Reclaiming half a century lost at a Centennial!

On the 11/11/2018 – exactly 100 years after the end of World War 1 on the 11/11/1918, at the exact minute the guns were silenced on the Western Front in 1918, i.e. 11 am, a group of South African veterans stood to attention in London.  They were all taking part in the ‘Cenotaph Parade’ and whilst Big Ben tolled 11 times they reflected during the two minutes silence.

The minutes of reflection and silence was signalled by Artillery Guns whose shots reverberated over London as they marked the beginning of the silence period and the end. The guns had been fired from the Horse Guards Parade Ground by The King’s Troop – just opposite the South African contingent now standing in file in Whitehall with all the other arms of service, regiment, veteran and remembrance associations waiting to march past the Cenotaph.

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Guns of the King’s Troop fired from the Horse Guards Parade Ground to signal 2 minutes silence at the Cenotaph Parade 2018

The retort of the gun literally shattered the cacophony of London’s noise, bringing absolute silence and in so bringing into sharp focus why the South African veterans were there – honouring countrymen who had given their all during World War 1 and in the future wars to come – and it also put perspective on the seven-year long journey they had taken to get there. Nothing in life is simple and nothing can be taken for granted – and the representation of South Africans on this specific parade, on this specific date was no different.

The historical journey of South African veteran contingents marching past the cenotaph in London had not been a continuous one, the early footsteps left by South African First World War veterans in recognition of their comrades lost had been reaffirmed by their Springbok brothers of the Second World War.  However by the 1960’s the footprints came to an abrupt end and the South African veterans were no longer seen at this parade for the next 5 full decades to come, the story of South African commitment and sacrifice to crown during World War 1 and World War 2 fading quickly in the British collective memory.

For these veterans, to stand on this parade in London on this day in 2018, represented as a South African military veteran, proudly wearing the insignia, blazer and beret of South African Legion of Military Veterans is something.  Think about it, and put it fully in perspective, they finally stood to commemorate South African sacrifice at the Centenary of the end of World War 1,  when for a full half Century of that Century there had been no proper annual South African contingent at this prestigious parade – at all.

Here, on the Centenary of the World War 1’s Armistice in London – the South African Legion stood proud in its rightful place as the primo (the first) South African Veteran’s Association  (the SA Legion is also nearly 100 years old itself).  It was also the only South African affiliated veteran association at this climax to the centennial celebrations – the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade.  A lot as to representing South African sacrifice was on the shoulders of this relatively small contingent of South African Legion veterans wearing the Legion’s (and country’s) green and gold.

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South African veteran contingent in 2018 at the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade to commemorate 100 years since the guns fell silent in 1918

So what happened to the South African representation in the past – why did it stop for five decades? How and when was it re-started? Why only the Legion? Why only now and what does the future for South African representation at this parade hold?

More to that, who in South Africa should care, so what – what is the importance of London’s Cenotaph to South Africans anyway?

Why London’s Cenotaph?

So what’s so important about London’s Cenotaph in relation to the other World War 1 monuments the world over, including many in South Africa itself?  Look at it this way, the Cenotaph in Whitehall is the epicentre of ‘remembrance’ of the First World War – for everyone, the world over.

Before the end of World War 1, based on the Red Cross officer Fabian Ware’s recommendation in 1917 the British government and The Imperial War Office, made an extraordinary decision, no British or Commonwealth fallen would be repatriated back to their country of origin.  They would be buried in the country where they fell and their graves, honour roll and monuments would be looked after by a Graves Registration Commission – which we now know as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

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A South African nurse places a wreath on her brother’s grave during the South African Brigade’s memorial service at Delville Wood, 17 February 1918.

This decision was controversial and it caused absolute consternation, the United States of America repatriated their war dead from the western front back to the USA, even the French war dead were repatriated back to their villages or towns.  It was ‘back home’ that family, friends and community could look after their dead – conduct a burial, and the grave could stand as a physical presence of the loved one to pay respects and remember.

With British and Commonwealth war dead now not ‘coming home’ – how were people to remember? Where could family and friends go – not everyone could go to France, Belgium, Turkey and the myriad of countries the British and her Empire fought the war in to visit their lost loved one?  There’s more, even to people who could afford to repatriate their dead to the family plot could no longer do so, let alone those who could not – and officers and men were now buried side by side, with no distinction given to rank, class or race – for a society breaking down Imperial barriers this was revolutionary thinking – but for a part of that society still bent on class differentiation it was an outrage.

A solution to tangibly meet this need and bring the entire remembrance ritual and service back to the United Kingdom was urgently needed, and it needed to be one which remembered all who were sacrified in the service to crown – Great Britain, the Dominions (Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) and all the other British Colonies, Protectorates and Territories.

The solution came in an unintended format, a temporary cenotaph monument, made from plaster and wood had been designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and erected for the London Victory Parade on the 19th July 1919 (to commemorate the Treaty of Versailles). There would be a ‘hollow square’ formed around the structure (as would happen in the field when soldiers hold a drum head service) and the Cenotaph would then act as the ‘Drum head’ – symbolising a tomb.

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Sir Edwin Lutyens’ temporary Cenotaph for the Victory Parade in 1919

The temporary structure with its words ‘The Glorious Dead’ surprisingly met with great public enthusiasm desperately seeking a place to mourn, it became an icon, a beacon – finally there was a physical structure in England itself to which they could remember all the dead, lay wreaths and flowers to lost comrades, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers.   After the parade finished and for some time to come the base of the temporary structure was continuously covered with flowers and wreaths by members of the public. Public pressure mounted to retain it, and the British War Cabinet decided on 30 July 1919 that a permanent replica memorial made of  Portland stone should replace the wooden version and be designated Britain’s official national war memorial.

The permanent stone structure  of the Cenotaph in Whitehall was unveiled in a ceremony by King George V on the 11th November 1920 with the arrival of gun carriage bearing the coffin of an ‘Unknown Warrior’ at 11 am.  In another groundbreaking move to symbolise remembrance a grave marking an ‘unknown’ british soldier was randomly selected (and it could have been anyone, even possibly someone from the Commonweath in a British unit – who knows) and opened in France, this simple soldier, a ‘commoner’ known only unto God was repatriated to England to be buried amongst Kings at Westminster Abby and he was afforded a King’s funeral procession from the Cenotaph

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Now in the west end of the Naive at Westminster Abby, the tomb of the Unknown Warrior has two fine traditions – you cannot walk over it and at any Royal wedding that takes place in Westminster Abby, the bride’s wedding bouquet is always left by the bride on the tomb itself – it’s this lucky chap who gets to catch the royal bouquet.  The text inscribed on the tomb is taken from the bible (2 Chronicles 24:16): ‘They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house’.

