During the First World War (1914 – 1918), no formal showcase was made of South Africa’s involvement in that war. In 1940, Captain J Agar-Hamilton was appointed official historian of the Union Defence Forces. The formation of an Historical Research Committee that same year was to ensure the preservation of documents and military memorabilia and lay the foundation for the establishment of a museum.
DITSONG: National Museum of Military History Exterior
The South African National War Museum was officially opened on 29 August 1947 by the then Prime Minister of South Africa, Field Marshal J C Smuts PC, CM, OM, DTD, KC. At the opening ceremony, Smuts stated the following: “… We are gathered here today to open what may not unfairly be looked upon as a memorial to the greatest united effort our country has been called upon to produce. Memorials, of course, have more than one use. They serve to remind us of what is past, of great deeds of heroism and sacrifice; they also serve as a pointer, and sometimes as a warning to the future.
“It is in these senses that the South African War Museum may be regarded as a memorial. It will remind us, I hope, not only of the part we played in the recent great struggle to save civilization, but also of the horrors, the loss of life and the devastation, and serve as a warning to us to create a world in which we shall never have to use again the weapons of mass destruction we see here today, or those dreadful weapons to follow them …”
DITSONG: National Museum of Military History Interior
He was referring to South Africa’s participation in the Second World War and had pinpointed the raison d’etre of the Museum’s existence. In 1975, the Museum’s name was changed to the South African National Museum of Military History and its scope was expanded to include the history of all military conflict in which South Africans have played a part. The Museum also serves as a popular and unusual venue for conferences and other functions.
In 1999, following the restructuring process of national museums, the Museum was amalgamated together with the Transvaal Museum of Natural History and the National Cultural History Museum into the Northern Flagship Institution. This institution was renamed DITSONG: Museums of South Africa in 2009 and the Museum is now called the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History.
“Memorials, of course, have more than one use. They serve to remind us of what is past, of great deeds of heroism and sacrifice; they also serve as a pointer, and sometimes as a warning to the future.”
The Museum is also regarded as the spiritual and symbolic home for all soldiers and veterans in South Africa. As a result, a number of veterans’ organisations use the Museum as their headquarters. The South African Military History Society, the South African Arms and Ammunition Collectors Association, the South African Arms and Armour Society, the Gold Reef Scale Modelers and the Warsaw Flights Commemoration Committee use the Museum for monthly and annual meetings and are considered to be part of the 20 organisations that are stakeholders.