South African Military History Society


January 2000 News Sheet No. 298

PAST EVENTS: Our Annual Dinner was held at the Royal Natal Yacht Club on the 12th December 1999 and what a climax to a most successful year it proved to be. We had a reasonable turnout of members (30 people) and both the food and the venue were excellent. Appropriately the function was held in the Trafalgar Room which added to the ambience of the occasion. The final piece de resistance was the pre-dinner talk entitled "The Christmas Truce -1914" when our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin entranced us with the details of that momentous occasion. Briefly, a group of German soldiers climbed out of their trenches on Christmas Eve 1914 and approached the Allied lines bearing gifts and an illuminated Christmas tree. Much against orders, the British soldiers joined them in Nomansland and exchanged gifts of tobacco and drinks with their enemies. The "Truce" lasted until Christms was over, whereupon hostilities were resumed in earnest. It was a miracle which happened only once, but it left a lasting impression on all those who were participants. This talk also gave to those members of this Branch who attended the Dinner, a wonderful feeling of Christmas and what the Festive Season is all about. Our thanks go out to all those who organized the Dinner and made it such a sparkling occasion..

Our opening meeting for the year 2000 was also a resounding success, notwithstanding the "millenium bug" which somehow managed to devour all the notes and illustrations of fellow-member, Bill Brady's advertised talk. He was supposed to have spoken on a recent visit on his part to the world's largest aircraft carrier, the "USS Harry S Truman", but with the loss of all the vital information, he opted for another report-back on his "Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell V.C." crusade. Members may recall our speaker's talk of some years ago on F/O Campbell's heroic torpedo attack on the German pocket battleship "Gneisenau" in Brest Harbour and its massive strategic importance on the whole outcome of WW2. This was followed in August last year with an account of Bill's efforts to get hometown (Saltcoats) recognition for F/O Campbell. Well his detemined efforts have been rewarded and a monumental plaque is to be erected and unveiled later this year. Our speaker hopes to be at that ceremony and has suggested that the 6th April 2000 would be an appropriate date as it would be the anniversary of flying Officer Kenneth Campbell's heroic action. We look forward to the final report-back on this matter later this year.

Our main talk for the evening was given by our fellow member (and former Chairman) Ken Gillings who spoke on "The Review of the First Three Months of the Anglo-Boer War". It covered the period from the start of the Anglo-Boer War in the middle of October 1899 to the middle of January 1900.

Our speaker started off by reviewing the compositions of both the British and Boer forces. At the expiry of the ultimatum, the forces fielded by the Boer Republics totalled just over 60 000 with about 10 000 Cape Dutch rebels whereas the British forces comprised four divisions which included infantry, artillery and cavalry. At that stage the British thought it would all be over by Christmas - hence the three-month revue. Our speaker then located the various forces on an 1899 map of Southern Afica and compared the merits of the commanders on both sides. He went on to describe in chronological order the sequence of events.

The first action took place at Kraaipan, 50 kms south of Mafeking where the railway line was torn up by the Boers and an armoured train was prevented from delivering vital military supplies to Col.Baden-Powell in Mafikeng which was subsequently invested on the 14th October 1899. Similarly, Kimberley was cut off from the Cape late on the same day and the encirclement of the town completed on the 16th October. Vryburg surrendered to the Boers on the 18th October followed by Lobatsi, Taungs and Fourteen Streams, north of Kimberley. Belmont, abeut a 100kms south of Kimberley, was captured on the 20th October 1899. On the Natal front, Cmdt Gert Piet Joubert's commandos occupied Newcastle on 16th October and captured Elandslaagte on the 19th. The Battle of Talana, a hill overlooking Dundee took place on the 20th and, although the Boers withdrew, it was a hollow victory for the British. Their commander, Gen. Penn-Symons was mortally wounded and most of the British cavalry was captured when instead of pursuing the fleeing Boer commando, they split their force and got lost, ending up as prisoners-of-war. Col. Yule, Penn-Symons' 2i/c, realizing his vulnerability, quietly withdrew and after a harrowing march, reached Ladysmith some days later. On the 21st October the Battle of Elandslaagte was fought and this time the Boer commander, Gen. Kock was killed. Although the British won the battle, it was at a high cost and they, together with the remnants of the British garrison at Dundee, also withdrew to Ladysmith. During this retreat, a diversionary battle was fought at Rietfontein to take the pressure off Col Yule's column, which was wending its way back through the Waschbank valley to Ladysmith.

Our speaker then focussed on Mafeking where, on the 25th October, Col. Baden-Powell's defenders repelled a determined Boer attack on the town. On the following day, Col Plumer with a force of Rhodesian volunteers, occupied Rhodes's Drift on the Limpopo River, thereby setting the scene for the little-known Tuli Block campaign on the northern border of the ZAR.