The ‘Cenotaph’ in Whitehall is literally the epicentre of ‘Remembrance’ – it is the central grave marker that remembers all the names of British and Commonwealth fallen who were not repatriated ‘back home’ – and the central Whitehall Cenotaph was to be replicated in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg all have their own ‘cenotaph’) as the concept fanned out.

In  the United Kingdom the South Africans were special, a South African hospital complex existed in Richmond (west London) treating WW1 wounded, and in addition to commemorating South African sacrifice at the main Cenotaph in Whitehall, a second Cenotaph – to the design of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ one in Whitehall, with a South African UDF ‘Springbok’ emblem on the top and ‘Our Glorious Dead’ in English and Dutch written on it was erected in Richmond and unveiled by Jan Smuts.

All of this, the concept of the Whitehall cenotaph and even the South Africa’s own cenotaph in London would eventually be lost to South Africa, for half a century, and it’s still lost to many South Africans  – so how did that happen?

South African Pilgrimages 

After World War 1 ended, a number of various returned services i.e. veterans associations came into existence all around Britain and the Commonwealth.  These were all consolidated in a historic meeting held by a newly formatted umbrella body – The British Empire Services League (BESL), and the inaugural meeting took place in Cape Town, South Africa in 1921.  Two people were to play a key role in this consolidation of veteran associations and to a large degree centralising ‘remembrance’ under one guiding body – Field Marshal Earl Haig and General Jan Smuts.

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Field Marshal Haig and General Smuts at the inaugral meeting of The British Empire Services League in Cape Town 1921

This makes South Africa the epicentre of what is now the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services Leagues (RCEL) and the founding partners are the Royal British Legion, Royal Canadian Legion, Royal Legion Scotland, South African Legion, Returned Services League Australia and the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association.

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Relevance to the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  Well, it’s the Royal British Legion, the brother association of The South African Legion, which manages the Whitehall Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph parade and all the key associated remembrance activities in the United Kingdom.

After the South African Legion was formed in 1921 it went about conducting annual ‘pilgrimages’ for veterans of The First World War and families of the South African fallen to go to Europe and make the ‘connection’ with their loved ones who did not come home.

0800_O_2The South African Legion’s pilgrimages to the United Kingdom often took place over the Remembrance period in November, this sometimes involved a parade in Portsmouth at the memorial there to the men lost on the SS Mendi.  They regularly held a parade at the South African Cenotaph in Richmond London, and annually, on Remembrance Sunday they participated in the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade as guests of The Royal British Legion and laid a wreath.  The pilgrimages were almost always linked up with visits to Delville Wood in France and Menin Gate in Belgium.

These SA Legion pilgrimages expanded after the Second World War somewhat, and South African veterans of both World War 1 and World War 2 in the 1950’s regularly took part in the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade on Remembrance Sunday as well as visiting the chapel and South African cenotaph in Richmond.

Half a century of wilderness 

The annual laying of a South African wreath and veteran participation as a south african contingent at the Whitehall Cenotaph parade on Remembrance Sunday came to an end from 1961.

In 1960, H.F Verwoed and the Afrikaner Nationalists, now in consolidated power in South Africa having changed the constitution, pressed for a ‘Republic’ referendum which they won on the narrowest of margins by gerrymandering the vote – ensuring that whites only, and Afrikaner whites in particular, had the only decision on the future of South Africa’s status in the world, and especially its relationship with the United Kingdom – all the other communities in South Africa, the vast majority of her people – coloured, Indian and Black were excluded from the decision to change South Africa’s Dominion status – and all of them, including Nelson Mandela expressed solid opposition to it.

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Opposition to the establishment of a South African Republic and subsequent removal from the Commonwealth

This was followed one year later in 1961 when as a newly minted independent Afrikaner Republic, the Afrikaner Nationalists removed South Africa from the British Commonwealth of Nations amid heavy criticism of their Apartheid policies by all the member states.  The Sharpville Massacre had just taken place in 1960, opposition political groupings had been banned in the wake of Sharpville and the beginning of the 1960’s saw South Africa embarking on an internal armed struggle.

How did the British establishment react to it all in relation to their Cenotaph Parade? The answer – no differently to the way they now deal with Zimbabwe as a ‘rogue’ state outside the Commonwealth.  They simply removed South Africa’s status from the Dominion and Commonwealth High Commission wreath layer line up at the beginning of parade.  If you consider that they had no choice really – South Africa was no longer a Dominion and no longer part of the Commonwealth ‘club’ – so had no place, and given Apartheid South Africa could not really be afforded a special status on a world stage – such was the politics of the day.

In the end it was the Nationalist South African goverment who removed the country from the Commonwealth, not the other way round and it was the government of South Africa who paid scant regard to this sacrifice – seeing it as and act of treachery in support of the hated British instead, not the other way round.

But what about sacrifice and veterans remembrance – here the Royal British Legion came to the rescue in what was turning out to be bad news all around for South Africa and agreed that in the absence of South African representation they would lay the wreath on behalf of South Africa.

What followed was an unprecedented absence of over fifty years, in South Africa the SA Legion as the ‘national body’ for veterans and all related veteran organisations with Commonwealth and British links and shared heritage, including the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), all went into steady decline.  The newly reconfigured South African Defence Force under the ideals of Republic went on to insidiously remove or relegate to secondary status all the deeds of bravery, heroes, insignia, heritage, history, medals and any other links to the United Kingdom.  In effect the South African veterans of World War 1 and World War 2 now found themselves marginalised by the government – victims of Apartheid in effect.

This short Pathé Newsreel of the time explains the gravity of the decision to leave the Commonwealth and make South Africa a Republic very well, take the time to watch it.

The removal of South Africa from the Commonwealth spurred ‘The Springbok’ magazine, the South African Legion’s mouthpiece to lead with a headline ‘What Now!’ The truthful answer – not much!  Government finances were gradually squeezed off, recruits from the armed forces were squeezed off, the poppy appeal gradually losing its momentum and relevance in South Africa as catastrophic and seismic political events in South Africa over took it.

