South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 16 January 2014 was our chairman, Mr Johan van den Berg, who spoke on the subject of Remembrance and the role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

He introduced his presentation with a slide of the Italian sculptor Paulo Uccello’s painting on a wall of the Duomo in Florence, depicting a knight mounted on his horse. However, the figure is not honouring an Italian noble – the inscription below pays homage to a mercenary warlord – from the British Isles: ‘Ioannes Acutus Eques Britannicus’ - ‘Dux Aetatis Suae Cautissimus Et Rei Militaris Pertissimus Habitus Est’ – ‘This is John Hawkwood, British knight, esteemed the most cautious and expert general of his age.’ This was the rulers of Florence’s grateful tribute for services rendered by Sir John, the scourge of Florence’s enemies.

Our speaker pointed out that, from 1436 to 1914, very few cemeteries and memorials to British servicemen killed in the many European and other wars in that period have survived. A thin sprinkling of graves did survive in the Iberian Peninsula and across Europe, but at best, no more than a mere handful. He showed us pictures of the magnificent British Memorial in a Brussels cemetery commemorating the seventeen British soldiers interred in the crypt underneath it. Of the seventeen, sixteen are British officers killed at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Also buried there in 1894 is a sergeant major who survived the battle and became a battlefield tour guide. Whether on the battlefields at Quatre Bras, Ligny, Mont St Jean/Waterloo, or at Plancenoit, it is irrelevant - of the tens of thousands of soldiers who fought and died there, this is in fact one of the very few visible sites of commemoration and of actual graves of soldiers who participated in those climatic battles of June 1815.

Johan explained that, in those days, the bodies of most of those killed at Waterloo were either dumped into mass graves or piled on to massive funeral pyres and cremated. Eyewitnesses spoke of dead French soldiers and horses being collected into funeral pyres and burnt – more often than not, only partially consumed by flames. After Waterloo, it took 12 days to collect and bury the dead, this task being left to the local peasants who stripped the bodies of any item usable before burying them. Those soldiers who survived the battle but who were too badly wounded to be moved were often shot by roving patrols of their own comrades, possibly a more humane outcome than dying at the hands of marauding battlefield robbers – soldiers and civilians alike – who showed no mercy by murdering the poor suffering wretches lying wounded on the blood-soaked battlefield and whom they were plundering of their last earthly possessions. The ever-present danger of disease was of paramount importance so bodies had to be dealt with the utmost haste and in any way possible. Resultantly common soldiers did not even receive a decent burial in a properly-marked grave

. As the 19th century progressed, so Great Britain gradually began to recognize its debt to the British soldier. Johan showed us slides of the Crimean War, 1854 -1856, the Indian Mutiny 1857-1858, and the retreat from Kabul. There were 139 British cemeteries in Russia in 1856, today there is only one left. The author David Crane, in his book Empire of the Dead (2013), has pointed out that it was the Americans who first recognized and honoured the fallen of both sides - both blue and grey - of that terrible internecine strife they called their Civil War, by establishing proper military cemeteries, many of which became famous names and popular in their own right. Today the cemeteries at Shiloh, Antietam, Bull Run and, of course, Gettysburg, have become popular tourist destinations.

During the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, the British Army and the colonial administration ensured that each soldier who was killed or died was given an individual and proper burial in a grave which was properly registered and recorded in a way that ensured dignity and a modicum of consolation to the immediate family and loved ones.

The First World War started in 1914. The number of Commonwealth war dead grew from a few dozen in the early battles, then to thousands and eventually to tens of thousands in the later battles. Some 20 000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed and almost double that number wounded or missing on that fateful first day of the Battle of the Somme - of which the overwhelming majority died in the first hour of the attack. This huge escalation in the number of dead brought a realization among the population – both military and civilian - that these almost countless squandered lives should be in some way remembered and honoured. This gave rise to the process of identifying the dead and burying them in temporary cemeteries on the battlefield or near the field hospitals where they died. After the War, a great number of these bodies, as well as remains recovered subsequently, were reinterred in properly laid-out cemeteries with an individual tombstone for each body. Memorials were also set up, listing the names of those with no known graves. These were men who could not be identified because of the state of the remains, or where a pitifully few scattered bones were all that was left. These bones were placed in ossuaries near the memorials.

