“The first test of a truly great man is in his humility”.

John Ruskin, the great Victorian social thinker once said: “I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility” and it’s a truism or a trait found in all great leaders, and it is also found in Jan Smuts.

A visit today to the Smuts House Museum in Irene as a guest of Philip Weyers (Jan Smuts’ great grandson) revealed a small personal insight into Jan Smuts, and it reinforces the frugal and humble person Smuts was – a God-fearing  man of simple needs.

In the modern context, it also reveals the massive divide between the modern African leaders in Southern Africa with their excessive appetite for hedonism and wealthy trappings from those of yesteryear’s leaders in South Africa.

Jan Smuts’ personal room in the museum has been left almost as is from the day he sat on his bed and keeled over from a heart attack aged 80 – the only thing missing are some small paintings of his children which are in the museum’s trust.

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Jan Smuts’ bedroom at Smuts House in Irene

To think, a small wooden single bed and a wooden cabinet taken from a SAAF Lodestar transport aeroplane made up his personal private possessions – in a house that is made completely of corrugated iron (walls and roof) and was a transportable officers mess and military headquarters (with no insulation whatsoever).

But that’s not where Smuts’ frugality stopped, he didn’t even like sleeping in his ‘comfy’ bedroom – no, in summer he preferred to sleep on the ‘stoep’ (Porch) just outside his bedroom on an even smaller iron camp bed, with even less trappings.

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Jan Smuts’ preferred bed on the ‘stoep’

He enjoyed the smell of the ‘veld,’ an outdoorsman who saw the greater beauty in the natural South African bush and enjoyed being at ‘whole’ with it, it was also here that he was closest with his God  – and it was here, that as an Afrikaner he demonstrated what a true African he was.

Now, compare that to the ‘golden handshakes’ in the millions of Dollars to a recently disposed Zimbabwean African despot so he can live in comfort.

Compare it even to the ‘golden handshakes’ given to the outgoing National Party ministers in 1994 as they ran for the hills with ‘immunity’ cards and set up multi million Rand retirement homes on the Garden Route (the National Party was Smuts’ nemesis – and for good reason).

Compare it even to South Africa’s current political elite who have raided the state coffers and commissioned homes with ‘fire-pools’ and multi-million Rand ‘security’ accommodations, or shuffled taxpayers money overseas to buy multi-million dollar mansions in ‘tax free’ Dubai.

It is fantastic to take perspective and history offers us some wonderful hindsight, and the opportunity to praise from our heroes those attributes attributed to great men – like humility.  To read more of Jan Smuts an understand just what a truly remarkable man and South African he was – please visit this Observation Post by clicking the link:  “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

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General Jan Smuts


Written and researched by Peter Dickens, photo copyright Karen Dickens – with special thanks to Philip Weyers.

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

The 2 minutes silence; an eye witness account of South Africa’s unique gift to Remembrance

Did you know that the two minutes silence and its association to Armistice Day (11/11/11) or Remembrance Sunday has a uniquely South African origin?  The featured image, taken in 1918 captures this South African gift to the modern-day Act of Remembrance.  It shows the mid day pause in Cape Town – the entire town at standstill to remember the tremendous sacrifice of South Africans (and British) servicemen and women in World War 1.

At the request of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick (the author of Jock of the Bushveld), this mid day Cape Town ritual was adopted by King George V a year later in 1919 when he decreed it as the international bench by which Britain and all her Commonwealth were to remember the fallen and sacrifices of war.  This amazing story is covered in a previous Observation Post (for an in-depth read see this link The ‘2 minutes silence’ is a South African gift to the Act of Remembrance).

Accompanying this image is an amazing eye-witness account of this very South African event which now shapes how the Western World and many other modern states now remember the fallen.

Read on for a fascinating and riveting first hand account that should make every South African very proud of our heritage and our contribution to remembering human kind’s sacrifices in the quest for universal peace and individual freedom.

THE MID-DAY PAUSE – CAPE TOWN 1918 – WORLD WAR 1.

One of the most memorable institutions of the 1st World War period in Cape Town was the Mid-day Pause, when, every day on the stroke of noon, all the traffic of the city was suspended for two minutes, whilst the crowds in the streets bent their heads in silent prayer and communication with our soldiers who were fighting and dying in France.

Written by A.D. Donovan in 1918.

“I was walking along Adderley Street, talking to a friend, when a street clock overhead began to utter its twelve strokes. Before it had done striking- at its fourth or fifth stroke – the boom of the Signal Hill gun came and a bugle from Cartwright’s balcony began to sound the “Last Post.” And immediately everybody and everything in the street and all around, and in the side streets, stood still – quite still.

Stood absolutely still! If you have not seen it, you can hardly imagine it. For, believe me, it makes some demand on the imagination. No written or printed words can describe the suddenness of it. The boom of a cannon, the note of a bugle, and then every man’s head bared, as if by one single gesture – and after that no more sound, no more movement. Just complete silence, complete stillness, like that of a quiet gathering in the churchyard at the terrible moment when a body is being let down with silent ropes into the earth. And this in the crowded street of a big city!

In the first few seconds of the pause your ear detected the last traces of sound and movement – the angry oath of a wagoner as he pulled his team to a stand-still; the final jingle of a set of hansom-cab bells, the last throb of a motor car, the brief echo of a tramway gong, the last interrupted shrieks of a group of coloured boys who were dragging down from Longmarket Street a box on wheels, loaded with vegetables. In two or three seconds – quicker than you could say the words – these faint remnants of human sound and movement had died away. Then it was all silence: all stillness.

Think of it! The whole life, movement and action of this busy little world of Adderley Street suspended, stopped, stricken dumb, petrified. As if by some sudden act of the supernatural, every moving body and every moving thing had been turned into stone or iron. A sea-bird in the distance, circling over the stunted turret of the pier, a stirring of the folds of a drooping flag on its mast above a tall building as it catches the breeze. Besides these, no movement – not a sound, not a tremor, but the quiet breathing of those that are near you in the crowd.

The sudden and solemn unanimity of this pause in the very midst of the city’s day gets a queer grip on your emotions, gets somehow down deep inside you. From an almost indistinguishable group, high up at the corner of the upper balcony of Mansion House Chambers building, there comes the strains of “The Last Post,” trumpeted over the heads of a silent and motionless city. The proud melancholy, the gallant, triumphant sadness of those last, wailing, silvery notes seemed to find an echo in the very depths of your heart. You felt the curious lump in your throat, and you had an idea that in the intense stillness and silence everybody around you was aware of it. Your hand fidgeted with the hat you held in it. . . . But then you perceived that nobody was paying any attention to you – that everybody was absorbed in his own emotions of those silent minutes. . . . You saw here and there a woman in black fumbling secretly for a handkerchief, and you pictured her having some special interest, some special sorrow, in one of the rows and rows of bare crosses in Delville Wood, in Gauche Wood. . . . “The Last Post”!

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Bugler playing The Last Post from the Cartwright’s balcony

The sound of the bugle dies away on the last sad, heroic note. The motionless detachment of the crowds is emphasised by a succession of sounds that emerge out of the background of silence – the distant shriek of a railway engine, the impatient neighing of a horse somewhere down the street, the near-by throbbing of a motor-lorry that is in a hurry to be on its way again. But I think that what to me most emphasised the solemn stillness of the occasion was that while I stood in the roadway, midway in the “pause” there came from some shop or office behind, the ringing of a telephone bell. This telephone bell was plainly audible to the motionless crowds in the centre of Adderley Street. It rand and rang and rang with a faint, distant tinkle, but there was no one to answer it ; for even in the shops and offices the clerks, the attendants and the customers were standing rigid in communion with the heroic and distant dead. It tinkled on and on, and then died away altogether ; and there was nothing left but silence and the bared heads of men and the bowed heads of women ; and dear thoughts and sad memories and – here and there – tears in the eyes of brave women, as the big clock overhead shifted its longer hand to one minute past twelve, two minutes past. . . . .

And then, at a quick signal, the silenced and the stillness were broken. The two minutes’ pause had expired. The motor cars, the trams, the taxis, the cabs, the wagons, all began to move again (just as if someone had begun to turn the handle of a moving picture machine), and the human beings resumed their ways up and down and across the street. The fez of a Malay cabdriver that I had been observing over the heads of the motionless crowd – a scarlet spot against the yellowish and windowed wall of the Post Office – now moved along, with a whip lashing the air overhead. The confused and animal-like bleats and groans and moans of taxis and motor cars filled the street again. The gongs of the tramcars made a background of discordant, riotous brass. The carts and the heavy wagons began to creak and rumble again : their drivers waved their long whips and shouted. The effect was just as if a cinematograph operator, finding his film “stuck,” had got control of it again.

It was all over until tomorrow. Tomorrow, again, at twelve o’clock, there would be the communion of the strong and living with the dead and dying and the wounded, of the people comfortably at home in Cape Town with the souls and thoughts of their beloved brave who were offering their young lives in France. . . . .

And these are my feeble impressions of the mid-day pause – feeble, because written or printed words can convey no real sense of the beautiful simplicity and brevity of the ceremony, its unrehearsed, spontaneous order and decorum, its complete and most reverent silence – a sharp, clear-cut interruption in the day’s traffic of the city.”

CAPE TOWN 1918 BY: A.D. DONOVAN

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The Last Post followed by 2 minutes silence, this official video of The National Memorial Arboretum in the United Kingdom captures sentiment and legacy of the pause as would have been experienced in Cape Town in 1918 after the Last Post was played.  Play it to the end and reflect the event in your ‘minds eye’, imagine the sacrifice – it’s very poignant and moving.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Extract and featured image taken from a condensed article; “The Celebration of Peace” Booklet, issued in 1919 by the Cape Town Peace Celebrations committee for distribution throughout the Schools of the Cape Peninsula.

A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon

Did you know that the Comrades is actually a war memorial?

claphamAt the start of the First World War Vic Clapham signed up with the 8th South African Infantry which was sent to German East Africa (now Tanzania). During this time he marched over 2700 kilometres in pursuit of the German General Paul von Letter-Vorbeck’s Askari Battalions.

After the war ended, Clapham wanted to establish a memorial to the suffering and deaths of his comrades during the war, and their camaraderie in overcoming these hardships. He conceived of an extremely demanding race where the physical endurance of entrants could be put to the test.

Clapham asked for permission to stage a 56-mile (90 km) race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban under the name of the Comrades Marathon, and for it to become a living memorial to the spirit of the soldiers of the Great War.

He approached the ‘Comrades of the Great War’, a returning soldiers veterans association to underwrite the race.  Who would know that this simple vision of Vic’s would result in the worlds greatest ultra marathon nearly one hundred years later?

He maintained 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, 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.

SALegion_FinalLogoLayout_GreenPrintTextIn the same year – 1921, the Comrades of the Great War was reborn as the British Empire Services League – South Africa, and since then is now known as The South African Legion of Military Veterans.  The South African Legion  has continued it’s association with the Comrades Marathon over the years and are involved in refreshment stops and hand poppies of Remembrance to participants.

The Comrades is still regarded as a ‘living war memorial’ like that of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.  A truly inspiring legacy.

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Reference Wikipedia

Springbok Valour

Speech by Peter Dickens on the Centenary of the Battle of Delville Wood

Thiepval Memorial, France 10th July 2016

Springbok Valour – Speech by Peter Dickens, Chairman of the Royal British Legion South African branch, in commemoration of 100 years of South Africans on the Somme and Battle of Delville Wood. Held at the Thiepval Memorial, France on 10th July 2016.

14495490_644871705682565_2175144210739678305_n“On behalf of The Royal British Legion South African Branch I would also like to welcome all here today, it is our privilege to honour the South African sacrifice during the Somme offensive – especially at Delville Wood just a short distance from this memorial.

We started this memorial service, with short blasts from World War 1 replica whistles, this was the signal blown by individual officers to send their troops “over the top” during the Somme Offensive and aside from the gun and artillery fire this is the last mechanical sound thousands of soldiers heard.