In this general decline in relevance outside the commonwealth, decline in national party government support for old ‘union defence force’ veteran affairs and decline in public finance from donations – was the decline in SA Legion’s annual Pilgrimages to Europe, and with that general decline in just about everything, eventually also went the annual laying of the South African veterans wreath by the Royal British Legion at the Whitehall cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

1994 is significant in many ways, South Africa rejoined the British Commonwealth of Nations and was reinstated in things like the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade – and today the South African high commissioner joins the wreath party with all the old and current dominions i.e. Canada, Australia, India and New Zealand and given first honour to lay their wreaths ahead of all other Commonwealth member states.  It stands to reason – these were the key contributors to the British military advance – in World War 1 and World War 2 (missing from this line up is Zimbabwe – which continues to be controversial as they continue to remain outside the Commonwealth – as South Africa had).

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But what of the South African military veterans component of the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade itself – the critical connection of this contingent to the remembrance of their brothers in arms’ sacrifices –  marking the recognition of their graves on foreign soil by passing the epicentre memorial of Remembrance in London – even as late as 2011, no South African identified contingent of veterans was properly represented.  The Canadians and even the USA, Czech Republic and Poland have had representation in the past 50 years – but not the South Africans.

Why?

Reconstituting South African veteran representation in the UK

I arrived in the United Kingdom in 2010 after a stint in Australia, whilst in Australia – as a South African military veteran – I had joined SAMVOA, the South African Military Veterans of Australasia and I was amazed at the camaraderie and inclusion South African veterans received from the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL), we were happily included in the annual state ANZAC Day parades and afforded all the privileges of RSL members.  The historical military links between South Africa and Australia forged during WW1 and WW2 remembered and stronger than ever.  The open gratitude of the Australian community expressed to all veterans – Australian and just about anyone who has served in a statute force with a link to Australia was something to behold.

MOTHOn arrival in the U.K. I tried to make contact with a South African Council of Military Veteran Organisation affiliated SAMVOA equivalent to participate in the London Cenotaph Parade, only to discover that no such organisation existed.  I watched the cenotaph parade on telly, gob-smacked to see visiting US Marine veterans on parade and not a South African in sight.  Advances to find out the status of MOTH (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) shellholes in the UK were met with disappointment – they had no marketing and were closing down shellholes hand over foot and had even done away with the enshrined regulations behind the order – that is it was a ‘Order’ for ‘Combat/Operational statutory force military veterans’ only.  However civilians and veterans alike could now join the MOTH Order in the U.K. on an equal level – a change in enshrined MOTH qualifying criteria done to try to keep the order afloat in the U.K, which in its own odd way also serves to undermine the principles of the order.

In 2011, after contacting the Royal British Legion to take part in the Cenotaph parade and been declined, I found myself as a single solitary South African veteran in a Trafalgar Square Royal British Legion (RBL) side-show for the general public laying a wreath in one of the ponds, and I noticed a single solitary MOTH member doing the same.  That was the sum total of  South African veteran representation in London on Remembrance Weekend.

Something had to be done, South African representation had slipped into nothing, general amnesia as to South African inclusion in any key state driven veteran or remembrance activity had set in across the entire establishment in the United Kingdom. Half a century of exclusion does that.

It also was not helped by the fact that from 1961 until that point in 2011 the South Africa embassy in the United Kingdom’s military attaché had not taken to much public Remembrance Representation work, nor had they established any significant links with The Royal British Legion or the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League.   The old guard SADF attaché wanted nothing to do with these organisations and by the time the new guard SANDF attaché had come in they had no context or knowledge of the historical links, nor is it a current priority of theirs to reforge them (all too ‘colonial’ frankly).

As a result neither the South African military establishment or veteran associations were on the United Kingdom’s ‘remembrance Calender’ radar – at all.  Not ‘recognised’ = not ‘invited’ = not ‘represented’.

bokclear3In 2012 I colluded with a fellow South African veteran, Norman Sander, to address the matter, and looking at the history, links and association between The South African Legion and The Royal British Legion we felt a branch of The South African Legion in the United Kingdom was the route to go.  Godfrey Giles, the then National President of The South African Legion agreed and a branch materialised in the U.K.

All good right, representation at last – not on your nilly, there was a long and hard road to come.  In 2012 we approached the RCEL and received our contingent tickets for  the Cenotaph parade with open arms – then a mere two days later an apology arrived from a faceless bureaucrat to say that the Royal British Legion was ahead of itself in issuing the tickets and they had to be retracted – as South African Legion we were not ‘recognised’ (their term exactly).

This ‘non-recognition’ was utter balderdash, codswallop of the highest order and It was clear to us that within the British establishment there existed concern over South African military veterans – the whole ‘Apartheid legacy’ and ‘leaving the Commonwealth’ issue had extended its tentacles into an area where it had no place whatsoever – Remembrance of the Fallen.

EBQYPI5XC5G2RLQJ7OTLOFGWNUHighly annoying, and before it blew up out of proportion, to overcome the problem a solution was presented by The Royal British Legion themselves.  Come into the fold as a Royal British Legion branch, advance the relationship and values of The South African Legion and the Royal British Legion as a brother organisations, work up the credibility as veterans after a 50 year absence, create a South African presence at the Cenotaph parade and become ‘Recognised’ from within the establishment itself.

Norman headed off to Africa to take on a new life, so the establishment of the South African Branch of the Royal British Legion and the formatting of the South African Legion in the United Kingdom fell on my shoulders.  The Royal British Legion (RBL) had in effect thrown the South Africans a life-line and its a life-line the RBL would come through for the South African Legion and South African veterans time and again.

Back in the fold

Things had changed when it came to the annual Whitehall Cenotaph Parade in the past decade.  It had become a well oiled institution with an unchanged parade order developed and refined over decades – and the same BBC announcer rolls off the ceremony with the same camera positions, year after year.  No upstart ‘new-comer’ is going to reinvent this process in a hurry.

The parade is run in two parts by three separate institutions working together. In essence there is a ‘front part’ involving the Royal Family, Representatives of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, Representatives of the House of Commons and House of Lords and the Representatives from all the Commonwealth states i.e. High Commissioners – including South Africa.   They conduct the ceremony of wreath laying in the ‘hollow square’ around the Cenotaph i.e. in accordance with a drum head service.  This bit is run by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Department of Culture, Media & Sport.

The second part, the ‘back part’ which is the ‘march past’ the Cenotaph is generally run by The Royal British Legion.  There are four general parts to it.

Firstly – British Service Associations (Regiment Associations and the like) who have served the ‘crown’ in the past and who continue to serve ‘crown’.

Secondly – Guests of the Royal British Legion, these are associations allowed to parade from time to time because of their links to Britain – and here we find a mixed bag of Polish veteran associations and Czech contingents (because of their association to The Battle of Britain) as well as invited US Marine veterans etc (D-Day association). ‘Guests’ come and go based on ticket demand (there is a limited allocation) and changing circumstances, and as our MOTH colleagues unfortunately found out at the centennial cenotaph parade this year when their tickets were not issued – a ticket in this category is by no means an assured one for annual parading.

Thirdly, there is the Royal British Legion themselves and their branches – and as an international brotherhood it is into this category that the South African Legion veteran contingent falls (and other countries represented within the RBL’s shere of influence itself  – the Canadian Legion and veterans are a case in point).

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South African Legion contingent march past the Whitehall Cenotaph in 2017

Finally there is a section open to the general public to participate, and in the case of the centennial this fell to a ‘ballot system’ to randomly select applications from members of the public for what is known as the ‘people’s march’.

The disappointment of 2012 behind us, 2013 found the South African veteran contingent represented for the first time as South African Legion when a handful of about 10 tickets were allocated to The RBL South African Branch, and this spiked a greater demand – and with that unfortunately came controversy within the South African veteran community in the U.K.

By 2014 there were 50 South African veterans represented as SA Legion at the Whitehall Cenotaph parade – a huge honour and reflection on the hard work been done to get South African representation at this parade over the line.  The Royal British Legion had provided a ‘life boat’ for the South Africans towing it along in what was going to be a very troubled sea – and this RBL lifeboat would eventually even save the Delville Wood Centenary Parade in France for all South African military veteran associations in 2016.

Troubled seas ahead, and typically the South Africans were making waves in their own tub. From October 2014 to May 2015 the South African Legion in the U.K. found itself marred by a number of veterans wanting to pull the organisation in all sorts of conflicting directions.  The old adage came true – put two South Africans in a room and they will come up with three political parties, and it all essentially boiled down to individual members trying to shoe horn Legion values (and even things like Legion dress code) into the values and codes of other veteran associations or even into their own individual perceptions and needs.  The net outcome of this is that a few good men decided to jump out the life boat and try to swim it alone, highly regrettable and the unfortunate outcome is that they took their eyes off the ball, and none of them made it to the finish line on 11/11 at Whitehall.

Re-dedication of South Africa’s own Cenotaph in London

2014 saw more significant advances in bringing South African representation back to its rightful place in the UK – and that was the rededication of South Africa’s own Cenotaph in Richmond, London – and it was literally a case of ‘Lost and Found’.

The South African Hospital was established in Richmond Park in London in June 1916. In July 1918, it was amalgamated with the Richmond Military Hospital, to form the South African Military Hospital, in order to provide care for the large number of South African troops serving in the First World War.

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Rededication of the South African War Memorial in Richmond London by The South African Legion

The South African Hospital and Comforts Fund Committee decided to erect a memorial to commemorate thirty-nine South African soldiers who were buried in Richmond Cemetery, which was at that time known as ‘soldiers corner’. The memorial carries an inscription in both English and Dutch (which was at the time a recognised official language of SA). Called ‘The South African War Memorial’ it was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and derives from Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall. Yes, the same one that rises to prominence on Remembrance Day in London.

The South African War Memorial was unveiled by General Smuts in June 1921 and it became the focus of South African pilgrimage throughout the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. Since then it became neglected and lay forgotten until 1981, when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) agreed to take on the maintenance of the memorial on behalf of the Nationalist South African Government – who had expressed no interest in it whatsoever and did not even acknowledge it on the SADF’s list of South African war memorials overseas.

In 2012 the South African War Memorial in Richmond was awarded a ‘Grade II’ status and was added to the List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. However, still, no South Africans in authority were even aware of its existence. To that point, the last parade held at the memorial had taken place there more than 70 years ago.

Tom Mason, a member of The South African Legion in the United Kingdom, came across this memorial whilst members of the CWGC were cleaning it.  The history of it pricked Tom’s interest and he brought it back to the South African Legion.

In quick time the South African Legion U.K. arranged a rededication service for the memorial and notified General Andersen of the SANDF of the monuments existence. The monument is now proudly again listed on South Africa’s official war memorials as outlined by the SANDF.  The monument is now also the central location for annual South African Pilgrimages as well as regular South African memorial parades in London.  The South African Legion’s emblem was proudly unveiled at a centenary parade in the Richmond Cemetary Chapel in thanks to renewed interest in the site.

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By May 2015 the Royal British Legion – South African branch also brought the site to the attention of the RBL. The RBL SA Branch standard was officially dedicated in a ceremony held at the Richmond Cemetary Chapel and South African War Memorial Cenotaph next to it – the dedication took place with numerous branches of the RBL and other veteran organisations in attendance.   This South African RBL standard now proudly carries three scrolls on it – it has twice won ‘The Churchill Cup’ as a branch for dedication, growth and reputation and it took part in GP 90 in 2018 and carries the ‘Ypres 2018’ scroll.

Throwing out a significant life-line

rblegion_displayBy November 2015, a large South African Legion veteran contingent of 40 odd veterans found themselves on parade at Whitehall during the Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph parade, the HMS RBL bravely toeing the South Africans along.  However a bigger challenge was looming – much bigger, and it would be the Royal British Legion to the rescue again – not just for South African Legion veterans in the U.K, but for all South African veteran organisations and formations in South Africa itself – and it took place in France.

In the beginning of 2016 arrangements in South Africa were going on swimmingly for the marking of the centenary and the extensive South African sacrifice in The Battle of Delville Wood in France in July 1916.  An entire South African pilgrimage had been arranged for this centenary event in France – consisting of family members, high school students, all South Africa’s regimental and armed forces associations which fall under the banner of the SA Council of Military Veteran Organisations and all veteran associations – including the South African Legion and Memorable Order of Tin Hats –  leave, flights, hotels and busses – all booked.

Then step in the former South African President Jacob Zuma, who decided that the Centenary commemoration date of the Battle of Delville Wood itself did not suite his travel plans.  So he changed it, with a couple of months to go ,then he ordered the military and high commission to toe his line, closed the site to his date only and threw everyone else’s plans out the window.

The long and short, it was impossible to move the entire South African pilgrimage to the Somme and The Battle of Delville Wood for the Centenary to suit the President’s new date.  Help was needed for the hundreds of South Africans which were going to be stranded on the Somme with no commemoration to attend – and it came from The Royal British Legion working in conjunction with the Royal British Legion’s South African Branch, The South African Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to use of the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in France as an alternate venue.

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2016 Delville Wood and Battle of the Somme Centenary Parade and Pilgrims – Thiepval memorial – France

In this way all The South African pilgrims in France could celebrate the centenary of the full commitment and sacrifice of South Africans to the Somme offensive including, but not exclusive to Delville Wood.

Thiepval was also relevant, although it’s the ‘British’ go-to memorial on the Somme it is also a South African memorial – the official designation of Thiepval 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”. The Thiepval Memorial records the names of 858 South Africans lost during the Somme offensive – including all the ‘missing’ from The Battle of Delville Wood.

The Royal British Legion (RBL) events division jumped in – keen to assist, and they blocked one of their daily “live broadcast” Somme Parades and dedicated the 10th July to a specific South African day.

The Delville Wood Centenary Remembrance at Thiepval parade went ahead on the proper date – and it went ahead to achieve high acclaim from all South African veteran associations and it marked a great success all round – especially to the family members of South Africans lost on the Somme and to South African High Schools and Youth Organisations attending the Somme centenary – who otherwise would have had nothing at all.

and … ‘across the line’

In 2016 and 2017 the South African Legionnaires continued their representation at the annual Whitehall Cenotaph Parade on Remembrance Sunday.  In 2017 the South African Legion also formalised an annual pilgrimage parade at the Richmond South African Cenotaph on ‘Poppy Day’ which is the annual Saturday preceding Remembrance Sunday.

By the time the centenary of the end of World War One came around on the 11th November 2018 (1918-2018) at 11am – the South African Legionnaires were front and forward.  Attending the parade in the South African branch lifeboat, which had come through and carried the South African contingent over the line.  It had been one heck of journey, along the way the bonds and ties between the two Legion’s had been deepened and secured, the South African veterans had risen to show their true colours of leadership and determination winning both Royal British Legion accolades and respect. The presence of the South Africans now ‘recognised’ and the relationship between the two organisations stronger than ever and growing.

46414873_2282468318648820_3105975316011548672_nAs to the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), a South African veteran order with a root in both countries – the U.K. and S.A.  As a combat brotherhood, many South African Legionnaires on the Cenotaph Parade in Whitehall are also members of the order, so too many Legionnaires – most representing their specific shellhole. The MOTH has benefited from the resurgence of the SA Legion in the U.K. as they now have an avenue to present themselves at Legion led South African commemorative parades – such as the Remembrance Parade now held regularly on ‘Poppy Day’ in Richmond at the South African cenotaph located there.

The future looks bright as long as the ‘special relationship’ with the Royal British Legion is kept, trying to swim it alone in a foreign country in the hopes that the British establishment will somehow bend their entire remembrance culture to suite this or that South African idiocracy is a foolish endeavour, and that unfortunately has been proved time and again, and it stood in stark proof to all present at the Centenary Cenotaph Parade in London.  A better course is to stand in unity and with singular voice, demonstrating values acceptable to the host – and the Royal British Legion’s South African Branch is the ideal vessel to do this – sink this particular boat and the rest will ultimately all slip away.

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South African Legionnaires on the march during the centenary cenotaph parde 11/11/2018

You can see now why a lot was on the shoulders of the South African veteran’s at the Whitehall Cenotaph when that gun signalled the silence during the Armistice Day Centenary Parade, they stood to proud attention as the only South Africans represented there aside from the High Commissioner.

46486079_10156609075626480_8970198184500396032_nIt had been a journey starting a century ago when the guns were silenced on the western front, and it had been a journey to correct half a century of silence as South Africa stood in exclusion.

Here these veterans finally stood in recognition of South African sacrifice at the very epicentre of the entire Remembrance movement started here one hundred years previously – soundly in memory of those South Africans who ‘did not come home’.


Written by Peter Dickens

Related work:

Delville Wood 100 ‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary

Great Pilgrimage 90 South Africa was represented at the Great Pilgrimage 90

Photos of SA Legion courtesy Theo Fernandes and Karen Dickens, colourised photographs copyright Imperial War Museum and DB Colour.  Pathe clip ‘South Africa Goes’, YouTube sourced.  Legion marching video thanks to Catherine Dow.

 

South Africa was represented at the Great Pilgrimage 90

G and wreathOn 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.

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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.

38536411_1628560113922305_3087323600189915136_nThe 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.

38735944_1846743388736513_606755359960334336_nFor 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:

wreathSleep 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.

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 world 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 (RCEL).

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 aims of the RCEL is to provide care, employment and housing to veterans who have served ‘crown’. 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’ which brought veterans from all veterans associations in South Africa under its umbrella), 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 wary of the World War 2 war veterans, and the war veterans themselves remained forever wary 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.  If you served in South Africa’s armed forces you were given an automatic membership of the Legion, and many veterans keepsakes from the war often include their ‘Life-time’ membership certificates to the South African Legion, here’s an example of one.

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By the mid 1980’s this link of almost automatically joining demobilised statutory force members to the South African Legion was all but gone.  It was highly unlikely that the old SADF would invite the Legion to a demobilisation 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 to ‘find a home’ 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, a disconnect with the Commonwealth ideals and no ‘new blood’ from the SADF for nearly four decades on end, the Legion (and to a degree 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 force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

smutsThere are still a handful of conservative ‘Afrikaner nationalist’ white people in South Africa who would still toe the old Nationalist line on Smuts, that he was a ‘verraaier’ – a traitor to his people, his death welcomed.  However, little do they know that many of the old Nationalist architects of Apartheid held Smuts in very high regard.

DF Malan, on the day of Smuts’ death, 11th September 1950, was the Prime Minister of South Africa, his Nationalist party had defeated Smuts’ United party two years earlier in 1948 whilst pushing the Nationalist proposals to further entrench racial segregation with a concept they called Apartheid.  Smuts on the other hand, foresaw the need to extend the ideas of ‘Union’ which had brought Afrikaner and Briton together to include Black South Africans. On voting rights, he had made his views clear to Hertzog as early as 1920 when in a private meeting he proposed a Qualification Franchise (not a Universal one though) for black South Africans (Hertzog was an ardent Nationalist and rejected the idea outright).

Smuts was born into a system of ‘Empire’ and that was the socio-political sphere everyone understood, including Smuts.  Over time Smuts’ views on racial segregation gradually evolved from the generally understood divided evolution edicts of his day (based on where nations stood on the ‘civilisation’ continuum).  On the international stage by the mid 1940’s, when Smuts was outside of the pressures of South Africa’s race politics (even from inside of his own political party) and not toeing his party’s line, here his views started to really shape up.

