South African Military History Society


The curtain raiser at the December meeting was given by former society chairman Professor Ian Copley. He presented a selection of the photographs taken by Lt. Gibbes of E Company, 2nd Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, when serving with Maj-Gen. Clements' 12th Brigade in the Magaliesberg Valley. Juxtaposing the 100-year-old photographs with recent ones taken in or near the same locations showed an interesting comparison between how the countryside looked then, and how it appears now.

Lt. Gibbes was taken prisoner at the Battle of Nooitgedacht in December 1900, but was later set free and turned up in Pretoria at the end of March 1901. Thereafter he served in other theatres of the war, mainly in the Orange Free State. He was present at the construction of many of the forts there. The pictures are from the regimental archives of the Fusiliers at Alnwick , Northumberland.

History portrays the Battle of Nooitgedacht as a military disaster resulting from the incompetence of Maj-Gen. Clements, who commanded 12th Brigade in the Magaliesburg valley. Considerable unpublished evidence indicates another point of view, however, and this was presented in the main lecture given by Peter Goodship.

Clements was accused by Kitchener of making a poor strategic choice of position when he decided to site his camp on the farm of Nooitgedacht; at the foot of the Magaliesburg scarp, and of selecting it for mainly the wrong reasons. He was also blamed for failing to prepare adequate defences; distribute ammunition; gather intelligence; maintain alertness; and post effective sentries and patrols. But this view is based solely on Kitchener's despatch of 16th January 1901 to the Under Secretary of State for War, when he was not adequately informed of the facts. He may also have had ulterior motives.

Clements' intelligence came from impeccable sources, namely four British 1820 Settler families who, for 40 years, had occupied four farms in the Magaliesberg Valley. Two members of the family served Clements as scouts. Clements had been very effective in bringing stability to the Hekpoort area until November 1900, when his force had been stripped of units required for service elsewhere. His difficulties were compounded by the unwieldy command structure employed by GHQ in Pretoria, which left him confused as well as under strength.

When he fell back on Nooitgedacht, he was in desperate need of men, supplies and firepower if he was to carry out his orders to support Maj-Gen. Broadwood and his cavalry brigade operating north of the Magaliesbergs, and to clear the Hekpoort Valley. When the Boer generals Beyers, Smuts, De la Rey and Krause attacked on 13th December 1900 with their 3 000 commandos, Clements had only 1 200 men under command, not all of them combatants. Reinforcements from neither Krugersdorp nor Pretoria had reached him.

A combination of poor communications and the unaccountable behaviour of General Broadwood , who should have been close enough to lend support, contributed to the subsequent debacle. So did cumbersome and inefficient staff work, and Kitchener was Chief of Staff... This could have accounted for Kitcheners subsequent attempts to shift the entire blame on to Clements, and to keep his report to the War Office from Clements' eyes. The preponderance of shortcomings that rendered (Clements) defeat inevitable were attributable to GHQ, Kitchener and Broadwood, Goodship maintained.

The curtain raiser at the 20th January lecture meeting was given by committee member Heinrich Janzen on the Battle of Isandlwana, 22nd January 1879, when a Zulu army inflicted the worse defeat on a British army in the whole of Britain's colonial history. Lt-Gen. Lord Chelmsford, who planned the British invasion, commanded a total of around 18 000 men, of whom 5 476 were regulars. He divided his force into three columns, which were to converge on the Zulu king Cetshwayo's capital at Ulundi. Chelmsford himself commanded the centre, and largest column, which crossed the Buffalo River at Rorke's Drift on 21st January and camped on the east side of a sphinx-shaped hill called Isandlwana, a few miles inside Zulu territory.At 4.30am the next day Chelmsford led an advance party out of the camp, leaving behind about 1 300 men with two of the army's six guns. Later that morning a detachment of cavalry came across the main Zulu army of about 20 000 men concealed in a valley north of the camp. The Zulus had not intended to fight that day, but having been discovered, they attacked immediately, employing their characteristic encircling tactics. The British formed line with their backs to the hill, but were gradually overwhelmed. Only a few mounted men escaped the trap. Heinrich closed his talk with the suggestion that the Zulu's famous victory be honoured by the inclusion of Isandlwana on the colours of 121 Battalion, the Zulu Regiment, the direct descendants of the Zulu army that fought that day.

The main lecture of the evening was given by former society chairman George Barrell, in the role of Lt-Gen. Lord Methuen who commanded the British Army's 1st Infantry Division at the Battle of Magersfontein in December 1899. It is the duty of a general to win his battles, and when he loses one he must take full responsibility, as Methuen did. However, any British officer who believes he is being blamed unfairly for his actions and decisions can demand a court martial to clear his name. Methuen was never openly accused of negligence and incompetence, as Clements was, and he never demanded a court martial. But had he done so, the case he would have made in his defence would probable have gone something like this.

The case against Methuen was that he delayed too long before going on to Magersfontein after his victory at the Battle of Modder River; that he adopted the difficult tactic of a night march in order to get his troops as close as possible to Magersfontein Hill without being detected; that he virtually announced his attack by his artillery barrage the previous day; and that he did not foresee that the Boers would use trenches. Methuen claimed that the delay was necessary in order to rest his troops; to give himself time to recover from the wound he had sustained at the Modder; and to allow for repairs to the railway. A night march had been successful, despite difficulties, in a previous battle at Belmont. In any case, it was the only expedient available to avoid an attack over open ground commanded by the Boers rifles. An artillery barrage was an accepted tactic for softening resistance, and he would certainly have been blamed had he not used it. It did not warn the Boers because they expected an attack anyway. Finally, nothing gained from previous experience had led him to believe the Boers would use trenches when high ground was available, or would not eventually retreat when faced with a determined bayonet charge.

The St Helena Line, which operates a regular cruise service between Cape Town and St Helena Island, is to repeat its highly successful September 1999 Boer War Commemorative sailing, departing Cape Town on 9th March this year and returning on 27th . For details call (021) 425-1165 or fax (021) 421-7485.

Members who served in Italy in WW2, and those interested in the military campaign in that country, should note the publication of a new book entitled From Sicily to the Alps, comprising personal accounts and recollections of the fighting in this theatre. It is written and compiled by Glynn B Hobbs, and is available from Mallard Publishers, P.O. Box 36012, Glosderry , 7702.



10 Feb
Avran Pelunsky 1999: A centenary of strategic importance
Flip Hoorweg The Battle of the Three Emperors: Austerlitz, 1805
9 March
Hamish Paterson The Battle of Coutras 1587: Huguenots versus Catholics


10 Feb
Charles Whiteing Normandy re-visited
Pat Budd German V1 & V2: The world's first cruise and ballistic missiles

Cape Town

10 Feb
Prof. Kay de Villiers Medical arrangements for the British and the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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