South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 11 April 2013 was Dr James Tunnicliffe, whose topic was the Battle of the Somme. He introduced his illustrated talk by explaining that he was an ardent Francophile and frequently visits France, where he particularly enjoys the magnificent buildings, beautiful countryside, excellent wines and the war memorials of the First World War of 1914 - 1918. All of these were depicted in photographic form, including a field of poppies. This symbol of remembrance of the war dead, which is common to all Commonwealth countries, he first encountered in his youth in England.

He showed us a family photograph of himself as baby with his parents and his great uncle Harry, who had assumed the role of his grandfather after the untimely passing of the latter. His great uncle had never spoken about the Great War and his part in this and it was only after his death that the family discovered that he had joined up in 1917 and had been commissioned in the South Wales Borderers. Whilst serving in France, his gallantry had earned him an MC and Bar and a 'Mentioned in Dispatches'. This prompted Dr Tunnicliffe to visit the area of the Western Front and to find out more about the First World War battlefields.

Our speaker then explained that he is a vascular surgeon and that this had led him to find out as much as he could about the medical arrangements in the British Army during the "Great War". He described the advances made in vascular surgery prior to the First World War and the pioneering work done by Professor Alexis Carell, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his pioneering work in joining damaged blood vessels in 1912 and the work done in this field during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 - 1902. By the time the First World War started, damaged arteries could be joined and repaired.

In the war's initial stages, operations were fluid and mobile but, after the Battle of the Marne in 1914, the front from Ostend to Verdun (some 112 km/70 miles) and down to the Swiss border had stabilized and trench warfare had begun. Attacks resulted in heavy casualties on both sides and he war was static. Advances and retreats were measured in yards, not miles.

Dr Tunnicliffe described the Battle of the Somme as a complete disaster with failed and incompetent leadership which resulted in the worst casualties in the history of the British Army. The British casualties were 59 800 on the first day, of which 21 392 were killed, died of wounds or missing (the majority within the first hour of the start of the assault), 34 493 wounded and 585 prisoners of war. German losses for the first day are not known. The battle started on 1 July 1916 and ended on 18 November 1916. Attacks were always preceded by massive artillery bombardments lasting in most cases for days. The cessation of the barrage meant that the time for the infantry attack had come. At this point the surviving German defenders would rush up from their shelters, man their machine guns and the slaughter would begin.

The war was static and the Germans had ample time to construct concrete shelters deep underground and proof against the heavy bombardment. In addition concrete pill boxes were built to house the machine guns. A few brave souls stayed in these as lookouts to warn their comrades of the approaching infantry. The British frowned upon using concrete to fortify their line as this was indicative of a lack of "offensive spirit", except in the area around Ypres in French and Belgian Flanders where the very high water table dictated more practical solutions.

The second battle of the Somme took place in 1918 and was the final advance to victory. Our speaker showed us recent photographs taken by him of Hawthorne Ridge, Arras Town Hall, "Y" Ravine, Serre Road and Martinpuich - almost a hundred years later the rolling countryside with its many gently-sloping hills and valleys has fully recovered its natural splendor of yesteryear.

The cost of the Great War was astronomical, both in lives lost and monetary terms - the "cash" cost was estimated at £1 000 000 per day. To form some idea of the cost in terms of today's monetary value, our speaker pointed out that a Rolls Royce car then cost 74 Pounds Sterling!

In detailing the background and reasons for the costly attritional battle of the Somme, Dr Tunnicliffe explained that the French city of Verdun and its surrounding area had for centuries been a natural invasion route which over time was turned into a key French fortified area and command post - as again happened in WW I. In February 1916, while both the French and British were planning major attacks on the German front, the Germans launched a massive offensive against Verdun with the aim to wear the French down through pure attrition in terms of battlefield casualties. The French poured in reinforcements to defend Verdun. To alleviate the pressure on Verdun, both the British and French planned a massive offensive against the German positions in the Somme area, to be launched on 25 June 1916, so as to draw German troops and effort away from the Verdun sector.

Bad weather resulted in the date being postponed until 1 July 1916, because of heavy rain. After the week-long Allied bombardment the surface area was churned up and what vegetation there was, virtually non-existent. The Somme region is known for its chalky subsoil and rich topsoil - what few military planners on the British side realized is that the powdery chalk and topsoil that resulted from the extended artillery barrage, when combined with ample rain, created some of the most tenacious and cloying mud ever experienced in any British military campaign. Those soldiers who fought both on the Somme and in and around Ypres and experienced the muddy conditions of both, view the mud of the Somme without a doubt the worst experience of the two.

