World War I

Related articles

Members of the Cape Corps who took part in the Battle of Square Hill - Courtesy of Ditsong National Museum of Military History

The Battle of Square Hill

Participation as combatants in the First World War was reserved for men of “European descent”. [i] According to Article 7 of the South African Defence Force Act 13 of 1912, ‘the obligation to render armed service’ was not applicable to people who were not classified in this way. To this end Premier Louis Botha would have felt within his right not to accept an offer by the African Political Organisation (APO) to raise an armed corps for the First World War. [ii] Their participation would be as non-combatants only. The eagerness to partake in the war at the time was so strong that some men ‘travelled to Britain at their own cost to join the British regiments’. [iii]

The importance of being included in war activities led members of the ‘Cape Coloured Community’ to make a special representation to the Imperial Army Council via the Union Government. This was adopted on 20 September 1915, at a time when it is argued there was a need for ‘the military power to load their guns with whatever additional power they could muster’. [iv]

In order to be accepted the men who applied had to pass very ‘stringent stipulations’ [v] and within six weeks the recruitment process, which started on 1 October 1915, was closed after the required number of men had been enlisted on 12 December 1915. [vi]

Only unmarried men between the ages of 20 and 30 years of age who were without dependants and considered to be of ‘exceptionally good character’ were eligible to apply [vii] To this end a Cape Corps War Recruiting Committee was formed and on 25 October 1915 the first recruitment station opened at the City Hall in Cape Town.

Although the response was such that police assistance was enlisted to control the crowd, only 22 recruits made it through the stringent selection process on the first day. These young men were sent to train in Simon’s Town, alongside recruits from Stellenbosch, Worcester, Port Elizabeth, Kimberley and mission stations the like of Saron and Mamre. [viii] Certainly the urban recruits were outnumbered by their rural counterparts. Many of the city-based applicants failed to meet the physical requirements, while still others were not satisfied with the remuneration offered. [ix]

On 9 February 1916 the recruits travelled to East Africa on board the Armardale Castle. Following their arrival in Mombasa on 17 February 1916 they were assigned to a variety of tasks including guarding of bases, patrolling roads, building bridges, transport and hospital duties as well as administrative tasks. For a number of Cape Corps their tasks were cut short when they were afflicted by an outbreak of malaria in early April. [x]

With some recruits in hospital and others ‘sick on duty’, the remaining Cape Corps forged ahead, taking part in military operations in East Africa. A total of 32 members of the Cape Corps were killed in East Africa and yet another 94 men were wounded in armed clashes [xi] However, still more died because of the appalling conditions in which they were placed, a decision which exposes the discrimination with which they were treated; as Smuts was apparently ‘hesitant to risk the lives of white troops’. [xii] Historian Albert Grundlingh writes that the Cape Corps ‘were stationed for the longest period during the rainy season in the particularly unhealthy swampy marshland close to the Rifiji River.’ [xiii] It was here that ‘Blackwater fever, dysentery and malaria’ were apparently rife, resulting in the loss of 126 lives. This elicited strong criticism from the African Political Organisation (APO)  who sent a letter of complaint to Governor General Buxton. [xiv]

On 20 December 1917 the battalion boarded the HMT Carolina to return home to South Africa. However, because of concerns about malaria these men were put into quarantine for 10 days before being sent home for a month of rest, after their blood tests revealed double negative for malaria. By 20 February 1918 the majority of the Cape Corps assembled at the depot in Kimberley to undertake a month’s training in gunnery, signalling and bombing for their military mission to Egypt. [xv]

Finally on 31 March 1918, the battalion commenced a train journey to Durban from where they left for Egypt on 3 April 1918. [xvi]  After receiving ‘extensive training’ in Egypt they were sent to Palestine where they were to fight against the Turks, who were Germany’s allies in Palestine. [xvii] Grundlingh describes the Battle of Square Hill as the ‘high point’ [xviii] of their expedition.

The Battle of Square Hill is where the Cape Corps soldiers were able to shine as soldiers in their first battle with Turkish soldiers in Palestine during the First World War. [xix] This battle was motivated by General Allenby’s military strategy to connect with Arab allies to the east of the Dead Sea, a mission that was thwarted by the ‘enemy’s’ control of the Jordan crossing at Jisr-ed-Dameh. [xx] Captain Ivor D Difford, quartermaster of the Cape Corps has written that General Allenby was ‘determined to strike a blow west of the Jordan, where the whole Turkish army in that area was enclosed’. [xxi] To this end the plan was to ‘break through the enemy’s defensive positions and create a gap for the cavalry to pass through’. [xxii]

Certainly for the men who were chosen, this was an opportunity not only to engage in battle, but also an opportunity to see something of the world.  During the four weeks they were stationed at Rham Alla they were offered the opportunity to take leave to visit Jerusalem, which at the time was connected to Rham Alla by a railway stretching ‘20 miles in length’ [xxiii].

According to Difford:

Guides were provided and every facility afforded to the men to see as much as possible in the time at their disposal, and to learn a good deal more than they knew before of the wonderful historical associations of Christendom’s most holy city. [xxiv]

However, from 23 July to 18 August 1918, they undertook strenuous training at Rham Alla under the strict supervision of divisional and brigade commanders. Furthermore, from 18 August 1918, the battalion ‘came under enemy shell fire’ [xxv], which continued unabated for a month.

During the night of 19 August 1918 the 160th Brigade of whom the 1st Battalion Cape Corps was a part, marched to the Dar Jerir bivouac area, the Cape Corps having replaced the 130th Baluchis. [xxvi] The challenge of marching through ‘rough, stony, and hilly’ [xxvii] terrain at night was coupled with the challenge of being allowed only limited movement during the day to avoid detection. Difford lamented that the landscape did not allow the possibility for trenches to be dug, saying ‘our defences consisted of sangars, stone and sand bag parapets and barbed wire’. [xxviii]

From 21 August 1918 the Spanish Flu epidemic depleted their numbers considerably and consequently ‘fresh dispositions had to be made’. [xxix] However, notwithstanding influenza, pressure was intense and ‘all fit men were expected to apply themselves to training with undiminished thoroughness’. [xxx] The men were put through an extensive training scheme that included compass marching, Lewis gunnery and gas and bayonet drills while some were selected for training to the Lewis gun school for a four day course where they were put through the paces of new fighting methods. [xxxi]

The influenza epidemic subsided in early September, which was fortuitous for themselves as by 4 September the battalion commanders had been summoned to divisional headquarters where they were assigned the positions they would take in the upcoming ‘big push’. [xxxii] This would remain secret until the big day, but the men were prepared for battle through a series of rehearsals, which took place during the day and also at night.

On 16 and 17 September the Royal Air Force attacked the railway communications at Deraa. [xxxiii] On 16 September they also attacked the ‘Arab Column, which had been joined by the Shalaan sections of the Rualla, Anazeh, and by a number of Druses, attacked the Hedjaz railway.’ [xxxiv] The damage was extensive, causing the destruction of a bridge and part of the railway. [xxxv]

Meanwhile on the night of 16 September with each man carrying a rifle, ammunition and water bottle; the 1st battalion made their way to an olive grove situated just one and a half miles from the planned area from where the attack would commence. By way of identification they wore white armlets. [xxxvi] The well rehearsed attack had been planned ‘in the most minute and precise detail’ with written details ‘to all officers who needed to know same’. [xxxvii]

By 18 September General Allenby’s military strategies were in place for the planned attack on the outnumbered Turks. Initially hidden amongst orange and olive groves, the cavalry were armed and ready for attack. [xxxviii] From there the battalion advanced and apparently ‘between rests the men sang, made their wills, said their prayers and washed their teeth!!’ [xxxix]

Having proceeded through Samieh Wady without attack, when they approached Wye Hill they came under fire and went to battle with the Turks. For the British side this battle resulted in eighty casualties with between forty and fifty Turkish people taken prisoner.

