with having to shoot white men especially having been taught that this was completely taboo and that for those with a missionary schooling, this was one of the biggest sins ever. I’m not sure exactly how the teachers felt when I asked the young people how they would feel being told to shoot their teachers but it seemed to get the shock, horror and extremeness of the instruction across. Further, less controversial diversity was explored with the Legion of Frontiersmen, Shiwak having been a Frontiersman himself and how fitting that the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry are linked with the Legion of Frontiersmen still today, whilst the UK contingent is Countess Mountbatten’s Own. It’s incredible how linked the world is and was – even in the days before technology seemed to rule.
Delville Wood took me to home soil and gave an opportunity to welcome everyone to another country (the land is owned by South Africa unlike other properties which are French loaned). Here we explored VCs and how, although in print all are equal, it didn’t work in practice – Walter Tull (not African) was a case in point. I was able to share my new found discovery about Samson Jackson (I’d managed to keep it quiet for 2 days having just discovered the link on my way to join the trip). Samson was a black Zambian who had absonded from his employer, Stuart Gore Brown, when he was supposed to return to Zambia in 1915. He eventually joined the 19th London Regiment and saw service in Europe and Palestine. In 1925 he turned to the stage and became an actor. Watch this space as we try and piece together more about Samson who was originally known as Bulaya.
Remembrance was fitting theme for the remainder of the time at Delville Wood as a brief history of the Museum was given and the latest all-inclusive approach being that the statue at the top of the dome by Alfred Turner was specially designed in bronze which would go black to include all South Africans, not just the two white micro-nations working together to calm the horse. Finally a history of the two-minute silence as thought out by Percy Fitzpatrick saw us move to Thiepval where we put the silence to use to lay a wreath and remember those who had done their bit to make our world a slightly better place. It also turned into a pilgrimage as one young person knew there was a relative’s name on the wall. A short moving service was held and recorded for her to take back to her family who had not been before and were unlikely to do so.
I learnt as much, if not more in these two days – not least that the past resonates in so many ways. On the Eurostar back, a trio aged 10 were singing Madness’ Baggy Trousers from 1980 – harmonies and all (I asked no questions, I was in such shock), another (white British born) was experiencing his first train trip ever – something I’m used to hearing about in rural Africa where children haven’t seen a train or even a bus, but not in the UK. It just goes to show, don’t ever make assumptions.
Thank you to all for making this a most enjoyable learning experience for me and for holding your school name so high. The number of compliments you received along the way were well deserved and something to behold. It was a privilege.

Favourably disposed – a Groote Schuur link

I couldn’t help but wonder if Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the War Cabinet during the First World War, was favourably disposed towards Smuts because of a South Africa link.
This thought crossed my mind whilst browsing through the Cambridge College archive catalogue (Janus) for material on Africa during World War 1. Hankey’s wife’s name popped up and further investigation revealed that she had been born in South Africa

Adeline de Smidt was born in South Africa in 1882, the daughter of Abraham de Smidt and Gertrude de Smidt (née Overbeek). The de Smidt family (originally from Antwerp and Middelburg) owned the estates of Groote Schuur (Great Barn) and Westbrook under Table Mountain.

Adeline moved to the UK in 1890 – the year before Cecil Rhodes took out a lease on Groote Schuur (he bought it in 1893) and six years before the fire which gave rise to the current building designed by Sir Herbert Baker who was also involved in designing the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the Delville Wood memorial, Sir George Farrar’s house Bedford (now St Andrew’s School for Girls) and many of the old mine houses in Plantation, Boksburg which have now been destroyed.
After Rhodes’ death in 1902, Groote Schuur was bequeathed to the country as the leader’s residence which it remained until Nelson Mandela moved it to Westbrooke, now Genadendal. Another name associated with Groote Schuur, the war and London Society was Rudyard Kipling. Having befriended Rhodes, he was later to forge a working relationship with Baker designing war memorials.
Returning to Adeline, I’m not sure how much her South African connection influenced Maurice Hankey when it came to understanding or supporting Smuts – there was a great respect between the two men – but it does appear that Groote Schuur played an important part in bringing people together over time, and for that its architect is partly responsible for.