In the shadow of a white flag

2010-02-22 00:00

WITH the outbreak of war in 1939, South Africa had an obligation to support and join the war effort. Being part of the Commonwealth would lead to thousands of South Africans answering the call to serve king and country, a call that would no doubt change their lives forever.

Herbert William Cooper was an average man from the Pietermaritzburg area who answered this very call. In October 1939, just 19 years of age, he joined the First Royal Natal Carbineers and departed for overseas service with the regiment on July 17, 1940, on the S.S Devonshire.

After arriving in the Kenyan port of Kilindini-Mombasa on July 24, the Carbineers began their East African campaign, a journey that would take them through rough terrain, extreme equatorial conditions, many unseen dangers and a very hostile enemy.

On February 22, 1941, during the final stages of the advance from Kismayo to Gelib, Cooper was part of a selected 40-man patrol from Number 11 Platoon, “C” Company, sent out to patrol down the Juba River towards Gelib, Eastern Somaliland.

At 1.40 pm, the Platoon came face to face with a large force of about 300 Askaris (local native soldiers), who were being led by an Italian officer carrying a white flag.

While the Platoon took up a flanking defensive position, Lieutenant Derrick Norton and two others proceeded forward to accept the surrender.

As the Carbineer party reached the surrendering delegation, a volley of fire erupted from a hidden force, taking the South Africans by surprise, many of whom were killed within the first few seconds of contact. With almost no cover, orders came to withdraw and form a new position at the edge of the bush.

It was here, although completely surrounded, that the survivors were able to keep the enemy at bay for almost two hours before some South African armoured cars arrived and beat the attackers off.

Unfortunately, by this time, the veld had been ignited by exploding hand grenades and a raging inferno swept across the entire battlefield.

Twelve Carbineers lost their lives during this act of treachery, seven of them Maritzburg College old boys (Old Collegians). This tragedy would later become known as the infamous “White Flag Incident” at Gelib.

Hours later, the badly burnt bodies were finally retrieved from the scorched earth.

Legend has it that on surveying the carnage and loss of young life, a Carbineer officer named Captain Eustace was standing near an acacia tree, when a seed pod fell close to one of the burnt remains of the patrol.

Looking up at the tree, he realised the significance of this single seed pod and made an oath then and there to return with it to their homeland. True to his word, many years later, a single acacia tree stood alone on a farm in the Lotheni area of the Drakensburg, a small memorial stone at its base, a tribute to those fallen few.

Today, the only reminder of Cooper’s legacy is found in the form of an officially engraved Commonwealth War Graves headstone, located in the Nairobi War Cemetery, Kenya.


THROUGHOUT the ages, the gesture of waving or displaying a white flag in battle has always been interpreted as the signal to surrender or offer a truce. In most “civilised” wars, it was the expected norm that this act of surrender would be accepted by the conquering force, causing them to cease any further hostilities.

The first mention of a white flag being used as a symbol of surrender was recorded during the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25-220).

It was also during this early military active period, when a Roman historian named Cornelius Tacitus mentioned a white flag being used to announce surrender in AD 109.

Since then, it appears to have been adopted and accepted throughout future conflicts, often being romantically displayed in some of history’s most famous paintings and photos, from the epic painting by John Trumbull depicting the British surrender to the Americans at Yorktown in 1781, to the sad and humiliating scenes of South African soldiers surrendering the garrison of Tobruk to the Germans on June 21, 1942.

However there have also been times when the white flag has been used as a weapon of deception and abuse.

Many local history books expose the numerous alleged white flag deceptions during the Anglo-Boer hostilities of 1899 to 1 902, one such act being personally witnessed at Driefontein by Lord Roberts when Boers were seen to have shown a white flag, only to gun down the approaching English officer.

As history has a tendency to repeat itself, deception would yet again rear its ugly head during both world wars, directly affecting local men.

During the Boer Rebellion of 1914, the Natal Light Horse were the subjects of deception when they were tricked under a white flag carried by a Commando loyal to General Kemp near Kheis Drift. That incident left four men dead and several wounded.

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