Tag Archives: South Africa

The best and worst of November 1918: Fake and real armistices, osculation, and meat we’ll learn to like

With the centenary of the Armistice approaching, I wanted to celebrate, but how? I couldn’t find any planned events for Remembrance Day (as it’s called in the Commonwealth) here in Cape Town.* But I knew that veterans lay a wreath at the war memorial every year, so I figured they’d be doing something special for this one. I arrived at 10:30 and found marching bands marching, bagpipers piping (oddly, “Sarie Marais,” an anti-British song from the Boer War) and a big tent full of people. A young woman gave me a paper poppy.

There were prayers, hymns, and a speech by Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson, my old friend from Pretoria in the late eighties. (South Africa can be small-towny like that.) How to celebrate an event like this, in the presence of both current soldiers and elderly white veterans who won their medals doing who knows what, is always a fraught question in South Africa. Ian hit just the right note, highlighting the contributions of black soldiers in South Africa and the United States for whom the Allied victory didn’t bring freedom.

At 11:00, the hour of the Armistice, there was a two-minute silence, a tradition that, it turns out, originated in Cape Town. Representatives of diplomatic missions and veterans’ groups laid wreaths on the monument, and afterwards the rest of us were given white roses. Here’s where I placed mine, thinking about the soldiers I’ve gotten to know in my year of 1918 reading, many of whom who didn’t make it home.

Now on to the best and worst of November.

Best fake news: Allies win the war!

New York Evening World, November 7, 1918 (Library of Congress)

What’s fake about that, you may be asking. Well, check the date.

In one of the most monumental screw-ups in the history of journalism, the United Press Association (which later became the UPI) reported on November 7 that the war had ended. According to a gloating report in the New York Times, which didn’t run the erroneous story, reporters mistook a ceasefire in an area where French and German officials were meeting for the end of the war. The censors, who were responsible for weeding out secrets, not errors, OK’d the story, and the agency cabled its headquarters. Which didn’t bother to check with officials in Washington, the attitude being “What do they know?” Newspapers rushed out extra editions.

New York Times, November 8, 1918

Secretary of War Baker said this was news to him, and Secretary of State Lansing checked with Paris and issued a denial, but no one cared. New Yorkers poured onto the streets. In Washington, newspapers were dropped from helicopters.(CORRECTION: From an airplane. As an alert reader has pointed out, helicopters weren’t invented yet.) 1,500 women workers from the State and War Departments, who apparently didn’t take their bosses any more seriously than anyone else did, rushed over to the White House, where they waved American flags and cheered President Wilson.**

Later that night, when word spread that the war was in fact still going on, a lot of people were too drunk to care.

New York Times, November 8, 1918

Luckily, only four days passed before the…

Best real news: Allies win the war!

Or, more succinctly and colorfully,

I worried about the fake victory celebration putting a damper on the real victory celebration, but that was just me being a gloom:

New York Times, November 12, 1918

People went wild with joy all over again.

New York Times, November 11, 1918

What persons were these, I wondered. Three-day-old persons? But the premature celebration had vanished from everyone’s heads, apparently.

New York Times, November 11, 1918

Osculation ensued!

New York Times, November 12, 1918

Best cartoon:

I only kind of get this Harry Gant Dart cartoon–something about the Germans not being in control of their own country anymore–but the drawing is amazing and it’s a refreshing change from all the cartoons about people hanging and strangling the Kaiser.

Judge, November 30, 1918

Best illustration:

Amid the celebration, a reminder of the conflict’s cost.

Frank E. Schoonover, Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1918

Worst Thanksgiving celebration:

New York Times, November 29, 1918

According to the New York Times, New Yorkers were eager to entertain the troops, including 750 convalescent and wounded soldiers who had returned from France during the week and were quartered at Debarkation Hospital No. 3 at 18th Street and 6th Avenue. Between them, they had received 1,400 invitations–two each! Lavish dinners and theater tickets had been laid on. But, when their uniforms returned from the sterilization department and the soldiers “prepared to don them to sally forth to the feasts,” it turned out that they had  shrunk beyond recognition. A “big soldier,” presented with his outfit, declared it a “Boy Scout uniform.”

