South African Military History Society

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It is both interesting and gratifying to see that the monthly attendance figures at the lectures remain consistently high. For the February meeting, Chairman Ivor Little was able to welcome 86 members and visitors who had turned out to listen to the two guest speakers.

After the usual monthly notices, the Chairman asked Bob Smith to come forward and tell the members present about the forthcoming tour on 10 March. This will be led by the well-known tour guide, Felicia Fourie, and will encompass visits to little-known and not readily accessible historical sites in Pretoria Central. For further details please contact Bob on 083-858-6616.

Next up was Colin Dean to encourage all members to complete their ballot forms for the best speakers of the year 2011. These items of business concluded, Ivor then introduced the curtain-raiser speaker. This was fellow member and keen amateur military historian, Colin Harris. Colin has developed a keen interest in the US Civil War and the title of his talk was thus "The American Civil War on Water - Introduction to the Naval Aspect".

Using good old-fashioned transparencies to illustrate his talk, Colin started with the naval bombardment of Fort Sumter as the opening phase of the US Civil War. It had readily become apparent to the planners of the war on both sides that, because of the important role water transport played in the economy of the time, some sort of riverine warfare would be inevitable. It was also very apparent that the Southern states, or Confederacy, were dependent on sea-going trade with the outside world to survive. Thus it would fall to the North to have to blockade the Confederate coastline and to take control of the vast Mississippi-Ohio River system. It was equally incumbent upon the South to prevent this and to employ all means possible to avoid or break any proposed blockade.

The North came up with a so-called "Anaconda Plan", i.e. to emulate the snake by encircling and slowly crushing the Confederacy. This was easier said than done as at the outbreak of the war the Federal (North) Navy had only 45 ships immediately available out of a total strength of 90. The Confederacy had no Navy at all. Both sides set about redressing this shortage and within a remarkably short period of time built up quite imposing forces.

To implement the Anaconda Plan, the first step was to gain control of the rivers. Minor actions between converted and hastily armed river boats took place but the Union (Federal) Forces gained the upper hand technically when a few talented individuals put forward plans for effective fighting vessels, which resulted in a class of gunboats known as the "City class". Also known as "Pooke's Turtles" they were designed by Samuel A Pooke. They were of 512 tonnes, shallow drafted and were heavily armed iron-clad ships. Seven were built and brought into service with the Western Gunboat Flotilla and proved highly effective.

Under the command of a naval officer by the name of Andrew H Foote, the flotilla served under Ulysses S Grant and operated on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. The Confederates were driven out of Kentucky; Forts Henry and Donelson were attacked; Nashville captured and the squadron moved on down the Mississippi to Memphis.

After a series of spirited naval battles, in which the ram was re-introduced to naval warfare, Memphis fell and the Union forces moved on down river to Vicksburg. The Anaconda was slowly tightening its grip. On the seaward side of the Confederacy, the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico, the blockade also started to bite. The offshore islands of North Carolina and the inlets around Cape Hatteras were taken, as was Ship Island at the mouth of the Mississippi. With this latter position as a base, the Union ships, under Admiral Farragut, were able to force their way upstream on the river, taking New Orleans and then joining up with the river flotilla at Vicksburg. The Confederacy was now completely cut off from the rest of the continent on its landward side. More and more ships were employed on the ocean blockade and, in a last throw of the dice, the Confederacy started using commerce raiders such as the well-known Alabama. They also commissioned the CSS Virginia, better known to history as the ironclad Merrimac, her original name. In a memorable battle, she was sent out to clear the Union fleet from Hampton Roads but encountered the Union USS Monitor, an iron clad described as a "cheese box on a raft". The cheese box prevailed and set the stage for an entirely new era of turret-gunned warships. Thereafter the blockade became almost impregnable and the throttled Confederacy slowly collapsed.

After a brief question period, the Chairman then introduced the next speaker. This was Judge John Myburgh, SC, who, after a distinguished legal and academic career, moved into the world of banking and then commerce. At the moment he is on the legal team of the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link and a keen amateur historian, with a particular interest in World War I.

The subject of John's talk was "All Quiet on the Western Front - The First World War in Words and Numbers". He started by comparing the two World Wars of the 20th Century, pointing out that, although we view World War I as an horrific conflict, World War II was in fact a far greater calamity, in terms of human lives. Approximately 57.9 million people lost their lives in World War II, nine million more than died in World War I, despite the scenes of carnage we have come accustomed to from that conflict.

The outcome of World War I, and more particularly the vengeful Treaty of Versailles, linked the two wars and that Treaty and its effect on the German nation was one of the key factors leading up to World War II.

With that as a background, John then back-tracked to 1929 to explain that the title of his lecture was also the title of that great anti-war novel, written by Erich Marie Remarque, a book which had sold millions of copies; is still in print and has also been filmed. It was his intention to use quotes from this book, plus extracts from the famous war poets of the time and the actual filmed recollections of those who took part in the trench warfare of World War I, to bring home the horrors of trench warfare to the audience.

The conditions were appalling. John recounted what it was like to deal with trench foot, mud, frogs, slugs, rats, fleas, the stench of decomposing bodies and human excrement, lice and, in the case of Gallipoli, flies. Quoting from Remarque's book, the poet Wilfred Owen and others, John moved on to the use of poison gas, how it was used and its effect on humans and the environment. The effects of artillery shrapnel were equally horrendous. Thousands of men were permanently maimed or disfigured by constant barrages and shelling and frontal attacks in the face of this and machine-gun fire, leaving thousands of war widows in the countries involved and giving rise to the vast cemeteries we see today in Europe and other fields of action. John closed by giving statistics to illustrate this point and by quoting from Rupert Brooke and Rudyard Kipling on the pointlessness of it all.

This was a most harrowing but also deeply moving lecture.

Bob Smith then came forward and thanked both speakers, after which the meeting was closed and the audience moved out for tea on the terrace.

Ivor Little
Chairman and Scribe.

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Annual Prizes in Johannesburg

Please would members who attended the Johannesburg lectures vote for the best lecture in 2011 by
e-mailing Colin Dean at (preferred method) OR
completing the form on the web-site OR
filling one in at the lecture meetings on 8 February or 9 March OR
printing out and completing the form in this newsletter
and posting it to PO Box 59227 Kengray 2100
or fax it to 086 617 8002.

The prizewinners will be announced at the AGM in April.

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This serves as notice that the 46th AGM of the Society will take place in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the SA National Museum of Military History at 20h00 on Thursday 12th April 2012.

The Agenda will include:

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Contact details

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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