Cape corps in WWI ensured we’d enjoy our tomorrows

There’s an old field gun at the side of the cenotaph on Kimberley’s Du Toitspan Road.

It’s a lot smaller than the Long Cecil, the diamond city’s home-made cannon built by civilians to fire back against the Boer Long Toms.

This gun is from Square Hill. There’s a suburb of the same name about a kilometre north of the famous Big Hole. A once upper middle-class area once beloved of local politicians and professionals before 1994. You wouldn’t immediately know that they refer to the same thing – a battle fought 100 years ago this week in harsh terrain much like the Northern Cape.

Nothing much has changed in the sunburnt rock-strewn ground where Jesus once took a much-needed drink of water from a Samaritan woman. There’s no plaque in the hills north of Ramallah. But it’s here where men of the 1st Battalion of the Cape Corps fought – in the words of General Edmund Allenby, the British commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force – like tigers.

The soldiers had had to beg him for the chance to fight. Even though they’d proved themselves for two years in East Africa, fighting Germans and malaria – they’d been sent to Egypt to guard Prisoner of War camps because of the colour of their skin.

Allenby gave them their chance – and they didn’t disappoint. They took Square Hill, 400 of them in three companies. They lost one man during the night attack that ended at 4am the next day. They captured the gun that stands at the cenotaph – the first of the entire Palestine campaign.

All they had to do was hold their position, but then someone decided they should take the hill 700m ahead too. The hill’s called Kh Jbeit. You can’t find it on a map. It was a disaster. Going in without artillery support, seven of their eight officers were killed very quickly. The eighth one followed shortly after.

But the men of the Cape Corps, led by their NCOs, took that hill and held it. The fighting was brutal, bayonets, fists and boots, even sticks. The Turks were merciless and cruel, robbing and shooting the wounded.

The Cape Corps left 43 soldiers on that hill. Eight more would die. 101 others were wounded. It was the highest butcher’s bill of the campaign, but less than six weeks later the feared Ottoman Empire would capitulate as Allenby conquered what became the Middle East.

The Cape Corps, which is South Africa’s oldest military unit, was disbanded after World War I – discarded until the next crisis, re-established and discarded twice more as the country demanded.

We’ve forgotten that too.

If nothing else, the centenary of World War I has taught us that the narrative that this was a white man’s war was nothing less than politically correct revisionism.

In November when we remember the end of the war to end all wars, we should think long and hard about the legacy they bequeathed us; those who literally gave their todays so that we could enjoy our tomorrows – and what we’ve done with it.

It will not be pleasant. Some of our forebears might have gone to war for the adventure, but all emerged with a horror of it and a sense of brotherhood that generations would undo and even try to erase. That’s why politicians can speak so blithely of war today. They divide and hate to gain cheap votes never having been ask to pay the price.

It’s just one more reason why we should never forget.

Originally published on 22 September 2018 in the Saturday Star