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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
The Union of South Africa


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The Second Boer War had only ended in 1902 after the Boers finally accepted the loss of their independence. Louis Botha who had served as commander of the Transvaal Boars and negotiated peace terms, became the Prime Minister of Transvaal in 1907. His newfound loyalty towards the British Empire propelled him into the role of first President to the Union of South Africa when it was granted Dominion status in 1910. Together with former Boer commando Jan Christiaan Smuts they formed the South African Party that would dominate politics for years to come. When the Great War broke out, there were Afrikaners who hoped that a British defeat would free them from Britain’s domination altogether. Much bitterness remained and many farmers (bittereinders) in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State continued to view the British as their enemy. Afrikaners that did volunteers to serve were put into their own Active Citizens Force with green uniforms so they would not have to wear the hated British khaki. Botha and Smuts however had worked tirelessly to promote unity, and once the Great War broke out they pledged South Africa’s support to Great Britain. In September 1914 Minister of Defense Smuts quickly sent British and South African troops on an offensive into German South-West Africa to seize its radio stations on behalf of Britain but they were defeated and pushed back at the Battle of Sandfontein.

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As a dominion, South Africa was automatically at war when Britain went to war, but they had great discretion over their participation. Afrikaners used this to voice their opposition to war with Germany and a protest movement soon grew. The government played up racial fears in an effort to keep enlistment up; Black Africans were already excluded from service, largely to appease Afrikaner fears that this might encourage them to demand equality. Unrest however grew, and before another offensive could be launched against German South-West Africa, they became consumed with internal problems. On October 2nd Colonel Maritz, commander of the Union’s frontier forces began an open revolt to regain independence for Afrikaners. He and his men now became part of the German army, and a provisional government was set up for a South African Republic. After the Union government declared martial law on October 12th, Smuts organized the South African Defense Force to put down the Maritz Rebellion. Even though Maritz was defeated on October 24th many veterans of the Second Boer War took up arms, and irregular warfare continued for the rest of the year. When the commando leader General Kemp surrendered in February 1915, most rebels put down their arms.

With the Maritz Rebellion all but over, a renewed offensive against South-West Africa was planned. This time the aim would be toward territorial expansion rather than securing a few strategic targets. Before it got underway the Germans launched a spoiling attack into South Africa at Kakamas but it had little effect on the pending British offensive. Not only did the British push northward into South-West Africa, but they landed forces along the coast at Walfish Bay and the German naval base at Luderitzbucht. The German army was quickly pushed inland by overwhelming force and though they tried to concentrate all their forces into a workable defense, they were nearly surrounded after the Battle of Otavi in July, and they surrendered a few days later. Before the end of the War, thousands of German residents were deported and replaced with Afrikaners to help place South Africa’s claim over the region.

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Although fighting took place in many parts of Africa, it is the campaigns in South-West Africa that seems to have inspired the most postcards. The number of African cards are relatively small in number and nearly all seem to have been published in Germany.

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Military campaigning ended after South-West Africa was captured in early 1915 because of the deep divides between the antiwar Labor movement and the pro-British imperialists. Once the antiwar candidates suffered a huge defeat in the October ellections, plans for further militaty action were made. In February 1916 Jan Smuts, now a general, arrived in British East Africa with many South African reinforcements. He took command of all Colonial forces in the area and launched an offensive against German East Africa from Mombasa in March. Much territory was captured from the Germans, but Smuts was harshly criticized for not destroying his elusive opponent, Lettow-Vorbeck. The German army here would remain active in the field until the war in Europe ended.

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In addition to fighting in Africa, a South African Brigade was raised for combat in Europe. They began arriving in Britain by November 1915, but just as they began being sent to France they were redeployed to Egypt where they joined the Western Frontier Force. Through March of 1916 they fought to stop the Sanusi offensive against Alexandria.

By April 1916 all of the South African Brigade had been redeployed to Flanders. They saw heavy fighting at the Battle of the Somme, suffering many casualties defending Delville Wood. They would also participate in the Battle of Arras and in the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. The Brigade was also involved in heavy defensive fighting during the German spring offensive into Flanders in 1918. Though they took part in the capture of Meteren during the Allied summer offensive, they had been pretty much destroyed as an effective unit by this time. The high casualties suffered with so little to show for it made South African participation in the War increasingly unpopular at home; and the Botha government barely survived mid-war elections.

While South Africans made substantial contributions to the war effort and they suffered high casualties as a result, there is little independent record of them on postcards as a fighting force.

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Both Louis Botha and Jan Smuts served as delegates at the Paris Peace Talks. Although they secured German South West Africa as a League of Nations Mandate under South African administration, their relentless efforts to secure a fair peace with Germany failed. When Botha succumbed to the Influenza outbreak of 1919, Smuts became the next President of South Africa. Political and labor tensions that were exasperated by the War would evolve into rebellion in the postwar years.




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