South African Military History Society


The year from which we have just emerged, 1999, marked the centenary of several events that shaped the past 100 years. In his curtain raiser at the society's 19th February meeting, former deputy chairman, Avran Pelunsky, explained the significance of 1899 for our modern world. At the end of the 19th century the United States was at war with Spain and about to emerge as a world power. British imperialism was at its height, and the British Empire went to war with a small, but potentially threatening power in southern Africa. Germany was flexing its imperial muscle and alarming both Britain and its closely allied neighbours, France and Russia. The latter was on the verge of social turmoil, as was the Austrian Empire, the weaker power to the south of Germany.

The stage was set for the grand drama that was the 20th century. Cuba, the last remnant of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, was in turmoil and inviting intervention from that rising power only a few miles to the north, the United States. Spain developed the Reconcentrados Trocha system in its efforts to suppress its Cuban rebels, thus giving birth to the concentration camp, an institution that was to play a notable role in the history of the past century. The US Navy easily defeated the Spanish Navy in battle and emerged as a potential global naval power. The USA also became an imperial power when it acquired Cuba and the Philippines. It went on to build the strategically important Panama Canal and eventually eclipse British naval supremacy towards the middle of the fourth decade of the century.

The British Empire was based on naval power, fuelled by coal. Britain had to establish coaling stations around the world and secure its sea routes. This pointed up the importance of its Cape Colony. Britain feared that the independent state of the Transvaal would soon have the potential to become the power house of southern Africa thanks to its gold resources, and might eventually dominate the subcontinent. It thus became essential to British imperial power to establish dominance over the Transvaal, especially as that country was becoming dangerously friendly with Germany, Britain's colonial rival in the area.

For its part Germany was striving to establish itself as a world power, and to that end was building a fleet to rival Britain's. At the same time it was developing a paranoid attitude towards France and Russia, the powers it believed were restricting its potential for continental expansion. Its efforts to create a European commonwealth dominated by Germany were frustrated by two world wars. But what it lost on the battlefield it appears close to achieving through its economic strength. The European Union is centred on Germany, and its common currency, the Euro, which emerged in 1999, is based on the D-mark and managed in the same way.

The French Emperor Napoleon was an innovator in warfare, not least in the field of logistics. In his main lecture of the evening, society member Flip Hoorweg used the Battle of The Three Emperors - better known as Austerlitz and fought in December 1805 - to illustrate the point that Napoleon introduced a cardinal strategic change in the warfare of the time when he concentrated on the defeat of the enemy rather than simply attaining geographical aims In 18th century Europe siege warfare was the accepted recipe for defeating an enemy. But this took a heavy toll of manpower and logistical requirements. Napoleon only conducted two sieges in his entire career. Instead, he preferred to defeat his enemy in pitched battles, and solve the logistical problem by splitting his army into permanent corps and divisions combining infantry, cavalry, artillery and support services which would march by different routes to converge on a chosen destination, living off the country as they went. That way greater speed could be obtained with less strain on local resources. The flexibility attained also multiplied the C-in-C's operational choices, while a larger general staff ensured better control. Napoleon employed this method to move his army from the channel coast facing Britain to counter the threat to his rear from Austrian Emperor Francis I and his ally, Russia's Tsar Alexander I. The logistical preparations for the march from Boulogne all the way into central Europe, for an army of 210 500 men, were on a scale never previously seen. Millions of rations were assembled along the routes to be followed, and the strictest march discipline was enforced. A main supply route was created which was sub-divided into sections with their own rear-area troops. The army had 4 500 wagons available for transport duties, but such was the need that an additional 3 500 four-horse wagons had to be requisitioned to supplement the regular supply services.

To reach the Austrian capital, the Grande Armee had to march via Ulm, where an Austrian army of 80 000 was drawn up. By clever manoeuvring Napoleon succeeded in trapping this force, only to receive reports that Prussia was preparing to join the allies. This news convinced Napoleon that he must hurry to capture Vienna and defeat the Austrians before the Russian contingent was complete and the Prussians could intervene. The capture of Vienna yielded vast quantities of supplies.

Meanwhile the Russian General Kutuzov was avoiding contact with the French by withdrawing into central Europe and linking up with a second Russian army. A confrontation was now imminent, and after a thorough study of the terrain Napoleon stuck his pen in the map at the village of Austerlitz, now called Slavkov, in modern Slovakia. It was an inspired choice. Urged on by the young, impetuous Tsar, and impressed by their own predominance in numbers, the allies decided to stand and fight before another Russian army under General Bagration could join them from the north. Their impatience, coupled with Napoleon's genius for logistics as well as strategy, gave the French Emperor his greatest victory.

Remember to support BOOK DEALERS of ROSEBANK (011-442-4089) who kindly display a poster detailing our next few lecture meetings at their various shops.

Forthcoming Tours - members living close to Johannesburg will receive a poster giving details of two proposed one-day tours, scheduled for 8 April to Potchefstroom and 13 May, to the Swartruggens/Rustenburg area. Details will also be on the Website and anyone from elsewhere wanting to join in, is welcome to contact the Scribe or Mike Hardisty (the Tour organiser) at (011)447-8574.



9th March
Hamish Paterson The Battle of Coutras 1587: Catholics versus Huguenots
Barbara Conradie The History of the Standard Bank in the Anglo-Boer War
13th April
Annual General Meeting
John Murray The Fighting Gurkhas


9 March
Philip Everitt The Engineers at War
Frank Bullen All the Queen's Horses and all the Queen's Men

Cape Town

9 March
Major Anthony Gordon The Battle of Pieter's Hill and the Relief of Ladysmith

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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