South Africa’s sacrifices in WW1 and WW2

WW1 Highlights

We remember those that gave the ultimate price, for the freedoms we have today  by joining our fellow brothers in arms commemorating our combined histories. South Africa too have a very rich history during the two world wars, which is too many to mention on one page, but hopefully this article can touch an interest for further research.

The ‘Great War’, which began on 28 July 1914 lasted till 11 November 1918, produced a vast number of casualties and deaths – and similarly vast numbers of missing soldiers. South Africa entered WWI on 8 September 1914, on the side of the Allied Forces.

During this time South Africa was a Union, and many soldiers just 14 years previously fought against each other in the Anglo-Boer War. During the First World War many of these old enemies fought side by side in the trenches of the “Western Front”. South Africa sent both black and white soldiers of which all volunteered to fight. White soldiers did the fighting and black soldiers were used as logistic support.

What was left of a forest after the South Africans held ground at all cost

What was left of a forest after the South Africans held ground at all cost

One of the most famous battles was “Delville Wood” in France. On 15 July 1916, the S.A. Infantry Brigade under Major-General H.T. Lukin was ordered to clear the wood at d’Elville, north-east of the village of Longueal, France, of enemy soldiers, thereby covering the flanks of the British Brigade. The South Africans occupied the wood on that day, but the problem was not so much to take the wood, than to hold it. They were given the order to hold the forest at “all cost”. Despite fierce counterattacks and artillery bombardments from German divisions, the SA brigade refused to surrender. The brigade was relieved on 20 July after six days and five nights of ferocious fighting.  There was nothing left of the forest other than tree trunks and mud as the shelling by the Germans were estimated at 400 shells a minute!

Only 750 soldiers remained of the Brigade’s 3 433 soldiers, the rest had either been killed or wounded.

The Battle of Delville Wood went down in the history of WWI as an example of supreme sacrifice and heroism and remained the most costly action the South African Brigade fought on the Western Front. The soldiers who fought there referred to it as ‘Devil’s Wood‘ as opposed to Delville Wood. A memorial site was erected in remembrance of those who died in the Battle and was unveiled by the widow of General Louis Botha on 10 October 1926.

146 000 Whites volunteered for service in WW1, while altogether 83 000 Blacks and 2 000 Coloureds did service in non-combatant capacity.

Country Dead Wounded Total
South Africa 7,000 12,000   19,000

The Sinking of the SS Mendi – “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do … you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers … Swazis, Pondos, Basotho … so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”

– reputed to be the last words of Rev Wauchope Dyobha on the sinking ship SS Mendi

SS-Mendi Troop Ship

SS-Mendi Troop Ship

On 21 February 1917, at 05:00, the ship SS MENDI was struck and cut almost in half by the SS Darro, causing the SS MENDI to sink. A total of 607 Black South African soldiers and nine of their fellow countrymen, drowned in the disaster.

South West Africa under German control – In 1915, during South-West Africa Campaign of the First World War, South Africa captured the German colony. After the war, it was declared a League of Nations Mandate territory under the Treaty of Versailles, with the Union of South Africa responsible for the administration of South-West Africa, including Walvis Bay.

WW2 Highlights of South African involvement

The South African Army and Air Force played a major role in defeating the Italian forces of Benito Mussolini during the 1940/1941 East African Campaign. The converted Junkers Ju 86s of 12 Squadron, South African Air Force, carried out the first bombing raid of the campaign on a concentration of tanks at Moyale at 8am on 11 June 1940, mere hours after Italy’s declaration of war.

South African Propaganda Film of WW2


  1. simphiwe msizi says:

    i am looking for list/database of black south africans who served in World War 2, particularly from Port Elizabeth ( Mr Lungile Ndzanze / Nzanze)

    1. Henri le Riche says:

      Hi Simphiwe,

      We have Photo’s etc, and people that might be able to help on the WW1 Facebook page. Just join and put a request on the wall.