South African Military History Society



** John Yelland, please return - we miss your accuracy. For the second newsletter in a row a mistake was made at the top of the front page of the newsletter. Two newsletters ago, there was an error with the month date - May was put instead of June. Now on the last newsletter there was an error in the number - 302 was put instead of 303. If any member collects these newsletters, and would like a corrected and printed copy, please contact Paul Kilmartin.

The July meeting was a memorable one, and not only because we had 3 speakers and not our usual 2. The evening had a fine balance between humour, the unusual and the fascinatingly serious. In what we hope will become an annual tradition, committee member Dave Matthews proved that he is not only a fine photographer but has all the talents of a stand-up comedian. During our annual battlefield tour to Ulundi, Dave prowled with his camera, and caught many a member in an unusual pose, with some too long asleep even to realise. The photographs were shown with a running commentary, which had a full audience laughing as loudly and as long as we have ever known.

After the humour came the unusual as Dr Gus Allen gave us the DDH talk entitled Irish Cameo's, of which there were three. Gus told the story of a recent holiday in Ireland, and how he used the occasion to visit the west coast and Belfast. From this unexpected start he led us into 2 distinct historical events spanning 4 centuries. On the west coast of Ireland he visited the Dingle Peninsula, which is the most westerly point of mainland Ireland. Oft shore are the Blasket Islands of which the largest is Great Blasket Island. 412 years ago, in 1588, the year of the Great Spanish Armada, 2 of the fleet were safely moored under the lee of the islands in order to replenish with food and water. Unexpectedly a third ship, the Santa Maria Dela Rosa, (the first cameo) which was battling to return to Spain, saw the other moored ships and decided to drop anchor. She chose a narrow section between the islands that had a seabed of solid rock. The anchor did not take and the ship was swept through on the ebb tide and went down in seconds. We were told the history of that event and then shown photographs of the area as it is today, which proved that the windswept peninsula is unlikely to have changed much from the dramatic days when the returning ships of the Spanish Armada tried to take advantage of what they thought would be a safe haven.

On leaving the Dingle Peninsula, Gus visited a local hostelry with the unexpected name of the Kruger Pub; (the second cameo) and again we were treated to a typically Irish explanation of how, and why, this pub had such a South African name.

But Gus was on his way to Belfast, and it was during his visit there that a Second World War hero was suddenly very much in the news, and Gus took the opportunity to give us the detail of the belated honour given to Leading Seaman James Joseph Magennis, VC as his third cameo. Magennis was a submariner who won his VC in the closing days of the war in July 1945 in Singapore harbour. He, together with his CO Lieutenant Ian Fraser, who also won a VC, placed limpet mines under the Japanese ship cruiser Takao under particularly difficult circumstances and with leaking breathing equipment. He retumed to his XE3 midget submarine exhausted, but on learning that a limpet carrier could not be jettisoned, he volunteered to return and free it. For that he was awarded the VC. However, when he returned home after the war, the power of religion and politics combined to make the return of a genuine hero a nightmare. He was a Catholic living in Protestant Northern Ireland. The Catholic neighbourhood, where he lived, despised him for fighting in the British military and the Protestant mayor and the local Belfast council refused to honour him because he was a Catholic. In disgust Magennis moved to the north of England where sense prevailed and his bravery was honoured with a plaque in Bradford's Anglican Cathedral, before he died in 1986.

This story was very much in the news when Gus Allen reached Belfast, as his visit coincided with Magennis finally being honoured in his home city of Belfast. The Lord Mayor, who was both a Protestant and an Orangeman, said how proud he was to honour this brave Catholic. Magennis's old CO, Lt. Ian Fraser, VC was present at the ceremony. But how sad that this should only happen years after the death of a very brave man. It all made for a most unusual DDH.

For the main talk, the Society was delighted to welcome Professor Andre Wessels from the Department of History at The University of the Free State. He had traveled down from Bloemfontein especially for the meeting, and although he is a Life Member of the Society, this was the first time he had addressed us. His talk was entitled The Afrikaners at War, and he gave us a very fair, even-handed, "warts and all" review of the Afrikaners resources, experience and employment during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 - 1902.

The Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 was a watershed event in the history of South Africa. For the Afrikaners it was, for several decades, an event of overwhelming proportions and importance - indeed, together with the Great Trek of the 1830's it was the most epoch-making event in their history.

There was (and is) no typical Afrikaner. Afrikaners reacted in different ways to the war; some were driven by a patriotic sense of duty, but most of them did not look forward to waging war - they went on commando, because by law they were obliged to do so. The stereotyped view of the Atikaner at war usually centres around the "bittereinders" (bitter-enders; i.e. those who fought to the bitter end when they lost their independence in May 1902) on the one hand, and on the other hand the hands-uppers (those who surrendered voluntarily); and joiners (those who in due course took up arms on the side of the British against their fellow Afrikaners). In practice, the picture was much more complicated. There were degrees of Afrikaner participation and those who went on commando varied from "takhare" (hillbillies) to the Cambridge-educated Jannie Smuts and London-educated M T Steyn.

When the war broke out on 11 October 1899, approximately 52 500 Transvaalers and 22 500 Free Staters were eligible for military service. They were organised in a commando system that was decentralised and democratic. Officers were democratically elected, and consequently not always selected on military merit. Both republican presidents influenced military decisions. After Paul Kruger went into exile in October 1900, M T Steyn became the soul of the Afrikaners' continued resistance.

The Boers did not plan well for the war and in October 1899 an improvised strategy was implemented. The following factors determined their strategy; the desire to safeguard their independence; the influence of the Transvaal War of Independence (1880-1881); religious motivations; the position of the Cape Colony; and the size, deployment and expected strategy of the British forces. The Boers did not invade the Cape Colony and Natal on a large scale. Instead of - to use terms from the Second World War - a "Blitzkrieg", there would be a "Sitzkrieg" in the vicinity of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafikeng, and the British were allowed to regain the strategic initiative.

The Afrikaner at war was not a trained soldier and consequently did not have military discipline. However, the Boers were not totally undisciplined, they merely possessed a different type of discipline from that of the European armies. They did not employ their forces (including artillery) and fight battles according to the conventional military doctrines of the day; rather, they had an uncanny instinct for fighting, a common sense approach that more often than not paid off remarkable dividends.

The vastness of the war zone and the Boers' mobility gave them a strength out of proportion to their numbers. However, during the first few months of the war, the Boers did not exploit this advantage to the full. A review was given of the course of the war including the limited Boer invasion of Natal and the Cape Colony (October - November 1899), the British "Black Week" defeats (10-15 December 1899), Lord Roberts' great flank march that led to General Piet Cronje's surrender at Paardeberg (27 February 1900) and the capture of Bloemfontein (13 March 1900), and Roberts' march from Bloemfontein to Pretoria (May-June 1900). In the meantime, the guerrilla war started with General de Wet's victory at Sannaspos (31 March 1900), and in due course Roberts, and later his successor as commander-in-chief in South Africa, Lord Kitchener, adopted stern anti-commando measures, including the destruction of some 30 000 farm houses and 40 towns and villages. White and black civilians were sent to concentration camps, where nearly 28 000 Afrikaners and more than 20 000 Black people died.

Mention was also made of other role-players, for example the fact that more than 10 000 Cape (and a few Natal) Afrikaners rebelled and took up arms against the British government that by the end of the war, about 5 500 Afrikaners (i.e. about a fifth of the Afrikaners still under arms) were fighting as joiners on the side of the British, and that Afrikaner women played an important role during the war - and suffered a lot. More than 10 000 Black and Coloured people served in a non-combatant capacity on the side of the Boers, mostly as "agterryers" (servants).

In conclusion, mention was made, inter alia, of the fact that several Afrikaner historians and other authors contributed in the first few decades after the war towards canonising the "bittereinders" as folk heroes. This one-sided emphasis on the heroic minority group within the Afrikaner nation became part of a nationalistic mythology. Conveniently, the subject of unheroic - and sometimes sheer cowardly - behaviour was avoided. A hundred years after the Anglo-Boer War, this traditional image of Afrikaners at war has to a large extent been demythologised and corrected. The lecture was illustrated with slides taken at Anglo-Boer War battlefields, and of places in England that can be connected with the war.

At the end of the meeting and in his usual eloquent manner, our previous Chairman, Ken Gillings expressed the thanks of the meeting to all 3 speakers for providing us with an exceptional and varied evening.

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

South African Military History Society /