A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon

Did you know that the Comrades Marathon, arguably one of the toughest and the most popular ultra marathon in the world, was started by the single inspiration of one war veteran and the marathon is actually a ‘living’ war memorial?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gruelling 90km Comrades ultra-marathon, with 20,000 participants (only half of them finish) is now a major commercial concern but it is still regarded as a ‘living war memorial’, similar to the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.  A truly inspiring legacy.

Comrades-Marathon-in-South-Africa

Related work and Links

Comrades Marathon and the SA Legion; Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’

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


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  With thanks to Stevo Clapham for the use of his grandfather’s image.

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).

Related Work and Links

Living War Memorial: Comrades Marathon A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon

Living War Memorial: Red Cross Children’s Hospital A war memorial in Cape Town which saves children’s lives

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


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens