The unarmed soldier: remembering the cape coloured corps
I East Africa
bastaard hottentot. coloured. kleurling. but the soldier is unnamed. the soldier is unarmed. his arms carry stretchers. his arms build bridges and drive patrol cars.
Creating the Centena.
My late grandfather was a soldier. My father’s father: Nicholas Christian Stuart. He was a boy during World War I, but he fought in World War II. My grandfather was enlisted in the Cape Coloured Corps – a regiment for South African men, classified as “Coloured” – that is people of mixed ancestry. In a pre-apartheid but already racially segregated South Africa, black and coloured men were enlisted in separate military regiments, from their white counterparts. They were not allowed to bear arms. They served as builders, drivers and labourers on the battle fronts.
The stories of these men are few and far between. There is some information on various war history websites, but the stories of the black and coloured South African men who fought in WWI are not widely known. I wanted to write a poem that honoured the men of the Cape Coloured Corps and raised awareness around their involvement in the war. I was hoping to find the story of a named soldier and write about one person in particular, but my research led only to general stories of the battalions involvement in battles in East Africa and North Africa.
The Cape Coloured Corps was first established for World War I. At the time South Africa was under British rule. A separate military company, the South African National Labour Corps was established to enlist black South African men.
From February 1916 to October 1917, the Cape Corps assisted in numerous battles in East Africa. Their work included building bridges, driving vehicles and assisting medical staff. A large majority of men contracted malaria during the war, and were subsequently sent home to recover. Despite this, their efforts in the battles in East Africa led to success for the British Forces. After succumbing to Malaria, the men were sent home.
In 1918, First Battalion Cape Corps was dispatched to Egypt, where they undertook escorting duties at prisoner of war camps, as well as communications work. They were not expected to fight, but the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Hoy appealed to General Edmund Allenby, commander of the British Empire’s Egyptian Expeditionary Forces, citing their successes in East Africa, as reason why they should be included in the armed conflict. After inspecting the battalion Allenby agreed and instructed the men to undergo additional training.
In September 1918, the First Battalion Cape Corps did reconnaissance and rehearsals for Allenby’s attack on Square Hill in Ramallah. They worked with the 1/17th Indian Infantry, which was the advance guard. The First Battalion Cape Corps passed through the advance guard and succeeded in taking Square Hill. One of their men died and a second man was wounded. They captured 181 prisoners, eight officer and 160 members of other ranks, and, an enemy field gun. Their success at Square Hill enabled Allenby to progress on to Damascus and remove the Ottoman Empire from the war.
2014: The Cape Coloured Corps and the First World War, South African History Online (http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/cape-coloured-corps-and-first-world-war)
Lives of the First World War.
You can find out more about the South African Cape Coloured Corps here at Lives of the First World War.