South African Military History Society



Ken Gillings, our past Chairman was our acting Chairman for the evening, and he opened the meeting by announcing that following committee nominations and a postal ballot, the 1999 committee was re-elected for 2000. He also announced that 2 volunteer members, plus a further member who would concentrate on all matters relating to the Society's publicity efforts, would strengthen this committee. Further details will be announced at the next meeting. Ken also reported on the concern of the KwaZulu-Natal Tourism Authorities regarding the damage being done to War Graves and Battlefield sites in the Province. Two possible lines of action have been identified: firstly that S.A.N.D.F. commanders be involved, and secondly that local people under their Indunas be approached for their help. Society members were asked to submit other possible actions, which would help reverse this serious damage to our military heritage.

For our April meeting it was fitting that both incidents on which our speakers focused took place in the month of April; in 1945 and in 1900 respectively. Our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin showed his usual fine narrative style in the DDH lecture : The Last Army VC of the Second World War in Europe. In this, the centenary month of the forming of The Irish guards (The " Micks ") he was honouring Edward Charlton, the Irish Guardsman who won his VC on 21 April 1945. Such was the high reputation of The Irish Guards, even after only 14 years, that in the First World War Rudyard Kipling's son John joined their ranks, only to be killed in the opening hours of the Battle of Loos in September 1915. This bereavement prompted Rudyard Kipling to write The History of the Irish Guards in The Great War, an outstanding two volume regimental history.
Also impressed by the prestige of The Irish Guards was young Edward Charlton, and he enlisted in the regiment in 1940. In 1942 he was attached to the 2nd (armoured) battalion. In the autumn of 1944 the 2nd battalion was sent to reinforce the Guards Armoured Division in northern Europe. Charlton recorded in his letters, the joy of the liberated people in Europe, but on moving into Germany his impression was of sullen hatred by the people towards the Allies.
By 18 April 1945 Charlton was with The Irish Guards who were instructed to take control of the autobahn between Bremen and Hamburg and to stop German troop movement. In command of the 2nd battalion was Major Michael O'Cock. A distant echo of this peried was heard when the meeting was informed that Michael O'Cock, now a retired Brigadier in his 80's, had been in the party of Irish Guardsmen who had traveled to the KZN battlefields earlier in the month, as part of their centenary celebrations. Needless to say, their tour leader and guide was Ken Gillings. To return to Guardsman Charlton: at Wistedt, men of his battalion clashed with the 15th Panzer Grenadier division. They were caught in a machine gun and mortar ambush and their ranks were hit. Charlton stood up in his tank, firing on the Germans with his Browning. Dismounting from the tank, he approached the Germans, firing from the hip and repelling the enemy on his own initiative. When he was struck on the arm, he continued to fire his machine gun by resting it on a fence. Despite several wounds he continued for 20 minutes before being captured and died of his wounds in enemy hands. Many men of his battalion, whose lives were saved by Charlton's action, were taken prisoner. The opposing Germans were impressed with his courage and Lt. Von Bulow spoke of the "astonishing bravery of that Guardsman". Once evidence had been received from both sides, Charlton was awarded a posthumous VC. Major O'Cock wrote the citation and the VC was gazetted on 2 May 1946.

Iva Puel-Clements presented the main lecture of the evening : General Comte de Villebois-Mareuil (1847-1900), the Hero of Boshof. Our speaker has done a great deal of research into the life of this unusual and charismatic man and his involvement with the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War, and is currently writing a biography on his career. For her talk she concentrated mainly on the Battle of Boshof, in April 1900.
At the outbreak of the second Anglo-Boer War, foreign members of the pro-Boer faction rallied to the Boer cause. Frenchmen who did this were threatened with the loss of their French nationality. This did not deter those who felt that Britain had frequenfly humiliated the French in the past. Foremost among these was Colonel Comte de Villebois-Mareuil who embarked, on 25 October 1899, with other Frenchmen "to help the oppressed". The Colonel was to become a military advisor to the Boers, with the rank of General. After their defeat in Natal, the Boers were forced to change their strategy, and they embarked on a further campaign with relatively minor help from a Foreign Legion force, under the command of General de Villebois-Mareuil. The Legion was comprised of French, German, Hollander and American soldiers, and the General chose about four hundred men from this group, mainly Frenchmen and Hollanders, to accompany him on a mission to blow up a bridge on the Modder River. Very few of this group had any military experience. General de Villebois-Mareuil and these men raided towards the British lines and resolved to attack the town of Boshof, northeast of Kimberley. The General thought that a small force of four hundred men defended Boshof. This was a miscalculation. When he and his men took up their position on two kopjes outside Boshof, the Hollanders among his small band of Frenchmen showed a marked lack of enthusiasm and most of them decamped. The remaining men, mostly French, but with a few remaining Hollanders under Sorenberg, prepared to defend themselves against a British patrol of some 1,000 men. They were soon surrounded.
General de Villebois-Mareuil refused to surrender, although some of his men raised the white flag. The British opened up with cannon-fire and the fourth shell burst above the combatants, killing de Villebois- Mareuil after a battle that had lasted 3 hours. So impressed was Lord Methuen by de Villebois-Mareuil's quixotic bravery that he ordered that he be buried with full military honours. With her pleasing French accent, Iva Puel-Clements ended her fascinating talk by summarising, the 3 mistakes made by de Villebois-Marcuil in the action: his men were not trained soldiers; he chose Hollanders to accompany him; he ignored the information given to him by the Boers.

Following an interesting question time, Professor Mike Laing proposed the vote of thanks to the two speakers for their stimulating and even poignant accounts of two brave men.


The main speaker at our next meeting will be our Chairman, PAUL KILMARTIN, who will be returning to one of his specialist subjects - the British Battles of the First World War. For the first time he will take us into 1915, and will give a talk entitled : THE BATTLE OF NEUVE CHAPELLE, 10 - 12 MARCH 1915. Although this was a "short" battle by comparison with the great battles to follow, it was of huge importance to the British Army, in terms of the lessons they did and did not learn, and for their future planning and tactics.

Keeping to a First World War theme, our Secretary, Dr. INGRID MACHIN, will give the DDH talk. Her subject will be : SOUTH AFRICAN HEAVY ARTILLERY DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR, IN EUROPE.

See you all there on the 11 May.


For those attending our annual battlefield tour, the full itinerary is enclosed, giving details of where we will meet on the Saturday morning, the speakers and the times and places for the full week-end. For more details ring PAUL KILMARTIN on 561-2905 (H), 268-7400 (0), or 082-449-7227 (Cell). The full name list of attendees, will be handed out at the next meeting on 11 May.

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

South African Military History Society /