South African Military History 


Newsletter No 72 /Nuusbrief Nr 72 September 2010

SAMHSEC's 9 August 2010 meeting in Port Elizabeth opened with Mike Duncan's series on medals awarded to Port Elizabeth men. Bombadier T.A. Reid attested in the Prince Alfred's Guard on 22 August 1914 and served with the unit at the Castle in Cape Town until 19 July 1915, whereupon he was discharged. He returned to his civilian employment with the SA Railways until 19 June 1916, when he joined the SA Heavy Artillery. He was attached to 125 Heavy Battery and sailed for France on the Durham Castle. He received a shrapnel wound in the left hip on 23 April 1917 and, a month later, was wounded in the right thigh. He was evacuated to England in June 1918 and discharged as medically unfit due to deafness. He returned home on the Carisbrook Castle and was demobilized on 26 April 1919. For this service, Bdr Reid was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory medal. He also received the Silver War Badge, which was awarded to service personnel who were discharged as medically unfit for further service. It was worn on the lapel in civilian clothes. The purpose of the badge was to prevent men of military age, but not in uniform, from being harassed by being presented with white feathers. Later in the war, medical restrictions were altered and those who re-enlisted could wear the badge in uniform.

The curtain raiser was by the Secretary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in South Africa, Captain Charles Ross, SAN (ret). The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established in 1917 to ensure that all Commonwealth War Dead are commemorated, either in a grave with a headstone or, where there is no known grave, on a memorial. Today the Commission is active in 150 countries and is responsible for memorials to some 1.7 million servicemen from the two World Wars in 2 500 constructed and 21 000 other cemeteries and 200 memorials. The SA Agency of the Commission was established in 1921 and is responsible for the graves and memorials in South Africa and Namibia. There are 602 burial sites in South Africa where more than 8 440 casualties are commemorated and 32 sites in Namibia, where more than 427 casualties are commemorated. Burial sites include single graves on farms, graves in civilian cemeteries, graves in military plots and graves in military cemeteries. Since 2005 the SA Agency is also responsible for the maintenance of graves of British soldiers from the Anglo Boer Wars, Frontier Wars and Anglo-Zulu War. 221 sites have been identified, of which 149 have been renovated, while renovation of 9 sites is ongoing. 76 of the renovated sites are maintained by contractors. Work has been completed on 11 sites from the Frontier Wars. The SA Agency is therefore responsible for 855 burials sites where more than 32 000 casualties are commemorated. (Scribe's note: Charles' e-mail address is

The main lecture on The WW1 Underground was by Mike Duncan. Mining operations in warfare go back many centuries, but best known are those which occurred during WW1. The Western Front became static after the retreat of the BEF from Mons, with defensive positions taken on both sides. The Germans were the first to go on the offensive with 10 mines being exploded at Festubert, which routed the force holding the position.

Initially, the British were unable to reply as their thinking was still cavalry based, but John Norton-Griffiths soon changed that. He was a self-taught mining engineer who had served in the Anglo-Boer War and had gained mining experience in South Africa after that war. With tremendous drive and enthusiasm, he promoted the idea of mining as an offensive weapon at the War Office. He recruited sewer tunnellers, miners and other 'clay kickers' and started operations with Tunnelling Companies on the Messines Ridge in the north of the front. Three mines were laid and eventually fired on 17 April 1915, 2 days before the Germans had planned to explode their counter-mines. The British then took the objective, but could not hold it in the face of German counter-attacks. The Germans had, meanwhile, fired a mine at St Eloi, which resulted in the capture and retention of the British positions there. At this stage, they were winning the underground war.

The Tunnelling Companies were then tasked to target the chateau at Hooge, which was done by exploding two mines, each with 5 000 lbs of ammonal, then a new explosive, under the defences. This successfully destroyed the German defensive positions and allowed the British to gain the initiative in mining operations. It was then decided to construct 20 massive mines on the Messines Ridge and explode them simultaneously to 'earthquake' the ridge. While the work, which took 18 months, was in progress, preparations for the Battle of the Somme were undertaken. This included the construction of 7 large and 11 smaller mines, which were fired on 1 July 1916. The largest of these mines was at La Boiselle, where 60 000 lbs of ammonal resulted in a crater 95 metres in diameter and 45 metres deep. This blast obliterated 9 German dug-outs and the corresponding trench works. At about the same time, a mine was fired at Hawthorne Ridge and this firing was captured on cine film by a war correspondent. Although these activities were successful, they did not have the desired result of a break-through because the mines were too scattered, attacking troops advanced too slowly and the Germans were able to occupy the craters as defensive positions before the British arrived. The Messines Ridge mines were ready well in advance for the Summer Offensive of 1917. 19 of the 22 were fired on 7 June 1917. The largest, which was charged with 95 600 lbs of ammonal, was at St Eloi. The results were spectacular with the sound of the explosions being heard in Dublin.

Ian Pringle has offered to coordinate the May 2011 tour to Anglo-Boer War sites (thanks, Ian!). It would be appreciated if someone comes forward to coordinate the envisaged August 2011 tour to Frontier War sites. Thanks to those who responded to the call for speakers, but more speakers are needed, please, particularly for the October 2010 main lecture, which is again available.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on 13 September 2010 at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth (Scribe's note: SAMHSEC's 6th anniversary!). The curtain raiser will be on Martinets by Anne Irwin. The main lecture will be The Development of Post WW2 Soviet Tanks by Franco Cilliers.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

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