On the 30th October, Gen. White attacked the Boers in an attempt to forestall the encirclement of Ladysmith, but the three-pronged attack turned into a total disaster with the capture of Col. Carleton and most of his force at Tchrengula by Cmdt Christiaan De Wet and his Free State commandos.

Meanwhile, in the Central sector, Free State commandos occupied Norvalspont on the Orange River and advanced into the Cape Colony, thereby posing a threat to East London. Gen. Buller, who had arrived at Cape Town on the 30th October, withdrew his forces from the vital railway junctions at Naaupoort, Burghersdorp and Stormberg in the Cape Colony and from Colenso in Natal. In Kimberley, plans to repatriate 3 000 blacks were thwarted by the Boers who forced them to return, thereby adding to the pressure on their dwindling food resources. Any hope of an end to the war before Christmas was shattered. In November a number of daring raids was carried out by the Colonial defenders of the three towns under siege while the British Army under Gen.Buller regrouped. In Natal the Boer commandos continued their southward advance on Pietermaritzburg and Durban and an armoured train carrying Winston Churchill was attacked and the latter captured. However, on the 23rd November a battle took place at Willow Grange during which Cmdt.Gen. Piet Joubert sustained severe internal injuries. However, before he was invalided back to Pretoria, he abandoned the plan to invade Natal and withdrew his forces to a defensive line along the northern bank of the Thukela. At that stage Gen. Louis Botha took over command of the Boer Forces. By the 12th November, Lord Methuen's forces had grouped at the Orange River Station and on the 21st, he started his advance along the railway line to relieve Kimberley. On the 27th November, the Battle of Belmont was fought and, although British casualties were high, the Boers retreated to take up a new position at Graspan. After a short engagement, the Boers again withdrew and made their next stand along the Modder River where Gen. De la Rey deployed his forces using the eroded banks for protection. On the 28th November, at the ensuing battle, the British again sustained heavy casualties against an unseen enemy, but they outflanked the Boers at Ritchie. Again the Boers retreated, this time to Magersfontein where Gen. De la Rey entrenched his forces at the base of the hills instead of on the hills themselves.

On the 9th December, Gen. Gatacre attacked the Boer forces at Stormberg, but with disastrous results. Through long exposure to the summer sun, followed by a forced night march during which several units including his artillery went astray, his exhausted troops stumbled into the Boer laager at Stormberg. They were beaten off with heavy loss, but the worst part was that some 600 of his men fell asleep during the battle and were captured when the main force withdrew. This was the start of the infamous "Black Week"! The next battle was at Magersfontein on the 11th December when the Highland Brigade under Gen. Wauchope was shot to pieces by the Boers who were entrenched along the base of the hills. The British suffered over 1 000 casualties compared to 250 by the Boers. This time the Boers did not withdraw and the British advance on the relief of Kimberley was stopped dead in its tracks. Lord Methuen was forced to retreat to the Modder River and await reinforcements. The final battle of Black Week was at Colenso when Gen. Buller launched an attack on the town to relieve Ladysmith This time it was the Irish who took the brunt of the fire when they were caught in a dead-end loop while trying to cross the Thukela. In addition, the artillery advanced too far in front of covering fire and lost 10 guns. The British casualties were over 1000 as against 36 by the Boers. Like Methuen, Buller was also forced to retreat to his base camp at Chieveley and await reinforcements. When the news of tIsese disasters reached England, Lord Roberts, whose son, Freddy had been killed at Colenso while trying to rescue the guns, was appointed as overall commander of the British forces in Southern Africa on the 23rd December 1899, with Kitchener as his 2i/c. Christmas Day was marked by acute food shortages in all thee of the towns under siege. Boxing Day saw a disastrous sortie by Baden-Powell at Game Tree Hill near Mafeking resulting in 50 casualties. On the 27th December 1899, Cmdt. Van Rensburg captured Upington, but the possible uprising of the Cape Dutch rebels was effectively stopped by the rout of the Boer laager south of Douglas.

On the 6th January 1900, the Boers attacked Caesar's Camp and Wagon Hill at Ladysmith, but after a desperate battle, the British defenders with the aid of a blinding thunderstorm, were able to repel the Boers. Lord Roberts arrived in Cape Town on the 10th January 1900 and immediately reorganized British strategy. Finally, on the 14th January, Col. Plumer with his Rhodesian volunteers reached Gaberones in his bid to relieve Mafeking from the north. Thus ended the first three months of the Anglo-Boer War with the British realizing that it was not going to be the pushover they had thought it would be and the Christmas deadline for the end of hostilities long since gone.

After a long and incisive question time, marked by speculation on the various alternatives in strategy on both sides, our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin took the honour of thanking both our speakers for their most interesting, informative and entertaining talks.

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

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