During the First World War, South Africans served on land, at sea and in the air, in many roles. Many took part in nursing and medical services, as engineers, in railway and signal companies and in service and labour corps. Many died far from their home country and their contribution to the Allied war effort was significant.

When war was declared in August 1914, South Africa, then a dominion of the British Empire, rallied immediately to the Allied cause. Prime Minister Louis Botha offered help by releasing the British garrison in South Africa so that those troops could be used elsewhere.

South African troops fought in German South West Africa (Namibia) and in the campaign in East Africa ( including modern Tanzania). Here the Germans did not surrender until 23 November 1918, 12 days after the European Armistice had been signed.

South African forces served on the Western Front in France and Belgium. Initially part of the 9th (Scottish) Division, the South African Brigade fought at Delville Wood in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, suffering heavy casualties in fierce hand-to-hand fighting and under relentless German bombardment. South Africans also fought in many other significant battles including Arras, Passchendaele, and Mont Kemmel.

The South African Native Labour Corps made an important contribution to the war effort of the British Empire. In the early hours of 21 February 1917 the passenger steamship SS Mendi, carrying South African labourers en route from Plymouth to Le Havre, was struck by another ship in thick fog. The SS Mendi sank, killing 616 South Africans and 30 crew. The sinking of the SS Mendi remains one of the worst maritime disasters in British waters.

Related Cemeteries & Memorials

Delville Wood Cemetery, France, is the final resting place of more than 5,520 servicemen of the British Empire, including more than 150 South Africa servicemen. The cemetery stands next to the South African Delville Wood Commemorative Museum.

Dar Es Salaam War Cemetery, Tanzania, is the final resting place of more than 1,910 servicemen of the British Empire, including more than 630 South Africa servicemen. Within the cemetery stands the Dar Es Salaam British and Indian Memorial which commemorates more than 1,520 servicemen of the British Empire, including more than 70 of South Africa, who have no known grave.

Hollybrook Memorial, United Kingdom, commemorates more than 710 South African servicemen who died in the loss of the SS Mendi, and who have no known grave but the sea.