The subject of the curtain raiser at the society's 14 December lecture
meeting was that most persistent of military conditions, SNAFU.
This was the sixth episode in Martin Ayres' chronicle of military
The inflexibility of the military mind has been responsible for innumerable blunders in battle. Britain's WW1 premier Lloyd George expressed it succinctly when he said: "Epauletted egoism is impenetrable to the assault of ideas." Among the more frequent mistakes to which this inflexibility leads is the belief that bravery can compensate for ability. Another is the tendency to underestimate an enemy. It was this, for example,that caused the British such embarrassment when fighting the Boers. But arrogance is not the only reason why senior officers make mistakes in war. Timidity is another. General McClellan, commander of the Union forces in the American Civil War, exhibited this condition in near-fatal measure. Recklessness is a third reason, as shown by the famous Colonel, formally General, Custer in his legendary "Last Stand".
However, a favoured candidate for the title of the most disastrous military bungler of all time is, surely, the WW1 French General Robert Nivelle. His recipe for success was massed infantry supported by a heavy dose of artillery, and on the first day of his much-trumpeted offensive at Verdun the French Army suffered 90 000 casualties.
The main lecture of the evening was given by society deputy chairman
Colin Dean on gyroscopes in the history of modern warfare.
A gyroscope is any device consisting of a rapidly spinning wheel set in a framework that permits it to tilt freely in any direction. The momentum of such a wheel causes it to retain its attitude even when the framework is tilted. Any number of valuable applications can be derived from this unique characteristic, in particular a compass that does not depend on the vagaries of the magnetic pole. In 1908 a German engineer, Herman Anschutz-Kaempfe, applied it for use as a gyrocompass in submersibles. The first person to patent a gyrocompass suitable for general use was an American, Elmer Ambrose Sperry. There are two basic types of gyroscope, one with three axes the other with two. Acting together these can control the direction of a body moving in three dimensions.
The gyrocompass was a boon to accurate navigation at sea, and later to the automatic piloting of ships and aircraft, so it was inevitable that such a useful devise would inspire numerous military applications. WW2 proved an excellent stimulus. An example of the ingenious use of gyroscopes in weaponry was Hitler'sV1 flying bomb that terrorised London in 1944. This "Doodlebug", or "Buzz-bomb", as it was often called, used three gyroscopes and a magnetic compass to keep it flying straight and level to its target.
Today we find gyroscopes piloting warplanes, controlling torpedoes, missiles and the gun turrets of tanks, to name only a few of their many applications.
The question of who won the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914
has been a subject for speculation among military historians ever since.
It was the theme of the curtain raiser given by former chairman George
Barrell at the society lecture meeting on 18 January.
The German invasion of France and Belgium at the outbreak of WW1 was designed to knock France out of the war and establish the German Army on the Channel coast before France's ally, Tsarist Russia, could mobilise and attack Germany on its eastern frontier. A war on two fronts was the abiding fear of the German military planners. In the event the German advance into France was halted at the Battle of the Marne, while Russia responded promptly to French calls for help and invaded East Prussia with two available armies.
This unexpected Russian attack unnerved the German commander who proposed a retreat to the River Vistula, and was promptly replaced by General Eric von Ludendorff, and, as his C-in-C, General Paul von Hindenburg. On their way to the front these two officers drew up a battle plan, only to find on arrival that a similar plan, devised by an obscure staff colonel, Max Hoffman, was already being implemented. This plan was based partly on Hoffman's understanding of the two Russian army commanders, who were bitter enemies, and it was brilliantly successful in holding, and subsequently turning the rapidly advancing Russian 2nd Army. A German Army corps under General Hermann von Francois, although acting in defiance of Ludendorff's orders, secured the victory with an all-but-complete encirclement. The question posed was which, of these four German commanders, won the Battle of Tanneberg.
