South African Military History Society

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The November meeting attracted a record attendance of 92 members and guests and had the added attractions of a Remembrance Day poppy sale by members of the South African Legion, as well as the resumption of the popular book sales by Peter and Margaret Rush.

The Chairlady, Marjorie Dean, opened the meeting by calling for a minute's silence for Remembrance Day and then giving feedback on the two extremely successful outings, one to the Kedar Country Lodge and the other to the hamlet of Val. This done, she introduced the curtain-raiser speaker for the evening, well-known speaker and member Terry Leaver who spoke on "Major Plumbe's Companion".

Terry started by drawing attention to some of the lonely and deserted resting places of British troops killed in the Boer War.

Illustrating his talk with slides, he gave a trio of examples, i.e. the grave of Lt G V W Clowes of the Gordon Highlanders, who is buried between Clanwilliam and Calvinia, off the road to Wupperthal; Lt Col O C Hanny, buried at Paardeberg; and Sgt Major Child, buried at Ntabanyama. The focus of his talk, however, was the grave of a Major Plumbe of the Royal Marine Infantry, killed at the Battle of Graspan on 25 November 1899.

Using slides of the battlefield as it is today, Terry told how he, Professor John Shear and Steve Lunderstedt set off to find Plumbe's grave somewhere between Kimberley and Hopetown. Plumbe was a member of the Naval Brigade drawn from the crew of HM Ships Doris, Monarch and Powerful which encountered a Boer force under General Beyers at Graspan, also known as Rooilaagte. Advancing over open ground, with no cover at all, the British force encountered devastating fire and the advance became suicidal and was abandoned. Major Plumbe lost his life in this attack and was buried on the spot. Following the main road to the Orange River, our intrepid trio of historians found a dispersed heap of stones which was once a cairn marking Plumbe's grave.

Plumbe had a companion, a terrier named "Duke of Wellington", but more affectionately known as "Spot" and after Major Plumbe was buried, Spot took up a vigil at the cairn in the tradition of "Greyfriar's Bobby" and refused to leave his master's grave until forcibly removed. History does not tell us what became of Spot but there is a headstone commemorating Major Plumbe under a solitary wild olive tree, known locally as "de la Rey's Tree". A lonely grave indeed.

The main speaker for the evening was a visitor from the United Kingdom, Dr Anne Samson, who is an acknowledged expert on the East African campaign of World War I and an independent historian, author and educationalist.

Breaking away from her normal field of interest, Dr Samson's talk for the evening was "Kitchener of Khartoum", a new look at that controversial figure.

Horatio Kitchener, named after Lord Nelson, was born in County Listowell, Ireland, in 1850 and was home-schooled. In 1863 the family moved to Switzerland. On his mother's death his father re-married and moved to New Zealand, leaving the young Horatio at school in Switzerland. On completion of his schooling, Kitchener went into the Army and graduated from Woolwich Academy as an engineer officer. While awaiting appointment to his first regiment, Kitchener visited his father, then living in France, and became embroiled in the Franco-Prussian War, serving in the French Army as an ambulance man. On returning to the UK he was posted to Chatham for further engineering studies and, in 1873, attended field manoeuvres in Austria. After a study period in Hanover, he moved to Aldershot as an instructor. In 1874 he took up a surveying assignment in Palestine, adding Arabic to his French and German linguistic accomplishments. He also served in Cyprus and Anatolia, before moving to Egypt to train Egyptian cavalrymen. During his leaves he also travelled to Bulgaria as an observer of the Russo-Turkish War. He also undertook a clandestine mission in Egypt, where his eyesight was damaged, leaving him with a permanent slight squint.

His remarkable career continued and, in 1885, he was involved in action in Zanzibar and Suekin on the Red Sea. During this period he was wounded in the face and returned to England for treatment and recuperation. Although little known to his fellow officers, he climbed steadily up the Army List and was appointed an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. On promotion to Colonel in 1888 he took command of the 1st Sudanese Brigade, then commanded the Egyptian Police and, in 1892, became Sirdar (Commander in Chief) of the Egyptian Army. During this time he finally avenged the death of General Gordon by defeating the Dervishes at Omdurman and ensured British supremacy in the area by facing down the French at Fashode.

In 1899, he was recalled from Cairo and sent out to South Africa, as second-in-command with Lord Roberts, over the heads of 43 then more senior officers. When Roberts returned to England in 1900 Kitchener was left as Commander-in-Chief until the conclusion of the Anglo-Boer War in 1901, after which he took up the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. This was followed by a number of diplomatic posts in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China and Egypt.

In 1914, he was on leave in England and was appointed Secretary of State for War, a position he was holding when he set off for Russia on 6 June 1916 aboard HMS Hampshire and was lost at sea when that ship struck a mine.

During this talk, Dr Samson also touched on the various aspects of this man's complicated character. His ability as a linguist; his love of orchids; his undoubted excellence as an administrator and financial manager; his sensitivity towards his men and his love of animals were all facets of an odd personality. He was also remarkably forward thinking in his military capacity and is believed to be the first soldier to fly in an aeroplane, pushing for their use in WWI and also being instrumental in the introduction of the tank.

Kitchener was spartan in his diet, drank very little and was extremely attractive to women, though he never married. For all this, however, he is chiefly remembered for the famous World War I poster "Your Country Needs You".

At the conclusion of this most interesting talk, Anne was deluged with a spate of questions, as befitted the controversial role this man had played in South African history. Anne handled this with aplomb but before the session could get out of hand, the Chairlady interceded and called on Committee Member Bob Smith to thank both speakers. She then adjourned the meeting for tea.

Ivor Little


The committee is pleased to announce that, due to the current economic situation, the subscriptions will not be increased for 2013. The subscriptions will thus remain:
R215 for single and R230 for family (two-person) membership
Invoices will be posted to members on the mailing list during January 2013.


The Scribe, Chairlady and Committee extend happy holiday greetings to all Society members and their families. To those who are Christians, may this be a truly blessed time centred on the Reason for the Season.

For all who are travelling, please drive carefully.


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


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