The British armies in France were now commanded by General Sir Douglas Haig, an inaccessible, strong-willed and stubborn man who refused to listen to his advisors. Of his immediate subordinate army commanders, General Sir Henry Rawlinson commanded the 4th Army which was to launch the attack. He was the exact opposite of his superior in that he was not a person of forceful character and easily swayed by his advisors. The 6th French Army was on his right flank along the Somme River and the left flank was covered by General Sir Edward Allenby's 3rd Army. General Sir Hubert Gough commanded the Reserve Army.

Prior to the battle a number of tunnels had been dug from the British line and ending under the German frontline. These tunnels were packed with high explosives (Ammonal) due to be exploded when the bombardment stopped with the purpose of eliminating specific strong points in the Germen defensive line as well as to create confusion amongst the German defenders. Coal miners serving in the Royal Engineers were particularly useful and the found the soft chalky soil easy going compared to the hard toil in the British coal mines that they were used to. It was an extremely hazardous undertaking as the Germans, of course, did not sit passively by but countermined, and, where and when the opposing tunnels met, bloody underground battles were fought between the opposing sappers to gain control of the tunnels. Stethoscopes were often used to listen for any signs of enemy miners in an effort to out-manoeuvre and counter them in turn. As said, the ground was soft, white and chalky so the spoil had to be removed and disposed of carefully so as to hide any signs of mining activity from the omnipresent enemy observation and reconnaissance flights over the frontline. Of the twenty-one mines dug for the Battle of the Somme, ten were exploded on the first day. Two failed to go off, of which one was set off by a lightning strike in 1959 and the particulars of the whereabouts of the remaining mine is lost to this day - waiting...

Dr Tunnicliffe showed us a photograph of the famous Lochnagar crater which was one of the two mines dug on either side of La Boisselle. The tunnel was 16m/50 feet underground and the mine chamber was packed with 28 000kg/60 000 pounds of ammonal. When it exploded, the explosion left a crater 30m/90 yards across (It is now owned by an Englishman and forms a salient part of the annual commemorative events to honour the memory of the fallen). Soil from the explosions rained down on the troops going over the top on 1 July 1916, causing injuries amongst the attacking troops, some fatally. The plan was for the advancing British troops to occupy the furthermost lip of the newly-formed crater and use it as a temporary parapet to defend the gains. It was always a race between the British and Germans to occupy the craters, and, as in the case of the Somme, the Germans were quick to react and emerge from their deep shelters, set up their deadly machine-guns and stop the enemy dead in their tracks while advancing over open ground.

The battle commenced with a seven-day non-stop artillery bombardment by a huge force of heavy, medium and field guns. 1 430 guns were used, at one field gun per 17 yards and one heavy/medium gun every 52 yards. 1 508 652 shells were fired at the rate of 25 shells per second. Thirty percent of the shells were duds, leaving an iron harvest which farmers to this day continue to collect and leave by the roadsides for the French army's bomb disposal squads to collect and deal with - a common sight in the Somme during the planting season. In Picardy 105 tons of shells were recovered during a recent season. At the time of the battle the discarded shell casings were collected and returned to England to be melted down and recycled.

The barrage ceased 21 minutes before the infantry were due to launch their attack - Zero Hour. The Germans were thus given enough time to come out of their well-prepared and reinforced underground shelters and man their large number of machine guns.

On 1 July 1916, the infantry were roused from their sleep at 0300, a meal was served and the men prepared for action. When the barrage stopped, they assembled in the trenches and, at zero hour, whistles were blown and the men scaled the ladders and advanced into the open ground leading to the enemy trenches and a hail of machine gun fire. The German Army's standard machine gun in WW I was the Maschinengewehr 08, or MG 08, (an adaptation of Sir Hiram Maxim's highly successful belt-fed, water-cooled machine-gun adopted by many countries, including Great Britain, in this particular instance, as the Vickers Machine-Gun, fondly remembered by Commonwealth troops as the "Grand Old Man of No-Man's Land"). It was a crew-served weapon requiring four men to move the gun on its sledge mount, along with its water cans for cooling and ammunition boxes. The machine-guns did their grisly work very well and our speaker noted that most of the wounds suffered during this first morning of the battle were to the head and neck.