Following Wye Hill the battalion partook in combat at Hill 2260, Chevron B, Crest and End Hills and also ‘took Dhib Hill without opposition’. Thereafter it was said that the ‘1/7th R.W.F.  then turned west to attack Valley View and El Mugheir, and, “D” Company went on to attack Square Hill, which was  found to be strongly held’. [xl]

Having come under ‘fairly persistent counter-attack’ they were said to have battled with bayonets in the ‘strictest silence’ and that they carried out orders implicitly’. [xli] During the night of 18 September the 1st Cape Corps themselves had taken 181 prisoners. Notable names mentioned in this battle were Lieutenant Samuelson, Sergeant February and Lance-Corporal Thimm. The 1st Cape Corps capturing of the ‘enemy field gun’ [xlii] which was noted as ‘the first gun captured on the Palestine front during Allenby’s great push’ [xliii] and resulted in Lance-Corporal Thimm being promoted to Corporal. [xliv] The battle on this night also claimed the lives of Lance-Corporal S Visagie and Private S Gobey. [xlv] Further casualties the next day were Private J Jonkers, Private G Groep and Private D Hahman. [xlvi]

By the time Square Hill was captured, they had been in battle from 6.45pm on 18 September to 4.am on 19 September 1918. [xlvii] The next day the Cape Corps was ‘ordered to storm and capture the isolated and strong position of Kh Jibeit. [xlviii] This rendered them into a vulnerable position according to Difford who explained that the nature of the terrain rendered support from the flanks an impossibility. [xlix] The order to attack Kh Jibeit was received at about 9pm on the night of 19 September. The planned ‘surprise attack’ was meant to take place at 3.00am on the morning of 20 September 1918. [l] However, the company commanders had under-estimated the strength of their opposition and discovered to their peril that they had attacked ‘one of the most strongly fortified of the enemy’s positions’. [li] The Turks had the benefit of a landscape endowed with large hills, which protected them from shell fire.

The other problem faced by Allenby’s men was that they had over-reached their artillery barrage and were frozen in a communication vacuum while awaiting orders, due to the runner losing his way. Years later Difford recalled the tension, saying that ‘precious moments were slipping by towards the dawn, and our men were straining at the leash waiting for the definite orders which seemed as if they would never come’. [lii] By 5.00am, as light filtered from the sky, they were ordered to ‘attack at once without artillery preparation’. [liii] Their attack was met with ‘terrific machine gun fire’. [liv] This battle resulted in a very high mortality with a number of soldiers and officers being killed. 

Reinforcement in the form of the deployment of “A” and “B” companies was met with fierce counter attack. This took the battle back to Square Hill and by 10.00am the entire battalion were concentrated there. [lv] The Turks ‘put down a heavy barrage on Square Hill, which they kept up for some hours’. [lvi] By midday the Corps ‘heavily shelled the enemy’s positions’ and by 2.00pm ‘put down a heavy barrage’. [lvii] However, later that afternoon much to the men’s apparent ‘disappointment’, they were replaced by the 1/17th. The Brigadier apparently decided to send in ‘a fresh battalion’ to replace a battalion that had fought for hours in the hot sun. [lviii] Certainly the cost of this battle was high for Allenby’s side, resulting in 43 deaths in battle, 8 deaths from wounds caused by the battle, 101 wounded and one person taken prisoner. [lix]

The 20th September 1918 was later described as ‘a great day – great for the Empire, great for South Africa and the coloured races thereof, and the greatest day in the history of the 1st Battalion Cape Corps’. [lx]

The homecoming

Sadly, for members of the Cape Corps who arrived in Kimberley at the ‘conclusion of hostilities in Europe in November 1918’, [lxi] they were returning to all the social baggage that they had left behind during war-time. To this extent the ‘ceremonial festivities associated with the declaration of peace’ [lxii] were marred by attacks, both verbal and physical, from hegemonic males. In one incident which occurred while the Cape Corps were marching down a street during the celebrations, a member of the Cape Corps was hit on the jaw by a man described as one of ‘the white larrikins of Kimberley’. [lxiii]

