South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 14 April 2011 was Dr Dan Sleigh, a member of the branch and noted historian and author. His topic was "In the Footsteps of Xenophon - Three Books and a Journey", a description of his visit to Turkey in 2003. Dr Sleigh's most recent book "Afstande" is an historical novel based on Xenophon's expedition. In 2003, Iraq was a war zone and our speaker was unable to visit that country. He had to confine his trip to Turkey but, even there, he sometimes felt that Big Brother was watching him!

Dr Sleigh introduced his illustrated presentation by explaining that he had become interested in the topic when he purchased a copy of Xenophon's Anabasis at the CAFDA charity bookshop in Claremont many years ago.

Xenophon was a Greek historian and philosophical essayist who lived in the years 430 - 357BC. An Athenian, he early in life came under the influence of Socrates but a more active life had more attraction to him. In 401BC, he was invited by his friend Proxenus to join an expedition in support of Cyrus1 the Younger against Cyrus' brother Artaxerxes II, king of Persia2. The ambitious Cyrus was the satrap (governor) for the regions of Lydia, Phrygia and Cappadocia in Asia Minor. Xenophon consulted Socrates who advised him to consult the oracle at Delphi and was advised by the oracle to join the expedition, which he did just as the expedition was leaving. It held out the prospect of riches and honour and he was unlikely to find favour in democratic Athens.

The expedition consisted largely of some 10 600 Greek hoplites (heavily armed infantrymen), supported by peltasts (light infantry) and archers, which was said to be against the Pisideans3 but in fact was to be part of an army raised by Cyrus the Younger in an attempt to wrest the throne of Persia from his brother Artaxerxes II. The Greek force was mercenaries who came from various parts of Greece. They formed part of a larger force led by the Persian Ariaeus, consisting of approximately 100 000 Persians. Only Klearkos (Clearchus), the Greek general, knew that the expedition had as its object the removal of Artaxerxes, a weak king, and the accession to the Persian throne of Cyrus.

The expedition started from Sardis, the capital of Lydia, known for the "sacred grove" and the temple of Artemis, as well as being the headquarters of Cyrus' satrapy. The fertile nature of the countryside around Sardis is reflected in the presentation, characterised by eroded sandstone hills, reminiscent of the towering termite mounds in Central and West Africa. They marched along the "King's Highway"4, first along the southern coastal region of present-day Turkey before turning into the interior. From there they moved eastwards, gradually moving closer to the coastal plains of Cilicia and Fenicia, before traversing Mesopotamia and headed towards Babylon. Upon leaving Sardis, the expedition crossed the Pactolus River, traversed the plain covering 106km (66 miles) in three days and crossed the Meander River into Phrygia. Our speaker remarked on the accuracy of the description by Xenophon of events, natural features and distances - the modern-day journey following more-or-less the ancient route - confirmed the distance as accurate within a kilometre or so! Thereafter they reached Colossae, a "large and prosperous city". Dr Sleigh commented that other for the sign-boards and some scattered rubble, there is hardly a sign that Colossae ever existed. The expedition reached Kelanae (Celaenae) where the Clearchus the Greek, joined the expedition with his troops. Here Cyrus held a head-count of his Greek mercenaries and found that they amounted "in all to eleven thousand hoplites and about two thousand peltasts". The army then turned north, away from Pisidea, ostensibly to quell an uprising. From here onwards Xenophon started making mention of dissatisfaction of Cyrus' soldiers for not having received any pay for three months.

Still moving eastwards, the expedition entered the land of Kilikia (Cilicia). Fortuitously for Cyrus, Queen Epiaxa, the wife of Syennesis, the king of the Cilicians arrived with a large sum of money as tribute so that Cyrus' army will not lay waste to her country, which was used to pay the dissatisfied troops, who still had not received any pay. The next major Phrygian city reached was Thymbrium, a populous city. Here, by the side of the road, is the spring of Midas5 as it is called, where Midas, as related by our speaker, caught the satyr by drugging the spring with wine. At Tiraeon (Tyraeum) Cyrus held a review of his troops (the Hellenes and barbarians) on the plain, at the behest of the Cilician queen. To illustrate the military prowess and discipline of his Hellenes, he ordered a general advance. This they did so convincingly in a warlike manner that pandemonium ensued - the queen and her escort, as well as the barbarians, fled. In the marketplace the sutlers left behind their wares on sale and took to their heels, to the great amusement of the Greeks! Dr Sleigh waxed lyrically about the beauty of the countryside and the idyllic landscapes - but not all is paradise: like in South Africa the main means of freight transport are trucks and the traveller from time to time are caught up in heavy traffic jams or delayed by the slower-moving truck traffic that carries essentials between Europe, the Middle-east, South Asia, and vice versa. Like locally, the rail network has also been neglected, with the result that the road infrastructure is collapsing under the impact of the heavy freight transport.6 At Konja (the ancient Iconium) our speaker and his entourage took time to visit the local museum exhibiting examples of the most magnificent glazed and decorated pottery of the period that survived through the ages. The talk was well-illustrated by maps of the march of the "ten thousand" and the photographs taken by Dr Sleigh, and his daughter who accompanied him, of the various areas mentioned, now in their modern guise.

The expedition had now reached the Taurus Mountains and the passes of Kilikea, known as the Cilician Gates. Cyrus wisely reached an agreement with the Queen whereby the Queen would pretend to resist the advance of the army. One part of the army accompanied the Queen over the Taunus River and Cyrus took the rest of the army through the impregnable passes, rejoined the force which had diverted at Tarsus, the birthplace of St Paul, which incredibly still bears that name, although Dr Sleigh lamented that the town had come down in the world since then! In ancient times the city did suffer at the hands of the Greeks when it was pillaged - together with the palace - by the revengeful Greeks. It came about after approximately 100 hoplites got cut off and perished at the hands of the Cilicians. On a brighter note, Dr Sleigh did, however, recall a delicious breakfast at a local café consisting of fresh bread, goat cheese, olives, a goose egg and coffee - the bread like no other bread he before tasted, and this is the standard fare of the local inhabitants! The Greeks were now certain that they were not attacking Pisidia, so they refused to march any further. Klearkos (Clearchus) made a moving speech in which he promised to stand by them. Cyrus then revealed the true role the mercenaries were to play and told them that he would increase their pay if they would march against his enemies. This the Greeks agreed to.

The army crossed the Pyramus River, marched eastwards to Issos (Issus, Issi) on the coast where the fleet of Prince Cyrus was waiting as a back-up force in case the encountered serious opposition in their trek through the south-western part of the Persian Empire. From this point onwards their march took them into inhospitable terrain in crossing part of the Arabian Desert, through Mesopotamia, into Babylonia, to Cunaxa,7 where the fateful encounter took place that led to Cyrus' death and the epic retreat of the "ten thousand" under the leadership of Xenophon, started. As the army marched south-eastwards through the desert, suffering many deprivations from the heat, lack of food and water, they were further demoralised as another army - loyal to the king - had preceded them and was laying waste the countryside ahead of them.

Dr Sleigh then mentioned that due to the unstable situation in Iraq after the Coalition Forces' invasion during their visit to Turkey, it was deemed unsafe to try and venture into Iraq. They were then forced to detour from Issos (Issus, Issi) along the south-eastern border of Turkey to link up with the route of the retreat at Bitlis, in Eastern Armenia (near Lake Van). King Artaxerxes and his court had not expected the army of Prince Cyrus to reach Babylon, which was well-protected. The King summoned reinforcements from Media but these did not arrive in time. Cyrus crossed an undefended ford and reached the village of Cunaxa.

For completeness sake, Dr Sleigh related the part of the expedition into and out of present-day Iraq, but which they were unfortunate not to cover:
Cyrus devised an excellent plan of battle in terms of which the Greeks would form the centre of the army and attack the centre of the King's Army and kill the King. However Klearkos (Clearchus), the Greek general, refused to implement this plan and also made the fatal error of failing to realise that they had to protect Prince Cyrus.

The Persian left wing did not attack the Greeks and Cyrus with the centre of his army hurled themselves against the King. Prince Cyrus was killed and his Asiatic troops fled. The Persians dared not attack the Greek force but decoyed them into the interior. The Greeks were now surrounded by enemies on all sides. Even so, Greece had been saved from becoming another Persian Satrapy. One of Cyrus generals, Tissaphernes, had betrayed him by informing the King of Cyrus' advance and it was he who tried to destroy the Greeks by treachery. The Greeks had marched into Media, beyond the Tigris River and Klearkos (Clearchus) was forced to ask for a meeting with Tissaphernes to try to dispel the ill-feeling and suspicion that had arisen.

Tissaphernes asked the Greek leaders to come to his tent. This they did, with an escort of their troops. But Tissaphernes had them all killed. The Greek situation seemed irredeemable but they chose new officers. Xenophon was elected general and he undertook to lead the army home and keep its morale high. Not an easy task!