The ground to be covered by the British infantrymen had been churned up by the huge number of shells and was soggy from the rain. The British infantrymen were loaded down with 27kg/60 pounds of equipment and their weapons and were unable to advance quickly. The bombardment had not destroyed the enemy's barbed wire as expected, thus impeding the advance even more, and the result was a massacre with the German machine guns mowing down the lines of advancing infantry.

Our speaker then discussed Kitchener's New Army, raised in 1916 in a wave of patriotism with huge numbers of men joining up. Fifteen percent of them were under-age and many were under-nourished with an average height of 1,7m/5 foot 7 inches and a weight of 9 stone (57kg/126 pounds). The period they spent in basic training was less than six weeks, no advanced training being given before they headed for France. To put it in layman's terms, they were cannon fodder, pure and simple. A large part of the British army on the Somme was made up of New Army troops.

Dr Tunnicliffe described the wounds inflicted by high velocity gunshots, bomb shards and splinters, shrapnel and blast. But that was not the only hazards they faced. He explained that infantrymen standing in waterlogged trenches for long periods of time without adequate care and access to dry footwear, would inevitably suffer damage to the soft tissue of their feet and so develop the scourge of soldiers fighting in wet and muddy conditions -the dreaded disease of trench-feet.

He described the horrors of poison gas, introduced by the Germans at Ypres in 1915 and used by the Allies after that. Poison gas usage was a contravention of the agreement signed at the Hague conference in 1907. The first German gas attacks left a large gap in the Allied line but the German advance was halted by British and Canadian troops. The early gasses used were chlorine and phosgene, which could cause pulmonary lesions. The stronger phosgene could render a soldier helpless and victims died terrible deaths by suffocation. Blindness was common. Gas masks were developed quickly, the first ones being soaked in lime. The use of gas was described by the noted WW I historian, Lyn MacDonald, as "a deadliness that was unsurpassed in human experience".

Our speaker explained that each unit in the attack had 22 stretcher-bearers and each man was issued with four field dressings. The wounded were carried by stretcher-bearers to a dressing station under fire and there they were given first aid. From there they moved to a casualty clearing station, a stationery hospital and from there to a hospital in the UK. Movement from the stationary hospital was usually by barge on the many canals or on one of the many light railways on trolleys drawn by mules. He described the casualty clearing stations as dark and cramped places where life-saving surgery was carried out in less than sanitary conditions and under fire from enemy guns.

The wounded had suffered terribly on their way from the firing line and very often amputation was the only way to save a life. Gas gangrene and infections were common and a photograph of a pile of amputated limbs served as a grim reminder of what happened in these places. The ever-prevalent mud made it impossible to use horse-drawn or motor ambulances in many places. Mobile operating theatres and hospital trains or barges, heated by coal-fired stoves, were used where possible. Transport by motor or mule-drawn ambulance on the very poor roads caused great suffering to the wounded.

Dr Tunnicliffe then discussed the causes of wounds inflicted on the British infantry on 1 July 1916. Wounds were attributed to violent action in the following ratio: High explosives - 3 867 (35.8%); shrapnel - 2 192 (19.9%); bullets - 2 933 (27.2%), and hand grenades and bayonets -226 wounds. Wounds due to explosives (shock wave and/or bomb shards) or shrapnel caused the most appalling wounds.

Battle casualties who were unlikely to recover were made as comfortable as possible and placed together in the same tent and left to die. Although blood transfusion techniques had been developed before the war, it was American doctors sent as volunteers to France who, in 1915, discovered how to prevent the blood from clotting. This saved many poor souls who otherwise would have died.

Dr Tunnicliffe also mentioned the prevalence of syphilis among the troops and quoted the saying used at the time - "one night in the arms of Venus and a lifetime with Mercury" - referring to the treatment used at the time which brought about another form of suffering on some the unfortunate patients so treated.

Between October 1918 and January 1919 Spanish influenza claimed the lives of some 21 million people worldwide, greatly adding to misery caused by the First World War. Many servicemen were included in this number.

British casualties during WW I were 709 617 dead and missing, but more distressing were the number of wounded - 6.2 million. This was a huge number and had a tremendous long-term effect on the war-weary societies affected by WW I, due to the concomitant socio-economic and political turmoil it inevitably brought about, as well as stagnating population growth.