Many unsuccessful efforts were made by others to wear the shrunken military garb, and, of course, regulations barred them from appearing on the streets in any other clothes.

An emergency order went out, and 125 uniforms were procured. What to do with the rest of the soldiers? Waive the regulations in appreciation of the sacrifices they had made in securing the biggest military victory of all time? Don’t make me laugh!

The fortunate wearers of these went forth, while the others, grumbling at their ill-luck, reclothed themselves in pajamas and hospital blankets.

Thank you for your service, boys!

Worst Meats:

The headline had me worried

Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1918

and the illustrations confirmed my worst fears.

Worst ad:

Since you didn’t die in the war…

Judge, November 9, 1918

Worst magazine cover:

Like I said, not a fan of the Kaisercide trope.

Best magazine cover:

I like this George Wolfe Plank Vanity Fair cover a lot,***

and also the crisp, clear lines of this one from Golfers Magazine,

but the best cover award has to have something to do with what happened during this momentous month.

This J. C. Leyendecker Saturday Evening Post cover is wonderful, but I’ve already given it enough love.****

I was just about to bestow the award on Norman Rockwell’s joyful soldiers on the cover of Life

Life, November 28, 1918

when I thought, “Wait, what about Vogue?”, and found the winner, this gorgeous, understated Georges Lepape cover:

Vogue, November 15, 1918

On to—can it be?—December!

*Of course, only reading news from 100 years ago didn’t help.

**This item, which I cribbed from Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, makes me blush on behalf of my fellow women State Department workers.

***If you’re wondering what’s happened to Erté, there aren’t any copies of the October and November 1918 issues of Harper’s Bazar, or even the covers, anywhere on the internet as far as I can tell.

****Fun fact: the soldier is Neil Hamilton, who later played Police Commissioner Gordon on Batman.

The Year Mandela was Born: South Africa in 1918

A couple of months into this project, I was chatting with my 13-year-old nephew during an outing to Simon’s Town, a coastal village south of Cape Town. He’s a YouTuber, and we were talking about building an audience. He had a bigger following than I did, and I was hoping he could give me some tips.

“What do you write about again?” he asked me.

“Things that happened a hundred years ago,” I said.

“Kids don’t care about that,” he told me.

“I don’t write for kids,” I said.

“Who do you write for?” he asked. “Old people?”

“Yes,” I said.*

“Then you should write about things that old people care about, like Mandela,” he said.

Four months later, on the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, I’m taking his advice.

Nelson Mandela, ca. 1941 (Nelson Mandela Foundation)

A baby being born in a village in the eastern Cape is not the stuff of international headlines, of course, so I can’t tell you about the birth itself. I can tell you, though, about the South Africa Nelson Mandela was born into and would grow up to transform.

With war raging in Europe, the outside world wasn’t paying much attention to South Africa. There was a fascinating article about the country’s “native problem,” though, in the December 8, 1917, issue of the New Republic. It was written by R.F. Alfred Hoernlé, who, despite his Afrikaans-sounding last name, was a British academic (with a German grandfather) who had taught for three years at what is now the University of Cape Town.

R.F. Alfred Hoernlé, date unknown

Hoernlé gets to the crux of the problem right away:

The native problem dominates the South African scene. Whatever political issues and movements show in the foreground, it supplies the permanent background. However much the white population of South Africa may be absorbed in the racial** and economic rivalries of the immediate present, it cannot but be profoundly apprehensive about its future, as long as the native problem remains unsolved.

Hoernlé points out that

Though in name a democracy, South Africa is in fact a small white aristocracy superimposed on a large native substratum.

Not that he’s advocating anything crazy, like making it a real democracy.

It is not a question, mainly, of the natives’ present unfitness for the vote, which everyone must readily grant.*** It is a question of political development. No policy which would ultimately involve that the white should admit the mass of the blacks to political power has any chance of acceptance, on the face of the unalterable numerical superiority of the blacks.

