South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 8 April 2010 was Mr Marthinus van Bart, Heritage Editor of Die Burger, who has campaigned diligently for the preservation of our historical buildings including the Palace Barracks in Simon's Town, Fort Wynyard in Green Point and the De Waal Battery on Robben Island. He is the author/editor of two Anglo-Boer War books and his topic for the evening was Ethics and War, as depicted in Songs of the Veld and Other Poems, an anthology of English pro-Boer and anti-Empire poems of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, written and published during the war.

In his introduction Mr van Bart quoted the German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900), who pointed out that there are many ways to look at life, and the wise, balanced person should listen to all sides to get the full story. He then explained that the anthology of poems was probably compiled on the initiative of the poet, journalist and intellectual, C. Louis Leipoldt (1860-1947). The names of some of the poets were omitted to protect them from prosecution and persecution and the book was banned in South Africa during the Boer War. Consignments destined for South Africa were duly confiscated in Cape Town Harbour and destroyed.

Only a very few copies of the first edition of the book have survived and a new edition of the anthology, introduced by our speaker and published by Cederberg Publishers at the end of 2008, tells the story of the English-speaking pro-Boer Cape intellectuals - three men and three women - who drew attention to the "scorched earth" policy and tactics of the Imperial forces, such as the large-scale burning of farms and destruction of livestock, as well as the plight of the Boer men, women and children in the concentration camps and the execution of the Cape Rebels.

The anthology was originally published in 1902 by the New Age, a British literary magazine. This weekly publication was edited by Joseph Clayton, a Christian humanitarian socialist. The New Age was a watchdog on politics, faith and literature in the British Empire, standing for (to quote him) "human brotherhood, political liberty and economic justice". It became the rallying point for most of the British pro-Boers and promoted distrust of authority and disillusionment of the government generally. It was banned in the Cape Colony.

It is a truism that wars are fought mainly for economic gain and so it was with the Boer War. The Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were rich in gold and diamonds and other minerals and the great mining magnates in Southern Africa, led by Cecil John Rhodes, wanted complete control of these mineral riches. According to the speaker, their desire for a British Empire stretching from Cape to Cairo was just a smokescreen for capitalist gain.

In 1896, Rhodes arranged for an invasion of the Transvaal by a force led by Leander Starr Jameson - one of his associates - ostensibly to "liberate" the Uitlanders of the rich Witwatersrand goldfields. It is extremely likely that the Imperial authorities were well aware of the raid and that certain politicians, public servants and businessmen would have stood to benefit, had the raid succeeded. Jameson was convicted in both Pretoria and London. His punishment was to be made Administrator of the Cape Colony!

The Raid led to suspicion and tension between Afrikaner and Englishman. Alfred Milner, taking the place of Rhodes, took a hard-line approach in his political demands to the Transvaal Republic, which in no way lessened the tensions. All of this led to heightened tension and the slippery road to war - which inevitably followed in 1899. Our speaker also pointed out that the British Prime Minister (as well as the family of his American-born wife) had a personal stake in the armaments industry and thus stood to make millions in the event of a war. It was a war actively sought by the British authorities and their financial counterparts.

Britain's war against the Boer republics was seen by the world as an unjust war waged for economic gain and was condemned everywhere - except in the countries of the Empire and by the United States of America. But even in these countries there was opposition.

The Boers were vastly outnumbered by the Imperial forces and the war changed into a guerrilla war with the Boers conducting hit-and-run raids against their enemy. The response of the British commander, Lord H.H. Kitchener, was to round up the Boer population who have not pledged loyalty to the crown, and put them into concentration camps and to destroy as many of the farms as could be destroyed, i.e. a scorched earth policy. Many thousands of civilians died in these camps - Boer women and children and, it should be noted, many people of colour as well. This caused more outrage round the world.

Mr van Bart also gave biographical details of the six Cape intellectuals who contributed to Songs of the Veld. Albert Cartwright was the editor of the South African News in Cape Town and a correspondent to the Daily Chronicle and the Manchester Guardian. The South African News was the only English-language newspaper in the Cape Colony to oppose Rhodes and his fellow "Randlords". He was sentenced to a jail sentence of one year for publishing defamatory comments - which transpired to be the truth - about Kitchener in March 1901.

Betty Molteno was the eldest daughter of Sir John Molteno, the first prime minister of the Cape Colony. After attending Miss Hall's seminary for Young Girls, she became a student at Newham College, Cambridge. She was a teacher and pro-Boer and anti-Empire. One of her poems described the executions of Commandants Gideon Scheepers and J C Lötter.

Alice Mathilda Green, a member of a distinguished British family and niece of the Catholic novelist Graham Greene, was a teacher, poet and pianist. She wrote a poem on The Last March of Lötter's Commando, five of whose members were executed by firing squad. Five youths received floggings and prison sentences and the rest banished to Bermuda.

C. Louis Leipoldt was the author of a poem entitled The Executions in the Cape Colony, published under his pseudonym FWB, the initials of a friend Frank W. Baxter, V.C., who died during the Matabele Uprising in 1896 after giving up his horse to a wounded comrade. During the war Leipoldt was a journalist and court reporter who attended many courts martial at which Cape Rebels were found guilty and sentenced to death. In many towns, such as Middelburg, Cradock, Burgersdorp and Somerset East, the population was forced to assemble and hear the pronouncement of the death penalties. During the period May 1900 to October 1901, Leipoldt wrote a series of twelve articles in the newspaper Het Nieuws van die Dag entitled Letters from Cape Colony, describing the activities of both combatant and non-combatant Cape Rebels.

Anna Purcell was the daughter of Jan Faure, a Cape magistrate, and wife of Dr W. F. Purcell, a botanist and first director of the S.A. Museum. Her poem dated 20 July 1901 honours Johannes Petrus Coetzee who was 16 years old when he was hung for alleged high treason and attempted murder at Cradock in 13 July 1901.

In April 2013 the following e-mail correspondence was received:
There seems to be a common misconception that Johannes was only 16 when hung. According to my research he was 21 years old when hung on 13 July 1901.

This was determined by me as I am a family researcher of Coetzee/Coetsee and found his death notice in the Cradock archives of Familysearch. His date of birth is 26 March 1879.

I also found a document relating to a request from his parents to exhume his body from the Cradock "commonage" for reburial on the farm Paardekraal where his parents lived.This letter was dated 14 January 1903. I do not know if this ever happened, though. His father registered his death on 13 February 1903 in Cradock.

"Jan Coetsee"

Mr van Bart also spoke at length about John Ntengo Jabavu's role in opposing the war. He was the editor of the first black-owned newspapers Imvo Zabantsundu and Isigidimi Sama-Xosa. He spoke out against the war and for his pains was prosecuted and his papers closed down.

He also spoke of Father (later Monsignor) Friedrich Carl Kolbe, editor of the South African Catholic Magazine, who was forced to resign for describing the South African War as an "unrighteous war" and an "unjust cause".

Our speaker also spoke of the many foreigners of note who were quite vocal in their opposition to the war. These included G. K. Chesterton, the British novelist and journalist. He wrote that "these farmers were perfectly entitled to take up horse and rifle in defence of their farms and their little farming commonwealth when it was invaded by a more cosmopolitan empire at the command of very cosmopolitan financiers". Other vocal critics of the war included the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, the leader of the Liberal Party opposition in Britain and the political commentator Sir A. M. S. Methuen and the American author Mark Twain.

Military censorship was stringently enforced and the British public was not informed of Kitchener's ruthless methods in combating a very effective Boer guerrilla resistance. The only way in which the six journalists could inform the public was by poetry, smuggled to London. The poetry reflected in Songs of the Veld and Other Poems is in a class of its own, written at the height of the war when the devastation of the platteland through Kitchener's scorched earth policy was at its worst. It should be noted that these poems have lain dormant for more than a century, discovered by chance and were first published in South Africa in October 2008!

The poetry of the South African War is proof that the pen is more powerful than the sword in awaking public awareness.

The Chairman thanked Mr van Bart for his thought-provoking talk and presented him with the customary gift.



My summary of Major Heitman's talk in last month's newsletter was not able to include some interesting facts that he mentioned during his talk. He spoke of wars and insurrections in progress over large parts of Africa and noted that Africa is a large continent - 8 000 km north to south and 7 400 km west to east at its widest, 30,4 million square kilometres in area. By comparison, Europe is 3,45 million, India is 3,3 million, the USA is 9,4 million, China is 9,6 million and Russia is 17,1 million square kilometres. Africa's wars take place over a very large area! Some recent areas of conflict -- the DRC: 2,3 million km²; Sudan: 2,4 million km²; Central African Republic: 623 000 km². Compare this with the UK: 245 000 km² and France: 544 000 km². These facts show quite graphically how difficult peacekeeping operations in Africa are.



Many thanks to the members who have paid their subscriptions. If you have not yet done so, your payment would be appreciated.



Please note that our AGM will take place before the talk of the 13th of May, to start at 20:00. The notice, agenda, minutes and ancillary documents were distributed together with the previous newsletter - if, by chance, you did not receive a copy, please contact our Honorary Treasurer, Bob Buser (contact details, page 4, bottom) or the Chairman, Johan van den Berg (Tel: 021-9397923; Cell: 082-579-0386; Email: Our Honorary Secretary, Ray Hattingh, unfortunately, will be out of town next week for business reasons.



THURSDAY, 13 MAY 2010: Blitzkrieg!: The Invasion of France & the Lowlands - 10 May 1940
Our speaker will be fellow-member, Mr Johan van den Berg, who will give an illustrated talk on the Blitzkrieg campaign of 10 May 1940. The focus will be on the Battle for Flanders of May 1940 and the Battle of France in June 1940, as he has covered the attack on the Lowland Countries - Belgium and the Netherlands - in a previous talk. The campaign took place seventy years ago, almost to the date.

THURSDAY, 10 JUNE 2010: H M Steamer Birkenhead, its sinking and the questions that remain unanswered
Our speaker will be fellow-member, Mr Alan Mountain, well-known author, historian and in heritage circles. The illustrated talk will deal with the controversy that surrounded the construction of the Birkenhead and the reasons for her presence in Cape waters in 1852; the foundering and sinking of the ship on a perfect, windless night and the institutionalisation of the Birkenhead tradition which requires that women and children must be saved first in a maritime disaster; the conundrum that surrounds the cause of the disaster; and lastly the riddle as to what happened to its cargo of gold and silver.

THURSDAY, 8 JULY 2010: Standby! - South African Air Force Search and Rescue Missions and Operations during Peacetime
Our speaker will be fellow-member, Brig Gen Dick Lord, well-known author of books on his experiences in the S.A.A.F. during the protracted Border/Angolan War of 1967 to 1989. Gen Lord, however, was subsequently also intimately involved with search and rescue missions performed by the S.A.A.F. His experiences in this regard are recounted in his second book, called Fire, Flood and Ice, which will be re-issued - fully revised and expanded - under the title STANDBY, in May. Gen Lord has agreed to present an illustrated talk on the topic, which also includes some of the new additions to his book, such as the remarkable rescue of all 581 people from the ill-fated liner Oceanos, for which the author was mentioned in dispatches for his role as commander of the rescue operation. Also new are heart-warming accounts of S.A.A.F. rescues during the devastating floods of 2000 in Mozambique, which captured the world's attention. Gen Lord's involvement and the S.A.A.F.'s crucial role in assisting the IEC with the national elections leading up to Nelson Mandela's inauguration as State President in 1994, will also be dealt with in detail. In the latter instance the speaker maintains that the SAAF saved South Africa during those critical months and Gen Lord will explain how and why he believes this to be the case.

(For those who are wondering what happened to Gen Lord's planned report-back in July on the scheduled trip to the Battlefields of Angola originally planned for May - the trip has been postponed until next year due to organisational and logistical problems).

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279
OR 021-531-6781
Email: OR

South African Military History Society /