By the middle of World War 2 he had taken on a deep sense of individual liberty for all mankind, emancipation and freedom from any sort of oppression (including State).  These views, based on what he termed man’s universal “spirit” for freedom forged by two world wars, they were consolidated in his work on the United Nations and exposed on an international stage in a number of speeches.

Back in South Africa after the war, as a precursor to these views on universal liberty, Smuts had already changed from his old positions on segregation and proposed ‘integration’ instead of ‘separation’ and he had also already promised black community leaders greater political representation if they supported his war effort, voting rights under Smuts were already secure for South Africans of Indian origin and the Cape Coloured community.  On the Nationalists proposals of Apartheid he once said:

“The idea that the Natives must all be removed and confined in their own Kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard”.

The nationalists touted a fear of ‘black danger’ under this more democratically minded Smuts if he won, and it struck a cautionary chord with many white voters and the Nationalists won the day, surprisingly and against the odds, and not by a majority mind – but on a constitutional seat basis.

On losing the election Smuts made one of his greatest speeches in 1949 at the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument to a largely Afrikaner crowd, it says everything of where he stood on integration and the future of South Africa, he said:

“Only on the basis of taking from the past what was beautiful could ‘fruitful co-operation and brotherhood’ between the two white communities be built. And only on this basis could a solution be found for the greatest problem which we have inherited from our ancestors, the problem of our native relations”. He went on to say, that this was “the most difficult and the final test of our civilization.’

Simply put, the country’s white community at Smuts’ death was very split down the middle on the issue of ‘Apartheid’ and what it would bring, the majority of South Africans did not favour it and they had heeded Smuts’ warnings of what entrenched race politics would bring to South Africa’s future.

The death of Jan Smuts

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DF Malan

DF Malan was attending a National Party political rally to the party faithful and whipping up support for the edicts of Apartheid when Smuts’ died.   An aide walked up to him and handed him a note with the news of Smuts’ death, what he does next would surprise even the hardest right-wing Afrikaner Nationalist.

Instead of gleeful celebration of the demise of this most hated enemy of the Apartheid cause, the man repeatedly called a ‘traitor’ by the Nationalists, a man who had the ‘blood’ of Jopie Fourie on his hands, the ‘hansopper’ and ‘joiner’ turncoat who favoured the union of the Afrikaner with the hated British to heal South Africa over and above separationist Afrikaner rule, the King’s ‘hanskakie’ puppet, old ‘slim Jannie’ who put global interests and governance ahead of his ‘volk’ (white Afrikaner peoples) – no Dr. Malan’s reaction to the news was somewhat different to what most people now would even think.

DF Malan immediately turned pale, he slowly sat down, slumped over and cupped his hands to his face. He had lost a lifelong and very close friend.  Their political positions aside, Malan had a deep sense of admiration for his old friend.

He had to be helped up to stand at the microphone, where he announced that “a great figure of our time” has just died, he called the Nationalists to silence and then cancelled the rally.  His colleagues reporting that they had never seen Malan so distressed.

DF Malan’s reaction says a lot about Smuts, the importance he had in the formation of South Africa, he was the original ‘reconciler’ of the warring nations in South Africa, his idea of union based his philosophy of holism – all parts of the sphere make the whole, made the state of South Africa as we know it, he was quite literally the ‘father’ of the South African nation, and now he was lost.

 

The universal appreciation of Smuts at the time, both by his supporters and his detractors, would see a nationwide and even worldwide outpouring of grief, Smuts’ funeral was something else, a funeral not seen since in South Africa and only seen again when Nelson Mandela died.

To even begin to contemplate Smuts’ importance to not only South Africa, but to the free world consider what Winston Churchill wrote to Isie (Ouma Smuts), his wife, expressing his condolences, and what he wrote sums up the loss perfectly.

“There must be comfort in the proofs of admiration and gratitude that have been evoked all over the world for a warrior-statesman and philosopher who was probably more fitted to guide struggling and blundering humanity through its suffering and perils than anyone who ever lived in any country during his epoch.”

In his lifetime, Smuts had advanced to a level of greatness that is more substantive and more far-reaching to the modern human race than any South African before and even after him (with all respect to Nelson Mandela and his legacy).

Add to this what King George VI wrote Ouma Smuts and you start to see a pattern.  He wrote:

“the force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”.

To understand his impact to humankind by way of an obituary to his milestone accolades, consider the following:

The birth of South Africa

The establishment of the state of South Africa in 1910. His proposal of ‘Union’ with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal brought South Africa out of the devastation of the Boer War and the resultant decimation of the Boer nation. Despite winning the war, in just four years of Colonising everything, Britain had handed all control of her colonies in South Africa to an independent parliament to Westminster, able to make its own laws to forge its own destiny, headed up by two Boer Generals of which Smuts was one.

The Boers had lost their two small Republics to war and now, thanks to Smuts’ skill and British confidence in his vision and him, the Boer commanders were very quickly back in governance of both their ‘old’ Republics and in addition, both the British Colonies as well – without a shot been fired.  To quote Smuts ‘they gave our country back’.  He reflected that at no time in Britain’s long history had such a ‘miracle of trust and magnanimity’ ever happened.

British ‘meddling’ and ‘warmongering’ in South Africa would never happen on the same scale again, and in fact they were making reparations for the damage they had caused by way of economic support.

The League of Nations and United Nations

He played a key role in the establishment of the League of Nations, the exact design and implementation of which relied upon Smuts, he even drafted the outlines for the The Treaty of Versailles. His outline was not fully followed and he warned the League of a future calamity with Germany – how prophetic he was.

With the demise of the League of Nations (the USA left it), Smuts still held the view that a more robust world peace body was required involving all nations holding each other to account.  He later urged the formation of a new international organisation for peace: The United Nations (UN).

Smuts wrote the first draft of the preamble to the United Nations Charter, and was the only person in history to sign the charters of both the League of Nations and the United Nations (see earlier Observation Post link Jan Smuts drafted the Preamble to the United Nations Charter).

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Smuts signing the United Nations Charter

 

The British Commonwealth of Nations

He sought to redefine the relationship between the United Kingdom and her colonies, he helped establish the concept of a ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ based on devolved British authority instead of a ‘British Empire’ and by doing so he served to end Britain’s ‘Empire. He in fact came up with the term ‘Commonwealth’ and it was to his recommendations that the King listened.

