South African Military History Society

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In the presence of an excellent turnout of members, the Chair, Mrs Marjorie Dean, opened the proceedings for the 48th AGM. Copies of the 47th AGM minutes, of Marjorie's Chairman's Report, of Joan Marsh's treasurer's report together with the Accounts for 2013, are available from Joan at the letterhead address.

Special thanks were extended to Captain Ivor and Mrs Anne Little on his retirement after ten years as Scribe of the Johannesburg newsletter; he had of course served on the committee and been Chairman for two years during that time, too. A certificate reflecting the granting of honorary life membership and a gift were presented to Ivor with flowers to Anne.

The presentation of prizes for 2013 lectures was done by Colin Dean, who thanked those who voted, before presenting certificate plus a token cash award to the winners.
The best Curtain-Raisers were:

  1. Bob Smith - Boer Life on St Helena
  2. Colin Dean - A Strange Naval Officer, A Cat and a Dog
  3. John Bleloch - The Lion of the West.

The best Main Lectures were:
  1. Nick Cowley - Uncle Sam's Songs of Strife
  2. Pierre du Toit - SMS Koningsberg and
  3. Terry Wilson The 1922 rebellion.

The Election of Chairman then took place and Malcolm King, the sole nominee, was duly elected. The current Committee was re-elected en bloc. The committee thus comprises
Colin Dean, Marjorie Dean, Jan-Willem Hoorweg, Peter James-Smith, Lyn Mantle, Joan Marsh, Hamish Paterson and David Scholtz under Malcolm's chairmanship.

Malcolm King then assumed the chair of the meeting and introduced our speaker, Robin Smith, who assured us that he was neither military nor academic but that he had chosen personalities involved in the Boer War who went on to high office in World War I . The title of the lecture had been amended from "Great War Generals who won their Spurs in the Anglo Boer War" to From the Anglo-Boer War to the Great War.

The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 had shown up flaws in almost every aspect of Britain's military system. Organisation, recruitment, equipment, training and tactics had all been found wanting. If a future national catastrophe were to be averted, the problems posed by the South African experience had to be solved, and solved quickly.

Anyone of general rank in the British Army in 1914 had likely spent time in South Africa during the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902. John French was Major-General when he arrived in South Africa and left as Lieutenant-General with two knighthoods. By 1914 he was Field-Marshal and Commander -in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France. Lieutenant-Colonel Horace Smith-Dorrien arrived in South Africa in December 1899. In April 1901 he was Adjutant-General in India and Major-General. He was promoted to General just before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

Field Marshal Lord Fredrick Roberts' British steamroller soon captured Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Pretoria, and by October 1900 there were only Boer guerrillas in the field. Pronouncing at a private dinner party in Durban that the war was 'practically over', he and his wife and daughter left for England.

Major-General Lord Herbert Kitchener had come to prominence after Omdurman in 1898. As Commander-in-Chief in South Africa he ended the Anglo Boer War but his methods caused the deaths of more civilians than combatants. From 1902-1909 Kitchener was in India and in 1914 Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War.

It was in South Africa that Major-General John French's reputation was made. Elandslaagte was French's first victory. Sixteen years later, after the battle of Loos, he wrote in a letter, "This is the anniversary of the Battle of Elandslaagte. It was the first battle in which I commanded. How well I remember it - it seems like yesterday." French did well in South Africa. He rode into Kimberley to lift the siege and met Cecil Rhodes. He captured Barberton and he was one of the few men that Kitchener had trusted to do a job on his own.

As Lieutenant-General, French moved into Aldershot and took command of l Corps and made the Corps into the army's main striking force. As Inspector-General, French gave painstaking attention to the performance of the army. He was on the side of the traditionalists in the debate about the role of cavalry. Free State Artillery Major Albrecht had said: "Why don't you teach your cavalry to shoot instead of trying to teach your infantry to ride?" In 1912 French became Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and in 1913, when he was 61, King George V made him a Field Marshal.

