Please note that the war diaries and other source material quoted below sometimes use terms and language that are unacceptable in use today.
In June 1916 the government of South Africa sanctioned the raising of a battalion of 1000 black native troops for employment at the ports in France. It appears to have been at British request, but the precise origin of what became the South African Native Labour Corps is, like much of its history, not well recorded. The purpose is however clearer: it was to help tackle the increasing demand for manual labour at the ports and on the lines of communication in France, enabling the release of British troops for combatant duties. The corps would not be armed.
Despite opposition from white opinion on both political and economic grounds, recruitment began in South Africa in September 1916, in which men were offered a one-year contract of employment (with an option for renewal) at a rate of pay (at approximately £3 per month) about 10% higher than the man could expect to earn at home.
On 20 November 1916, a unit described as the 1st South African Native Labour Contingent, of 20 officers, 47 British other ranks and 1479 “natives” landed at Le Havre in France. Later that day, it left for work at Dieppe.
The British General Headquarters in France formed a Directorate of Labour five days later. In its initial assessment of labour units of various types that were already in that theatre of war, it noted that they included “3 coloured labour battalions”. It soon made proposals to form a Labour Corps of units of standard size and pooled as a single organisation: this was to include the South African units.
On 10 December 1916, the 2nd South African Native Labour Battalion of 18 officers and 1960 men landed at Le Havre. It was there split up, and was sent on this and the next day to the First (at Lillers), Fourth and Fifth Armies and to Les Arables.
On 8 January 1917, the war diary of the Directorate said, “The possibility of obtaining more coloured labour (in addition to the 10,000 Kaffirs and 1,000 Cape Boys already enlisted) was discussed at GHQ with Sir Lionel Phillips, Chairman of the Central Investment Corporation, and Colonel Pritchard, Superintendent of Native Mining Affairs, South Africa. [They] considered that at least 50,000 more natives could be obtained without in any way affecting the labour organisation of the South African mines“.
Cape Boys or Cape Colored Labour Battalion
This as a different form of organisation to the SANLC and was not part of it. Its history will be covered in a separate page of this site.
Expansion and organisation of SANLC in France
13 January 1917: 3rd contingent of South African Native labourers, 11 officers and 1519 men, arrived at Le Havre and was sent in companies to Dannes-Camiers, Blargies Nord and Albert (the latter coming under command of Fifth Army).
14 January 1917: 4th contingent of South African Native labourers, 19 officers and 1927 men, arrived at Le Havre and was sent in companies to Dannies-Camiers, Arques, Blargies and Houdain.
31 January 1917: 5th contingent of South African Native labourers, 7 officers and 912 men, arrived at Le Havre. This was the last of the initial phase of recruitment. Over the next two days, these men moved to Rouxmesnil.
By the end of January, the Directorate summarised the labour strength in France and Flanders at 859 officers and 85625 men, of which four battalions of South African Native Labour Corps had 52 officers and 8000 men, and one battalion of Cape Coloured 11 officers and 895 men. The formation of the Labour Corps as a while had not yet been approved, making this an early use of the term. It was calculated that another 96000 men were required from South Africa.
These first contingents had arrived at a bad time, for France was experiencing one of its coldest winters. It is known that some men lost limbs to frostbite.
13 February 1917: it was decided that “It is desirable to keep Kaffir labour away from White as far as possible, for the benefit of discipline ane efficiency” and noted that “Colonel Pritchard considered it advisable to prohibit the sale of licquor under any pretence, and that natives should not be allowed to enter any estaminet or private house, unless under a White escort“. In other words, the men were to be accommodated in segregated camps and isolated as far as possible. Pritchard also requested that “no interviews or communications with the press should be sent to South Africa without his having an opportunity or revising them“. It was further decided that one Medical Officer would now be provided for each 1000 natives (which is approximately the same as in the British infantry).
By the end of February 1917 it was stated that SANLC strength in France was now 71 officers and 9119 men, with the Cape Coloured adding another 11 officers and 944 men.
