South African Military History Society



Our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, opened the meeting by announcing the sad news of the sudden death of a long serving member, Major Denis Sheil-Small, MC, who had passed away on the previous Saturday - 6 May 2000. He won his MC serving with the 8th Gurkha Rifles in Burma, and his last talk to the Society on serving with the Gurkhas and in battle with the Japanese in the jungles of South-East Asia was one that all members will long remember. Denis and his wife Mary had been regular attendees at the Society's meetings until recently, and as a mark of our respect all members present stood for a minutes silence.

Dr. Ingrid Machin's DDH lecture outlined the recruitment, deployment and achievements of The South African Heavy Artillery during the First World War.

The South African contingent, which General Louis Botha offered in July 1915 for the war in Europe, consisted of 4 infantry battalions, 5 heavy artillery batteries, a general hospital and a signal company. The 5 heavy artillery batteries were affiliated to the British Royal Garrison Artillery as the 71st (Transvaal), 72nd (Griqualand West), 73rd (Western Cape), 74th (Eastern Province) and the 75th (Natal). Later a 6th battery, the 125th (Transvaal) was formed. Late in 1917 and in early 1918 all these batteries were combined as the 44th and 50th brigades. All were armed with 6" howitzers. In April and May 1916 the 5 original batteries landed at Le Havre, while the 125th followed in July. They were then deployed along the length and breadth of the Western front. They supported their countrymen of the S.A. Infantry on only 3 occasions, the 75th at Warlencourt (lst Somme, October 1916), the 74th at Vimy Ridge (3rd Arras, spring 1917) and the 71st at 3rd Ypres (summer 1917).

All batteries, at some time, took part in The Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916). At this time the 73rd achieved a record firing rate of 32 rounds in 8 minutes from each gun. After the opening days of the Somme, the 72nd spent 8 months on the banks of The Ancre River before joining the 73rd, at Vimy Ridge during 3rd Arras in the Canadian attack of 9-10 April 1917. Both batteries suffered heavy casualties and were strafed by Richthofen's "Circus". In May 1917 the 72nd were transferred to the 1st Canadian Heavy Artillery in the Vimy area, moving in October to relieve the 73rd. Again both batteries had to endure heavy fighting and gas attacks.
At Vimy Ridge the 74th battery supported the S.A Infantry. In a 5-day bombardment, there were 2,879 British guns, of which 989 were heavy artillery, providing 1 gun for every 9 yards of the front (approx 8 metres). At one time in this engagement, the 74th was the furthest forward of the British siege guns. Later, the 74th was engaged in the first stages of 3rd Ypres (July-November 1917) and suffered such heavy casualties that the battery was reduced to just 1 gun and 70 men. The 125th, after involvement in the 4th week of the Somme and in 3rd Arras, was attached to the Belgian Army. The 44th brigade, fighting east and south of Bethune, was engaged up to the 6th November, the last week of the war. The 50th Brigade was eventually attached to Australian and Canadian units.
The battle honours granted to the 6 batteries, show the extent of their involvement on the Western front. Curiously they have never been displayed anywhere, despite the fact that regiments take great pride in the display of their battle honours.

Ingrid then described vignettes of the experiences of her father, who enlisted in the 72nd battery and was awarded the MM and was mentioned in dispatches. Ingrid described his horror on hearing the screams of wounded horses; the ubiquitous mud; the freezing cold during the bitter winter of 1916-1917; the persistent lice; the monotonous call for stretcher bearers and the gas attacks. Ingrid's father was gassed and blinded and then taken unconscious to the Richmond S.A.Hospital, where he recovered. On a lighter note, he remembered a communion service under blossoming apple trees, with the larks singing on high. Ingrid then displayed her father's medals, his lucifer boxes and a ring made by the regimental artificer from a piece of a shattered church bell from Mons. Thus this fascinating and well researched talk ended with the personalized experiences of a gunner in the S.A.H.A during the Great War, the " war to end all wars".

