Today there is a suburb called Square Hill in Kimberley while a field gun captured during the battle is still on view at the Cenotaph
THE CENTENARY service of the Battle of Square Hill will take place on Sunday afternoon at the Kimberley Cenotaph in Du Toitspan Road.
Tuesday (September 18) marks the 100th anniversary of the battle which took place in Palestine on the road to Nablus by the South African Cape Corps on the night of September 18 1918.
The battle played a part in bringing to an end the more than 600-year Ottoman Empire that had long ruled the Holy Land and it was an opportunity for the Cape Corps soldiers to shine in their first battle with the Turkish soldiers during the final months of the First World War.
Today there is a suburb called Square Hill in Kimberley while a field gun captured during the battle is still on view at the Cenotaph.
Michael Morris, in an article published in the Weekend Argus on September 23 2017, writes that in 1918 the Cape Corps was very much a feature of the British General Edmund Allenby’s plans in the Middle East.
Allenby was poised at the time of the Battle of Square Hill to seal the fate of Turkish dominion in the region.
In the Cape Town news report of September 24 1918 – “Allenby’s great victory” – readers learned that Allenby’s “victory in Palestine” was being “hailed as a model alike in conception and execution, and is the most complete hitherto attained by the Allies in any theatre of war”.
The report went on: “The immediate effect of the victory is the liberation of the Holy Land, for it is anticipated that General Allenby will now have little difficulty in entirely clearing Southern Palestine, while he will be able to relieve the strain on our present lines of communication by establishing a sea base at Haifa, whence the railway runs to Beisan and Damascus.”
Ancillary to the main story was the Reuters Special War Service report, headlined “Cape Corps distinguish themselves”, which told how “Irish and Indian troops today attacked to the west of the Nablus road and are making splendid progress. They are accompanied by a unit of the Cape Coloured Corps, who captured a strong position called Square Hill, as well as the best gun to be captured in this sector. They showed great gallantry and push”.
South African History Online records that Allenby planned a major offensive to begin in the early hours of September 19 and Cape Corps was ordered to undertake reconnaissance and rehearsals in preparation for the offensive, by thinning out the front lines and concentrating on their attack positions.
“The 1/17th Indian Infantry Brigade was to be the advance guard, followed by the Cape Corps, which would pass through them, take Square Hill and then protect the right flank of the brigade.”
The Cape Corps succeeded in their objective, taking Square Hill in an attack that lasted from 6.45pm on September 18 to 4am the next day.
They captured 181 prisoners, eight officers, and 160 members of other ranks, as well as an enemy field gun. Two Cape Corps men, Lance-Corporal S Visagie and Private S Gobey, died in the battle.
Notable names mentioned in this attack were Lieutenant Samuelson, Sergeant February and Lance-Corporal Thimm. Thimm was promoted to corporal on the strength of the capture of the field gun, noted as having been “the first gun captured” (which now stands at the Cenotaph in Kimberley).
A day later, on September 25, Cape readers learned of a “cablegram” sent by the mayor of Cape Town to the corps in Palestine congratulating them on the distinguished part they played in Allenby’s great victory. It was a great moment for the corps.
Yet, as South African History Online notes: “Sadly, for members of the Cape Corps who arrived in Kimberley at the conclusion of hostilities in Europe in November 1918, they were returning to all the social baggage that they had left behind during war-time.”
The Cape Corps was one of South Africa’s oldest military units, tracing its origin to a regiment called the Corps Bastaard Hottentoten, organised by the Dutch colonial administration in 1781.
The unit was disbanded in 1782 when French mercenaries arrived in the Cape, but reformed a little over a decade later, in 1793, as the Corps van Pandoeren (Pandour Corps). Restiveness in the 1850s – some of the corps joining a mutiny to support rebels in the Eastern Cape – led to the abandonment of coloured recruitment in 1854, the battalion being completely disbanded in 1870.
With the outbreak of World War I, the unit was reformed, and patriotic – as well as fit and unmarried – coloured men were invited to enlist.
Come World War II, the corps was ready once more – though this time mainly in a non-combatant role. After 1994, all soldiers and units were subsumed within the new non-racial military establishment.
Sunday’s centenary service will take place at the Cenotaph, where there is a memorial dedicated to the Kimberley Cape Coloured Corps who died in the Battle of Square Hill. The memorial consists of the gun captured at the battle, which originally stood in Victoria Crescent, Malay Camp, but, post-1994, was moved to the Cenotaph.
The Kimberley Regiment Pipe Band will be in attendance at the service, while memorial sentries will be provided by the Kimberley Regiment.