Frightening isn’t it? The sound of these whistles had some men literally freeze in pure terror. What a harrowing and poignant start and to consider that it was a sound that was going to repeat itself again and again all along the Somme salient.

Why is the Thiepval memorial significant to South Africans? It’s a surprise to many in The Royal British Legion and in South African veteran and military circles, but the official designation of this memorial 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”.

This memorial is built right across the front lines as they stood on the 1st July 1916, the very same day the British Army suffered 20 000 men killed and a further 40 000 wounded – it’s literally on this very ground that we are standing on now that much of this massive bloodletting took place. Humbling – no doubt!

This memorial however, speaks not simply of that first day but of the whole Battle of the Somme. On stone panels around the memorial’s arches are recorded the names of the men of the United Kingdom, 71,336 and 858 South Africans.

There is also one Irish born South African Victoria Cross recipient listed – Captain Alexander Young, awarded the Victoria Cross during the Boer War, Young served with the South African Scottish Regiment and was killed in action in October 1916.

To, think – these are only the ‘missing’ from the battle of the Somme – men who have no known grave, or on whose gravestone is inscribed the words “unknown soldier”. As to names on actual headstones, around us are thousands. The Somme Offensive is off the scale – it is the most bloodiest battle in the entire history of mankind, – the sad truth – it advanced only 10 km along the front with the grim total of 1 million men dead or wounded from both sides littered in its wake.

And it all began with a Bang!, a very big one. Soldiers of the British Forces here and soldiers of the South African forces just over the way at Delville Wood witnessed the biggest explosion ever seen until then – The Lochnagar mine explosion was so big that debris from the explosion hit a British spotter plane 4000 ft up in the air, the detonation of this large mine and 8 others under German positions was said to be heard as far as England, and it was the start of carnage on a epic level.

On the South African side of the Somme Offensive things started off remarkably well, the 1st South African Brigade was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July and “hold it at all costs”.

At first the attack progressed smoothly and by the end of the day the South Africans had secured the wood, now spread along the perimeter in groups forming machine gun nests.

But, rather than having “secured” the wood, the brigade was now in a trap, with only the south western base in contact with the 26th Brigade in Longueval. All troops were equipped with spades but digging within the wood was made extremely difficult by roots and tree trunks, preparation of proper trenches was impossible, the South made do with shallow burrows. With these unprepared trenches just over 3000 South Africans faced over 7,000 German troops, holding the wood was going to be extremely difficult!

The Germans launched one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of the war in an effort to dislodge the South Africans. At its peak the rate of firing exceeded 400 shells per minute and to think this relentless volley of shelling for days on end, and it was into a wood no bigger than a square kilometer in size.

There is a reason there as so many “missing” South Africans listed on this memorial – this rate of artillery fire literally vaporized these men or blasted them beyond recognition. This is why Delville Wood itself is such a humbling experience – many of these men listed HERE are still THERE, unfound even to this day.

Of the 121 officers and 3,032 men of the South African Brigade who launched the initial attack, only 29 officers and 751 men eventually walked out. These men held the wood at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat at stages – the depth of bravery required to do this under this sort of fire power is simply too staggering to contemplate. The losses sustained by the South Africans were one of the greatest sacrifices of the war.

The South African Brigade suffered 80% loss, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has was described then as “… the bloodiest battle hell of 1916.”

But something very important also happened during the Battle of Delville Wood – the South African nation as we know it today was born. It was out of this horrific baptism of fire, of South Africans from across ethnic, language and cultural divides – fighting as one in union and strength, that the newly formed Union of South Africa’s national identity was forged for the years come.

“Nancy” the Springbok, the South African Scottish mascot on the Somme, had been the symbol of home for all the men during the fighting, she proudly led four battalions of the South African Brigade to the first Delville Wood drum head service after the battle in 1918.

Prancing on her thin little legs, it’s almost as if she knew that she was the darling of every soldier on parade – and of those they were coming to honour – because from here on out these South African fighting men had walked into history as a force to be RESPECTED and the legend of the fighting Springbok was born.

The veterans bond

14502685_644871315682604_1764889988260960146_nI would like, if I may, to talk about why is the Battle of the Somme, something that occurred 100 years ago, is so important to us as veterans?

