South African Legion of Military Veterans

The South African Legion is the oldest military veterans organisation in South Africa. It is referred to simply as the SA Legion or even 'The Legion' and is one of the largest independent military veterans charities in South Africa.

South African Legion
Suid-Afrikaanse Legioen
TypeEx-service organisation
HeadquartersNational Museum of Military History, 22 Erlswold Way, Saxonwold, Johannesburg, 2196
AffiliationsRoyal Commonwealth Ex-Services League


After 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.[1] This is also the date of South African Armed Forces Day, following the proclamation by the former President of the Republic of South Africa and Commander-in-Chief of the South African National Defence Force, President, J.G. Zuma that 21 February every year be observed and commemorated as Armed Forces Day (AFD), where honour is paid to those that lost their lives in the fateful 1917 sinking of the SS Mendi.[2]

At the Empire Conference a week later the SA Legion was formalised (28 February to March 4, 1921) in Cape Town, South Africa[3] as the British Empire Services League (BESL, South Africa) by joining the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Association and the Comrades of the Great War, after which the Comrades Marathon is also named,[4] making SA Legion the oldest military veterans organisation in South Africa[5] and one of the founding organisations of the international Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL). On 8 April 1941, it was decided to call the organisation the South African Legion of the BESL as national feelings were increasing and members wanted to emphasise their South Africanness.[3]: Page 75 

The Legion is an active member organisation of the RCEL[6] and HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is the High Patron of the Legion.[7] The headquarters of the Legion were originally in Bloemfontein in the centre of the country, but moved to Johannesburg in 1942, where it still is, housed in the South African National Museum of Military History.[8] The name was altered again in 1958, to suit the changing times, to the SA Legion of the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League (BESL).[3]: Page 115  The BESL has since changed its name to the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League.[9] The South African Legion's national website[10] states "The Legion is a national, non-sectarian and strictly non-partisan in relation to politics."

The Legion is often mentioned in television news bulletins and websites,[11] not only in connection with its remembrance activities,[12] but also warning military veterans of scams aimed at them.[13] As a non-racial military veterans organisation, the SA Legion has long remembered the tragic loss of the SS Mendi[14] in which more than 600 Black South African soldiers died.[15] The Legion's UK Branch, made up of former South African servicemen and women, has also held a memorial service near the site of the sinking.[16] The commemoration is held in Atteridgeville, Pretoria[17] and Soweto,[18] as well as in Port Elizabeth, which linked with British historians to find missing headstones, and other major centres including Cape Town. South Africa instituted a new Armed Forces Day in 2013, which commemorates the loss of the Mendi.[19]

Remembrance Day is commemorated in Cape Town at the Cenotaph in Heerengracht Street, in Johannesburg at the Cenotaph in Harrison Street and in Pretoria at the Union Buildings. The Legion holds commemorations throughout the country, including Pietermartitzburg, capital of Kwa-Zulu Natal Province.[20]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "About the South African Legion - How the SA Legion began - Join the Woman's Auxiliary - Remembrance Day". Retrieved 2020-01-29.
  2. ^ "Defence celebrates Armed Forces Day 2019 in Cape Town, 21 Feb | South African Government". Retrieved 2020-01-29.
  3. ^ a b c Blake, Arthur (2004). Not for Ourselves, the First Eighty Years of the South African Legion. South Africa: The South African Legion. ISBN 9780620333375.
  4. ^ "Comrades Marathon History". 1921-05-24. Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  5. ^ Szabo, Janet (2012-02-26). "Johannesburg honours oldest military veteran's body:Sunday 26 February 2012". Johannesburg: Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  6. ^ "RCEL - Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League". Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  7. ^ "Unabridged statement: South African Legion of Military Veterans on Mil Vets Bill". defenceWeb. Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  8. ^ "About the South African Legion - How the SA Legion began - Join the Woman's Auxiliary - Remembrance Day". 1921-02-21. Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  9. ^ "RCEL - Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League". Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  10. ^ "The South African Legion of Military Veterans in Cape Town. Poppy Day 11 November. Please donate to". SA Legion. Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  11. ^ Szabo, Janet (2012-09-10). "Suffering and sacrifice of soldiers remembered:Monday 10 September 2012". Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  12. ^ Szabo, Christopher (2011-08-20). "Famous South African unit remembers its fallen; opens museum". Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  13. ^ "SA Legion Warns of Con Artists Ripping Off Military Veterans". The Scenic South. 2010-12-15. Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  14. ^ "Littlehampton tribute to South African victims of troop ship disaster". Littlehampton Gazette. Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  15. ^ "Saaf News". Retrieved 2014-06-26.
  16. ^ The News, Portsmouth. "Portsmouth salute to shipwreck victims". Retrieved 2013-03-30.
  17. ^ SAAF, NEWS. "SANDF commemorates SS Mendi". Retrieved 2013-03-30.
  18. ^ South African, Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). "South African heroism on the Mendi remembered 97 years on". SABC. Retrieved 2013-03-30.
  19. ^ Szabo, Chris. "First Armed Forces Day". Defenceweb. Retrieved 2013-03-30.
  20. ^ "Remembrance Day: Udain will also lay a wreath for all sniffer dogs". The Witness. 2011-11-09. Retrieved 2014-06-26.

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