It was reported that the men’s daily rations amounted to “1.5 pounds of mealie meal (which is made into a very savoury porridge), half a pound of bread, one pound of meat, coffee and salt. Twice a week they get one pound of vegetables, and tobacco and cigarettes are issued . There is a dry canteen [one not selling alcohol] in every compound” and that about 25% of the men could speak English.
No drafts of SANLC men appear to have arrived in France in March 1917, and by the end of the month the numbers had gone down, almost certainly as a result of sickness or injury: SANLC by 497 men and Cape Coloured by 3.
A hospital for men of the SANLC was established at Arques-la-Bataille.
In South Africa, recruitment soon began to decline after the early rush and by mid-1917 efforts were renewed, including a “strong degree of compulsion through the agency of the chiefs”*.
On 5 April 1917 General Jan Smuts visited GHQ and discussed the reorganisation of the SANLC into companies of 500 men each, along the same lines being applied to the rest of the Labour Corps, as the current 2043 was too unweildy. Each company would come under orders of a Labour Group headquarters. This was all agreed and it was stipulated that all SANLC companies would be restricted to work in the Lines of Communication (that is, not with the Armies, and those units that were with the Armies were soon withdrawn).
On 28 April 1917, the “Imperial Service Contingent, 21 and 22 Companies SANLC” arrived at Boulogne with total strength of 11 officers and 1017 men. This brought the total strength in France to 22 SANLC ompanies made up of 78 officers and 10567 men, with the Cape Coloured Labour Battalion adding 11 and 921. (Egyptian and Chinese labour companies were also now arriving in large numbers).
Orders were issued on 1 May 1917. The headquarters of each of the five battalions of SANLC now in France would become Labour Group Headquarters, and thee four companies of each battalion (which had been lettered A to D in each battalion) would be renamed as numbers 1 to 2 Companies SANLC respectively (for example, A Company of 1st Bn would become 1 Company; A Company of 2nd Bn would become 5 Company, and so on). The standard War Establishment of a company of SANLC was also modified and orders issued accordingly (see below) .
Number 23 Company SANLC (6 officers and 494 men) arrived on the ship “Commonwealth” on 12 June 1917.
On 13 June 1917, numbers 24 to 28 Companies landed at Boulogne on the ship “Nestor”, adding another 28 officers and 2422 men.
By early July 1917, GHQ was discussing what appeared to be a disappointing response in South Africa for further enlistment of men for the SANLC. It was considered that 20 picked and influential “natives” could be sent to South Africa for recruitment purposes.
The employment of SANLC companies
On 10 January 1917 the Directorate of Labour noted an inspection of the “Kaffir contingent”, working in the area of I Corps and headquartered at Marles-les-Mines. The men were working under Royal Engineers supervision on railway construction at Annequin and at the RE Park.
By May 1917, SANLC companies being employed at Dannes ammunition depot, Saigneville quarry and in the Forest d’Eawy are mentioned. Mention was later made of SANLC work at Dunkirk, St. Valery-en-Caux, and Zeneghem, as well as the ports of Le Havre and Rouen. Companies were also engaged at Abancourt.
Tensions were reported in the SANLC camps, mainly apparently arising from the restrictions of segregation, having to work night shifts, and poor food.
“Mendi” disaster, 21 February 1917
The loss of more than 600 men of the 5th Battalion of the SANLC was entirely accidental. “Mendi”, en route to Le Havre, was struck by the “Darro”, a larger mail ship, in thick fog 19km south of St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight. Imperial War Museum notes “The Darro survived the collision but the Mendi sank quickly [as a result of a gash in its side], leaving 607 men dead. Some were killed on the point of impact, many others drowned. The Mendi has become the symbol for commemoration of their service. The extent of the loss of life in the Mendi disaster established its status as a national tragedy in South Africa, which briefly overwhelmed racial divisions. The entire South African House of Assembly rose in silence on 9 March 1917 as a mark of respect. Prime Minister Louis Botha gave an address commending the ‘native’ participation in the war and leading an unopposed motion in ‘to record an expression of its sincere sympathy with the relatives of the deceased officers, non-commissioned officers and natives in their bereavement.”
The standardised SANLC Company
Orders issued on 1 May 1917 defined the company as follows. The company would be made up of a smal lheadquarters plus four Platoons, each of which was made up of two Sections. It was stipulated that the “European” NCOs had to be able to speak the language of the “Natives”:
- 1 Major in command
- 4 Subalterns (Lieutenent or Second Lieutenant) each in command of a Platoon
- 1 Company Sergeant Major
- 1 Company Quartermaster Sergeant
- 1 Clerk Interpreter
- 462 Privates (includes 32 appointed to Lance Corporal, 8 to a Platoon)
- Race not stated but evidence suggests that in practice most if not all “Native”
- 8 Sergeants (2 to a Platoon, one to each Section)
- 16 Corporals (4 to a Platoon, two to each Section)
- 6 Batmen
- Attached to company (race not stated but likely “European”)
- 1 Medical Officer (Royal Army Medical Corps) except when company is administered by a Labour Group HQ
- 2 orderlies for Medical Officer (if MO present)(one appointed to Lance Corporal)
- 4 vehicle drivers/orderlies (one being a Corporal)
- 1 driver for spare draught horse
- 2 drivrs (Army Service Corps) for horses
The company would be equipped with one riding horse or bicycle for the commanding officer; total of 2 bicycles for the platoon commanders; 6 draught and 8 heavy draught horses. A standard complent of carts and wagons was also stipulated.
King’s inspection 10 July 1917
On 10 July 1917, at Abbeville, King George V, accompanied by the Queen and the Prince of Wales, inspected officers and 44 selected men of the Corps, the latter picked to represent the various tribes present in the Corps. A list shows them to be of the Bakcatlh, Bakwena, Basuto, Buuvunukweve, Fingo, Pondo, Sekukune, Swazi, Tembu, and Basuto Zulu and all Serageants, Corporals or Lance Corporals. Of the white officers, two (Lt-Cols. J. C. Emmett and J. Jacobszoon) had fought against the British in the Second Boer War. Several of the men had served with the British earlier in the Great War, in German East Africa and German West Africa. 14 of those present were amongst those about to be sent home to assist with a recruitment drive.
Later in the year the King donated two gramophones for use in the SANLC Hospital.
The end of the SANLC
From September 1917 the men’s one-year contracts were beginning to expire.
On 6 October 1917, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief in France and Flanders, sent a message of “appreciation of the loyal and zealous assistance which they [SANLC] have rendered to the Empire and wihes them a prosperous voyage“. The Corps returned a message, saying it was much gratified by Haig’s remarks.
Repatriation began in October 1917. A shortage of suitable shipping delayed the process and on 12 October about 50 men of 7 Company at Abancourt refused to work on the grounds that their contracts had expired. It was found that their contracts were in fact valid for six more days, but the local commandant gave an undertaking that the men would not be called upon to work. Number 8 Company at Rouen also decided to strike but soon returned to work. At the end of that month the SANLC in France still amounted to a total of 26 companies with 116 officers and 12196 men.
It is believed that in all, 331 men of the SANLC died in France, most, it appears from tuberculosis.
Campaign medals and commemoration
Had the normal regulations been applied, those men of the SANLC who served in France would have each been entitled to the British War and Victory Medals. The South African government however decided not to issue them, although black members of the SANLC from the neighbouring British Protectorates of Basutoland (modern Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland did receive the British War Medal. There are existing examples of a bronze version of the normally silver British War Medal, correctly named to members of the SANLC.
The men of the “Mendi” are commemorated at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton and on memorials at home, notably one at Soweto, unveiled by President Nelson Mandela and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1995.
- War diary GHQ National Archives WO95/83
- War diary GHQ Inspector-General of Lines of Communication WO95/3968
- War diary Le Havre Base WO95/4030
- *”The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916-1918” by B. P. Willan (The Journal of African History, Vol. 19, No. 1, World War I and Africa (1978), pp. 61-86)
- Imperial War Museum Department of Photographs
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission