Debunking the myth that the British invented the ‘concentration camp’

It’s an almost ingrained idea in South Africa that ‘concentration camps’ were invented by the British during the 2nd Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) and there is an equally ingrained idea in some circles in South Africa which holds that the Nazi holocaust styled concentration camp simply followed on the lead set by the British in South Africa.

However, both of these ingrained concepts are untrue – they are myths.

This is not to say the concentration camps did not happen, they did.  It’s also not to say the concentration camp system in South Africa visited death to a civilian population on an unacceptably large and traumatic scale – they did.  It’s also not to ‘Boer Bash’ by way of any sort of ‘deniability’, the Boer nation suffered greatly under the concentration camp policy – no doubt about that at all.

It is to say that historic perspective and facts need to come to the fore to debunk myths and in the ‘concentration camps’ legacy in South Africa there are certainly a couple of myths – and they arose because of political expediency and the cognitive bias generated by the National party’s ‘Christian Nationalism’ education policy over five very long decades – so they are strongly rooted and tough to challenge.

There are three basic myths at play surrounding the 2nd Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) concentration camps.

  1. That Concentration Camps first came into existence during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and the British invented them.
  2. That Hitler modelled the Nazi concentration camp system on the British system used in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.
  3. That it was the Boer women and children in South Africa who experienced the indignity and tragedy of a concentration camp system, with no thanks to the British.

That’s a lot to take in for someone with an ingrained belief, so let’s start with each of these myths:

Did the British invent the ‘Concentration Camp’?

The straight answer is; No.

750px-Flag_of_Spain_(1785–1873,_1875–1931)The actual term ‘concentration camp’ was invented by the Spanish (as campo de concentración or campo de reconcentración) in 1896 – three years before the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1904) started.  It originated during The Cuban War of Independence (Guerra de Independencia cubana, 1895–98) was the last of three liberation wars that Cuba fought against Spain.

A rebellion had broken out in Cuba, then a Spanish colony in 1895.  The rebels, outnumbered by Spanish government troops, turned to guerrilla warfare (and here another myth which says the Boer’s invented ‘guerrilla warfare’ is debunked).

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Colon Cemetery, Havana, Cuba, 1898

In response to guerilla warfare the Spanish commander Valeriano Weyler ordered the civilians of Cuba to be ‘concentrated’ in concentration camps under guard so they could not provide the rebels with food, supplies or new recruits.

Initial rebel military actions against the Spanish had been very successful and it forced Spain to re-think how to conduct the war.  The first thing they did was replace their commander on the ground in Cuba, Arsenio Martinez Campos, who had for all intents and purposes failed to pacify the Cuban rebellion.  The Conservative Spanish government of Antonio Canovas del Castillo sent Valeriano Weyler out to Cuba to replace him. This change in command met the approval of most Spaniards back home in Spain, who thought him the proper man to crush the rebellion.

Valeriano Weyler reacted to the rebels’ guerilla tactics successes by introducing terror methods: periodic executions, mass exile of residents, forced concentration of civilians in certain cities or areas and the destruction of their farms and crops. Weyler’s methods reached their height on October 21, 1896, when he ordered all countryside residents and their livestock to gather within eight days in various fortified areas and towns occupied by his troops.

Hundreds of thousands of people had to leave their homes and were subjected to appalling and inhumane conditions in the crowded towns and cities.

Civilians interned into these concentration camps were in a perilous situation as poor sanitation quickly lead to deadly disease and combined with the lack of food an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the civilian population subjected to these concentration camps died during the three years of warfare. 

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Patients in San Carlo Hospital, Matanzas, in the last stages of starvation

In the end 225,000 ‘non combatant’ Cuban civilians died in just 18 months between 1896 and 1897.  That is some number, nearly a quarter of a million Cubans, and its a stain of blood which sits with modern Spain and one for which there has been little by way of reparation or apologies.

It also means Spain holds the rather dishonourable mantle of inventing the concentration camp system and even the term itself, not the British.

Then was South Africa the 2nd place where Concentration Camps were used?

The straight answer is again – No.

1024px-Flag_of_the_United_States_(1896-1908)The second country to operate concentration camps was the United States of America in September 1899 in the Philippines.  At this point in the historic time-line the British had not yet engaged the ‘Concentration Camp’ system in its full-blown manifestation in South Africa (which started in earnest at the beginning of 1901).

By 1899, the United States of America had recently acquired the Philippines from Spain, only to be confronted by a rebellion by Filipinos who wanted independence rather than American rule. Known as the  Philippine–American War or the Tagalog Insurgency 1899 – 1902 (same timing as the 2nd Anglo-Boer war more or less).

The Filipinos turned to guerrilla warfare and in response the Americans copied the Spanish solution used in Cuba earlier.

In September 1899, American military strategy shifted to suppression of the resistance, in coordination with the future president, William Howard Taft, then the U.S. civil administrator of the islands changed course. Tactics now became focused on the control of key areas with ‘Internment’ and ‘segregation’ of the civilian population in “zones of protection” from the guerrilla population which became defined as ‘concentration camps’.

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Government issuing rice to civilians in a Bauan concentration camp

Concentration camps were set up on the islands of Marinduque and Mindanao, and civilians from rebel-sympathising districts were forced to reside there. As in Cuba, the death rate in these concentration camps from disease was horrendous.

These “reconcentrados,” or concentration camps, were crowded and filled with disease; as the frustrations of guerrilla warfare grew, many U.S. fighters resorted to brutal retaliatory measures, one U.S. camp commandant referred to the concentration camps as the “suburbs of hell.”

The U.S. State Department estimates that around 20,000 Filipino and 4,000 U.S. combatants died in the fighting in the Philippines, and as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died as a result of violence, famine and disease, with most losses attributable to cholera.  Stanley Karnow observers that the American treatment of Filipino citizens “as cruel as any conflict in the annals of imperialism.”

The concentration camps policy was highly effective to the American War effort , As historian John M. Gates noted, “the policy kept the guerillas off-balance, short of supplies and in continuous flight from the U.S. army,  As a result many guerrilla bands, suffering from sickness, hunger and decreasing popular support, lost their will to fight.” America had won, but at what cost?

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A concentration camp in Tanauan, Batangas

As with the Spanish in Cuba, the United States of America generally also does not view their use of concentration camps as a crime against humanity, but rather as an extreme measure to stop ‘guerrilla warfare’ by cutting off the civilian support of the guerrilla fighters.

So, no apology from the United States for their status as the second country to use a concentration camp system, it also is not the last time they would use a ‘concentration camp’ system – they would use it again during the Vietnam War (more of that later).

Then was South Africa the 3rd place where Concentration Camps were used?

This time, sadly – the straight answer is – Yes.

1280px-Flag_of_the_United_KingdomThe third country to set up concentration camps was Britain, but they did not initially call them concentration camps, they called them ‘Government Laagers” and ‘Refugee Camps’.

The reasons were similar to that of Spain in Cuba and the USA in the Philippines; Britain was at war with the two Boer Republics of South Africa, which had turned to guerrilla warfare once their conventional field armies were defeated.  This stage is known as ‘Stage 3’ – The Guerrilla Phase of the South African War 1899-1902.

Stage 1 (Boer Success) and Stage 2 (British Response) end the ‘Conventional Phase’ of the war in late 1900 with the capture of Pretoria – Stage 3 – the Guerrilla Phase starts in earnest from the start of 1901 and lasts a year and a half ending May 1902.

The decision taken by the British was to hasten the end of the Guerrilla Phase, in essence the policy was to concentrate civilians located in conflict zones into government run camps (concentration camps) and destroy stock, crops, implements and farm buildings so the Boer guerrilla forces would run out of supplies and their support network would be crushed. As with the two previous situations perpetuated by Spain and the USA before, these British camps soon became rife with disease and thousands of people died, mostly from measles, pneumonia, typhoid and dysentery.

Why do the British refer to their ‘Concentration Camps’ as ‘Refugee Camps’ when they are clearly not?

The reason for the British sticking to the use of the term ‘Refugee Camps’ instead of ‘Concentration Camps’ is because these camps in South Africa actually started out as ‘refugee camps’: The first two of these camps (refugee camps) were established by the British to house the families of burghers who had surrendered voluntarily.

On the 22nd September 1900, Major-Gen J.G. Maxwell signalled that “… camps for burghers who voluntarily surrender are being formed at Pretoria and Bloemfontein.” As result of this military notice the first two ‘refugee’ camps were indeed established at Pretoria and Bloemfontein respectively.

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Imperial War Museum caption “A refugee Boer family, the wife in traditional black and white costume, surrounded by their possessions, at a railway station”.

The aim outlined by the British for these two refugee camps was supposedly to protect those families of Boers who had surrendered voluntarily. A proclamation was even issued by Lord Kitchener by 20th December 1900 which states that all burghers surrendering voluntarily, will be allowed to live with their families in ‘Government Laagers’ until the end of the war and their stock and property will be respected and paid for.

But (and its a big BUT), by 21st December 1900 (the very next day) Lord Kitchener comes up with a different intention completely, and this one does not the safe-keeping of people, property and stock in mind. In a stated  memorandum to general officers Lord Kitchener outlined the advantages of interning all women, children and men unfit for military services, also Blacks living on Boer farms, as this will be;

“the most effective method of limiting the endurance of the guerrillas … The women and children brought in should be divided in two categories, viz.: 1st. Refugees, and the families of Neutrals, non-combatants, and surrendered Burghers. 2nd. Those whose husbands, fathers and sons are on Commando. The preference in accommodation, etc. should of course be given to the first class. With regard to Natives, it is not intended to clear (Native) locations, but only such and their stock as are on Boer farms.”.

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A group of Boer children with a native African woman at a ‘refugee’ camp. Imperial War Museum image.

With that memorandum now writ, effectively by January 1901, the camps stopped becoming ‘Refugee Camps’ and became ‘Concentration Camps’ governed by forced removal, in effect – displacement camps of civilians forcibly removed from their farmsteads.

The British, for the sake of politically sanitizing this policy from a public opinion perspective, continued to call these camps as ‘Refugee Camps’ and in many circles in the United Kingdom they are still referred as such even today, a good example of this is the Imperial War Museum – when they any publish picture showing Boer families being rounded up on their way to a concentration camp they are almost always (and incorrectly) tagged as ‘refugees’ in the caption.

So how is it that Nazi German Concentration Camps are linked to the ‘British’ Concentration Camps?

2000px-Flag_of_the_German_Reich_(1935–1945)The answer is simply, because of Hermann Göring.

During a press interview Hermann Goring (the then spokesperson on behalf of Adolph Hitler), served to deflect a challenge from a British ambassador who protested about the Nazi concentration camps, and by using a ‘press stunt’ when he dramatically sprung up and quoted from a reference book that the British invented them in the first place (when in fact this is factually incorrect) and it just served as a skillful stroke of political deflection of which Hermann Göring was a past master.

Why a deflection? Because the German ‘Concentration Camps’ were fundamentally different from those initiated by the Spanish, and then the Americans and finally the British, their camps were all tactical responses to guerrilla warfare, whereas the Nazi ‘concentration camps’ started out for camps for political dissent in opposition to National Socialism (Nazism) as ‘re-education’ camps, as a central theme to them.

Socialist systems driven on nationalist lines, whether German Nazi or Russian/Chinese Communism all have in them this phenomenon to re-educate (and if necessary exterminate) anyone in their society not conforming to their idea of the ‘social hive’ or ‘community’.  The Soviet system of ‘Gulag’ re-education camps are no different to the early German Nazi concentration camps in their purpose (and as deadly).

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German Nazi Concentration Camp for Political Prisioners

That the German ‘concentration camps’ later evolved into systematic pre-meditated murder with the idea of exterminating entire populations of specific races to solve an ideological problem, and it is an entirely different objective to those objectives behind the British concentration camps in South Africa.

In Nazi Germany and their occupied countries the ‘concentration camp’ evolved into the ‘extermination camp’ for people following the Jewish faith – primarily but not exclusive to Jews – the system also included other people not deemed Aryan enough within the confines of Nazi philosophy or conformist enough to their idea of socialism – gypsies (travellers), free-masons, homosexuals, communists and even the mentally ill all found themselves on the wrong side of Nazism.

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Auschwitz concentration camp for the extermination of Jews and other Nazi undesirables.

But, for some reason, certainly in some circles in South Africa, Hermann Göring’s master class in deflecting a press junket is held up as Gospel, now, in the hindsight of history who would really believe anything Hermann Göring came up with?

What’s the big difference between a Nazi concentration camp and a British concentration camp?

The fundamental differences between a Nazi concentration camp (re-education/extermination camp) and a British concentration camp (forced removal/refugee camp) are massive.

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Himmler’s report to Hitler detailing the executions of civilian prisoners – especially Jews.

For starters, unlike Nazi Germany, there is no historical document or any supporting record that the British embarked on the extermination of the Boer nation using systematic pre-meditated murder.  Not one document or letter whatsoever, whereas in the case of Nazi extermination camps there is an entire undeniable record of premeditated murder.

Secondly, the concentration camps in South Africa were isolated and relatively unguarded, mostly unfenced and they were relatively porous affairs where people came in and out and aid workers came in and out – very different to the Nazi German idea of lining people up on a train platform under armed escort without a suitable aid worker in sight and marching them straight into gas chambers and/or mass graves in their tens of thousands.

The fundamental difference however is in the core thinking behind the military objective requiring concentration camps, for the British the military objective was to bring a quick end to a guerrilla campaign initiated in the final phase of the South African war, They did this by rounding up civilians in support of Boer guerrillas, placing them into camps and cutting off these ‘commando’ guerilla groups from their supply of food, feed, ammunition and recruits.

On the other hand, the objective of the German concentration camps of WW2 was not to put an end to any form of guerrilla warfare whatsoever, it was to systematic exploit and exterminate entire populations along ideological lines of race superiority.

What is common in respect of both forms of concentration camp is that many people died, and in both respects that single act qualifies a tragedy and a failure of the human condition.

Did the deaths in the camps come about because of a hatred for the Boer race?

The answer simply to this question is – No.

The argument that the British concentration camps were designed to systematically wipe the Boer population from the planet by way of extermination because of race hate for Boers falls apart when you consider the British did not target only the ‘Boers’ for deportation to concentration camps.

The truth is the British targeted everybody who they perceived to be involved in the supply of horse feed, ammunition, weapons and food to guerrilla Boer commandos.  This included Black Africans in addition to the Boers themselves.

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Medical inspection inside a Black concentration camp as administered by the Native Refugee Department. Orange Free State, 1901. Photo research by Dr Garth Benneyworth.

The unfortunate truth that central to the concept of concentration camps to South Africa is simply railway supply.

When the British marched into Pretoria, raising the union jack in victory of the conventional war – they found themselves stretched deep into ‘hostile’ territory with extended and vulnerable supply lines stretching over hundreds of kilometres.

On losing their capital cities, the Boer strategy switched and they moved their government ‘into the field’ to embark on a ‘Guerrilla Warfare’ phase – with the intention to disrupt supply to the British now based in Bloemfontein and Pretoria and isolate the British into pockets (mainly along the railway lines).

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To do this they would need food, ammunition and feed supplied directly from their own farmsteads or supporters surrounding their chosen targets. The relatively easy targets were trains and train lines (due to isolation and expanse), and after many a locomotive steamed into Pretoria riddled with bullet holes or didn’t make it all, Lord Kitchener got fed up at the arrogance of Boer resistance after the war had been effectively ‘won’ in his eyes and he acted decisively.

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Locomotive No. 99 “KOMAAS” destroyed by the Boers near Middelburg.

Kitchener concentrated on restricting the freedom of movement of the Boer commandos and depriving them of local support. The railway lines and supply routes were critical, so he established 8000 fortified blockhouses along them and subdivided the land surrounding each of them into a protective radius.

Wherever and whenever an attack took place, or where sufficient threat existed to this system, Kitchener took to the policy of depopulating the radius area, burning down the farmsteads, killing the livestock and moving all the people – both Black and White (it mattered not to the British what colour they were) into their ‘Government Laagers’ which were in effect – concentration camps.

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British burning of Boer farmsteads as a tactic to cut the supplies to and support of Boer Commando’s food, feed, recruits and ammunition.

Two different systems of concentration camps existed in South Africa, one specifically for Blacks only and one mainly for Whites (these also contained Black servants and staff to Boer families).  Both were run very differently.  The outcome was however tragically the same for both. Disease, mainly water-bourne ones took hold and in the Boer civilian’s camps the official death toll is 26 370 people, whereas in the Black camps it is estimated that 20,000 people died (the official records here were not accurately kept by the British – as they were in the Boer camps).

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African women in a Black concentration camp in Klerksdorp,

For a deeper history on the Black concentration camps of The South African War (1899 – 1902) click on this link; To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

Another point to consider as to the tragedy of the British Concentration camps in South Africa, is that some of the British staff working in the camps died from the same diseases that the killed Boer inhabitants of these camps – a sure sign of poor management and lack of proper medical understanding, medicine and aid –  rather than a premeditated intention to murder.  The sad truth here, disease is indiscriminate.

Did we learn the lesson not to use concentration camps again?

The answer to that sadly is … No.

As said earlier, the Spanish and the Americans found the Concentration Camp system highly effective in bringing guerrilla warfare to an end – a grisly, painful, barbaric end yes, but and end none the same.  The British, rather sadly found the same – that despite the unacceptable damage to a civilian population, the tactic of concentration camps proved very succesful in bringing about a prompt end to what was proving to be a protracted war with an equally protracted affair of all round misery to civilian and combatant alike.

But at what price?  Such a tactic of rounding up civilian groupings and containing them so they cannot supply guerrilla fighters in the field has time and again brought unacceptable death rates to civilians – along with fundamental setbacks in a culture or population’s wellbeing and evolution.  The consequences of concentration camps, whether they are culturally, politically, economically or emotionally considered are far-reaching, highly negative and very deep.

Which brings us back to the United States of America, the second country to use a concentration camp system at the end of the 1800’s, because they were back at it again as late as the 1960’s – not even forty years ago – during the Vietnam War.

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US troops Burning villages in Vietnam

In Vietnam they would engage exactly the same system – create ‘firebases’ in ‘protected zones, whenever there was a ‘flashpoint’ of guerrilla activity they would starve the guerrillas of their means to fight by cutting off  their supplies (food and weapons), and they would do this by burning suspected villages and homesteads to the ground and moving all the affected civilian population into government-run ‘Strategic Hamlet’ camps – concentration camps in effect.

The only saving grace in all of this is that by the mid 1960’s medicine had moved on and diseases which had killed civilians in their droves in concentration camps at the end of the 1800’s could now be easily cured and even stopped in the 1960’s – as simply put better medical understanding, vaccination, antibiotics and penicillin had all come a long way by the end of the 1960’s – so too had government agencies handling civilian affairs during wartime.

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Villages in a ‘Strategic Hamlet’ – Vietnam War

So instead of getting any form of admission to running ‘concentration camps’ and wholesale displacement and civilian death in the Philippines and even later in Vietnam – what we get from modern-day America are bland, soulless American military definitions outlining incidents when they the accidentally kill a bunch of citizens – and they now call it unavoidable “collateral damage.”

From a military strategic and tactical perspective, in many respects, the techniques used by the Americans for fighting ‘guerrilla warfare’ in the Vietnam War during the 1960’s and early 1970’s is almost no different to the techniques used by the British fighting the same type of guerrilla warfare in 1901 and early 1902.  The Americans built ‘fire-bases’ to protect strategic points and fan out from to find Vietcong guerrillas, the British built ‘blockhouses’ next to protected strategic points and fanned out to find Boer guerrillas. The Americans rounded up Vietnamese civilians around flashpoints and burnt the farmsteads … the British did the same and burnt the farmsteads.  During the Vietnam War the Americans and their proxy state ran camps for displaced civilians under the strange alias of ‘The Strategic Hamlet Program’ – in effect concentration camps, the British ran camps for displaced civilians under the strange alias of ‘Government Laagers’ – in effect also concentration camps.

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Vietnam War ‘Strategic Hamlet’ – note the containment and defensive perimeter

So what’s the difference?  It’s the concept of ‘Total War’ that has blurred the lines, it starts to become almost impossible to separate the idea of combatants and non combatants from soldier and civilian – when civilians aid the soldiers by maintaining their combat readiness.  The ANC used the same excuse to bomb Southern Cross Aid offices, a civilian charity supplying the SADF with gift aid and the SADF even used the same excuse when a whole bunch of civilians came into the cross-fire at Cassinga in Angola during the Angolan Border War.

In conclusion

The impact of the British concentration camp policy in South Africa is far-reaching, deeply traumatic and still has bearing today as it’s an issue that requires national healing and international recognition.  It is not a light matter.  However, we have to be true to pursuing the facts and discarding the propaganda and politically motivated miss-truths.

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Boer women and children in a British Concentration Camp

So, we stand by the myth now debunked – the British did not invent the ‘concentration camp’, and certainly not the ‘concentration camp’ as we have come to know the system employed by the Nazis.

History however does show us that a policy to counter-act Guerrilla Warfare by herding civilians into concentration camps is generally a very bad idea from a purely humanitarian perspective, nothing of any good has come from it, its morally corrupt and the British (like the Americans and the Spanish before them) are complicit and guilty of using this policy, and it is to their eternal shame.

As to guerrilla warfare bringing on ‘total war’ and the consequences thereof it’s an American General, William Tecumseh Sherman whose comment rings so tragically true in this respect

“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueller it is, the sooner it will be over”. 


Written by Peter Dickens

Related work and links

The Black Concentration Camps of the Boer War; To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

Emily Hobhouse; I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!

With sincere thanks to Tinus Le Roux for all the Boer War colourised images used in the article.  References include The Spanish Reconcentration Policy by PBS. The U.S. Army and Irregular Warfare by John M. Gates. Imperial War Museum.

 

A road to democracy called ‘the egg’!

800x450Colin Eglin, the long-time anti-apartheid campaigner and long-time leader of the opposition Democrats in South Africa has recently had a road named after him … but so what! Many streets and roads are named after various politicians in South Africa, especially the anti-apartheid campaigners in recent times … however, this one is different, very different.

Why? Because Colin Eglin Road is not in South Africa, it’s in Italy.

Most modern South Africans who can even recall him, just know him as part of the last vestige of ‘white liberals’ in a ‘whites only’ Parliament trying to hold the juggernaut of the National Party and its Apartheid policy to account.  A tiny voice calling for full democracy in a sea of National Party (NP) rural ‘afrikaner-bloc’ gerrymandering which overtook him and pushed the ‘official opposition’ i.e. the PFP (now the DA) and the more liberal ‘english-bloc’ urban voters calling for an end to Apartheid into complete political irrelevance.

Note – this gerrymandering (the weighting and re-drawing of constituency boundaries to create a favourable political bias) which the NP used to destroy Colin Eglin and the PFP using the ‘rural bias’ is now happily used by the ANC and this last significant footprint of Apartheid has been put to good effect keeping the DA’s ‘urban’ vote ineffectual.

So, gerrymandering has resulted in well-regarded South African politicians been side-lined – what it did to the ‘democrat’ opposition bench then, it also does to them now. You may now even have to ask ‘Who is Colin Eglin anyway?’ and  how is it that Colin Eglin became so revered that the Italians have named one of their roads after him?

That bit has a lot to do with Colin Eglin’s status as a military veteran and his tireless campaigning for South African military veteran recognition and the causes they fought so hard for in the mountains of Italy.

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Now, who even knew Colin Eglin was a 2nd World War veteran? Let’s examine what drove this most complex war veteran turned political campaigner.

Background 

Colin Wells Eglin was born on 14th April 1925 in Sea Point, Cape Town, at a young age he moved to live with his aunt, outside Hobhouse, Eastern Free State when his father died after a long illness. Colin attended the Hobhouse School where he was the only English–speaking  pupil – “I found myself the only rooinek (red neck, or English-speaker) in the village school.” he later lamented and he very quickly came to learn of the ‘Afrikaner politics’ and tension between the National Party supporters of DF Malan and those of Barry Hertzog – politics which began to deeply affect him. It also him the rare advantage of being fully fluent in both English and Afrikaans.

Colin was a bright and highly intelligent pupil and he left the Orange Free State and attended the De Villiers Graaf High School in Villiersdorp where he matriculated in 1939 at the very young age for a matriculant – only 14 years old.

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Colin Eglin during WW2

South Africa had gone to war when Colin matriculated, at 14 years old he was too young to join the army, so in 1940 (now aged just 15) Colin Eglin registered for a Bachelor of Science degree in quantity surveying at the University of Cape Town (UCT). In 1943, now finally at the recruitment age of 18 he interrupted his studies at UCT to fulfil Jan Smuts’ call to go to war, and he voluntarily joined the army.

World War 2

Colin initially became a full-time instructor in the anti-aircraft unit in Cape Town. He was then sent to a similar unit in Egypt and transferred to Italy in 1944 joining the 6th South African Armoured Division fighting in the Italian Apennines around Florence. Now a 19-year-old ‘rookie’ soldier, he was to be baptised in the last significant combat operations of the war and was front and forward in the South African assault on Monte Sole.

Colin Eglin had joined ‘D Company’ of an amalgamated Cape Town Highlanders (CTH) and First City (FC) from Grahamstown unit which had formed a combined regiment for service in the 6th South African Armoured Division.

The Cape Town Highlanders (CTH) and First City (FC), known collectively as ‘FC/CTH’ had just previously acquitted themselves very well under the command of Lt Col. Angus Duncan in the taking of Monte Stanco from strong German positions and at this stage the war had entered a static winter period before the next big push onto Monte Sole.

As Colin had completed four years university study at UCT in quantity surveying it was felt that he had sufficient qualification for ‘Battlefield Intelligence’ and he was put on a course to become ‘D’ Company’s intelligence corporal (the military –  then and now  – often displays this odd logic for placing individuals civilian qualifications for military needs).

Colin was taken to the ‘Pink House’ near Grizzana, a farm building that was also the operational HQ of ‘C’ Company for a crash course of two weeks training in ‘Battlefield Intelligence’ and then back to D Company.

‘D’ Company had its headquarters in a cluster of farmhouses, named the ‘Foxhole’, on the slopes of the mountain overlooking Grizzana.  As it was in the line of fire of enemy positions, ‘Foxhole’ was a tough, cold and miserable posting. Colin found himself in a forward observation post (OP) located at the cemetery at Campiaro.  The OP overlooked the town of Vergato which was the centre of the German defences in the area.

In the freezing weather, snow and mud guard duty and patrols by D company in the area were a miserable affair.  Patrols were sent out at night, and they almost always hit fierce and lethal contacts with the German defenders.  In these patrols and observations Cpl Colin Elgin became adept at map reading and at recognising, and noting, the sounds and sights of warfare.

Much needed ‘Rest and Recuperation’ (R&R) came around every two weeks when ‘D Company’ members would go to nearby Castiglione dei Pepoli,  the South African 6th Division HQ was located there and they could shower, get fresh supplies and spend some time relaxing.  Known to the South African soldiers as ‘Castig’ the town of Castiglione dei Pepoli was to become a central feature in Colin Eglin’s life for years to come.

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The South African 6th Division in the town square of Castiglione dei Pepoli – 1945.

In the valleys around Monte Sole, between the 29th September and 5 October 1944 the Italian resistance kicked into action, this then spurred the defending German forces into an extreme action to control the area.  They embarked on massacre, and proceeded to try to wipe out all Italian civilians around Monte Sole – resistance, men, women and children (all of them – it mattered not a jot).  The town of Marzabotto alone commemorates the massacre of 770 individuals, mostly the elderly, women and children.

With the static winter period over, by the spring of 1945 the South African 6th Division could advance on Monte Sole.  In April 1945 Colin Eglin joined a CTH/FC forward party for a briefing on the assault on Monte Sole by Colonel Angus Duncan.

Colin noted “In a few weeks’ time the Allied spring offensive would commence. The Sixth Armoured Division had been given the task of opening the road to Bologna. To do this, the Twelfth Brigade would have to capture the mountain massif formed by Monte Sole, Caprara and Abelle. The Highlanders had been assigned to capture Monte Sole. Suddenly that mountain we had gazed at all winter from a safe distance was in front of us. Forbidding, frightening, challenging. Casualties were likely to be heavy. Yet there was a sense of pride that our regiment had been chosen for this pivotal battle task, and quiet determination to show we could do it”.

The South African 6th Division attack in Spring 1945 was a two-pronged affair, the Cape Town Highlanders and First City (FC/CTH) were to take Monte Sole – regarded as  the most formidable of the German Army defences, and Witwatersrand Rifles/Regiment de la Rey (another amalgamated unit) i.e. WR/DLR were to take Monte Caprara.  The idea was to eventually push through and capture the crossings of the River Po and break out into the vallies and plains beyond the mountains.

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Looking more like partisans than regulars, a First City/Cape Town Highlanders patrol sets out in the italian Apennines – 1945. SANDF Archive

To prepare for the attack on 15th April 1945, the German defensive positions were bombed from the air and shelled by artillery.  In taking Caprara, the WR/DLR suffered heavy casualties right from the start and in desperate fighting which at time even involved hand-to-hand combat, they took the mountain. Counter-attacks by German forces were effectively fought off by the South African tenaciously holding on to their win.

Colin Eglin was assembled at the start-line for FC/CTH attack on Monte Sole at Casa Belvedere (two kilometers from the peak of Monte Sole).  He had just celebrated his 20th birthday the day before.

Both ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies of FC/CTH advanced along two farm tracks leading up to the summit on Monte Sole.  They re-assembled 800 meters from the crest of Monte Sole.  The area was heavily mined by Germans, but despite this the South Africans of C and D company advanced under the command a 20-year-old rookie officer with only 12 days front line combat exposure.  2nd Lt. Gordon Mollett led the charge up the approach with only five men and ‘with total disregard for his life’ wiped out the machine gun posts on the crest of Monte Sole with the loss of one of his men.

So swift was the assault on the German’s position that they were completely unprepared for proper defence or the bayonet charge, and with that 2nd Lt Mollett walked into South African history with a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) for his actions and the rest of C and D companies of the FC/CTH took the crest and won the day.

Preceding the final attack on Monte Sole, Colin Eglin had been tasked to install telephone lines as far up the route as possible.  Highly dangerous work, on his way up to Monte Sole the soldier walking just behind him stood on a German anti-personnel Schützenmine 42 mine.  Also known as a Schuh mine (shoe mine) it is a simple wooden box with a hinged lid containing a 200-gram block of cast TNT and a ZZ-42 type detonator, and it blew off part of the South African soldiers foot.

Colin applied an emergency field dressing to his wounded comrades foot, administered first aid and called for a stretcher-bearer. Even with the threat of mines now highly apparent Colin and couple of ‘D’ Company platoons continued to press forward to the summit. Colin was able to get to the top and rigged up his field radio under fire, only to have its aerial cut in two by all the shrapnel and bullets flying around, thus rendering it useless.  So he scrambled down the mountain to the HQ, it was here that he took in the news of the tragic death of his Commander – Lt Col Angus Duncan.  He was killed the foot of Monte Sole when his jeep was blown up.

It is thought that the jeep carrying Lt. Col Duncan hit a mine, while other witness accounts suggest an artillery round fired from a German 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun across the valley hit the vehicle.

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Officer Commanding First City/Cape Town Highlanders, Lt Col Angus Duncan, addressing his men before the assault on Monte Sole. He was killed shortly after this photograph was taken, while driving to his brigade’s position.  SANDF Archive

Many years later in Peter Elliott’s interview with Colin Eglin (then Colin was 88 years old and this was his last visit to Italy), whilst the two of them re-traced the steps of FC/CTH at Monte Sole, Colin recalled how the strain of war impacted two completely different soldiers and comrades, Jan and Peter.  Jan was a tough outdoors man, an extrovert and he relished army life prior to the battle. Peter was a indoors man, an introvert who just endured army life out of a sense of duty. During the battle for Monte Sole it was Jan, the extrovert whose nerves snapped, and he had to be withdrawn from battlefield. Colin found Peter, the introvert some time later still in his slit trench.  He had been under intense mortar fire during a number of German counter-attacks, but remained resolute.  He was exhausted but even cheerful and shouted across at Colin triumphantly, ‘Corporal, we made it!’

Even though the taking of the crest had been swift, the Battle for Monte Sole was heavy and hard going, in all FC/CTH suffered heavy losses – a total of 31 men killed and 78 men wounded. The extent of contribution of the two Regiments to the battle and victory can be seen in the bravery – in all twelve gallantry medals and awards were won.

The capture of Monte Sole by FC/CTH opened up the road to Bologna and beyond the Po Valley, within two short weeks on 2 May 1945, the Germans formally surrendered in Italy.  For the South Africans it was effectively war over!

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‘D’ Company FC/CTH HQ Melzo, Italy, a week after war ended in May 1945. Colin Eglin is fourth from right, back row.

But a new struggle was emerging for these newly minted war veterans, certainly for Colin Eglin. After the War Colin remained in Italy for nine months, he was stationed at Castiglione dei Pepoli, the town located near Monte Sole remained the South African 6th Armoured Division’s headquarters and it now became a depot and clearing station for the entire division (in fact the main South African military burial ground in Italy is located there).  During this period, whilst waiting to be demobilised he undertook extra-mural courses in Archaeology and Town Planning.

The entire event had made an indelible impression on Colin’s soul, it was the Italian Campaign that was to deepen his commitment to democracy and liberty. Monte Sole was a shrine for him as he returned there on many occasions during the next sixty-eight years to stand gazing at the mountain where, as a young man, he quickly became an adult. During these trips he was also to build a lasting relationship with the towns-people of Castiglione dei Pepoli.

A military veteran’s legacy

In his autobiography, “Crossing the Borders of Power – The Memoirs of Colin Eglin,” Colin mentions the discussions that took place among the South African soldiers in 1945, whilst in Italy waiting to be repatriated to South Africa. Colin noted:

“The dominant view was that there should be a memorial, but that this should be a ‘living’ one that served the community, not merely a monumental structure. The servicemen, in overwhelming numbers, volunteered to donate two days’ pay towards what was to become the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.”

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For more on the Red Cross War Memorial Children Hospital follow this link to the related Observation Post; A war memorial in Cape Town which saves children’s lives

The children’s hospital was to be built as a memorial to those who had contributed by sacrifice, suffering and service in the Second World War, the soldiers felt that children had been the innocent victims of the war and the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital was devoted to the relief of the suffering of children.

The building of the Children’s Hospital in Cape Town commenced in 1953 under the guidance of the South African Red Cross Society and remains a ‘living war memorial’ helping the most vulnerable of the community – our children – and Colin Eglin was to play a leading role in making it happen.

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Colin Eglin speaking at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town on Remembrance Day

During his life-time Colin returned to the Italian Apennines and Castiglione dei Pepoli over ten times. For his work on Remembrance and maintaining the links of this part of Italy with their liberators – South Africa – he was even made an honorary citizen of the town of Grizzana Morandi.

But why was an opposition party leader elevated to such a significant position in Italy and not a government one?  We all know the answer to that, as the Nationalist Party had no really sincere intentions on commemorating South Africa’s war against Nazism and Fascism in Italy, before and during the war they had supported the ideals of Nazism and Fascism.  They were not going to change their stance on Britain, British Allies, Smuts, World War 2 or even Fascism.  So this key task on building on the South African sacrifice in Europe, lest it all be in vain, was left to that part of the South African mainstream party political spectrum which supported Smuts and all the ‘liberals’ who went to war against Nazi Germany – and that part of the party political spectrum in 60’s, 70’s and 80’s was Colin Eglin’s turf.

The political path for Post War veterans 

In 1946 Colin returned from the Italian theatre of Military Operations to South Africa, here he picked up where he left off and continued with his studies, graduating the same year with a B.Sc in Quantity Surveying from UCT.

He became involved in civic affairs and started the Pinelands Young People’s Club which helped set up a sister organization in the neighbouring Coloured village of Maitland. In 1951 he became chairman of the Pinelands Civic Association and was elected to the Pinelands town council.

The electoral loss of the Jan Smuts’ United Party in 1948 to the National Party and their Apartheid proposals sent shock waves into South Africa’s war veteran community.  The war for liberty and democracy they had conducted overseas in places like Italy, against the same forces of fascism which had now come home to roost in South Africa.  This spurred The Torch Commando in the early 1950’s led by Sailor Malan and Colin Eglin as a returning war veteran joined The Torch Commando and started to become very politicised.

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The Torch Commando was the first anti-Apartheid mass protest movement, and it was made up of returning war veterans.  It was primarily a ‘pro-democracy’ movement and was crushed by the National Party because of the military threat it posed – and it was done by using ‘anti-communist’ legislation designed to curtail any ideology in opposition to Apartheid.

The Torch Commando was linked to the United Party, who tried to leverage it for the ‘service vote’ and wrestle power back from the National Party. In 1953 Colin decided to enter in formal political party opposition to Apartheid in addition to protesting with The Torch Commando – and he joined Smuts’ United Party (Smuts had just passed away in 1950).  Almost immediately he became the political campaign manager for his friend Zach de Beer who was the United Party (UP) candidate for the parliamentary seat of Maitland.  Colin Eglin and Zach de Beer were to form a friendship and political bond which would transform itself into what is now the modern “Democratic Alliance’, of the two Helen Suzman would say “Zach was clever, but Colin was sounder”.

160px-Verenigde_Party_logo_1In 1954 Colin himself was elected unopposed as the UP provincial councillor for Pinelands. In addition to that, he became chairman of the UP’s Cape Peninsula Council and then in 1958 Eglin became the Peninsula MP.

By August 1959, following the United Party’s congress in Bloemfontein, Colin broke from the UP ranks, the new guard in the UP instead of following  Smuts’ vision of universal suffrage and holistic reconciliation in South Africa, still humoured the more conservative elements of the party who wanted a limited franchise and some restrictive movements for South Africa’s black migrant working population – a sort of ‘Apartheid Lite’ if you will.

In 1959 this was clearly no longer the direction needed or in any way relevant for liberal and democratic opposition parties in South Africa. Colin was one of UP rebels who issued a declaration of dissent (the others included Zach de Beer and Helen Suzman).

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Helen Suzman at a Progressive Party meeting

In November that year he was one of the 11 members of parliament who formed the nucleus of the new Progressive Party (PP).  It was a bold move, it would ultimately spell the end of the United Party and the conservative element within it, also by fractionating the official opposition (the UP) it certainly bolstered the National Party.  What it did however also do was draw the line in the sand of ‘white politics’ – on the one side, the whites who supported Apartheid and a whites only vote and on the other side whites who did not support Apartheid and wanted a democratic vote for all.

All through this Colin Eglin never wavered from his adherence to liberal, democratic values, he aimed to reform the system from the inside; and by balancing criticism of race discrimination with political pragmatism he sometimes found himself the subject of attack from both black and white communities.

The ANC would argue that by participating in the apartheid political system, no matter what his stance, Eglin helped perpetuate it. Yet by participating Eglin was also able to work against the Apartheid government machine and make important political gestures – such as his visit to the black activist Steve Biko, or sending ‘official government opposition’ delegations to promote the dismantling of Apartheid in the so-called ‘independent’ Bantustan ‘homelands’ and promoted dialogue with urbanised black leadership.

By 1966 Colin Eglin became chairman on the National Executive of the Progressive Party (PP) and in 1971 he became the party leader succeeding Jan Steytler. In an attempt to attract Afrikaners to the PP, he initiated ‘Deurbraak’, the first journal of verligte (enlightened) opinion in South Africa. Colin Eglin also initiated a dialogue between the PP and Black homeland and urban leaders. He was also instrumental in establishing Synthesis, a non-party political study and discussion group, which became an important tool for information and contact across the colour bar. He also held a symposium of 50 Afrikaner academics in 1971, from which a non-party-political movement, Verligte Aksie, was formed.

In 1974 the PP won six seats in the general election with the seventh coming from a by-election a few months later. In 1975 Eglin negotiated the merger with members of the Reform Party, which led to the formation of the Progressive Reform Party (PRP). In 1976 he called an Extraordinary Parliamentary session to discuss the Soweto Uprising and call for the resignation of the Minister of Bantu Affairs, M.C. Botha.

A combination of gerrymandering by the National Party and totalitarian crack-down by the Apartheid State of South Africa’s liberal ‘democratic’ politicians, gagging many of them by way of banning and sending many into exile after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, saw liberal politics in a racially segregated and conservative Afrikaner biased voting sphere become absolutely irrelevant – and the PP would eventually lose all its seats, except one – Helen Suzman – who remained a lone voice of official opposition to Apartheid in Parliament for many years.

Also for many years, while she was the Progressive’s sole MP,  Colin Eglin acted as Helen Suzman’s link with extra-parliamentary activities. He travelled extensively in Africa, Europe, America and even China. During visits to 15 African countries, as official government ‘opposition’ to the National Party he met many heads of state to drive international opposition to Apartheid – and he did this using official and politically legal channels – without having to resort his party to violent opposition.

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Criticism of the PRP by the National Party as they tried to brand then as a “Tool of Communist agitators.” was swiftly put in place by Suzman who said .. “it’s really a joke, isn’t it? Because, quite clearly, we are a party of real moderates. It just shows how little they understand.”

In 1977, following a merger with the Committee for United Opposition that had also broken away from the United Party the PRP became the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). By 1979 Colin stepped down as leader in favour of Dr F van Zyl Slabbert and became Shadow Foreign Minister, a post he would hold until 1986.

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In 1986 Colin Eglin found himself at the reigns of his party again following the shock resignation of Van Zyl Slabbert from the PFP. Ironically van Zyl Slabbert had one crucial deficiency, which Eglin had in spades – staying power. Eglin, on one occasion described the pursuit of the liberal cause on the stony soil of South Africa as “the politics of the long haul”. And when Slabbert, despairing of making any change to the Apartheid machine quit the leadership in a fiery act of self-implosion it was again to Eglin that his shell-shocked colleagues turned to give the lead.

1200px-Progressive_Federal_Party_logoHe remained party leader until 1988, however he didn’t have the best people skills to sustain this type of leadership. Affectionately known as ‘the Egg’, Colin Eglin had a sharp tongue and bit off many heads. His long-time colleague Helen Suzman admitted that his manner “put off a lot of people. Yet we all came back to “the Egg”, not only because he was a role model for progressives, or because of his intelligence and measured political judgment, but because he was a decent, very warm-hearted man, whom we held in great affection.

In 1988 his old UP friend, a veteran of democratic politics – Zach de Beer, took over from Colin as the newly elected party leader of the PFP. With seismic political changes on the horizon, in 1989 Colin Eglin focused on preparing his party enter into a meaningful role in South Africa’s democratic evolution, to do this he knew he needed other democratic bodies in coalition with the PFP – so he negotiated with the Independent Party and National Democratic Movement to bring together a new opposition to the National Party in parliament.

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This resulted in the formation of the Democratic Party (DP) in 1989 and the dissolution of PFP.   Colin was subsequently elected chairperson of the DP’s parliamentary caucus, and Zac de Beer took control of the reigns of the DP as leader.

Building Democratic opposition in a new epoch 

180px-Democratic_Party_SA_logoIn 1991, as the Democratic Party (DP) stalwart, Colin participated in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and served in its working group. Described by Nelson Mandela as “one of the architects of (South Africa’s) democracy”, Colin Eglin played a leading role in the drafting of the country’s post-apartheid constitution.

It was in CODESA at Kempton Park that Colin came into his own.  It has been said that it was as though his life to then had been preparation for just this moment. Much of South Africa’s much praised liberal constitution is due to Colin’s clear grasp of the principles of liberal democracy and the constraints and provisions of those institutions charged with protecting and advancing these.

codesa_logo_s_0Colin’s negotiating prowess was recognised by Joe Slovo in particular and, when an impasse was reached, the two would get together and generally find a way forward and eventually, a worthy constitution was to emerge. His intellect, presence and engaging manner were recognised and respected by all in those crafting the new democratic Constitution and Bill of Rights in the tumultuous years of 1990 to April 1994.

Colin Eglin continued to serve in the segregated House of Assembly until it was abolished in 1994 after the historic democratic transition and vote in South Africa, and Colin then served in the multi-racial National Assembly as a DP Parliamentarian.

In November 1994, at the end of the first session of South Africa’s first democratic Parliament, a small group of Democratic Party MPs had lunch in Pretoria with President Nelson Mandela to discuss some challenges affecting the new legislature.

On arrival, in the dining room at the official residence, Mandela arranged the seating with this instruction: “Colin, you sit at the head of the table – you are the senior man here in terms of service.” 

Mandela was giving recognition to a veteran anti-Apartheid stalwart, a person who had first been elected to Parliament fighting Apartheid tooth and nail some 36 years before this luncheon and a person whose Parliamentarian career would even outlive Nelson Mandela’s own after the luncheon was over. It was some acknowledgement to ‘the Egg’ and South Africa’s democrats and Mandela knew it.

1200px-Democratic_Alliance_(SA)_logoIn 2000, the DP merged with other groups to become the Democratic Alliance (DA), which survives as the current official ‘democratic’ opposition to an African National Congress (ANC) government.

Whilst in the DA, Colin turned his attention on the new ‘Nationalists’ in Parliament, where the Afrikaner Nationalists (NP) were his previous foe, the African Nationalists (ANC) were his next.  To Eglin – nationalism almost always meant one-upmanship of one nation over that of another, he had learned a bitter lesson in nationalism and all its inherent evils in the freezing hills of Italy in WW2.

His foresight to NP politics then were as applicable to his foresight on ANC politics now. Colin felt that the ANC government should focus almost entirely on decreasing the poverty gap in South Africa – and in so do two things – unleash the forces of enterprise to reduce unemployment and focus government spending on housing and education … and not on self-enrichment – here he felt the flawed ANC driven BEE ‘transformation’ programs only served to transform a ANC political elite to a ‘super-class’ and the ‘under-class’ and poverty-stricken would simply be left behind.  He also fought the ANC’s bills and amendments to press freedoms believing them to be “a cover up of corruption, incompetence and nepotism”.

Colin-Eglin-1024x788In one his final speeches, Colin Eglin is nothing short of pure prophesy – consider this when he said “Ironically the (ANC) government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy has contributed to the widening of the (poverty) gap, by creating a new rich elite, often of persons with strong political connections, and by leaving the millions of impoverished out of the empowerment process.  These factors are having an impact, turning people away from the values that underpin our constitutional system, and eroding confidence in our democratic institutions.  They are driving people towards populism as a cure for their problems.  In short, they are undermining our new democracy.”

Colin Eglin retired from the DA and opposition democratic politics in 2004 and in the same year was made an Officer of the Order of the Disa, conferred on him by the Western Cape Provincial Government.

In April 2013, the South African Government conferred the Order of the Baobab, Category II (Silver) on Eglin for serving the country with excellence and for his dedication and courage in standing up for the principles of equality for all South Africans against the unjust laws of the past.

Colin died at 88 years old on the 30 November 2013, his long time wife Joyce had died some years before of cancer in 1997 and he left his new partner Raili, three daughters and five grandsons.

As a leading politician and WW2 veteran of The Cape Town Highlanders (CTH), he was afforded a military funeral with draped coffin and the Guard of Honour was provided by the CTH.  This short video captures his life and death and the respect he gained in opposition to the National Party and the ANC alike.

The peaceful road to democracy  

Today, there seems to exist an opinion in the new political class in South Africa, that if you did not take up arms to fight ‘the crime of humanity’ that was Apartheid you were somehow derelict in your duty as a South African and somehow complicit in upholding Apartheid instead. This rhetoric is aimed at blaming white people for all of South Africa’s ills and demanding financial reparations from them.  It’s an ANC and ECC narrative devised to whip up Populism and cover up their own inadequacies, crime and corruption – and its a narrative which is entirely misplaced.

The truth is that many ‘struggle’ organisations other than the ANC alliance fought against Apartheid, and not all of them had to resort to armed conflict to do so, Desmond Tutu and the Council of Churches, The Black Sash, the Progressive Federal Party, The Torch Commando, The Liberal Party, The National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the United Democratic Front (UDF), the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), the Council of South African Students (COSAS), Jews for Social Justice, The South African Congress of Democrats, The Federation of South African Women. Temple Israel, The Boycott Movement, The Natal Indian Congress and many many more all worked within the confines of the Republic’s constitution and the law to bring Apartheid to an end.

This included South Africa’s white progressives and democrats – starting with the United Party in 1948 and ending with the Democratic Party in 1994 who felt that the system in the long run could be changed from within if they stuck to it and fought it tooth and nail. Here’s the inconvenient truth – they were correct, in the long haul their work was as effective in removing Apartheid as any armed struggle, if not more so. Bold statement but its the real truth.

The truth of the matter is that an armed struggle did not really end Apartheid, the ballot did.  There was no MK led ‘military victory parade’ over defeated SADF/SAP forces – and that’s because there was no military victory.  The victory in the end was a moral one, and it was one in which democracy loving white South African’s played a key role – the first time white people were given a proper representative vote since 1948 (without National Party gerrymandering of proportional representation playing any factor whatsoever) occurred in 1992.  The ‘white’ electorate  calmly, with no overt pressure whatsoever voted Apartheid OUT and voted a full and representative democracy for all South Africans IN – and the did that in the Yes/No referendum of 1992 – two years before the so-called ’94 miracle’ – and they voted for Colin Eglin’s  ‘democrats’ and enlightened National Party ‘progressives’ who backed the ‘Yes’ vote by a majority of 70% – that is a truth.

Without this ‘YES’ vote the CODESA negotiations would have been scrapped and South Africa would have continued on its ‘Apartheid’ trajectory – fact. It was white people using the peaceful means of the ballot which ended Apartheid and not the ‘armed struggle’, and they used it within the Apartheid ‘whites only’ parliamentary process – fact. Colin Eglin, Zach de Beer, Helen Suzman and the DP played a key role in this referendum and their life’s work ultimately ended Apartheid – without firing a shot – fact.

Who do you think you are!

If you had to play a game of heritage along the lines of the BBC’s ‘who do you think you are’, the DA’s political pedigree starts with Smuts’ United Party and the war veterans like Colin Eglin who fought for liberty and freedom and returned to South Africa only to become politicised when the National Party came to power in 1948.  This is the epicentre of the DA’s beginning, a proud cocktail of the ‘democratic’ fight against Nazism, Fascism Apartheid and Nationalism.  Colin Eglin is the ‘golden thread’ that links the DA to its wartime beginning and its modern values.

In July 2018, the townspeople of four villages in the mountains Italian Apennines acknowledged Colin Eglin, for his work in keeping the sacrifice of South African in Italy alive and relevant in South Africa.  For his work in creating a living war memorial to the children in South Africa, for his ties and diplomacy with the Italy authorities looking after the South African war dead and keeping their legacy alive in the years of Apartheid’s isolation and for his tireless political work to bring peace and democracy to South Africa.

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The unveiling ceremony was attended by Mayors of the surrounding Italian towns in the Apennines where the South Africans fought, Italian Military and Police officials, the South African Ambassador to Italy, and the South African National Defence Force Military Attaché to Italy all attended.  In addition, 73 years on, the extreme gratitude of the Italian people (including their modern-day children) to the South Africans is still palatable – and it is all in honour of South African sacrifice and the values of the men who brought liberty to this far-flung part of Italy.

In addition to the named road, the town of Castiglione dei Pepoli has a war museum dedicated to the South African 6th Armoured Division, and a special display is in the museum to Colin Eglin and his long-time  association with the town’s remembrance and historical preservation of South Africa’s fight against Nazism and Fascism – in his capacity of a long time South African MP and as a veteran of the Battle of Monte Sole himself.

The South African war museum Castiglione dei Pepoli is a jewel and must visit, to see more visit this link: Castiglione dei Pepol South African war museum

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Display dedicated to Colin Eglin at the war museum in Castiglione dei Pepoli, Italy.

In conclusion

The ‘Egg’ literally epitomised the road to democracy in South Africa. A road is anything that connects two points and Colin Eglin Road in Italy connects South Africa with Castiglione dei Pepoli in Italy, and under the title ‘Colin Eglin’ is a description in Italian ‘uomo di pace’ meaning ‘a man of peace’ – and nothing could be more descriptive of Colin Eglin and his politics.

He was a man who had seen war and chose to use peaceful means to fight Afrikaner Nationalism and Apartheid and won, eventually becoming a founding father of South Africa’s democratic constitution  – a true democrat in every sense. South Africa now has a strong set of multi-racial democrats in the form of the DA still holding African Nationalism (now in a state of racial reverse) in South Africa to account, and it’s all a result of the road Colin took.

It’s highly appropriate that a road is now named after him where his political journey started, in the midst of the mud, death and misery of Smuts’ war against despot nationalism and the South African sacrifice to rid the world of it – and it really is a very long road which begins in the mountains of Italy and continues to South Africa, even to this very day.

DA


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Work:

The Torch Commando The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!

The White Struggle The ‘White’ armed struggle against Apartheid

Large reference and thanks to Peter Elliott and his article and photographs in the Military History Journal, Vol 16 No 2 – December 2013 ‘FOREVER A PIECE OF SOUTH AFRICA’  A return to the area of Monte Sole in the Italian Apennines By Peter Elliott.

References also include ‘Tony Leon remembers great soldier Colin Eglin’ by Tony Leon Colin Eglin’s speech Presented to the Cape Town Press Club A TRIBUTE TO COLIN EGLIN – HELEN SUZMAN FOUNDATION – Peter Soal , December 2013

My sincere thanks to the curators of the South African Military Museum at Castiglione dei Pepoli for the personal tour, insights and assistance, especially to Mauro Fogacci.

Reclaiming half a century lost at a Centennial!