The army marched to the Carducian Mountains, harassed by the army of Tissaphernes, who did not venture to fight a pitched battle with them. When they reached Carduchia (modern Kurdistan), they left the Persian Empire and now faced the most hazardous part of their retreat as they trekked through mountain passes in winter with heavy snow. These passes were defended by the hostile and savage local inhabitants. They had to negotiate for safe passage and food with these people, the alternative being to fight their way through and to pillage for food. Many of the Greeks were barefoot and the weather was freezing. Dr Sleigh showed slides of the scenery in these mountain passes taken in early spring. Snow on the mountains and sometimes in the passes themselves - minus 3 degrees! A bleak, harsh and unforgiving environment indeed.

After many tribulations and losses caused by the extreme weather conditions, not to speak of the numerous skirmishes and ambushes that befell them, the remnants of the "ten thousand" reached the borders of Carducia and Armenia. Here the forces of Tiribazus awaited them. The Greeks were allowed to pass safely as they agreed not to pillage, and reached the city of Gymnias. Here they were warmly welcomed and were delighted to discover that they were not far from Trapezus. This part of their journey took them through modern Georgia and Armenia.

This retreat through the mountains lasted for more than a year and involved dozens of skirmishes and battles with local tribes, near starvation and forced marches through desolate mountains in the winter.

They marched on and four days later reached Mount Thebes. When the vanguard reached the summit of the mountain, a cry of "Thalassa! Thalassa!" went up. They could see the sea - the Black Sea.

Greatly relieved, the "ten thousand" marched on and reached Trapezus, a Greek outpost where they rested for a month. Now that their chances for survival had improved, much of thier cohesiveness was lost. From Trapezus (Trapezum) they marched to Chalcedon but remained together in the hope of earning more money before returning home. They then served under the Thracian Seuthes during a terrible winter in the highlands of Thyria but were cheated out of their land and money. When war broke out between Lacedaemon and Persia, the remaining 6 000 mercenaries were recruited to help win back former Greek colonies from the Persians. At the end of this campaign, Xenophon left them. An act of brigandage in which Xenophon captured a wealthy Persian nobleman and his family near Pergamum during the Lacedaemonian War and the ransom paid for his recovery, left him with enough money to last for the rest of his life.

On his return to Greece, he served for a while with the Spartans against Athens and Thebes. He was banished from Athens and settled in Sparta, near Olympia and later in Corinth where he died some time after 355BC.

Xenophon's Anabasis is regarded as great a work as Caesar's De Bello Gallico, these two being probably the very first military histories.

All of the above was illustrated by slides of the modern scenery in the places visited by Xenophon. Iraq and Kurdistan were for security reasons not included but enough was shown to bring the story of the Anabasis to life.

A recurring theme of the presentation was the prolific presence of red poppies. Dr Sleigh explained that the "fields of scarlet" are indigenous to Asia Minor and not to north-western Europe, as many people would have thought! The flower is dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite and legend has it that it only grows where soldiers were slain and have bled, hence the bright-red colour of the poppy flower.

Cdr Mac Bisset thanked Dr Sleigh for his most interesting presentation and praised the excellence of his photographs. He urged Dr Sleigh to consider turning his talk into a programme for the History Channel before presenting him with the customary gift.


We are happy to report that Brig-Gen Dick Lord is making excellent progress and well on the mend, being already up and about. On behalf of our members and the Society we wish him a speedy and full recovery.

Members, who have still not paid their subscriptions for the current financial, are reminded to do so without avail. Please contact our Honorary Treasurer, Bob Buser, if you any queries.


The Cape Town Branch's Annual General Meeting was held on the 14th of April. The committee was re-elected en bloc. The chairman, Johan van den Berg, wishes to thank members for the trust and support shown through the year and undertake on behalf of the committee members to uphold that trust and serve the members to the best of their abilities.


At the meeting the chairman referred to the fact that the book on which the evening's talk was based, Anabasis by Xenophon, is being regarded as one of the ten best war memoirs ever written. He undertook to provide a copy of the list with the next newsletter, which follows below:

The Ten Best War Memoirs
Anabasis (Greece, third century B.C.)by Xenophon
Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (Rome, 53?-44 B.C.) and
Commentaries on the Civil War (45 B.C.) by Julius Caesar
The Jewish War (Rome, first century A.D.) by Flavius Josephus
Personal Memoirs (United States, 1885) by Ulysses S. Grant
Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Stormtroop Officer on the Western Front (Germany, 1920) by Ernst Junger
A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography (England, 1933) by Guy Chapman
Some Desperate Glory: The Diary of a Young Officer, 1917 (England, 1981) by Edwin Campion Vaughan
Alamein to Zem-Zem (England, 1946) by Keith Douglas
With the Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (United States, 1981) by E. B. Sledge
Dispatches (United States, 1968) by Michael Herr

Source: The Osprey Companion to Military History (ed. Robert Cowley & Geoffrey Parker), Osprey, London, 1996, p. 298.

