In 1910, Louis Botha, of Transvaal and former leader of the Boer forces against the British, was elected first President of the Union of South Africa. Jan C. Smuts, another Boer leader, was made Minister of Defence. Both men had worked to increase good relations between South Africa and Britain from the end of the war in 1902.
In August 1914, South Africa decided, as a British Dominion, to support the war effort against Germany. This was not without opposition from some Afrikaners, remembering the help they had received from Germany during the Boer War. By mid 1915, this had been resolved.
After the capture of the German territory of S.W. Africa, the army was demobilised.
A succeeding army was created. A Brigade of four infantry battalions was recruited, along with five batteries of Heavy Artillery, a Field Ambulance, a Royal Engineers Signal Company and a General Hospital. 146,000 South African men took part in the First World War, serving in SW Africa, East Africa, and Europe. The Infantry spent some time in North Africa before being deployed to France, where they remained for the duration of the war, although they suffered casualties which altered their formation. 3,000 men also joined the Royal Flying Corps.
Where possible, local loyalties to Provinces were respected in the recruitment of men, and the formation of battalions and batteries was based on them. In general, the recruits were well-educated, middle class and well bred. Most had already experienced military training.
Total South African casualties reached 18,600 men, including more than 6,600 deaths.
South African Heavy Artillery
The South African Heavy Artillery consisted of five batteries. It was formed in July 1915, designated by the War Office in London as a 6in Howitzer Brigade. They retained their own badge while being numbered from 71st to 75th Siege Batteries in the Royal Garrison Artillery.
They sailed from Cape Town, landing at Plymouth on 15th September 1915. The formation of Batteries took place during the voyage. By the evening they arrived at Cooden Camp, Bexhill-on-Sea. All the men were then granted 14 days leave. It is recorded that the South Africans enjoyed much hospitality and kindness amongst the residents of Bexhill.
The following months were used for general training and equipping, with the appointment of Battery Commanders and staff. The Batteries eventually proceeded to their final firing course, on old equipment at Lydd,
At the end of the course they were allocated four of the newly-developed 6in 26cwt Breech Loading Howitzers. They took charge of them in Hampshire, and on 16th April 1916, with equipment and transport, arrived at Le Havre. After a short stay at a rest camp, they travelled by rail to Beauquesne, where preparations were made for the offensive on the Somme.
The first three commanders of the 71st Battery were early casualties, gassed, seriously wounded, and killed by a stray shell. The fourth commander, Major Tamplin M.C., survived the war.