On the 11/11/2018 – exactly 100 years after the end of World War 1 on the 11/11/1918, at the exact minute the guns were silenced on the Western Front in 1918, i.e. 11 am, a group of South African veterans stood to attention in London.  They were all taking part in the ‘Cenotaph Parade’ and whilst Big Ben tolled 11 times they reflected during the two minutes silence.

The minutes of reflection and silence was signalled by Artillery Guns whose shots reverberated over London as they marked the beginning of the silence period and the end. The guns had been fired from the Horse Guards Parade Ground by The King’s Troop – just opposite the South African contingent now standing in file in Whitehall with all the other arms of service, regiment, veteran and remembrance associations waiting to march past the Cenotaph.

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Guns of the King’s Troop fired from the Horse Guards Parade Ground to signal 2 minutes silence at the Cenotaph Parade 2018

The retort of the gun literally shattered the cacophony of London’s noise, bringing absolute silence and in so bringing into sharp focus why the South African veterans were there – honouring countrymen who had given their all during World War 1 and in the future wars to come – and it also put perspective on the seven-year long journey they had taken to get there. Nothing in life is simple and nothing can be taken for granted – and the representation of South Africans on this specific parade, on this specific date was no different.

The historical journey of South African veteran contingents marching past the cenotaph in London had not been a continuous one, the early footsteps left by South African First World War veterans in recognition of their comrades lost had been reaffirmed by their Springbok brothers of the Second World War.  However by the 1960’s the footprints came to an abrupt end and the South African veterans were no longer seen at this parade for the next 5 full decades to come, the story of South African commitment and sacrifice to crown during World War 1 and World War 2 fading quickly in the British collective memory.

For these veterans, to stand on this parade in London on this day in 2018, represented as a South African military veteran, proudly wearing the insignia, blazer and beret of South African Legion of Military Veterans is something.  Think about it, and put it fully in perspective, they finally stood to commemorate South African sacrifice at the Centenary of the end of World War 1,  when for a full half Century of that Century there had been no proper annual South African contingent at this prestigious parade – at all.

Here, on the Centenary of the World War 1’s Armistice in London – the South African Legion stood proud in its rightful place as the primo (the first) South African Veteran’s Association  (the SA Legion is also nearly 100 years old itself).  It was also the only South African affiliated veteran association at this climax to the centennial celebrations – the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade.  A lot as to representing South African sacrifice was on the shoulders of this relatively small contingent of South African Legion veterans wearing the Legion’s (and country’s) green and gold.

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South African veteran contingent in 2018 at the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade to commemorate 100 years since the guns fell silent in 1918

So what happened to the South African representation in the past – why did it stop for five decades? How and when was it re-started? Why only the Legion? Why only now and what does the future for South African representation at this parade hold?

More to that, who in South Africa should care, so what – what is the importance of London’s Cenotaph to South Africans anyway?

Why London’s Cenotaph?

So what’s so important about London’s Cenotaph in relation to the other World War 1 monuments the world over, including many in South Africa itself?  Look at it this way, the Cenotaph in Whitehall is the epicentre of ‘remembrance’ of the First World War – for everyone, the world over.

Before the end of World War 1, based on the Red Cross officer Fabian Ware’s recommendation in 1917 the British government and The Imperial War Office, made an extraordinary decision, no British or Commonwealth fallen would be repatriated back to their country of origin.  They would be buried in the country where they fell and their graves, honour roll and monuments would be looked after by a Graves Registration Commission – which we now know as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

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A South African nurse places a wreath on her brother’s grave during the South African Brigade’s memorial service at Delville Wood, 17 February 1918.

This decision was controversial and it caused absolute consternation, the United States of America repatriated their war dead from the western front back to the USA, even the French war dead were repatriated back to their villages or towns.  It was ‘back home’ that family, friends and community could look after their dead – conduct a burial, and the grave could stand as a physical presence of the loved one to pay respects and remember.

With British and Commonwealth war dead now not ‘coming home’ – how were people to remember? Where could family and friends go – not everyone could go to France, Belgium, Turkey and the myriad of countries the British and her Empire fought the war in to visit their lost loved one?  There’s more, even to people who could afford to repatriate their dead to the family plot could no longer do so, let alone those who could not – and officers and men were now buried side by side, with no distinction given to rank, class or race – for a society breaking down Imperial barriers this was revolutionary thinking – but for a part of that society still bent on class differentiation it was an outrage.

A solution to tangibly meet this need and bring the entire remembrance ritual and service back to the United Kingdom was urgently needed, and it needed to be one which remembered all who were sacrified in the service to crown – Great Britain, the Dominions (Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) and all the other British Colonies, Protectorates and Territories.

The solution came in an unintended format, a temporary cenotaph monument, made from plaster and wood had been designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and erected for the London Victory Parade on the 19th July 1919 (to commemorate the Treaty of Versailles). There would be a ‘hollow square’ formed around the structure (as would happen in the field when soldiers hold a drum head service) and the Cenotaph would then act as the ‘Drum head’ – symbolising a tomb.

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Sir Edwin Lutyens’ temporary Cenotaph for the Victory Parade in 1919

The temporary structure with its words ‘The Glorious Dead’ surprisingly met with great public enthusiasm desperately seeking a place to mourn, it became an icon, a beacon – finally there was a physical structure in England itself to which they could remember all the dead, lay wreaths and flowers to lost comrades, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers.   After the parade finished and for some time to come the base of the temporary structure was continuously covered with flowers and wreaths by members of the public. Public pressure mounted to retain it, and the British War Cabinet decided on 30 July 1919 that a permanent replica memorial made of  Portland stone should replace the wooden version and be designated Britain’s official national war memorial.

The permanent stone structure  of the Cenotaph in Whitehall was unveiled in a ceremony by King George V on the 11th November 1920 with the arrival of gun carriage bearing the coffin of an ‘Unknown Warrior’ at 11 am.  In another groundbreaking move to symbolise remembrance a grave marking an ‘unknown’ british soldier was randomly selected (and it could have been anyone, even possibly someone from the Commonweath in a British unit – who knows) and opened in France, this simple soldier, a ‘commoner’ known only unto God was repatriated to England to be buried amongst Kings at Westminster Abby and he was afforded a King’s funeral procession from the Cenotaph

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Now in the west end of the Naive at Westminster Abby, the tomb of the Unknown Warrior has two fine traditions – you cannot walk over it and at any Royal wedding that takes place in Westminster Abby, the bride’s wedding bouquet is always left by the bride on the tomb itself – it’s this lucky chap who gets to catch the royal bouquet.  The text inscribed on the tomb is taken from the bible (2 Chronicles 24:16): ‘They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house’.

The ‘Cenotaph’ in Whitehall is literally the epicentre of ‘Remembrance’ – it is the central grave marker that remembers all the names of British and Commonwealth fallen who were not repatriated ‘back home’ – and the central Whitehall Cenotaph was to be replicated in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg all have their own ‘cenotaph’) as the concept fanned out.

In  the United Kingdom the South Africans were special, a South African hospital complex existed in Richmond (west London) treating WW1 wounded, and in addition to commemorating South African sacrifice at the main Cenotaph in Whitehall, a second Cenotaph – to the design of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ one in Whitehall, with a South African UDF ‘Springbok’ emblem on the top and ‘Our Glorious Dead’ in English and Dutch written on it was erected in Richmond and unveiled by Jan Smuts.

All of this, the concept of the Whitehall cenotaph and even the South Africa’s own cenotaph in London would eventually be lost to South Africa, for half a century, and it’s still lost to many South Africans  – so how did that happen?

South African Pilgrimages 

After World War 1 ended, a number of various returned services i.e. veterans associations came into existence all around Britain and the Commonwealth.  These were all consolidated in a historic meeting held by a newly formatted umbrella body – The British Empire Services League (BESL), and the inaugural meeting took place in Cape Town, South Africa in 1921.  Two people were to play a key role in this consolidation of veteran associations and to a large degree centralising ‘remembrance’ under one guiding body – Field Marshal Earl Haig and General Jan Smuts.

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Field Marshal Haig and General Smuts at the inaugral meeting of The British Empire Services League in Cape Town 1921

This makes South Africa the epicentre of what is now the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services Leagues (RCEL) and the founding partners are the Royal British Legion, Royal Canadian Legion, Royal Legion Scotland, South African Legion, Returned Services League Australia and the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association.

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Relevance to the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  Well, it’s the Royal British Legion, the brother association of The South African Legion, which manages the Whitehall Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph parade and all the key associated remembrance activities in the United Kingdom.

After the South African Legion was formed in 1921 it went about conducting annual ‘pilgrimages’ for veterans of The First World War and families of the South African fallen to go to Europe and make the ‘connection’ with their loved ones who did not come home.

0800_O_2The South African Legion’s pilgrimages to the United Kingdom often took place over the Remembrance period in November, this sometimes involved a parade in Portsmouth at the memorial there to the men lost on the SS Mendi.  They regularly held a parade at the South African Cenotaph in Richmond London, and annually, on Remembrance Sunday they participated in the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade as guests of The Royal British Legion and laid a wreath.  The pilgrimages were almost always linked up with visits to Delville Wood in France and Menin Gate in Belgium.

These SA Legion pilgrimages expanded after the Second World War somewhat, and South African veterans of both World War 1 and World War 2 in the 1950’s regularly took part in the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade on Remembrance Sunday as well as visiting the chapel and South African cenotaph in Richmond.

Half a century of wilderness 

The annual laying of a South African wreath and veteran participation as a south african contingent at the Whitehall Cenotaph parade on Remembrance Sunday came to an end from 1961.

In 1960, H.F Verwoed and the Afrikaner Nationalists, now in consolidated power in South Africa having changed the constitution, pressed for a ‘Republic’ referendum which they won on the narrowest of margins by gerrymandering the vote – ensuring that whites only, and Afrikaner whites in particular, had the only decision on the future of South Africa’s status in the world, and especially its relationship with the United Kingdom – all the other communities in South Africa, the vast majority of her people – coloured, Indian and Black were excluded from the decision to change South Africa’s Dominion status – and all of them, including Nelson Mandela expressed solid opposition to it.

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Opposition to the establishment of a South African Republic and subsequent removal from the Commonwealth

This was followed one year later in 1961 when as a newly minted independent Afrikaner Republic, the Afrikaner Nationalists removed South Africa from the British Commonwealth of Nations amid heavy criticism of their Apartheid policies by all the member states.  The Sharpville Massacre had just taken place in 1960, opposition political groupings had been banned in the wake of Sharpville and the beginning of the 1960’s saw South Africa embarking on an internal armed struggle.

How did the British establishment react to it all in relation to their Cenotaph Parade? The answer – no differently to the way they now deal with Zimbabwe as a ‘rogue’ state outside the Commonwealth.  They simply removed South Africa’s status from the Dominion and Commonwealth High Commission wreath layer line up at the beginning of parade.  If you consider that they had no choice really – South Africa was no longer a Dominion and no longer part of the Commonwealth ‘club’ – so had no place, and given Apartheid South Africa could not really be afforded a special status on a world stage – such was the politics of the day.

In the end it was the Nationalist South African goverment who removed the country from the Commonwealth, not the other way round and it was the government of South Africa who paid scant regard to this sacrifice – seeing it as and act of treachery in support of the hated British instead, not the other way round.

But what about sacrifice and veterans remembrance – here the Royal British Legion came to the rescue in what was turning out to be bad news all around for South Africa and agreed that in the absence of South African representation they would lay the wreath on behalf of South Africa.

What followed was an unprecedented absence of over fifty years, in South Africa the SA Legion as the ‘national body’ for veterans and all related veteran organisations with Commonwealth and British links and shared heritage, including the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), all went into steady decline.  The newly reconfigured South African Defence Force under the ideals of Republic went on to insidiously remove or relegate to secondary status all the deeds of bravery, heroes, insignia, heritage, history, medals and any other links to the United Kingdom.  In effect the South African veterans of World War 1 and World War 2 now found themselves marginalised by the government – victims of Apartheid in effect.

This short Pathé Newsreel of the time explains the gravity of the decision to leave the Commonwealth and make South Africa a Republic very well, take the time to watch it.

The removal of South Africa from the Commonwealth spurred ‘The Springbok’ magazine, the South African Legion’s mouthpiece to lead with a headline ‘What Now!’ The truthful answer – not much!  Government finances were gradually squeezed off, recruits from the armed forces were squeezed off, the poppy appeal gradually losing its momentum and relevance in South Africa as catastrophic and seismic political events in South Africa over took it.

In this general decline in relevance outside the commonwealth, decline in national party government support for old ‘union defence force’ veteran affairs and decline in public finance from donations – was the decline in SA Legion’s annual Pilgrimages to Europe, and with that general decline in just about everything, eventually also went the annual laying of the South African veterans wreath by the Royal British Legion at the Whitehall cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

1994 is significant in many ways, South Africa rejoined the British Commonwealth of Nations and was reinstated in things like the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade – and today the South African high commissioner joins the wreath party with all the old and current dominions i.e. Canada, Australia, India and New Zealand and given first honour to lay their wreaths ahead of all other Commonwealth member states.  It stands to reason – these were the key contributors to the British military advance – in World War 1 and World War 2 (missing from this line up is Zimbabwe – which continues to be controversial as they continue to remain outside the Commonwealth – as South Africa had).

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But what of the South African military veterans component of the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade itself – the critical connection of this contingent to the remembrance of their brothers in arms’ sacrifices –  marking the recognition of their graves on foreign soil by passing the epicentre memorial of Remembrance in London – even as late as 2011, no South African identified contingent of veterans was properly represented.  The Canadians and even the USA, Czech Republic and Poland have had representation in the past 50 years – but not the South Africans.

