Private Charlie Some’s bloodied body was found on Road 45, a narrow logging road not far from the French-Swiss border. It was Monday, September 23, 1918 and the soldier with the unusual surname had gone missing the day before, on a warm afternoon. Some going missing wasn’t unusual, though.
The soldier had a habit of going absent without leave (AWOL) in his search for alcohol and, most likely, women in the nearby French villages. In less than two months, World WarI would be over.
But in a conflict where millions were blown to smithereens by explosives or cut down by machinegun fire, Some’s death was unusual. A post-mortem would reveal that he had been stabbed in the face, back and neck, and his throat slit with such force it severed his windpipe.
This wasn’t the work of a German soldier. Some had died at the hands of an ally. Just who murdered him is a mystery, but the likely motive was because he was black. There was something else unusual about Some. He wasn’t Canadian. He was a black South African and the story of how he ended up on Road 45 is a remarkable one.
Some was born in what was then the colony of Natal, in 1886. Canadian historian and associate professor Kirrily Freeman of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada, has for the past couple of years tried to piece together his life story.
She said he was the only black South African to serve in the Canadian army during World War I. When Freeman learnt of Some, she began using his story as a teaching tool for her students, to explain the different themes relating to that war.
“Then I got kind of captivated by him and his story, because it is very different from the regular Canadian World War I stories my students hear.” Some’s experience, Freeman said, tells the mostly forgotten story of those black volunteers who – despite facing deep racism – were motivated by community, patriotism, loyalty and pride to enlist.
But Freeman found tracking the South African’s life difficult. There are no records of when he left South Africa or entered Canada. She suspects the lack of evidence of his immigration might be a clue as to when he arrived. In 1911, Canadian authorities began preventing black people from entering the country. It was a policy that never became law, but by 1912, any black people entering Canada were doing so illegally.
Freeman also has a hunch as to what might have encouraged Some to embark on his transatlantic voyage. Conditions were becoming increasingly dire economically for black South Africans just prior to the outbreak of World War I.
In 1913, the Native Land Act was passed and it was to become the forebearer to the segregationist policies of apartheid. The act pushed large numbers of black South Africans off their land, forcing many to find work in the cities. Working conditions were becoming harsher.
Tens of thousands of young men were forced to find work in the mines, where they lived in prison-like conditions in compounds. What is known is that by January 1917, Some had settled in Africville, a black community just north of Halifax in Canada. He married a white woman called Gertrude and listed his occupation as labourer. “Once he was here, he kept under the radar. He is not in any Halifax city directory, he is not in the census or in any police records or hospital records,” said Freeman. In January 1917, Some enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
For the last 18 months of Some’s life, his story would be told through the terse prose of fading army reports. Some joined the No 2 Construction Battalion, a predominantly black unit of the expeditionary force. Like many “native” labour battalions in World War I, the soldiers in the No 2 unit could not bear arms.
They were placed behind the lines, where they performed tasks such as unloading ships or, in the case of the No 2 unit, cutting down trees for timber. Canada wasn’t the only allied nation to send labour battalions.
About 25 000 black South Africans were part of labour battalions sent to the Western Front, where strict segregation was enforced between white and black soldiers. Not long after joining the army, Some was to prove a troublesome soldier. A month after he enlisted, he forfeited two days’ pay for being drunk. A month later, he was confined to barracks after going AWOL.
In March 1917, Some embarked with the rest of the No 2 unit to Seaford in the UK for training. From there, his unit headed to France by boat, but without Some. He was left behind so he could be treated for syphilis.
Six months later, he was injured in an attack when he was hit on the head “by a man with a piece of iron”. By the end of May 1918, Some had rejoined his No 2 comrades at their camp in Jura, France. But even here, Some continued to rebel – or at least break military rules in his pursuit of the fleshpots of the French villages and cities. Within days of arriving at the camp,
Some was again AWOL. Then, on June 30, he disappeared again. He was arrested four days later at a train station in Lyon, 240km from his camp in Jura. A month later and Some again failed to return, after having been given a Sunday afternoon off. Freeman noticed a pattern to Some’s absences.
They all happened on a Sunday, when the weather was described as fine and warm and passes had been issued for soldiers to go to Champagnole, a village known for its prostitutes. Some veterans of the No 2 unit, Freeman points out, described being treated with respect by French civilians while others recalled prejudice.
On Sunday, September 22, Some went missing for the last time. His body was left on Road 45 for two days before being returned to the Canadian camp, where a post-mortem was performed.
The French authorities quickly arrested a colonial soldier for Some’s murder. He was Algerian Touhami Ben Mohammed Burkat and, from what Freeman found, the French suspected him of the killing because he was AWOL at the same time as Some. Burkat was tried by a French military court and sentenced to five years of hard labour. Freeman said they got the wrong man.
The documentation related to the murder investigation no longer exists, but “I am not convinced that the person who was convicted of the crime even did it, because it fits into this much broader pattern of racial violence at the same time.” Freeman found that there was a wave of racially motivated murders in France in 1917 and 1918. The perpetrators were French soldiers who targeted black colonial workers.
