The interesting part of digging up all the “hidden” history of the South African veteran movements after World War 2, is that occasionally you come across some hidden history about the military veterans organisation which you belong to. Did you know that both Jan Smuts AND Winston Churchill are both members of the South African Legion of Military Veterans?
Well – they are. Field Marshal Jan Smuts was awarded the “Gold Life Membership Badge of the South African Legion of the BESL” in November 1945, and Sir Winston Churchill received the same Gold Life Membership Badge to the South African Legion in July 1948.
And here they are – two fellow Legionnaires, the two great prime ministers of Great Britain and South Africa, Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts, at the British Embassy in Cairo, 5 August 1942.
Did you also know that Jan Smuts played a pivot role in not only formulating the South African Legion, but also in bringing all the primary war veterans organisations from Britain and around the British Commonwealth under one oversight body? It was formed in 1921 in Cape Town and called The British Empire Service League (BESL) under patronage of the King. This organisation still exists to this day as the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCESL) with Queen Elizabeth II as the head Patron, located at The Royal British Legion’s head office at Haig House in London – and South Africa is still a founding member (represented by the South African Legion).
This is a standard South African Legion blazer Badge with “Kings crown” from the 2nd World War period. Note the BESL at the bottom – which stands for the “British Empire Services League” – the South African Legion along with the Royal British Legion, Royal Canadian Legion, Royal Scottish Legion, New Zealand Returned Services Association and the Australian Returned Services League are all founder members of it.
Modern South African Legion blazer badge – note the use of modern BESL the RCEL “Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League” and Queen’s Crown” for Queen Elizabeth II who is the current Patron.
The RCEL mission and objective is to provide aid and support to any members of the British Commonwealth who have served under ‘crown’ in British Armed Forces or Commonwealth Armed Forces whilst under British Patronage. These include South Africa’s old World War 2 veterans and newer veterans who have served under the Commonwealth agreement in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in recent conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Related Work and Links
Legions and Poppies: Legions and Poppies … and their South African root
Churchills Desk: Churchill’s Desk
Jan Smuts, Churchill and D-Day: Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day
Researched and written by Peter Dickens
Image copyright – The Imperial War Museum. Reference “Not For Ourselves” – a history of the South African Legion by Arthur Blake.