During the years following her withdrawal from the Commonwealth, South Africa was not officially represented at the annual National Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, although throughout the long years of isolation, South African veterans were able to participate in the march past of ex-servicemen which follows the official ceremony.
When watching this service during those years of ‘exile’, I have often felt a pang at the absence of any mention of South Africa’s not insignificant contribution to the Allied Forces in both world wars, thinking we also gave. At the time, however, it was widely recognised that the South African forces were punching above their weight. Indeed, in 1919, John Buchan dedicated Mr Standfast, the third of his Richard Hannay novels to them, with these words:
To that most gallant company
the Officers and Men
South African Infantry Brigade
on the Western Front
That most gallant company included the 4th South African Regiment, which included men largely drawn from the Cape Town Highlanders and the Transvaal Scottish regiments, with significant numbers of men of Scottish extraction in the other South African regiments. The brigade was attached to the 9th (Scottish) division for almost the entire time that it served in France, which cemented the Brigade’s Scottish connection.
Listening to BBC Scotland one morning last week, I was intrigued by the story of Jimmy Richardson’s pipes which I learnt would feature in the exhibition Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War which opened in Exhibition Gallery 2 at the National Museum in Edinburgh, last Friday. These pipes I felt I wanted to see. I thought wistfully of two South African regiments, the Cape Town Highlanders, and the Transvaal Scottish, but from a low threshold of expectation, so I was chuffed when I located a museum leaflet, to see that South Africa had been included as one of the five ‘key’ Commonwealth countries representing the Scottish diaspora in this exhibition.
What a delight this sensitively curated exhibition is! Modest in size, its impact is impressive. Jimmy’s pipes were a key artefact in the Canadian display and as for the South Africans, that role, I think, was filled by Nancy, the springbok who was the 4th Infantry Regiment’s mascot, surviving three years with the Jocks in France. She died two or three weeks after the war ended and was given a military funeral.
There were a few ‘welling up’ moments too. One was when I saw the striking photograph (enlarged almost to the height of the wall) showing the 4ths delivering a zesty, if not completely traditional, performance of an African war dance at Rouen, in June 1918, just three months after the brigade had suffered appalling losses in holding back the German Spring Offensive. Indeed the casualties were so devastating that the Brigade had had to withdraw from the 9th Division that June in order to build up its strength—so that photograph, taken at a training ground near Rouen, is of spirited men, some of whose apparent light-heartedness must include a generous measure of relief.
Of the brigade’s role in March 1918, Buchan noted that, when a “gossamer front refused to be broken by the most fantastic odds, no British division did more nobly than the 9th [Division]. It held a crucial position in the line and only by its stubborn endurance was a breach between Gough and Byng prevented. Among the brigades of the 9th, the chief brunt was born by the South Africans.” It later emerged that their gallant defence had not only held up the German infantry but for seven hours it had also interrupted the supply of German reinforcements of artillery and transport along the highway being used to supply the German lines. Buchan records, “Indeed it is not too much to say that on that fevered Sabbath the stand of the [South African] Brigade saved the British front.”
Having quoted the praise of various Allied commanders, Buchan concludes, “Let us take the testimony of the enemy. During the German advance, Captain Peirson, the brigade major of the 48th Brigade of the 16th Division, was taken prisoner. When he was examined at German Headquarters, an officer asked him if he knew the 9th Division for, he said, ‘We consider that the fight put up by that division was one of the best on the whole of your front, especially the last stand of the South African Brigade, which we can only call magnificent.” The Emperor himself stopped a party of British officers to ask whether any of them belonged to the 9th Division, saying, “I want to see a man of that division, for if all divisions had fought like the 9th, I would not have had any troops left to carry on the attack.”
Buchan describes this loss in terms of ‘the flower’ [of the brigade] ‘having fallen in a ‘second Thermopylae’—the first having been at Delville Wood. I hope to receive permission from the Ditsong National Museum of Military History to post a copy of the picture on this blog, but until then, take a moment to view a photo I took of the cover of my copy of the exhibition guide. There is a good selection of images from this exhibition on Edinburgh Spotlight.
If you’re going to be in Scotland, this summer, and have an interest in, or connection with, the South African Brigade, I recommend you visit Common Cause, which runs until 12 October at the National Museum, Chambers Street, EH1 2NG.
My advice is to use the Tower Entrance at the very top of Chambers Street, rather than the two ‘Main’ Entrances along Chambers Street. Afterwards, if you leave the Museum by the Tower entrance, you’re just a hop and a skip away from the National Library of Scotland which has another absorbing exhibition Behind the Lines: Personal stories of the First World War, supported by documents (including letters and diaries) drawn from its collections. If you have time, there’s currently a third exhibition, Next of Kin, at the National War Museum, at Edinburgh Castle, though for this there is an admission charge.
Update: please note that, as of 16 September 2014, I have not yet had any response from the Ditsong Military Museum to my request on 4 August for permission to include a copy of the photo of the 4th Regiment in this post. It might not have been forwarded to them by the Ditsong Portal, and I am trying to find out whether this is the case.
Update 2 (22/8/2015): There’s a fine piece about Nancy on the South African Military History Society’s Facebook page early in July. Scroll down to the photo of Nancy and her ‘handler’, and click on the link ‘See More’.
Find out more
Allan, S., and Forsyth, D., Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War, Edinburgh, 2014 [NMS Enterprises].Buchan, J., Mr Standfast, London, 1919 [Hodder & Stoughton].
Buchan, J., The History of the South African Brigade in France, London & Edinburgh, 1920, [Nelson].
Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Erlswold Way, Saxonwold, 2132, Gauteng, South Africa. [GPS Coordinates: 26°09′ 47″ S 28°02′ 30″ E.]
Cape Town Highlanders
http://www.cthighlanders.co.za/cth/cthf1.htm, accessed 18/7/2014.
National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF
Transvaal Scottish Regiment, https://www.facebook.com/Transvaal.Scottish.Regiment, accessed 18/7/2014.