South African Military History Society


Newsletter / Nuusbrief 208
January 2022

We wish all our readers a prosperous and safe New Year.

Passing of SAMHSEC founder member Colonel Piet Hall

SAMHSEC regrets the passing of SAMHSEC founder member and Eastern Cape military historian of note, Colonel (ret) Piet Hall.

13 December 2021 meeting

In our last meeting for 2021, Anne Samson spoke on Christmas during World War 1, using diary entries and other first-hand accounts, with particular reference to experiences in Africa. Anne’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library. The text of her talk follows below.

10 January 2022 meeting

Barry Irwin is to speak on the extraction of the Norwegian national gold reserves after the German invasion in 1940.

31 January 2022

SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history on 31 January 2022.

Session 1:

Session 2:
Nick Cowley is to review the book “I deserted Rommel” by Gunther Bahnemann.

Talk by Rear Admiral Roy Clare CBE, DL on “Sea reflections -leadership is vital in every walk of life, but what do seafarers bring ashore?”
You may find the above talk of interest, see 2021/

Roy had a career as a military historian after retiring from the Royal Navy. The South African connection is that he went to school in Cape Town before joining the Navy.

* * *

Christmas in World War 1 by Dr Anne Samson

presented at the SAMHSEC meeting on 13 December 2021

I hadn't planned to talk about Christmas or do another talk this year, however with doing some other research, I just happened across so many Christmas references that when I heard there was a gap for a speaker, it seemed appropriate to cover the topic.

Christmas has always just ‘been there’, unlike the odd mention of Indians celebrating Ramadan which stood out. So far, I haven't come across any Jewish participants celebrating Passover or Hanukkah and the Sikhs incorporated their celebrations into their routine practice. In contrast, there are numerous mentions of Christmas in the texts I work with, which is not surprising given the Christian based culture that the British Empire had.

What is fascinating, at least to me, is the diversity of Christmas experience over the five years of war which included four Christmases and then the immediate post-war 1918 Christmas.

Probably the most well-known Christmas event of the 1914-18 war is that of December 1914, when a truce occurred in a section of the Western Front. I'm not sure how much this featured in South Africa, but it has received a lot of attention in the UK, including an advert by one of the large supermarket chains. It was not to happen again during the course of the war. I'm not planning to spend much time talking about it, other than to mention there was an article on it in The South African in 2014 if anyone wants to find out more, or simply do a search on the internet. I want to rather focus on other aspects of the war.

Another well-known feature of the war and Christmas is the Princess Mary Gift Boxes which was sent to all on the front irrespective of where they served. While those serving in Europe got theirs in time for Christmas, those serving in more exotic or far away locations as Africa and Asia received theirs well after Christmas, sometimes six or more months late. Box contents was adapted for non-smokers and people of different religious backgrounds. Non-smokers received a packet of acid tablets and a khaki writing case with pencil, paper and envelopes. Sikhs received sugar candy and a box of spices, the Gurkhas received the same as the British Army. All other Indian troops received a packet of cigarettes, sugar candy and box of spices. Camp followers called ‘Bhistis’ received a box of spices. All received a card from Queen Mary while the British Army also got a photograph of her.

On Christmas morning 1914, while the Germans were bombing Dover and Sheerness, the British Naval Air Service undertook a raid on the German naval port of Cruxhaven. The Admiralty reported: “On Friday the 25th, German warships lying in Schillig Roads off Cuxhaven were attacked by 7 Naval seaplanes. The attack was delivered in daylight starting from a point in the vicinity of Heligoland. The seaplanes were escorted by a light cruiser and destroyer force, together with submarines. As soon as these ships were seen by the Germans at Heligoland, two Zeppelins, three or four hostile seaplanes and several submarines attacked them. It was necessary for the British ships to stay in the neighbourhood in order to pick up the returning airmen and a naval combat ensued between the most modern cruisers on one hand and the enemy’s aircraft and submarines on the other. By swift manoeuvring, the enemy submarines were avoided and the two Zeppelins were easily put to flight by the guns of HMS Arethusa. (Flagship of Commodore R Y Tyrwhitt), HMS Undaunted and HMS Aurora. The enemy’s seaplanes succeeded in dropping their bombs near to our ships, though without hitting any. The British ships remained for 3 hours off the enemy’s coast without being molested by any surface vessel and safely embarked 3 out of the 7 airmen with their machines. Three other pilots which returned later were picked up by British submarines which were standing by, their machines being sunk.

