Military Record of Harry William McCleland

I never knew my grandfather, Harry William McCleland, as he passed away in 1924, twenty-nine years before I was born. Harry William was attested into the Union Defence Force at Roberts Heights aka Voortrekkerhoogte at the age of 43. It was in all probability desperation which spurred him to be attested at such an advanced age. After failing twice at farming, once due to a flood in the Gamtoos Valley and then as a cattle farmer at Destades due to the rinderpest and then being declared insolvent, Harry had relocated his family of five children [at that stage] to Schoenmakerskop. Without an income and a family to support, joining the army was Harry’s solution to his financial woes.

Main picture: Harry William McCleland in army uniform

It is not only good things that come in threes but adversity and misfortune can also come in triples and so it was with Harry William. As nobody has a functioning crystal ball, Harry William was blithely unaware that his previous misfortunes were merely minor hardships in the journey of life. Luckily the crystal ball bore a factory defect, so Harry William was unable to divine the future. After his basic military training, which if my understanding of his military record is correct lasted roughly a month, he was attested on the 13th April 1916 at Robert’s Heights in Pretoria. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on the HMS Armadale in Durban on the following month. After being posted to the 9th South African Horse Regiment, he was shipped to German East Africa where the wily German general, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who despite leading a ragtag army of untrained local troops, was leading the Allied forces on a merry dance through the rugged terrain and impassable rivers.

HMS Armadale Castle
Kilindini Harbour in Mombasa, Kenya

Birth date and age on attesting for service

According to Churchouse’s book on the McCleland family, Harry’s birth date is given as 19th November 1867 yet on joining the army in 1916, his date of birth is given as the 19th November 1873, making him 6 years older at 49. Even the stated age of 43 was excessive, yet the military authorities accepted him for service. To me, this implies the level of desperation that Harry William felt.

Above: Harry William McCleland’s birth date per his Attestation Form is 6 years different from his actual birth date. Notice that when Harry started entering his birth date, he correctly entered the third digit of the year as 6 but then amended it to 7. Naughty boy!

Off to war

On the 28/5/1916, the passengers disembarked at Kilindini Harbour, a large, natural deep-water inlet extending inland from Mombasa, Kenya. The tropical heat must have been debilitating for the South Africans. Not habituated to the heat, their bodies would have swiftly been drained of fluids, dehydrating them. With their moisture-soaked clothes stained with salt deposits they would have had to endure the acclimatisation training. Being considerably older than his fellow troops, he would have battled to emulate them in training.

Log book of HMS Armadale Castle

In the Tanganyikan hinterland, the tropical weather and diseases assailed the men with most of the casualties being inflicted not by German bullets and shells, but by the deadly mosquitoes, ticks and fleas. When Harry William was infected with malaria and black water fever is not recorded in his military record. [DAH according to the records]. Blackwater fever is a complication of a malaria infection in which red blood cells burst in the bloodstream (haemolysis), releasing haemoglobin directly into the blood vessels and into the urine, frequently leading to kidney failure. The word black is derived from the fact that the urine of an infected person will be dark. What we do know is that Harry was diagnosed with these maladies at the Addington Hospital in Durban on the 12th December 1916. That implies that within the first six months in Tanganyika, he contracted these diseases. From Durban he was transferred to Cape Town where he disembarked from the HMS Briton on the 17th December 1916. This ship was originally the HMS Calypso, a steam and sail corvette, launched at Chatham on the 7th June 1883. On the 15th February 1916, it was renamed the HMS Briton and eventually sold on the 7th April 1922.

Exactly where Harry William was based after arrival in Cape Town is unknown but what is known is cryptically stated as “Leaving Potchefstroom” without other pertinent information such as the date and what his medical condition was. The record then states is that HWM would be demobilised at Wynberg on the 25th February 1917. I assume that by stating “demobilised” that he was merely relieved of military duties but not discharged from the army.

What is next known is that on the 1st April 1917, he was transferred to the SA Medical Services and that on the 26th April he would be reporting to the Deputy Director of Medical Services in Durban. This fact supports my previous assumption regarding the differentiation between demobilised and discharged. They are clearly animals of a different variety.

Having arrived in Durban on the 28th April, HWM was posted for duty to the Addington General Hospital on the 26th May 1917. Less than a month later, on the 1st June 1917, he was transferred to the nursing section. On the 26th November 1917, he was disciplined for “neglect of duties” for which he was admonished on the 7th December 1917. From Addington Hospital, Harry was transferred to the Native’s Hospital in Jacobs on the 1st November 1917

The final movements of HW McCleland are recorded as follows: on the 12 December 1917, he was at the No 3 General Hospital in Durban, on the 24th December 1917 at the No 4 Hospital at Robert’s Height and finally 14th January 1918 he was discharged as being “unfit for all types of military services.”

Life after military service

Like thousands of other Imperial troops in German East Africa, the effect of malaria infection was ultimately fatal. After his discharge from the military, Harry was unable to work. The burden of raising what was now six children, and to earn sufficient to sustain the family of eight was daunting. But Elizabeth Daisy McCleland rose to the challenge and opened a highly successful tearoom at Schoenmakerskop which, in its heyday, was the place to visit and to be seen. Even with this income, which was largely earned over weekends only, survival was a close-run thing.

Harry William never recovered. To assist her in nursing him, my grandmother, Elizabeth Daisy McCleland brought her daughter, Kathleen, home from boarding school in Alexandria. HW was in constant pain but he bore it with fortitude and uninamity. He languished in bed in excruciating agony for another 6 years, finally succumbing on the 13th June 1924 at the age of 57.

Summary of Harry William McCleland‘s Military Record


  • Trooper number: 4456
  • Date of birth: 19/11/1873
  • Place attested: Robert’s Heights
  • Date attested: 13/4/1916 at the age of 43
  • Unit posted to: 9th South African Horse
  • Area posted to: German East Africa
  • Date discharged: 25/2/1917
  • Reason for discharge: Unfit for all forms of military service
  • Distinguishing marks: Tattoo on left arm
  • War gratuity paid ID number: 24651


  • Embarked at Durban aboard HMS Armadale on 22/5/1916
  • Disembarked at Kilindini on 28/5/1916
  • Diagnosed on 12/12/1917 with malaria + DAH at the Addington Hospital
  • Transferred to the Natives Hospital at Jacobs
  • Disembark at Cape Town ex HMS Briton 17/12/16
  • On strength at General Depot Wynberg
  • Demobilised 25/2/17
  • On 26/11/1917 punished for neglect of duty for which he was admonished

Detailed Military Record

HW McCleland-Military Record Pg#01
HW McCleland-Military Record Pg#02
W McCleland-Military Record Pg#03
W McCleland-Military Record Pg#04
HW McCleland-Military Record Pg#05


Oral family history

Military Record from SANDF Documentation Centre in Pretoria

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