The War Diaries (1914-18) of Dr Charles Molteno ‘Kenah’ Murray

1: The Boer Rebellion in South Africa, 1914

2. The Invasion of German South West Africa, February — August 1915

3. North African Interlude, January —  April 1916

4. The Western Front, France, April 1916 — December 1917

5. The Western Front, France and Belgium, January — December 1918


Edited by Dr Robert Murray

Extracts selected and Endnotes by Robert Molteno




Dr Kenah Murray, First World War

World War One turned out to be, looking back on it, only the first of the shocking events people in the 20th century would encounter. Many more followed, including the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and Nazism, the Stalinist purges, World War Two, the Holocaust, the dropping of the first two atomic bombs, and the long sequence of the United States’ invasions and subversion of countries in Asia, Central America and the Middle East.

But World War One has gone down in popular memory for at least three things – the sheer scale of the millions and millions of deaths it caused; the way in which modern organization and technology combined to create warfare of a horror, scale and duration never before experienced; and the brutal stupidity of Europe’s imperial dynasties in getting involved in a process that set in train the end of Europe’s dominance vis-a-vis both the United States of America and the colonial peoples European powers had subjugated.

Charles Molteno Murray, who was always known in the family as Kenah, served in this War during four long years.  He was a medical doctor, the eldest son of Dr Charles Murray and Caroline Molteno, and practising as a GP in Cape Town at its outbreak. He volunteered for duty with the South African Medical Corps right away in 1914; he was 37 at the time. Throughout his time, during which he served on three very different fronts, he kept a meticulous record of his experiences.  They were written on loose-leaf pages and sent as letters to his wife. Later, they were later bound into leather-backed diaries. And eventually his grandson, Dr Robert I. Murray, transcribed them – which is how they have become available here.

Kenah’s first war experience was during the South African Government’s suppression of what came to be called the Boer Rebellion. In August 1914, the Union of South Africa, which had only been in existence for four  years, found itself automatically at war on the British side as a result of the Imperial Government’s declaration of war. There was neither a period of public discussion nor a decision by the South African Government itself. Little wonder that thousands of Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans who, only a dozen years before had been fighting to repel Britain’s invasion of the Boer Republics, took up arms to resist being drawn into a new war. The first chapter of South Africa’s involvement in the ‘Great War’, therefore, was responding to this rather disorganised outbreak of civil war at home.  It is worth noting that there were some 32,000 government troops at this time, of whom over half, 20,000, were Afrikaners. And it was two former Boer War leaders, Generals Botha and Smuts, who commanded them during the relatively short exercise to suppress the Rebellion.

The next task allocated to South Africa was to attack the German colony adjacent to it, German South West Africa. This campaign took half a year and involved landing on the coast and fighting the way up to the capital, Windhoek, and beyond. Kenah Murray was in the expeditionary force throughout. Perhaps surprisingly, given how tenaciously and efficiently German forces fought in so many other theatres of the war, they surrendered in South West Africa after only a few months of sporadic fighting. This, despite their considerable numbers and equipment.

South African troops were then shipped via Egypt to the Western Front. It was here in France (and Belgium) that Kenah worked as an Army doctor for two and a half years. Throughout the period, he continued to write his diary on an almost daily basis.  It is up to each of us, as we read it, to make up our own minds what kind of man Kenah was. For my part, I have been profoundly moved. His courage. His stoicism. His eschewing of any use of the diary to laud his own role. His unflinching refusal to romanticise war, or, in contrast, to be defeatist.  We see, instead, a clear-eyed account of what this war was like for the ordinary men who had to endure them.  His superb descriptive eye gives an unforgettable picture of life and death in the trenches on the Western Front.  And his independent-minded gaze does not shrink from noticing and commenting on the extraordinary mistakes that the British High Command indulged in – their refusal to take building trenches seriously in the way the Germans did in order to give some protection to their soldiers; their adherence to the idea of the cavalry being the instrument of choice for breaking through the German lines; their refusal to develop aerial bombers on the scale the Germans did.  And so on.

These Diaries make a significant contribution to the history of the First World War.  They tell a detailed story that is not well known of South Africa’s conquest of German South West Africa.  Equally interesting, they give a fascinating glimpse of a European colony in Africa as it existed a century ago, and indeed barely 30 years after it had first been imposed. And Kenah’s eye for countryside, his appreciation of landscape and its vegetation, animal and bird life, shine through. Reading it, I was struck how ecologists and climate scientists could also learn from his account.

Robert Molteno

August 2012



Contents List

Book 1: The Boer Rebellion in South Africa, November 1914 — February 1915 (pdf)

On Active Service

The Fight at Virginia near Kroonstad, Orange Free State

A busy time at the Tempe Military Hospital, Bloemfontein

What actually happened at Mushroom Valley

Morale among the Rebels

Realities of life on commando

Muddles and dilemmas in treating the wounded

General de Wet captured

General Beyers accidentally killed

To Pretoria on official business

Train to Upington to repel Maritz’s incursion from German South West Africa

Upington on the Orange River – the turning point

Maritz’s defeat

Desert heat

The Rebellion at an end; back to Cape Town


Book 2 — The Invasion of German South West Africa, February — August 1915

Walfish Bay: Landing an army — organised chaos

The Coast – fog, flamingos and flies

Along the coast to Swakopmund

Dust storm

Advancing across the desert to Haigemchab

Our first encounter with German troops

Desert landscapes

Mt. Langer Heinrich and Tinka’s Flats

My horse, Cato

The Germans in retreat

Stuck in Riet and making the best of it

Bird life

On the move at last

Dorstriviersmund – No more food; I start shooting for the pot

Karibib – General Botha’s handling of the German population

Some comments on the South African campaign

The first aeroplane

Kenah surprised at some of the goings on in the South Africa forces

German treatment of Black Namibians

Windhoek, the capital, at last

On to Omaruru – the veld improves

The Germans make their last stand

Looking back on the final stages of the campaign

Etosha Pan – a final bit of hunting

Korab near Tsumeb – inspecting the German position


Book 3 — North African Interlude, January — April 1916 (pdf)

The Mediterranean en route to Egypt

Camping in the desert outside Alexandria

Skirmish on the Tripoli (Libya) border

The Senussi of Benghazi – a potted history

The likely course of the War in the Middle East

On board ship again; destination France


Book 4 — The Western Front, France, April 1916 — December 1917   (pdf)

Arrival at Marseilles – disinfecting the regiments

Beauty of the French countryside in spring

Off to Northern France

First experiences of the front line

Battle of the Somme

Evacuating the wounded

Chaos of battle – Delville Wood

‘One continuous roar – one would think that no living thing could be left’

‘No more barbarous warfare could possibly have taken place’

‘This is not fighting, it is cold blooded murder’

What shell fire does

The battlefield

Under bombardment again – Arras

Another gigantic assault on the German lines

‘One continuous and might roar’

Kenah flies over the front line

The German High Command takes much better care of its men

Our Belgian Allies collapse militarily

In the wake of battle

Fighting in Belgium – new difficulties

The Battle of Ypres

Ypres – what happened

Superior German air power

Enduring – life on the front line

Being shelled day after day

Cavalry deployed – stupidity of the Higher Command

More stupid errors; more divisions flee


Book 5 — The Western Front, France and Belgium, January 1918 — December 1918 (pdf)

Winter in the trenches

Rumours of the impending German offensive

Mustard Gas

The Allied line buckles

Kenah’s views of the fighting qualities of English troops

German tactics

English units retreat wholesale

French and Colonial troops turn the tide

News of George Murray – badly wounded in the German offensive

George is dead

The onslaught renewed

The Allies turn the German offensive at last

Postscript: The circumstances of George Murray’s death

Editor’s Note to the Reader: Each of the 5 Books is a separate pdf and so may be printed separately. Each Book is also paginated separately; there is not a consolidated pagination running through the entire text.

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