According to the Illustrated War News of 30 December 1914, the British ships were decorated with holly, mistletoe or evergreens. Low key decorations which would not get in the way of action. It is said that the officers of the Grand Fleet contributed to provide Christmas dinners for the children of their men. Gifts were sent to the front by loved ones, as well as Queen Mary as already noted. The Christmas spirit continued with the gift by Maharaj Scindia of 41 ambulance cars, 4 cars for officers, 5 motor-lorries and their repair-wagons and 10 motorcycles.

Closer to home, in South Africa, the 1914 Rebellion effectively drew to an end in early December, which enabled the men involved to be given 3 weeks leave before embarking for German South-West Africa. Others who had not participated in the Rebellion, but who were to serve in South-West, were on board ship on Christmas Day. It was also the day Walvis Bay was occupied by Union troops. Padre Meara who was the chaplain on board the Gaika heading to South-West was ‘sea sick all day & night” on 22 December – “the less said about it the better. But it’s an utterly miserable feeling.” On the 25th, he had a service attended by about 2,000 men. It was “surely the most novel Christmas service I have ever held. We are expecting to reach Walfish Bay (sic) sometime this morn or day. We may have to shell the Germans out … The singing of O Come all ye and Oh God our help and Jesus lover was very hearty. I spoke for a few minutes on Joh 3:16 [For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in his shall not perish but have eternal life.] Later that day they landed at Walvis with no opposition.

We hear more individual experiences from 1915, presumably as people realised the war was not going to be over as quickly as initially anticipated. On 24 December 1915, General Horace Smith-Dorrien set sail for Africa where he was to take over command of the British forces in East Africa. This was not to be, however, as he fell ill on route and in February 1916 Jan Smuts succeeded him as Commander in Chief East Africa. No doubt a strong sense of duty must have prevailed leaving on Christmas Eve.

Meanwhile in Africa, the Germans were repulsed from an attack on the Uganda Railway and in West Africa, the British took Ngoa in Cameroon. On Lake Tanganyika, the Germans were doing their usual round of the lake, approaching Albertville where the British Lake Tanganyika Expeditionary Force was stationed. This led to action taking place on Sunday 26 December after Divine Service.

Concerning Christmas Day, the British commander, Geoffrey Spicer Simson simply noted that Christmas was ‘celebrated’. In the attack on the German Kingani, the commander and two gunnery ratings were killed, the remainder being taken prisoner and the boat towed into port before it sank. The funerals were conducted the same afternoon.

Meanwhile, the Hull Heavy Battery RGA was at Charlton Park, not knowing they would soon be leaving for East Africa. In the first week of 1916 the whole unit volunteered, when asked, to go to East Africa, including the ammunition column.

Christmas 1916 was spent at Dodoma. Charlie Rimington of the unit recorded: "meat pies and coffee for breakfast. Lovely short crusts and meat was finely minced. I had to call a halt when I got 3/4 of one down. Simply couldn't eat any more as I would have liked to do so. For lunch roast chicken, biscuits and cheese, roast beef and beans. For dinner we are having another chicken, plum pudding (the real article being sent out by a comfort fund) and a ton of fruit and three eggs on toast. The chickens are our own as well as some of the other items . There are some more Xmas comforts which came in this morning, just a year and two days late, as they are marked for 1915!. The officers gave so much money to be deducted off the articles we had ordered from Dar-es-Salaam and it just ran round to Rupees3.20."

(Rupert Drake, Road to Lindi, p160.) Jack Drake, whose grandson wrote the Road to Lindi, spent Christmas in hospital with malaria. A year later, Christmas 1917, the unit was in South Africa. Jack Drake recorded that the whole battery left Dar- es-Salaam in HMT Ingoma on 13 December and disembarked in Durban on the 19th, where they spent a good Christmas.

