South African Military History Society


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 193


Lockdown restrictions have been relaxed since our last meeting and it would appear as if normality may not be far off, but until then the general opinion canvassed from our members is that we follow the procedure below:

The idea has been mooted of a longer trip being made in the New Year and to visit Kimberley and environs and your Scribe will be happy to investigate the possibilities of this venture. We will hold a meeting over coffee in the near future to discuss the expedition!

Early indications are that the well-attended Memorial Service hosted by the Grey High School on 11 November will not be held. Visitors are at present not allowed on Campus and the Class of 2020 Valedictory Service will only be attended by the Class and the event will be streamed live to all parents, family and friends and Old Greys globally. It is indeed sad that the pandemic will have destroyed much of what was to have been a wonderful final year in their school career.

In having heard Andre Crozier review the life of General Louis Botha, a tale is recalled of the great man’s visit to Adelaide in 1912 as the Prime Minister in order to lay the foundation stone of the new NG Kerk Hall. There was obviously a festive air about and there had been much preparation in providing tea and eats. It was also a hot day and midway through his speech a number of ginger beer bottle corks popped very loudly. Everyone ducked for cover where upon Louis Botha said to much mirth, “Dit lyk of die Khakis skiet nog steeds op my!”

Summary of a talk on The Royal African Corps at the Cape 1817-1823 given to SAMHSEC by Pat Irwin on 11 August 2020:

The Royal African Corps (the RAC), which was stationed in the Cape Colony from 1817 to 1823, was an unusual regiment in its composition, functions and the way it was regarded and treated by the social and military establishment of its time. It was composed largely of what were called ‘permanent punishment men’ – men who either had criminal records or who were considered to have criminal inclinations. Information on the RAC and the men in it is hard to come by: records and source materials are almost non-existent and what does exist is widely scattered.

The unit was formed in England in 1800 and, according to the custom of the time, was initially known as Fraser’s Corps of Infantry after its founder, Major John Fraser. Its ranks were composed principally of deserters, convicts, which often included culprits from the hulks, and men whose sentence of punishment, including those with life imprisonment or awaiting execution, had been commuted for services in Africa. Often men who had been sentenced to severe flogging – anything from 100 to 1 000 lashes – were given the option of joining a ‘disciplinary regiment’ such as the RAC with little or no idea of what they were letting themselves in for.

As one commentator, Don Cribbs, put it, ‘Amongst these were the misfits and unfortunates who should never have been recruited; recaptured deserters, hopeless drunkards, bullies, thieves and worse.…The Army’s solution was banishment to the ‘condemned’ regiments serving overseas in the worst and most unhealthy stations, in the West Indies and West African garrisons. Here heat and boredom, coupled with even harsher discipline, made life itself a misery from which only the mosquito and the effects of drink could bring release’.

The unit was also on numerous occasions disbanded, amalgamated with, or split off from other units, as well as being resurrected in various other combinations, mitigating against any sense of belonging or pride. Unless tightly controlled and kept busy, the unit was generally inclined to misbehaviour at best and criminal activity whenever the opportunity arose. It was generally not rated by John Fortescue at a very high military value. Nevertheless, at the Battle of Graham’s Town in April 1819, the unit, although outnumbered 18:1, gave a good account of itself conducting a resolute defence of the wives and children of the Khoi soldiers at the barracks of the Cape Regiment. Their officer, Lt. Cartwright, was mentioned in despatches

In addition to the criminal-related factors underlying the behaviour of the men in the RAC, a further consideration regarding their daily existence needs to be taken into account i.e. the climatic conditions in West Africa where they more or less continuously served and where they were subjected to high levels of infection from tropical diseases, with a consequently high death rate – a situation which was crucial in moulding the unit, the lives of the men and their behaviour. Until then the death toll amongst those sent there from elsewhere ranged from 75-80%. By comparison, fewer than 5% of criminals sentenced to death in Britain at this time were ever executed.

Generally, of those sent to West Africa, one half died in the first three months and the average duration of life did not exceed 15 months. Malaria and yellow fever accounted for 85% of all deaths collectively described as ‘fever’. In keeping with the medical knowledge of the time, the mosquito as a vector in disease transmission was not recognised and a dissipated lifestyle was thought to be a principle cause of ‘fever’. The psychology of the hopeless nature of these men’s existence was only beginning to be recognised as a factor.

It is against this background, and with their reputation, described by the historian, George Theal, as ‘evil’, travelling before them, when six companies of the RAC landed at Simon’s Town in July 1817, they were decidedly unwelcome. The purpose of their being sent here was to garrison the turbulent eastern frontier of the Cape Colony where a situation of cattle raiding, counter raiding and ambushes was ‘normal’. This period from 1818 to 1819, which included the Battle of Graham’s Town, is termed the Fifth Frontier War.

The Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, supported by many of the inhabitants of the Colony, had protested strenuously at their deployment to the Cape and their concerns were soon vindicated. When they disembarked at Simon’s Town there was mayhem, the RAC soldiers being responsible for, among other things, theft and assault. After this they were rapidly marched to the eastern frontier to perform guard duties, man small redoubts and posts and to carry out patrols along the Fish River border. There they remained for the rest of 1817 until 1821, when the unit was disbanded.

While there, however, the unit’s tendencies to marauding and theft once again found outlet, with local farmers and burghers soon coming to regard them as more of a menace and danger to them than the raiding amaXhosa clans were. Crimes of burglary, highway robbery and murder were laid at the door of some of its men. The Military Secretary at the Cape depicted them in a letter to Army Headquarters ‘as a set of the most desperate villains and worthless thieves that ever disgraced any country in the world’.

With disbandment the question arose of what to do with these generally unruly men. An attempt was made to settle some of them into a military village which was named Fredericksburg, but, due largely to bureaucracy, it was a failure. Some were drafted to other regiments, some were settled in the Cape, but many, the worst behaved, were not allowed to return to Britain and could not be set free. These were placed under tight control until they could be sent back to West Africa, where they were drafted into another penal regiment. While awaiting transport, they were put to work assisting the Royal Engineers in building the Franchhoek Mountain Pass, which is today still in use.

The talk was bought to a conclusion with an analysis of the possible reasons why source material on the unit is so scarce. It ended with the suggestion that, despite what they were, these unfortunate men – in essence society’s rejects – perhaps, at least through modern lenses, deserve some degree of empathy.

The full article with references and notes will appear in the forthcoming Military History Journal.


Backfire – by Ian Copley

As a Captain in the RAMC I spent more than four years with 24 Field Ambulance, part of 24 Brigade, East Africa Command, based in Nairobi. During this time, I was under fire only once.

The Brigade was deployed to Kuwait in 1960 when it was in danger of being overrun by Iraq. I was in charge of B Section of the Field Ambulance. A few days after arrival, my section was ordered to the Al Mutla Ridge that had been chosen as the line of defence astride the main road to Basra in the event of any attempt by General Kassem to invade this oil rich country. According to our Colonel, my section was to be attached to the King’s Regiment [Liverpool and Manchester] camped on the reverse slope near the summit of the ridge on the left.

Our little convoy followed tracks through the desert from the oasis of Al Jahra, north of the town of Kuwait, towards the ridge. On arrival, there was nobody about, nobody was expecting us and nobody seemed to care if we were there or not. At the foot of the slope I espied the blue and white mess tent of 42 Marine Commando situated close to a helipad – an ideal spot for a medical post, I thought. We unloaded our two [commandeered] Kuwaiti lorries and soon had tentage up and hessian camouflage in place, including the lorries. The commandos were very friendly and ran out a field telephone and provided a meal for all twenty of us. I was very pleased with everything, but when my OC arrived to inspect us, he was quite angry. I had to go with him to the position he had had marked out for us, close to the Kings that would put us immediately downwind. As soon as he had stamped off in his yellow suede ‘chukka’ boots I decided on a spot 100m to the right into the ‘fresh’ air. I then had the sad task of telling the men to pull down, pack up again and move up the hill, especially as they had to repeat the performance in an air temperature between 40º and 50ºC.

Once installed we had no more recognition from the Kings than before. A few days later, the usual strong, hot and dry wind was blowing. The riflemen had nothing to do but take it easy, hanging their webbing and ammo pouches on the tent poles. One of them flicked his cigarette end out of the tent doorway that happened to land on the hessian of the next tent.

Within seconds the camouflage was in flames jumping from tent to tent and ours would have been next to ignite had we been in the position ordered. Soon ammunition in the tents started to explode and bullets were flying in all directions. All my men jumped into our slit trenches, but we noticed two men on top of one of our lorries who had been adjusting the camouflage, adrift from the strong wind and they were now sitting watching the fun. We shouted for them to get down. In his haste to get down one chap caught his boot in some netting and remained watching the fireworks upside down with bullets whizzing past. There was only one casualty and that was the OC’s Landrover with the two bullets in the radiator.

One decoration came of this in that our Colonel received an OBE [which stands for something else in the army], having been evacuated with heat exhaustion.

The friendliest fire I ever came across was also in Kuwait. One of the fusiliers with the Inniskillings stationed at the other end of the Al Mutla Ridge, happened to shoot his buddy in the foot. By way of reparation and camaradie he then shot himself in the foot and they ended up side by side in a Kuwaiti hospital. As there was no enemy in sight, or likely to be at that stage, it is surprising that his weapon was loaded.


Our monthly will be held on Monday 12 October and see below the joining details. The Main Talk will be presented by Eric Kelly on “The Great Sea Trek of 1820”


Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn
Scribe (newsletter):Ian Pringle.

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South African Military History Society /