Why?

Reconstituting South African veteran representation in the UK

I arrived in the United Kingdom in 2010 after a stint in Australia, whilst in Australia – as a South African military veteran – I had joined SAMVOA, the South African Military Veterans of Australasia and I was amazed at the camaraderie and inclusion South African veterans received from the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL), we were happily included in the annual state ANZAC Day parades and afforded all the privileges of RSL members.  The historical military links between South Africa and Australia forged during WW1 and WW2 remembered and stronger than ever.  The open gratitude of the Australian community expressed to all veterans – Australian and just about anyone who has served in a statute force with a link to Australia was something to behold.

MOTHOn arrival in the U.K. I tried to make contact with a South African Council of Military Veteran Organisation affiliated SAMVOA equivalent to participate in the London Cenotaph Parade, only to discover that no such organisation existed.  I watched the cenotaph parade on telly, gob-smacked to see visiting US Marine veterans on parade and not a South African in sight.  Advances to find out the status of MOTH (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) shellholes in the UK were met with disappointment – they had no marketing and were closing down shellholes hand over foot and had even done away with the enshrined regulations behind the order – that is it was a ‘Order’ for ‘Combat/Operational statutory force military veterans’ only.  However civilians and veterans alike could now join the MOTH Order in the U.K. on an equal level – a change in enshrined MOTH qualifying criteria done to try to keep the order afloat in the U.K, which in its own odd way also serves to undermine the principles of the order.

In 2011, after contacting the Royal British Legion to take part in the Cenotaph parade and been declined, I found myself as a single solitary South African veteran in a Trafalgar Square Royal British Legion (RBL) side-show for the general public laying a wreath in one of the ponds, and I noticed a single solitary MOTH member doing the same.  That was the sum total of  South African veteran representation in London on Remembrance Weekend.

Something had to be done, South African representation had slipped into nothing, general amnesia as to South African inclusion in any key state driven veteran or remembrance activity had set in across the entire establishment in the United Kingdom. Half a century of exclusion does that.

It also was not helped by the fact that from 1961 until that point in 2011 the South Africa embassy in the United Kingdom’s military attaché had not taken to much public Remembrance Representation work, nor had they established any significant links with The Royal British Legion or the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League.   The old guard SADF attaché wanted nothing to do with these organisations and by the time the new guard SANDF attaché had come in they had no context or knowledge of the historical links, nor is it a current priority of theirs to reforge them (all too ‘colonial’ frankly).

As a result neither the South African military establishment or veteran associations were on the United Kingdom’s ‘remembrance Calender’ radar – at all.  Not ‘recognised’ = not ‘invited’ = not ‘represented’.

bokclear3In 2012 I colluded with a fellow South African veteran, Norman Sander, to address the matter, and looking at the history, links and association between The South African Legion and The Royal British Legion we felt a branch of The South African Legion in the United Kingdom was the route to go.  Godfrey Giles, the then National President of The South African Legion agreed and a branch materialised in the U.K.

All good right, representation at last – not on your nilly, there was a long and hard road to come.  In 2012 we approached the RCEL and received our contingent tickets for  the Cenotaph parade with open arms – then a mere two days later an apology arrived from a faceless bureaucrat to say that the Royal British Legion was ahead of itself in issuing the tickets and they had to be retracted – as South African Legion we were not ‘recognised’ (their term exactly).

This ‘non-recognition’ was utter balderdash, codswallop of the highest order and It was clear to us that within the British establishment there existed concern over South African military veterans – the whole ‘Apartheid legacy’ and ‘leaving the Commonwealth’ issue had extended its tentacles into an area where it had no place whatsoever – Remembrance of the Fallen.

EBQYPI5XC5G2RLQJ7OTLOFGWNUHighly annoying, and before it blew up out of proportion, to overcome the problem a solution was presented by The Royal British Legion themselves.  Come into the fold as a Royal British Legion branch, advance the relationship and values of The South African Legion and the Royal British Legion as a brother organisations, work up the credibility as veterans after a 50 year absence, create a South African presence at the Cenotaph parade and become ‘Recognised’ from within the establishment itself.

Norman headed off to Africa to take on a new life, so the establishment of the South African Branch of the Royal British Legion and the formatting of the South African Legion in the United Kingdom fell on my shoulders.  The Royal British Legion (RBL) had in effect thrown the South Africans a life-line and its a life-line the RBL would come through for the South African Legion and South African veterans time and again.

Back in the fold

Things had changed when it came to the annual Whitehall Cenotaph Parade in the past decade.  It had become a well oiled institution with an unchanged parade order developed and refined over decades – and the same BBC announcer rolls off the ceremony with the same camera positions, year after year.  No upstart ‘new-comer’ is going to reinvent this process in a hurry.

The parade is run in two parts by three separate institutions working together. In essence there is a ‘front part’ involving the Royal Family, Representatives of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, Representatives of the House of Commons and House of Lords and the Representatives from all the Commonwealth states i.e. High Commissioners – including South Africa.   They conduct the ceremony of wreath laying in the ‘hollow square’ around the Cenotaph i.e. in accordance with a drum head service.  This bit is run by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Department of Culture, Media & Sport.

The second part, the ‘back part’ which is the ‘march past’ the Cenotaph is generally run by The Royal British Legion.  There are four general parts to it.

Firstly – British Service Associations (Regiment Associations and the like) who have served the ‘crown’ in the past and who continue to serve ‘crown’.

Secondly – Guests of the Royal British Legion, these are associations allowed to parade from time to time because of their links to Britain – and here we find a mixed bag of Polish veteran associations and Czech contingents (because of their association to The Battle of Britain) as well as invited US Marine veterans etc (D-Day association). ‘Guests’ come and go based on ticket demand (there is a limited allocation) and changing circumstances, and as our MOTH colleagues unfortunately found out at the centennial cenotaph parade this year when their tickets were not issued – a ticket in this category is by no means an assured one for annual parading.

Thirdly, there is the Royal British Legion themselves and their branches – and as an international brotherhood it is into this category that the South African Legion veteran contingent falls (and other countries represented within the RBL’s shere of influence itself  – the Canadian Legion and veterans are a case in point).

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South African Legion contingent march past the Whitehall Cenotaph in 2017

Finally there is a section open to the general public to participate, and in the case of the centennial this fell to a ‘ballot system’ to randomly select applications from members of the public for what is known as the ‘people’s march’.

The disappointment of 2012 behind us, 2013 found the South African veteran contingent represented for the first time as South African Legion when a handful of about 10 tickets were allocated to The RBL South African Branch, and this spiked a greater demand – and with that unfortunately came controversy within the South African veteran community in the U.K.

By 2014 there were 50 South African veterans represented as SA Legion at the Whitehall Cenotaph parade – a huge honour and reflection on the hard work been done to get South African representation at this parade over the line.  The Royal British Legion had provided a ‘life boat’ for the South Africans towing it along in what was going to be a very troubled sea – and this RBL lifeboat would eventually even save the Delville Wood Centenary Parade in France for all South African military veteran associations in 2016.

Troubled seas ahead, and typically the South Africans were making waves in their own tub. From October 2014 to May 2015 the South African Legion in the U.K. found itself marred by a number of veterans wanting to pull the organisation in all sorts of conflicting directions.  The old adage came true – put two South Africans in a room and they will come up with three political parties, and it all essentially boiled down to individual members trying to shoe horn Legion values (and even things like Legion dress code) into the values and codes of other veteran associations or even into their own individual perceptions and needs.  The net outcome of this is that a few good men decided to jump out the life boat and try to swim it alone, highly regrettable and the unfortunate outcome is that they took their eyes off the ball, and none of them made it to the finish line on 11/11 at Whitehall.

Re-dedication of South Africa’s own Cenotaph in London

2014 saw more significant advances in bringing South African representation back to its rightful place in the UK – and that was the rededication of South Africa’s own Cenotaph in Richmond, London – and it was literally a case of ‘Lost and Found’.

The South African Hospital was established in Richmond Park in London in June 1916. In July 1918, it was amalgamated with the Richmond Military Hospital, to form the South African Military Hospital, in order to provide care for the large number of South African troops serving in the First World War.

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Rededication of the South African War Memorial in Richmond London by The South African Legion

The South African Hospital and Comforts Fund Committee decided to erect a memorial to commemorate thirty-nine South African soldiers who were buried in Richmond Cemetery, which was at that time known as ‘soldiers corner’. The memorial carries an inscription in both English and Dutch (which was at the time a recognised official language of SA). Called ‘The South African War Memorial’ it was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and derives from Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall. Yes, the same one that rises to prominence on Remembrance Day in London.

The South African War Memorial was unveiled by General Smuts in June 1921 and it became the focus of South African pilgrimage throughout the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. Since then it became neglected and lay forgotten until 1981, when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) agreed to take on the maintenance of the memorial on behalf of the Nationalist South African Government – who had expressed no interest in it whatsoever and did not even acknowledge it on the SADF’s list of South African war memorials overseas.

In 2012 the South African War Memorial in Richmond was awarded a ‘Grade II’ status and was added to the List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. However, still, no South Africans in authority were even aware of its existence. To that point, the last parade held at the memorial had taken place there more than 70 years ago.

Tom Mason, a member of The South African Legion in the United Kingdom, came across this memorial whilst members of the CWGC were cleaning it.  The history of it pricked Tom’s interest and he brought it back to the South African Legion.

In quick time the South African Legion U.K. arranged a rededication service for the memorial and notified General Andersen of the SANDF of the monuments existence. The monument is now proudly again listed on South Africa’s official war memorials as outlined by the SANDF.  The monument is now also the central location for annual South African Pilgrimages as well as regular South African memorial parades in London.  The South African Legion’s emblem was proudly unveiled at a centenary parade in the Richmond Cemetary Chapel in thanks to renewed interest in the site.

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By May 2015 the Royal British Legion – South African branch also brought the site to the attention of the RBL. The RBL SA Branch standard was officially dedicated in a ceremony held at the Richmond Cemetary Chapel and South African War Memorial Cenotaph next to it – the dedication took place with numerous branches of the RBL and other veteran organisations in attendance.   This South African RBL standard now proudly carries three scrolls on it – it has twice won ‘The Churchill Cup’ as a branch for dedication, growth and reputation and it took part in GP 90 in 2018 and carries the ‘Ypres 2018’ scroll.

Throwing out a significant life-line

rblegion_displayBy November 2015, a large South African Legion veteran contingent of 40 odd veterans found themselves on parade at Whitehall during the Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph parade, the HMS RBL bravely toeing the South Africans along.  However a bigger challenge was looming – much bigger, and it would be the Royal British Legion to the rescue again – not just for South African Legion veterans in the U.K, but for all South African veteran organisations and formations in South Africa itself – and it took place in France.

In the beginning of 2016 arrangements in South Africa were going on swimmingly for the marking of the centenary and the extensive South African sacrifice in The Battle of Delville Wood in France in July 1916.  An entire South African pilgrimage had been arranged for this centenary event in France – consisting of family members, high school students, all South Africa’s regimental and armed forces associations which fall under the banner of the SA Council of Military Veteran Organisations and all veteran associations – including the South African Legion and Memorable Order of Tin Hats –  leave, flights, hotels and busses – all booked.

Then step in the former South African President Jacob Zuma, who decided that the Centenary commemoration date of the Battle of Delville Wood itself did not suite his travel plans.  So he changed it, with a couple of months to go ,then he ordered the military and high commission to toe his line, closed the site to his date only and threw everyone else’s plans out the window.

The long and short, it was impossible to move the entire South African pilgrimage to the Somme and The Battle of Delville Wood for the Centenary to suit the President’s new date.  Help was needed for the hundreds of South Africans which were going to be stranded on the Somme with no commemoration to attend – and it came from The Royal British Legion working in conjunction with the Royal British Legion’s South African Branch, The South African Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to use of the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in France as an alternate venue.

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2016 Delville Wood and Battle of the Somme Centenary Parade and Pilgrims – Thiepval memorial – France

In this way all The South African pilgrims in France could celebrate the centenary of the full commitment and sacrifice of South Africans to the Somme offensive including, but not exclusive to Delville Wood.

Thiepval was also relevant, although it’s the ‘British’ go-to memorial on the Somme it is also a South African memorial – the official designation of Thiepval is the “Memorial to the 72, 195 British and South African servicemen, who died in the Battle of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 – 1918, with no known grave”. The Thiepval Memorial records the names of 858 South Africans lost during the Somme offensive – including all the ‘missing’ from The Battle of Delville Wood.

The Royal British Legion (RBL) events division jumped in – keen to assist, and they blocked one of their daily “live broadcast” Somme Parades and dedicated the 10th July to a specific South African day.

The Delville Wood Centenary Remembrance at Thiepval parade went ahead on the proper date – and it went ahead to achieve high acclaim from all South African veteran associations and it marked a great success all round – especially to the family members of South Africans lost on the Somme and to South African High Schools and Youth Organisations attending the Somme centenary – who otherwise would have had nothing at all.

and … ‘across the line’

In 2016 and 2017 the South African Legionnaires continued their representation at the annual Whitehall Cenotaph Parade on Remembrance Sunday.  In 2017 the South African Legion also formalised an annual pilgrimage parade at the Richmond South African Cenotaph on ‘Poppy Day’ which is the annual Saturday preceding Remembrance Sunday.