Arthur Cowborne of the unit recorded that the battery was accommodated at Congella camp on the outskirts of town. “The weather here is simply glorious and Durban is really a fine place, it is just like being at some seaside place in summer at home. I went down to a YMCA this morning for breakfast given to us troops in Durban and it was a first class affair, the people of Durban will do anything for us troops. I have just heard that we are leaving here on the 27th, I think we are going on to Cape Town and stay there a while, from there I think we should come on home.” What exactly they did for Christmas is not recorded.

Finally, in 1918, they spent Christmas in Saulzoir, France, as Joseph Dan Fewster recorded: “It is Christmas day and we have had a rare day. We bought a pig out of battery funds, and although the cost worked at 4/2d a pound, we forgot that when we ate it. We also had a barrel of beer, which we were able to sell at 2d a pint and very decent stuff it turned out to be. Each man was allowed two pints. We had plenty to drink and eat so, under the circumstances, what more did we want?"

The war had ended on 11 November that year, but not everyone could be returned home immediately. There was also ordnance and other military equipment and infrastructure that had to be removed and tidied before the British Forces could leave.

The Hull Battery was recovering artillery ammunition. Dan Fewster goes on to record that “By being exceedingly careful with our rations since Christmas we have been able to save a little bread, margarine and tea. We have bought some currant bread with money raised by subscription.” Invitations were issued through the mayor of the town that children under 5-years old have tea with the unit on 1 January. “We collected tables etc from all over the place. The school teachers started bringing them in at about 4pm and what a procession it was! What pleasure it gave us to wait upon them! How they did eat. The civilian ration is only very meagre here. I really think that for the children it was the first unlimited meal they had had for many a long day. Many of them were so small that the mothers carried them here and after tea carried them home again.” After tea, were “speeches, which we did not understand, but we did understand the heartiness of the children's singing of the Marseilles and a hearty cheer they gave the battery.” (p290)

Elsewhere in 1915, the Dardanelles campaign was drawing to a close, Kitchener having gone out to confirm evacuation. The Hastings Advertiser carried an article on a unique Christmas card sent by a member of the RAMC to his family. It was a Turkish coin, two bullets and a red cross embedded an army issue biscuit. On the attached card was written “Adversity is very hard, but not so hard as this!” It’s incredible to think that on many an occasion, especially in East Africa and on occasion in South-West Africa, all the men had to eat for a day was one of these biscuits.

The army issue biscuits were made by Huntley & Palmers, a quaker company who started supply on 12 August 1914. The biscuits known as No 4 Standard contained whole wheat flour, but no sugar and measured 4 inches square. They had to be soaked in water or tea or broken into a stew for softening. This caused major problems when water was not available and people had poor teeth. It is not surprising that men used them for other purposes. Surely our men in South West would have had a more sustaining homemade rusk… if someone knows, please tell me… ( html?m=1; war-in-biscuits/)

Attempts were made to bring Christmas cheer to those in hospital. This image of West Hyde Hospital being similar others I’ve seen in the UK. At this stage of the war, South Africa did not have too many military hospitals in operation, as both the rebellion and South-West campaigns had few injuries, although poor health was the greater threat to life. Given the photo showing how the German internees in Fort Napier decorated their space for Christmas, it suggests similar practice.