The First World War is inextricably linked to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as the one led to the creation of the other. The majority of the visible content of the war is in the shape of cemeteries and memorials, which to a large extent - up to 90% - was set up by the Commission. The balance is contained in the remains of trenches, bunkers, museums and private memorials. There is also a proliferation of war memorials honouring the dead in the many wars fought over the centuries all over Europe. Most of these are situated in churches or churchyards on, or near, the actual battlefields.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is an independent organization, funded by government grant and payments from member countries in proportion to the number of war dead from those countries. The member countries are the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. Its principal function is to mark, record and maintain the graves and places of commemoration of Commonwealth military service members who died on active service during the two World Wars and, presumably, other wars since 1945.

The founder of the CWGC was Fabian Ware. He was too old to enlist and joined a Red Cross ambulance unit which dealt with casualties behind the front line. They also took on the role of marking and caring for the graves of the fallen British and Empire soldiers. Their work became known and they had to deal with an increasing number of enquiries from people trying to trace their missing relatives and loved ones. In 1917 the unit dropped its Red Cross title and joined the British Army as the Imperial War Graves Commission, established by Royal Charter. In 1960, it became known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

It carried on creating cemeteries and recording the locations throughout the war and, when the war ended, it continued with the mammoth task of finding, burying and recording all those who had died world-wide. By 1918, 587 000 graves had been identified and 559 000 casualties registered as having no known graves.

The ownership of all the land taken up by British war graves or memorials for the missing in France and Belgium have been transferred in perpetuity to Britain by those countries. So each cemetery is a little part of Britain. The Commission acts on behalf of all member governments in all matters concerning their war graves of the two world wars and maintains 1 179 000 war graves in 22 203 burial sites in 148 countries, as well as another 170 000 graves in 12 000 sites in the UK.

The Commission’s work is guided by the following principles:

- That each of the dead shall be commemorated individually by name either on a headstone over a grave or by an inscription on a memorial if the burial is unknown.
- That the headstones and memorials should be permanent.
- That the headstones should be uniform.
- That there should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed.

The purposes of the Commission are:
- To acquire and hold land for the purpose of cemeteries in any territory in which officers and men of the British lmperial Forces, who fell in the two world wars, may be buried.
- To complete and maintain records and a register of all graves within such cemeteries.
- To make provision for the burial of all officers and men and the care of all graves in such cemeteries, to erect buildings and permanent memorials there and generally to provide for the maintenance and upkeep of such cemeteries, buildings and memorials.

The Commission is funded by Government grant and by payments from member countries, each nation pays in direct proportion of the number of war dead from those countries, the proportion as follows;

- United Kingdom 78.40%
- Canada 10.07%
- Australia 6.05%
- New Zealand 2.14%
- South Africa 2.11% (1)
- lndia 1.20%

The highest concentration of cemeteries controlled by the CWGC lie in the 112 km/70 mile stretch running north-west to south-east through Belgium and France, the British sector of the western front in the First World War. Here some of the cemeteries are so close together that one can stand in one and look into another. The land has reverted to agriculture but at certain times of the year, one can still see from the air the continuous and inerasable scar left by the trenches.

No two cemeteries are alike but they are all built to the same guidelines and specifications though different in layout and character. The Cross of Sacrifice, was designed by the architect, Sir Reginald Blomfield, in four sizes to fit all sizes of cemetery. All large cemeteries also have a Stone of Remembrance, which was designed by Sir Edwin Lutjens, another famous architect, and inscribed with the words “Their name liveth for ever more”. These are found in cemeteries with 1 000 graves or more.

Headstones are all of a standard pattern with each bearing the national emblem or regimental or unit badge, followed by rank, name, date of death, age and appropriate religious emblem. At the foot of the stone there is place for an inscription, chosen by the family. The headstones of unidentified soldiers have the inscription “Known unto God”. The only exception are the headstones of Victoria Cross winners buried in a particular cemetery, whose headstones are emblazoned with an engraved facsimile of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for valour.

There are five types of cemetery. The first are battlefield cemeteries where men are buried on the ground where they fell in combat. The dead of the various regiments were usually kept separate and, if the attack was successful, most of the bodies would have been identified. Less identifications could be made if the attack was not successful. These cemeteries were usually small, confined to a few dates of death and often in isolated locations. After the First World War there were literally hundreds of these battlefield cemeteries spread haphazardly all over the various battle zones, but after the war the bodies were exhumed and reinterred in larger sites. A few, however, still exist.

