South African Native Labour Corps

When the First World War began in August 1914, it was immediately a global conflict. The British Empire and its allies, including France and Russia, fought against the German Empire and its allies in campaigns which took place not just in Europe, but across Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Societies on every continent were affected by this clash of imperial powers.

The focus for much of the fighting was the Western Front, where opposing armies faced each other across lines of trenches which ran through Belgium and France, from the North Sea to Switzerland. The battles which took place here caused enormous casualties, leading to increasing pressure to sustain the manpower of the fighting forces.

At the beginning of the war tasks such as moving stores, repairing roads and building defences were carried out by soldiers withdrawn from the front lines for rest. By early 1917, however, the need for labour on the Western Front had become particularly critical as a result of the unprecedented scale of death and injury.

For the British Empire the demand for manpower led to the creation of non-combatant Foreign Labour Corps. Units were formed across the territories of the Empire, from the Caribbean to India, eventually totalling some 300,000 men.

Numbering over 20,000, the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) was one of the most significant groups. Among them were respected warriors and tribal leaders, yet its personnel were not permitted to carry weapons or mix with white communities, and were under the command of white Commissioned Officers. Working initially in German South West Africa and East Africa, the SANLC established a base at Arques-la-Bataille, on the northern coast of France, in early 1917.