THE ROLE OF SOUTH AFRICA’S CITIZEN FORCE REGIMENTS IN THE 1922 STRIKE
By Allan Sinclair, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
In terms of the Defence Act of 1912, most of the volunteer regiments created before the formation of the Union Defence Force were absorbed into the Active Citizen Force (ACF) of the Union Defence Forces. The ACF was formed as a cost-saving measure as the Government of the Union did not have the financial resources to maintain a permanent regular army. Following the outbreak of the 1922 miners’ strike on the Witwatersrand, the Government was compelled to mobilise these regiments to assist in quelling the violence.
The establishment of the Citizen Force Regiments
The military institutions that emerged in South Africa during the 19th Century followed the pattern of the British Army. Local regiments established throughout the area were based on the British regimental system founded during the same period. For the most part, they were formed as part-time / volunteer units to reduce military expenditure in the pre-union colonies of the Cape and Natal while at the same time providing these colonies with armed forces which would be prepared in times of conflict and war.
In the Transvaal, the Transvaal Volunteers was created in 1901 following the conclusion of the Anglo–Boer/South African War (1899–1902). The regiments raised as part of this force were the Transvaal Scottish, the Witwatersrand Rifles, the Transvaal Horse Artillery and the Rand Light Infantry (initially formed as the Transvaal Motor and Cycle Corps). They were joined by the Imperial Light Horse, which had existed since 1899.
In terms of the Defence Act of 1912, the following regiments from the Transvaal Volunteers were absorbed into the ACF in July 1913 under the following designations:
Imperial Light Horse – 5th Mounted Rifles (Imperial Light Horse)
Transvaal Scottish – 8th Infantry (Transvaal Scottish)
Witwatersrand Rifles – 10th Infantry (Witwatersrand Rifles)
Transvaal Medical Corps – 1st Field Ambulance (SA Medical Corps)
Transvaal Horse Artillery – 8th Citizen Battery (Transvaal Horse Artillery)
Transvaal Motor and Cycle Corps – 11th Infantry (Rand Light Infantry)
A seventh regiment, the 13th Infantry (Pretoria Regiment), was formed by officers and men of the North Mounted Rifles, part of the South African Railway and Engineer Corps and the Pretoria companies of the Transvaal Scottish and Transvaal Motor and Cycle Corps.
Causes of the 1922 Strike
The Anglo-Boer/South African War (1899 – 1902) caused disruptions to the mining industry. During the early part of the War, most mines were closed, leading to considerable capital loss. In addition, a racially hierarchical division of labour had developed in the mining sector whereby the supervisory and skilled jobs were performed by whites, while unskilled and poorly paid labour became associated with non-white labourers. The end of the War witnessed the entry of large numbers of unskilled white unemployed men into the urban areas, with many of them gaining employment in the mines. It was against this background that mine owners had to formulate a policy of division of labour that would serve their own interests without disturbing the racist social order that had evolved in the mining industry.
Between February and December 1920, the price of gold fell from 130 shillings an ounce to 95 shillings an ounce. Mining executives estimated that unless costs could be reduced most producing mines would eventually be running at a loss. While wages for whites had risen by 60 percent since the First World War (1914–1918) those for blacks had only increased by 9 percent. The Chamber of Mines, therefore, took a decision to reduce labour costs by removing the colour bar and increasing the ratio of black workers to white. White miners reacted strongly to this and compelled the trade unions to take drastic action.
Figure 1: Map of Central Johannesburg in 1922.
The Effects of the Strike along the Witwatersrand
Sporadic strikes took place in 1921, but these did not become widespread until the end of the year. The scene was set for a major revolt in Fordsburg due to the large amount of white mineworkers who were residents in and around the suburb. The leader of the Communist Party, W. H. Andrews, known as ‘Comrade Bill’, urged a general strike while groups of revolutionaries organised commandos under the leadership of people who called themselves the ‘Federation of Labour.’ In February 1922 negotiations with the South African Industrial Federation broke down when the commandos seized control, arming some white miners and setting up barricades. The Star described how mob violence spread alarmingly with bands of white men shooting and beating unoffending black mineworkers. A general strike was proclaimed on Monday 6 March and on Wednesday 8 March the strike turned into an open revolution in a bid to capture the heart of Johannesburg.
Many of those who joined the striker commandos had served during the First World War and numerous former military instructors were available to provide necessary training in military tactics. This included throwing homemade bombs and unhorsing mounted police and soldiers. By 10 March there was a striker commander in almost every town and areas such as Fordsburg, Newlands, Vrededorp and Jeppestown were completely under striker control. The men were first armed with weapons such as tools and pick handles but soon various forms of small arms began to appear.
In Fordsburg the situation rapidly deteriorated. The strikers successfully attacked and burnt down the local police station and those that were captured were placed under guard in the Fordsburg Market Hall. A squad of mounted police sent in as reinforcements were eventually compelled to retreat. In Newlands, the police station was also attacked and surrounded. Around 200 policemen armed with maxim machine guns refused to enter the suburb and instead occupied Brixton Ridge. Eventually, the authorities agreed that the Union Defence Force (UDF) had to be brought in to restore law and order across the Rand.
Figure 2: Trades Hall in Fordsburg (DITSONG: National Museum of Military History [DNMMH]).
Mobilisation of the Citizen Force
The first local regiments raised and brought into service were the Transvaal Scottish (TS), the Transvaal Horse Artillery (THA) and the Imperial Light Horse (ILH). Each regiment experienced difficulties with mobilisation as the strikers were positioned everywhere and the men volunteering were required to find their way to the Drill Hall in Johannesburg in civilian dress rather than be caught by strikers in uniform.
Regiments such as the Rand Light Infantry and the Witwatersrand Rifles had not as yet been re-established after the First World War. Many of their ex-servicemen did, however, answer the call-up with several officers prepared to serve as privates during the emergency. These men formed a composite unit which undertook patrols around Johannesburg and provided guards at various strategic points.
Operations on the East Rand
As the TS was the most organised regiment available at the time, the bulk of the unit was sent east to Benoni where the Striker Commandos had taken possession of the Trades Hall and turned the town into an armed camp. The Regiment proceeded by train on the morning of 10 March but soon found that the line was blocked at Dunswart with armed strikers taking up positions in houses and gardens along the line. The ensuing firefight was fierce as many of the strikers were war veterans and skilled marksmen. Some were even equipped with machine guns. The TS suffered 12 men killed, including three officers, and 26 men wounded during this action.
The TS was eventually reinforced by 100 men and a 13 Pounder gun from the THA. The decision was then made to withdraw from the fight and enter Benoni from the south. At 20:00 on 10 March the police were eventually relieved after five days without any sleep. It was not possible to clear the entire town and posts were established at the power station, the post office and the local banks. A machine gun was also placed on the mine dumps to provide support to patrols working their way along the streets looking for strikers hidden in the houses.
Eventually, on Monday 13 March the beleaguered troops in Benoni were relieved by a strong burgher commando force under the command of Lt Gen Sir J. L. van Deventer.
Figure 3: ACF troops lined up at Park Station – March 1922 (DNMMH).
The Striker attack on Ellis Park
The situation back in Johannesburg took a turn for the worse on 11 March when strikers of the Jeppe and Denver Commandos launched an attack on the main ACF camp and depot located at Ellis Park. Klein writes that the choice of Ellis Park as a camp proved to be a major disaster as the ground was situated in a low-lying basin surrounded by high ground consisting of houses, sheds and other buildings.
At that stage, the camp was occupied by the ILH which, like most other ACF regiments, had not had any time to properly equip and train before being committed to action. At the time of the attack, around 150 men from two squadrons were in the centre of the ground with their rifles stacked some distance away. The ILH suffered 20 men killed or wounded within the first minutes of the attack but were allowed to rally and counter-attack largely due to the inept organisation of the strikers. The counter charge of the ILH succeeded in clearing the southeast corner of the ground and eventually, the strikers were driven from the streets of Troyville losing 47 of their number killed in the process.
The attack on Brixton Ridge and Fordsburg
The UDF forces were finally organised under the command of Brig Gen P. S. Beves who developed a plan to attack the main striker force in Fordsburg. The initial target was the heights of Brixton Ridge. The ACF regiments located there had been reinforced by 1 000 men of the Durban Light Infantry (DLI) who were well-equipped and had recently arrived by train from Durban. These troops were arranged to form I Force, numbering around 2 000 men and under the command of Lt Col E. Thackeray.
