Legions and Poppies … and their South African root

Come November, just about every BBC or Sky broadcast shows presenters diligently wearing a Poppy on his or her lapel.  Just about every International English-speaking Celebrity is openly sporting the Poppy.  In the United Kingdom the ‘Poppy Season’ (first two weeks of November) finds the Islands sinking under a weight of paper and plastic poppies. Similarly in Canada, any South African living in or visiting Canada finds themselves knee-deep in poppies.

The two big driving organisations behind this poppy craze in the United Kingdom and Canada respectively is the Royal British Legion and the Royal Canadian Legion.  Simply put, the ‘Poppy’ is the ‘intellectual property’ of the ‘Legion’ (and its even copyrighted) – and is the major vehicle used to raise funds for war veteran support.  Patriotic Brits and Canadians get behind their armed forces and the armed forces community and support them to the hilt by buying a poppy – millions of Pounds and Dollars are raised.  But what of South Africa, where do they fit in?

Step in The South African Legion.  Yes, believe it or not, we have our own “Legion” and it is related to The Royal British Legion and the Royal Canadian Legion as part of an international Legion brotherhood.  It too has the ‘Poppy’ as its ‘Intellectual property’ and it shares a mutual history – so where’s the link?

The Root

Simply put it was South Africa which was the epicentre that brought all these organisations under a singular umbrella.  Cape Town was the original ‘glue’ that bound the Legions together, we as South Africans can stand proud that it is our country which created this unique world-wide link.

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This historic photo was taken in Cape Town when the Royal Commonwealth Ex Services League RCEL was formed (then known as the British Empire Services League BESL) in 1921. The three founders – Field Marshal Haig (left) went on from this meeting to start what is now known as the Royal British Legion and Field Marshal Smuts (centre) and General Lukin (right) went on to start what is now known as the South African Legion.

After suffering the horrors of war in France and Flanders thousands of men who fought on the British side in World War One underwent incredible hardship once they had been discharged from the armed services and returned to civilian life. Realising the serious plight in which men found themselves, these three prominent soldiers : Field Marshall Earl Haig, General the Rt. Hon. J C Smuts and General Sir H T Lukin founded the British Empire Service League (BESL) The inaugural meeting was held in the City Hall, Cape Town on 21 February 1921.

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On the 15 May 1921 Field Marshal Haig returned from the South African BESL conference and founded The British Legion by bringing together four existing organisations – the Comrades of the Great War, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers and the Officers’ Association. It was granted a Royal Charter on 29 May 1971 to mark its fiftieth anniversary which gives the Legion the privilege of the prefix ‘Royal’. Earl Haig remained the President of The British Legion until his death.

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Silk Haig Fund Poppy

The ‘Red Poppy’ has an American root.  In 1918 an American lady from the state of Georgia, Mrs. Moina Michael, read John McCrae’s “In Flander’s Field” and was so moved by it that she came up with an idea of making and wearing red poppies on Memorial Day in the United States of America (last Monday in May) to honour those who died serving in the US military during the First World War. She then began selling her silk poppies to raise money for distressed servicemen and their families (The American Legion still continues this legacy to this day).

Madam Guérin from France had been in the United States during the war, raising money and raising American consciousness about the war. She became aware of Mrs. Michael’s red poppies. On her return to France, she emulated Mrs. Michael and made red poppies to raise money for women, children and families affected by the war.

22339613_10155921037656654_7816662684661396688_oThe Poppy entered into The Royal British Legion’s history in the same year as the RCEL was formed in Cape Town – 1921, when Madame Guérin promoted what she termed the ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’ to the British Legion, a day in which all Britain and her empire who took part in Would War One would remember the fallen with the token of the Flanders red poppy.

After taking her idea to Field Marshal Douglas Haig and the British Legion, Madame Guérin’s poppies (made out of silk by the widows and orphans of the devastated areas of France) were distributed on British streets on 11 November 1921 – on the country’s first Poppy Day.  

By the next year – 1922, “Haig’s Fund” was initiated as the central charity to collect and distribute the raised funds and paper poppies started to make their appearance to raise funds for war victims on a national level.

The South African Branch was titled ‘British Empire Service League (South Africa) and it was also formed by joining the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Association and the Comrades of the Great War (after which the Comrades Marathon is also named see Observation Post. A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon ) .

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On 8 April 1941 in deference to the pro-war two and anti-war factions in the country the name was changed to the ‘South African Legion of the BESL in order to emphasise its South African identity.

Originally in Bloemfontein, the Headquarters moved to Johannesburg in 1942 and is now housed at the Dan Pienaar house in Sandton Johannesburg.  The BESL has since changed its name to the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL). In line with this in 1958 the name of the South African Legion was again altered its name, this time to the South African Legion of the British Commonwealth Ex-Service League.

