A 5.4 inch Howitzer and Crew in East Africa during WWI - Photo Courtesy of South African Defence force
A 5.4 inch Howitzer and Crew in East Africa during WWI - Photo Courtesy of South African Defence force


By Makomborero Muzenda
Photo Courtesy of  the SADF

In the global arena of world domination where politicians decide the fate of millions far removed from the horrors of war; it is sadly the young who are called to take up arms and fight for their country.  Nothing illustrates this unfortunate reality better than the First World War, which began 100 years ago in Europe in which millions lost their lives in action. It was ultimately a war that left Germany and others in economic ruins.  The nature of international politics was changed with new contenders for the title of major power stepping into the ring.  It is inarguable that the Great War affected the world, but it is easy and almost dangerous, to assume that  Rhodes University and sleepy little Grahamstown were unscathed by the fighting.  Not even the new university could escape the far-reaching tentacles of war.

When war broke out in 1914, the small community, alongside the newly established university, was galvanised.  As part of an Empire that used academic institutions to instill loyalty to the Crown, Rhodes University was an important player in shaping the attitudes of the young men. This near-hysterical patriotic zeal was everywhere.  “Sweet it is and seemly, for one’s Fatherland, to die” the school magazine; the Rhodian, boldly proclaimed with editors of newspapers and magazines in the town whipping up support for the war.  Amy Van Wezel, the Curator of History at the Albany Museum, says that this was a big part of the World War One-era Grahamstown.  “The newspapers were a bit one-sided.  They did portray and support one view of the war.”

Whilst editors and newspapermen served their country with exclamations and bold declarations of bravery and determination, the young men who were expected to sign up and fight were scared.  Although many Rhodes University students did volunteer and did want to defend the Crown, it was a decision that they agonised over, remembering the very real possibility that they might never see their beloved university or loved ones again.  Howard Howse, an alumnus of Rhodes, was more than ready to fight but it was a decision that he did not reach easily.  In a letter to his father he wrote:

“This I would like to do (join the war), not because I love the game, but because I am so absorbed by the system of things that I have a rotten feeling that I am not doing my duty…You will understand my dilemma.  It is a question of my duty; does it lie here, or over with the troops?”

These students were scared, but the pull to defend the world against the threat of German tyranny was undeniable.  So, they put down their pens and textbooks and added their names to the list of volunteers.  Among them was Kenneth Graham, a native of Grahamstown and a descendant of its founder.  If he was nervous about the war, he kept that to himself, with his letters to home full of new places he’d visited and the often mundane existence of military life.  According to Van Wezel, the first batch of South African troops to fight in the war was the First East African Regiment which fought in the German East African Campaign – a campaign that Kenneth Graham was eager to get involved in.  He spoke of his relief at finding fellow Rhodes students in his squadron.  Olivier, Hops, MacGaffin and Meyer were students with whom Kenneth formed strong bonds.  The small but unified Rhodes community eased Kenneth’s fears of being away from home, where they would eat together and talk about what was going on at their school.

Kenneth’s war experience was fairly uneventful but for Howard Howse and the university itself, the Great War quickly lost the glamour that had once made it so appealing.  The war section of the Rhodian grew bigger with each publication.  The list of those who died in action, a segment that was once a few lines, consumed three pages of the magazine, with war poems, obituaries, Honour Rolls and In Memoriams offering a glimpse into how morale deteriorated.  As written in the Rhodian in 1917,

“The brave Die never.
Being deathless, they but change
Their country’s arms for more their country’s heart.”

For Harold, who fought on the frontlines in Europe, the reality of war hit home when one of his closest friends, Bob MacGaffin, was killed.

” I have never known a truer, finer friend, and I feel his death more than I can tell.  It seems more than sad that such a life, so full of promise, should thus come to an end…These fellows have made the great sacrifice for us who remain.” 

The Great War ended the lives of many soldiers and had far reaching implications.  Harold Howse  was among those who did not see the war through. He died in 1917 and his body was left lying in German territory, unable to be rescued by his comrades.  Kenneth Graham, after four years of active duty, came back to Grahamstown.

It is important to remember the human aspect to the First World War.  The Rhodes students who went off to defend the Empire were not dissimilar from their modern-day counterparts.  They worried about exams, thought about girls, stressed about student budgets, lamented the dining hall food and were nervous about what life would hold after leaving the safe haven that Rhodes University had created.

It is their stories that are the focus of the Albany Museum’s upcoming World War One exhibition, which is scheduled for September.  Entitled ‘A Glimpse of Grahamstown in the Great War”; Van Wezel says that, “its focus is on the stories of people and where they went.  There will be war maps, some letters and photographs, as well as newspapers and magazines.”

Although small and tucked away in a corner of the British Empire, Rhodes University also experienced the loss and blow to morale that resonated for years.  With a statue erected outside the Great Hall to commemorate the First and Second World War, the knight stands head bowed and sword ready, an eternal guardian angel watching over the souls of Rhodes students who proclaimed ‘Pro Patria!’ and defended their Fatherland to the end.

Leave a Reply