South African Military History Society


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 192

September 2020

Our Zoom format of meetings continues at pace and we are attracting a wider than scope of members beyond our own local society and have found that others unrelated to us have also joined us as guests for the evening. There is obviously a concern that there are those who do not have access to Zoom are being left out in the cold and to reach an amicable balance, discussions are and have been held to make us more inclusive.

It would appear as if a solution could be to continue with the Zoom format and on a quarterly basis also have a local day outing to which all will be invited. These visits could include trips to Grahamstown, the Bathurst area, to nearby Nanaga and also our City tour which we hold in November.

In order to maintain the interest, we have agreed to hold a second meeting every month and this will take place on the last Monday of the month. At this meeting a suggested programme will include a book review and there after a discussion on the book. Andre Crozier was the first up and at our meeting on 31 August reviewed the book called, “Louis Botha – a man apart” by Richard Steyn. A remarkable man of little formal education who became a Boer General and later the first Prime Minister of the Union. One who is said to have been overlooked in his achievements in the context of South African politics.

Andre would like to hear from you should you have a book that you would like to review and add to our interest. Kindly contact him. There is always the opportunity of covering an event and/or site in our five minute Member’s slot and we encourage members from where ever to participate. The more the merrier!

At this second meeting, Mac Alexander gave a talk on the late Sergeant Major Jock Hutton, who recently died at the age of 94 years and who, only a year ago, parachuted into France as he had done on 6 June 1944, to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Landings. A remarkable soldier.

Members may be aware that a section of the outer wall at Fort Selwyn, which is situated adjacent the Settler Monument in Grahamstown, has collapsed, but we are pleased to hear that the damage is covered by insurance and repairs will be suitably undertaken.


An Illustrated Zoom Talk by Barbara Ann Kinghorn on 11 August 2020

American Red Cross poster, by L.N. Britton requesting people to knit
socks to send to troops in Europe during World War I, c1917.

This is the poster that led me to discover who “our boys” were, why they needed “sox” and what “knitting your bit” means. My research was conducted entirely on the Internet, where, predictably, the environment is more than awash with information and half-truths: a tsunami of images and text awaits you when your key words are “knit your bit patriotic knitting”.

In this case, the American Red Cross is visibly behind the poster’s message, which urges American viewers to knit socks for American troops away in Europe during World War 1. The troops specifically needed lots of dry socks to prevent their feet from getting “trench foot” from prolonged exposure to damp unsanitary conditions in the trenches. The Red Cross provided yarn, knitting needles, patterns, sock knitting machines, assistance for novice knitters and distribution of the knitted garments to troops on the front. Indeed, knitters could even specify to whom their handiwork should go. For example, before the USA entered the war, American knitters could sew labels into the garments: some charming examples were for “a French soldier”, “a fighting Belgian”, “an Italian Marine” or “an Englishman of Gentle Birth in the Trenches”. Later, to simplify the logistics of distribution, knitters could still add a label indicating which specific US warship crew they wanted to receive their work.

But more than all this, the knitting campaign was designed to enable people on the home front to feel they were doing their patriotic duty and making a valid and valuable contribution to the war effort. Knitting patterns proclaimed “If you can KNIT, you can do your bit!”

The campaign was so successful that, at the end of World War 1, the total number of garments knitted was 23 million separate items, which included not only socks, but sweaters, gloves, hats, vests, balaclavas and “amputation covers” too.

Wartime knitting, it can be seen, was so much more than a hobby or a useful way to pass the time. It was without a doubt very effective propaganda. Knitting was also fashion and therapy for the knitters and a reminder of home for the recipients of lovingly knitted military garments. Ultimately, “knitting for victory” was about everyone being able to fight together for survival. In times of trial, patriotism can unite us and everyone can put their differences aside to help their countrymen in need.

This aspect of Military History is what I’m interested in – the different ways that “noncombatants” and people on the home front feel themselves called to do their patriotic duty in wartime. I have already made presentations about Vera Gedroits, a Russian princess who became a pioneering military surgeon; Anna Coleman Ladd, a sculptor from Boston who worked in Paris from 1918 -1919 under the aegis of the American Red Cross to alleviate the suffering of French soldiers whose faces were awfully disfigured in combat, by minutely creating portrait masks which hid their poor broken faces. And “The Lady in White”, Perla Seidle Gibson, a South African opera singer, who sang rousing patriotic songs to each troop ship or hospital ship that entered or departed from Durban harbour during WW2.

The wholehearted participation of men and women, old and young is clearly seen in an article about a “knitting bee” in Central Park, New York in 1918, organised by the Comforts Committee of the Navy League. At the end of the three-day event, they had raised $4,000 (roughly $70,000 today), created 50 sweaters, almost as many mufflers, 224 pairs of socks and 40 “wool helmets”. The same article also documents prisoners at Sing-Sing Prison, New York, knitting to the accompaniment of a mandolin club in 1915.

Kitchener Stitch suggests that even Lord Kitchener knitted, but that is not so. The invisible grafting at the toe of a knitted sock was probably invented in 1880, but in a 1918 sock pattern, it was patriotically named in Kitchener’s honour by Vogue magazine.

Unfortunately, not all knitters were experts though, as can be gathered from this soldier’s doggerel about his socks: