Martin Plaut, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, explains why Soviet troops sang Boer War tunes while fighting Nazi forces.

‘The night is overthrown. The sun is rising. Forward, the Red Navy, forward, Soviet youth!’ The words are pure Soviet propaganda, but the tune they sang would be familiar to many South Africans. It was Sarie Marais.

It was sung in desperate times – the siege of the port of Sevastopol, which took place from 30 October 1941 – 4 July 1942. The 110,000 Soviet troops were defending their fortress on the tip of the Crimea against German, Romanian and Italian forces twice their number before, finally, the city fell.

This was not the only time Soviet or Russian soldiers sang about South Africa. During World War I, a folk song popular with Russian troops had as its first verse:

Transvaal, Transvaal, my country,
You are all in flames!
Beneath the shade of a spreading tree,
A Boer is deep in thought.

And a nurse was heard singing it to a wounded soldier at the legendary siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, when its inhabitants held out against the Nazis for 872 days.

The Russian connection with the Boer War
The Anglo-Boer War was one of the great liberal and left wing causes of the late 19th century. Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party, saw the Afrikaners as stout peasant farmers, standing up to the might of British imperialism. Across the world, funds were raised for the Boer cause, and some 2,500 volunteers from the US and Europe joined the Boer ranks in their struggle against the British.

Among the contingent from the Netherlands, France, Italy and Ireland, were 225 Russians. They fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war including Spioenkop and Tugela Heights.

In this diary, Lieutenant Yevgeny Augustus recorded the wonder in which the Russians were held by the Afrikaners they fought alongside. ‘Do you people have cows in Russia,’ he was asked. ‘Yes, we do. And what about sheep? We have them as well. And what about railways? Yes, we have railways too!’

The most famous Russian soldier was Colonel Yevgeny Maximov, an adviser to Boer generals and presidents and leader of the 300-strong ‘Foreign Legion’. A painting in Johannesburg’s Africana Library shows him being shot at point blank range by Captain Towse, who was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.

Maximov survived Captain Towse’s bullet, and writing to him after the war, Transvaal President Paul Kruger said ‘Motivated by the absolutely selfless impulse of your soul, you have fulfilled your duty as an able and fearless representative of the Volunteer Commando under your leadership.’

Russian nurses and doctors
The importance of the Russian troops was eclipsed by the work of the medical staff. The Russian Red Cross sent everything from ambulance units, complete with doctors, nurses and administrators to teams who served in hospitals. Huge sums of money were raised to finance the operation, with an appeal in St Petersburg alone bringing in 100,000 roubles. The medical staff won the heartfelt thanks of Kruger, who organised for them to come and meet him. ‘He thanked us all, in the warmest possible manner for the timely help,’ one of the nurses later recalled.

At Kroonstad an ambulance unit established a hospital with 106 beds. Captured by the British, the hospital continued operating. The needs were enormous. The British had 60,000 men, and only three doctors to serve them. Soon the Russians were treating the British sick and wounded as well.

Russia swept by Boer craze
A wave of public support swept across Russia. There were popular postcards, pamphlets and books. ‘Church services are held for President Kruger’s health. Orchestras in public places are asked to play ‘the Boer anthem’ and when they do they have to repeat it indefinitely,’ reported a St Petersburg magazine in 1900. Streets were renamed, ‘Transvaalskaia, and Krugerovskaia’.

In the circumstances, is it any wonder that when the medical staff and soldiers came home, singing the songs they had learnt at the front, they fed into the popular imagination?

And so it was that when the Soviet Marines fought against the German 11th Army in Sevastopol, they turned to the music they had heard in their childhoods. Sarie Marais –rewritten as Forward the Red Marines! – rang out across the battlefield.

InternetMartin 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.


A version of this article features on the Daily Maverick website.