Comrades cemeteries were found some few hundred metres behind the front line. People killed during “quiet” periods of frontline duty would be buried by their comrades as they came from the front line. They could also have been wounded men who died at a Forward Dressing Station. Many were closed and the bodies moved to larger sites but those that still exist are direct links to the routine life of frontline soldiers and the times when they had to go over the top.

Communal cemeteries are found a bit further behind the frontline than comrades’ cemeteries. These are groups of war graves found in French civilian (or communal) cemeteries. The uniform, neat CWGC graves are in stark contrast to the civilian graves with their individual headstones in all types, shape and construction, providing for an untidy, unkempt appearance.

Dressing station cemeteries were further away from the fighting area and were where the Main Dressing Stations and Casualty Clearing Stations received wounded from the front. These units normally stayed in one spot for a long time and were able to bury their dead in properly and carefully laid-out plots in a field nearby. Further back were the large base hospitals near the Channel Ports. These remained static for very long periods and built up huge cemeteries. These were very well-ordered, carefully laid-out with a large number of units represented. Officers and other ranks were normally separated in spite of the policy of the CWGC that no distinction should be made on the basis of rank, religion and nationality.

Concentration cemeteries were set up after the end of the First World War to provide new burial places for thousands of bodies because of the closing of hundreds of small cemeteries and the discovery of many scattered graves as the battlefield searches continued. Bodies are still being unearthed today, some 100 years later. These cemeteries now dominate the most densely fought-over battlefields such as the 1916 area of the Somme and Ypres. These are normally very large, near a road for ease of visitor access and with the graves laid out neatly with regular numbers of graves in each row. They were given the name of their geographical location, e.g. Delville Wood or Warlencourt, and are good examples of early post First World War concentration cemeteries. They have also been called the “Silent Cities” of the Dead.

There are two main means of commemorating and remembering the war dead. One is cemeteries, as discussed above. The other is through the erection of Memorials to the Missing. The purpose of building these was to commemorate in perpetuity the sacrifice of the soldiers of the British Empire and especially the missing who have no known grave. Most countries in the world have memorials to their war dead and to remember past campaigns but these are not covered by this talk.

The first of these memorials to the missing was the Menin Gate, unveiled on 27 July 1927. There was insufficient space for the names of all the missing and 35 000 names had to be inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, located in the Tyne Cot British Military Cemetery. Not only is it a concentration cemetery, but also the largest CWGC military cemetery in the world today, with just under 12 000 bodies interred here (in addition to the 35 000 names of the missing inscribed on its walls).

A large number of these memorials to the missing were built – Helles at Gallipoli, Thiepval, Arras and, in Iraq, Basra (listed chronologically up to this point). Each Dominion and India erected a memorial – Neuve-Chappele for the Indians, Vimy for the Canadians, Villers-Bretonneux for the Australians (the last to be completed; and only in 1938), Delville Wood for the South Africans (designed by Sir Herbert Baker) and Beaumont-Hamel for Newfoundland. The largest French memorials are the Ossuary at Douamont, near Verdun, which houses millions of bones of soldiers blown apart in the charnel house that was Verdun, and the national memorial at Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest French cemetery. The largest military shrine in Italy is at Redipuglia, awesome in its enormity it brings home with a numbing realization the totality and waste of war. Here are buried 100 187 Italian soldiers who died in the battles of the Azonso. Of these 39 857 are known and 60 330 unknown. American war memorials are elegant and graceful – the most important of theirs is the one at St Mihiel.

Many soldiers who died were never found or, if the bodies were recovered, they could not be identified. This required a new form of memorial. The scale of the issue was huge. 73 000 Allied dead were never found at the Somme, because their bodies were lost, destroyed or were unrecognizable – more than one in ten of those lost in the battle. Some form of memorial was needed and two types of memorial were developed. One was the Cenotaph, a memorial with an empty tomb. We have one in Cape Town. The first one was in London and they are to found in one form or another all round the world. In the countries which made up the old British Empire these are the focus of Remembrance Day commemorations of the war dead.

The other form of memorial is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which used the idea of burying one of the unidentified bodies from the war as a symbolic memorial to all of the missing soldiers. There was some objection to this idea but, in 1920, both Britain and France inaugurated such a memorial,. The French one is situated under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Most countries now have such a memorial, some of them truly magnificent structures such as the one in Rome, the Victor Emmanuele memorial (otherwise known as the wedding cake).

