The ritual to add a new Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) member to the Order is a countdown by all MOTH present with an unanimous “You’re In”. And with that you’re a MOTH and it’s something special. So, what’s this Order all about and why Jan Smuts?
In essence it’s a British, South African, Namibian (South West African) and Zimbabwean (Rhodesian) veteran’s association, however it’s more than just a Veteran’s Association because it carries ‘ritual’ found only in Orders, and that makes the MOTH special. It’s also a special association as it’s only for ‘combat veterans’ – it was formed after World War 1, it continued through World War 2 and it continues to the present day.
The MOTH is not the oldest military veteran association, that honour belongs to The South African Legion, but it is the second oldest and pretty old at that – it was established on the 7th May 1927, as at 2022 (at the time of writing this) it celebrated its 95th birthday (and I’m honoured to have this commemoration on my blazer too). The Legion on the other hand is now over 100 years old (and I’m again a proud Legionnaire). That makes the MOTH and S.A. Legion two of a handful of surviving institutions and brands in South Africa which such longevity. Both organisations originated almost hand in glove, and they still thrive together and you can fully expect the MOTH to still be around when it turns 100. For more on the South African Legion and the roots of Remembrance in South Africa follow this link Legions and Poppies … and their South African root
So, how did the MOTH come about? It was established by returning veterans of the 1st World War 1914-18. Charles Evenden was the driving force, and sought to create an Order of combat veterans only, men who had been in the trenches and had the shared bond of combat and the harsh conditions which come with it. Of it he said the MOTH sought to sustain that “personal intimate comradeship that the front line had generated and venerated” and core ideal was to be a ‘flame of remembrance’ for those comrades killed in action – a “light” in effect which would govern three principles – True Comradeship, Sound Memory and Mutual Help.
Field Marshal Jan Smuts attending a MOTH meeting, note the Brodie Helmet ‘Tin Hat’ with the candle of remembrance on top of it. Also note, MOTH Jan Smuts’ Old Tin Hat lapel pin on his left lapel just to the right of his ribbons.
By way of ritual, a candle is placed on a 1st (and 2nd) World War Brodie Helmet as a symbol of the ‘light of remembrance’, it is lit at the opening of meetings and snuffed out by hand at the closing. The Brodie Helmet is significant to the Order, during both World Wars is was often called a ‘battle bowler’ by the British, a ‘doughboy helmet’ by the Americans and a ‘salad bowl’ by the Germans – but the name which stuck to it the most, used by both British, British Empire (WW1) and Commonwealth (WW2) troops was .. “Tin Hat”. Hence, the name of the Order – Memorable Order of Tin Hats. A small token of this helmet is worn on the left lapel by MOTH members and identifies them as such to others.
As the originator of the Order, Charles Evenden was designated the – MOTH O. Each MOTH has a designated number stemming from the beginning. Mine is 23774, there’s been a lot of MOTH influencing South African society over many years.
Now, to Jan Smuts, it would not be long before the Oubaas would find himself a MOTH, and here he is as Prime Minister receiving his countdown and Old Tin Hat label pin from none other than MOTH O. Smuts qualified as a MOTH on multiple levels, he had participated in multiple wars (3 in total) and been in multiple operational circumstances qualifying as a combat veteran on a number of levels. Not only was Smuts a MOTH, he also founded the South African Legion – and along with Winston Churchill received a gold membership status – for more on this click here Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts
MOTH O inducts MOTH Jan Smuts
By 1928, ‘Shellholes’ (MOTH Branches) named for regiments, battles, personalities and other memories of wartime service, had sprung up in Natal and the Rand, such as Majube (at Volksrust), Somme (Jeppe, Johannesburg), ‘Wizz Bangs’ (Bellvue, Johannesburg), Nurse Cavell Shell Hole in Pietermaritzburg.
Post World War 2, MOTH expanded dramatically with new ‘shellholes’, such as Winston Churchill (Cape), ‘Hellfire Corner’ (Durban), Up North (Pietermaritzburg), Tobruk (Danneshauser), Desert Rats (Johannesburg), Dan Pienaar (Johannesburg), Sidi Rezegh (Johannesburg), Steel Helmet (Johannesburg) – and many more.