By the time the centenary of the end of World War One came around on the 11th November 2018 (1918-2018) at 11am – the South African Legionnaires were front and forward.  Attending the parade in the South African branch lifeboat, which had come through and carried the South African contingent over the line.  It had been one heck of journey, along the way the bonds and ties between the two Legion’s had been deepened and secured, the South African veterans had risen to show their true colours of leadership and determination winning both Royal British Legion accolades and respect. The presence of the South Africans now ‘recognised’ and the relationship between the two organisations stronger than ever and growing.

46414873_2282468318648820_3105975316011548672_nAs to the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), a South African veteran order with a root in both countries – the U.K. and S.A.  As a combat brotherhood, many South African Legionnaires on the Cenotaph Parade in Whitehall are also members of the order, so too many Legionnaires – most representing their specific shellhole. The MOTH has benefited from the resurgence of the SA Legion in the U.K. as they now have an avenue to present themselves at Legion led South African commemorative parades – such as the Remembrance Parade now held regularly on ‘Poppy Day’ in Richmond at the South African cenotaph located there.

The future looks bright as long as the ‘special relationship’ with the Royal British Legion is kept, trying to swim it alone in a foreign country in the hopes that the British establishment will somehow bend their entire remembrance culture to suite this or that South African idiocracy is a foolish endeavour, and that unfortunately has been proved time and again, and it stood in stark proof to all present at the Centenary Cenotaph Parade in London.  A better course is to stand in unity and with singular voice, demonstrating values acceptable to the host – and the Royal British Legion’s South African Branch is the ideal vessel to do this – sink this particular boat and the rest will ultimately all slip away.

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South African Legionnaires on the march during the centenary cenotaph parde 11/11/2018

You can see now why a lot was on the shoulders of the South African veteran’s at the Whitehall Cenotaph when that gun signalled the silence during the Armistice Day Centenary Parade, they stood to proud attention as the only South Africans represented there aside from the High Commissioner.

46486079_10156609075626480_8970198184500396032_nIt had been a journey starting a century ago when the guns were silenced on the western front, and it had been a journey to correct half a century of silence as South Africa stood in exclusion.

Here these veterans finally stood in recognition of South African sacrifice at the very epicentre of the entire Remembrance movement started here one hundred years previously – soundly in memory of those South Africans who ‘did not come home’.


Written by Peter Dickens

Related work:

Delville Wood 100 ‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary

Great Pilgrimage 90 South Africa was represented at the Great Pilgrimage 90

Photos of SA Legion courtesy Theo Fernandes and Karen Dickens, colourised photographs copyright Imperial War Museum and DB Colour.  Pathe clip ‘South Africa Goes’, YouTube sourced.  Legion marching video thanks to Catherine Dow.

 

The Black Watch and the Delville Wood Lament

If you think you are tough, try taking up bag-pipes again after been wounded through both cheeks – now that’s eye-watering tough. Men and women of the 1st World War generation were are cut from an entirely different cloth, and Bag Pipers in particular are something else,

With South Africans honouring the centenary of World War 1, we should remember this particular action and this man – as this is what honour truly is all about – and it’s why the Pipes and Drums and their traditions are such a key part of military life and remembrance.

Relief of South Africans holding Delville Wood

45831688_2276883062540679_4739443793491656704_oOver 100 years ago at the Battle of Delville Wood, the hellish action for the South Africans holding the wood had finally ended, and they were played out by Black Watch bagpipes in honour of their heroism and bravery – this is the story of Pipe Major Sandy Grieve and the role he played that day.

On the 20th July 1916 the British 3rd Division’s 76th Brigade finally managed to link up with the beleaguered South African Infantry Brigade ‘Springboks’  holding Delville Wood and the first to do so were the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Eventually leading elements of the Suffolks and the 6th Royal Berkshire Regiment reached the South African positions.

The shattered, bloodied, shell-shocked Springbok soldiers who had held the wood since the 15th July ‘at all costs’ aroused such pride in the British soldiers relieving them they formed an honour guard to lead them out the wood.

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Abandoned German trench at Delville Wood 1916

121 officers and 3 032 men of the South African Infantry Brigade had gone into the wood to hold it and a smattering of this force was left after they were subjected to volley after volley of enemy artillery attacks (400 shells per minute), and wave after wave of German attacks, the fighting so desperate that some resorted to hand to hand combat.

The tiny group of South Africa survivors were now led out of Delville Wood in honour to the shrill of the Black Watch’s bagpipes, the two wounded officers in front of the 140 remaining members of the Brigade. When General Lukin took the salute as the men filed past, he didn’t only return the salute; he removed his cap and wept.

The honour still remains in The Transvaal Scottish Regiment who had fought at Delville Wood, and you can see it to this day, since 1938, members of the Transvaal Scottish have worn the Black Watch’s ‘red hackle’ on their khaki  tam o’ shanter as a symbol of South Africa’s connection with this very famous Regiment and the honour attained.

And history also preserves a picture for us on this day,  here are the men who piped the South Africans out of Delville Wood. 8th Battalion, Black Watch being issued a rum ration, 20 July 1916, Delville Wood France.

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The Black Watch Highland Brigade pipers were in fact led by Piper Sandy Grieve, and he had first met South Africans in completely different circumstances when he took part in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and had fought against the Boers as part of the Highland Brigade,  During the Battle of Magersfontein on the 11th December 1899, he would not forget the Boers in a hurry, as he was wounded through both his cheeks. Imagine going back to playing the bagpipes after that injury.

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Black Watch Red Hackle

Now part of the South African Scottish Regiments who had bravely held onto Delville Wood, It was this very man who now took the honour of playing the South Africans out of the Delville Wood on his pipes along with those of the Black Watch.

Sandy Grieve went on to honour the South Africans again, at the Drum Head service held at Delville Wood in France after the war in 1918, he played the lament of his own composition called ‘Delville Wood’

Now, Sandy Grieves’ history and connection with South Africa is a deep one. he immigrated to South Africa after the 2nd Anglo Boer War, joined the South African Armed Forces and served in both the First World War and Second World War with the Cape Town Highlanders – this is one very extraordinary man and here is a short video on him and well worth anyone’s time to meet him.

Honour

Looking at this video you cannot but only agree on two things, that the men and women of the 1st World War generation were cut from an entirely different cloth to the rest of us, and the traditions of honour forged in blood and battle should be forever preserved and never be underestimated or simply disregarded for this or that political whim in the 21st century.

When standing to remembrance on armistice day (1918-2018), remember Delville Wood, remember the ‘Piper’s Lament’ and remember just what it means when fellow soldiers of different musterings, traditions and wars honour the sacrifice of  our ‘brothers in arms’ 100 years ago.

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The Red Hackle of The Black Watch in South Africa. 12 Red Hackles seen on the men and women in the Transvaal Scottish at Heidelberg Shooting Range


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Reference – Ken Gillings’s Bush & Battlefield Tours, National Museum Scotland for the video profile on Sandy Grieves.

Related Links:

Delville Wood 100; ‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary

Battle of Delville Wood 400 shells/min fell on the Springboks … “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”

A Colonel who single-handedly rushed machine gun posts; Harry Greenwood VC

Honouring South African World War 1 heroes who have won the Victoria Cross for Valour, the ‘VC’, the highest British decoration for bravery.  When it comes to Victoria Crosses, the British government (and VC Trust) recognises ‘South African’ Victoria Crosses as those VC decorations won by South Africans in South Africa’s own Armed Forces (pre Republic) or recipients from other countries who won the VC whilst under South African Command, or recipients born in South Africa, or those recipients who made South Africa their home prior to the start of the war.

As to the last definition, this officer’s ‘South African’ VC is something else, as a senior officer, a Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col.), he led from the front single handily taking out machine gun nests and setting a supreme example of bravery and leadership to his men – and he did this time and again.

His story dispenses with a typical myth surrounding WW1, that the officers sat behind the lines in safety and comfort as their men ‘went over the top’ and chewed through lead and barbed wire fighting in the blood and mud on the western front.  The opposite is in fact true, British and Commonwealth commissioned officers, senior and junior, fought and died in their droves advancing on German defences side by side with their men. In fact your chances of surviving the war were significantly less if you were an officer. This is the story of one of these officers, Lt Col. Harry Greenwood VC, DSO & Bar, OBE, MC.

Background

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Lt Col. Harry Greenwood VC, DSO & Bar, OBE, MC.

Henry “Harry” Greenwood (1881-1948) was born on 25th November 1881 in Victoria Barracks, Windsor Castle, England, where his father was serving with the Grenadier Guards. He was the eldest of nine children born to Charles Greenwood of Nottingham and Margaret Abernethy, who hailed from County Tipperary, Ireland.

He enlisted in the British Army in 1899 to take part in the 2nd-Anglo Boer War 1899-1902 (The ‘South African War), arriving in South Africa from January 1900. After the Boer war ended, he returned to the United Kingdom demobilised and then headed straight back to South Africa to make a new life, whilst in South Africa he put his military skills to use and he joined the South African Constabulary.

At the outbreak of the First World War, he returned to the United Kingdom and re-enlisted in the Army as a Reservist officer joining the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

Western Front

Harry Greenwood was to serve in the front-lines on the Western Front literally from the outbreak of the war to the end of it.  In his time he took part in just about every offensive The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry took part in – from the Battle for Loos to the final battles in 1918 and along the way he was wounded three times – missing the odd offensive to recover, he was mentioned in dispatches three times and he also managed to pick up a number of gallantry decorations including amongst others – the Victoria Cross.

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Men of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry fuse Stokes trench mortar shells near Wieltjie, 1 October 1917.

MC

MilitaryCrossWW1His string of remarkable acts of bravery began when he was awarded the Military Cross (MC)  in January 1916, recognising his gallant actions on 26th September 1915 during the Battle of Loos (25 September – 8 October 1915) near Hill 70, Loos, France.

DSO

His MC was followed up with higher acclaim – the DSO (Distinguished Service Order). In July 1918, he was awarded his DSO for devotion to duty during two heavy attacks by the German on The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry’s positions.

The enemy attack was made under cover of mist and it was repulsed by the British, however a hostile enemy machine-gun detachment succeeded in getting within 50 yards of the British line causing significant carnage and sending machine gunners, officers and men into cover.

Distinguished_Service_Order_correctHarry Greenwood’s battalion was by this stage very short of machine gunners owing to casualties, Harry Greenwood, along with an Non-Commissioned Officer rushed out from their defences with total disregard to the incoming enemy fire, he found a fellow British officer and some men hiding in a hollow with a heavy machine-gun, Greenwood then ordered them to carry it back to his lines, being all the time under intense fire. The gun was then used on the enemy to very great effect.

Bar to his DSO

Harry Greenwood DSO, MC was to win the Distinguished Service Order again (Bar to his first DSO), again taking on enemy machine gun nests. His Bar to his DSO (London Gazette, 2nd December 1918) was for conspicuous gallantry during an attack. Although ill, Greenwood refused to leave his battalion and led the first line to the attack.

During the attack, when capturing he first objective he was injured by a shell burst. Carrying the injury he elected to continue and take the second objective of the attack. On reaching the second objective he re-organised his battalion along with another battalion, and took up a defensive position from which he beat off two enemy counter-attacks.

He continued to hold his ground until relieved. The very next day, the British advance was held up by very heavy machine-gun fire, he made a daring individual reconnaissance of the enemy positions, spotting a weakness he returned and then inspired his men by successfully leading them around the enemy’s flank. 

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Battle of Tardenois. Men of the 2nd Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (62nd Division) examining a captured German Maxim 08/15 (Spandau) machine gun with French and Italian officers. Bois de Reims, 24 July 1918. French officer’s regimental markings were obscured by the military censor.

Victoria Cross

Over two days of fighting from 23rd to 24th October 1918, Lt Col. Harry Greenwood was to win the Victoria Cross.  His battalion was to advance eastwards towards Ovillers in northern France – the target was Dukes Wood.  Early in the morning of 23rd the Harry Greenwood’s Battalion advance was stalled by an enemy machine gun post which had not been mopped up by the advancing unit on the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry – 9th. battalion’s right flank, and the battalion started taking heavy casualties from the German machine gunners.

At this point Harry Greenwood decided enough was enough and he jumped up and single-handed rushed the German machine gun post which was firing at point-blank range, he then proceeded to kill all four of the machine gun’s crew.

With the machine gun out nest of the way the advance was back on again, Harry Greenwood’s battalion arrived at the village of Ovillers where they encountered yet another enemy machine gun post at the entrance of the village, which again held up the advance. Once again Lt Col. Harry Greenwood rushed the machine gun, with two of his men this time, and they proceeded to kill all the gun’s crew.

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Battle of Tardenois. Sentry of the 2/4th Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry looking out for the enemy in the Bois de Reims. Note corpses of dead horses on the road.

On reaching the objective, Dukes Wood, Harry’s 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry had lost contact with the two units advancing on their left and right flank.  Lt Col. Greenwood and 250 of him men found themselves isolated and surrounded by enemy machine gun posts of significant strength.

The Germans, upon seeing Lt Col. Harry Greenwood’s force almost isolated immediatly counter attacked on the right flank and succeeded to getting within 40 yards of Harry’s battalion’s position before the attack was broken up by the besieged British.

Lt Col. Greenwood then inspired his men, who were now well in advance of their own covering artillery barrage, to push through and take the final objective – they swept forward cheering as they went and took German positions in Dukes Wood.  In taking the German defences they captured 150 prisoners, 8 machine guns and one field gun.

Not resting on their laurels of Victory for too long, the very next day the 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry was back in the thick of it, and so to Lt Col Harry Greenwood – there’s more to his Victoria Cross than the 23rd October 1918.

On the 24th October, the 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were given the objective of taking a ‘Green line’ south of Poix Du Nord.  Once gain as the Battalion advanced they were held up withering fire from enemy inter-crossing ‘wired’ machine gun posts positioned along a ridge.

Lt Col. Greenwood decided to do a personal reconnaissance and he discovered that a part of the ridge that was held by one enemy machine gun only.  Again, he demonstrates unbelievable bravery when he once again rushes this machine gun nest single-handedly and kills all the gun’s crew, so close and perilous was this  individual charge that they were firing at him at a range of just 20 yards.

Lt Col. Greenwood then advances his men into this gap he now created by disabling the machine gun nest. The whole flank of machine gun posts on the ridge was turned and the British advance proceeded through Poix Du Norn, with Lt Col Greenwood’s Battalion sweeping aside a further line of  machine gun posts that were encountered just north of the town.

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Men of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, cleaning up a captured German trench at Bois de Reims during the battle of Tardenois, 23 July 1918.

Upon finally reaching their objective, the Battalion came under intense enemy machine gun and artillery fire. The Battalion started to take heavy casualties and their line position and line ‘wavered’ under the intense enemy counter-attack.  However Harry Greenwood was going to hold his ground and in full view of the enemy and under withering enemy machine gun fire he jumped up and walked up and down his line, encouraging his men to hold their line and beat off the counter-attack which they subsequently did.

During the afternoon of the 24th October, Harry’s Battalion was given another objective on Grand Gay Farm Road, and once again his advanced was hampered by heavy machine gun posts not cleared up by Battalions advancing on his battalion’s flanks.  He pushed his men to take their objective and silence the machine guns in front of him and then swung the battalion to the right flank to take the machine guns allocated as the objective of his flanking battalion – thus securing his objective and that of the right flank for the Division.

Citation

For his example set during the two days fighting Lt Col. Greenwood’s  utter contempt for danger, bravery and inspiring leadership won him the Victoria Cross. London Gazette, 26th December 1918.

Lt Col. Henry (Harry) Greenwood VC, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry,  Ovillers, France 1918

medalWhen the advance of his battalion on the 23rd October was checked, and many casualties caused by an enemy machine-gun post, Lieutenant Colonel Greenwood single-handed rushed the post and killed the crew. At the entrance to the village of Ovillers, accompanied by two battalion runners, he again rushed a machine-gun post and killed the occupants. On reaching the objective west of Duke’s Wood his command was almost surrounded by hostile machine-gun posts, and the enemy at once attacked his isolated force. The attack was repulsed and, led by Lieutenant Colonel Greenwood, his troops swept forward and captured the last objective, with 150 prisoners, 8 machine-guns and one field gun. During the attack on the Green Line south of Poix Du Nord, on 24th October, he again displayed the greatest gallantry in rushing a machine-gun post, and he showed conspicuously good leadership in the handling of his command in the face of heavy fire. He inspired his men in the highest degree, with the result that the objective was captured, and, in spite of heavy casualties, the line was held. During the further advance on Grand Gay Farm Road, on the afternoon of 24th October, the skilful and bold handling of his battalion was productive of most important results, not only on securing the flank of his brigade, but also in safeguarding the flank of the division. His valour and leading during 2 days of fighting were beyond all praise.

Second World War

Harry Greenwood was invested with the Victoria Cross, and the Bar to his DSO, by King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 8th May 1919. In 1919, Lt. Col. Greenwood retired from the Army, having been wounded in action three times and mentioned in despatches three times, and resumed his career as a company director, however when World War 2 broke out their was still more soldering in this Anglo Boer War, South African Police, First World War veteran and he but served with the Pioneer Corps during the Second World War.

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Harry Greenwood after receiving his Victoria Cross, and the Bar to his DSO from King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 8th May 1919.

For his service in the Second World War, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1944.

Remembrance 

Harry Greenwood died in his house just after WW2 at 77 Home Park Road, in Wimbledon, South London on 5th May 1948, and was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery.

Because of his history in South Africa prior to World War 1 and the specifications surrounding the Victoria Cross, Harry Greenwood’s VC is shared by both the United Kingdom and South Africa.

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In 2013, in order to correctly address South Africa’s Victoria Cross winners, as the issue of South African VC winners in British Regiments had taken a back seat whilst the Afrikaner Nationalists were in power.  It was bad enough for the Nationalists to recognise VC winners, but worse still to recognise those South Africans winning it in British units – so in all – of all the South African VC’s won in World War 1 and World War 2, the government of the day at the time would only recognise 4 recipients, that is, only those who served in South African Regiments/Units – out of a total of 20 South African VC winners in all. In the UK the lack of South Africa’s resolve to promote and remember all thier VC winners (unlike Australia and Canada) led to a gradual decline and loss of the historic record.

To clear up the matter, and honour VC winners of South African heritage or those who had made South Africa their home prior to the war, The Victoria Cross Trust and the UK government approached  South African Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to confirm the number of South Africans that were awarded the Victoria Cross during World War One.

To correct the matter, the British then officially listed all recognised South African Victoria Cross winners on a special VC commemoration plaque which they shipped to South Africa.  The plaque was unveiled by the British High Commission at a ceremony in Cape Town in late 2014 at the Cape Town Castle, where it is proudly still accessible to the public – and it includes the name of Lt Col Harry Greenwood VC.

In the United Kingdom, Harry Greenwood VC is recognised with a Blue Plaque at his place of birth, it’s located in Windsor at the Victoria Barracks in Sheet Street and reads “Lt. Col. Harry Greenwood VC DSO OBE MC 1881-1948 Born in Victoria Barracks Awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery at Ovillers, France in 1918 serving with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry”.

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Even more recently in the United Kingdom, special Victoria Cross stones honouring recipients at their places of birth have been installed in ceremonies all over the country in the lead up to the centenary of World War 1.

They are unveiled in public spaces by the respective councils on the day that the VC was won exactly 100 years.  Harry Greenwood’s ceremony took place a couple of weeks ago, his Victoria Cross citation was read out by Colonel Dan Reeve MC, late of the Rifles. Then the vice-Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire Jeffery Branch unveiled the stone. Harry Greenwood’s great-nephew Michael Greenwood read out a list of names of members of his ancestor’s battalion who died over those two days in 1918. He described his great-uncle as someone who never stayed behind as his men went over the top but went with them, doing his best to protect them.

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The Great Great Grandaughter Clara Levacy of WW1 VC Winner Harry Greenwood honours him in Bachelors Acre, Windsor – Picture: Mike Swift.

At a small ceremony held in Doncaster on the 17th July 2002, the family of Lieutenant Colonel Harry Greenwood donated his Victoria Cross medal group to the Regimental Museum of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in Doncaster.

His medal group consisting of the VC, DSO and Bar, OBE, MC, Queens South Africa Medal 1899-1902 with four clasps, King’s South Africa Medal 1902 with two clasps, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oakleaf, Defence Medal 1939-45, War Medal 1939-45, King George V Silver Jubilee Medal 1935 and King George VI Coronation Medal 1937.

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Story Researched and Written by Peter Dickens

Related work and Links

Reginald Hayward VC  “Superhuman powers of endurance and courage” Reginald Hayward VC

William F. Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC

Sherwood Kelly VC “…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

Percy Hansen VC One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross; Percy Hansen VC, DSO, MC

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’

William Hewitt VC “There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it” destroying a German Pillbox single-handedly – William Hewitt VC

Clement Robertson VC Under deadly fire he directed his tanks to their objective … on foot! Clement Robertson VC

Oswald Reid VC “Bravery in the face of desperate circumstances” Oswald Reid VC

References 

Large extracts published with the kind permission of The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013. with sincere thanks to Charles Ross from The South African Legion. Additional Reference and extracts – The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria Cross and George Cross – on-line.  Images copyright Imperial War Museum where indicated.  The recommendation by Brigade commander C V Edwards for Temporary Major (acting Lt-Colonel) Harry Greenwood DSO, MC.  Mike Swift and Francis Batt from the Royal Borough Observer.

 

A bad ‘driver’ and an equally bad ‘siren’ suit

Looking at this image I’m reminded of two things not known to many people about Smuts and Churchill and both are equally bad.  That Winston Churchill invented some bizarre things, including the rather unflattering ‘siren suit’ and Jan Smuts as a family man, whose entire family would vanish whenever he got close to his automobile.

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Taken on the 23rd August, 1942 in the gardens of the British Embassy, Cairo, this photo shows Winston Churchill in his infamous siren suit and wearing yet another odd hat.  The small boy is Victor Lampson, the son of the British Ambassador to Egypt, who seems uncertain as to whether he wants to pose for Jan Smuts’ camera (seen in his left hand) as Churchill looks on in cheerful mood. Photo: Birmingham Mail and Post

Jan Smuts and automobiles 

So, lets kick off with Jan Smuts’ ability to make his family collectively disappear whenever he proposed driving them somewhere in his car.  Simply put, this Reformer, Prime Minister, Lawyer, Philosopher, Military Strategist and Botanist – with all his unsurpassed intelligence just could not get his great intellect around the simple idea of safely driving a modern automobile.

Smuts used to head off from his home in Irene, just outside Pretoria, with his grandchildren on the back seat of his car.  Whilst driving along some or other interesting idea would enter his mind and he would take his hands off the steering wheel, turn around – taking his eyes off the road completely and address the kids on the back seat on the subject at hand.  Much to the collective terror of everyone in the car except Smuts, the car would then veer off the road and careen into the veldt and fields until Smuts paid attention to it again and brought it back onto the road.

So whenever Smuts proposed going anywhere in the car, with him driving it, his family, in fear of their lives would suddenly make themselves very scarce.  Clearly he was more comfortable riding a horse, which by all accounts during the Second Anglo-Boer War he was very good at.

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Jan Smuts’ Cars – taken at the Smuts House Museum near Pretoria. The black car is his 1946 Cadillac which he used when he was Prime Minister. The other car looks like a 1948 Buick, photo thanks to Brian Parson.

Thank you to Philip Weyers, Jan Smuts’ great grandson, for that interesting insight into his family.

Winston Churchill and siren suits 

As to another intellectual giant, Sir Winston Churchill, note Winston Churchill’s “siren suit” and wide-brimmed hat (he loved hats) which he used when resting to totter around the garden in, building walls, painting but he also unabashedly wore them meeting Presidents, Cabinet Ministers and Generals.

Similar in style to boiler suits or overalls worn by many workers including mechanics, brick layers and tank crews to protect their standard clothing, the ‘siren suit’ was a more upmarket version of a boiler suit and is said to be invented by Churchill as an original leisure suit in the 1930s.

Churchill played a large part in popularising his all-in-one suit as an item of clothing during World War 2, wearing it regularly, including when meeting other important people such as U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, General Dwight Eisenhower and even Joseph Stalin.

During the Second World War it was marketed as a one-piece garment for the whole body which is easily put on or taken off, originally designed for use on the way to and whilst in air-raid shelters. The suit solved the problems of warmth and modesty encountered when seeking shelter during night-time air raids.  It was said to be roomy and could be put on over night-clothes quickly when an imminent air raid was announced by the city’s warning sirens.  Hence the term ‘Siren Suit’.

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They are perhaps more commonly associated with pop starlets and reality television stars – but the true pioneer of the onesie was Winston Churchill. Photo Life Magazine

Winston Churchill had a number of these gormless ‘onesie’ siren suits, and some of them were even designed for him by the best tailors of his time – a pin stripe version which he wore during the war years and then for portraits was made by Oscar Nemon and Frank O. Salisbury.   After the war in the 1950s another siren suit, made of bottle-green velvet, was created for him by Turnbull & Asser. It is also claimed that Austin Reed made a siren suit for him.

In Conclusion

So there you have it, the awful ‘onesie’ was pioneered by Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts was an awful ‘driver’. For all the intellectual brilliance both these men represented, both men were just that – men, and they both had the usual flawed human traits and odd quirks.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Posts and Links

Churchill and Smuts on D-Day: Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day

Churchill and Smuts’ friendship: Churchill’s Desk

Thanks a Million!

Whoo-hoo … my blog, The Observation Post just hit the 1,000,000 views mark!

I started this blog after my father’s death around this time in Hermanus, South Africa – fondly known locally as ‘Prof Dickens’ to many locals, it was just three short years ago and in a way it is a homage to the library of military history books he left to me to reference, his passion for the subject and it was really set up in his memory.

In my small way I wanted to capture the joint passion for the subject we both felt, debated and endlessly discussed over a glass of whiskey – very often overlooking Schulphoek bay from his art gallery surrounded by all his military aviation and maritime artworks.

The work in essence was a cathartic experience for me at the difficult time of my Dad’s death as it gave vent to all the knowledge and nuggets of South Africa’s military history imparted to me or inspired by my Dad, and I’m extremely happy to share all his legacy, he would have been pleased as punch with it – there are now 323 stories published, 57 stories currently been ‘polished’ waiting to go and well over 200 more stories in basic draft pending.

Both my Dad and I were Marketing people in our time and The Observation Post can now be found in multimedia, it has a blog with an e-mail subscription, a linked Facebook ‘Page’ (just click like and click the prompts to follow it), a linked Twitter account and even a Facebook ‘Group’ discussion forum were you can interact with me directly and share your own interesting historical nuggets with like-minded people.

Blog: https://samilhistory.com

FB Page: https://www.facebook.com/samilhistory/

FB Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1987664881245816/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/samilhistory

Aside from my Dad, ‘Thanks a Million’ to you, all the avid followers of the blog, the readers of the material, it’s your support which keeps it going and it’s your feedback that motivates me to bring more historical nuggets so often gleaned over, written out of the school history books and ignored for political expediency in South Africa.

Here’s to another Million Dad – Cheers!

Peter Dickens