South African Military History Society

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The Military Museum lecture theatre proved a welcome haven from the intense heat outside when approximately seventy members gathered for the November meeting. This was opened as usual by the Chairman, Ivor Little, who gave the usual notices. Chief among these was the fact that the committee has decided not to increase the annual subscription next year (this was greeted by ironic applause.)

Ivor then introduced the curtain raiser speaker. This was Ann Bourdin, an accomplished speaker, who has addressed the society previously, and a noted academic with degrees in the Classics, European Literature and Art History. One of her part-time interests is military history and the subject of her talk was "A Callow Youth - George Washington in the Seven Year War".

The great majority of people are aware of the later achievements of George Washington and his place in American history, but Ann painted a picture of a different George Washington - a young man struggling with early disappointments and learning the hard way about earning a living. He was born in 1732 as the second son of the second wife of a relatively prosperous Virginia tobacco farmer. His brothers were sent to England for their schooling but this was denied George as his father died when he was eleven and there were no longer the necessary funds needed to finance this. His ambition was to serve as an officer in the British Army but this too was denied him as he had neither the necessary education nor social background and was but a middle-class colonial. He became a land surveyor instead and, with the great expansion of the American colonies, found his services greatly in demand. This quite literally meant that he was actively engaged in opening up the American Wilderness, an experience which he loved and which would later stand him in good stead.

In 1754, at the age of 21, he joined the Virginia Militia, the equivalent of our Citizen Force. He was 6 ft 2 ins (1.88m) tall, and a skilled tracker-hunter and shot. These were valuable attributes at the time and he was given the rank of colonel. North America was in the throes of colonisation by three great powers - England, France and Spain - and as each expanded its territories, clashes became inevitable. It was only a matter of time before territorial disputes would arise. One of these involved ownership of the area in Ohio where Pittsburg now stands. This was at a fork in the Ohio River, which was of great strategic and economic importance, because of the heavy reliance at that time on water transport.

This area was claimed by the fledgling states of both Virginia and New York but was actually in the physical possession of the French, who had built Fort Dusquesne at that spot. Washington's first military assignment was to carry out a reconnaissance of the area and report back on the activities of the French. He took with him a party of Indians, met the French, who considered him a clumsy greenhorn, and had a wild time controlling his Indians, who on one occasion got spectacularly drunk. After his report back to the Governor of Virginia, a proper expedition to claim this territory was proposed and Washington was chosen to lead it. He was given 159 men and, in 1754, set off to follow a vanguard of a further 33 men the Governor had sent out previously. George was in his element and, using his surveyor's background, set about hacking his way through the Wilderness, building the first ever road in Ohio so that he could take artillery along with him.

While engaged in this, he encountered the Governor's 33 men in headlong retreat in the opposite direction. They claimed that they had been routed by a huge force of more than one thousand French and Indians. Washington took this with a pinch of salt and took an advance party of 40 soldiers and Indians to scout out the situation. This was a night march in pouring rain and conditions were so bad that seven of George's men were lost along the way. With daybreak, they stumbled into an Indian allies camp, under the control of a chief known as Half King. The latter knew of a French camp in the vicinity and Washington decided to attack, in company with his Indian allies. The attack and skirmish lasted only ten minutes but would have far-reaching consequences. The French party of 32 men suffered 14 casualties and then surrendered. The 35-year old French Commander, an aristocrat named de Jumonville, spoke no English and Washington no French. De Jumonville proffered a letter explaining his mission to Washington but before this could be settled Half King stepped forward and tomahawked de Jumonville. This led to a general massacre of the wounded before George got the situation under control. He was now completely out of his depth militarily and so he retired to a place where he could build a defensive position, a small fort he called Fort Necessity. On 3 July 1754 a combined French and Indian force attached the fort during a heavy rainstorm.

The Fort was badly sited and was rapidly flooded and in a state of collapse, while Washington's force had been reduced to two-thirds of its original size. A truce was called, Washington signed a document accepting full responsibility for the attack on de Jumonville and was allowed to pack up and return to Virginia. Ironically, the date was 4 July. In Virginia George was treated as a hero, but in reality his expedition was the cause of a world war and in England his actions gave rise to his being considered a blundering idiot.