The evening continued the theme of the Great War, with our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, giving the main talk on The Battle of Neuve Chapelle - March 1915. Since 1996, Paul has given 3 previous talks to the Society on the battles of the 1st World War, that involved the British Army. He reminded us of the sequence, through the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, Guise, to the Anglo-French battle on The Marne, then the Aisne and after the so-called "Race to the Sea" to the crucial 1st Battle ofYpres. To put Neuve Chapelle into perspective, Paul reviewed 3 areas from the German, French and British viewpoint at the end of 1914. These were; the military position at the end of 1914; their aims for 1915: their strategies to achieve those aims.
For all 3 major countries fighting on the western front, 1914 had not gone as planned or expected. They all thought that could "win" the war before the year end, they did not expect the high level of casualties, they did not expect the speed with which the conflict had moved beyond Europe, and they did not expect the final entrenched position and the stalemate that dominated all military positions by the end of 1914. The German aims for 1915 were to resolve the problems of fighting on 2 fronts, French aims were to straighten the Noyon salient prior to pushing all German troops off French soil and the British aims were to prove to their allies that, despite their small size, they had attacking capability. Strategically, and to achieve their aims, Germany planned to go on the defensive in the west, withdraw troops in sufficient numbers to force a quick victory in the east against Russia and then return to concentrate on victory in the west. The French planned a 3 prong attack at either end of the salient in order to capture the towns that acted as the communication and supply centres for the German Army. The British decided to combine with the French Spring Offensive and provide a 4th prong by driving over Aubers ridge towards the city of Lille. Just as the allied plans were finalised, the French made demands on the British which, when refused, caused the French to delay their offensive. The British, to meet their 1915 aims, decided to go ahead on their own, and The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was given the go ahead.

The BEF plan was an attack by the 1st Army (commanded by General Sir D. Haig) using 4th Corps (commanded by Lt.Gen. Sir H. Rawlinson) and the Indian Corps (commanded by Lt. Gen Sir J. Willcocks). The planning was meticulous (although many things went wrong over the 3 days), the surprise complete, and the British had an infantry advantage of 35-1 as 40,000 British infantry faced an initial German force of 1,400. In addition, despite a shortage of shells, the British artillery had massive gun superiority. Day 1 started with a 35 minute barrage and 3 divisions advancing to Neuve Chapelle village. As the barrage lifted, the 4th Corps on the left and the Indian Corps on the right quickly crossed No Mans Land and found the enemy line destroyed and their troops in disarray. Within an hour the village of Neuve Chapelle was captured and within 2 hours all the days objectives were taken, despite some mishaps on both flanks. In front of these troops was open and unoccupied ground, and as they had forward momentum Aubers Ridge was there for the taking. Then the problems of poor communications forced a stop. Excessive caution based on lack of knowledge at GHQ, and the need for control through a long line of command caused the opportunity for a clear breakthrough, to be lost. This gave time for the German reserves to arrive, and when the final order for the British to advance was given, 5 important hours had been lost and in the late afternoon, it was close to dusk. The British advance was soon stopped.

Now the Germans had another 12 hours overnight to bring up extra reserves and to reorganize their defences, and when the British attempted to advance early on day 2 to-positions that were unmanned 18 hours earlier, they suffered heavy losses without making any advances. Day 3 started with a Gerrnan artillery barrage and a massed infantry attack which the British held and then forced back. Again British officers at the front were not allowed to follow up on the retiring Germans without permission from Corps GHQ and another opportunity was lost. Eventually Haig called a halt to the battle, with the British 1st Army losing over 12,000 men to make a 1,000 yard advance on a front just 2,000 yards wide. German casualties were on a similar scale. Despite the great success in the opening hours, none of the final objectives were met.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was the first offensive battle, fought trench to trench, by the British Army in The Great War. The odds were in their favour, but the failure of communication and the extreme caution shown by Divisional, Corps and Army GHQs meant that they lost a great opportunity to make a decisive break in the German line. That same opportunity would not come again for over 3 years.

Pat Budd proposed a well deserved vote of thanks to both speakers for their well researched and well presented talks on 2 of the lesser known aspects of the First World War.

PLEASE NOTE : The next meeting is the earliest possible date in the month. This month, the 2nd Thursday is the 8 June, the Thursday after the Society Battlefield tour to Ulundi on the weekend of the 3 and 4 June 2000.
Our main talk at the June meeting will be given by our Vice-Chairman, BILL BRADY. You may remember that Bill originally intended to give his talk in April, but was unable to get a flight back from the UK, where he had attended the inauguration of a memorial to Pilot Officer K.Campbell VC, in his, and Campbell's, home town of Saltcoats, Scotland. The events around that inauguration will be the subject of a future DDH.

His talk will be on THE NORWAY FIASCO - 1940. At the outbreak of the 2nd World War, Norway's intention was to remain neutral. However, that country was of great strategic importance to both Germany and Britain and that made it extremely unlikely that her neutrality would be respected. The Germans acted first, with an invasion of great efficiency and military competence, and forced Britain to react with disastrous consequences. This talk will tell the story of the German invasion and the British response and also highlight how ill prepared Britain was to fight a modern war in 1940. Bill will also show how this led to a loss of confidence in the British government and a leadership crisis that resulted in the fall of Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and the rise of Winston Churchill as war leader.

The DDH talk will be given by Committee Member Dave Matthews. His talk will be on:
THE VICTORIA SCARF. This has been described as " The most unusual award for valour in Victorian times", and has the making of an interesting and very different DDH.

See you all on 8 June - Remember the date.!!

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

South African Military History Society /