In the early days of the Great War, the formerly separate British colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange River were united in the Union of South Africa, in support of the Allied war effort.
Public opinion was by no means, unanimous. “Afrikaners” were bitterly opposed to alliance with the British. The Jameson Raid and two Boer Wars were hard pills to swallow, and life-long friendships were cast asunder. As former Generals of the second Boer War, Prime Minister Louis Botha and Defense Minister Jan Smuts had once fought the British. Now, that was in the past. Like many, the two men dreamed of a unified South Africa.
Anti-British rebellion broke out on this day in 1914, but was quickly put down by loyalist South Africans. Before the war was over, some 136,000 of their countrymen would serve in the African, Middle East and Western Fronts of the Great War.
The story of World War 1 is intertwined with the history of rail. The mobilization of millions in a matter of weeks, would have been impossible without the railroads which moved them. WW1 could not have happened the way it did, without rail.
South African recruits traveled rails begun in 1859, when early construction worked its way inland from deep-water ports and harbors. James Edwin Wide came to work for the South African railroad, about twenty years later.
Co-workers on the Cape Town–Port Elizabeth Railway service called him “Jumper” for his fondness of jumping between railway cars. It was a regrettable habit, which would one day, cost him his legs.
After the accident, Wide’s railroad days seemed to be over. Then a signalman’s job opened up. Wide would work the Uitenhage train station twenty-three miles outside of Port Elizabeth, switching the tracks for oncoming trains.
Trains would toot their whistle a specified number of times, telling the signalman which tracks to change. The job suited him, pulling the levers is easy enough for a man with no legs. Not so much, the half-mile walk to work.
One day at an open-air market, the peg-legged signalman saw something that changed all that. It was a monkey, a Chacma baboon.
One of the largest of the “Old World” monkeys, a Chacma or “Cape” baboon is an intelligent animal. “Corporal Jackie” proved as much, during the “War to end all Wars”. This one was exceptionally so. This one was driving an oxcart.
Wide bought the animal and called him”Jack”, and taught him to pull his small trolley, up and down the line. Jack was a help around the house, sweeping the floors and taking out the trash. He figured out the train signal and the switch thing too. Soon, Jack was pulling on the levers, himself.
William Luff writes in The Railway Signal, that Wide “trained the baboon to such perfection that he was able to sit in his cabin stuffing birds, etc., while the animal, which was chained up outside, pulled all the levers and points.”
One day, a train passenger looked down and realized with horror, that a monkey was switching the tracks. (It must have been fun to be in the complaint department, when That one came in). Railroad managers were furious and could have fired signalman Wide, but decided to test his baboon, instead.
Railway superintendent George Howe came away, astounded. “Jack knows the signal whistle as well as I do, also every one of the levers…It was very touching to see his fondness for his master. As I drew near they were both sitting on the trolley. The baboon’s arms round his master’s neck, the other stroking Wide’s face.”
Jack passed with flying colors. Managers were so impressed they gave him the job, for real. “Signalman Jack” now had an employee number, and a salary of twenty cents per day, plus a half-bottle of beer, each week. It isn’t clear what a baboon did with the money, though one suspects it may have purchased more than a few peanuts.
Signalman Jack worked the rail until the day he died of tuberculosis, in 1890. A keyword search for railroad accidents between 1880 and ’89, the time-frame for this story, reveals a list of sixty-one serious incidents. In the nine years in which he was on the job, Signalman Jack made not one single mistake.
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