Jan Smuts, Elliott & Fry, 1917 (National Portrait Gallery)

So what to do?

To that question a speech which General [Jan] Smuts delivered in London, in May of this year, furnishes an answer. He rightly characterizes the problem as one of maintaining “white racial unity in the midst of the black environment.” This depends, in part, on avoiding two mistakes, viz., mere exploitation of the natives, and racial intermixture. The white races, Smuts insists, must strictly observe the racial axiom, “No intermixture of blood between the two colors,” and the moral axiom, “Honesty, fair-play, justice, and the ordinary Christian virtues must be the basis of all our relationship with the natives.”****

And how does Smuts plan to achieve this?  Hoernlé tells us that

Any incorporation of the black into the structure of white society is bound to raise, in the long run, the problem of admitting them to citizenship, giving them the vote, and treating them as the white man’s political equals. There is only one way of avoiding this result, and that way is segregation of the native—the creation of the land in a chequered pattern of white and black areas. This is the policy to which General Smuts pins his hopes…

The idea is, wherever there are large bodies of natives, to assign to them definitive areas within which no white man may own land. The native, on his side, is to be forbidden to own land in white areas, though he is to be free to go and work for the white man. The races having been thus territorially separated, each is to live under its own political institutions…

A beginning has so far been made by the Natives’ Land act of 1913, a purely temporary measure designed chiefly to prevent speculation in land in anticipation of later legislation.

Sol Plaatje, ca. 1900 (From “Native Life in South Africa”)

That’s one take on the Natives Land Act. Another comes from black writer and activist Sol Plaatje, who wrote in the 1914 classic Native Life in South Africa that

Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.

Map showing areas allocated to black South Africans under the Natives Land Act of 1913

The Natives Land Act prevented South Africans from buying land in 93% of South Africa. It would also have disenfranchised non-white voters in the Cape, the only place where they had the right to vote (some of them, that is—there were education and property qualifications), but the courts struck that provision down. As far as the law’s “purely temporary” nature goes, its impact continues today: under post-apartheid land restitution legislation, South Africans have the right to claim land taken from their ancestors only after its passage.

Hoernlé calls the partition/self-determination scheme “promising in principle.” The challenge, he says, is to come up with a fairer division of land than the one proposed by a recent commission, which allocates South Africa’s five million black inhabitants a little over 12% of South Africa’s territory and reserves the rest to the 1,250,000 whites. (This was exactly the breakdown when the black “homelands” were created during apartheid.)

If the “natives” are treated justly, Hoernlé said, there is a path to peace. But he’s not hopeful.

At present, the eye that would pierce the future, sees the deepening shadow of the native problem creep slowly but surely over the sunny spaces of South Africa.

Me in Pretoria (in flowery sundress), December 1989

People often ask me if 1918 reminds me of our world today. For the most part it doesn’t, at least as far as the United States is concerned. There are similarities, of course, but a country where lynchings were commonplace and women couldn’t vote and want ads specified Christians only is, thankfully, not one I recognize. The South Africa Hoernlé describes, on the other hand, differs hardly at all from the country I arrived in as a young diplomat in 1988.

It would take over seven decades for the South Africa Mandela was born into to change fundamentally—decades during which he would grow up, become a lawyer, join the liberation struggle, spend 27 years in prison, and emerge to lead his people to freedom.

Earliest known photo of Nelson Mandela (back row, fifth from right), Healdtown Secondary School

*No offense! The baseline here is 13.

**That is, English vs. Afrikaner.

***“Everyone” meaning whites, of course. Black South Africans don’t have a say in this matter because…well, they don’t have the vote. (Mostly. We’ll get to that.)

****Jan Smuts was the Woodrow Wilson of South Africa, renowned statesman abroad and racist at home. He was considered a liberal in South Africa, which gives you an idea of why “liberal” remains a swear word among black South Africans today.