The South African Legion is an active and founding member organisation of the RCEL and HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, remained the High Patron of the Legion for many years and this mantle was taken over by his son Prince Andrew, Duke of York took in February 2015.  Queen Elizabeth II remains the Chief Patron of The Royal Commonwealth Ex Services League.

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The aim of the RCEL (BESL) was to provide care, employment and housing. In South Africa the Legion was equal to the challenge. It built on the foundation and continued this good work after World War Two. Thousands of men and women have been assisted in all manner of means and this work carries on to-day. Former National Servicemen and those who were part of the Armed Struggle are assisted with advice and direction.

Towards the end of World War Two the Legion launched several housing schemes in various parts of the country, including housing projects for coloured and black soldiers. A large social centre and chapel in Soweto is a good example. When the Government lifted the ban on Black people owning property, veterans living in over 200 homes built by the Legion in the Dube and Moroka districts of Soweto found themselves entitled to acquire their homes on a 99 year leasehold.

The marginalizing of The South African Legion

Many older people will remember a time, when on “Poppy Day” in South Africa (usually the Saturday before Remembrance Sunday) when thousands of South African Legion members with their supporters would ‘sell’ plastic poppies raising funds for veterans in need in just about every major shopping centre all over South Africa.  Some may even remember the Legion visiting their schools and explaining the meaning of the Poppy.  So where is this mass movement now?  It’s a mass movement in the United Kingdom and Canada and has gown from strength to strength, yet this phenomenon in South Africa has waned somewhat – so what happened?

The Legion’s role as South Africa’s official veteran’s body started to erode from 1948 when the National Party came to power in South Africa on its proposals of Apartheid.  At the time the South African Legion boasted the majority of World War 1 and World War 2 as members under its wing.  At the end of World War 2, nearly 40% of the standing South African military was made up of ‘Black’, ‘coloured’ and ‘Indian’ South Africans and many also belonged to the Legion alongside their ‘white’ counterparts.

Many of these veterans took umbrage to the National Party and its new ‘Apartheid’ policy, and especially resisted the National Party’s anti-British stance and its race politics.  In a call by The Torch Commando (a veterans anti-apartheid movement started by ‘Sailor Malan’), tens of thousands of veterans rose up in protest against the government – including the majority of The South African Legion’s members at the time.

The National Party acted decisively and moved to ban and erode this veterans movement (see Observation Post The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!), and after the demise of The Torch Commando the veterans returned to their origin associations – however the Nationalist government was forever to remain weary of the World War 2 war veterans, and the war veterans themselves remained forever weary of the National Party government.

The Nationalists (and many Afrikaners in the SADF officer class) also began to brand South Africa’s remaining war veterans associations, mainly the South African Legion and The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), as ‘British’ and ‘Unpatriotic ‘ whilst they maintained their ‘British’ links, insignia and heritage.

From the beginning of 1948 the Legion relations with the Nationalists were strained in the extreme. A major clash took place when the Legion reacted strongly in 1956 to the Government’s move to ban Black and Coloured veterans from Remembrance Day Services.

The Legion was again at loggerheads with the National Party government over the lack of parity with regard to pensions paid out to Black and Coloured veterans.  The fight to obtain parity of pensions for all – white, coloured and black veterans was finally won in 1986/87. It had been a very long battle.

The government also started to gradually turn off the taps of the supply of veterans to these associations from the newly formatted ‘South African Defence Force’ (SADF) when they completed their service.  Whereas under the old South African Union’ Defence Force (UDF) such a transition when demobilizing was the norm.

By the mid 1980’s it was highly unlikely that the old SADF would invite the Legion to a demobilization briefing to explain the benefits of these new ‘veterans’ joining the Legion, nor would it actively promote the Legion or the MOTH to thousands of SADF permanent force members and conscripts as an option for them post service.

The National Party also took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961, and along with sanctions and International isolation, the South African Legion – as a Commonwealth inspired and linked association, found itself floundering in a country whose government had no time for the British and the Commonwealth and its affiliations at all.

Faced with an ageing membership, a divergent view to that of the Apartheid government of the day, and no ‘new blood’ from the SADF for nearly four decades on end, the Legion (and the MOTH) gradually started to slip into long-term decline.

A major casualty of all of this was the gradual removal of the ‘Poppy’ as an icon of Remembrance from the general population’s mass consciousness.  Embroiled in race politics where black servicemen were marginalised and events as to Apartheid took greater national precedence, the Poppy took a back seat to the seismic events of the day – and where the movement flourished in other countries, it declined in South Africa.

1994 – Resurgence 

1994 was a significant year in many respects, South Africa re-joined the Commonwealth of Nations and was invited back into the International world.  Almost instantly Queen Elizabeth II visited South Africa to re-kindle the links and in a landmark move, The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Service League (RCEL) decreed that its 75th international convention would again take place in Cape Town.

