One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross, DSO and MC

HansenWinning a Victoria Cross for gallantry and surviving the ordeal  has some luck associated to it, and this lucky charm of a VC winner is testament of this. Every Anzac Day we recall the Gallipoli campaign, and we remember the heroes of the campaign –  Australian, New Zealand, British and even in modern times the Turkish heroes too.

One such unassuming hero was the son of a South African merchant, and there is a little mystery as to where he was born, some sources say Durban, Natal Colony and other sources say Dresden, Germany (his parents had visited a Spa there).  In either event Percy Hansen was born into a wealthy and well connected Danish family that had settled in South Africa.  He was born on the 26 October 1890, the son of  Viggo Julius Hansen and Anna Elizabeth (nee Been), Viggo was a merchant running stores in the cities of Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg as well as stores in the Cape Colony generally.

When it came time for his formal education his family moved from South Africa to London around 1901/2.  and Percy initially attended Hazelwood Prep School in Surrey (then a school for 8 to 11 year old boys), then Oxted in Surrey and finally he then went on to Eton College from the 20 September 1904.

He saw a career for himself in the military so when he was about 20 years old his father was naturalised as a British subject (8 December 1910) which enabled  him to join the British Army.  His training took place at The Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

10394532_440161602820244_7669303039082567855_nBy the 4th March 1911 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment.   He rose to the rank of Captain and by the summer of 1915 he was with his Regiment landing on the shores of Gallipoli.  Carrying a lucky charm into battle (see featured image), It would be here that he would earn his Victoria Cross.

The lucky charm is one of Hansen’s personal things on display at The Imperial War Museum.  It comprises two tiny metal figures linked together with small metal rings, the larger of the two figures is unclothed except for a nappy and resembles a curly-haired baby, the smaller of the two figures is clothed and wears a leather hat stitched with vegetable fibre.

World War 1

After landing at Suvla Bay on the night of 6 August 1915, the next day the Allies pressed forward across the dry Salt Lake beyond the shore and the 6th Lincoln’s captured Yilghin Burnu, christened “Chocolate Hill” by the Allies. On 9 August the British attempted unsuccessfully to break out of the Suvla Plain, by advancing into the high ground which surrounded it, aiming for Anafarta. Fighting raged round Scimitar Hill, parts of which changed hands several times, but by the end of the day the British had failed to secure it. Many men were left wounded on its slopes and when Turkish artillery set alight the scrub which covered it, Captain P H Hansen, now the adjutant of the 6th Lincoln’s, called for volunteers to help rescue them. Six of the wounded were saved and for this gallant act Captain Hansen was awarded the Victoria Cross. Lance-Corporal Breese, who assisted him, received the DCM.

His Victoria Cross Citation: 

Percy Howard HANSEN VC
Captain, 6th Battalion The Lincolnshire Regiment, 33rd Brigade, 11th Division
Citation:

For most conspicuous bravery on 9th August, 1915, at Yilghin Burnu, Gallipoli Peninsula.

After the second capture of the “Green Knoll” his Battalion was forced to retire, leaving some wounded behind, owing to the intense heat from the scrub which had been set on fire.

When the retirement was effected Captain Hansen, with three or four volunteers, on his own initiative, dashed forward several times some 300 to 400 yards over open ground into the scrub under a terrific fire, and succeeded in rescuing from inevitable death by burning no less than six wounded men.

Military Cross (MC)

However the bravery of this remarkable man did not stop there, he went on to win the Military Cross for bravery in another engagement just one short montb later.

He won the Military Cross for performing a daring solo reconnaissance mission at Sulva Bay, on the night of 9 September 1915, he carried out the mission along the coast, carrying only a revolver and a blanket for disguise. He successfully located an important Turkish firing position.

His citation for his Military Cross

4627651289_411x470“For conspicuous gallantry at Suvla Bay on 9th September, 1915. He made a reconnaissance of the coast, stripping himself and carrying only a revolver and a blanket for disguise. He swam and scrambled over rocks, which severely cut and bruised him, and obtained some valuable information and located a gun which was causing much damage. The undertaking was hazardous. On one occasion he met a patrol of 12 Turks who did not see him, and later a single Turk whom he lulled. He returned to our lines in a state of great exhaustion”.

By this time he had become the Commanding Officer of battalion when Colonel Phelps went down with dysentery, however Hansen also fell ill about two weeks later and he  evacuated to Egypt (it was here that he learned of his VC award).

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

And there was still more bravery to come. Due to his ill-health, Hansen was eventually transferred to France and appointed Brigade Major to the 170th (2/1st North Lancashire) Brigade.  He remained a staff officer for the rest of the war, during which he served with the II ANZAC Corps. He was made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) performing yet another  another daring reconnaissance mission during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

His Distinguished Service Order Citation:

“For conspicuous gallantry at Suvla Bay on 9th September, 1915. He made a reconnaissance of the coast, stripping himself and carrying only a revolver and a blanket for disguise. He swam and scrambled over rocks, which severely cut and bruised him, and obtained some valuable information and located a gun which was causing much damage. The undertaking was hazardous. On one occasion he met a patrol of 12 Turks who did not see him, and later a single Turk whom he lulled. He returned to our lines in a state of great exhaustion”.

After World War 1, he attended Staff College in Camberly and he was married on 12 June 1928 at the Register Office, Chelsea Town Hall, London to Marie Rose, daughter of G. Emsell; and he had one daughter.

World War 2

Pery Hansen VC DSO MC was still in service at the outbreak of World War 2. On the outbreak of war in  September 1939 he was appointed to Acting Assistant Quartermaster General 55th Division and then 12th Corps.  In 1941 he received the rank of Brigadier and on the 24th February 1942-43 he became the Commander of Belfast, Northern Ireland area.

By the 15th May 1943 he was appointed as the Sub District Commander Ashford, Kent and by August 1943 he rose to Head of Civilian Affairs unit for Norway under SHAEF -.Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force – the headquarters of the Commander of Allied forces in north west Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

At the end of the Second World War he finally retired from the Army – 19 January 1946, in 1950 he was a member of the Guard of Honour to mark visit of Winston Churchill to Copenhagen, Denmark.

He was awarded the Royal Order of St Olav by Norway. He was also awarded the Legion of Merit by the United States and the citation for his award reads: –

“Brigadier Percy H. Hansen, British Army, in cooperation with the forces of the Army of the United States, distinguished himself by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services, as Head of the Civil Affairs Unit, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force Mission to Norway from August 1943 to July 1945. His keen understanding of the problems involved in administering Civil Affairs in a liberated country, and the efficient plans of organisation and operation which he established, enabled the Allies to successfully undertake its mission to Norway. His contribution to the military effort reflects high credit upon himself, and the military service of the United States and their Allies.”

Medals and Honours

His medal rack is quite something:
VCPercyHowardHansenMedals

  • Victoria Cross (VC)
  • Distinguished Service Order (DSO)
  • Military Cross (MC)
  • 1914-15 Star
  • British War Medal (1914-20)
  • Victory Medal (1914-19) + Mid Oakleaf
  • General Service Medal (1918-62)
    • 1 clasp: “Palestine”
  • France & Germany Star
  • Defence Medal (1939-45)
  • War Medal (1939-45)
  • King George VI Coronation Medal (1937)
  • Croix de Guerre (France)
  • Officer, Legion of Merit (USA)
  • Commander, Royal Order of St Olaf (Norway)

He had 5 Mentions in Dispatches in total in his very distinguished military career. Now that is one very Lucky Charm indeed.

Death

Like his birth there is also a little controversy over the place of his death, some sources say Brigadier Percy Howard Hansen VC DSO MC died on the 12th February 1951 in Kensington, London, other sources say he died of pneumonia in Copenhagen. There is reference to his funeral been held in London, however in either event his ashes were eventually interred in family vault, Garnisons Kirkegard, Copenhagen. Section R. Row K. Grave 3.

Extract published with the kind permission of The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013. Wikipedia and the Image copyright of his lucky charm belongs to the Imperial War Museum.

Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’

Did you know that “The Comrades Marathon” has a shared spirit and a shared history with The South African Legion of Military Veterans?

As the oldest military veterans organisation in South Africa, the South African Legion was formed at the 1921 Empire Conference (28 February to March 4) in Cape Town as the British Empire Services League (BESL, South Africa) by joining two organisations together – the “Returned Soldiers and Sailors Association” and the “Comrades of the Great War”, which co-incidentally is the organisation after which the term “Comrades” in Comrades Marathon is given.  In the course of history the “BESL South Africa” came to be called “The South African Legion of Military Veterans”.

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In the same year – 1921 – Vic Clapham, a World War 1 veteran himself approached the “Comrades of the Great War” with a vision that would result in the worlds greatest ultra marathon nearly one hundred years later.

His idea was that if infantrymen, drafted into the armed forces from sedentary jobs, could endure forced marches over great distances, trained athletes could cover the distance between the two cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban without great difficulty. Clapham, like the Legion, also wanted to remember those who had fallen in the war, and he felt the best way to honour this was by the ultimate testing of body and mind, and triumphing.

The Natal athletics body was not interested in the idea of a ultra marathon, and thought Clapham was quite mad, so undaunted by the set-back Clapham approached the British Empire Services League of South Africa (now known as the South African Legion), and asked permission to stage the race under their auspices. They ultimately agreed and financially underwrote the first race.

The first 1921 Comrades Marathon was run by Vic Clapham and included a field of 34  runners, of them Sixteen runners completed the 87, 9km (55 mile) downhill race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. The race was won by Bill Rowan who finished in a time of 8:59:00 and his name is now given to the sub 9 hour medal in today’s race.

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Left to Right “Modern” Comrades medals

A gold medal for the top 10 finishers
A Wally Hayward for a sub-6 hour time
A Silver for a sub-7:30 time
A Bill Rowan for sub-9
A Bronze for sub-11 and finally
A Vic Clapham for sub-12

SALegion_FinalLogoLayout_GreenPrintTextAlthough The Comrades Marathon is an independent commercial concern now, The South African Legion has continued its association to the Comrades Marathon over the  years and encourages all participants to wear a Remembrance Poppy in recognition of this history and the sacrifice of the fallen.  In this respect the Comrades Marathon is still in fact a “living memorial” to the Great War (World War 1).

Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard

On 21 February 1917, during World War I, this chartered troopship – the SS Mendi – containing a full battalion of South African Native Labour Corps men and officers on its way to the western front was rammed in fog conditions in the English Channel. The SS Mendi sank in 25 minutes with the loss of 616 South Africans and 30 British.

The greatest tragedy was yet to come as due to racial prejudice this event was somewhat down-played through the years and not enough recognition given to these men, something the South African Legion and the South African National Defence Force is now working very hard at redressing.

The accidental ramming of SS Mendi Troopship by SS Darro on a cold foggy morning eleven miles off Isle of Wight, on 21st February 1917, became an almost unparalleled wartime tragedy for South African forces.

Darro, at almost three times Mendi’s weight, travelling ‘full ahead’ in fog conditions – not using her fog horn to warn shipping in the area or the appropriate lights – she rammed the troop ship with such force the SS Mendi sunk and was resting on the sea-bed within 25 minutes. The violent impact, nearly at right angles, left a gaping 20ft tear amidships instantly trapping more than 100 soldiers below decks who were unable to escape the rapidly rising water as the ship quickly listed to starboard.

Her crew, consisting 29 sailors, failed to launch sufficient life rafts for the 811 strong contingent of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). In the dense fog and inadequate rescue effort that followed, many remained aboard the ship, unwilling to commit to an icy plunge.

They were reportedly exhorted by the Chaplain Rev Isaac Dyobha who called them together to die like warriors and brothers – what he said is now legendary.

He said “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies.”

They took off their boots, picked up imaginary spears and shields and performed an African war dance, a dance of death.

Thus, together, as brothers they chanted and danced on the tilting deck, facing death with unparalleled bravery until finally being sucked into the vortex created by the sinking ship.

The reference to weapons was to the fact that the South African Government had agreed to send black men to assist the Allied forces as labourers, but, due to policies of the time, they insisted they could not be given weapons.

