By David Rilley-Harris, DITSONG National Museum of Military History Curator – March 2020

Swords first came into use in the region of modern-day South Africa with the arrival of European settlers. Before then, the spear had been prominent and the battle axe was becoming increasingly popular. Swords were therefore only used widely in South Africa as a result of British expansion throughout the territory.

The first formalised consistent patterns of British swords appeared in 1786 with the first regulations for the standardisation of British military swords. Ten years later, the 1796 pattern swords became the first widely well-received pattern and remained in formal use for 25 years. The 1796 pattern was copied throughout Europe and still remains an iconic sword shape. The new pattern was based on the original 1786 pattern but adopted a new hilt which was similar to that of the British civilian small swords of the middle and late 18th Century.

 IMAGE: 1796 Cavalry Officer’s Sword

While the patterns of these early 19th Century swords were of British design, the blades were being manufactured in Germany. Solingen sword makers in Germany dominated the market for most of the 18th and 19th Centuries. The first widely used South African swords were therefore British patterns with German-made blades. The South African swords would sometimes alter slightly from the patterns used elsewhere in the British military.

In 1822, new British regulations brought new sword patterns. The hand guards were larger and the new cavalry swords introduced pipe-back blades. The Ditsong National Museum of Military History has an 1821 pattern Light Cavalry Officer’s sword but with a stronger fullered blade instead of a pipe-back blade. The 1821/22 patterns, and slight variations of them, remained popular into the early 20th Century. The museum example is from after 1925 as can be told from the “Suid Afrika” inscription on the blade as opposed to a “Zuid Afrika” inscription. This distinction came as a result of Afrikaans and English replacing High Dutch and English as the two official languages.

In 1925, the South African Army Officer’s sword adopted the three-bar hilt but it was still based on the 1821 pattern and can therefore be seen as evolving alongside the British 1845 pattern Rifle Regiment’s sword.

In 1846 artillery units adopted the 1821 pattern sword, with South African examples using the distinctly blue and red coloured sword knots.

 IMAGE: 1925 South African Army Officer’s Sword

The British Wilkinson blade was introduced in 1845 and a host of South African units started being equipped with fully British swords.

The Natal Carbineers and the Cape Mounted Riflemen, both formed in 1855, used the 1821 pattern Cavalry Officer’s sword. The Cape Engineers, formed in 1879, who merged with the Cape Garrison Artillery in 1891, used the 1857 pattern Infantry Officer’s sword.

The present day Buffalo Volunteer Rifles were founded in East London in 1883 as the Kaffrarian Rifles. The Kaffrarian Rifles Officer’s sword made use of an 1822 pattern Infantry Officer’s sword hilt. In 1913, the unit formed the 5th Infantry Regiment of the Active Citizen Force and served in the First World War with the Northern Force in German South West Africa (now Namibia). In the Second World War, the unit was a part of the garrison of Tobruk when it was captured in 1942.

The Witwatersrand Rifles, formed in 1903, used the 1897 pattern Infantry Officer’s sword. This sword pattern concluded a line of development in British sword patterns that began in 1892. That 1892 pattern had been heavily influenced by the Wilkinson Sword Company, and replaced the 1845 pattern, from the year that Wilkinson blades had first been introduced. The new 1897 pattern brought in a blade styled purely for thrusting and turned up the edge of the 1892 hand guard to prevent it from cutting into clothing. The blade had a tough dumbbell cross section and the guard was nickel plated sheet steel, replacing the 1822 gothic hilt. The 1897 pattern is often considered the most efficient and effective sword produced for infantry officers and continued to be used until 1925.

Post 1910 South African examples can be identified by the Union Mark which is a British broad arrow inside a “U”. These examples also have a blank space on the blade where the Royal Crown would normally appear, but the guard will still be decorated with a Royal Cypher.

 IMAGE: 1897 pattern Infantry Officer’s sword

Despite the popularity if the 1897 pattern, the Transvaal Scottish, formed in 1903, used the 1865 pattern Officer’s broadsword, and the Transvaal Horse Artillery, formed in 1904, initially used the 1821 pattern Cavalry Officer’s sword. Namesake of one of the museum’s halls, Brigadier FB Adler, MC, VD, ED, who was Honorary Colonel of the Transvaal Horse Artillery from 1946 to 1964, used the 1899 pattern Cavalry Officer’s sword which is displayed in the museum.

The Cape Mounted Police (1904-1913) used an Officer’s sword that resembled the 1821 pattern light cavalry sword, and the South African Staff Corps, formed in 1912, used the 1822 pattern Staff Officer’s Sword. One such example in the museum belonged to General PH Grobbelaar, SSA, DSO, who was Commandant-General of the South African Defence Force (SADF) from 1960 to 1965.

The Union Defence Force (1913-1961) Warrant Officer’s sword made use of a 1908 pattern Cavalry Officer’s sword blade and a 1897 pattern Infantry Officer’s sword hilt. The standard Officer’s sword for the Union Defence Force used the 1821 Light Cavalry pattern three-bar hilt with the 1908 Cavalry pattern blade.

In 1913, the South African Police absorbed all of the formerly independent police forces and used a sword based on the 1889 pattern Heavy Cavalry Officer’s Undress sword.

Regarding Navy Officer’s swords, South Africa tended to use proper British designs. In 1929, the original British 1805, 1827, and 1846 patterns were altered to incorporate the single-edged straight blade.

When South Africa became a Republic on 31 May 1961, the South African government ceased ordering swords from Wilkinson in Britain and began ordering German Solingen-made swords instead. The early South African swords had used British hilts and German blades before becoming entirely British in 1845. After 1961, the new South African blades were of German manufacture.

Post 1961 South African swords would no longer bear the Union Mark, but would use the new Republic Mark which was a capital “M” and stood for “Military”.

The new South African General Officer’s sword was authorised in 1964 and was worn for the first time in January 1966 at the Opening of Parliament in Cape Town. The new General Officer’s sword used a gothic hilt while the Army Officer’s sword, which was adopted in 1963, used a standard steel hilt.

From July 1975, swords were no longer worn by the SADF although some elements of the military such as the Citizen Force (later Reserve Force) continued the tradition.

 IMAGE: South African 1965 pattern General Officer’s sword


Some notable South African swords displayed in the Ditsong National Museum of Military History:

One of the South African 1822 pattern Light Cavalry Officer’s swords displayed in the Ditsong National Museum of Military History belonged to Major General James Thom Durrant, CB, DFC. Alongside the South African Crest of Arms, Durrant’s name is engraved on the blade with his earlier rank of Brigadier.