Whilst some Shellholes have closed down over time, post the Angolan Border War, new Shellholes have arisen, such as Cuca (Western Cape), Pro Patria (Western Cape), Savanna (Gauteng) and many others started to spring up as old SADF Conscripts and Permanent Force members stated joining the Order.
Each Shellhole has a ‘Old Bill’ as chairman – Old Bill was a cartoon character created by Bruce Bairnfather; the archetypal British private soldier in the trenches, bemoaning his fate, with the sly and dry humour linked with the common-sense of the ‘Old Sweat Tommy.’ There is a Deputy Old Bill (sometimes known as a ‘Wee Bill’), a Paybill (the Treasurer), an Adjutant (the Secretary) and a Sergeant Major (responsible for ceremonies and bearing). Bigger Shellholes also have a Quarter Master (responsible for kit and MOTH items), some have their own Padres in addition.
Images: The Old Bill by Bruce Bairnfather – an image of him is found in nearly all MOTH Shellholes and a modern MOTH take on him.
All ‘shellholes’ were intended to be self sufficient, and expected to choose an objective or cause ‘in the interests of the wider community’. One such fine example is the Mills Bomb Shellhole, in Durban, always full of English speaking South Africans, ex-British servicemen, and Germans, from both World Wars and other conflicts.
Warriors’ Gate MOTH Shellhole, within the Old Fort in Durban, was completed in 1937, a superb building in the Cape Dutch style on a design of a Norman Keep modelled from a photograph given to Evenden by Admiral E.R.G.R.Evans “Evans of the Broke”, built by its Shellhole members, the Gate is both the spiritual HQ, and executive HQ of the MOTH movement. It also has a high quality museum and in it inner circle you will find a prized bronze bust of none other than Field Marshal Jan Smuts.
Whilst purely a South African institution, over the years ‘Shellholes’ sprung up in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Nyasaland (Malawi), South West Africa (Namibia), Swaziland and England, the scattering of the modern South African military veteran diaspora since 1994 now sees Shellholes in Ireland and New Zealand. A Cyber Shellhole (keeping with modern-times) sees MOTH members in places as far flung as Australia, Canada, Belgium, Dubai, Indonesia, Portugal, remote areas of South Africa and the United Kingdom.
For a full list of Shelllholes to find one near you, here’s a link to the MOTH website: https://www.moth.org.za/shellholes/
Back to MOTH Jan Smuts, its important to note that the MOTH has always stressed the lack of ‘rank and swank’ within the ‘Shellholes’, to consolidate its membership across classes, ranks, generations and language. So, in the Order, Jan Smuts would not have been addressed as ‘Field Marshal’ or ‘General’, he would simply have been a MOTH, and having researched Smuts I would say he probably have enjoyed the anonymousness and plain equality – he certainly cracked a wide smile receiving his tin hat lapel pin.
Jan Smuts is important to the MOTH Order, a Shellhole, the ‘Field Marshal’ exists at his home, Smuts House in Irene (now a museum), the ‘Ouma’ Shellhole existed in honour Jan Smuts’ wife Isie who played a key role in running the wartime comforts fund for serving personnel during WW2 and even visited the combat zones. The ‘Marshal Smuts’ Shellhole exists in Somerset West (Western Cape) and annually his birthday is hosted by the ‘Majozi’ Shellhole at his birthplace in Riebeek Kasteel (Western Cape). MOTH members and veterans attending this parade drink a toast to the General from a special vat of brandy and smash the glass as a token of devotion to his memory.
Myself (representing the Legion) and fellow MOTH at the Riebeek Kasteel parade.
A further parade is hosted at the Smuts House Museum in Irene (near Pretoria) by the MOTH Shellhole there to commemorate his birthday, and the ‘Savanna’ Shellhole also hosts a Jannie Smuts parade in Johannesburg. If you visit many Shellholes there will be this or that portrait, cornerstone, plaque, statue or artefact devoted to MOTH Jan Smuts.
