This was no 'white man's war'

11 November 2014 - 02:01 By Peter Delmar
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If you are one of my several million loyal readers and you happen to be black, I hope you won't think I'm indulging my white tendencies but today I want to talk about World War 1.

I think it's appropriate that I do so as Armistice Day is tomorrow and 2014 is the hundredth year since World War 1 began.

Last Tuesday I attended the launch of a book, The Great Silence by Tim Couzens, at the National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.

This is an important centenary book detailing South Africa's involvement in the War to End All Wars. It happens to be published by Times Media but, I promise you, I'm not sucking up to the people who pay me to write this column. If anything, I'm sucking up to Tim Couzens, a man whose great humility, patriotism and wit are exceeded only by his immense talent for research and storytelling.

Let me be perfectly frank about my admiration of Couzens: the man is a national treasure. Since I first read, mouth agape, his Alan Paton Award-winning Tramp Royal, I have devoured everything he has seen fit to put between the covers of a book. Buy The Great Silence and then try to lay your hands on all of his other books (his South African Battles is definitely still in bookstores).

At the launch, Couzens had the audience variously laughing their heads off and pondering very deep thoughts about the unbelievable slaughter that was World War 1.

That tens of thousands of young men, mostly youngsters who, as Couzens put it, "had not yet really lived", could be killed in a single day demonstrated suddenly, startlingly, how technological advances were facilitating the fulfilment of mankind's murderous instincts.

In his address, Couzens made us think about (from the book's foreword) "the silence, for the men who died, when sensation became oblivion, the last moment of life, the split second before death, and then there was that silence that comes as news of a soldier's death, often by telegram, reaches a loved one, that instant where word becomes meaning, when information is absorbed and the world bursts".

In pondering what Couzens was telling us about that split-second silence before death I thought that not all the dead were lucky enough to endure such a momentary silence before the instant of their supreme sacrifice. I thought of my great uncle who lied about his age and died in horrific circumstances in East Africa; he had many awful minutes to realise that the enemy was burning him and his comrades alive in a forest.

And I thought of those remarkable men, my 656 countrymen who happened to be black and who perished so stoically on the doomed ship Mendi in 1917 with a fortitude and a bravery that must uplift and inspire South Africans forever.

And that's why I started off half apologising to black readers.

As Couzens makes clear in his new page-turner, World War 1 was not, as it is so often portrayed, a "white man's war"; it really was a war that engulfed the world and that involved, and killed, men, women and even children of all races.

South Africa was a bit-part player in World War 1 but it played its part to great and heroic effect. And by South Africa I mean brave English-speaking and Boer whites; Africans, Coloureds and Indians. It is a legacy of which we should all be immensely proud. As the book points out, what would have become of us if Germany had won the war? How different would our country be today if the 1914 pro-German Rebellion had succeeded?

Buy the book even if you hate the idea of war as much as I do.

Lest we forget.

Some years ago I acquired two rare volumes of World War 1 cartoons drawn by the Sunday Times's Denis Santry. I'm sharing those that appeal to me, with captions, one by one, 100 years after they were first published.

Search for "South Africa and the Great War in cartoons" on Facebook or go to

The cartoons are jingoistic in the extreme but fascinating. It's my puny tribute to the massive sacrifices made by courageous South Africans a century ago.

(Follow @peterdelmar on Twitter)

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