A history that wasn't

2014-07-16 00:00

ON Sunday, July 6, in events covered by The Witness, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke at the South African World War 1 Memorial at Delville Wood in France during the reinterment of South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) member Myengwa Beleza. This SANLC member was originally buried in the civilian cemetery of Seine-Maritime, near the coastal port of Le Havre.

Ramaphosa was reported as stating that black South African casualties during World War 1 “were buried seperately in different civilian cemeteries across France, while their white counterparts were interred at the Delville Wood Memorial”; and that he was “correcting an historical injustice”. Ramaphosa further claimed that he was also demonstrating “our commitment to rehabilitate our military history”.

Political motives

But we need to be certain of the truth regarding details pertaining to the historical burial and memorialisation of South Africa troops who served in France. And we also need to be frank in assessing to what extent Beleza’s reburial at Delville Wood is rather actually serving an ANC government agenda of reinforcing its racially based political interpretations of history to justify current racial “transformation” policies and racially loaded political utterances. This while distorting the past and also misusing the World War 1 Centenary. For it could be argued that such a shifting of a soldier’s remains to endorse a political party’s motives is unprecedented and dishonourable to the centenary, which is not an occasion for political posturing in the guise of correcting purported past injustices and then referring to that as “rehabilitation”.

Sunday’s events may not be, as Ramaphosa also claimed, “about nation building and reconciliation”; on the contrary, they might well concern contriving towards an “approved” ANC Afrocentric history. These are highly contentious assertions, considering they are effectively alleging the misuse of a human being’s war remains, while also challenging commonly accepted assumptions about South Africa’s segregation-apartheid past, which indisputably included many injustices.

But at best, if the government’s decision to authorise the reinterment of Beleza’s remains at Delville Wood is directed by incorrect or incomplete historical evidence, it still does no justice to either Beleza or any other South African World War 1 dead. The reinterment’s clear political motivation resembles the kind of historical distortions that might arise from the teaching trade union Sadtu’s recent call for schools’ history to be taught in order to “manufacture patriotism”, which would be a low aim expressing only insecurity.

Not all white South African casualties in France are buried at Delville Wood, nor are all buried in “military cemetries”. They are buried right across what was once the Western Front. Many civilian cemetries in South Africa, as in France, have military plots where soldiers alone are buried. For example, at Plumstead cemetary in Cape Town, you will find such a plot containing the grave of Major-General Timson Lukin, the commander of the First SA Brigade of (white) troops who served in France and fought at Delville Wood. Right up to the armistice of November 11, 1918, the First SA Brigade fought across a wide area of France. Their best-known final battle being at Marrieres Wood during March 21 and March 22, where they bore the brunt of the fighting by the Ninth British Division and suffered severe casualties. Recent private attempts to install a South African memorial at Marrieres Wood have not received SA government approval, on the spurious grounds that such would be “devisive”. So much for real government interest in commemoration.

Imperial troops

Neither were the SANLC members who died in France, buried by the South African government of a century ago, nor by its military, the then Union Defence Force (UDF). The SANLC troops were Imperial troops, recruited by the SA government and under white UDF officers, but their very existence as a corps was due to a request by the British government to the SA government for war-time labour. The British paid the SANLC troops and they remained under Imperial not South African command. Of the 938 SANLC black members who perished in France, 14 died of illness at sea en route from South Africa and 617 were drowned during the now well-recorded accidental sinking of the troopship Mendi. SANLC dead were buried under British authority and not, as alleged, according to any “segregation” policy. Some, like Beleza, were laid in war-grave plots within civilian cemeteries, tended over the years, like all World War 1 military graves in France, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and as inferred above, there is no dishonour in a soldier being buried in a civilian cemetery.

The SANLC arrived in France several months after the Somme offensive and Delville Wood battle. Delville Wood cemetery really contains just a handful of South Africa graves, compared to the numbers of the First SA Brigade’s dead from the battle; the South Africans lie alongside many more British graves. For the South African Brigade’s heroic stand in July 1916 was the first of many attempts, until September 1916, to hold the wood. The South Africans buried at Delville Wood were those whose bodies were found and identified, compared to hundreds of others whose remains were either buried by shell fire or completely fragmented by the same.

The historical reality is that only white South African troops fought at Delville Wood and the SANLC were nowhere near this site. And it is very important to reiterate: the fact that these South African black troops were labouring 200 kilometres away in no sense detracts from the war honours they fully deserve.

Soldiers were sometimes buried where they fell or their remains were later collected and buried at other appropriate sites. Ideally, men who served and fought together lie where they fell, alongside or near their comrades. Battlefield cemeteries usually began where dressing stations or field hospitals had existed or near rear base area hospitals. During and after the war, further bodies were discovered, and by arrangement with the host government (France), were buried in various locations on land given to CWGC. No precedent exists for moving buried troops unless absolutely necessary for civic reasons, such as the unavoidable siting of a public road, and such occasions were rare.

They were never there

Beleza was originally buried in a civilian cemetery of Seine-Maritime near the coastal port of Le Havre, which was the entry point for 1,9 million British and Imperial troops into France, including the SANLC. These South Africans were employed at the docks, but also further north in tree-felling and associated labour, where 307 died from work-related injuries or from illness, while one died from wounds sustained during action, possibly German shelling while he was working further east.

Many of the SANLC men who died in France were buried at Arques-la-batailles, which lies 111 kilometres along the French coast northeast from Le Havre, and was also the site of a military hospital where many SANLC members were treated. Since the mid-twenties, there has existed at Arques-la-batailles a SANLC memorial, a structure which, like that at Deville Wood, was commissioned by the SA government of the day and appropriately sited, for this was a prominent location where SANLC men had worked and where some had died. The point being that even back in the vastly different historical context of a century ago, even the white government of segregation did not ignore the SANLC’s sacrifices. Besides Delville Wood, there are no other memorials to any South African troops in France, although there are several places where such could justifiably be placed, as other countries — Australia for example — have done for their men.

The SANLC deserve every honour for their war services and sacrifices, and such must certainly be part of the South African World War 1 commemorations. But the SANLC were hundreds of kilometres distant from Delville Wood and it is wrong to try to contrive a different historical experience for them by placing Beleza’s remains away from those of his SANLC comrades, to a location and battle experience they never visited nor witnessed.

The political capital of the better-known Delville Wood site, as part of the 1916 Somme campaign, is what the ANC government wishes to fraudulently exploit as “their own” through manipulating the past.

I reiterate that the SANLC men have their own special places of honour, both physically and historically, including the Mendi sinking, and I doubt if they would have desired remembrance in the form of some contrived ceremony involving just one of their number at an historical occasion and location they never knew.

The SANLC members did not receive the British War Medal which was awarded to all members of British and Imperial Forces during World War 1. The reason being racially discriminatory based procrastination by the Smuts government after the war, and finally the direct refusal for approving its award by the Hertzog National Party/Labour government, elected to office after 1924.

This was an emphatic injustice as the British government made allocation for the decoration to be awarded to the SANLC. An ideal World War 1 centenary project of justice and reconciliation for South Africa would be to, as far as possible, locate descendants of the SANLC veterans and let them receive this decoration, albeit a century late. All other South African troops, white and coloured, were awarded the British War Medal.

• Dr Rodney Warwick is a military historian based in Cape Town.

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