The motivation for these crimes was the resentment these French soldiers felt for the colonial workers, who they saw as having safe jobs away from the front lines and the fighting. Also, they believed these workers were stealing their women. Freeman said: “So it is men who are attacked at night, stabbed and left. And Charlie’s death fits this broader pattern.
”South African historian, professor of history and author Bill Nasson said racism may not have been the only motive. “It might have been a racial thing, but there was a lot of murdering going on towards the end of the war. The war was dragging on, people were getting disillusioned, supplies were getting short and soldiers were getting to the end of their tether.”
In death, Some’s trail goes cold. Freeman has exhausted all her leads in Canada and France. Even his wife, Gertrude, becomes a dead lead. She died in 1920 from tuberculosis and Freeman hasn’t been able to locate her family.
Now Freeman hopes Some’s homeland might hold clues as to who he was and what pushed him to cross an ocean to find a new life. It is going to be a difficult search. “It would be very difficult, but you would be able to do it if you had an authentic name,” says Nasson.
The surname Some doesn’t appear in telephone directories and his relatives are not on Facebook. Perhaps Charlie was using an alias, or Some was the invention of a government clerk who scribbled down his Anglicised take on what he thought the South African said his name was. But there could be leads.
For one, Some said in his army enlistment form that he was a Baptist. Maybe there are records of him in a Baptist church in South Africa. After a life that was defined by race and prejudice, it was in death that Some received the highest recognition as a soldier and a place among his white comrades.
A day after his post-mortem, Some was buried with full military honours. There was something else that Some was given, that not many other African soldiers who died in World War I received: a tombstone bearing his name.
Some was buried in the village of Supt in eastern France. He shares the corner of a churchyard cemetery with seven other Canadian soldiers, three black and four white. ¡ This article was first published by New Frame.
Joburg War memorial to be moved after years of vandalism
Ivan Hind made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, but now his name lies buried under a splash of red paint.
He is not the only one.
The names of other Joburgers who fell in World War I are also hidden, thanks to an act of vandalism to the Bezuidenhout Valley war memorial that sits in a small park just off Albertina Sisulu Road.
For years the memorial has suffered numerous acts of vandalism, but now it is set to be moved to nearby Bezuidenhout Park, a safer environment that the City of Johannesburg hopes will protect it from further damage.
Resident Richard Brooksbank, who highlighted the plight of the monument, said: “It has been a long process, but I’m happy the dignity of the memorial will be restored in the near future once the move has taken place.”
His actions resulted in media reports and a sense of urgency.
For years, concerned citizens who wanted to save the monument had been split between those who wanted to have the memorial relocated and those who felt it should stay where it was.
The head of immoveable heritage at the council, Eric Itzkin, said: “That desecration that happened with that red paint just confirmed in some people’s minds that the present location is just not sustainable.
“We had to look at public sites within Bez Valley which had the right qualities. The Bezuidenhout Park was the best option we had.”
Those who wanted to save the memorial believed it had to remain in Bezuidenhout Valley because it was erected to commemorate the men who had lived in the surrounding suburbs.
What will help is that money has been donated for the relocation.
Brendan Hart of Mayat Hart Architecture & Heritage has been tasked with moving the memorial.
Hart wants to tell the story of the Bezuidenhout Valley War Memorial’s hard journey through the Japanese concept of kintsugi.
This is a tradition in which a damaged object is repaired in a way in which its scars are not hidden, but highlighted to represent its experience through time.
The architects wrote in a presentation about the memorial: “The act of repairing and re-using as much of the existing memorial as possible can be seen as a way of honouring the community who originally built the memorial, preserving its materiality and original intent.
“It is a public memorial and, being a public memorial, it needs to be publicly accessible, so we have taken the stance that it would be unfenced, because it is important that people are able to interact with it. And this is a far safer environment.”
The architects have planned to construct a memorial wall at the park from where the memorial is being moved.
Jeanette Bensted-Smith, whose great-great uncle was Ivan Hind, is pleased with the move.
On Saturday, she was part of a heritage tour group that visited a number of war memorials on the eastern side of Johannesburg.
The group drove past the Bezuidenhout Valley war memorial and visited the site of its new home.
Bensted-Smith learnt of her great-great uncle only recently, when she found a box of photographs her father had kept.
Flight Commander Hind’s war story is told through those faded photographs and the information Bensted-Smith has gleaned from the archives.
Hind, who grew up on a plot to the east of Joburg, was a fighter ace who served in the Royal Flying Corps and later in the Royal Air Force.
One of the stories Bensted-Smith discovered about Hind’s heroism was how one night, while still dressed in his pyjamas, he climbed into his fighter plane, took off and shot down a German aircraft that was bombing his aerodrome.
He then went back to bed.
Hind was shot down and killed on August 12, 1918, just three months before the end of the war. He is buried in France.
Bensted-Smith believes that without a graveside his parents would have had only that memorial as a place to visit him and mourn.
“So by defacing this monument you are defacing a grave,” she said.