By Peter Bailey
Rising out of the pastoral Jezreel Valley is a hill containing the remains of a city whose foundations go back several millennia. On a modern map, it is called Tel Megiddo. A “tel” is a geographic feature – a hill rising out of a flat plain – m arking the site of a city dating from ancient times. Megiddo is a site that has seen more battles than any other location on earth.
While it is cited in Biblical scriptures as the location for “End of Days”, for modern day Israel it has signified more the “Beginning of Days” as it heralded in the eventual establishment of the Jewish State and one special community in South Africa played a vital part – South Africa’s wonderful Coloured community.
The African National Congress (ANC) – the governing party in South Africa – has voiced its intention to downgrade the country’s embassy in Israel. The reasons are not in any way related to the strong commercial or other dealings with Israel, but rather because of a myopic view of the political situation in Israel. Blind loyalty to the Palestinian cause trumps any perception of fairness or of the political realities on the ground.
However, what most South Africans do not know is that the forebears of many current ANC supporters fought and died in a war that made the eventual rebirth of the State of Israel a reality – the Battle of Megiddo.
During the WWI when the Union of South Africa was allied with Britain, many members of the Coloured community – particularly from Cape Town and Kimberley – volunteered for military duty. During 1915, the historic Cape Corp was reformed, with the volunteers being placed in what became known as the 1st Cape Corps.
The history of this fighting unit began in 1781 when the Dutch administrators of the Cape established a military unit that saw action under different names and different colonial administrations only to be disbanded in 1870 and then, arise again – as if by some Biblical prophecy – as the Cape Corps, due to the demands of the First World War.
Acclaimed for their combat performance in the ‘East African Theatre’ as the 1st Battalion Cape Corps (1CC), a Second Battalion was established, and in early 1918, both battalions were deployed to Egypt, as part of part of General Edmund Allenby Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
Its mission was clear:
to drive the combined Ottoman Turkish and German forces out of what was then known as Palestine.
Following Allenby’s major victories at Beersheva and the capture of Jerusalem that ended on 30 November 1917, the stage was then set for the final thrust into the Jordan Valley, the heartland of what would emerge in a future State of Israel.
To carry out this thrust, enter the battle-hardened 1st Cape Corps, fresh out of action in East Africa, where they had received Battle Honours for major victories, notably at Kilimanjaro, Behobeho and Nyangao.
Their timing of arrival in Palestine ensured their place in history.
The Battle of Megiddo
After the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917, the fighting died down over the winter until September 1918. The 1st Cape Corps – newly arrived in Palestine – was assigned to the 160th Infantry Brigade tasked with effecting the breakthrough, which would open the way north and the eventual attack on Damascus in Syria.
The battle order called for the 1/17th Indian Brigade to be the advance guard, followed by the 1st Cape Corps to take the high ground known as Square Hill – an attack that became known as the Battle of Megiddo. This attack commenced at 18:45 on 18 September 1918, ending with the capture of Square Hill by 1st Cape Corps at 04:00 on 19 September. During the 9-hour battle, the 1st Cape Corps captured 181 prisoners and an enemy field gun, while their losses were one man killed and one wounded.
The Battle of Megiddo victory was followed by a victorious battle at KH Jibeit, during which 1st Cape Corps suffered heavy casualties – 51 killed and 101 wounded. These two victories were decisive in opening the road for Allenby’s breakthrough to Damascus. This was the last action fought by the gallant men of the 1st Cape Corps, but resulted in the final knockout blow being dealt to the Ottoman forces in Palestine.
Thus, ended Ottoman Turkish rule and the eventual establishment of the Independent States of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and ISRAEL!
Guts and Glory
A year following the famous battle, Field Marshal Viscount Allenby, GCB, GCMG had this to say about the men of the 1st Cape Corps:
“I heard you are creating a Roll of Honour containing Cape Corps names. I had the honour of serving with many of the Cape Corps in Palestine and I should like to add my tribute of appreciation. The record of those of the Cape Corps who fought under my command is one that any troops might envy. Especially on September 19 and 20, 1918, they covered themselves with glory, displaying a bravery and determination that has never been surpassed.”
Megiddo’s Place in SA-Israel History
The Battle of Megiddo in 1918, heralded the end of the Ottoman Empire which had lasted for over 500 years. The result of this battle paved the way for the establishment of British Mandate Palestine, which was followed by the rebirth of an independent State of Israel in the ancient Jewish homeland.
Israel ‘salutes’ the Coloured community of South Africa who through their bravery and sacrifice paved the way for its independence.
The following honours were awarded to 1CC after Square Hill and Kh Jibeit:
Distinguished Conduct Medal:
Military Medal (prompt award):
Mentioned in Dispatches: