Commemorating the Battle of Square Hill (2010)

On Sunday, 19 September 2010, a commemoration service and wreath laying ceremony took place at the Castle of Good Hope to honour the First Battalion of the Cape Corps, which had fought against the Turks during the Battle of Square Hill in Palestine on 19 September 1918.

This particular parade was memorable for me for several reasons: it was the first military parade I had ever attended; I remember how out of my depth I felt at the time, as I knew nothing of military parades, had never heard of the Cape Corps, and had no idea what the Battle of Square Hill was all about, where it took place, or why we were commemorating it here in South Africa. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware of the fact that, during World War I, the fighting was not confined to the trenches of France and Belgium in Western Europe – it extended to all the way into the Middle East! Clearly, I should have paid more attention in History lessons at school!

It has always bugged me in the back of my mind that I had never taken the time to read up about it and write an article. So I decided to do some online reading to fill in the gaps.

9 South African Infantry Regiment on parade

From the Cape Corps to 9 South African Infantry Battalion

I found a useful PDF online, titled “The History of the Cape Corps in brief”, as well as an informative article by Leon Engelbrecht, titled “Fact File: 9 SA Infantry Battalion”, which describe the history of the Cape Corps, now known as 9 SAI Battalion, in considerable detail. I’ll attempt a brief summary:

The Cape Corps has a very complicated (or “ingewikkelde”) history, dating back to the early colonial days at the Cape, when Jan van Riebeeck and the Dutch colonists at the Cape used the native inhabitants in the defence of the colony. In 1781, the Dutch established the Corps of Pandours from freed slaves in the Western Cape area; these were actually the forerunners of the unit that eventually became the Cape Corps. Until 1910, when the Union of South Africa was founded, they participated in nearly all the campaigns in which the colony was involved, though their name, composition and function changed from to time, and they were occasionally disbanded for a while.

In September 1915, as World War I raged across Europe, two battalions of the Cape Corps were mobilised in South Africa. They were made up entirely of Coloured members of the South African Defence Force with white officers in charge. Coloured non-commissioned officers were promoted from the Coloureds-only ranks. They served in East Africa (1916-18) and thereafter in Egypt and Palestine (1918), earning several battle honours. In 1940, during World War II, the Cape Corps was re-established, with its members serving primarily in a non-combatant and support role in a range of different regiments, viz. as transport troops, stretcher bearers, storemen and musicians.

Captain John Manning of the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) is the announcer this morning

The period from the 1960s to the 1980s was influenced by complicated race relations and apartheid. In September 1963, the South African Coloured Corps (as it was then known) was established as a Permanent Force Corps of the South African Defence Force. It was a full-time infantry battalion and logistics unit. At its training centre, Coloureds were trained in support roles – administrative, medical, supplies, and music etc. As the years went by, the troops underwent training and rose up through the ranks, with the first warrant officers being appointed in the early 1970s.

In 1972, subsequent to public pressure, it was renamed the Cape Corps once more, and it was given back its distinctive ‘Lady Hope’ badge. From 1973 onwards, Coloureds could also be commissioned as officers. In 1976, when South Africa was involved in the Border War between South West Africa and Angola, a fully trained company of infantry was detached on operational duty – the first time since 1916. In 1978, the unit received its colours, complete with its battle honours: Cape of Good Hope (awarded in 1841 for service during the 4th, 5th and 6th Frontier Wars), Kilimanjaro, Behobeho, Nvangao, East Africa 1916-7, East Africa 1917-8, Megiddo, Nablus, and Palestine 1918 (all awarded in 1926 and inherited by the SACC Service Bn in 1978).

On 31 December 1979, the Cape Corps expanded into a corps school, 1 SACC Battalion and the SACC Maintenance Unit. Seven years later, on 31 December 1986, the corps school was disbanded; at the same time, 2 SACC Battalion, 3 SACC Battalion and the Cape Regiment, a segregated reserve unit, were established.

A few years later, on 31 March 1992, all SACC units were disbanded – and on 1 April 1992, the SACC became 9 South African Infantry Battalion (9 SAI). And that is how the regiment is still known today. Their current role is sea-landed motorised infantry, and their home base is at Eersteriver, out on the N2 towards Somerset West.