The Wars of the Roses was the title of the main lecture of the evening. Society chairman Hamish Paterson explained how the personality deficiencies of England's later medieval kings led to continuing friction with the country's nobility. A series of battles culminated in the demise of the long-reigning Plantaganet dynasty, and the rise of the Tudors after the defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
When Edward 111 died in 1377 the crown went to his grandson, Richard, who was a minor. Richard II proved to be an arbitrary and extravagant ruler whose behaviour provoked unrest among his nobility and in society at large. He was eventually overthrown by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, third son of Edward III. Bolingbroke came to the throne in 1399 as Henry IV. He was the first of the three Lancasterian kings, the last being Henry VI, a weak, pious, and, at times, insane ruler. The ambiguities of his reign prompted the ambitions of the descendents of Edward III's second son Lionel, Duke of York. The Yorkists' emblem was the white rose, in contrast to the red rose of the Lancastrians. The fortunes of the two factions fluctuated widely during Henry VI's reign, and battles were fought at St Albans, Northampton and Sandal castle. The victory of the Duke of York at the Battle of Tewskbury in 1471 sealed the Lancastrians' fate and ended this phase of the Wars of the Roses.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
The following notice was sent to all members together with the above newsletter:
MAJUBA 2001: THE 120TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE TRANSVAAL WAR OF INDEPENDENCE, 1881
The Society's annual Battlefield Tour is planned for the end of February, which is much earlier in the year than previous tours. The reason is that we are meeting to mark the 120th anniversary of the famous Battle of Majuba. The enclosed details are being sent out to give time for all our members and their friends to plan ahead, and to put this date into their diaries and to book their accommodation directly. Last year, the Society contacted the Newcastle Publicity Association and a combined program is now the result, as set out below.
PROGRAMME: 23RD TO 25TH FEBRUARY 2001, as arranged by Die Majuba Boerevolktrust, Newcastle Publicity Association, and the KwaZulu-Natal Branch of the South African Military History Society. Those items marked with an * indicate the Society's programme.
FRIDAY 23RD FEBRUARY
SATURDAY 24TH FEBRUARY
SUNDAY 25TH FEBRUARY
The speakers, and their subjects, for the SAMH part of the program
will be announced at the Society's February meeting.
The programme may have to be amended, if time does not allow the party to visit all sites.
Possible extra charges: R7.50 per vehicle at Majuba; R? at Mount Prospect, and a possible entry fee for re-enactment for those wishing to attend.
The Majuba Boerevolktrust have emphasised that members of the Society who do not wish to participate in the official Society programme would be very welcome to attend events being organised by them. Likewise, the Society would have no objection if members preferred to attend the Trust's functions.
The British Consul has accepted an invitation from the Society and will attend the Society tour program.
The cost to members of the Society will be the standard R20.00 donation to Society funds, but this year that will include a commemorative certificate.
We are hoping that members of the Society will stay at Majuba Lodge, so that we can all meet together and as we have on previous battlefield tours, enjoy the social evening on the Saturday together. Please contact the Majuba Lodge, Newcastle directly on 03431-55011 to book your accommodation as part of the Society group. A number of members have indicated that they will travel on the Friday and stay 2 nights in order to take part in the non-Society functions on Friday evening and early Saturday morning. Please make sure that the Lodge understand if you are staying 1 or 2 nights when you book.
It will be vital to adhere to the above timings as closely as possible.
As in previous years, members must provide their own transport and arrange their own picnic lunches. THE SOCIETY WILL NOT BE PROVIDING ANY MEALS. It is strongly recommended that those attending the tour combine transport to share costs and limit the number of vehicles. For those needing assistance please ring the committee members whose numbers are given below.
The weather in Northern KwaZulu-Natal will in all probability be very hot in February, and afternoon thunderstorms are a possibility. Be prepared, however, for temperature changes, especially in the evening.
While there will be a short distance to walk on Saturday (Lang's Nek and Schuinshoogte), those participating in the torch light procession up Majuba on Friday 23rd February, and the walk up the mountain on Sunday 25th February, will require light but non-slippery walking shoes. It is strongly recommended that you carry some water with you. THERE IS NO SHADE ON THE SUMMIT OF MAJUBA.
Please remember that attendance on this historic occasion is purely voluntary. We have to advise, due to the involvement of other parties, that THE SOUTH AFRICAN MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY, THE MAJUBA BOEREVOLKTRUST AND THE NEWCASTLE PUBLICITY ASSOCIATION (OR THEIR MEMBERS AND ASSOCIATES) CANNOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DEATH OR INJURY, OR DAMAGE TO PROPERTY THAT MAY BE INCURRED DURING THE WEEKEND!
Please ring Bill Brady on 561-5542, to confirm your attendance. Other
useful contacts are:
Paul Kilmartin (Chairman: 082-449-7227 after mid January);
Ken Gillings (Tour liaison officer: 083-654-5880);
Charles Whiteing (for Lodge information: 082-555-4689).
We look forward to another outstanding battlefield tour, organised and planned with his usual enthusiasm and skill by Ken Gillings. Once again he will be our main speaker and guide. Please make every effort to join us on this historic anniversary at Majuba.
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