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, as a 20-year-old Subaltern of the 95th Foot, had a remarkable escape from Isandlwana in 1879. He saw action around Kimberley and at Paardeberg. In September 1901, French sent Roberts the names of officers who had done well in command of groups of columns. He listed eighteen, two of whom - Allenby and Haig - became Field-Marshals. Smith-Dorrien headed this list.

Smith-Dorrien succeeded Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief at Aldershot. He saw substantial improvements in the British Army's main base, new barracks were built and mess facilities improved. This may not have impressed Sir John French.

Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig and Smith-Dorrien both firmly believed in the improved methods of musketry training. The Commandant of the School of Musketry at Hythe, Colonel Charles Monro, had served in South Africa. The Musketry School was teaching only the mechanics of the rifle until, after the Boer War, the War Office appointed high fliers as Commandants. Monro single-mindedly made fire and movement the most important part of infantry training in tactics.

The British Army's standard rapid-fire musketry, 15 aimed shots per minute from every rifleman on the line, caused the Germans in 1914 to believe they were facing machine guns. It helped that the BEF had in their hands the Rifled Short Magazine Lee-Enfield or 303 as it was known. The Anglo Boer War experience taught that wide spacing on the battlefield was essential to survival.

The Anglo Boer War was a rude awakening for the Royal Artillery, encountering Boer guns from French and German sources that had a greater range than their own. In 1904 Ordnance QF 13-pounder and 18-pounder field guns were adopted for the RHA and RFA. Gunners were deterred by the problem posed for accuracy by the notion of guns firing from behind cover.

The Schlieffen plan called for the German Army to invade France, requiring their right wing to pass through Belgium. Austria's excuse to go to war with Serbia was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Interlocking secret alliances drew in Russia, Germany and France. Britain's ultimatum said that "His Majesty's Government feels bound to take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium." The British Expeditionary Force was simply too small to make a strategic contribution. Experience in South Africa had made it into a very different army from the one that was sent there. The soldiers of the BEF were hardy professionals, regimented in units with strong identities. Reporting to Field-Marshal Sir John French were the Cavalry GOC Edmund Allenby and I Corps GOC Lieutenant -General Sir Douglas Haig and II Corps Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson. All four were veterans of the Anglo Boer War. The French Commander-in-Chief, General Joseph Joffre and French formed favourable impressions of each other.

Grierson died of a heart attack on the train. French immediately requested that Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Plumer be sent but Kitchener insisted that Smith-Dorrien, recently promoted to General, be appointed to command of II Corps. The BEF moved forward from Mauberge to the town of Mons, a mining district. The German right hook through Belgium overwhelmed Lanrezac's French 5th Army and the German 1st Army of General Alexander von Kluck came face-to-face with the BEF, and Smith-Dorrien's II Corps was heavily engaged at Le Cateau. Disengagement in the face of the enemy was impossible. He decided that "Gentlemen we will stand and fight." Smith-Dorrien's decision to turn and face a superior enemy succeeded in preventing the destruction of the BEF.The BEF retired in good order back to the Marne River, east of Paris. Sir John French was highly dispirited and it needed a visit from Kitchener, in his Field-Marshal's uniform, to order him not to retreat further. The BEF thus took its part in the miracle of the Marne.

French and Smith-Dorrien did not work well together and their relationship deteriorated steadily. Smith-Dorrien said things went smoothly until February 1915, but his letter to French on 6th May contained the phrase "I have more to fear from the rear than in front." He was replaced by Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Plumer. Smith-Dorrien was appointed commander of the British forces in East Africa. He wished to meet first with Smuts and van Deventer in Cape Town before taking command. He took ill on the voyage to South Africa and had a long convalescence in Cecil Rhodes's cottage in Muizenberg. Smith-Dorrien returned to England, was not again on active service and died as a result of a car accident at the age of 72 in 1930.

After this fascinating lecture which was wonderfully illustrated with copies of photos and portraits of the men concerned, Malcolm declared the meeting closed.

Pat Henning


The boxed BBC-produced set was on display at the April meeting - raffle tickets will cost R20 each or R50 for three - the draw will take place in July. Retail value of the prize is around R800.

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