Invited guests at the Square Hill Commemoration Service 2010

The Cape Corps in World War I

For detailed descriptions of the Battle at Square Hill, please read this eye-witness account by ex-Lance Corporal Moses Jordaan of the 1st Battalion Cape Corps, this excellent and informative article written by Leon Engelbrecht in 2010, this article written by Allan Sinclair on the occasion of the 2014 Commemoration Service, and this article by Mogamat Adeel Carelse of 2015, in which he uses much of the text of Engelbrecht’s article. I’ve extracted the main facts from their descriptions.

During World War I, Turkey (then known as the Ottoman Empire) had entered the war on the side of Germany, and was fighting against the Allies in the Middle East. General Mustapha Kemal (also known as Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey) and General Liman von Sanders had combined their forces into a formidable foe, which had defeated the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian (ANZAC) forces at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia.

The 1st Battalion of the Cape Corps was an infantry unit, which had served with distinction in the German East Africa Campaign (Tanzania) from February 1916 to December 1917. They lost 163 men, all killed in action. The recruitment drive for the 1st Battalion had seen so many volunteers applying that a 2nd Battalion of the Cape Corps could be formed in June 1917; this served in East and Central Africa until July 1918.

After the 1st Battalion returned to South Africa, they trained for their next deployment, which would be in the area of Palestine. When they arrived in the region, they were attached to the 160 Brigade of the 53rd Welsh Division, which was part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Allenby. Originally assigned to guarding prisoners of war, the Corps requested – and was granted – permission to go to the front line. They did so on 19 August 1918, and soon came under fire – which continued for a month; in addition, some of the men fell ill with the Spanish flu. An offensive to attack the Turkish positions north-east of Jerusalem, through the Nablus Valley and the Jordan Valley, was planned for September – the attack was scheduled for the night of the 18th/19th of September.

Brigadier General John Del Monte, Rear Admiral Robert William Higgs, Executive Mayor of Cape Town Alderman Dan Plato, and General Les Fouche

The instructions of the 1st Battalion Cape Corps were to follow the 1/17th Indian Infantry along the watershed to take Dhib Hill, Chevron Hill, Crest Hill, End Hill and Square Hill, where they were to protect the right flank of the 160th Brigade against counter-attack from the east.

After a five minute artillery barrage on the night of 18/19 September 1918, the 1st Battalion Cape Corps fought valiantly through the night until early the next morning, breaking through the Turkish lines and reaching their objective. They secured Square Hill despite coming under heavy machine gun fire. They impressed with their fighting skills, capturing 181 prisoners of war. These numbers increased by a further eight officers and about 160 other ranks, as well as an enemy field gun (which is on display at the cenotaph in Kimberley, Northern Cape, dedicated to the men of the Kimberley Cape Coloured Corps who died in the Battle of Square Hill during World War I – the memorial was unveiled on Du Toitspan Road on on 15 July 1928). Incredibly, only one of their soldiers had been killed and one had been wounded.

Unfortunately, things did not go so well the next night, 19/20 September 1918, when they were instructed to proceed to KH Jebeit Hill, a Turkish stronghold some 700 yards north of Square Hill, by approaching from the front over exposed terrain. A number of things went wrong – a messenger lost his way and was delayed, they had too little artillery support before or during their attack, and the start of the attack was delayed until first light. They were also unaware at the time that reinforcements had arrived among their opponents.

As A Company and B Company started their advance, they came under heavy machine gun fire, and many of the men were killed or wounded. C Company did not fare any better. Seven of the eight officers of A and B companies were either killed, or died of their wounds. The surviving troops had no option but to retreat back to Square Hill. Of the 400 men who had taken part in the attack, 43 had died in battle, 8 died of their wounds afterwards, 101 had been wounded and survived, and one had been taken prisoner. Captain Youart was the only officer left in A, B and C Companies; nonetheless, the men were reportedly keen to regroup and advance again. But, as a result of the lack of officers, the Brigade sent the 1/17th Indian Infantry in instead.

