Ramsay Daly (1889 – 1967) and the Great War

Many men who fought in the two World Wars never spoke about their experience. All that we as descendants can do is to piece together what happened from their military records, official histories and any bits of paper they saved from those years. This is the story of Ramsay Daly and the Great War (1914-1918).

The start of the First World War brought about a radical shift in South Africa’s political alignment. The Anglo-Boer War had ended in 1902 after bitter fighting between the Boer army and the British army. It was an unhappy capitulation by the Boers who faced devastation of their land and people, and a loss of independence. A condition of peace was that the four South African colonies (Cape Province, Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal) join into a Union, part of the British Empire. This was achieved by 1910 with Black people excluded from participation and from the franchise. The first cabinet included a number of Boer War generals, including Jan Smuts (later Minister of Defence) and the Prime Minister Louis Botha.

South African Government, 1910. Back: J. B. M. Hertzog, Henry Burton, F. R. Moor, C. O’Grady Gubbins, Jan Smuts, H. C. Hull, F. S. Malan, David Graaff Front: J. W. Sauer, Louis Botha, Abraham Fischer. Public Domain, found on wikimedia commons.

A bare four years later, in August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany and the First World War started. Some Afrikaner leaders saw this as an opportunity to side with Germany and win back their independence. They rose in rebellion but the government declared martial law and defeated the rebels. South African forces under Louis Botha then invaded German South-West Africa (now Namibia).

When war was declared Ramsay Daly was in Johannesburg working for Crown Mines on the production process extracting gold from mined ores. He resigned. Earlier he had been part of the Northern Mounted Rifles so now he enlisted as a trooper in the Imperial Light Horse, and joined the invasion force for German South West Africa. Within months the German forces surrendered. Ramsay who had ended up in Luderitz Hospital with diarrhoea, returned to South Africa. His superior officer later recorded that he had been “hard werkend, bekwaam en vertroubaar” (hardworking, competent and trustworthy).  He resumed working at Crown Mines but within a year he enlisted in the East African Expeditionary Force with the rank of Quarter Master Sergeant, sailing from Durban in May 1916, a long distance up the East coast to German East Africa (now Tanzania). He served there from May 1915 to 26 February 1916 first as Staff Sergeant and then Quarter Master Sergeant in the South African Third Division Headquarters Staff.[1]

The German aim in East Africa was to divert Allied troops from Europe and they fought a war based on evasion and retreat into the vast African interior. The Allied army under General Jan Smuts, stalled under horrendous conditions. The terrain was mountainous with impenetrable bush, heavy rain, and very long supply lines. The troops were ravaged by malaria, dysentery and tick fever. In his biography of Jan Smuts, his son recorded that the casualties from disease were estimated to outrank the casualties from battle 31 to 1: of the 58,000 troops sent there in 1916, 50,000 contracted malaria leaving a very much reduced army fit for duty.[2] By the end of the campaign, losses for the various forces but especially among their porters and support staff could have run into hundreds of thousands.[3] In addition, innumerable horses, mules and donkeys died from horse sickness and tsetse fly bites.

In December 1916 Ramsay was declared temporarily unfit for active service and returned home with a note that he was of “Very good” character. By January 1917 Smuts, himself a “fever-ridden wreck”[4], had also left to join the Imperial War Cabinet in London. Ramsay re-enlisted for service in France, joining the Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Company, arriving in France on 23 May 1917. His record for the Army Service Corps notes that he is 6 ft 1 in tall (1.85m) with hazel eyes, brown hair and a fresh complexion.[5]

His record also notes that he speaks “Dutch” and this seems to have made him suitable as an officer (second lieutenant) in charge of a group of men at the time designated as “Coloured”. Soldiers from this population group had rendered valuable service in German West and German East Africa and were distinguishing themselves in battlefields in Palestine[6] but here their role was to provide the transport for vast quantities of munitions and supplies from French ports to the frontlines.

Officers in France with their soldiers in the background. Ramsay is in the middle of back row.

Within months of arriving in France, Ramsay was declared unfit, transferred to England and hospitalised for renal colic. Months later, in a pattern that was to be repeated several times, he was declared medically fit and returned to service in France. In January 1918 he was sent for training with the Number Two School of Instruction for Officers in Britain. After completion of the training he was commissioned as a Lieutenant and transferred to an infantry battalion. The Royal Army Service Corps commander appealed the decision which was upheld and he then returned to 879 Company, Royal Army Service Corps as a full member of the officer class.

On 11 November 1918 the armistice was declared and the war was over but demobilisation for South African troops was still a long way off. On 24 December 1918 Ramsay was granted leave to return to the England, again declared unfit. After he recuperated he was sent to HQ Scottish Command in Edinburgh where he served in the Black Watch Regiment. It was only a year later on 27 December 1919 that he was demobilised and returned to South Africa where he resumed working at Crown Mines.

Ramsay resigned from the mines on 14 April 1921 to take up a new opportunity. Crown land in the rural areas including the Limpopo was available for purchase to returning soldiers with little regard for the current lessees of the land. There were generous financial loans. In later years Ramsay still kept a reference from his years at Crown Mines that states, “He is most sober and is very keen and energetic and will make a good and progressive farmer. I can confidently recommend his being granted the farm for which he is applying.” He acquired 3 properties in excess of 10,000 acres and these were eventually paid off in 1946.

[1] Details from records of SA Expeditionary Forces for World War 1.

[2] J.C. Smuts,1952, Jan Christiaan Smuts, Cape Town: Cassell and Company.

[3] References from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_African_Campaign_(World_War_I)

[4] J.C. Smuts,1952, p 169.

[5] Details from British government records of the First World War held at The National Archives in Kew. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/first-world-war/

[6] Difford, Capt I.D., 1920, The Story of the1st Cape Battalion Corps (1915-1919), Cape Town: Hortors Ltd.