By Allan Sinclair, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History, 30 April 2020

During the First World War (1914 – 1918) most nations that participated went to great lengths to record the activities of their soldiers in sketches, watercolours and oil paintings. South Africa was one of the exceptions and, as a result, no official First World War art collection of South Africa’s role exists.

This mistake was not repeated and soon after South Africa’s entry into the Second World War (1939 – 1945), artists were appointed to travel to the battlefronts where the Union Defence Forces fought. The resulting official collection of 925 works of art is housed at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.

Francois Krige was amongst the first artists to be selected for this task in 1940 and this article looks at four works produced by him after the Battle of Sidi Rezegh (23 November 1941).

Figure 1: Francois Krige

Francois Krige was born in Uniondale in the Western Cape in 1913. His father, Japie, played international rugby for South Africa whilst his brother, Uys, became a well-known author and poet. Between 1934 and 1937 Francois studied at the Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town prior to furthering these studies in Antwerp, Florence and Spain.

At the outbreak of the war in 1939 Francois and his four brothers signed up. Francois was appointed as a war artist while Uys became a war correspondent. The position that they took as Afrikaans speaking South Africans positioned against Nazi Germany drew strong criticism from National Party supporters in South Africa and right-wing newspapers wrote abusive articles about the brothers.

Justin Fox, a great nephew of Francois who published a book The Life and Works of Francois Krige in 2000, wrote that many of his images produced in the desert of North Africa are overworked and the use of oil colour is often unsure, probably due to the fact that he was supposed to be a quasi-journalist recording facts and was not at all enthusiastic about the kind of images of destruction he was compelled to record.[1]

Sidi Rezegh
Towards the end of 1941 Krige travelled across the desert from Cairo to Sidi Rezegh on the outskirts of Tobruk. It was there that on 23 November 1941 the 5th South African Brigade had been completely overrun by the German XV and XXI Panzer Divisions. At the end of that fateful day the Brigade had ceased to exist as a fighting force and, out of an initial strength of 5 700 men, only 2 300 escaped to safety. Of the 3 394 South African casualties, 224 soldiers had been killed and 379 wounded. The remainder, including Uys Krige who had been attached to the Brigade as a correspondent, were taken into captivity.

Drift Sands top of Halfaya Pass (Cat No 1636)

At Halfaya Pass on route to Sidi Rezegh, Krige sketched a sea of graves and wrecked tanks beside the road. It was a scene of total destruction with barely any buildings or vehicles left intact.

Death comes in the afternoon (Cat No 1619)

Figure 3: The vehicle in the painting is a German Lechter Messtruppkraftwagen (Sfz 3). 

As Krige neared the battle scene, it became apparent that the horizon was littered with burned out vehicles and dead bodies. Krige stopped beside a German staff car that had suffered attack by Allied aircraft. The two occupants of the car were slumped dead beside the vehicle. The stench of rotting flesh and hosts of flies provoked such a response in him that his sketchbook provided the only answer.

Interior of a knocked-out British tank, Sidi Rezegh (Cat No 1726)

At Sidi Rezegh Krige was confronted by the sight of a destroyed British tank that still had a dead body inside. Krige describes the scene as such:

“A shell had taken off the turret as neatly as with a knife; and we had a detailed view of the tank’s interior.  With his hands firmly grasping the steering wheel, the driver sat erect in his seat, straining backwards as if, in the final moment, he had wanted to jerk his stationary tank into sudden action.  A taut figure sat there, pitch-black since it had been completely carbonised, but perfectly preserved except that it had contracted to about two-thirds of an ordinary man’s size.” [2]

“Nature Morte” (Cat no 1817)

Krige then arrived at the burial grounds for the Sidi Rezegh fatalities. The graves were being laid out near the tomb of the Arab Sheik after whom the area is named. One scene depicts a group of four body bags which were rendered as though they were butterfly cocoons. A full moon rises over a plain where the grave diggers work hard to bury the bodies. Each bag is a subtly different combination of greys, blues and mauves with pairs of boots protruding, from two of them. It suggests the unique character of each of its inhabitants.

Francois Krige was moved by his experiences during this visit and the scenes of the battlefield at Sidi Rezegh left a lasting impression on him. He spent quite some time recording the horrors he had seen. Krige clearly tried to capture the alienation of battle and was uninterested in attempting to portray or celebrate the glory of war. His fellow war artists and correspondents often stated that he was a recluse who kept himself apart from the others, rather turning in on himself to deal with the traumatic life that he had become involved in.

[1] J Fox, 2000
[2] J Fox, 2000


  • Fox, J The Life and Works of Francois Krige (Cape Town, Fernwood Press, 2000).
  • Huntingford, N The Official World War II works of Francois Krige (Johannesburg, DNMMH, 1980).
  • Library File 920, “Krige Francois” (Archives of the DNMMH)

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S R Mackenzie

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