The chairman did comment that the list lacks certain important memoirs - not only from a Southern African perspective, but also from an aviation and naval perspective.



12 MAY 2011: THE ALAMO
Slide-illustrated Talk by Stan Lambrick
The Battle of the Alamo (February 23 - March 6, 1836) was a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution. Following a 13-day siege, Mexican troops under President General Antonio López de Santa Anna launched an assault on the Alamo Mission near San Antonio de Béxar (modern-day San Antonio, Texas). All but one of the Texian defenders were killed, which included such famous names as Jim Bowie and Davey Crockett amongst the fatalities. Santa Anna's perceived cruelty during the battle inspired many Texians to join the Texian Army. Seeking to revenge the wanton slaughter of the Alamo's survivors, the Texians defeated the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836, ending the revolution. The 175th anniversary of the ending of the siege was commemorated in March.

by Stephan Fourie
Members will recall that Stephan Fourie gave a number of interesting talks about his service and experiences in one of the Special Services Battalions - the armoured car units of the SADF, before and during Operation Savannah in 1975-76, in Angola. Not well-known, however, is that he subsequently served in the Armoured Car Regiment of the Rhodesian Army, before further deployment in a different and well-known counter-insurgency unit until the elections in 1980. Known for his descriptive, tell-it-as-it-was style, this surely is one lecture not to missed!

by Alan Mountain
The talk is the second delivery in a continuing series on the rise and fall of the Zulu Empire by fellow-member Alan Mountain. The death of Dingane in 1840 signalled the end of Zulu imperialism and the entry of Boer and English imperial involvement in Zulu affairs. Mpande, the third half-brother to become king in the House of Zulu, gained the Zulu throne with the help of Boer allies. Although initially considered to be an amiable oaf and therefore escaped death at the hands of his paranoid half-brother, Dingane, he proved to be a shrewd negotiator and in the turbulent politics of the times he managed to hold the Zulu kingdom together for 33 years. His eldest son, Cetshwayo, succeeded him to the Zulu throne after a very bloody succession battle with Mpande's favoured son, Mbuyazi. It was Cetshwayo who Sir Bartle Frere, the British High Commissioner in South Africa and Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in South Africa aimed his aggression in his quest to establish a Confederation of South African States and which resulted in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. While Sir Bartle ultimately won on the battlefield, he failed to settle the resulting turbulence in Zululand which eventually culminated in the Zulu Civil War in 1884. As Alan Mountain is known for his masterful and professional blending of video and audio input into his talks, this should prove to be one of the highlights of this year's programme.


1 In Greek "Kiros".
2 Artaxerxes was the throne name of several Achaemenid rulers of the 1st Persian Empire (pronounced arta-shah-shah and means "king of kings"): Artaxerxes I of Persia, Artaxerxes I Longimanus, ruled from 465-424 BC, son and successor of Xerxes I; Artaxerxes II of Persia, Artaxerxes II Memnon, ruled from 404-358 BC, son and successor of Darius II, and Artaxerxes III of Persia, Artaxerxes III Ochus, ruled from 358-338 BC, son and successor of Artaxerxes II.
3 An unruly nation occupying an inaccessible area, difficult to subjugate, even by the Persian Empire.
4 A road network the Persians established to tie the empire together. The most famous of these was the King's Highway, which stretched 2 683km (1 677 miles) from the Persian capital of Susa to Sardis in Asia Minor. The highway had patrols against bandits, relay stations with fresh horses for the royal messengers, and 111 inns for travellers, placed about one day's journey apart from each other. Although these roads helped trade and travel, their main priority was for the relay riders who could carry a message from Sardis to the king in Susa within seven days, an amazing speed for back then. As Herodotus described these riders: "Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stops in the quickest possible time - neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness."
5 The king of Phrygia.
6 The famous Berlin-Baghdad railway, long a thorn in the side of Anglo-French oil interests and economic hegemony in the region, was one of the first targets that were destroyed when the coalition forces invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. It can only be imagined that the condition of the roads must have deteriorated much in eight year's time.
7 Battle of Cunaxa, 401BC: Located about 70km north of the ancient Babylon and about equidistant to the south of the modern-day Baghdad, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
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