South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our first speaker for 2008 was Prof Bill Nasson, head of the History Department at UCT, whose topic was the 1st Cape Corps Infantry and the Battle of Square Hill. Prof Nasson is the author of the recently published book "Springboks on the Somme - South Africa and the Great War".

He explained that he was an historian of war rather than a military historian. He introduced his talk by recalling a History Conference in Canberra at which historians from many countries had presented papers on the role their countries had played in the First World War.

An American historian had explained that General Pershing had volunteered for the post of Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in France, claiming a fluency in French which he certainly did not have! He also gave orders that American war graves were to be segregated and given more space than was normally allocated, to give an inflated impression of the number of casualties which the USA suffered.

Prof Nasson described the loyal response of the Coloured community of South Africa to the Union War effort. This was demonstrated by the raising of the Cape Malay Ambulance Corps and the Transvaal Indian Volunteers, as well as the valuable services rendered by the large number of Coloured men who served in the German South West African Campaign as artillery and transport drivers, motor vehicle drivers and mechanics, officers servants and in many other non-combatant capacities.

Dr Abdurhaman, leader of the African political Organisation, described them as "as worthy as any other soldiers of the British Empire". For them, the campaign was one of emancipation to help the many "Cape Boys" in South West Africa, whose plight was regarded as far worse than that of their South African brothers.

General Botha's government reacted cautiously to proposals that the Cape Corps should be established, largely because of unease over the arming of Coloured men expressed by the Nationalist Opposition. The problem was resolved by making the unit an Imperial Army Regiment, paid for by the British Government but with White South African officers and Coloured Warrant Officers, NCOs and men. The Nationalist Opposition suspected that a secret deal had been concluded with the Coloured Community which might have led to the enfranchisement of Coloured in the other three provinces.

The 1st Battalion of the Cape Corps was an infantry unit which served with distinction in German East Africa from February 1916 to December 1917 in the seemingly never-ending campaign against Gen. von Lettow-Vorbeck. One hundred and sixty-three officers and men lost their lives in this campaign.

When the Regiment returned to South Africa, Lt Col Morris handed over command to Maj. C Hoy. After training in the arid wastes of Gordonia in the Northern Cape, the Regiment numbering 1 000 all ranks, sailed from Durban to Egypt. Here they underwent further training and many men contracted Spanish Influenza.

The 1st Cape Corps joined 160 Brigade, which also included 1/21 Punjabis (they had served alongside the Cape Corps in East Africa) and 1/7 Welsh Fusiliers. On the night of 19 September 1918, the Cape Corps attacked and captured the small but well-defended feature of Square Hill. After a five minute artillery barrage the Cape Corps bayonet charge secured the hill in spite of heavy Turkish machine gun fire. Casualties numbered one dead and one injured.

On the following night, the Regiment was ordered to capture the stronghold of Kh Jibert, situated on three seemingly small hills parallel to Square Hill by making a frontal attack over exposed terrain. Lt Col Morris had resumed command of the Regiment but a number of mishaps resulted in heavy casualties.

A messenger got lost, the artillery bombardment was ineffective and the early morning attack was delayed. Seven of the eight officers of A and B Companies were either killed or died of their wounds. Although the warrant officers and NCO's led the men magnificently, they were forced to withdraw to Square Hill. Fifty of the four hundred men who took part in this attack were killed and one hundred were injured. A number of the warrant officers, NCO's and men were decorated for their part in this attack.

Prof Nasson also discussed the important role played by the Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Companies, numbering 6 214 men, and the Cape Coloured Labour Corps which served largely in France but also in German South West Africa and East Africa.

Maj Tony Gordon thanked Prof Nasson for his fascinating talk and recalled the interest HRH Prince Phillip had shown in the Cape Corps graves when he visited Maitland Cemetery some years ago.



Some 40% of the members have paid their subscriptions to date. Many thanks to those who have paid. If you have not yet paid, please let us have your cheque, pay the Treasurer at the next meeting or deposit the amount due into our bank account at Nedbank Foreshore Branch, branch code 108309, account number 108 333 2058, noting your name in the Remarks block. Thank you.

Subscriptions are R210,00 for full or R60,00 for affiliate members



We welcome new members Messrs J G Louw, C F Solomon, J Eyre and A Olivier who joined us in the last month. We wish them a long and happy association with us in the years to come.

One of our long-standing members Lt Cdr A Sibthorpe passed away recently. Our sincere condolences are extended to his family.

We are always interested in new members so, if you have a friend or acquaintance who might be interested in military history or would like to join, bring them along and persuade them to join!! They will be welcome.


Forthcoming Lectures

Bob Buser - Secretary/Treasurer
Phone - home (evenings) 021 6891639
office (mornings) 021 6899771
Email -

South African Military History Society /