Lest we forget – 100 years on
THE outbreak of war in August 1914 brought an outpouring of patriotism in Durban, and in Natal generally.
Many of the schools had cadets as part of school life, instilling in the boys a sense of duty to king and country. Boys as young as 16 left school, lied about their age and joined up to fight.
There was no shortage of volunteers for the first military campaign, in which the Union Defence Force defeated the German forces in German South West Africa (GSWA, today Namibia) in 1915, with the loss of only 266 men.
But there was an ugly side to that fervent patriotism – anti-German propaganda which led to violence.
Businesses with German names were vandalised or burnt down by angry mobs in Durban. One of those was the biscuit factory of the Baumann family. The irony was that one of their sons was loyally serving with a Durban regiment in GSWA. In one of the captured German bakehouses, young Trooper Baumann was one of the men working double shifts baking bread for South Africans on the march.
For a while, German prisoners were held at the city’s premier sporting ground, Lord’s (in Old Fort Road), until they were moved to Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg.
Lord’s Ground itself became the centre of fund-raising events for the war effort: patriotic sporting events, displays and fairs. Massed choirs drew large crowds which sang
Boy Scouts held rallies at Lord’s, with the Governor-General of South Africa inspecting the troops himself in 1917. By June that year, the contribution from the greater Durban area to the GovernorGeneral’s War Fund had reached £160 000, a considerable sum, especially as the fund was only launched in September 1915.
Returning soldiers faced many
difficulties in re-adjusting to civilian life. Some struggled to find employment or places to live. Others, disabled by disease or wounds, required much more help.
Those scarred by post-traumatic stress disorder – which was barely understood – struggled the most.
The difficulties facing the returned soldiers, who had made such enormous sacrifices, was already recognised by 1916. The horrors of Delville Wood and the East Africa campaign brought those sacrifices into sharp relief.
The negative publicity surrounding the suffering of men – black and white – in East Africa had a detrimental effect on recruitment.
Inadequate kit, rations, medicines and transport reduced the men to desperation. So many returned to Durban requiring medical care, that private homes were converted into convalescent homes.
Black recruits were needed for support units. The Reverend John Dube (a founder of the ANC) supported the war effort, doing much to persuade black men to volunteer. Their contribution, even after the sinking of the Mendi in 1917, was never fully recognised.