Nelson Mandela opened the RCEL’s Cape Town convention in 1996 on the 26th February and his speech says everything about the hope held by the world’s veterans associations for South Africa when he said:

“Today we meet on this very same spot where the League was founded as equal citizens of our respective countries, committed to freedom for all without qualification. Although the danger of a world war has not been completely eliminated, we now live in a friendlier world, thanks to the tireless efforts of men and women some of whom are present in this hall.

We are confident that your deliberations will help shape our ongoing efforts to re-build the lives of veterans and dependents of our fallen heroes. As a nation that has just emerged from a war situation, we look towards the South African Legion to locate and assist the affected people. With your help and guidance, we will certainly succeed”. 

President Nelson Mandela

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RCEL 75th Convention – Cape Town 1996

The South African Legion resurged and has since been working very hard to re-establish the Poppy heritage in South Africa and promote itself to the South African veterans community as a ‘non political’ (and non government) veteran association option – both with international links and a proud and very long heritage.

One of the Legion’s major undertakings today is securing pensions for South African post-war disabled servicemen, It also undertakes investigations on behalf of the RCEL in respect of assistance requested by other Commonwealth ex-service personnel who reside in South Africa.

Its been an amazing journey, the South African Legion is part of a worldwide brotherhood of veterans organisations – including the other RCEL founders, from the United Kingdom – The Royal British Legion the Royal Legion Scotland, from Australasia, the Australian Returned Services League (RSL) and the New Zealand Returned Services Association (RSA) and in Canada, the Royal Canadian Legion – and the South African Legion still stands proud in its conjoint history with all these prestigious veterans organisations.

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The Legion has a legacy that is nearly 100 years old, its still the “Primo” (the first) veterans association in South Africa and it has outlived all the political epochs in South Africa.  To date it still holds steady in its mission – beaten down during the Apartheid years but now growing, re-energised and focussed on the future.  With any luck the ‘Remembrance Poppy’ will again find its well-earned place in South African society.

The ‘Centenary’ of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League, the 100 year anniversary of its founding in 2021, will again take place in Cape Town – South Africa, and what an honour that will be.


Written by Peter Dickens.  Photo reference South African Military History Society. Content Reference – South African Legion webpage

In the photo caption: Gen. J.C. Smuts (centre) with Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (left) and Maj Gen Sir H.T. Lukin, Commander of 1 South African Infantry Brigade and subsequently Commander of 9 (Scottish) Division (right). Photograph was taken at 1st Conference of the South African Legion of the British Empire Service League, Cape Town (28 February – 4 March 1921). The ranks referred to are those held at the time the photograph was taken.

References ‘Not for Ourselves’ a history of The South African Legion.Leg

“The 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

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

Thiepval Memorial, France 10th July 2016

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

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

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

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

Why is the Thiepval memorial significant to South Africans? It’s a surprise to many in The Royal British Legion and in South African veteran and military circles, but the official designation of this memorial is the “Memorial to the 72, 195 British and South African servicemen, who died in the Battle of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 – 1918, with no known grave”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The veterans bond

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

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

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

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

The next from Matli, a survivor of the SS Mendi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lest we forget”

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Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Left to Right “Modern” Comrades medals

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

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

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

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 bomme.

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.


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.

 

Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts

The interesting part of digging up all the “hidden” history of the South African veteran movements after World War 2, is that occasionally you come across some hidden history about the military veterans organisation which you belong to. Did you know that both Jan Smuts AND Winston Churchill are both members of the South African Legion of Military Veterans?

Well – they are. Field Marshal Jan Smuts was awarded the “Gold Life Membership Badge of the South African Legion of the BESL” in November 1945, and Sir Winston Churchill recieved the same Gold Life Membership Badge to the South African Legion in July 1948.

And here they are – two fellow Legionnaires, the two great prime ministers of Great Britain and South Africa, Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts, at the British Embassy in Cairo, 5 August 1942.

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Above is a standard South African Legion lapel Badge with “Kings crown” from the 2nd World War period.  Note BESL – which stands for the “British Empire Services League” – the South African Legion along with the Royal British Legion, Royal Canadian Legion and Returned Services League Australia are all founder members of it.  Today it is called the “Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League” (RCEL) having received recognition by the Britain’s Royal family for its work all over the world supporting destitute military veterans who have rendered service to the “crown” – including South Africa.

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Modern South African Legion badge – note the use of modern BESL the RCEL “Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League” and Queen’s Crown” for Queen Elizabeth II who is a Patron.

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Image copyright – The Imperial War Museum. Reference “Not For Ourselves” – a history of the South African Legion by Arthur Blake.