Forgive me if I read an abridge version from these very poignant memoirs. One from a South African who had just survived Deville Wood in France in 1916, one from a survivor of the SS Mendi in 1917 and the other is from a South African who survived an air attack during Ops Modular in Angola in 1987.

Lance Corporal Frederick Charles Lee, the only surviving NCO in his company to come out of Delville wood.

“After five days of absolute awfulness poor Angus Brown, my pal, died of wounds after about three hours awful suffering. He had both feet blown off by a shell. I saw him a little while after he was hit. I gave him a drink of water, and the only complaint he made at that time was “My God, Fred, the pain is awful “. With that I ran down to the dressing station and got the doctor to give me some Morphine. When I got back Angus was just about finished’

The next from Matli, a survivor of the SS Mendi

“George Mathibe said to me when I found him, we are about to die, but one of us will live to tell at home how members of the tribe had died with the ship Mendi, and I hope it will be you” at that point Matli gave Mathibe his warm great overcoat, promised to return to him but was unable to do so.

70 years later, Cpl Dave Mannall, writes the following from Ops Modular after the Ratel 90 Infantry Fighting Vehicle next to his took a direct hit from a Mig fighter jet ‘s parachute retarded bomb:

“Frikkie De Jager died from multiple shrapnel injuries before the helicopters arrived, his death was extremely hard for us boys, watching that death slowly unfold over eight hours took a far greater toll on our morale, especially for all of us who had become brothers in arms with him during our year in 61 Mech”.

Although separated by 70 years, all these brave South Africans – Angus Brown, George Mathibe and Frik De Jager share a bond between themselves and that same bond is shared with us as their brothers in arms.

They all died in excruciating circumstances brought about by War but, most importantly, they all died in the arms of men would have gladly given their lives for them instead … and that is a very special bond indeed.

That bond of brotherhood stretches in countless names from Frikkie all the way to Angus, before and after. It is a bond that we all share, and it’s a bond that is never broken.

It really is not the job of Politicians to carry the flame of remembrance for our brothers, nor can they really understand the bond we have for them. There is no political currency to be made out the war dead, to do this is to absolutely dishonor them.

Because of this unique bond – It is our job – the job of the Veterans to carry this solemn flame of remembrance – this RED Poppy – it is our duty to carry that unique thread that links us here today with the men buried in the ground we are standing on and with those South Africans who where sacrificed nearby at Arques-la-Bataille or on the SS Mendi – even those who lie in graves far off in countries like Angola and Namibia from a forgotten war … and we prepare to stand by those who WILL fall in the years to come.

Today! – our bond remains with those South Africans who fell in Delville Wood and those who where never found during the Battle of the Somme and are immortalized on this very monument – and after 100 years OUR bond is as strong as ever.

Lest we forget”

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Comrades legend, Springbok and war veteran – the remarkable Bill Payn

So, which Springbok rugby player and war veteran also has a top ten Comrades finish running in his rugby boots and then went on to play a game of rugby the next day?  This is one very remarkable man and he comes from a time when men were cut from a different cloth, read on for the story of the legendary Cecil “Bill” Payn.

Bill Payn was born on 9 Aug 1893 in Harding, South Africa, he was christened Cecil, the son of James Herbert Payn. He was a very well known personality, a much loved teacher, and a sportsman. He taught at Durban High School for boys for 40 years or more, only having a break during his army service in the First and Second World Wars. He was particularly well known in Natal and Rhodesia and was described as big hearted and kindly “Big Bill” and stood 6 ft 3 in in his socks. He was a battle-field hero and an ex PoW.

His life was dedicated to helping others, whether his fellow prisoners of war, team mates, school pupils or every day friends and acquaintances. He was a Springbok rugby player and at cricket bowled with distinction. He was a boxer, an athlete and shone at baseball. He was truly a great and kindly man, he died suddenly at age 66 on the 31st Oct 1959.  Ever generous he even left money for his friends to have a drink after his funeral.

