In the second of a series of scholarly articles leading up to Armistice Day on 11 November, Martin Plaut, journalist and senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, on what white Afrikaner leaders and black South Africans gained for their show of patriotism during the First World War.

The outbreak of the First World War, coming little more than a decade after the Anglo-Boer war had ended, faced South Africans with a conundrum. Should they join Britain and her allies, despite having fought so fiercely against so few years ago, or should they back Germany and the Central Powers, who had given at least moral support to the Afrikaners?

For the government of Louis Botha, a former Boer general, this was no easy choice. These Afrikaner leaders brought the four colonies together in a Union only four years before, forging an unlikely alliance with their former English adversaries to subject the black majority, and were getting to grips with rebuilding the country’s devastated farms and mines. Should they participate at all?

In fact, Botha had made his mind up long before 1914: he would give the British the support they had wanted. Both Botha and his right-hand man, Jan Smuts, had participated in Imperial Defence Conferences even before Union in 1910 (Imperial Conference, Correspondence and Papers Relating to a Conference with Representatives of the Self-governing Dominions on the Naval and Military Defence of the Empire, 1909, HMSO, London, 1909).

The South African leaders saw their interests as being closely associated with the British Empire. Botha himself went out of his way to be helpful. Churchill wrote that in 1913 Botha had returned from a visit to Germany warning that the situation was ominous. ‘I can feel that there is danger in the air,’ the General had warned Churchill. ‘And what is more, when the day comes I am going to be ready too. When they attack you, I am going to attack German South-West Africa and clear them out once and for all’ (Johannes Meintjes, General Louis Botha: A Biography, Cassell, London, 1970, p. 205).

When war was declared the first response London received from Pretoria was promising. On 4 August, the South African government offered to take over the duties of guarding their country, relieving the British garrison of the responsibility, so that they could be transferred elsewhere. The colonial secretary, Lord Harcourt, readily accepted Botha’s offer and enquired whether South African forces might seize ports in the neighbouring German colony of South West Africa (S.B. Spies, ‘The outbreak of the First World War and the Botha government’, South African Historical Journal, 1, 1969, pp. 47–48).

The South African cabinet met the same day to consider the request. Acceding to London’s wishes was not going to be easy. There was opposition from many Afrikaners, who questioned why they should take up arms on behalf of their old enemy. Even within his own cabinet, Botha encountered resistance. It took the prime minister three days of persuasion to achieve a unanimous vote in cabinet in favour of going to war: even then, he only achieved this by promising that the army would be composed solely of volunteers.

Outside government, there was strong opposition from another Boer war veteran, General JBM Hertzog. He had refused to accept Botha’s policy of reconciliation between English and Afrikaans-speaking whites and had been excluded from the government. Then, in January 1914, he broke with Botha to form the National Party. Hertzog argued that it was the right of each Dominion to decide whether it should actively participate in the conflict or not (South African Historical Journal, 1,1969, pp. 47–48). Many agreed with him, as Smuts accepted in private when he described what he called ‘the people’s genuine dislike of the German South-West African expedition’.

When a rebellion broke out among Afrikaners opposed to the war, the government had its hands full trying to put it down. It was not until early 1915 that Botha could finally take up command of the South West Africa campaign and lead his troops into the territory. It took six months of hard fighting to force a German surrender, but in July 1915, this was achieved. With internal troubles behind him and South West Africa under his control, Botha could concentrate on playing a full part in the wider war.

Smuts was dispatched to lead the attack on German forces in Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania). White South African troops were also sent to join the war in Europe, dying in their thousands. More than 2,300 white soldiers were killed in the battle of Delville Wood alone.

Disaster struck when more than 600 African volunteers, sent to dig trenches in France, were drowned after the SS Mendi was accidentally rammed off the Isle of Wight in February 1917. Oral history records that the Rev Isaac Wauchope comforted the men aboard the sinking ship with these words: ‘Be quite and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place now is what you came here to do. We are all going to die, and that is what we came for.

‘Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Zulu, say here and now that you are all my brothers … Xhosas, Swazis, Pondos, Basotho and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.’ On hearing of the tragedy, Prime Minister Botha led Parliament in standing to pay tribute to their courage and sacrifice.

For South Africa’s African and coloured communities, the First World War offered the same opportunity as the Boer War: a chance to show their loyalty to their country and the British Crown (Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War). On hearing of the outbreak of conflict, the ANC (then still called the South African Native National Congress) halted its agitation against the 1913 Land Act (WWI and the People of South Africa).

The ANC general secretary, Sol Plaatje declared that Africans were keen to join up and ‘proceed to the front’ and in October 1914 the ANC offered to raise a force of 5,000 men. The Secretary of Defence’s reply was brusque to the point of rudeness (Fighting Their Own War: South African Blacks and the First World War).

‘The Government does not desire to avail itself of the services in a combat capacity, of citizens not of European descent in the present hostilities. Apart from other considerations the present war is one which has its origins among white people of Europe, and the Government is anxious to avoid the employment of coloured citizens in a warfare against whites.’ Even though they were forbidden to carry arms, large numbers of Africans did participate, mostly as labourers. Some 74,000 Africans served in South West Africa, East Africa and France.

Coloured South Africans were just as enthusiastic as members of the black African community. The APO of Dr Abdurahman was keen to help with the enlistment: ‘By offering to bear our share of the responsibilities’, said Abdurahman, ‘coloured men would prove themselves ‘not less worthy than any other sons of the British Empire’ (WWI and the People of South Africa).

Their offer was not rebuffed. While Africans were forbidden to carry weapons, coloureds were not. In September 1915, the government decided to raise an infantry battalion, known as the Cape Corps. They were to see action in East Africa, Turkey, Egypt and Palestine. (South African casualty figures did not include those who died in the Spanish flu pandemic: ‘By the end of 1918, more than 127,000 Blacks and 11,000 Whites had succumbed to the epidemic.’)

The political parties representing coloured and African people were not under any illusion that their show of patriotism would sweep away the racism and segregationist policies at home. In August 1914 the APO newspaper reminded its readers that ‘whatever British liberty means in abstract, few of us can honestly say that we love it much in practice’.

But participating in the war did bring its rewards. As D.D.T. Jabavu concluded in 1920, ‘the Native Labour Contingent … has imported into this country a new sense of racial unity and amity quite unknown heretofore among our Bantu races. Common hardships in a common camp have brought them into close relation’ (Fighting Their Own War ).

Africans also noted their favourable treatment by French civilians and compared it with the racist behaviour of some of their own officers. ‘The result is that there is amongst the diversified Bantu tribes of this land’, Jabavu wrote, ‘a tendency towards mutual respect and love founded upon the unhealthy basis of an anti-white sentiment.’

For white South African leaders, the First World War cemented their place within the Imperial family. They had made their contribution and shown the value of their friendship. The price they had extracted from Britain was that ‘native affairs’ would be strictly a domestic issue, in which London was not to intervene. For black South Africans, the hard lesson was the same as it had been during the Boer war: support for Britain would bring few rewards. Faced with the choice of siding with rulers or the ruled, London (perhaps sensibly, from their point of view) chose the whites.

Martin Plaut (left) is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and former Africa editor of BBC World Service News. He is a journalist specialising in the Horn of Africa and South Africa, and blogs at MartinPlaut.


Also in this ‘Armistice’ series:

World War 1, India and memorialisation
Used, abused and forgotten? The First World War’s Caribbean heroes
Adrift in the UK: colonial veterans at the close of the Great War
The ugly truth of Africa’s forgotten war dead