Conclusion

During the First World War (1914 – 1918) a total of 35 000 ‘Coloured men’ enlisted for war duty. [lxiv] In Bernard Rundle’s documentary Forgotten Soldiers, Prof Richard van der Ross states that mixed race men who took part in World War One did so because they believed that in so doing they ‘would be brought into the mainstream of South African life’. [lxv]

According to John Merriman, ‘no collection of men ever showed more zeal, devotion to duty, or discipline than the Cape Corps’. [lxvi] He added that it was in Egypt and Palestine, where the Cape Corps had an opportunity of perfecting itself in discipline and in all the modern arts of war, and of testing its fighting mettle alongside the men of many countries’. [lxvii]

However, in 1919, when the shadow of the First World War was slowly lifting, the Cape Corps was once again disbanded. [lxviii] Decades later Prof Richard van der Ross would wryly comment: ‘The Government was not prepared to give us 100% acceptance’. [lxix]

Endnotes

[i]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.139.

[ii]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.139.

[iii]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.139.

[iv]A. A. Sutherland-Maughan, ‘A short history of the Cape Corps’, B.A. (Hons), 1993, p.13.

[v]A. Sutherland-Maughan, ‘A short history of the Cape Corps’, B.A. (Hons), 1993, p.13.

[vi]A. Sutherland-Maughan, ‘A short history of the Cape Corps’, B.A. (Hons), 1993, p.13.

[vii]Ibid.

[viii]Ibid.

[ix]Ibid.

[x]Ibid.

[xi]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.144.

[xii]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.144.

[xiii]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.144.

[xiv]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.145.

[xv]Leon Engelbrecht, Remembering Square Hill, The Cape Corps at Megiddo, September 1918, 20 December, 2010 url number http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9689:remembering-square-hill-the-cap-corps-at-megiddo-september-1918 (Date accessed 27.02.2017).

[xvi]Ibid.

[xvii]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.145.

[xviii]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.145.

[xix]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.212.

[xx]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920])p.200.

[xxi]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920])p.200.

[xxii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920])p.200.

[xxiii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.190.

[xxiv]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.190.

[xxv]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.195.

[xxvi]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.195.

[xxvii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.195.

[xxviii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.195.

[xxix]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.195.

[xxx]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920])p.196.

[xxxi]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920])p.196.

[xxxii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.196.

[xxxiii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.201.

[xxxiv]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.201.

[xxxv]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.201.

[xxxvi]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.198.

[xxxvii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920])p.198.

[xxxviii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) p.201.

[xxxix]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.207.

[xl]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.207.

[xli]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.210.

[xlii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.210.

[xliii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.210.

[xliv]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.212.

[xlv]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.212.

[xlvi]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.212.

[xlvii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.207.

[xlviii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.212.

[xlix]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.212.

[l]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.214.

[li]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.214.

[lii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.216.

[liii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.216.

[liv]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.216

[v]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.218.

[lvi]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.218.

[lvii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.218.

[lviii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.219.

[lix]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) p.219.

[lx]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919).

[lxi]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.147.

[lxii]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.147.

[lxiii]Albert Grundlingh, War and Society, Participation and Remembrance, South African black and coloured troops in the First World war, 1914 – 1918 (Stellenbosch, 2014) p.147.

[lxiv]A. Sutherland-Maughan, ‘A short history of the Cape Corps’, B.A. (Hons), 1993, p.12.

[lxv]Bernard Rundle: Forgotten soldiers, (South Africa: Safritel, 1996) Video UCT Special Collections (Date accessed 14.02.2017).

[lxvi]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]) Introduction.

[lxvii]Captain I.D. Difford, The story of the 1st Cape Corps (1915 – 1919) (Cape Town: Hortors, [1920]), Introduction.

[lxviii]A. Sutherland-Maughan, ‘A short history of the Cape Corps’, B.A. (Hons), 1993, p.13.

[lxix]Bernard Rundle: Forgotten soldiers, (South Africa: Safritel, 1996) Video UCT Special Collections (Date accessed 14.02.2017).

Last updated : 23-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 09-Mar-2017