The birth of Israel

In 1932, the kibbutz Ramat Yohanan in Israel was named after him. Smuts was a vocal proponent of the creation of a Jewish state, and spoke out against the rising anti-Semitism of the 1930s.  His relationship with the Jews and Israel did not stop there, he was one of the driving forces behind the Balfour Declaration which established the state of Israel (see earlier Observation Post A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts.)

World Wars and Military Milestones

He became South Africa’s only Field Marshal, having taken South Africa to both World Wars on the side of democracy and freedom.  The Second World War alone launched the manufacturing might of South Africa largely due to the support of the war effort.  By the end of WW2, South Africa, a muddle of small colonies and republics just 40 years earlier, now stood as a key contributing world player.

He was the only person with in-depth military experience to join The British War Cabinet, at the insistence of the King, during World War 1 (the rest were Politicians) and in so played a key role in guiding the outcome of World War 1.

He gave birth to the idea of an independent Air Force free from Navy or Army control in 1917, that saw the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the oldest independent air arm in the world and in addition carried this over to form The South African Air Force, the second oldest. Modern military construct now still follows The Smuts Report on the use of air power (see earlier Observation Post link Centenary of the ‘Smuts Report’, the instrument which gave birth to the Royal Air Force).

Smuts had a long string of successful military command, notwithstanding his Command of a Boer Commando during the Anglo-Boer war, evading defeat for the entire duration of the war.  He founded the South African Defence Force after Union, commanded UDF forces alongside Botha in taking German South West Africa during WW1, the first ‘Allied’ victory of the war.  He went on to command all the British and Commonwealth Forces in the East African campaign during WW1, chasing General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces all over East Africa, and in so doing he captured Dar-es-Salaam, the German East Africa capital. However, to really put Smuts in perspective, when he heard that his old enemy, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck had fallen into destitution after WW2, it was Smuts who personally extended aid and food to him (to Smuts war was not a personal thing amongst soldiers).

During the Second World War he was appointed to the British King’s Privy Council.   The King was even warm to an idea proposed by Jock Colville (Churchill’s Private Secretary) that should Prime Minister Winston Churchill die during the war, Smuts would replace him, however this idea was never tested as Smuts would have need to have been made a peer and constitutional issues would have prevented it.  Whether possible or not it does give an idea of just how close Smuts was to Churchill and how indispensable he had become.

Again, as a member of the British War Council, he played a key role in the outcome of World War 2 and the Allied Victory.  He even accompanied Winston Churchill shoulder to shoulder to oversee Operation Overlord (D Day) and the liberation of France and subsequently Western Europe.

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Smuts and Churchill in France overseeing Operation Overlord (D Day)

 

Many historians would now even point to the notion that Churchill regarded Smuts’ advice above anyone else’s advice on his war effort and strategy (see related Observation Post story Smuts’ keen sense of smell detects Germans hiding nearby).

Domestic acclaim

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Emily Hobhouse

The deep-seated pain of the Boer War concentration camps and how it affected Afrikaner identity was also something that Smuts actively addressed (Ouma Smuts was herself interned in a concentration camp, and Smuts had also tragically lost family to the system).  He became a friend and confidant of Emily Hobhouse in addressing the issue with the British over many years. The Magnolia seeds she gave him in friendship now stand as a full botanical statement to this outside his house in Irene.

He brought the government to take measures to bring the treatment of Indians in South Africa into line with the provisions of the United Nations, putting them to the same equality and status of the ‘Cape Colourds’ who already enjoyed an equal universal franchise in South Africa at the time.  In doing so he became a life-long admirer of Mahatma Ghandi, who in turn also regarded Smuts as one of the greatest statesmen of his time.

To illustrate this admiration, Before Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he presented General Smuts with a pair of sandals made by Gandhi himself. In 1939, on Gandhi’s 70th birthday, Smuts returned the sandals with the following message:

“I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”

(see earlier Observation Post story “… I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”).

In domestic policy, Smuts instituted a number of social security reforms. Old-age pensions and disability grants were extended to ‘Indians’ and ‘Africans’ respectively (although there were still differences in the level of grants paid out). He also instituted the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1941 and the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1946.

International acclaim

55bfc5b0ef884389cd7a9bddf3645bd8Smuts was honoured by many countries and on many occasions, as a standout Smuts was the first Prime Minister of a Commonwealth country (any country for that matter) to address both sitting Houses of the British Parliament – the Commons and the Lords during World War 2.  To which he received a standing ovation from both houses.

Such was the admiration of Smuts that his statue stands outside Westminster on Parliament Square in London for his contribution to world politics and as a great reformer.

Now he stands alongside the likes of Ghandi, Mandela and Abraham Lincoln as the only other ‘foreign’ statesmen honoured in the square.  Whilst, ironically, in South Africa his legacy has taken an absolute battering and his statues removed.

Take the time to listen to Smuts’ speech to both houses of Parliament, note his views on all mankind’s basic freedoms and what he envisions as the future by way of fundamental reforms.  Also note the short praise by Winston Churchill when Smuts concludes his speech and the reaction of the British Parliament, a reaction that has not been seen in British politics since, it is very unique.

 

Charity

In 1921 Smuts, along with Field Marshal Haig, established The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) in Cape Town.  The RCEL sought to consolidate war veteran’s charities all over the world to care for the returning military service personnel in the Commonwealth.  It saw the establishment or re-purposed institutions which now play a significant role in care for servicemen worldwide, The Royal British Legion, The Royal Canadian Legion, The Returned Services League Australia and The South African Legion to name a few.

He also made South Africa available to Jewish orphans escaping the Pogroms of Eastern Europe (despite resistance from South African nationalists).  For a full story on this remarkable chapter, see an earlier Observation Post 200 Jewish orphans saved, the story of Jan Smuts and Issac Ochberg

He again made South Africa available to Polish orphan children escaping the Nazi German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, establishing a grateful and thriving small Polish community in South Africa (see earlier Observation Post South Africa provides sanctuary for Polish refugee children during WW2 ).

Academia

Smuts was also an accredited philosopher, his work on Holism brought him high acclaim from his Philosopher peers.  Holism can be defined as “the fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe” and was published in 1926.  For Smuts it formed the grounding behind his concepts of the League of Nations and United Nations.

Smuts was also an accredited Botanist, his books and illustrations on South African grasses (veld) are still regarded as the definitive work.

21731360_2020995841462737_816238144166127637_nWhilst studying law at Christ’s College at Cambridge University, he was rated as one of the top three students they have ever had (Christ’s College is nearly 600-year-old).  The other two were John Milton and Charles Darwin.

His intellect was unsurpassed, to pass an exam at Cambridge he learnt Greek (fluently) in just 6 days. His wife was no intellectual slouch either, later in life Jan Smuts and Ouma Smuts used to tease one another when one would recite a Bible verse and the other would be expected to recite the following one, from memory, in Greek!

In 1948, Smuts was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the first real non-Briton outside of British Royalty to be elected to the position in the 800 year-old history of Cambridge University.

Vision

Smuts’ idea of ‘Union’ and vision for South Africa was that of a ‘United States of South Africa’ including countries like Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe in the Union.  It was to be a significant player on the world stage drawing on Africa’s vast resources to see it as a leading political and economic power block (much like the USA is now).  Can you imagine if Botswana and Rhodesia voted to join the Union (they chose not to at the time), what a different history we would have seen in Southern Africa – ‘Apartheid’ may never have happened just for starters.

A humble man

Personally, Smuts was a God-fearing, frugal and humble man. He chose as his house an old rickety, uninsulated, fully corrugated iron, transportable military head office.  He preferred to sleep outside on the ‘stoup’ (veranda) on a small single hard wood bed, his garden was the natural veld. There were no stately mansions or ‘Nkandla’ with ‘fire pools’ for Smuts and he would not have had it anyway.

Legacy

The National Party in a sinister move, gradually and over the long period of Apartheid insidiously smeared Smuts and his legacy, erasing from the general consciousness of just what a great South African Smuts had become. Modern South Africans grew up with almost no regard for Smuts, and if you had to ask a young Black South African today who Smuts was he’ll probably say he was one of the white Apartheid monsters, the white English children will have no idea and the White Afrikaans ones may remember something about him been traitor to Afrikaners.  A student in Canada studying world politics would have a better grip on Smuts than a South African student.

Luckily this is beginning to change, and landmark Biographies are being written now which start to fully explore who and what Jan Smuts was, and it is both fascinating and eye-opening.  It is very hard to sum up all the greatness Smuts was to attain, and certainly for his time his deeds set him well apart from any of the other Statesmen South Africa has produced, certainly if you consider all the subsequent South African Premiers other than Mandela. We have a wonderful story in Smuts, and what we have a character of force – a polyglot, philosopher, botanist, intellectual, lawyer, politician, statesmen, reformer and warrior –  a story and a man who is best summed up by Alan Paton who said:

“Even the great thought he was great.”


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  References: Jan Smuts reconsidered Hermann Giliomee 26 January 2016, Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness 2015.  Video footage copyright Associated Press.  My deep thanks to Philip Weyers for the Smuts family insight and access.

This article serves to highlights Smuts’ achievements by way of an Obituary.  There are other issues any national leader faces that highlight decisive but ‘unpopular’ action depending on the affected party’s point of view.  For more related articles in The Observation Post on  Jan Smuts please have a look at this link:

South Africa’s very own Communist Revolution – The Rand Revolt of 1922

 

‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary

South African Legion of Military Veteran’s parade and speeches on the Centenary of the Battle of Delville Wood which fell part of the Somme 100 Commemorations in 2016, this commemoration was held at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on the Somme in France and was hosted by The Royal British Legion.

To watch the entire ceremony on video as broadcasted by The Royal British Legion please click on the video link below, to read the speech only please scroll down:

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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Related links and work

In Flanders Fields (Afrikaans) ‘In Flanders Fields’ translated into Afrikaans for the Somme 100 commemoration, July 2016

Delville Wood 400 shells/min – upwards to 600/min fell on the Springbok positions, imagine “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”

William Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC


Speech written by Peter Dickens.  Video copyright – The Royal British Legion.

In Vlaandere se Velde

This is the Afrikaans text version of the landmark WW1 poem “In Flanders Fields” written by Lt Col John McCrae as translated into Afrikaans for the 100 year anniversary of The Battle of Delville Wood and the Somme Offensive in July 2016.

As the Battle of Delville Wood involved South Africans of both British and Afrikaner origin, and it was the battle which forged the young Union of South Africa’s identity, it was felt that it would be appropriate to translate ‘In Flanders Fields’ into Afrikaans and read it at the centenary ceremony.  The poem up to that point had already been translated into a variety of languages, but not Afrikaans.

This Afrikaans translation is the result of a dedicated collaborative effort.

In Vlaandere se Velde – Deur Lt. Kol John McCrae

In Vlaand’re wieg papawers sag
Tussen kruise, grag op grag,
As bakens; en deur dit alles deur
Die lewerikke tjilpend in dapper vlug,
Skaars hoorbaar bo die grofgeskut van kanonne.

Ons is die Dooies.
Dae gelede het ons geleef
die dagbreek en sonsondergloed beleef.
Was bemind en was verlief,
nou lê ons in Vlaandere se velde.

Veg voort my Kind met alle mag;
neem uit my hand die lig,
met krag moet jul die fakkel dra, met eer.
Wie durf Ons dood verloën, onteer –
ons sal steeds dwaal, ons sal nie slaap,
solank papawers groei in Vlaandere se velde.

P62__BYTOWN_MUSEUM_28891023The original English version, composed by Colonel McCrae after he buried Alexis Helmer, a close friend, who was killed during the battle of Ypres. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance at an Advanced Dressing Station just outside the town of Ypres. This location is today known as the John McCrae Memorial Site.

Here’s what he wrote:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

supporting-poppy-appealThe poem was kindly translated into Afrikaans by Hendrik Neethling and Walter E. Vice as a collaboration on behalf of the South African Legion and The Royal British Legion.  It was arranged and read by Karen Dickens at the Legion’s Centenary Service of the South African sacrifice on the Somme and the Battle of Delville Wood.  This landmark occasion was held at the Thiepval Memorial to the missing in France on 10th July 2016.

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Posted in memory of the co-author of this translation – Hendrik Neethling, may he Rest in Peace.

Related Links and Work

Springbok Valour Some 100 dedication – Thiepval Memorial ‘Springbok Valour’… the Centenary of Delville Wood

Delville Wood 400 shells/min – upwards to 600/min fell on the Springbok positions, imagine “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”


Written by Peter Dickens with thanks to Theo Fernandes for the image and my wife Karen Dickens for her dedication in translating ‘In Flanders Field’ into her Mother Tongue.