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.

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.

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.

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.

IMAGE: Durrant’s 1822 pattern sword

Durrant signed up for the Transvaal Air Training Squadron while studying engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand before joining the South African Air Force (SAAF) in 1933. In 1940, Durrant became a Major and was appointed as the Officer Commanding (OC) 40 Squadron. During the Second World War 40 Squadron fought in East Africa and the last surviving Hartbees biplane from that squadron is also on display in the Ditsong National Museum of Military History. On 1 September 1941, Durrant was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and appointed OC for 24 Squadron which he commanded in North Africa. Before being seconded to the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1944, Durrant was commanding 3 SAAF Wing in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy as a Colonel. For the RAF, Durrant was the OC for 205 Group as a Brigadier where he masterminded the mining of the Danube River interrupting the flow of oil from Romania into Germany.

Most notably, Durrant commanded Liberator squadrons in August and September of 1944 in extremely dangerous missions which became known as the Warsaw Airlift. In a desperate attempt to supply the Polish Home Army, Durrant commanded 181 sorties loosing 31 aircraft. The hopeless Warsaw Uprising was supported by the airlift as a symbol of solidarity where South African pilots performed with extreme bravery. The Polish Embassy in South Africa still commemorates their efforts annually.

At the end of the war Durrant was promoted to Major General as OC RAF 231 Heavy Bomber Group making him the youngest general officer in the Allied Forces. In South Africa he was made Director General of the SAAF in 1946 but resigned in February of 1952 in opposition to the new Apartheid policies. Durrant flew 42 different types of aircraft in his career and during his civilian life spent some time as a member of the Board of Trustees for what is now the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.

Two of the museum’s most notable swords are Mamluk sabre pattern 1831 General Officer’s swords which belonged to Captain Oswald Reid, VC, and to Lieutenant General Sir Jacob Louis van Deventer, KCB, CMG, DTD.

The British Mamluk sabres were named after the Egyptian Mamluk warriors who used them. The pattern is derived from swords that were used in the Turkish Seljuk Empire (1037-1194).

In the British military, they were initially used as dress swords by most light cavalry officers, and some heavy cavalry officers, during the 19th Century. During the Napoleonic Wars, French forces used Mamluk warriors in their Egyptian campaign and French officers began wearing Mamluk sabres. After the Napoleonic period, some French military fashions were adopted in Britain as was the Mamluk sabre which the Duke of Wellington himself had worn.

In the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, One of 1831 pattern General Officer’s (Mamluk pattern) swords belonged to Captain Oswald Austin Reid, VC. Never a General, Reid was presented with the sword to honour him, having become the first Johannesburg citizen to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC).

Reid entered into the First World War in 1914 as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 4th Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment. By April 1915, he was a grenade wielding bombing officer in France where he was wounded in the head during the 2nd Battle of Ypres. In December 1915, promoted to Captain, he was again wounded in the face while serving with the 1st Battalion at Arras. Reid then fought with the 2nd Battalion in Peshawar, North West India, and in the 6th Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment with the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force.

It was primarily for his actions in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) that Reid was awarded the VC. During combat between 8 and 10 March, at the Diyala River, Reid found his command of 110 soldiers fall to 20 who were mostly wounded. For 30 hours he held a position on the river bank under heavy fire and was again wounded. Having held the position successfully, the bulk of the British force on the other side of the river was able to cross the Diyala on the night of 11 March 1917.

Reid was appointed an acting Major in May 1917 and was again wounded in Mesopotamia during October 1917.

At the Johannesburg City Hall on 4 August 1918, during the 4th Anniversary of the start of the First World War, 1500 Johannesburg citizens witnessed the presentation of Reid’s “Sword of Honour” from the City of Johannesburg. His father was there to accept the sword as Reid was still in Mesopotamia.

After the First World War, Reid continued fighting in Russia in support of the White Russians against the Bolsheviks. He returned to Johannesburg in 1920 and joined the Transvaal Scottish as a Captain but died in October of that year of gastro-enteritis at only 26 years old.

The Reid Sword of Honour has a gold-mounted scabbard and is engraved “Presented to Captain Oswald Reid VC Liverpool Regiment by the citizens of Johannesburg on the occasion of his being awarded the VC for Valour at Dialah River, Mesopotamia, 1917”. The museum received the sword in 1980 and it remains on display.

IMAGE: The Oswald Reid Sword of Honour

The museum’s second 1831 pattern General Officer’s sword was presented to Lieutenant General Sir Jacob Louis van Deventer, KCB, CMG, DTD. Van Deventer accepted the very last surrender of a German General at the end of the First World War. General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered to Van Deventer on 25 November 1918 at Abercorn in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

Van Deventer was one of South Africa’s most talented military tacticians. He served with the Boers in the South African War (1899-1902), and was knighted for his work as Commander-in-Chief of the East African forces in the First World War.

In 1920, Van Deventer served as Aide-de-Camp to King George V, and in 1922, he commanded a mounted brigade in the suppression of the Rand Revolt.

IMAGE: The Van Deventer sword

Also displayed in the museum is the 1972 Army Officer’s sword which belonged to Lieutenant Freddie Zeelie. Zeelie was a Recce with 1 Reconnaissance Commando when he became the first SADF soldier killed in the Border Wars. On 23 June 1974, at the age of 22, Lt Zeelie and L/Cpl Hillebrand were on the left flank of a SADF patrol. A sudden ambush left Hillebrand pinned down while Zeelie continued their charge. Lt Freddie Zeelie managed to force one machine gun back and overpowered another but was killed in the process.

His courage and sacrifice was recognised with the posthumous awarding of the prestigious Louw Wepener decoration. Zeelie was the last of only seven people to be awarded the Louw Wepener decoration for Bravery before a new medal system was instituted.

IMAGE: Zeelie’s 1972 Army Officer’s Sword

Inside the 61 Mechanised Infantry display room in the Adler Hall of the museum is the unit’s symbolic broadsword. This sword originally came into being with the relocating of 61 Mech Bn Gp from Rooikop, Walvisbaai, to Lohatlha, to be under command of the then SA Army Battle School. The sword signified unity of command at the Battle School.

Brigadier Beyleveldt, as General Officer Commanding the Army Battle School, had a broadsword made for each unit under his command. The example displayed in the museum was kept on display in the Office of the Officer Commanding 61 Mech Bn Gp and was only taken out to be handed over on parade during the Change of Command.

It is rumoured that a 61 Mech Bn Gp tradition is that the sword must draw blood each time it is handled by virtue of a soldier nicking their finger on the edge.

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