Our speaker then discussed the South African part in the two World Wars and the resting places of the South African dead, both in South Africa and elsewhere. In the First World War, our forces fought in German South West Africa in 1914-5, in German East Africa (Tanganyika) from 1915 to 1918, in North Africa (Libya) against the Senussi in 1915 and in France from 1916 to 1918, with small forces fighting in Palestine. Losses were heavy. The major battles were Delville Wood on the Somme (1916), Butte de Warlencourt (Somme, 1916), Arras (1917), Passchendaele (1917), Bois de Marričres (Somme, 1918), and Le Cateau (1918). These are all located in France and Belgium.

Cemeteries with significant numbers of South African dead and with memorials to the missing include Thiepval, Pozičres, Brown’s Copse cemetery, Delville Wood, Warlencourt and Ors British Military Cemetery. The Menin Gate bears the names of 560 and the Thiepval Memorial the names of 830 South Africans missing in battle. Other graves exist in the Middle East.

The South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) was formed in 1916 and recruited some 25 000 men. These bore no arms but served in France, in supply and transport duties, mainly in the ports and on lines of communication as well as in the forward areas. Many men died of illness but the greatest tragedy was the sinking of the Mendi in 1917. Some 600 of the 800 officers and men being transported, were lost. These men are commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial at Southampton. Another cemetery where SANLC men are buried is Arques-la-Bataille and there is also a memorial to all the dead SANLC men who died at this cemetery. A memorial has also been erected in Cape Town, but somewhat belatedly.

Some 8 500 Commonwealth war dead are buried in South Africa. Most of them were South Africans or were serving with our forces. The rest were Commonwealth servicemen training in South Africa or were wounded from other theatres and brought here for treatment. They are buried in 600 cemeteries and burial grounds but mostly in the large cemeteries of the main cities or near the main military bases (Simon’s Town or Pretoria) or in military cemeteries within South Africa.

South African dead from the First World War are buried in military cemeteries in East Africa, Egypt, Libya and Italy – where our forces fought.

The number of South African war dead buried in graves or commemorated on memorials maintained by the CWGC is 21 359 – 9 445 for the First World War and 11 914 for the Second World War. All of the cemeteries and memorials are kept in good order by the Commission (not only in South Africa, but the rest of the world as well).

Johan’s talk was supported by a large number of slides of various cemeteries and memorials, mostly in the battle areas of France and Flanders. If you have been fortunate enough to have visited these memorials to the Commonwealth and South African war dead in France, Italy, North or East Africa or elsewhere seen what these places represent, you will be reminded most graphically of the horror and futility and appalling cost of war and the waste of all those young lives squandered – in the prime of their life.

The Vice-Chairman, Mr Alan Mountain, thanked our speaker for his fascinating and most comprehensive talk, and commented on the amount of research, which also involved travelling to many of the sites illustrated during his talk, and presented him with the customary gift.


In view of the upcoming centenary and commemoration of the First World War, the Cape Town branch chairman and secretary would like to start an information sheet in their spare time, exclusively dedicated to events and news relating the WWI centenary. If the response is positive enough, it can be realized, and even be sent out on a monthly basis along with the regular branch newsletter. We therefore kindly would like to ask members to please consider participating in our little “project”, and preserve all newspaper clippings and magazine articles that relate to the event and pass it on to either the branch chairman or secretary. If it is something that you would like to keep yourself and not part with, at least make the article or document available so that it can be scanned so as to enable us to retain a facsimile in the planned WWI news archive. The original(s) will be duly returned to the rightful owner.

The chairman, Johan van den Berg, can be contacted at phone numbers 021-939-7923 (home) or 082-579-0386 (cell). His email address is The contact details of the secretary, Ray Hattingh, appear at the end of the newsletter.

Your support and cooperation in this project would be highly appreciated.


The book Sporting Soldiers - South African Troops at Play during World War I by Prof. Floris van der Merwe is now on sale. Prof Van der Merwe has liaised with the chairman and will make copies available to be on sale to members at the next meeting of the Cape Town Branch.

With the advent of the centenary of the First World War (WWI) in 2014, the timely appearance of “Sporting Soldiers” will tie in nicely with the society’s planned lecture series during the WWI centenary period It definitely will find a worthy niche in the ranks of the expected surge of centenary writing about WWI, and will certainly appeal to those interested in military history.

