South African Military History Society




PAST EVENTS: Our Branch would not be a Military History establishment if we did not have at least one "SNAFU" along the way. And our November meeting was just that but it was so well camouflaged, that most of us were not aware that "Plan B" was in operation. After a delayed start due to "lost" entrance door keys, our Chairman, Pad Kilmartin, made a wide ranging introductory talk which covered such diverse items as a welcome to a "new" member, Harold Rosenberg who had transferred from the Jo'burg Branch, arrangements for our Christmas Braai the MOTH/SAMHS Armistice Day Service, the list of talks for our past year and another one for the wrong year, name tags, our 2001 Battlefields Tour, the "Save the School at Isandhlwana Fund", the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society and finally, a Radio-controlled Model Boat Demonstration and Exhibition. He then handed over to fellow-member, Pat Budd, who gave us a fascinating report back on a recent tour he had undertaken in Britain which covered visits to several historical aircraft museums, airfields and military establishments. And so, on to our advertised programme ....

Our DDH talk was on "The Prayers and Poems of the Generals George Patton" and as it was November, it could only have been given by our fellow-member, Prof. Mike Laing. Once again he surprised us all with little known facts on firstly; General George Patton of WW2 fame and then on his son, also a General George Patton, but of Vietnam fame. Both these men who we know as typical brash, hard-nosed American soldiers, had an esoteric love of poetry and our speaker who has done extensive research on the Patton family, was able to show and share with us such poems as "Through a Glass Darkly", "Fear", "God of Battle" and "Little Sorrel V". He also discussed various prayers which included the famous one issued to the American Third Army by Chaplain O'Neill on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. The prayer was for a break in the appalling weather conditions that were hampering the Allied counter-attack on the last-ditch German offensive through the Ardennes in December 1944. Apparetly Patton ordered his Army Chaplain to prepare a prayer for issue to all his troops in this regard. Amazingly, whether by Divine intervention or not, the weather cleared up, much to the delight of Patton. He promptly awarded the Bronze Star medal to Chaplain O'Neill with the words, "You sure stand good with the Lord and the soldiers"! And so on to the main talk for the evening....

It was at that stage that we realized that "Plan B', was in operation. Our former Chairman, Ken Gillings bustled in, plonked down some papers on the lectern and started preparing to give us a talk. What had happened was that our main speaker, Johann Wassermann, had failed to arrive and Ken had been "volunteered" to take his place. Apparently, many years ago, Ken together with SB Bourquin and Tania van der Watt, had done research into the Battle of Holkrans with a view to publishing an article in the SA Military History Journal. However, because it was so controversial, the project was scrapped, but fortunately Ken had kept all his notes. During our Chairman's long and involved introduction and the DDH talk, he had rushed home and collected them and so, at long last we had our talk for the evening, namely "The Battle of Holkrans (N'Tashane)", but by Ken Gillings.
Our speaker started off by describing the situation in Northern Natal in the closing stages of the AngloBoer War in 1902. Although the British forces had occupied and garrisoned the towns of Vryheid and Utrecht in the former Nieuwe Republiek/ZAR territory, the Boer commandos were still able to operate with relative impunity in the surrounding countryside. In addition, peace negotiations were in progress and there appeared to be a tacit agreement by both the Boers and the British that they would not embark on any major military operations. However, although the Boer commandos were in tatters and totally demoralized, they still had to live off the land and, as the abaQulusi tribe were the occupants of that area, it meant that they were taking food, cattle and horses from the indigenous population. In addition, Major General Bruce Hamilton, who was the British commander in Vryheid, had asked the Zulu king not to allow his followers, which included the abaQulusi tribe, to take part in any retaliatory action, but rather he wanted use them for intelligence purposes. It was estimated that more than 350 abaQulusi tribesmen who, in addition to their traditional weapons had been armed with rifles, had responded.
In April 1902, a number of Boer farmers in the district were murdered and, although General Louis Botha had complained to the British, no action was taken. Accordingly, he instructed his commandos to destroy the various abaQulusi settlements in the area, confiscate their cattle and send their women and children to the British in Vryheid. Nkosi Sikobobo who was the Nkosi of the abaQulusi and who had participated with Gen Botha as an ally in the civil war of 1884 at the Battle of Tshaneni (Ghost Mountain), complained to the British, but he was told that his followers were not to engage in any military action against the Boers, but rather to capture them and (hopefully) bring them in as prisoners!

On the night of 3 May 1902, a Boer commando under Jan (Mes) Potgieter raided the abaQulusi settlement near Holkrans and after razing the kraal, drove off all the cattle. Potgieter had apparently insulted Nkosi Sikobobo by calling on him to show that if he was a man and not a mouse, he should come and retrieve his cattle. This he did with a vengeance at 04h00 on the morning of 6 May 1902 at the Boer laager at the base of Holkrans. Although there were some guards watching the cattle that they had captured, no sentries had been posted. Several burgers were awakened by a rifle shot, but before they could raise the alarm, the abaQulusi had overrun the camp and massacred the sleeping men. A few, including Jan Potgieter, managed to escape up the side of the mountain and fought until their ammunition ran out. They then continued with a desperate hand-to-hand struggle using their rifle butts as clubs, but in the end sheer weight of numbers prevailed and in all, 56 of the original 73 burgers were slaughtered. A few managed to escape by running through the abaQulusi lines, but only three young boys, all under the age of sixteen, were taken prisoner. The abaQulusi then took back the cattle that had been confiscated plus quite a few extra, all the Boer horses and all their provisions. By the time the other commandos came to the rescue, it was too late and the abaQulusi had dispersed.
This action crippled the Boer forces in Northern Natal and coming as it did, at a critical stage in the peace negotiations, it had a major effect on the "Bittereinders". When Gen. Louis Botha was told of the disaster, he felt that it was pointless to continue the struggle when even the black population were turning against them. It is for this reason that this incident, arguably, can be described as one of the most decisive actions of the Anglo-Boer War, in that it was a major factor in getting the leaders of the Boer Republics to accept the final peace Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902.
After our usual incisive question time, our Secretary, Dr Ingrid Machin thanked both our speakers for a most enjoyable and informative evening, especially since it had got off to such a potentially disastrous start.

ARMISTICE DAY: Following on our Thursday meeting, 37 members and friends gathered with MOTH members at the Old Fort Shell Hole on the morning of Saturday, 11th November, for our annual SAMHS/ MOTH Remembrance meeting on Armistice Day. Our Chairman gave his usual talk on the history of Armistice Day, but this year he concentrated mainly on the 80th anniversary of the burial of "The Unknown Soldier" and the opening of The Cenotaph as the official British War Memorial in London. Significantly, both these events took place on the 11th November 1920. His talk ended at exactly 11h00, when all present stood for the traditional 2-minute silence, after which, liquid refreshments were served.


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

South African Military History Society /