Legions and Poppies … and their South African root

Come November, just about every BBC or Sky broadcast shows presenters diligently wearing a Poppy on his or her lapel.  Just about every International English-speaking Celebrity is openly sporting the Poppy.  In the United Kingdom the ‘Poppy Season’ (first two weeks of November) finds the Islands sinking under a weight of paper and plastic poppies. Similarly in Canada, any South African living in or visiting Canada finds themselves knee-deep in poppies.

The two big driving organisations behind this poppy craze in the United Kingdom and Canada respectively is the Royal British Legion and the Royal Canadian Legion.  Simply put, the ‘Poppy’ is the ‘intellectual property’ of the ‘Legion’ (and its even copyrighted) – and is the major vehicle used to raise funds for war veteran support.  Patriotic Brits and Canadians get behind their armed forces and the armed forces community and support them to the hilt by buying a poppy – millions of Pounds and Dollars are raised.  But what of South Africa, where do they fit in?

Step in The South African Legion.  Yes, believe it or not, we have our own “Legion” and it is related to The Royal British Legion and the Royal Canadian Legion as part of an international Legion brotherhood.  It too has the ‘Poppy’ as its ‘Intellectual property’ and it shares a mutual history – so where’s the link?

The Root

Simply put it was South Africa which was the epicentre that brought all these organisations under a singular umbrella.  Cape Town was the original ‘glue’ that bound the Legions together, we as South Africans can stand proud that it is our country which created this unique world-wide link.

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This historic photo was taken in Cape Town when the Royal Commonwealth Ex Services League RCEL was formed (then known as the British Empire Services League BESL) in 1921. The three founders – Field Marshal Haig (left) went on from this meeting to start what is now known as the Royal British Legion and Field Marshal Smuts (centre) and General Lukin (right) went on to start what is now known as the South African Legion.

After suffering the horrors of war in France and Flanders thousands of men who fought on the British side in World War One underwent incredible hardship once they had been discharged from the armed services and returned to civilian life. Realising the serious plight in which men found themselves, these three prominent soldiers : Field Marshall Earl Haig, General the Rt. Hon. J C Smuts and General Sir H T Lukin founded the British Empire Service League (BESL) The inaugural meeting was held in the City Hall, Cape Town on 21 February 1921.

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On the 15 May 1921 Field Marshal Haig returned from the South African BESL conference and founded The British Legion by bringing together four existing organisations – the Comrades of the Great War, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers and the Officers’ Association. It was granted a Royal Charter on 29 May 1971 to mark its fiftieth anniversary which gives the Legion the privilege of the prefix ‘Royal’. Earl Haig remained the President of The British Legion until his death.

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Silk Haig Fund Poppy

The ‘Red Poppy’ has an American root.  In 1918 an American lady from the state of Georgia, Mrs. Moina Michael, read John McCrae’s “In Flander’s Field” and was so moved by it that she came up with an idea of making and wearing red poppies on Memorial Day in the United States of America (last Monday in May) to honour those who died serving in the US military during the First World War. She then began selling her silk poppies to raise money for distressed servicemen and their families (The American Legion still continues this legacy to this day).

Madam Guérin from France had been in the United States during the war, raising money and raising American consciousness about the war. She became aware of Mrs. Michael’s red poppies. On her return to France, she emulated Mrs. Michael and made red poppies to raise money for women, children and families affected by the war.

22339613_10155921037656654_7816662684661396688_oThe Poppy entered into The Royal British Legion’s history in the same year as the RCEL was formed in Cape Town – 1921, when Madame Guérin promoted what she termed the ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’ to the British Legion, a day in which all Britain and her empire who took part in Would War One would remember the fallen with the token of the Flanders red poppy.

After taking her idea to Field Marshal Douglas Haig and the British Legion, Madame Guérin’s poppies (made out of silk by the widows and orphans of the devastated areas of France) were distributed on British streets on 11 November 1921 – on the country’s first Poppy Day.  

By the next year – 1922, “Haig’s Fund” was initiated as the central charity to collect and distribute the raised funds and paper poppies started to make their appearance to raise funds for war victims on a national level.

The South African Branch was titled ‘British Empire Service League (South Africa) and it was also formed by joining the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Association and the Comrades of the Great War (after which the Comrades Marathon is also named see Observation Post. A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon ) .

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On 8 April 1941 in deference to the pro-war two and anti-war factions in the country the name was changed to the ‘South African Legion of the BESL in order to emphasise its South African identity.

Originally in Bloemfontein, the Headquarters moved to Johannesburg in 1942 and is now housed at the Dan Pienaar house in Sandton Johannesburg.  The BESL has since changed its name to the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL). In line with this in 1958 the name of the South African Legion was again altered its name, this time to the South African Legion of the British Commonwealth Ex-Service League.

The South African Legion is an active and founding member organisation of the RCEL and HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, remained the High Patron of the Legion for many years and this mantle was taken over by his son Prince Andrew, Duke of York took in February 2015.  Queen Elizabeth II remains the Chief Patron of The Royal Commonwealth Ex Services League.

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The aim of the RCEL (BESL) was to provide care, employment and housing. In South Africa the Legion was equal to the challenge. It built on the foundation and continued this good work after World War Two. Thousands of men and women have been assisted in all manner of means and this work carries on to-day. Former National Servicemen and those who were part of the Armed Struggle are assisted with advice and direction.

Towards the end of World War Two the Legion launched several housing schemes in various parts of the country, including housing projects for coloured and black soldiers. A large social centre and chapel in Soweto is a good example. When the Government lifted the ban on Black people owning property, veterans living in over 200 homes built by the Legion in the Dube and Moroka districts of Soweto found themselves entitled to acquire their homes on a 99 year leasehold.

The marginalizing of The South African Legion

Many older people will remember a time, when on “Poppy Day” in South Africa (usually the Saturday before Remembrance Sunday) when thousands of South African Legion members with their supporters would ‘sell’ plastic poppies raising funds for veterans in need in just about every major shopping centre all over South Africa.  Some may even remember the Legion visiting their schools and explaining the meaning of the Poppy.  So where is this mass movement now?  It’s a mass movement in the United Kingdom and Canada and has gown from strength to strength, yet this phenomenon in South Africa has waned somewhat – so what happened?

The Legion’s role as South Africa’s official veteran’s body started to erode from 1948 when the National Party came to power in South Africa on its proposals of Apartheid.  At the time the South African Legion boasted the majority of World War 1 and World War 2 as members under its wing.  At the end of World War 2, nearly 40% of the standing South African military was made up of ‘Black’, ‘coloured’ and ‘Indian’ South Africans and many also belonged to the Legion alongside their ‘white’ counterparts.

Many of these veterans took umbrage to the National Party and its new ‘Apartheid’ policy, and especially resisted the National Party’s anti-British stance and its race politics.  In a call by The Torch Commando (a veterans anti-apartheid movement started by ‘Sailor Malan’), tens of thousands of veterans rose up in protest against the government – including the majority of The South African Legion’s members at the time.

The National Party acted decisively and moved to ban and erode this veterans movement (see Observation Post The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!), and after the demise of The Torch Commando the veterans returned to their origin associations – however the Nationalist government was forever to remain weary of the World War 2 war veterans, and the war veterans themselves remained forever weary of the National Party government.

The Nationalists (and many Afrikaners in the SADF officer class) also began to brand South Africa’s remaining war veterans associations, mainly the South African Legion and The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), as ‘British’ and ‘Unpatriotic ‘ whilst they maintained their ‘British’ links, insignia and heritage.

From the beginning of 1948 the Legion relations with the Nationalists were strained in the extreme. A major clash took place when the Legion reacted strongly in 1956 to the Government’s move to ban Black and Coloured veterans from Remembrance Day Services.

The Legion was again at loggerheads with the National Party government over the lack of parity with regard to pensions paid out to Black and Coloured veterans.  The fight to obtain parity of pensions for all – white, coloured and black veterans was finally won in 1986/87. It had been a very long battle.

The government also started to gradually turn off the taps of the supply of veterans to these associations from the newly formatted ‘South African Defence Force’ (SADF) when they completed their service.  Whereas under the old South African Union’ Defence Force (UDF) such a transition when demobilizing was the norm.

By the mid 1980’s it was highly unlikely that the old SADF would invite the Legion to a demobilization briefing to explain the benefits of these new ‘veterans’ joining the Legion, nor would it actively promote the Legion or the MOTH to thousands of SADF permanent force members and conscripts as an option for them post service.

The National Party also took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961, and along with sanctions and International isolation, the South African Legion – as a Commonwealth inspired and linked association, found itself floundering in a country whose government had no time for the British and the Commonwealth and its affiliations at all.