Top 10 Comrades finisher in his rugby boots

In summary of his Comrades achievement, Bill came 8th in the 1922 Comrades Marathon. A Springbok rugby player, he ran one of the most famous races in the history of the Comrades.  Bill Payn hosted Arthur Newton the evening before the race, and after a number of stiff drinks, was persuaded by Arthur to enter (Arthur went on to win the race).

Bill arrived on time for the start, wearing his rugby boots. At Hillcrest he stopped for the first time to take in a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Not much further a fellow runner, “Zulu” Wade, invited Payn for a chicken curry. This they consumed and then continued on to Drummond, where they celebrated reaching the halfway mark by drinking a beer at the hotel. Wade didn’t continue, but Payn did. A lady spectator en route helped him keep his energy levels up by providing him with oranges, peach-brandy, water and tea. He finished eighth. On the next day Payn took part in a club rugby match, but because his feet were blistered from the long run in rugby boots, he elected to play the match in his running shoes.

The first Comrades Marathon race was a down run from Pietermaritzburg whilst the first up run from Durban to the provincial capital took place in 1922 and consisted of a field of just over 100 athletes.  In those days the Comrades took place on mainly sand and gravel roads (which in part was more conducive to wearing studded rugby boots).

World War 1

Bill Payn played provincial rugby over a period of eighteen seasons losing four years whilst serving overseas in the First World War. He did have the opportunity then of representing South Africa in the Imperial Services Tournament held in Britain before returning home. In all, he represented Natal in fifty nine matches.

An “all rounder”

Bill had a natural affinity for all sports, a true “all-rounder,” attaining provincial colours in five sports, he represented Natal at cricket, boxing, baseball and athletics in addition to his main sport of rugby. However sport was but one of his interests, he was an outstanding English scholar and a leading South African expert in the science of Etymology.

Bill Payn also received Springbok colours and played in two tests on the flank in the 1924 series but later after his own playing days were over he was to have an important role in the development of a post World War Two Springbok rugby legend.

The 1922 Comrades Marathon in Bill’s own words

Bill Payn’s own words on the 1922 Comrades Marathon are now legendary and well worth the read, an abridged version of that day by Bill goes as follows:

`On a bleak May morning I toe’d the line at the start when some civic dignitary fired a pistol and then very sensibly buggared off back to his warm bed. When the shot rent the air, off we sped – like a crowd of Armenian refugees fleeing from the wrath of the Turkish army. Shall I ever forget that infernal run. It was not very long before I realised that I was prey to an all consuming thirst, so clamant indeed, that I could not refuse any man who offered me a drink. At Hillcrest my feet were giving me so much pain that I took off my rugby boots and found a mass of blisters had formed on the soles of both feet, some kind follower provided me with brilliantine with which I anointed my feet and then repaired to the hotel for a huge plate of bacon and eggs. This done and much refreshed I ran up Botha’s Hill where at the top I found a friend who was also taking part, but he was in a very bad state so we sat down next to the road and exchanged notes and took stock of ourselves and the situation we were in. I fear that we did not move with the freedom of young athletes but rather resembled two old ducks, suffering from some distressing gynaecological disorder.

Fortunately at that stage my friend’s supporter arrived on the scene with a wicker basket which contained a delicious curried chicken set on a huge bed of rice. This we shared equally and then set off together in happy companionship for Drummond and here we bent our steps to a pleasant oasis – the pub – where I lined a dozen beers up on the counter determined not so much to celebrate a victory but rather to drown our sorrows. Whilst we were busy at this, one of the camp followers arrived on the scene and urged us both to continue as there were only five runners in front of us. My friend could not continue so I set off alone for Pietermaritzburg.

Somewhere along Harrison Flats I noticed a frail little woman with pink cheeks standing at the side of the road. She held up in one hand a bottle and in the other a glass. I stopped, and with old world courtesy bowed low saying `Madame your servant to command’. `Tis peach brandy’, she volunteered, `and I made it myself’. I gulped down a full tumbler of this home-made brew and in a second realised that I had swallowed a near-lethal dose of the rawest liquid I had ever tasted. I am still convinced that to this charming little woman must go full credit for inventing the first liquid fuel for jet engines. Fortunately I was facing Maritzburg and I was propelled along the way. I was too far gone in my cups even to ponder on whether this assistance did not breach the prescribed laws of amateur marathon running.

On the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg I was hailed by my wife’s family who were taking tea on the veranda. I went off the road and joined them in their tea and cakes. While we were thus happily engaged, two of my ‘hated’ rivals went past and so it was that I ended the course number eight. In the changing rooms I discovered that the soles of my feet were now two huge pads of blood blisters. My brother-in-law then arrived and he had the uncanny insight to my most immediate needs, for he gave me a bottle of champagne, for which I was most grateful. Shortly thereafter a rugby friend arrived and chided me as to whether I had forgotten that I was due to play a first league rugby match the next day and that our team needed me. Cadging a lift on the back of his motorbike we went back down to Durban and on the following day I played full back in a pair of old `tackies’.

This account by Bill Payn does not appear possible but it has been vouched for in every detail by Arthur Newton, the friend who persuaded Bill to enter the race in the first place and who was himself destined to become a legend in the world of marathon running.

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Arthur F. H. Newton, winner of the first “up” version of the Comrades in 1922 in a time of 8:40:00.

Bill Payn’s description of the race is filled with humour which so characterised his outlook on life. To illustrate this aspect there is a classic story told of Bill when he was captaining his club’s first cricket side in the premier league and they were not having a very good season with the bat. He placed an advertisement in the local Natal newspaper which read,

“Join Stanford Hill and bat twice on a Saturday afternoon”

His Passion for Rugby

Of all his sporting interests, rugby was his greatest love and he devoted many years of his life to the administration of the sport and coaching young players in the enjoyment of the game. He was the founder of Natal schools rugby and became a father figure to organisation serving on its executive from 1933 – with a gap for the war years – right through until he passed away in 1959. It is interesting to note his thoughts on the game of rugby and why people are keen to play the game.

Quoting him again `Why do men love to play rugby, is I feel sure, that it is the simulacrum – in simple terms it means an image of – of war as waged in the medieval days when battles were marked by the two cardinal virtues of courtesy and courage’.

His very close friend and fellow schoolmaster, Isak Van Heerden, who was to become the Springbok coach in the 1960’s, when commenting on Bills outlook on the game said

“He looked upon the game as a friendly and controlled war, feeling that man still has his primitive instincts and one of the strongest is the love of a good fight, which no amount of civilisation has been able to eradicate. Bill saw the game merely as a natural desire of a healthy man to pit his strength and skill against that of another and that rugby was the best possible outlet. He worshipped the game for the companionship amongst friends and for the opportunities that it allowed for comaradieship with opponents after the match was over”.

Cecil “Bill” Payn’s Test summary: Tests: 2 Tries: 0
First Test: 16 Aug 1924 Age:31 Flank against Britain at Kingsmead, Durban
Last Test: 23 Aug 1924 Age:31 Flank against Britain at Wanderers, Johannesburg

World War 2

Bill Payn was very much a man of Natal being educated at Maritzburg College and after qualifying as a teacher spent much of his working career teaching at Durban High School for Boys, but in 1939 ,at the age of forty six he once again set off for war serving as a gunner in North Africa.

Whilst in action in the Western Desert he was awarded the Military Medal, receiving a personally signed letter of commendation from the Commander-in- Chief of the Allied Forces, General Alexander.

General Harold Alexander (right), pictured here in 1942 as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, surveys the battlefront from an open car and the Military Medal warded Payne (left).

Taken as a Prisoner of War (POW)

Later in the campaign the Allied troops were forced to retreat from Gazala back towards El Alamein. With the German Army closing in around them Bill made two desperate efforts to escape but was captured on each occasion, imprisoned first at Benghazi in Libya, he was struck down with acute dysentery and lost substantial weight, he eventually recovered and was transferred to a POW camp near Rome.

Bill’s strength of character was such that he looked on prison life as a challenge refusing to be restricted and to quote him again

“Life is always life if one can laugh and that captivity is what your heart makes of it.”

He accepted the conditions of imprisonment refusing to acknowledge their limitations, preferring to see in them an opportunity for fulfilment, the enrichment of character and to be of service to his fellow prisoners.