The attack was planned to commence on 12 March. Before the attack, the affluent suburb of Parktown, by virtue of its location east of Brixton Ridge and being the ideal place to concentrate the force mobilised for the impending attack, resembled an armed camp. Troops concealed themselves in the gardens of the houses and received food and refreshments from the local residents. Many of these residents would also provide the transport required to get the troops to their points of attack. At the same time, the guns of the THA were all set up along Jan Smuts Avenue.
At 11:00 on 12 March the THA opened fire on Brixton Ridge and Cottesloe School. Immediately after the infantry advanced by scaling the steep slopes of the Ridge. The DLI attacked in waves of four platoons followed close behind by troops of the TS, the ILH and composite units made up of members of the WR, the RLI and other units. Around 250 strikers surrendered without firearms. Discarded firearms were soon found lying about. The ILH swept through the kopjes north of Newlands inflicting casualties on the strikers who had been strung along the slopes of the hills. The DLI then busied themselves by searching through houses and buildings in Brixton and Vrededorp for hidden strikers, firearms and ammunition. Weapons were found in almost every house searched.
Figure 4: Guns of the THA firing on Fordsburg from Brixton Ridge (DNMMH).
On 14 March the order was received for the final attack on the striker headquarters in Fordsburg. Before launching the assault warnings were sent out to all the inhabitants still located in the suburb. Those wishing to leave were allowed out through what became known as the Fordsburg Dip. At 11:00 the attack was launched from the northeast with the DLI attacking from Brixton, passing through the cemetery and crossing over the railway line into Fordsburg.
The TS attacked at right angles to the DLI and eventually reached Fordsburg Square. There they captured 115 strikers and secured the release of the police who were being held hostage in the suburb. At the same time, those strikers located in the surrounding buildings continued to fire on the soldiers as they began organising the POWs. All those who surrendered were removed to the Wanderers Ground north of the railway line. The THA battery also took part in the assault with one gun operating in Sauer St while the remainder took up positions on Brixton Ridge. The troops continued to fight their way through the striker defences in the streets and eventually closed in on the striker headquarters. By early afternoon the fighting had ceased with the surrender of the bulk of the strikers. Total casualties recorded in the battle were 687. Both the UDF and the police suffered 72 men killed and 219 wounded. The striker losses were never confirmed but some records show that 157 men were lost in the action.
Figure 5: Striker leaders being escorted into captivity (DNMMH).
After the attack on Fordsburg, most of the troops were ordered to Turfontein where it was believed that many of those strikers who escaped had fled. From there patrols were sent out to all areas of the south including Wemmer Pan, Rosettenville, Regent’s Park and other suburbs south of the race course. Strong defensive units were located in Rosettenville and Regent’s Park.
The 1922 Strike proved to be a severe test for the ACF regiments. Despite the many teething problems, those regiments mobilised for service played an important role in defeating the strikers. The men proved to be both brave and resourceful in the most trying of conditions. Of all the units, the DLI was numerically the strongest and most organised and received a commendation in Parliament for its efforts. The TS was also well organised and played a major role in both the East Rand and Johannesburg.
- Hattersley, F. A, 1950. Carbineer: The History of the Royal Natal Carbineers. Aldershot: Gale and Polden.
- Juta, H. C, 1933. The History of the Transvaal Scottish. Johannesburg: Hortors.
- Klein, H, 1969. Light Horse Cavalcade. Cape Town, Howard Timmins.
- Krikler, J, 2005. The Rand Revolt: The 1922 Insurrection and racial Killing in South. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.
- Martin, A. C. 1969. The Durban Light Infantry Vol II. Durban: DLI Regimental Association.
- Monick, S, 1989. A Bugle Calls: The Story of the Witwatersrand Rifles and its Predecessors. Germiston: Witwatersrand Rifles.
- Orpen, N, 1975. The History of the Transvaal Horse Artillery. Johannesburg: Transvaal Horse Artillery.
- Simpkins, B G, 1965. Rand Light Infantry. Cape Town: Howard Timmins.
- Tylden, G, 1954. The Armed Forces of South Africa. Johannesburg: Frank Connock.
- Balme, H A, 1984. “The Active Citizen Force in the Rand Revolt” in The Jock Column, Transvaal Scottish Regimental Association, No 92