Sergeant Major Gandhi’s military service in Natal

It is strange to think of Mahatma Gandhi as having served in the military, but in many ways his military service and witness to war in South Africa shaped the future icon of peace and tolerance which he was to become.

Gandhi is generally quite misunderstood, like Smuts and Churchill, he was a man born in a period of ‘Empire’, the ideals of that period – its systems of governance and politics was fundamentally different to what we understand in the context of modern politics and individual freedoms.  ‘Empire’ was the way the world worked then, literally – it dictated geo politics and trade.

48934-OGJmNDllZjVjOAIn this context rose a young, British educated lawyer – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi -who emigrated to the British Colonies in Southern Africa to make a name for himself and start a new life.  He was at the start of his life quite supportive of British policies in South Africa and those of British empire and expansion.

Historians and political pundits have forever struggled to explain why the apostle of peace and non-violence had rendered support to the British Empire in the Boer War, the 1906 Natal Rebellion and the First World War.

What is clear by his own writings was that his intensions in supporting the British Army in Southern Africa was to buy the Indian population in Southern Africa more political concession and representation based on endorsement and participation in British war efforts.

The Boer War

Gandhi actually played a pivotal role in the Boer War, forming  Natal Indian Ambulance Corps under the British Military.  He even raised the money to form the Corps from the local Indian Community.   It consisted of 300 “free” Indians and 800 indentured labourers (Indians were encouraged to emigrate to South Africa as labourers under contract, once the specified dates of the contract finished they were “free” to own land and make their own way as citizens).

The Boer War was officially declared by the Boers in October 1899 when they invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape.  This attack led to the Siege of Ladysmith and the Garrison stationed there.   In an urgent response the British authorities recruited the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps of about 1100 local White men. At the same time Gandhi pressed for his Indian stretcher-bearers to be allowed to serve.

Battle of Colenso

Dubbed “Black Week”, from 10–17 December 1899, the British Army, unprepared for the Boer invasion, completely outnumbered and outgunned suffered three devastating defeats by the Boer forces, starting at Stomberg, then Magerfontein and finally ending the black week at Colenso.  In all the British lost a total of 2,776 men killed, wounded and captured.

It was the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899, that the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps first saw action, removing the wounded from the front line and then transported them to the railhead.

Battle of Spion Kop 

After Colenso, the first full attempt to relieve Ladysmith by the British was met with absolute disaster at Spion Kop (or Spionkop) for the British. Spion Kop (Afrikaans: Spioenkop meaning “spy hill”) is a mountain located near the town of Ladysmith, 27 km to the South West.

On the 23rd January 1900, the British climbed up the Spion kop hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet there and drove them off the kop at bayonet point. The Boer piquet retreated down the hill to their camp waking up their fellow Boers by screaming “Die Engelse is op die kop.” (The English are on the hill.). At that time a half-company of British sappers began to entrench their position on the hill with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (oddly – while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle).

As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. Furthermore, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position – the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

By the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell. Approximately 1,250 British were either wounded or captured. The Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were dead.

During the battle, the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps (including Gandhi) moved into the frontline to collect the wounded.

There is an account of Ghandi’s bearing during the Battle of Spion-Kop. Vera Stent described the work of the Indians in the Illustrated Star of Johannesburg, July 1911, as follows:

ghandi7“My first meeting with Mr. M. Gandhi was under strange circumstances. It was on the road from Spion Kop, after the fateful retirement of the British troops in January 1900.

The previous afternoon I saw the Indian mule-train moved up the slopes of the Kop carrying water to the distressed soldiers who had lain powerless on the plateau. The mules carried the water in immense bags, one on each side, led by Indians at their heads. The galling rifle-fire, which heralded their arrival on the top, did not deter the strangely-looking cavalcade which moved slowly forward, and as an Indian fell, another quietly stepped forward to fill the vacant place. Afterwards the grim duty of bearer corps, which Mr. Gandhi organised in Natal, began.

It was on such occasions the Indians proved their fortitude, and the one with the greatest fortitude was the subject of this sketch [Mr. Gandhi]. After a night’s work, which had shattered men with much bigger frames I came across Gandhi in the early morning sitting by the roadside – eating a regulation Army biscuit. Everyman in Buller’s force was dull and depressed, and damnation was heartily invoked on everything. But Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful, and confident in his conversation, and had a kindly eye. He did one good… I saw the man and his small undisciplined corps on many a field during the Natal campaign. When succour was to be rendered they were there.”

34 Indian leaders were awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal for actions in the Boer War. Gandhi’s is held by the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

1906 Natal Rebellion

The Zulu uprising in Natal during 1906 was the result of a series of culminating factors and misfortunes; an economic slump following the end of the Boer War, simmering discontent at the influx of White and Indian immigration causing demographic changes in the landscape, a devastating outbreaks of rinderpest among cattle and a rise in a quasi-religious separatist movement with a rallying call of ‘Africa for the Africans’.

The agricultural mainstay of the economy of Natal had been adversely affected by the depletion of the Black workforce to the more lucrative work in the mines of the Witwatersrand.  The imposition of Hut Tax was a further burden and then the introduction of a Poll Tax on each male over 18 years in Natal and Zululand by the cash-strapped government was to be the final straw turning discontent into open rebellion.

The enforced collection of this tax was deeply resented by many Blacks, it raised tensions considerably within Natal and resulted in a series of incidents and finally the murder of a farmer and the deaths of two Natal policemen in January 1906. This caused the Governor Sir Henry McCullum to declare Martial Law on the 9 February and the militia were called out.

By this time Gandhi had attained the rank of Seargent Major and encouraged the British to recruit Indians. He argued that Indians should support the war efforts to legitimise their claims to full citizenship. The British accepted Gandhi’s offer to let a detachment of 20 Indians volunteer as a stretcher-bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers. This corps was commanded by Gandhi and operated for about two months.

For his action Gandhi was awarded another medal, the Natal Rebellion 1906 medal.

gandhi SA

Gandhi seated centre row 4th from the left

The experience however taught him it was hopeless to directly challenge the overwhelming military power of the British army, he decided it could only be resisted in a non-violent fashion, driven by the purity of heart.

Peaceful Resistance

In 1910, the same year the South African Union was established, Gandhi established an idealistic community called ‘Tolstoy Farm’ near Johannesburg.  It was here, based on his wartime experience and unsuccessful experiences of collaborative politics with the British, that he nurtured his policy of peaceful resistance.

In all Mahatma Gandhi spent 22 years of his life in South Africa, a significant period of time, and there is no doubt the region’s politics and violence forged the man he had become by the time he returned to India in 1915.  On arrival in India he brought with him an international reputation as a leading Indian nationalist, theorist and organiser. He joined the Indian National Congress and was introduced to Indian issues, the rest as they say … is history.

2 thoughts on “Sergeant Major Gandhi’s military service in Natal

  1. I think it was at Spionkop that 4 future Prime Ministers were present?
    Ghandi as a stretcher bearer
    Churchill as a war correspondent
    and 2 Boer Generals , I think it may have been Smuts & Botha

    Liked by 1 person

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