The South African Legion of Military Veterans, UK and Europe Branch, with a UK Branch of the MOTH, and the Royal British Legion (Gloucester) have held the inaugural memorial service commemorating the oft-forgotten WW I Battle of Square Hill fought by the Cape Corps.
The service, held at London’s Richmond Cemetery at the weekend, was presided over by Reverend John McCabe and organised by SA Legion England Branch Chairman Claudio Chistè. He said: “Next year marks the centenary of the battle; we are already preparing to grow this annual event into one with full diplomatic and military representation. We also hope to reach out to descendants of those who fought and fell at the Battle of Square Hill, so watch this space.”
London city Councillor Margaret Buter, who represents the Borough of Richmond upon Thames, where the event was held, has an African military connection, her grandfather having served in the King’s African Rifles.
The Battle of Square Hill was part of the Entente armies’ Megiddo offensive. The region of Megiddo had strong religious and historical significance, as it is the site of both one of the oldest battles ever recorded (1457 BC, between Egyptians and Canaanites) and is the site of the Biblical last battle between good and evil.
The Cape Corps comprised two battalions which were initially intended as service troops, but the men, recruited from the Cape’s Coloured population, repeatedly asked to fight and the 1st Battalion was placed under the command of the 53rd Welsh Division, XX Corps under General Philip Chetwode.
On September 18, the battalion took Square Hill, capturing 181 prisoners. Later, they captured about 160 further Ottoman troops and a gun. They were then ordered to take a hill called Jebeit, but without artillery preparation. They ran into fierce resistance, losing 153 casualties, of whom 51 were killed in action.
The orderly withdrawal under fire of the troops, who had lost most of their officers and were led by non-commissioned officers (NCOs) was admired by officers of nearby Entente units.
In all, the 1st Battalion, Cape Corps received 16 Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCM), eight Military Medals (MM), two Orders of the Crown of Italy (Bronze), two Belgian Decoration Militaire and a French Medaille Militaire.
The battle was part of the British Empire’s attack on the Ottoman Turkish Empire’s Middle-Eastern possessions, led by General Edmund Allenby in command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. The British and Empire forces were almost 70,000 strong while the opposing Turks were no more than 33,000 men strong. The Entente army also had air assets, which the Ottomans and their German advisors did not.
Having captured Sinai and Jerusalem, Allenby planned a knockout blow against the under-strength Turkish Army Group. Following the successful initial attacks, such as that on Square Hill, the Entente armies and the Arabs of T.E. Lawrence decisively defeated the Turkish forces, pushing them all the way back to Damascus by 27 September.
There is a single memorial to the battle in South Africa: the captured canon was placed next to the Cenotaph in Kimberley. South African veterans’ organisations also held memorials in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
Photo by Theo Fernandes.