42% of South Africans serving in WW1 were “non-white”

World War 1 and here we see this stunning and timeless photo of some very unsung heroes – South African Native Labour Corps men sitting around a brazier at their camp near the Western Front – Dannes, France – March 1917. Funnily it’s a scene which would not look too dissimilar to a construction camp in South Africa on a cold winters morning today.

The Black African contribution to World War 1 has been heavily downplayed in South Africa’s accounts of the war on the Western Front (and for that matter all “western” accounts of the war), however in all – 83 000 black South Africans and 3 000 Cape Coloureds answered the call – a total of 85 000 “non-white” men complemented the 146 000 white servicemen – serving in all sorts of roles, ranging from policing, carriage driving, stretcher bearing, cooking, engineering earth and wooden defences, felling trees for fuel, on-loading and off-loading cargo … the list goes on. 42% of the serving South Africans during WW1 were Black or “Coloured”, a fact that is has been very overlooked in the past, and remains relatively unknown to this day.

Funnily in any military outfit today non-combat support roles are viewed as an intrinsic part of the military – medics, engineers, “Loadies”,”drivers,”military” policemen etc. and they are not viewed any differently in terms of veteran status.  Yet the prejudice and politics of the time viewed these men differently, withholding medals and recognition due to them.

To say that World War 1 for South Africans was a “whites only” conflict is to fundamentally misunderstand the politics of the day.  The sanitation of South African Military History to support the “white” narrative remains one of the hardest things to redress as people (Black and White) just simply cannot see past decades of historical indoctrination.

The South African Native Corps cemetery at stands in stark testimony of the sacrifice of South African “Black” men to the cause of World War 1 on the Western Front.  Over 300 Black South African soldiers of the SANLC and Cape Coloured Corps lie buried at the cemetery outside Arques-la-Bataille in France alone, and that’s without considering the over 600 Black South African SANLC soldiers lost on the SS Mendi to a watery grave.  Here the dead really speak volumes.


King George V who is seen inspecting N.C.O.’s of the South African Native Labour Corps at Abbeville, 10 July 1917.

Image copyright Imperial War Museum Collection

4 thoughts on “42% of South Africans serving in WW1 were “non-white”

  1. Another piece of evidence of Blacks’ role in the War is a protest poem written by S.E.K. Mqhayi, lamenting the decision of AmaXhosa chiefs of the time to send AmaXhosa men to the War at the request of the British. Some of them died when the ship called Mendi sank. I think the poem ‘ s title is Ukuzika KukaMendi (The Sinking of the Mendi).


  2. SS MENDI Memorial Service is Saturday 20 Feb 2016 13h00 at the Avalon Cemetery in Soweto.
    Contact: Lt Col (Ret) G.J. Giles (083) 600 0062
    Col S.A. Motswadira (012) 355 6397


  3. Albert Grundlingh has written extensively on SA Black involvement in WW1 – his most recent book: ‘War and Society: Participation and Remembrance’ builds on his thesis, part of which was published as ‘Fighting their own war’. I’ve reviewed it at https://thesamsonsedhistorian.wordpress.com/2015/11/02/review-world-war-1-reads-and-finds-of-2015/
    The GWAA (www.gweaa.com) is recording the names of all those who served in Africa whether they died or survived. We must not forget the latter and the struggles they had to continue when they arrived back home (men of all colours).


  4. Glad there are those who don’t care about political correct history, but the plain truth. South African history is complex and rich. There are a lot that is not regognice. What was the contribution of people of colour in the second world wat? Great article.


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