A plaque in Westminster Abbey honours the memory of the one million dead of the British Empire who fell in World War One.

Dr Tunnicliffe then discussed the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, established by Royal Charter on 21 May 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission at the suggestion of HRH the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor. An extremely talented team was responsible for the early work of the Commission. This included Maj Gen Sir Fabian Ware, Mr Rudyard Kipling and the architects Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker. Kipling's son John, who was an officer in the Irish Guards, was one of the missing.

Every inscription approved for use by the Commission had been submitted in its original or final wording by Rudyard Kipling. The moving epitaph for unknown soldiers - "Known unto God" - was particularly apt for the purpose it serves.

Our speaker displayed many photographs of the splendid memorials to the fallen found all over the region of the Somme, all beautifully maintained, and pointed out that each cemetery has two central memorials - the Cross of Sacrifice and the Stone of Remembrance.. The headstones are all alike with no distinction made for rank. At the suggestion of Sir Frederick Kenyon, then Director of the British Museum, the design of the cemeteries was given to young architects who had served in the war and supervised by the Commission's architects.

The missing of Flanders are honoured at the Menin Gate at Ypres, which lists the names of 54 896 officers and men who died in the Ypres Salient. Other war memorials and cemeteries shown, included Thiepval (to the British and South African missing), all the larger Commonwealth participants, such the Delville Wood memorial which commemorates the South African fallen of the Great War, the Australian memorial at Poziéres, as well the Canadian memorials at Beaumont Hamel and Vimy Ridge. The military museum at Delville Wood was the first war museum on the Somme battlefield when it was built.

Dr Tunnicliffe explained that First World War soldiers wore only one identity patch made of leather and there were no dog tags (identity discs) as there were in the Second World War and thereafter. He explained how war cemeteries were established and the different categories that exist: a) Battlefield cemeteries where the dead were buried where they fell, immediately after the battle, normally reflecting a unitary character (the Devonshire Regiment's cemetery where the dead - men and officers - are buried together in a trench, their memorial reading "they held the trench - they hold it still" - is probably the best example); b) "Comrades' cemeteries" to the rear of the frontline where a particular unit buried its dead resulting from their tour of duty in "quiet times"; c) Communal cemeteries in or adjacent to existing French civilian cemeteries - normally the first graves in a particular sector of the front line; d) Cemeteries located where main dressing stations or casualty clearing stations were established - these normally consist of the graves of the wounded who did not survive and tend to represent a wide range of units, and e) Concentration cemeteries that were newly established after the war to accommodate the graves of smaller front line cemeteries that were exhumed to consolidate the number of cemeteries, as well as to accommodate the remains of the bodies still found almost on an annual basis.

He also spoke about German cemeteries and mentioned that they are far fewer in number and reflect more the nature of the British concentration cemeteries in that a number of German wartime cemeteries were consolidated post-war. These have metal or stone crosses and more often than not represent one or more bodies buried under each cross, or even a communal grave. The French cemeteries resemble the British ones but are not laid out with the same military precision. We were shown pictures of these various types of cemeteries - the austere functionality and almost consecrated silence often only broken by the sounds of nature, tends to remind why they are also known as the "silent cities".

At the end of his pilgrimage to the British War Cemeteries in France and Belgium in 1922, King George V said "in the course of my pilgrimage I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than these massed multitudes of silent witnesses to the desolation of war".

Cdr Bisset thanked Dr Tunnicliffe for his excellent talk and hoped that it would encourage those present who have not visited the Western Front battlefields to do so. He said the Society was particularly grateful to have had such an interesting talk to continue our series of talks to commemorate the coming centenary of the First World War, It was also the first-ever talk presented to the Cape Town branch that covered the medical aspects of that particular conflict. He then presented Dr Tunnicliffe with the customary gift.


We welcome Dr Desmond Martin who joined the branch recently and hope to see him at our future lectures.

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Please note that subscriptions are now due. Please let us have your remittance if you have not already paid for this current year. Ignore this note if you have already paid.