The letter which de Jumonville had proffered, and which Washington could not understand, was a letter of diplomatic immunity and by signing for full responsibility for the attack on de Jumonville's party, and thus his death, Washington laid himself, and thus his British superiors, open to the charge of breaking an international convention. His regiment was disbanded in disgrace and he retired to his home at Mount Vernon. The furore around the incident grew and it was decided that the French expansion and aggression in North America could not be tolerated.

Two regiments under the command of Major General Braddock were sent out to New England and these were bolstered by fighting men from the colonies. This alarmed the French who promptly sent out troops of their own. Braddock was not a good choice as the expedition's commander. He upset the colonists by his high handed manner and antagonised virtually all he met.

His plan was to advance up Washington's road to Fort Dusquesne, which in theory was a simple operation. George Washington signed on as a supernumery and the march commenced. It was a disaster from start to finish. The huge British wagon and artillery train was unsuited to the conditions, Braddock alienated the Indians and divided his force and, at ten miles from Fort Dusquesne the French and Indians ambushed them. The British were routed and Braddock killed. Washington escaped unharmed and for the remainder of the Seven Year War, which took place mainly in Canada, he slowly learnt his craft and matured into the General who would become an American icon.

At the conclusion of Ann's talk Ivor thanked her and then introduced the next speaker, the well-known committee member Hamish Paterson, who spoke on "The Battles of Phillipi: 42 BC".

These battles were another little-known facet of military history and Hamish commenced by giving a detailed background of Roman politics towards the end of the 2nd century BC, culminating in the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. His assassins, Brutus and Cassius, had oddly enough made no plans as to what they were going to do politically after the assassination, and this gave rise to a political limbo.

Mark Anthony, a strong supporter of Caesar, stepped forward and, in the speech made famous by Shakespeare, won great public support against the assassins. One of the plotters, Cicero, managed to broker a deal between him and the assassins but this was upset when Caesar's heir, Octavian, arrived to claim his inheritance. The empire was carved up and distributed among Mark Anthony and the others, excluding Octavian who was deemed too young. Cicero continued stirring up trouble against Mark Anthony and eventually the Senate, aided by Octavian, took military action against Mark Anthony, which led to the latter's defeat at Mutin in 43 BC. Octavian then marched on Rome, was appointed a Consul and, as a political master-stroke, appointed Mark Anthony and a man named Lepidus as co-consuls in a triumvirate. The three of them then combined to hunt down Caesar's killers. Cicero was rapidly dispatched in Rome itself and attention then turned to Brutus and Cassius.

These two were busily campaigning in the Eastern part of the Empire, with Cassius in Lycia and Brutus in Rhodes. In mid-September 42 BC they met in Greece and established themselves at Phillipi. Here the army of Octavian and Mark Anthony caught up with them. Brutus and Cassis camped in separate positions, which made mutual support difficult. However, they did hold the high ground but, after several days of fruitless deployment, Mark Anthony was able to break the stalemate by outflanking Cassius and taking his camp. Cassius' men were routed and he committed suicide. Octavian, acting in support of Mark Anthony, was caught off guard in his camp by enemy troops and only survived by hiding in a nearby marsh.

Brutus was now on his own and a new stalemate began, with each side fruitlessly deploying. Eventually Brutus made an unsuccessful attempt to outflank a revilatised Octavian, which weakened his centre and which, in turn, led to a complete collapse when it was attacked. Brutus committed suicide and the stage was set for the next round of conflict between Octavian and Mark Anthony.

At the end of this most interesting talk, Ivor allowed a brief question period and then asked committee member John Parkinson to thank both speakers and present them with the customary token of appreciation. This done, the meeting adjourned for the evening.

Ivor Little
Chairman and Scribe.

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The committee takes this opportunity to wish all members a happy holiday season, a blessed Christmas to all those to whom this applies, and safe travelling for all who venture onto our roads at this busy time of year.

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KZN in Durban:

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Cape Town:

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SAMHSEC is going to the movies to Sink the Bismark as its meeting at 19:30 on 12 December 2011 at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. There will not be a World at War episode. The family member's military service series presentation will be by Ian Copley.

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For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
For Cape Town details contact Ray Hattingh 021-592-1279(am)
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676

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