South African defence in the age of total war, 1900–1940

Van der Waag, Ian (2015-05)

CITATION: Van der Waag, I. 2015. South African defence in the age of total war, 1900–1940. Historia, 60(1):129-155, doi:10.17159/2309-8392/2015/v60n1a8.

The original publication is available at


Based largely on a study of official archives and private papers held in South Africa and the United Kingdom, this article sketches the political-strategic landscape on which the armed forces of South Africa operated between 1900 and 1940 and analyses the organisational and extraneous factors that affected their functioning and influenced their preparation during peacetime. It explores the doctrinal framework, including an assessment of the services' commitment to the problem of doctrine and of their rigour in drawing, learning and implementing the so-called "lessons" of the First World War. The South African reaction to the 'total war' experience of industrialised warfare is discussed and the attempts, apparently always feeble, by the South African state to adapt to the changing face of modern warfare are explained. It comes with little surprise that the Union Defence Force, after the experiences of the Western Front (1916-1918), was still so unprepared for European warfare in 1941.

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