South Africa’s campaigns began badly. The campaigns in German South West and East Africa started with reverses at Sandfontein in September 1914 and Salaitia in January 1916. However, Springbok soldiers of all backgrounds proved resilient, and the later campaigns were marked by near uniform success. The “first-battle” experiences had reshaped thinking and led to better leadership and command at all levels. Both Botha and Smuts commanded in the field. Steadily, the South African army they commanded – benefiting from wartime training, sometimes in the field – gained resilience, experience, and battle-hardiness, adapting to the conditions of the campaigns and the demands of the tasks.
South Africa’s campaigns were complex and divergent, starting with the invasion of neighboring German South West Africa – to neutralize the radio stations and so aid security in the South Atlantic. Suddenly suspended following the outbreak of the Afrikaner Rebellion, the campaign recommenced in January 1915. Following its conclusion, an infantry brigade, raised for the Western Front, was diverted to Egypt before facing near annihilation at Delville Wood. Reconstructed more than once, the brigade was accompanied by a field ambulance and general hospital. The South African deployment in France included two brigades of heavy artillery, a signal company, a railway company, and Auxiliary Horse Transport Company, and several South African Native Labour Contingents. At the same time, a large South African force, fighting alongside troops from British Africa and India, broke German resistance in East Africa, and a brigade of field artillery and later the Cape Corps served in Egypt and Palestine. In addition, more than 6 500 South Africans served in the British Army, the Royal Flying Corps, later the Royal Air Force, and on ships of the Royal Navy.
Although lionized during the war by a British public hungry for heroes, there is a different side to Botha and Smuts. Shunned by Afrikaner nationalists at the time, they have remained divisive figures. Responsible for the enactment of the Land Act of 1913, which shaped South Africa’s socio-economic and political landscape, Botha’s statue in Cape Town was vandalized in 2015 and 2016. Behind his charming, attractive façade, and Smuts’s stoic machine, were two very human, imperfect, and quite probably inconsiderate, men. Together they provide a wonderful lens through which to examine the potent forces of the early twentieth-century world and the country they hoped to forge. Myopic compatriots had constrained their plans; but it was the outbreak of war in 1914 that offered the most significant opportunities and brought the most adverse challenges. They fought insurmountable odds, and achieved great victories, at home and abroad, but also made startling errors, and, ultimately, in classical fashion risked being crushed by the weight of the world they tried to create.