South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


The topic for 14 November 2013 was Commemorating The Fallen: The Origin & History of Poppy Day (Remembrance Day) and the Role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The first part of the lecture was presented by fellow-member Brig Gen John del Monte whose topic covered events around Poppy Day. The second part of the lecture, to be presented by the Chairman, Johan van den Berg, would have dealt with the role played by the CWGC in commemorating the fallen of World War One. However, it was not to be - as the evening unfolded, the positive and spontaneous response to Brig Gen Del Monte’s retelling of his experiences during his recent visit to Ypres and Flanders, necessitated a re-assessment and re-adjustment of the evening’s proceedings whereby, by virtual unanimous agreement by the audience, it was decided (on the chairman’s suggestion) to postpone it until the January meeting and present it then as a fully-fledged lecture.

Our Speaker introduced his talk by explaining the term “Remembrance” – a memory of a person or event and the ability to recall past events. This pre-supposes that we knew the person/s or events and therefore can recall them, which is not always true.

The closest meaning in our military context is a way of showing respect for someone who has died for an important event and a reminder to people and governments of the horrors of war.

Throughout history remembrance has been practiced in many differing forms and influenced by culture in poetry, triumphal arches, memorials, obelisks, oratory and wreaths.

Today remembrance takes many forms – cenotaphs, memorials and the honouring of an unknown soldier, flags at half-mast, two-minute silence, the wearing of medals on the right side, the wearing of the red poppy and the sounding of the Last Post. An example of the last of these is the sounding of the Last Post by buglers at the Menin Gate in Ypres every evening. By 15 July 2015, this unique and moving ceremony will have been done 10 000 times! To commemorate this event, the Last Post Association will print a limited edition book in 2015. Or speaker the read Laurence Binyan’s well-known ode to the fallen, frequently used as an act of remembrance:

The most used symbol of remembrance in the world is the wearing of a red poppy during the period up to the 11th of November. Legend has it that the poppy goes back to the time of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan and is symbolic of the spirit of service and sacrifice.

Where his hordes fought and blood was spilled, there white poppies appeared in profusion, growing to a height of one metre. Some say that the white poppies turned red where blood was spilt the most. This phenomenon followed his hordes across Asia.

It is also believed by some that the poppy was in fact brought to Eastern Europe by Genghis Khan and grew there as a companion weed to wheat and other grains. Wherever these grain crops from the Steppes were sold, the poppy seed went too, and, by the time of the First World War some seven hundred years later, the red poppy grew alongside almost every grain crop throughout Europe.

The Red Poppy of Flanders, also known as the Corn Poppy (popaver rhoeas), is also found in the Maghreb, the Levant and all over Europe. In Germany it is known as Klatschmohn or Flandern Mohn.

Through the centuries, an even stranger event occurred. Emperors and kings marched their armies across suffering Europe in bloody conflict and everywhere, on battlefields which afterwards became bare wastes, there sprang up the poppy, its symbol carpeting the graves of the men who had died. During the Napoleonic Wars, battlefields were seen to be covered by poppies. Again during the First World War the battlefields of France and Flanders were covered with poppies after battle. Why?

Scarlet corn poppies grow naturally in conditions of disturbed earth throughout Western Europe. The destruction caused by the Napoleonic Wars and, again in late 1914, as the First World War raged and again ripped up the earth, resulting in bare land being transformed into fields of blood red poppies, growing round the bodies of the fallen soldiers. Even today one still sees clumps of red poppies in the Somme area and in Flanders, but not in the profusion existing during the war.

Our speaker then explained why the red poppy came to be chosen as the flower of remembrance. On 8 December 1915, a poem by a Lt Col (Dr) John McCrae entitled “In Flanders Fields” was published in the British magazine Punch. This was written in memory of a close medical friend who had been killed in France.