“Professor Floris van der Merwe has a long professional career as an accomplished scholar of sport in history. “Sporting Soldiers” is his research in book form about sport in the British and South African Forces during World War One. His wonderful ability to evoke the social world of his historical subjects, using incidents and episodes to enable readers to relive the small enjoyments, frustrations and sporting triumphs of his subjects. Photographs, graphic representations and other visual imagery are used, that adds seamlessly to the narrative.

The book comprehensively covers the Great War from a South African perspective, starting with the position of the Union of South Africa in the overall context of WWI. The chapter on South African prisoners of war is the first comprehensive coverage of this topic to be published. His incisive feel for the role of depressive forces, such as ‘Barbed-Wire Disease’, social class, colonial identities and racial segregation for example, shows how his study covers more than just sport.

It is clear how important sport and organised recreational activities were as a release from the stress and strain of war. With “Sporting Soldiers”, scholars and lay persons alike can learn more about it.”

[Extract from a review by Prof W.R. “Bill” Nasson of Stellenbosch University.]

Price: R195,00

Forthcoming Meetings:

On 23 November 1977, an armada of helicopters and aeroplanes, carrying elite SAS and RLI troops, took off from Rhodesian airbases and crossed the border into Mozambique. Their objective was the headquarters of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the so-called Chimoio Complex in Mozambique, where thousands of insurgent forces were concentrated. Codenamed Operation Dingo, the raid was planned to coincide with a meeting of Robert Mugabe and his war council at the targeted HQ. It would be the biggest conflict of the Rhodesian Bush War.

The successful execution of the operation, performed in the face of overwhelming odds, was based on split-second timing and the immaculate coordination of all arms, which was, all things considered, really meagre. The success of the operation exceeded the wildest of expectations of its planners and participants, but it was a gamble that could just as well have gone terribly wrong……

.. Ian Pringle is the author of the book on the same subject, titled Dingo Firestorm: The Greatest Battle of the Rhodesian Bush War, published both overseas and locally. Our speaker is himself an accomplished aviator and well-known amongst the aviation fraternity for his involvement with flying the ex-RAF jets based at Thunder City, near Cape Town International Airport.

Cecil Rhodes is on record as saying he had only met two creators in South Africa, one being himself and the other James Douglas Logan. Born in Reston, Scotland in 1859, Logan emigrated to South Africa at the age of nineteen. Based upon years of research in South Africa and the United Kingdom, and using original archive material (including many unseen photographs) Dr Allen’s fascinating talk is based upon his forthcoming book and explores how James Logan made his fortune in late nineteenth century South Africa through business, politics and a high profile association with the British Empire’s favourite sport – cricket.

James Logan became known as the ‘Laird of Matjiesfontein’ after the Karoo town he had developed. This famous town is today a national heritage site and a popular tourist destination for South African and international visitors. This talk will explore how Matjiesfontein was created and how James Logan developed this little town in the Karoo into a renowned health resort attracting the rich and famous of the late nineteenth century. The talk will also explain how James Logan was instrumental in developing the game of cricket in South Africa and examine the controversial but little-known 1901 South African cricket tour to England – a venture funded by Logan himself in the midst of the Anglo-Boer War. Matjiesfontein’s pivotal role in the war is explored alongside James Logan’s exploits during this time.

Dr Dean Allen is a native of Somerset in the West Country of England, and his long association with South Africa began in the mid-1990s when he began his studies at Stellenbosch University. Currently a lecturer in Sport Management at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Dean has taught at Universities in South Africa, Australia, Northern Ireland and England and is widely published in the areas of sports history and sociology. It was during research for his Master’s Degree (that focused on Sport during the Anglo-Boer War) that Dean first visited Matjiesfontein and a fascination for the history of cricket and this region led to a PhD that was completed in 2008. His book Empire, War and Cricket in South Africa: Logan of Matjiesfontein will be published in February 2014 and is a result of that doctoral study.

Professor Albert Grundlingh, Chair of History Department, Stellenbosch University, had the following to say about the book:
It is more than just a sports history and also more than just a political history. Its strength is the way in which it melds the two to provide a new perspective on a turbulent South African past.

(1) When South Africa was expelled from the commonwealth during the apartheid years not once did it renege on war graves payments.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

(1) The story of John McCrae and his well-known poem will be the subject of a lecture sometime in the future.

South African Military History Society /