Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’

Did you know that “The Comrades Marathon” has a shared spirit and a shared history with The South African Legion of Military Veterans?

As the oldest military veterans organisation in South Africa, the South African Legion was formed at the 1921 Empire Conference (28 February to March 4) in Cape Town as the British Empire Services League (BESL, South Africa) by joining two organisations together – the “Returned Soldiers and Sailors Association” and the “Comrades of the Great War”, which co-incidentally is the organisation after which the term “Comrades” in Comrades Marathon is given.  In the course of history the “BESL South Africa” came to be called “The South African Legion of Military Veterans”.

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In the same year – 1921 – Vic Clapham, a World War 1 veteran himself approached the “Comrades of the Great War” with a vision that would result in the worlds greatest ultra marathon nearly one hundred years later.

His idea was that if infantrymen, drafted into the armed forces from sedentary jobs, could endure forced marches over great distances, trained athletes could cover the distance between the two cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban without great difficulty. Clapham, like the Legion, also wanted to remember those who had fallen in the war, and he felt the best way to honour this was by the ultimate testing of body and mind, and triumphing.

The Natal athletics body was not interested in the idea of a ultra marathon, and thought Clapham was quite mad, so undaunted by the set-back Clapham approached the British Empire Services League of South Africa (now known as the South African Legion), and asked permission to stage the race under their auspices. They ultimately agreed and financially underwrote the first race.

The first 1921 Comrades Marathon was run by Vic Clapham and included a field of 34  runners, of them Sixteen runners completed the 87, 9km (55 mile) downhill race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. The race was won by Bill Rowan who finished in a time of 8:59:00 and his name is now given to the sub 9 hour medal in today’s race.

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Left to Right “Modern” Comrades medals

A gold medal for the top 10 finishers
A Wally Hayward for a sub-6 hour time
A Silver for a sub-7:30 time
A Bill Rowan for sub-9
A Bronze for sub-11 and finally
A Vic Clapham for sub-12

SALegion_FinalLogoLayout_GreenPrintTextAlthough The Comrades Marathon is an independent commercial concern now, The South African Legion has continued its association to the Comrades Marathon over the  years and encourages all participants to wear a Remembrance Poppy in recognition of this history and the sacrifice of the fallen.  In this respect the Comrades Marathon is still in fact a “living memorial” to the Great War (World War 1).

The need for South Africa to hold onto Namibia for as long as it did.

The capture of German South West Africa as part of the start of World War One, by South Africa, had a profound impact on the next 100 years of South Africa’s history. Whilst its invasion was important to the outcome of WW1, its period as a protectorate of South Africa’s after the war had a longer and more profound impact.

Politically speaking, the incorporation of the South West African white electorate into the South African electorate after the National Party came to power in 1948, set South Africa on a path which was to see it embroiled in a two and a half decade long war with South West Africa’s liberation movement and Angolan coalition forces (1966-1989).

The inclusion of this very pro German – anti British ‘whites only’ South West African voters into South African elections provided the National Party with a very large loyal voting block – it added to the campaign to reconcile constituencies to keep Smuts’ old United Party from getting back into power. Between 1950 and 1977, whites in the territory were represented in the South African Parliament by four Senators and six Ministers of Parliament.

Its also this loyal base of conservative white voters that the National Party found obligated to, so much so it was prepared for a protracted war to keep them.  The National Party in some senses saw South West Africa as a 5th province of South Africa and not an independent state.

It’s a fascinating period of South Africa’s history, and very ironic to think that it was this military campaign by Smuts and Botha that started it all.  Funny how history turns out.

South Africa’s World War 1 German South West Africa campaign is best and briefly summarised as follows:

An invasion of German South-West Africa from the south failed at the Battle of Sandfontein (25 September 1914), close to the border with the Cape Colony. German fusiliers inflicted a serious defeat on the British troops and the survivors returned to the Cape Colony.

The Germans began an invasion of South Africa to forestall another invasion attempt and the Battle of Kakamas took place on 4 February 1915, between South African and German forces, a skirmish for control of two river fords over the Orange River.

The South Africans prevented the Germans from gaining control of the fords and crossing the river. By February 1915, the South Africans were ready to occupy German territory.

General Botha put General Smuts in command of the southern forces while he commanded the northern forces.

Botha arrived at Swakopmund on 11 February and continued to build up his invasion force at Walfish Bay (or Walvis Bay), a South African enclave about halfway along the coast of German South West Africa. In March Botha began an advance from Swakopmund along the Swakop valley with its railway line and captured Otjimbingwe, Karibib, Friedrichsfelde, Wilhelmsthal and Okahandja and then entered Windhuk (Windhoek) on 5 May 1915.

The Germans offered surrender terms, which were rejected by Botha and the war continued.

On 12 May Botha declared martial law and divided his forces into four contingents, which cut off German forces in the interior from the coastal regions of Kunene and Kaokoveld and fanned out into the north-east.

The South African column under General Lukin went along the railway line from Swakopmund to Tsumeb. The other two South African columns rapidly advanced on the right flank, Myburgh to Otavi junction and Manie Botha to Tsumeb and the terminus of the railway.

German forces in the north-west fought the Battle of Otavi on 1 July but were defeated and surrendered at Khorab on 9 July 1915. In the south, Smuts landed at the South West African naval base at Luderitzbucht, then advanced inland and captured Keetmanshoop on 20 May. The South Africans linked with two columns which had advanced over the border from South Africa.

Smuts advanced north along the railway line to Berseba and on 26 May, after two day’s fighting captured Gibeon.

The Germans in the south were forced to retreat northwards towards Windhuk and Botha’s force. On 9 July the German forces in the south surrendered.

This German surrender was the first major tactical win of World War 1 for the Entente Alliance’s Allies.

Reference wikipedia