SA Legion

Not for ourselves, but for others...

About the SA Legion

How it all began

RosesAfter 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, 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) at an inaugural meeting held in the City Hall, Cape Town on 21 February 1921.

The South African branch was titled ‘British Empire Service League (South Africa) but in April 1941, in deference to the pro-war and anti-war factions in the country, the name was changed to the South African Legion of the BESL. In 1952 it was again altered, this time to the South African Legion of the British Commonwealth Ex-Service League. Originally in Bloemfontein, the Headquarters moved to Johannesburg in 1942.
The aim of the 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 today. 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 basis.
From the beginning the Legion established a close liaison with government departments, which fortunately still exists, although there have been times when relations were strained. A major clash took place when, in 1956, the Legion reacted strongly to the government’s move to ban black and coloured veterans from Remembrance Day Services.

Successive governments have enlisted the help of the Legion when drawing up war pension legislation and Legion representations have made a significant contribution towards making this legislation among the most generous enacted in the world. The fight to obtain parity of pensions for all – white, coloured and black veterans was finally won in 1986/87. It had been a long battle.

One of the Legion’s major undertakings 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 this country.

Remembrance Day

At 11.00 on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 the guns on the Western Front fell silent. The carnage of the war to end all wars came to a close, leaving millions dead and even more suffering the after-effects.

And in the bare wastes of the battlefields grew the poppy, carpeting the graves of the fallen. It was Lord Macaulay who first drew attention to this strange symbolism and it was he who first suggested that the poppy should be known as the flower of sacrifice and remembrance. What more natural that it be chosen to remember all those who died in that war.

Colonel John McCrae, a medical officer who witnessed the slaughter of thousands of men in the battles of that war, first wrote of it:

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.

Although often stated that he died of wounds, John McCrae succumbed to pneumonia. Before he died in hospital he penned another verse, of which the last lines are:

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders' fields

The red poppy is now an international symbol for peace and remembrance and the 11th day of November has become the day of remembrance for all the dead of both world wars and, in South Africa, those of the Korean War, the Border War and the internal conflict.

We cannot break faith with them that died

In Cape Town, as in many cities around the world, a Remembrance Service is held on the Sunday closest to 11 November and are held by many of the various military veteran organisations. A list of those that normally take place in Cape Town and vicinity is available here.

SA Legion

Not for ourselves, but for others.

Poppy Day

Poppy Day, when the South African Legion holds a street collection to raise funds to assist in the welfare work among military veterans, takes place on the Saturday nearest to Remembrance Day.

When one buys a poppy on Poppy Day one pays tribute to those who died, and one is helping those who are left and bear the scars of war.