So important is Smuts to the MOTH, that Smuts’ letter to Charles Evenden MOTH 0 appears on the back of the dust cover of his book ‘Old Soldiers Never Die – The Story of MOTH 0’ and the quote “you built better than you knew..” General J.C.Smuts appears on the front cover.
MOTH O’s book and the Jan Smuts reference in his almost illegible handwriting on the dust cover – courtesy Stef Coetzee, whose father was a MOTH having served in WW2 and this was his.
A big contribution of the MOTH Order and Smuts’ policy of integration in the armed of forces is the bringing together of English and Afrikaans speakers. The veterans of WW2 were unique in that of the combatant veterans the ratio of English and Afrikaans speakers was almost equal. These men displayed a need for ‘respectability, and to this end the original ideal ‘Mutual Help’ was of great relevance, the post-1946 ‘Home Front’ (MOTH long standing journal) stressed constantly the need to support ex-servicemen before looking at other charities. The financial support, material contributions (food and clothing), funding for schooling and university, and the networking to find unemployed Returned Men employment were of the greatest import. The 1950’s-60’s were the great hey-day’s of the MOTH.
I just love this picture from Steyn Fourie of a MOTH Shellhole in its heyday, it just smacks of a time gone past, when everything in the ‘white culture’ in South Africa was so much more balanced and revered – the old Hertzog inspired OBB in its correct senior position (left) making the old Transvaal and Free State Afrikaans boys happy, the Union Jack making the Natal and Cape English boys happy in its correct position (right) … flags of all the Allied Nations of WW2 (USA, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and even the old Russian Federation the USSR) with whom these veterans fought alongside left and right .. and presiding over it all .. the Oubaas – Jan Smuts.
By the ‘white culture’ of this old photograph, please note that this was the majority demographic of the construct of combat veterans at the time, the MOTH is open to all races, culture and sexual orientations, it does not discriminate and will accept any operationally qualified veteran regardless.
MOTH Smuts with MOTH O
However, with the dying off of the 1st World War (1914-1918) and almost all of the 2nd World War (1939-45) populace, the MOTH are a shadow of its former glory, however with the Border War (1966-1989), Operations 1990-1994 and subsequent Peacekeeping Operations, the ranks are slowly growing. Auxiliary components of the MOTH, such as the MOTHWA (MOTH Woman’s Association) are now been joined by the MOTH Motorcycle Association and the recently formed ‘Friends of the MOTH’, the strict regulations for joining are also slowly been loosened to invite more veterans to join.
Comradeship remains central to the MOTH, and long may it remain, with Shellholes regularly ‘raiding’ one another and the mirth, friendship, mischief and comradeship that comes with them – and long may raiding continue.
To the songs that are sung in MOTH Shellholes, there are two, one British from the 1st World War “Pack up your Troubles” and one American from the 2nd World War “Old Soldiers Never Die”.
To listen to Pack Up Your Troubles – click this link:
To listen to Old Soldiers Never Die – click this link:
I remain proud to be a MOTH and am currently the Wee Bill (Deputy Old Bill) of the Seagull Shellhole in Hermanus, I also own a brewery and it was not long before I registered ‘Old Tin Hat’ in the Beer and Spirits categories as a trademark with each one celebrating a South Africa World War 2 hero in the ‘Commando Comic’ style – Sailor Malan, Quentin Smythe VC, Lucas Majozi, Perla Gibson, Roger Bushell, Zulu Lewis and Job Maseko all get a beer expression and a nod to their wartime valour and contributions. I also remain a devout Legionnaire – something Smuts was in addition to been a MOTH, and I’m equally proud of that. The order is healthy and if you served in the old SADF or the new SANDF (or both) – as a National Serviceman, Volunteer or Permanent Force member and have a General Service Medal or Pro Patria we’d love to hear from you.
To find out about (and order on-line – shameless plug I know) Old Tin Hat Brewery beer, follow this link: https://thespiritofhermanus.com/collections/old-tin-hat
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens, with large extracts from Gordon Mackinlay’s account of the MOTH, and my deep gratitude and thanks to him for allowing me to use it.