There were many more individual acts of bravery and selflessness in those terrifying early morning hours in the freezing water. A catalogue of failures exacerbated the final outcome, the Darro for example made no effort at all to rescue the men in the water, and ultimately it was that many of these brave men had no experience of the sea combined with extended exposure to the frigid February waters, off St Catherine’s Light, that accounted for the unusually high death toll.

Fewer than 200 of the 840 souls aboard the SS Mendi survived. The total toll on human lives lost that day reached a staggering 646.

Although the then Prime Minister Louis Botha brought the South African Parliament to attention in remembrance of the tragedy and the impact to the community, convention and prejudice meant this dreadful tragedy was not afforded appropriate recognition by respective Governments in South Africa and the United Kingdom. South African officials during these years demonstrated their unwillingness to highlight black people’s wartime contributions by withholding medals and reasonable post-war recompense to ‘non-combatant men’ deemed somehow less valuable.

Particularly poignant was that South African Labour Corps men, drawn from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, had readily volunteered their services to support the British Crown’s war effort on the Western Front in the hope it would win them greater political concessions at home. The reality was that remarkably little changed for 7 decades.

After World War 1, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi, neither the survivors nor the dead, or any other members of the South African Native Labour Corps, received a British War Medal or a ribbon. Their white officers did (i.e. commissioned and non commissioned South African Labour Corps officers – whites only).

The War Medal was issued by the British to all who participated in World War 1 fighting for Britain and her Empire. The decision not to award it to Black South African servicemen was a South African government decision and South African government alone. Black members of the South African Labour Corps from the neighbouring British Protectorates of Basutoland (modern Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland did receive medals, as the government in these territories approved the issue.

Approaches are now been made to the British government by the SANDF Attache in London to see if this issue can be redressed and medals struck, a memorial “commemorative” medal have also been struck for surviving family members and will make up part of the Centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi.


The British War Medal with King George V bust, the medal in question and King George V who is seen here inspecting N.C.O.’s of the South African Native Labour Corps at Abbeville, 10 July 1917.

The shipwreck has recently been awarded World Heritage and War Grave status and an increasing number of Memorials are testament to contemporary recognition for, and acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by not only the 607 South African Labour Corps men lost that day on His Majesty’s service but also many thousand silent black South African citizens who risked everything to join Europe, ‘like brothers’.

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Rev. Isaac Williams Wauchope Dyobha (1852-1917) – see insert picture, our hero who called all to the death dance on the SS Mendi was a rather remarkable man – he was a prominent member of the Eastern Cape African elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a Congregational minister, political activist, historian, poet and ultimately the legendary hero in the Mendi disaster.

As a Lovedale student he joined a missionary party to Malawi, he was instrumental in founding one of the first political organisations for Africans, a staunch ally of John Tengo Jabavu and an enthusiastic campaigner for the establishment of the University of Fort Hare. For over 40 years, from 1874 to 1916, he was a prodigious contributor to newspapers, submitting news, comments, announcements, poetry, hymns, history and biography, travelogues, sermons, translations, explications of proverbs and royal praise poems. He used nom de plume Silwangangubo, Dyoba wo Daka and Ngingi and published The Natives and their Missionaries in 1908.

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This is a recent picture of a diver on the wreck of he SS Mendi and an artefact recovered from the wreck.

The Mendi sinking is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the South African military, and was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century in British waters.

For South Africans this is especially important as there are very few physical reminders of this tragedy, such as this photograph BASNC plate courtesy of David Wendes.

Some small things can be seen on the wreck, such as some of the plates that the men would have eaten off. It was the crest of the British and African Steam Navigation Company on some of these plates that allowed divers to identify the wreck as the Mendi.

For many years in South Africa the only memorial to these men was a life ring with the words “SS Mendi” on it on a railing in Simonstown, South Africa and the Hollybrook Cemetery Memorial which listed all the names of the SS Mendi missing in Southampton, England.

Happily this suppression of Black South African contribution to WW1 is no-longer the case, after 1994 memorial statues to the SS Mendi memorials now exist in Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg.   Memorial services are held countrywide and form part of the SANDF’s Armed Forces Day (Mendi Day).  Awards and decorations for Bravery in the name of the Mendi have been issued, and the South African Navy has named two ships – the SAS Mendi (a Valour class Frigate) and the SAS Isaac Dyobha (a Warrior class Strike-craft).  Memorial services are also regularly held overseas in Southampton England and Noordwijk Netherlands.  A dedicated exhibit now also takes up place at Delville Wood in France.