Lt Col John Alexander McCrae(1) was born in Ontario on 30 November 1872. He trained as a physician, but became an artillery officer, serving during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 – 1902. During the years 1901 to 1911, he was Professor of Pathology at the University of Vermont, but also taught at McGill University in Canada. During the First World War, he initially served in the front lines at a First Aid Station between Poperinghe and Ypres (where he, as a matter of interest, wrote his now-famous and immortal poem). He subsequently was promoted and appointed as Commanding officer at the 3rd McGill Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne in France.He tragically contracted and died of pneumonia and meningitis on 28 January 1918 at the very same base hospital where he worked himself into the ground in an effort to save the lives of his fellow soldiers wounded in battle.

The day before he died, McCrae said to his doctor “Tell them this: If ye break faith with us, we shall not sleep”.

Paradoxically, contrary to popular belief, the adoption of the red poppy as symbol of the now well-known remembrance of the sacrifice of Commonwealth soldiers during World War One, did not originate in Great Britain. It was started in the United States of America, followed by France.

Nine months after the death of John McCrae and two days before the Armistice was declared at 11am on 11 November 1918, Moina Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia in the USA, was working in the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters during its annual conference in New York. While flipping through a copy of the Ladies Home Journal, she came across McCrae’s poem and was so moved that she vowed to always wear a red poppy in remembrance. That same day she was given 10 dollars by the conference delegates as thanks for her hard work. This she spent during her lunch break on buying 25 red silk poppies.

Returning to the venue with one of these pinned to her coat, she distributed the rest amongst the delegates. Since this group had given her the money with which to buy the flowers, Prof Michael saw this as the first sale of memorial poppies. She then threw her efforts into campaigning to get the poppy adopted as a national remembrance symbol in the USA. After returning to the University of Georgia, Professor Michael taught a class of disabled veterans. Realising how much support such men needed, she came up with the idea of selling artificial poppies to raise funds for America’s disabled veterans.

She retired in 1938 and lived out the rest of her life in the university town of Athens and was buried in its historic cemetery. She died in 1944, the last full year of the Second World War. By then the poppy sales originated by her had raised more than 200 million dollars for the rehabilitation of war veterans.

In 1920, the National American Legion’s 29th annual conference proclaimed the poppy to be the official symbol of remembrance. Present at the conference was Madame Anna Guerin from France.

She was inspired by Moina Michael’s idea of the poppy as a memorial flower and also believed that the scope of the memorial poppy could be expanded to help the needy. She came up with the idea that artificial poppies could be made and sold as a way of raising money for the benefit of the French people, especially the orphaned children, who were suffering as a result of the war. She returned to France after the conference and founded the “American and French Children’s League” through which she organised French women, children and war veterans to make artificial poppies out of cloth.

Anna was determined to introduce the idea of the memorial poppy to the nations which had been allies of France during the First World War. During 1921, she made visits or sent representatives to America, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. She went in person to visit Field Marshall Earl Haig, founder and President of the British Legion, and persuaded him to adopt the Flanders Poppy as an emblem for The Legion. This was formalised in 1921.

Initially they were made by French women and children. In 1922 the Poppy factory was established in the Old Kent Road, South London. This was the idea of major George Howson MC, founder of the Disabled Society for disabled ex-servicemen and women.

By making artificial poppies for sale in November each year, the factory could employ five disabled men during the year. By 1933 the demand for poppies was such that the Poppy Factory had to move to larger premises in Richmond, Surrey. The demand for poppies continues to grow each year.

Currently the Poppy Factory is producing nearly 40 million poppies for wreaths, sprays and buttonholes per annum. Over time the poppy appears everywhere and in many forms, but the message remains the same “Lest We Forget”.

Since 1994 the words “Haig Fund” are no longer inscribed on the black button in the centre of each poppy. Instead it reads “Poppy Appeal”.

Between 1926 and 1933 discussions took place between The British Legion and a number of “anti war” lobby groups, predominantly the Co-operative Women’s League. They requested that the words “Haig Fund” be removed from the black centre of the poppy and replaced with the word “Peace”. They were not successful and then decided to produce their own white poppy, worn for the first time in 1933 advocating peace and pacifism. This was not meant as a slight on Remembrance.

Gen Del Monte recently attended the burial of the remains of SA Scottish soldiers recently recovered from the Flanders battlefields, at Tyne Cot Military Cemetery on the outskirts of Ypres. What was particularly moving were the number of excellent photographs he took during the event, as well during the playing of the Last Post at the Menin Gate. He also found the time to visit a number of famous landmarks in and around Ypres, amongst other the well-known rest haven for all ranks, popularly known as “Toc ‘H’”, in Poperinghe.


Today it is not just about remembering those soldiers who never returned from the battlefield, and forever rest on foreign soil – whether in a known grave, or only “Known Unto God” - but also those veterans who did, injured or uninjured, but now are in need of assistance. To mark the solemnity of the occasion and show solidarity with the fallen soldiers, veterans and their families of all wars of the past 100 years, the Chairman asked the audience to rise and keep a minute’s silence – Lest We Forget.

The Chairman, Johan van den Berg, thanked Gen del Monte for his fascinating talk which appropriately followed closely on the Annual Remembrance Day services and wreath laying ceremonies worldwide. He then presented our speaker with the customary gift.

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In Memoriam

It is great sorrow that we announce the passing of Major General Graham Dunbar Moodie SM (age 101), on the night of 16/17th November, 2013. Gen Moodie would have turned 102 on the 3rd of January, 2014.

Gen Moodie was born on 3 January 1912, matriculated in 1928 and studied Botany and Zoology at Rhodes University for his BA degree. He attended the Permanent Force cadet course in 1934 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in January 1935. He joined the SA Artillery before the outbreak of war in 1939 and was posted to Coast Artillery. He filled various Coast Artillery posts as Battery Commander, Chief Instructor and Director: Coast Artillery, mostly on Robben Island. He tried hard to get a posting "Up North" where his brothers were serving as volunteers, but was not allowed to, because of the importance of his tasks in Coast Artillery on Robben Island.

After the war he attended the "Long Gunnery Staff Course in England and later was South Africa's first Military, Air and Naval Attaché in Germany. He returned to South Africa to be Army Chief of Staff (Deputy Chief of the Army) and promoted Major General. He retired when he turned 60 in January 1972 and took over the "Honeywood" farm to go back to his great love of beekeeping. His wife, Sheila, died some years ago, but Gen Moodie carried on with the bee-farming at "Honeywood" for many years, together with his son John and his family. Gen Moodie is being survived by his two sons, daughter and their families. Our sincerest condolences go out to the family and Maj Tony Gordon and his family, who had been close family friends over the years.

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A number of members have not yet paid their 2013 subscriptions. Your prompt payment would be appreciated.

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Members who indicated that they would like to purchase a copy of Dr Sleigh’s book, The Taking of the Slaver Meermin, are reminded that copies will be available at the next meeting. Price: R180,00

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

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Forthcoming Meetings:


Up to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) the British Empire dealt in a haphazard way with the remains of its soldiers that laid down their lives for King/Queen and Empire, a neglect that was often the source of political scandal. The Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), formed in 1917, set out remedy this state of affairs. Although formed to perform a functional service, its progenitor – Fabian Ware – also had an ulterior mission in mind: Strengthening the Imperial ideal and fusing the British commonweal into a unitary whole. The IWGC’s successor was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) as we know it today. Its principal function is to mark, record and maintain the graves, and places of commemoration, for the members of the military of the Commonwealth of Nations who died on active service, not only in the two World Wars, but all conflicts up to the present day.

January’s talk will be the second in a planned series of lectures to be presented by the Cape Town branch over the next five years, to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, starting this year. The South African Military History Society has planned a programme of lectures to be selected and presented, individually, by all four branches countrywide, in the course of 2014-2018, to commemorate the battles, and honour the memory of all soldiers and civilians – on all sides - who participated in this tumultuous event. To this day the impact of the “Great War” - and outcome - on all terrains of society has not yet fully been realised, nor thoroughly analysed. At least two lectures a year will be devoted to the First World War over the next five years.


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 was 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.

(Please note that the January meeting always takes place on the THIRD THURSDAY of the month due to the festive season/school holidays)

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 /