On the Rovuma River, 1916, William Campbell in EA by Motor Lorry wrote: “Christmas Day found us on the road, travelling to the river. We felt that a good dinner was in store for us that day. But no! it was mealie and jam for breakfast, mealie and jam for lunch, and mealie and jam for the dinner. [one up on biscuits]. The boys were silent as they sat round the campfire on the dismal banks of the Rovuma River that night. Perhaps their thoughts were in the same direction as mine … I felt a little joy in the reflection that I had contrived to get a wireless from Massasi. Would it have arrived yet? Maybe … anyway it was a cheering thought. The darkness crept down and around us, the bright fire throwing into sharp relief the sad, serious faces of the men who would not talk … They seemed to be waiting for something… At last there were raucous cries of “Rum up!” It had the electrifying effect of sending everybody, helter skelter, to the rum tub. The liquid was really a poor substitute for the real thing, but it seemed to be enjoyed all the same. There was no limit to the quantity this Christmas night! I applied for my share and they filled my cup … it was hot and burnt the throat, and turned one’s inside into a boiling cauldron … but who cared? Nobody, not just now … Why, things could be much worse … In fact, things were quite good! We were not hungry – not now! The rum was good after all – it was only the first taste of it that seem to burn … And pipes were going, and no one suffered or wanted for anything … Indeed, the situation was quite a romantic one … Somebody began to sing; talk became general; laughter was loud and long – now. The following day he continues: The welcome sun rose in the form of a ball of fire, as it always does in this tropic land, chasing away the early drab greys that gave place to sweeping stretches of crimson and gold, which, in their turn faded and disappeared, to flood the new-born day with white light.”

An early start was made on this particular morning; the rollcall was two hours late. “An NCO came up to me after breakfast with the information that I was to remain behind to drive our OC, Lieutenant Parker, back to Massasi after the convoy had left. This was not to the liking of the NCO – but more of that anon. The convoy left, and a little later we followed on. We were both suffering from recovery, but the fresh morning breeze, which we caught as we rushed along, cooled fevered brows, and brought the smiles back again. I was not at all surprised when my officer directed me to pull up at Wells Camp – a rather delightful place of two or three artistic bandas and an equal number of rather exclusive officers.

The latter now appeared, greeted the OC effusively, and they all disappeared within. I was left perforce to kick my heels in the sun, but I was not sure whether that last grimace from the OC, as they went off, was a wink or a nod. But something happened – I knew it would. A native servant arrived with my lunch. This consisted of a delicious repast of guinea fowl rissoles, cold toast, and hot coffee with milk and sugar, delivered in the correct attitude of stiff formality. With a delightful feeling that all hope was not dead, I made amends for the wretched Christmas dinner the night before!" (pp89-90)

On arrival at Mingoyo, and finding the canteen closed, we discover what Campbell and others thought of the Christmas comforts sent their way: “… in the hope of obtaining food. We banged at the door to empty echoes, reminding us somewhat of the Christmas comforts sent to us up the line – “comforts” of unnecessary fancy shirts and scented soaps, but never a dressing for the inner man!”

Meanwhile, 6th South African Infantry, also in East Africa with Lieutenant Colonel Molyneux in command, found itself in the pestilential swamps of Duthumi. Molyneux conveyed the following message to his men in an After Order on 24 December, "It sounds absurd to wish anyone a Happy Christmas in these dismal, sweltering swamps, when one’s thoughts turn with yearning towards South Africa and home. Yet, would you rather be home, at ease, or here, struggling on for God and King? Would your people wish you back, or here, battling on for your Country and her Cause? You would not yield your pride of place to anyone; and be assured your relations and friends are sharers in your pride, not forgetting you in their prayers. And tonight, in the midst of anxieties and trials, it is surely happiness to turn our hearts and thoughts to home and kindred, asking Christmas joy for all – and happy, too, in our hopes for an early and victorious return. And may the angels that 1900 years ago rejoiced the world with glad tidings of peace, be shortly sent to announce to our exhausted and expectant world, to the Glory of God in the Highest, the coming reign of peace and goodwill. Though shorn of all that outwardly could make your Christmas happy, that you all may have a very happy Christmas is the earnest prayer of your Colonel." (DLI, p300)

Meanwhile, in Grahamstown, the Munro family had a sad Christmas having been notified on 20 December that their 'loving son, Yum' otherwise known as Grahame had died a few days previously from injuries received in East Africa where he served in the Motorcycle Corps.

In Pietermaritzburg, on Boxing Day, children of the men on service were entertained at the Town Hall. The Witness newspaper raising £75 to cover expenses. In 1917, approximately 350 children had a Christmas treat at the Natal Creamery Hotel on Longmarket Street, then went across to the Rinko for a “suitable” programme. (PS Thompson, Pmb)

Similarly, Australians were having as diverse a Christmas experience as were the South Africans. In 1917, Major General John Monash managed to secure a half pound of Christmas pudding for each man of his Third Division and they had a “slightly larger amount of food than normal rations, with additional treats”.

This contrasted with Private John Chugg, 1st Light Horse Field Ambulance complained of a “miserable Xmas” in Egypt in 1914. They had “boiled beef unpeeled potatoes and tea without milk … [and] no mail or anything to cheer us.”

In 1915, Sapper Alfred Galbraith described Christmas in Ismailia: they clubbed in to purchase a turkey and “chickens more like humming birds, soft drinks and a few biscuits. The chickens were dealt out 1 between 5 men and some of them would not feed one let alone 5 men, the one we got we tossed up to see who would get it & I won, but I half it with my pal & then the two of us went & bought some […] biscuits & some tin fruit.”

In contrast, in France, in 1916 and 1917, the officers were having sit down meals consisting of up to 10 courses.

Those heading out to war, on board the “SS Suffolk on Christmas day 1915 were treated to a multi-course dinner, opening with olives, mock turtle soup and salmon cutlets in anchovy sauce. The next course featured iced asparagus, beef fillets with mushrooms and prawns in aspic, before the food became even more serious, with four types of meat, baked and boiled potatoes, and beans. Four deserts followed, including plum pudding with both hard and brandy sauces.”

( wwi-108987)

Church parades and services were held where possible. Christmas Day 1917 saw a British BE2C aeroplane of 26 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, fly from Kilwa to drop a large parcel of 6,000 cigarettes outside Kibata Fort. The plane was piloted by Bernard Howard, and his observer who dropped the parcel was Leo Walmsley.

After first assuming that the BE2C was bombing them by mistake, the Kibata defenders were extremely cheered, as they had been out of “smokes” for a fortnight.

The same day, Lieutenant MacDonald of the Loyal North Lancashires died of wounds obtained from German shelling of the Lodgement on 16th December. (Road to Lindi).

The Canadians took the opportunity of Christmas 1917 to unveil a memorial to their comrades who had died during the battle of Arras between 4 March and 17 July that year. After the war, the present memorial was erected. ( ).

Christmas at sea in 1917, seemed a little more fraught than previous years. Harcourt Kitchin, a Royal Marine on board a ship doing convoy duty at Christmas recalled: “One trip out that I remember particular well was Christmas 1917, when we struck very bad seas on the way out and we got green sea right through the wardroom galley. And everything, all the fresh food disappeared and we had a Christmas dinner of salt pork and rice, which wasn’t very appetising. But the sailors of course had to have their fun on Christmas Day. And this ship, which used to have its guns on the main deck where they were quite useless, had had the guns shifted up onto the upper deck. Well, that put another five degrees on the roll, which in any case was round about forty degrees! And this is what she was doing. Well, they had to have their concert, so they brought a piano down – somehow – on to the aft deck, lashed it to a stanchion and they got cracking. But unfortunately, the lashing gave way in the middle and the piano took charge and the concert really finished up with the sailors chasing a piano all over the deck!” ( amp/)

It was not so lucky for many on the SS Agberi which was attacked by U-boat 87 at 2.42pm on Christmas Day. All but about 60 survived, being taken to Holyhead where they found shelter. One could argue that the U-boat crew got their comeuppance an hour later when it was sunk, all lives on board being lost.

Back home, in South Africa, those who were based at Roberts Heights in 1917 were each given a Christmas medal. Perhaps they thought this would be the last year of the war?

An interesting movie was released that year too reminding us of the diversity of South African involvement. Not much is known today about The Picannins’ Christmas other than who the lead actors were and that it depicted docile Zulu children. This was one of about seven films made in South Africa during the war, a few in Zululand as it was then, all with a propaganda slant.

As Christmas 1916 was a sad occasion for the Munro family, so it was for many others, including in 1917 the 600+ families of those who lost their lives when the SS Mendi sank in February that year, and 72 East African Native Labour Corps who died on their way home in April of the effects of malnutrition and malaria etc on the SS Aragon.

For various reasons it was decided that Kimberley would be the best base for the Cape Corps returned from East Africa. In 1917 over Christmas Cape Corps men who had returned from East Africa were given leave to visit the town. Albert Grundlingh notes that they were less than welcome. He says “Christmas cheer seems to have passed some local whites by and they objected to the presence of coloured soldiers in town. On Christmas Eve, the situation quickly got out of hand and unseemly street fights ensued as the two parties weighed into each other with gusto. The following day, 100 white men armed with knobkerries, iron pipes, chains and a few rifles patrolled a tense Kimberley. After troops had stones thrown at them, a fracas developed in which thirty people were injured. When word reached the camps that the Corps was once again under attack, it was only with great difficulty that the remaining men in the camp could be restrained from breaking out to assist their comrades. A troubled local police commissioner reported from his perspective that ‘the situation is critical and so long as the coloured troops are left in Kimberley, there will be friction…’ ‘The military authorities removed the Corps from the vicinity of the town and decamped into the veld till white antipathies in town were considered to be less volatile.’ it was said of the troops, “as a general rule, have shown great forbearance and have behaved in an exemplary manner, and it was only when they found that their comrades were being seriously injured that they retaliated.’ (pp146-7, War and Society)

This contrasted with their 1915 Christmas spent in Cape Town before going to East Africa, when the camp at Simonstown was thrown open to relatives and friends of the men of the Cape Corps. Full ‘advantage was taken of the concession. Amongst the old time customs, plum puddings and music and bands were provided and dancing and joviality took place as though no real war existed and in spite of the gloomy news that trickled through over the cables. It was just for the day, the work with all its seriousness and earnestness, was for the morrow.’

The Mayor, in his message to the citizens of Cape Town, clearly gave the key note in reference to the position as it was at that time. "We are on the eve of Christmas, and at the end of another year, a year of war, and, for many hundreds and thousands of human beings, of suffering and sadness, a year in which death has taken a heavy toll of the Empire's manhood. From many a home in the Peninsula loved ones who have gone forth at the call of duty will be absent this Christmas. There must therefore, be a note of sadness in our greetings, but we can still find comfort in the old, old message. Seventeen months of war have not shaken our confidence and our conviction that right must prevail, and though we may be sore let and hindered, we shall endure to the end, and the end will be victory." (Cape Corps).

In 1916, “Christmas day was spent at Dutumi, where dinner consisted of bully beef and biscuits, and none too much of that. It rained all day and the following day, […] the battalion left Dutumi at 5.30 a.m.”

Two months later, on 21 February, “the following laconic entry appeared in the Padre’s diary: ‘Mpangas, Ash Wednesday: Christmas puddings turned up. Glorious dinner!!’ so that if nearly two months late the Christmas cheer was none the less appreciated.” These puddings were a little fresher than those the Hull contingent got.

Back to 1917, whilst the Cape Corps men at Bultfontein and Dutoitspan, Kimberley, were being given a rough time by the residents of Beaconsfield, another group was just arriving. ( history-29-december/)

HMT Caronia docked at Durban at 9 a.m. on Christmas day (1917). “Our first greeting was a most satisfactory one in the shape of the following War Office cable in the morning paper: ‘The experiment of forming a combatant force of the coloured population of the Union of South Africa has been amply justified by the good opinion formed of the Cape Corps by “the GOC in Chief, East Africa, where this unit has rendered constant and valuable service since taking the field early in 1916. The capacity of the officers and the zeal of the rank and file reflect the utmost credit on all concerned with the organisation and training of the Corps, and on the loyal population from which it was recruited. It is the desire of the Army Council to afford the Cape Corps a further opportunity of service in another theatre, and the Union Government has accordingly been requested to reorganise the Corps with that object on its return from East Africa, after all ranks have had a period of rest and recuperation to which their services entitle them.’ As soon as the local officials came on board, we were informed of the arrangements made for our disposal. These were, three hundred men to entrain at once for Potchefstroom and a like number for Kimberley, and the remainder, approximately six hundred, to go into Jacobs Camp near Durban. All ranks were then to be quarantined for a period of ten days during which every man’s blood was to be tested for malaria symptoms. If the test registered two negatives the individual was to be allowed to proceed on a month’s recuperative leave. Those who could not register the desired negatives were to remain in quarantine until they could do so. The reason why we were not all to be kept together was said to be lack of the necessary accommodation, medical officers, and facilities in any one place. Two special trains were ready to take the Kimberley and Potchefstroom detachments north at once.

“The Caronia was expected to dock three hours earlier than she actually did. When the delay was discovered, no attempt was made to alter the time of departure of the specials. There was no time to get the bulk of the kits out of the holds and our disembarkation was consequently as much a muddle as our embarkation had been, and the majority who went north had perforce to travel without their kit. As soon as the gangways were in position a large quantity of Christmas cheer, the gift of the Cape Corps Gifts and Comforts Committee, was placed on board. Needless to say this act of thoughtful kindness was greatly appreciated by all ranks. The first special train left the Point (Durban Harbour) at 10 a.m. for Kimberley. There were seven officers and three hundred men (A Company and Headquarters) on board, Captain Tandy being OC train. Half an hour later Captain Cunningham left with C Company and the Machine Gun section, three hundred in all, for Potchefstroom, and our Acting CO, Major Hoy travelled by the same train to report at Pretoria. After lunch Major Cowell with B and D Companies went by special train to Jacobs Convalescent Camp.”

Children were not forgotten: On 26 December 1917, “a Christmas treat to all children of Coloured soldiers took place at the Groot Schuur Estate, Rondebosch. The Mayor of Cape Town heartily took the matter up with the result that two thousand children had a great time and were well looked after by the lady members of the Comforts Committee under the supervision of Mrs. N. Wyngard and Mrs. James Currey. The treat was repeated the following year at the Rosebank Show Ground and was a more pronounced success than that of the previous year.” The Mayor of Cape Town, the Dean of Cape Town, and Canon Lavis were present and addressed the children.

“Also in 1917, a special effort realised £1,250 and the following amounts were sent to the Officers Commanding the various Regiments to purchase gifts for the men or to distribute in cash to the Cape Coloured Labour Regiment in France, to the Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Corps in France, and 2nd Cape Corps in Central Africa. As the 1st Cape Corps, was on recuperative leave in the Union at the time, their money was distributed to them later in Egypt. Men in local hospitals and camps also received something. A similar practice was undertaken in December 1918.

“At Christmas time (1917 and 1918) all officers of the Battalion received a present of ten shillings, “as a small Christmas gift” from the South African Gifts and Comforts Organisation. Though intrinsically small, the gift was none the less greatly appreciated by every officer, and more welcome than the gift was the hearty Christmas greeting which accompanied it. That happy reminder that we were in the thoughts of friends far away at home had a stimulating and very cheering effect upon us, one and all.”

The Coloured community in Kimberley was very small to minister to the needs of such a large number of men. According to Difford, they worked nobly, however, and did wonderful work. A dinner was given to the inmates of No. 5 General Hospital on Christmas Day (1917). Concerts were given and refreshments served on the two succeeding days in the Cape Corps and C.A.H.T. Depots. St. John's Hall, Clarence Street, was hired and opened as a Rest Room and free tea provided every afternoon and free cakes and fruit once or twice a week. Writing materials and games also were supplied. Later on a small charge had to be made for refreshments. The men in the Hospital were provided with cigarettes, matches, and other small comforts. Sporting gear was purchased and presented to the Depots. Several concerts were given in the Camp and men leaving by train were given a hearty send off and a parcel of Comforts. All the money spent on the above good work was raised in Kimberley. The Coloured Community subscribed liberally and received much support from Europeans. Despite the views of a few as described by Albert Grundlingh, some whites assisted with the fundraising, most notably the directors of De Beers Consolidated Mines, and Mayor David Harris.