Faced with an ageing membership, a divergent view to that of the Apartheid government of the day, and no ‘new blood’ from the SADF for nearly four decades on end, the Legion (and the MOTH) gradually started to slip into long-term decline.

A major casualty of all of this was the gradual removal of the ‘Poppy’ as an icon of Remembrance from the general population’s mass consciousness.  Embroiled in race politics where black servicemen were marginalised and events as to Apartheid took greater national precedence, the Poppy took a back seat to the seismic events of the day – and where the movement flourished in other countries, it declined in South Africa.

1994 – Resurgence 

1994 was a significant year in many respects, South Africa re-joined the Commonwealth of Nations and was invited back into the International world.  Almost instantly Queen Elizabeth II visited South Africa to re-kindle the links and in a landmark move, The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Service League (RCEL) decreed that its 75th international convention would again take place in Cape Town.

Nelson Mandela opened the RCEL’s Cape Town convention in 1996 on the 26th February and his speech says everything about the hope held by the world’s veterans associations for South Africa when he said:

“Today we meet on this very same spot where the League was founded as equal citizens of our respective countries, committed to freedom for all without qualification. Although the danger of a world war has not been completely eliminated, we now live in a friendlier world, thanks to the tireless efforts of men and women some of whom are present in this hall.

We are confident that your deliberations will help shape our ongoing efforts to re-build the lives of veterans and dependents of our fallen heroes. As a nation that has just emerged from a war situation, we look towards the South African Legion to locate and assist the affected people. With your help and guidance, we will certainly succeed”. 

President Nelson Mandela

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RCEL 75th Convention – Cape Town 1996

The South African Legion resurged and has since been working very hard to re-establish the Poppy heritage in South Africa and promote itself to the South African veterans community as a ‘non political’ (and non government) veteran association option – both with international links and a proud and very long heritage.

One of the Legion’s major undertakings today is securing pensions for South African post-war disabled servicemen, It also undertakes investigations on behalf of the RCEL in respect of assistance requested by other Commonwealth ex-service personnel who reside in South Africa.

Its been an amazing journey, the South African Legion is part of a worldwide brotherhood of veterans organisations – including the other RCEL founders, from the United Kingdom – The Royal British Legion the Royal Legion Scotland, from Australasia, the Australian Returned Services League (RSL) and the New Zealand Returned Services Association (RSA) and in Canada, the Royal Canadian Legion – and the South African Legion still stands proud in its conjoint history with all these prestigious veterans organisations.

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The Legion has a legacy that is nearly 100 years old, its still the “Primo” (the first) veterans association in South Africa and it has outlived all the political epochs in South Africa.  To date it still holds steady in its mission – beaten down during the Apartheid years but now growing, re-energised and focussed on the future.  With any luck the ‘Remembrance Poppy’ will again find its well-earned place in South African society.

The ‘Centenary’ of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League, the 100 year anniversary of its founding in 2021, will again take place in Cape Town – South Africa, and what an honour that will be.


Written by Peter Dickens.  Photo reference South African Military History Society. Content Reference – South African Legion webpage

In the photo caption: Gen. J.C. Smuts (centre) with Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (left) and Maj Gen Sir H.T. Lukin, Commander of 1 South African Infantry Brigade and subsequently Commander of 9 (Scottish) Division (right). Photograph was taken at 1st Conference of the South African Legion of the British Empire Service League, Cape Town (28 February – 4 March 1921). The ranks referred to are those held at the time the photograph was taken.

References ‘Not for Ourselves’ a history of The South African Legion.Leg

3 thoughts on “Legions and Poppies … and their South African root

  1. In 1918 an American lady from city of Athens in the state of Georgia, Mrs. Moina Michael, read John McCrae’s “In Flander’s Field” and was so moved by it that she came up with an idea of making and wearing red poppies on Memorial Day (last Monday in May) to honour those who died serving in the US military during the First World War. She then began selling her silk poppies to raise money for distressed servicemen and their families. Madam Guerin from France had been in the US during the war, raising money and raising American consciousness about the war. She became aware of Mrs. Michael’s red poppies.On her return to France, she emulated Mrs. Michael and made red poppies to raise money for women, children and families affected by the war. This tradition quickly spread spread to other, mainly Commonwealth countries.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Torch’s impact on the South African military veteran diaspora! | The Observation Post

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