On the Wednesday, 8th August 2018, The Royal British Legion recreated its 1928 pilgrimage to World War 1 battlefields for thousands of Legion members (90 years on). Great Pilgrimage 90 (GP90) was the Legion’s biggest membership event in modern history. This Great Pilgrimage ended with in a Remembrance Parade held at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. The South African sacrifice was acknowledged and remembered at the Great Pilgrimage by the Royal British Legion – South African Branch who laid a special national wreath on behalf of the South African nation as a whole.
To see the original Royal British Legion Great Pilgrimage of 8th August 1928 held 90 years ago, here is an old Pathé ‘silent movie’ newsreel of it (movies did not have sound in 1928), when viewing it note the extent that the Royal British Legion has grown since then:
Menin Gate Parade – GP90
The South African branch of the Royal British Legion was up-front and present in a massive march past, in this sea of standards The South African Branch standard flying proudly with its Churchill Cup scrolls. A special ‘South Africa’ wreath was laid on behalf of South Africa at the Menin Gate itself.
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a war memorial dedicated to the British, South African and other Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient in World War 1 and whose graves are unknown.
There are 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers’ names etched into the gate acknowledging the ‘missing’ who were never found or lie in a grave known only unto God, of which 564 are from South Africa’s forces.
A commemorative service at the Gate mark the centenary of the start of the series of battles that claimed thousands of British, Commonwealth, Allied, enemy and civilian lives during the ‘Last 100 Days’ of the First World War.
The branch received special permission from the Royal British Legion to lay their wreath on behalf of the country South Africa, as a national wreath (and not a branch wreath). The South Africa wreath was laid in a wreath laying ceremony which saw 1,152 Royal British Legion branch representatives lay a wreath, each containing a message from their community.
The South African wreath contained a message which read “we will always remember them” in some of the key languages of South Africa on the message (space permitting) – English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, North Sotho, South Sotho and Siswati.
The wreaths were arranged into a display within the Menin Gate grounds and will remain in place for public viewing for at least two months. Prominent in the parade were The Last Post Association (LPA), which was also founded in 1928. From that day its members have performed the Last Post at Menin Gate. The only interruption to this homage to the fallen of the First World War was during the Second World War. Everyday, the Last Post Association’s buglers sound the last post at the memorial. It was most fitting that they lead the GP90 service with ‘the last post’.
Following the parade, everyone there were encouraged to join together to take part in an afternoon of comradeship and entertainment in the Great Square, where there were tableaux, stalls, exhibits & music.
For those who did not see it live this video will give you an idea of just how prestigious the parade at Menin Gate was and what a military veteran’s association of magnitude in full colour looks like on parade.
Note: There are over 1,100 Standards from various Royal British Legion Districts, Counties and Branches on parade, a statement of remembrance like this has yet to be replicated on this scale by any single military veterans association anywhere in the world, it’s simply stunning.
It is with immense pride that South Africa was represented and the branch can now add the coveted ‘Ypres 2018’ scroll to the South African Branch Standard.
Battlefield Pilgrimage – Delville Wood Parade No. 1
Prior to the Remembrance Parade at Menin Gate, the Royal British Legion conducted a guided Battlefield tour for all participating members and family. Over the two days prior to Wednesday’s march (described above). They visited two different general areas, Ypres and the Somme.
Whilst on the Somme the Royal British Legion visited the Delville Wood battlefield, the same wood which saw such tremendous South African sacrifice and bravery when they were ordered to ‘hold it at all costs’.
It was with great honour that Royal British Legion South African branch was able to conduct two small parades in honour of South African sacrifice.
Battlefield Pilgrimage – Parade No.1 at Delville Wood
The first parade was conducted by the South Africans themselves in honour of South African and Rhodesian sacrifice in the wood. The Exhortation and Kohima epitaph was conducted by Robert Perkins from the RBL Gloucestershire County District and RBL Gloucester City Branch. Graeme Scott attended Standard Bearing duties.
Once again a special wreath was made for the South African branch’s parade at the Delville Wood. The wreath was laid by Major Herb Cameron from the Royal Logistics Corps and a member of RBL Wotton-Under-Edge Branch. Maj. Cameron was born and educated in Bulawayo and Plumtree, Zimbabwe to Shona and British heritage.
The message on the wreath says a lot about the sacrifice at Delville Wood and Remembrance, it was an extract from “A Soldiers Song” by Lt. Frederick C. Cornell and it reads:
Sleep soft, ye dead,
for God is good –
And peace has
come to Delville Wood!
Battlefield Pilgrimage – Parade No.2 at Delville Wood
The second parade was conducted by four Royal British Legion branches at Delville Wood who asked the South African branch to participate with them in their parade, which they were deeply honoured to do. Delville Wood remains a key site for British sacrifice as after the South Africans were withdrawn from the wood was handed to British regiments to hold.
In this parade the Parade Marshal was Tony Eglin from RBL Ulverston Branch, ex 4th Bn Kings Own Royal Border Regiment. The bugler was Andy Edgar from RBL Kendal branch, ex 7th Parachute regiment, Royal Horse Artillery.
The Standards on parade – left to right – Rod Eglin from RBL Bransty branch, Janet Eglin from RBL Ulverston Branch and Graeme Scott from the RBL South African Branch. It is appropriate that we end the battlefield tour by this most prestigious remembrance organisation with a two minutes of silence at Delville Wood from a video taken at this parade.
The Royal British Legion is a sister organisation of The South African Legion and we share a common root as founders of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League.
As Branch Chairman of The Royal British Legion South African branch I would like to express my sincere thanks to Graeme Scott and Merle McArdle who represented the branch – Graeme proudly carried the Standard and Merle laid the wreath. Bravo Zulu to you both. Graeme is also a proud Legionnaire of The South African Legion. Also thanks go out to Tony Povey, the Vice Chairman, David Watt, the Secretary and Paul Gladwin, the Treasurer for their hard work behind the scenes. In addition thanks to Lawrence Butler-Perks, the National Branches District Secretary for his hard work and the support of the National Branches District, especially the National Memorial Arboretum Branch for their exceptional support.
You have all done a nation proud.
Written by Peter Dickens – Branch Chairman, Royal British Legion South African Branch
Related work and links:
Delville Wood 100 Centenary: ‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary
In Flanders Fields – Afrikaans: In Vlaandere se Velde
The common root between the Royal British Legion and The South African Legion: Legions and Poppies … and their South African root
Video taken by Johan Moors on YouTube. Images copyright Royal British Legion, original movie copyright Pathé news. Video of SA Parade at Delville Wood taken by Alf Forrester, RBL Hardwick and district branch. Second parade video at Delville Wood taken by Merle Scott of the RBL South African Branch.