21 359 South African lives lost in World Wars

2010-11-10 00:00

AT 11 am on November 11, 1918, the guns on the Western Front fell silent, ending one of civilisation’s most costly and greatest tragedies — World War 1.

With the declarations of war in August 1914, South Africa was obligated to join the effort and as early as the September 14, South African troops had entered German-held South West Africa (Namibia). The campaign was successfully concluded in July 1915 with minimal casualties but by the following month a second campaign was launched against German-held East Africa (now Tanzania). Facing a small but sophisticated German force, the South Africans battled against the German guerrilla campaign, made worse by an unpredictable climate, difficult terrain and disease. The 700 South Africans buried or commemorated in the Dar es Salaam War Cemetery bear testimony to the harshness and reality of the bitter struggle.

In August and September 1915 an infantry brigade was raised in Potchefstroom for overseas service. The four regiments numbered 160 officers and 5 648 men and were drawn from the various provinces of South Africa.

Although it was planned to send the brigade to France, in December 1915 they were diverted to Egypt to take up operations against Senussi tribesmen and Turkish forces who were threatening the vital supply and communication route provided by the Suez Canal.

On July 1, 1916, the heaviest loss of life for a single day occurred during the Battle of the Somme, when the British army suffered 57 470 casualties. By this time the South African Brigade had already arrived in France and on July 14, three of the brigade’s regiments entered Delville Wood. Over the next six days, surrounded on three sides, the South Africans would suffer appalling casualties as a result of the constant German artillery bombardments and fierce hand-to-hand fighting. When finally relieved, only 755 men from a force of 3 153 would answer to their name at roll call.

Over the next two years the South African Infantry continued to serve with distinction in France and Belgium, suffering more than 4 000 fatal casualties. Two South Africans won the Victoria Cross for their gallantry deeds.

Apart from the epic tragedy at Delville Wood, South Africa would mourn yet again the mammoth loss of life of her sons when in the early hours of February 21, 1917, the troop transport ship (the SS Mendi) collided with another vessel in thick fog while en route from Plymouth. More than 600 of the 800 officers and men of the South African Native Labour Contingent on board were lost.

By November 1918 the German army was broken and when the firing finally stopped on November 11, the line reached by the South African advance guard represented the eastern most point gained by any troops of the British armies in France and thus allowed them to have the honour of finishing the war at the spear-point of the advance to victory.

Today, 92 years on, we still acknowledge Armistice Day or Remembrance Day or Poppy Day as it is commonly referred to. Around the world, this day commemorates not only the end of World War 1 but also acknowledges the sacrifice paid by all those who died during conflict. Apart from the wreath-laying and memorial services, the familiar poppy is worn during the proceedings, usually ending with a two-minute silence.

This two-minute silence was started by King William’s Town-born Sir James Percy Fitzpatrick. In 1916, while attending a church service in Cape Town, a moment of silence was held for the dead soldiers and years later when he heard that November 11 was going to be observed as Armistice Day in London, he asked for a two-minute silence throughout the British Empire, one minute as a tribute to the dead soldiers and the other for the survivors. Fitzpatrick, the author of Jock of the Bushveld, had been affected by war. He lost a younger brother during the Matabele Rebellion of 1896 and another in the Anglo-Boer war. It was during World War 1 that his son, Percy Nugent George, was killed in action while serving with the 71st Siege Battery, South African Heavy Artillery. Fitzpatrick’s suggestion was taken up and on December 14, 1918, a year after his son’s death, Cape Town became the first city in the world to observe the two-minute silence.

The symbol of the poppy goes back to 1915 when a Canadian soldier by the name of John McCrae wrote a poem about poppies growing on the graves of dead soldiers. He himself would become a casualty of the war, dying from meningitis in 1918. This poem inspired an American poet to sell poppies to the public and give the benefits to needy ex-soldiers. Eventually, the Americans had women in France sewing artificial poppies, with all the money raised going to war survivors. Thus the symbol for Remembrance Day was adopted — it was chosen because of the poem as well as the fact that they were the only flowers that grew abundantly on the battlefield.

Many years later, during the 1939-1945 war, South Africa would yet again pledge her support to the United Kingdom, mobilising her forces to fight in Italian-held Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Somaliland. From there, they travelled to the Western Desert of North Africa to face the German Afrika Korps and finally to the Italian mainland where they attempted to make a final push towards Europe.

During both wars, the people of South Africa served all over the world and many died far from home. Commemorated by the War Graves Commission, the number of South Africans who died is 9 445 for the 1914-1918 war and 11 914 for the 1939-45 war.

 

 

Percy Fitzpatrick’s suggestion was taken up and on December 14, 1918, a year after his son’s death, Cape Town became the first city in the world to observe the two-minute silence.

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