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The following members have been elected/re-elected to manage the affairs of the Cape Town Branch:

Chairman: Mr Johan van den Berg
Vice-chairman: To be elected in-committee
Secretary: Mr Ray Hattingh
Treasurer/Asst. Scribe: Mr Bob Buser
Scribe: Cdr Mac Bisset
Member with portfolio: Mr Allan Mountain
Member without portfolio: Mr Rob Adams (newly elected)

We congratulate the incumbent members upon their election/re-election and wish them well in managing the branch activities for 2013.

On behalf of our branch we also would like to extend collegial felicitations to the committee members of the Gauteng, Kwazulu-Natal and Eastern Cape branches.

9 MAY 2013: THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG by Stan Lambrick

The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the American Civil War. After this battle which was the largest ever fought on American soil, the Confederate hopes of establishing a separate nation dwindled. After those momentous three days - 1st to 3rd July, 1863 - the Southern cause went into decline. Gettysburg would forever be known as the "High Tide of the Confederacy".

13 JUNE 2013: BATTLE OF BLAAUWBERG 1806 by Ian van Oordt
The Battle of Blaauwberg is probably one of the most important battles fought in South Africa, yet so few know about it. Some can describe how the battle was fought but do not know exactly where it was fought. Analysing the known existing maps plus a new one found in the archives of England, studying written text as well as cannon performance and finally walking the battlefield by foot, have advanced new theories on where and how the battle was fought. An illustrated talk presenting the new theories on the battle, battle lines and artillery positions.


ISLANDS AT WAR: ROBBEN ISLAND 1939-45 by Col Lionel Crook

Robben Island, lying at the entrance to Table Bay, was one of the last defensive sites to be developed in the long history of coast artillery in South Africa, and in the Peninsula area in particular. From 1940, positioned at the forefront of the Table Bay defences, it was converted into a veritable fortress. To do justice in documenting the role that the island played, it is also necessary to describe the other batteries of the defences of the Cape Peninsula. Not well-known is the fact that the Cape Peninsula was one of the most heavily defended coastal zones during World War Two. Currently Robben Island boasts the only semi-fully restored 9.2in coastal gun in the southern hemisphere and possibly in the world.
PAPERBACK, BOARDS, A4-Format, illustr., 344 pp., R150,00


The Umvoti Mounted Rifles Comrades Association is proud to announce their new unit history that was 220 years in the making. The Umvoti Mounted Rifles is one of the oldest Regiments in the South Africa National Defence Force. It will turn 150 years old on 16 May 2014. The regiment fought gallantly and with honour in the South African (Zulu) War of 1879; The South Africa (Anglo Boer) War of 1899 -1902; Natal (Bambata) Rebellion of 1906; South West Africa (First World War) 1914-1915 and Gibbon, Western Desert (Second World War) 1941-1943. The Regiment stands proud as the only active Armoured Car Regiment in KwaZulu-Natal.
HARD COVER, DUST JACKET, 764 pp., A4 Format, Illustr., RRP R500,00


One of the most controversial SA historical topics is the Great Trek, the 1836 Boer exodus from the Cape Colony. Traditionally writers on the subject have covered the event from a perspective not only of 'white history' but predominantly of 'Afrikaner history'. It has always been seen as 'an Afrikaner event'. It was anything but. As the Great Trek and the events leading up to it involved every section of the population-Zulu, Sotho, Ndebele, Xhosa, Khoisan, Khoikhoi, Coloured, British, English-speaking South African and Boer-it is time to portray the trek in that light, in the context of a unbiased, modern South Africa. Like most history the dots are all connected; it is impossible to separate the Great Trek from events which took place as far back as the Portuguese explorers because those early events shaped the backdrop to the causes of the Great Trek. Most writers have specialized in the trek itself whereas Binckes has adopted a broader approach that studies the impact of the earlier white incursions and migrations-Portuguese, Dutch, French and British-on southern Africa, to create a better understanding of the trek and its causes. Drawing heavily on eyewitness accounts wherever possible, he has consolidated these with the perspectives of leading historians, the final product being an objective and comprehensive record of one of the seminal events in South African history. This book shows that the Afrikaner was, is, and always will be, an important player in South African society, but it shows him as part of a bigger picture. The author distances himself from the noble characters stereotyped for the past two centuries and portrays them in their true light: wonderful, courageous people with human feelings, strengths and failings.
TRADE PAPERBACK, 80 Illustr., 584 pp., R320,00

Persons interested in any of the books can contact either the chairman, scribe or treasurer, who can be of assistance.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /