South African Military History Society


Our chairman, Paul Kilmartin, opened the meeting by reporting on the Thukela Heights Centenary Commemoration, which was held on Sunday 29 January 2000 - exactly 100 years to the last day of the battle. During the official ceremonies, committee member Dave Matthews laid a wreath on behalf of the Society.

Ken Gillings, our past chairman, who is organizing the Annual Battlefield Tour during the first week-end in June 2000 (Sat.3rd and Sun.4th June), then explained the tour itinerary and the list of speakers who will be covering a range of aspects relevant to the battle sites to be visited. The tour promises to be an excellent one, particularly for those members with limited knowledge of the military history of the Ulundi area. The party will be staying at the Umfolozi Game Reserve.

Phillip Everitt's D.D.H. lecture, The Engineer at War, gave us a clear idea of tunneling and mining during the First World War. He used Internet images to great effect. He chose the June 1917 Messines Ridge assault as a classic example of successful tunneling and underground mining in warfare. In this action, General Sir Hubert Plummer, in command of the British forces, was tasked to take Messines Ridge and to "straighten the line" prior to the 3rd Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, as it is better known. The German salient consisted of a series of complex trenches, and the British, whose trench system was no less complex, sought to tunnel towards and underneath these German trenches. On the British side, Australians, New Zealanders and Irish troops were to take Messines Ridge. The main British trenches were in three parallel lines: the front line, the support lines and the reserve line. There was a maze of centres for stretchers, dressing stations, water supply, kitchens and artillery in tunnels supporting the trench system. Dug out accommodation, at 15 to 35 feet below the surface, was linked by alleyways going down at 45 degrees.
Phillip explained the methods of excavation and of the removal of earth and the tell-tale blue clay. The secret removal was necessary for both sides due to "spotter" aircraft who were constantly on the watch for mining activity. Not only had the tunnels to be dug, but they also had to be reinforced and ventilated. In these complicated and dangerous tasks engineers and miners used shovels, clay-kickers, picks and small miners trucks to remove excavated material. At Messines, the British and German forces mined towards each other with the British tunnels reaching under the Gerrnan lines. Experts used geophones to establish the position of the enemy and the direction of their digging. Offensive mines were laid and their position recorded. On 7 June 1917, nineteen of these mines were detonated. The blast could be heard in London!. Immense damage was caused and Messines Ridge was virtually blown away. Despite that, in the final assault on the position, 30% of the British forces were killed. One of the remaining mines exploded in 1955, while one remains.
In 1998, the Peace Tower at Messines Ridge was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II and Mrs. Mary McAleese - the President of Ireland, to commemorate the sacrifices of Irish servicemen from both the north and south of Ireland, in World War I.

Our guest speaker, Frank Bullen, a member of the Guards Association of Southern Africa and a member of the Johannesburg Branch of the South African Military History Society, presented the main lecture : All the Queen's Horses and all the Queen's Men. This contained closely packed and fascinating information about the origins, essential nature and role of the troops of the Household Division: The Guards. The Guards are well known to many of us in such spectacular events as the Trooping of the Colour and the Changing of the Guard, but in reality they are very much more than that, as their history proves.

The Guards' primary task is to protect the sovereign and provide her (or him) with an escort, but they also have the practical purpose of protecting British interests around the world. They are highly trained and fully operational, and have served in many parts of the world. For each Guard on ceremonial duty, there are two on active service, elsewhere in the world. They have been active in Malaya, Ulster and in all other trouble spots. Here Frank Bullen told us the tale of their involvement in the attack by allied forces on the fort of Mursuk, in Libya, on 11 January 1941. In this assault, and its aftermath, their discipline, bravery and unflappable attitude were marked.
It is often a family tradition to serve in the Guards, which makes for continuity in their close involvement with, and service to, the British Royal Family. Ex-guardsmen have frequently held high office. However, many promising conscripts have served in the Guards, where the rigorous discipline and training, means that they are by no means "tin soldiers" but an effective elite.

Frank Bullen then described in considerable detail the origins and history of the troops of the Household Division. Each branch was created at the personal instigation of the Sovereign, or, in the case of the Coldstream Guards, by Oliver Cromwell. The first of these, the Scots Guards, was raised as the personal bodyguard of King Charles I in 1642, followed by the Coldstream Guards in 1650, and the Grenadier Guards in 1656. In the 20th century, the Irish Guards were raised in 1900 and the Welsh Guards in 1915. The lecture was concluded with a short video clip on the Falklands campaign, adapted from a BBC programme. It included coverage of the 1996 Sovereign's Birthday Parade in which it was refreshing to see the Queen's obvious delight in being with her "Guards".

After question time, fellow member Rev. Ernest Pugsley proposed a vote of thanks to both speakers for two most unusual talks of very high quality, and for providing a full Society audience with a most interesting and informative evening. He particularly thanked Frank Bullen for visiting Durban from Johannesburg, a gesture that was appreciated by all present.

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 201 3983

South African Military History Society /