The unknown South African soldier in Canada’s WWI army

Charlie Some enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force ahead of World War I, after presumably fleeing South Africa in search of a better life. He ended up murdered in France instead.

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 23 September 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 the nearby French villages.

In less than two months, World War I would be over. But in a conflict where millions were blown to smithereens by explosives or cut down by machine-gun fire, Some’s death was unusual. A postmortem 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.

No records

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 says 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 says, 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 has found tracking the South African’s life incredibly 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.  

Dire conditions

Conditions were becoming increasingly dire economically for black South Africans just prior to the outbreak of World War I. In 1913, the Natives 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 on 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,” says Freeman.

Troublesome soldier

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 ran into trouble with the military authorities. 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 United Kingdom for training. From there, his unit headed to France by boat, but without Some. He was left behind so he could be treated for a medical condition.

Six months later, he was injured in an attack when he was hit on the head “by a man with a piece of iron”.  

AWOL in France

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 30 June, 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 nearby village.

Some veterans of the No. 2 unit, Freeman points out, described being treated with respect by French civilians while others recalled prejudice.

On Sunday 22 September, 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 postmortem was performed.  

Wrong man arrested?

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 absent without leave at the same time as Some. Burkat was tried by a French military court and sentenced to five years of hard labour.

Freeman says 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”, she says.

Freeman has 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.

Explains Freeman: “So it is men who are attacked at night, stabbed and left. And Charlie’s death fits this broader pattern.”

Alternative motives

South African historian, professor of history and author Bill Nasson says 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,” he explains.  

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.  

A tombstone in France

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 postmortem, 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.

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