The image to the left of the Atteridgeville memorial is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and President Nelson Mandela unveiling the memorial to the SS Mendi in Soweto, South Africa.

The immediate recognition of this event by the British government in 1995 was one of the first acts by the Queen on her return to South Africa – she had last been in South Africa in 1947 and was prevented from visiting again as South Africa had “resigned” from the Commonwealth in the intervening years of Apartheid.

Once South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994, such was the importance and urgent need to recognise this tragic event as a fundamental building block to nation building it took centre stage of Royal visit not seen in South Africa for 47 years.

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South African “Springboks” and Australian “Diggers” in WW1 – the origin of nicknames.

Few (if any) World War One images are available which show the unique bond shared by South African and Australian/New Zealand troops, celebrating our common camaraderie during the World War but this in one – Paris, France. September 1918. A group of Anzac “Diggers” and South African “Springboks” enjoying eating fresh fruit.

The South African soldiers where known universally as “Springboks” because of their cap badges which featured a Springbok and the motto “Union is Strength” and in Dutch “Eendracht Maakt Macht”.

The motto was that of the newly formed Union of South Africa and referred to the strength that can be obtained by combining the Boer Republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State) with the two British Colonies (Cape and Natal) – it also signified the Union of Afrikaans and English speaking South Africans in a common South African identity. The nickname “Springboks” stayed with South African servicemen and women throughout the First and Second World Wars.

This tradition was however gradually discouraged when the SADF was formed in the 1950’s and the affectionate name for South African soldiers was changed to “Troopies” (Afrikaans for Trooper) instead – the prevailing Afrikaner Nationalist politics of the day wanted to downplay South African service to the British crown in WW1 and WW2 due to prevailing anger felt by nationalists over harsh British tactics used during the Boer War.

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Funnily, the Australian soldiers  (called “Diggers”), using typical army humour, dubbed the South African cap badge – “Goat in a Porthole”.  The Australian nickname – “Diggers” also comes from the First World War and stems from their reputation of digging trenches – General William Birdwood, the commander of the ANZAC Corps adding in postscript: “You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe” – and the nickname stuck.

“Digger” remains the nickname of an Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) soldier to this day and Australians have adopted it as part of their national value system to mean “mateship” and “pride”.

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However due to more political changes in South Africa, the erosion of the nickname in the SADF was one thing – the use of the “Springbok” in sport and other institutions was quite another and many South Africans came to associate it to Apartheid.

For this reason it’s very unlikely that modern South African soldiers will carry the nickname ever again – which is quite sad when you really think about it – as it was never intended to turn out that way and we’ve lost a nugget of heritage forged in camaraderie and war.

400 shells/min – upwards to 600/min fell on the Springbok positions, imagine “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”

Leading up to the 100 year commemorations of the Somme offensive and the Battle of Delville Wood this year we remind ourselves of the hell endured by the South Africans fighting in the wood, known at the time as “Springboks” – and nothing says it more than seeing the mountainous piles of artillery shells fired at them.

This World War 1 feature photo from the Herr Woerner Eugen Collection, shows the German side defending the South African offensive at Delville Wood, this German soldier is overseeing the shell case dump opposite the wood.

As part of the initial Somme offensive, the British under Major-General Furse of the 9th Division, had to secure the advance on Longueval, but to do this, Delville Wood (a small wood directly next to Longuval) had to be taken first.  Maj Gen Furse had no option but to commit his last reserve—the 1st South African Brigade to do it.

The 1st South African Brigade under Brigadier General Henry Lukin was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July 1916 and “hold it at all costs”.

The first attack progressed smoothly and by 07:00 the South Africans had secured the southern half of the wood,  by 14:40 the whole wood had been secured, with the exception of a strong German position in the north west adjoining Longueval.  The South African troops where now spread along the entire perimeter in groups forming strong–points supported by machine–guns.