Using his ability in developing mental pursuits he kept many of his fellow inmates highly amused and was in great demand as a speaker with a range of subjects stretching from discussing the complete works of Shakespeare, a set of which he had with him in camp, to his talk on whales and their habits which was also a great favourite. He continued to teach, and was again in demand, conducting classes for those Prisoner’s of War who were taking correspondence courses.

A fellow prisoner wrote of him that his most outstanding characteristic was his unquestionable spirit which knew no bounds. Although he was no longer a young man, when the Italian war effort collapsed, Bill and two companions managed to escape into the mountains of Italy and were on the run for over two weeks, diverting enemy troops from the front, to search for them. Eventually they were recaptured by German troops and sent to prison camps first in Austria, then Poland and eventually to Germany itself.

Whilst he was busy keeping the spirits of his fellow prisoners up intellectually, his love of sport also played an important role in their well being with Bill forever arranging rugby and cricket matches, even teaching the prisoners from the other Allied nations the art of jukskei!.

Informal “Tests” between “Springbok” and “All Blacks” POW

It was while they were in Stalag XX-A near Thorn (Toruń) in occupied Poland which contained an equal number of young New Zealanders and South Africans crazy about their rugby that Bill Payn’s organisational ability was shown off at its very best.

A rugby ball was received through the Red Cross and Bill proposed a series of `test’ matches between the rugby worlds greatest rugby rivals. He roped in two able assistants, Peter Pienaar, the son of the 1921 Springbok captain to New Zealand and Billy Millar Jnr, whose father led the 1912/13 Springboks to the United Kingdom.

With Bill Payn as the driving force, they arranged practices and made up the jerseys, and served on the `Springbok’ selection panel. The making Springbok jerseys is a story in itself, with Red Cross vests being boiled together with the olive green Russian battle dress which were freely available, to obtain the green. The gold was more problematical but an ingenious solution was found, the S.A. Medical staff boiled up a solution of anti-malaria tablets to achieve the right result. It was important to look the part. The rugby field was marked off with yellow clay lines on the vast sandy parade ground and with army boots considered too lethal, the players played with bare feet in the middle of the Polish winter.

Aaron “Okey” Geffin

It was during this period that Bill came across another young South African who had been playing for the Pirates Rugby Football Club in Johannesburg before the war, and he had been captured at Tobruk. He was a strong, talented prop forward who also had a useful boot on him.

Bill encouraged him to work hard at this aspect of his game whilst stuck in the POW camp and to concentrate on his accuracy with his place kicking. The young soldier was none other than `Okey Geffin’ who five years later was to become a legend in the annals of South African rugby as well as an immense thorn in the flesh of the 1949 All Black side under Fred Allen.

Ockey Geffin 49

Aaron “Okey” Geffin (28 May 1921 – 16 October 2004), considered the greatest Jewish rugby player of all time,nd he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

While in Stalag XX-A Okey Greffin said of Bill Payn,

“We used to scrum for hours on end, and he coached me. Payn arranged rugby games in camp: South Africa against the New Zealanders. Our gear was dyed underpants and vests, but no boots. We played barefoot. Payn encouraged my development and told me I would be a Springbok if I continued to play after the war.”

He spent three years in POW camps in Italy and Germany, as well as Poland, where he practised his kicking barefoot near a mass grave of Polish victims of the Nazis.

Geffin was one of the few prop forwards in the game to kick for goal. The Springboks won ten matches in a row, including a 4–0 whitewash of New Zealand on their 1949 tour to South Africa. Prop Okey Geffin helped kick the Springboks to victory—they won all four Tests despite the All Blacks scoring more tries in three of them.

Back to Bill Payn’s story, and his personal account of the Comrades Marathon which reflected both his humour and his tenacity. It was his friend, Izak van Heerden who perhaps summed Bill up best of all when he said, `

He was always seeing a humorous situation and playing upon it. He was a merry companion, a real friend and a great champion of the game of rugby‘.

References:  Maritzburg College Old Boys Association, wikipedia.  Main reference article – author unknown.

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).