Thiepval – End of Battle Somme Ceremony

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THIEPVAL, France – Friday 18 November 2016 was a date of solemn remembrances and stark reminders on several levels. Peter & Karen Dickens (representing the Royal British Legion UK Branch) and Andrew & Johanna Bergman (representing the SA Legion EU Branch) travelled to the Thiepval Memorial in Northern France for the Battle’s End – Last day of the Somme Ceremony.

The first stark reminder was the date: We’d all been there previously in July to mark the beginning of the Battle of Delville Wood, which was only part of the much larger Somme offensive. That occurred with Legion and other veterans’ banners unfurled in brilliant summer sunshine. Now, as we approached the town of Albert, from where shuttle coaches would ferry guests to Thiepval, the windscreen wipers were struggling to keep up with intermittent late autumn showers, driven by an icy west wind.

And all this time, 100 years ago, the battle had raged on, relentlessly and unforgivingly, for five months.

As we arrived at Albert, and during the short bus trip to the memorial, there was a temporary lull in nature’s fury, and we dared hope the clearing in the clouds that let a brave sun through would hold. Well it did, for a while.

The French State of Emergency dictated that all guests were pre-screened, and to the supreme credit of the Royal British Legion and Commonwealth War Graves Commission organisers, everything went like clockwork. The seating – placed in the approach to the arch, using the Memorial as an imposing backdrop, was designed so that everyone had a good view. The ceremony was moving and dignified, although punctuated by heavy gusts of rain-sodden wind. It was unavoidable to think how miserable the conditions must have been in the muddy trenches of 1916.

After the main ceremony, organisations and individuals were invited to lay wreaths and floral tributes at the Thiepval memorial arch itself. Peter Dickens laid a wreath on behalf of the Royal British Legion UK Branch, while I laid one for the SA Legion EU Branch.

The return by coach to Albert station went as efficiently as our outward journey: Bravo Zulu to the Royal British Legion and Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The South African contingent then re-grouped for lunch at Le Tommy Bar in Pozieres, where we placed a South African Legion Shield among those of some of the Commonwealth’s most prominent regiments.

It was an honour to thus pay tribute to the many thousands of men and women who fell or were injured in body or spirit in this terrible battle.


Members of the SA Legion joined more than 1,000 war veterans and supporters taking part in the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women’s (AJEX) annual parade and service on Sunday 20 November at the London Cenotaph to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

After the parade marched into position, Lord Sterling, the AJEX president, lead the tribute to the members of the forces who fought at the Somme, the pivotal World War I battle which took place 100 years ago this week, on November 18 1916.

Lord Sterling said: “It is with great pride that we hold this annual ceremony of remembrance to honour those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to the Crown.”

He added: “We have a job to do. Ten years from now many of us will not be here. We have a responsibility that in 20 to 50 years, Jewish communities everywhere carry on honouring what we have done and continue to do.”

Speaking at the reception following the parade, Rabbi Mirvis said: “In every circumstance war is a tragedy. But it is our duty to protect everything that we stand for. I’m proud of our Jewish servicemen and women who have fought so that we can live in peace, and so that we can live, in the first place.”

He added: “I was heartened today to see Whitehall closed for the Jewish community, a week after Remembrance Sunday, for us to march and say we are proud to stand up for our country. It’s more important than ever that our young people are here today to take part and see that.”

An AJEX spokesperson noted that the parade had attracted increased support from ex-servicemen and women’s families and communal groups in recent years.

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Jewish integral part of SA history

There is a deep-rooted history of Jewish servicemen contributing to South African military history, with heroic acts scattered from the time of the Boer War – where Jews served on both sides – to the modern day. The exact number of Jews who served on the Boer side will never be known, but it is likely that around 250 fought in the commandos (including at least a dozen medical personnel) and perhaps another 50 served in a reserve capacity, in the various town guards and in the POW camps (interestingly, at least two Jews were amongst those guarding the captured Winston Churchill)[1]. A notable Jewish combatant was the grandfather of the former SA Deputy Defence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, Mr Nathan Kasrils, who evidently fought on the Boer side at some stage. General de la Rey had reportedly issued him with a certificate describing him as a ‘sharpshooter and spy’ (‘skerpskutterenspioen’). Interestingly, Kasrils was also at some stage a member of the Kimberley Mounted Rifles, meaning he had experience serving with both the British & the Boers.

(Article: Jews on Commando, by D Y Saks)

Report by Claudio Chiste for the SA Legion


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