South African Military History Society


Have you ever wondered what significant events in military history occurred on the date of your birth? The subject has intrigued Martin Ayres, former chairman of the society, who gave the curtain raiser at the 10th August lecture meeting. In "One Day in Military History", he listed chronologically all the incidents his research had uncovered that happened on his own birth date, 20th November. The date itself is not a particularly promising one as far as military history is concerned. It falls in the northern-hemisphere winter, when, until fairly recently, opposing armies would have retired to their winter quarters. Furthermore, it is difficult to trace back earlier than the mid-18th century owing to the change in the British calendar that took place at that time, and the fact that in Britain New Year's Day occurred on 25th March. Such are the problems facing historical researchers.

The first reference unearthed involving 20th November was in the year 1256 when the famed cave fortress of Maymum-Dis, one of the retreats of the Isma'ili, or Cult of the Assassins, finally surrendered to the army of the Mongol Khan, Hulegu. The fortress was destroyed, although not, unfortunately, the spirit of the assassins. The second reference came 444 years later in 1700 when an 8 000 strong Swedish army under its 17-year-old king, Charles XII, defeated 40 000 Russians, and was thereby able to relieve the besieged garrison at Narva in Livonia.

The list continues. In 1753 Napoleon's one-time chief of staff, Louis-Alexander Berthier, was born in Versailles. In1776 the British general Lord Howe captured Fort Lee in the American War of Independence. In the following year Lord Chatham, better known as Pitt the Elder, made a major speech in Britain's parliament demanding an end to the American war, while on the exact same day news arrived of Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga.

In 1854 the Crimean War broke out. In 1857, during the Indian Mutiny, the Lucknow garrison was evacuated. In 1914 a German U-boat sank a small British freighter in the North Sea and its crew left to their fate. Thus opened the era of unrestricted submarine warfare. In 1917 the allied success at Cambrai on the Western Front proved the battlefield supremacy of a new weapon, the tank.

Hopping to WW2, on 20th November 1942 the Soviet counter-attack at Stalingrad was in its second day; the RAF launched its largest bombing raid to date on Turin in Italy; and the arrival in Malta of the convoy code-named Stoneage marked the final relief of that much-bombed island. Meanwhile, on the island of New Guinea on the other side of the world, a joint Australian/American assault began on Buna and opened the final battle on that island which resulted in the defeat and expulsion of the Japanese.

This small selection of the events mentioned should be enough to prompt any aspiring military historian to undertake research on his or her own birthday. Your scribe has discovered that the English Civil War broke out on his birth date.

All wars are a fruitful source of anecdotes, and the Anglo-Boer War is no exception. Rob Milne, an enthusiastic collector of such fascinating stories, gave the main lecture of the evening. He quoted from his newly published book, and his selection included tales of love, gallantry, mystery, stupidity, pettiness and cruelty.

As a story of love none could be more touching than that of Danie Theron, the founder and leader of the Boer Scouting Corp. In a fruitless act of gallantry he died alone in a barrage of artillery fire on a ridge near Fochville when he single-handedly engaged a whole British column. The woman he had intended to marry had died tragically two years earlier. Her loss had hurt him deeply and it was generally accepted among his comrades that this was the explanation for his reckless bravery. After the war he was reburied alongside his beloved Joanna in the small cemetery at Eikenhof.

Among the many acts of bravery recorded in the war few could equal that of the lone Boer sniper who, with his trusty Mauser, held up the entire Guards Brigade for 24 hours. Holed up in some secure crevice in the hillside above Waterval Onder the solitary rifleman survived fire from naval guns, pom-poms and massed volley fire. The last act of defiance on the part of the gallant sniper was to stand up with his arms folded in full view of his enemy.

All conflicts produce mysteries, and that of Sergeant Woodward's two graves is one of the most fascinating of the Anglo-Boer War. The sergeant did not return from a dangerous mission and was presumed dead. Some time later a British unit came across remains they identified as those of Woodward, and he was buried with full military honours at Heidelberg. Meanwhile, a different reconnaissance group had heard another account of his death and unearthed remains. These were also buried with full military honours by the British garrison that had no idea of the previous burial. Later it was rumoured that the second set of remains were in fact those of a Suikerbosrand farmer's pet baboon.

Although executed, Lieutenants Handcock and Morant of the Australian contingent were buried in consecrated ground, a British private soldier named Letchford, who was executed for misappropriating canteen funds was not awarded the same distinction. He was buried in the cemetery at Roberts Heights and in subsequent years his headstone was constantly struck by lightning. He was eventually declared innocent, and the boundaries of the cemetery were extended to incorporate his grave in consecrated ground. The lightning strikes then ceased.

If you want to read about the British general who brought a house on campaign with him: or how much champagne was required to keep General Buller in action; or the devotion of an English fiancee who for 60 year sent a sprig of heather to Chrissiemeer Post Officer for her beloved's grave; or about the ghost of Major MacGregor; or the Boer donkey cart driver who inadvertently inspanned a lion, then you can do no better than buy yourself a copy of Rod Milne's excellent book, "Anecdotes of the Anglo-Boer War". It is expected in all major bookshops shortly at a price of R95. ["Kinkaseki" also costs R95 and "Cyclone Blues" R74.95 - see the COVOS-DAY brochure posted with this newsletter.]



14 September
CR John Murray Nelson meets Wellington - 1805
ML Peter Goodship The political battle of Nooitgedacht
12 Oct
CR Louis Wildenboer The Paris Gun
ML Kemsley Couldridge Clive of India: Calcutta to Plassey


14 Sept
DDH John Yelland Scot Naval Gun in the Anglo-Boer War
ML Maj. John Buchan Sir Eric Geddes in World War One

Cape Town

14 Sept
B. Buser - Spies: International Espionage and counter Espionage in Switzerland

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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