While 1st Cape Corps were having their various experiences in South Africa, in Palestine where they were next headed, the battle of Jaffa had just taken place on 22 December 1917. The unexpected British attack on the Turks resulted in a new front line being set up, allowing Jaffa to become a supply base. ( The Cape Corps was to arrive in April 1918 and in September took part in what became the Battle of Square Hill.

On 11 November 1918, the guns fell silent on the Western Front. But that did not mean the end of the war for many. The Cape Corps was still in Egypt. A few days before Christmas, they were told they’d be leaving for home soon but that did not happen for another three months when the Reserve Half Battalion left El Arish, not for home, but for Egypt where they were required for further duty.

Difford records that “On Christmas Day [1918] a message of goodwill was published in Orders from Their Majesties the King and Queen, who particularly sent their greetings to the sick and wounded. On Boxing Day Battalion sports were held.”

Earlier we saw how the Hull Battery celebrated Christmas 1918. In contrast, the Germans in East Africa, now Prisoners of War, had a different experience. As Max Poppe explains, he was based in Blantyre in hospital. “Here we spent Christmas 1918. We had a certain freedom, were allowed to go for walks and play tennis.

The British officer, a captain, with whom we were acquainted as prisoners, did not let us feel our captivity either, even inviting us to a whisky soda now and then in the evening. The son of this Englishman had been a lieutenant in German captivity and had always been treated with acknowledged decency. That stood us in good stead.” (p651) His family had only one message from him in 1916, a letter kindly passed on by a British political officer. (p427)

It seems the German commander had a similar experience as William Campbell wrote in his memoirs: “Just before Christmas an important personage who had been known to us in name only was to be seen basking in the sun on the verandah of a quiet little bungalow, overlooking the harbour of Dar-es-Salaam – the ‘Haven of Peace’. This was our erstwhile and elusive enemy, Von Lettow.” He continues, “On Christmas Eve, Head, the brothers Tarrant, Harris and myself motored off to the Chinese camp to fulfil an engagement we had therewith the white NCOs.” The group had proven themselves accomplished musicians and actors during the campaign. Cards were sent home and used for fund raising as seen by these South African cards auctioned by Spink, who note: "Big Push" Governor General's Fund label; Christmas and New Year Greetings message includes "This card represents the first local effort at using the Aeroplane for Peaceful Purposes" and "The "Big Push" stamp is one of the many means employed by the State Railways Employees to raise money for local dependants".

The Aerial News of 16 December 1918, then Dingaan’s Day, today the Day of Reconciliation, was a fund-raiser for the Red Cross. This one has an article yearning for the belief in Valhalla, the Viking hall of the fallen, where every night after a day of combat, the wounded are healed and restored to full health. My ignorance of Nordic mythology means I cannot tell you what happened to those who were killed in battle, but presumably the focus of the article was on the restoration of health. (

It’s a season for remembrance – of all kinds: while many were on their way home, a few continued to serve into 1919 including some South Africans. They had volunteered to join the British forces supporting the White Army against the Bolsheviks in Russia. How they spent Christmas, I don't know. The Bolsheviks had banned it in 1917 after taking power. Kenneth van der Spuy and Pierre van Ryneveld were amongst those who served.

One of the last men to arrive back in South Africa from war service was LR Heydenrych who reached Cape Town on 23 October 1920, well in time for that year’s Christmas.

Of the 11,589 listed on the CWGC database as having served in a South African unit, the following died on Christmas Day: 2 died in 1914, none in 1915, 10 in 1916, 9 in 1917 and 6 in 1918. They remind us of the extent of South Africa’s service, and those at home who had to cope with the loss of loved ones not coming home at all, or more often, not in the same condition that they had left.

Through Christmas card and song, let me conclude by wishing you all, wherever you are and the circumstances in which you find yourselves, a blessed, peace- filled and joyous time for this season of renewal that we call Christmas.

Further Reading: Chris Kempshall – East Sussex, Christmas in the First World War

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South African Military History Society /