In acknowledgement of their bravery under fire, the members of the 1st Battalion Cape Corps returned home to Cape Town with 16 Distinguished Conduct medals, 8 Military Medals, 2 orders of the crown of Italy (Bronze), 2 Decoration Militaire (Belguim) and 1 Medaille Militaire (France).

Chaplain of 9 SAI leading us in prayer

Commemorating the Battle of Square Hill

The Battle of Square Hill is annually commemorated on the Sunday nearest to 18/19/20 September.

I’m not sure when these commemoration services actually began, or when they stopped. Given the particular racial history of South Africa, the heroic deeds of the Cape Corps / Coloured Corps have not always received much attention or press coverage. As far as I know, Cape Town does not (or did not) have a Square Hill Memorial that could serve as the focal point of such services. According to the Reserve Force Volunteer of Summer 2016, there is a plaque at the University of Cape Town (I don’t know where exactly), and there are memorial services held annually in Kimberley and Johannesburg. I know from newspaper reports that, in 2008, the 90 years’ anniversary service was held at the City Hall in Darling Street.

The Lady of Good Hope

In 2010, the service was held at the Castle of Good Hope, where wreaths were laid at a statue people referred to as “Miss Murphy”. More officially known as “The Lady of Good Hope”, she was (according to the Castle website) “a mascot of the South African Cape Corps (SACC)” (I’m not sure if ‘mascot’ is the right word). She was nicknamed “Miss Murphy” after an Irish lady who was with the SACC when they were fighting in East Africa. The statue had previously stood at the Cape Garrison Artillery’s headquarters at Fort Wynyard (though I have no idea why), until it was moved to its present location sometime in 2010. The figure of Hope has her left hand resting on an anchor, and her right hand resting on Table Mountain (or in this case a big rock). She was the emblem of the Cape Corps, and appeared on the beret badge.

At the start of the Commemoration Service that took place on Sunday, 19 September 2010, the troops of 9 South African Infantry Regiment formed up on the front courtyard of the Castle, in front of the Lady of Good Hope. Invited guests and dignitaries were seated in the shelter of the colonnade, and the SA Army Band Cape Town, under musical director Major Martin Chandler, provided the musical backdrop to the event. Master of Ceremonies was Capt John Manning of the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) regiment, and Captain (SAN) Trunell Morom and Staff Sergeant Pat Greyling were responsible for the wreaths table.

The Chaplain of 9 SAI led us in prayer, and gave a scripture reading, before a couple of hymns were sung, accompanied by the Band. The Last Post and Reveille were played during the 2 Minutes Silence. Colonel Charles Adams, 86, whose uncle Bill Adams had fought in the War as a flight engineer, addressed us from the podium, before laying a wreath on behalf of the families of the Cape Corps members. Press photographers scrambled and jostled for position, as the various dignitaries laid their wreaths and saluted. The other guest speaker at the parade was the Executive Mayor of Cape Town at the time, Alderman Dan Plato. The commemoration service concluded with the singing of the SA National Anthem, followed by the withdrawal of the sentries and the troops on parade.

Colonel Charles Adams laying a wreath on behalf of the families of the Cape Corps

This has been the only Battle of Square Hill commemoration service I have ever attended. I don’t think it was held in Cape Town during 2016 or 2017, or at least, I haven’t seen any articles or photographs of such a parade. On 23 September 2017, the England Branch of the South African Legion hosted the inaugural Battle of Square Hill Parade at the South African Cenotaph in London’s Richmond Cemetery.

In 2018, it will be 100 years since the Battle, and I hope that there will be a proper service held here in Cape Town. Though who knows? Given the current state of the SA National Defence Force, there may well be neither money, nor political will, nor sufficient interest in planning an event. For the descendants of those brave fighting men who fought so valiantly in a War so far from our own shores, and for the descendants of those who are buried in foreign lands, that would be a grave injustice and demonstrate an utter lack of respect. So let us remain hopeful!

Information from:

Here are my photos of the parade – by clicking on any of the images below, you can access the slideshow:

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