World War I (WWI), which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918. It involved all the world’s great powers, which were assembled in two opposing alliances: the Allies (centred around the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia) and the Central Powers (originally centred around the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and later the Ottoman Empire.) More than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, were mobilised in one of the largest wars in history. More than 9 million combatants were killed, largely because of great technological advances in firepower without corresponding advances in mobility. It was the sixth deadliest conflict in world history, subsequently paving the way for various political changes such as revolutions in the nations involved.
When the World War I broke out in 1914, the South African government chose to join the war on the side of the Allies. General Louis Botha, the then prime minister, faced widespread Afrikaner opposition to fighting alongside Great Britain so soon after the Second Boer War and had to put down a revolt by some of the more militant elements before he could send an expeditionary force of some 67,000 troops to invade German South-West Africa (now Namibia). The German troops stationed there eventually surrendered to the South African forces in July 1915. (In 1920 South Africa received a League of Nations mandate to govern the former German colony and to prepare it for independence within a few years.)
Later, an infantry brigade and various other supporting units were shipped to France in order to fight on the Western Front. The 1st South African Brigade – as this infantry brigade was named – consisted of four infantry battalions, representing men from all four provinces of the Union of South Africa as well as Rhodesia: the 1st Regiment was from the Cape Province, the 2nd Regiment was from Natal and the Orange Free State and the 3rd Regiment was from Transvaal and Rhodesia. The 4th Regiment was called the South African Scottish and was raised from members of the Transvaal Scottish and the Cape Town Highlanders; they wore the Atholl Murray tartan.
The supporting units included five batteries of heavy artillery, a field ambulance unit, a Royal Engineers signals company and a military hospital.
The most costly action that the South African forces on the Western Front fought in was the Battle of Delville Wood in 1916 – of the 3,000 men from the brigade who entered the wood, only 768 emerged unscathed.
Another tragic loss of life for the South African forces during the war was the Mendi sinking on 21 February 1917, when the troopship Mendi – while transporting 607 members of the 802nd South African Native Labour Corps from Britain to France – was struck and cut almost in half by another ship.
In addition, the war against the German and Askari forces in German East Africa also involved more than 20,000 South African troops; they fought under General Jan Smuts’s command when he directed the British campaign against there in 1915. (During the war, the army was led by General Smuts, who had rejoined the army from his position as Minister of Defence on the outbreak of the war.)
South Africans also saw action with the Cape Corps in Palestine.
More than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks and 2,500 people of mixed race (“Coloureds”) and Asians served in South African military units during the war, including 43,000 in German South-West Africa and 30,000 on the Western Front. An estimated 3,000 South Africans also joined the Royal Flying Corps.
The total South African casualties during the war was about 18,600 with over 12,452 killed – more than 4,600 in the European theater alone.