If I must be honest, I would never dream of being modest enough to say “Oh ... there must be someone who deserves the privilege more than I do”.
This is where I want to be today … and proposing a toast to this wonderful enterprise – the South African Military History Society.
But you know that because that is more or less how I began my speech ten years ago.
What a pleasure it really is to be here to share in this wonderful celebration today. How it takes one’s mind back to those activities then when the draft Constitution was circulated among us and the prospects of having a Military History Society were being discussed.
You may remember that in the film The History Boys the young school teacher, Tom Irwin, tells the boys that memorials are raised to help people forget not to help them remember.1
In a way that might be partly true: stone and bronze memorials seldom say what they need to say to communicate their meaning to all people. They speak only to the people who already know and perhaps not even to them.
Recently I have delivered lectures on the Battle of Delville Wood and it astonished me to hear how even descendants of participants in the First World War know only the name ‘Delville Wood’ not what it signified nor where it was. One person who questioned me had been searching for it in maps of Namibia.
It is because of this lack of knowledge of the past wars that I think the SAMHS can play asignificant role in South Africa.
In the Constitution drafted by the dynamic Charles Cohen – one of our enthusiastic Chairmen - the principle focus of the Society was the academic goal of “the promotion of scientific study, research and appreciation of the history of armed forces and military history and the publication of literature on these subjects ... “
While that academic goal remains, fifty years on the Society serves as an important living memorial that stone and bronze memorials cannot be …
… it has become a memorial to the people who cared enough to establish the SAMH Society – George Duxbury, Neville Gomm, Don Forsyth, Charles Cohen, and so many others … … it is a memorial, it is a tribute, to those who have cared enough to keep the Society alive for fifty years, labouring for us in various places … on the governing committee - especially the office holders who have chaired the Society or administered the Society’s finances and membership, programmed the meetings found speakers, arranged tours to various parts of the country, the secretaries and treasurers and of course those who were our speakers ….And of course our ordinary members whose support gives life to the Society.
On our memorial we trace the names of so many and I canonly mention examples … the indefatigable Joan Marsh and Mike, Ian Uys, Felix Machanik, Hamish Paterson, John Keene, Marjorie and Colin Dean, Darrell Hall and his dramatic slide shows – remember slides -, Phillip Gon, Ivor Little, John Mahncke, and Ossie Baker, Johan Barnard, Ian Copley and Jenny Copley - the first woman Chairman and Lyn Miller - the second woman in the Chair, Bob Smith, Tony Speir, Maurice Gough-Palmer and Flip Hoorweg whose son, Jan-Willem, now carries the banner previously borne by his father. These people are among the many who have been the spirit giving life to our memorial.
A keystone without which the Memorial might be hard put to stand is the Journal, founded within a year of the Society’s birth. The older it gets the more stimulating and exciting it becomes. It teaches us about events of which we knew nothing, about courage, military fools and military genius - and it is published for the benefit of all South Africans to read. I wish the journal could be bought at the CNA. The editors have been extraordinary people – and we recall with pride John Ball, Doug Tidy, Helen Hansmeyer, Rochelle Keene, Karin Greyvenstein, Margaret Northey, Nick Kinsey, Stan Monick. And it continues to thrive under the firm hand of Susanne Blendulf.
.. But the SA Military History Society is also a memorial to the events that make military history, to the Wars of the past – not just those in our recent past but all those that made up history …. from the Wars of the Roses to the present day. All that is published, all that is lectured on makes it sure that this memorial does not allow us to forget.
.. And as a memorial to the events of military history the Society inevitably is a memorial to those people who participated in wars – those who returned and those who lie far from their homes, “in some foreign field”, who surrendered their lives when their governments or leaders called them to repair the blunders of politics … . The people of whom Kipling thought when he wrote:
I ask you to remember all these achievements, to carry on in the same vein and better ... and to remember the meaning of this special memorial ... as you stand ... to toast the South African Military History Society, itsgreat past ... and its great future.
Ladies and Gentlemen ... the South African Military History Society!
1 Tom Irwin, the young teacher “That's why. The dead. The body count. We don't like to admit the war was even partly our fault cos so many of our people died. And all the mourning's veiled the truth. It's not "lest we forget", it's "lest we remember". That's what all this is about - the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes' silence -. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it. The History Boys