But, rather than having “secured” the wood, the brigade was now in a trap, occupying a salient with only the south western base being in contact with the 26th Brigade in Longueval. All troops were equipped with spades but digging within the perimeter of the wood was made difficult by roots and remnants of tree trunks from the previous day’s artillery fire, making the preparation of proper trenches impossible, with the South Africans having to make do with shallow shell scrapes. With unprepared trenches, a narrow base to their salient and facing over 7,000 German troops, holding the wood was going to be extremely difficult!

The Germans launched one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of the war in an effort to dislodge the South Africans in the wood. It has been estimated that at its peak the rate of firing exceeded 400 shells per minute – even at one stage some references say 600 shells per minute were been fired at the South African positions. To think this relentless volley of shelling was into a wood no bigger than a square kilometre in size.

The South Africans began to dig in beating off counter attacks as they did so. The roots and remnants of tree trunks made the preparation of proper trenches impossible and the South Africans had to make do with shallow ones.

Of the 121 officers and 3,032 men of the South African Brigade who launched the initial attack in the wood, only 29 officers and 751 men eventually walked out. These men held their objective at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat to hold the wood  – the depth of bravery required to do this under this fire power is simply staggering to contemplate. The losses sustained by the South Africans were one of the greatest sacrifices of the war.

“…Delville Wood had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep. Worst of all was the lowing of the wounded. It sounded like a cattle ring at the spring fair….”

The battle is of particular importance to South Africa, as it was the first major engagement entered into by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front. The casualties sustained by this Brigade were of catastrophic proportions, comparable to those encountered by Allied battalions on the first day of the Somme. On the Western Front, units were normally considered to be incapable of combat if their casualties had reached 30% and they were withdrawn once this level had been attained. The South African Brigade suffered losses of 80%, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has been described as “…the bloodiest battle hell of 1916.”

It was this horrific baptism of fire, of South Africans from across ethnic and cultural divides – fighting as one in union and strength, that the newly formed Union of South Africa’s national identity was forged for the years come.

 

Image copyright: Herr Woerner Eugen Collection – Imperial War Museum, Images of the wood copyright to the Imperial War Museum.

 

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.

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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

South African troops carry a wounded German during the Battle of Menin Road Ridge

Rare photo of frontline South Africans in World War 1, and also one which shows compassion. This photo was taken from the Battle of Menin Road Ridge on the 21st September 1917. Here four South African “Scottish” from the 4th South African Infantry Regiment are carrying a wounded German on a stretcher to a medical station. Other wounded German prisoners are seen in the foreground.

The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge 20th to 25th September 1917 was an offensive operation, part of the Third Battle of Ypres on the Western Front, it was undertaken by the British 2nd and 5th Armies in an attempt to take sections of the curving ridge, east of Ypres, which the Menin Road crossed. This action saw the involvement of the South African Brigade – along with British, Newfoundland and Australian formations.

The attack was successful along its entire front, though the advancing troops had to overcome formidable entrenched German defensive positions which included mutually supporting concrete pill-box strongpoints and also resist fierce German counter-attacks. A feature of this battle was the intensity of the opening British artillery support and “leap frog” tactic used by the British to consolidate taken ground.

The South African Brigade saw most of its action at Borry Farm, easily overrunning the German strong points, except for four pill-boxes around Potsdam House, which were eventually attacked on three sides and captured, after inflicting heavy casualties on the attackers.  The South African Brigade was also badly hit by German machine-gun fire from Hill 37, however in the end the South Africans managed to capture Bremen Redoubt and Waterend House in the Zonnebeek valley and extend a defensive flank.

Do note that the South Africans are wearing the “Murray of Atholl” (modern) kilts which was the dominant tartan worn by the South African Scottish in the 4th South African Infantry Regiment – Company A was made up of Cape Town Highlanders, Company B Transvaal Scottish and Company C was also Tvl Scottish in the main whereas Company D was made up of various caledonian regiments from the Orange Free State and Natal.

The tradition of the Murray of Atholl was carried over to The Transvaal Scottish Regiment and is still worn to this day, hopefully the SANDF will see its way clear to keeping the traditions of its fighting men and their sacrifice.

Image copyright and reference: Imperial War Museum