South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 460
KwaZulu-Natal June 2014

Contact: Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Chairman: Charles Whiteing 031 764 7270
Society's web site address:

Both talks for the May 2014 meeting were linked to the Branch’s commemoration of the centenary of the Great War. The first speaker for the evening was fellow member Professor Philip Everitt, who spoke on “Forts in Belgium and France”. This was in effect part 2 of his developing series on the “Fortifications of Europe”. (Part 1 comprised a Darrell Hall memorial lecture a few years back on the Vauban Fortifications of France). The talk started with a quick summary of the technological interaction between the development of weapons and fortifications, beginning with the typical crusader castle, through the development of artillery and the subsequent destruction of the walls of Constantinople. This led to the decline of the lofty castle walls, keeps and round towers and their replacement with the bastioned star fortification, where a sloping glacis protected the ditch and the main scarp with its low level bastions. The bastions provided enfilade fire along the line of the ditch as well as defensive fire towards the main enemy lines.

The further development of explosives and longer range artillery at the time of the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870’s meant that bastioned walls surrounding towns were no longer suitable as the town centre was vulnerable to long range artillery. A number of military engineers including Henri Alexis Brialmont (1821-1903), in Belgium and Raymond Adolphe Sere de Rivieres (1815-1895), in France, then developed the concept of outlying fixed fortifications with intermediate obstructions provided by infantry and artillery. These fortifications, utilized naval gunnery innovations such as below ground level caponiers, and casemates to enfilade the protective ditch with machine guns and 57mm Nordenfeldts. Now further development of long range, high trajectory artillery forced all accommodation into a central underground concrete massif with main defensive guns (120mm to 250mm) and searchlights in steel turrets (some retractable), just visible above. The Brialmont fortifications of Belgium were completed in the 1890’s using masonry and then concrete up to 4.5m thick together with a soil cover. These were designed to cover the railway routes through Liege and Namur that linked Germany and France through Belgium. The Germans considered the railway as a major strategic factor in troop deployment. The French made use of newly developed reinforced concrete, to upgrade and complete their similar forts along the border in time for the outbreak of war in 1914.

However, along with the technological developments in fortification, the Germans and Austrians had designed and constructed their “Dicke (Big) Bertha” and “Schlanke (Skinny) Emma”. These were a 420mm howitzer and 305mm mortar respectively. When the forts delayed the swift advance of the German infantry and cavalry following the Schlieffen Plan, this siege artillery was brought into action. The results were disastrous, especially for Fort de Loncin where a shell penetrated the main magazine, resulting in a spectacular explosion, which completely destroyed the entire central massif. Especially after this, the isolated forts surrendered within days and the Belgians retreated to the “final redoubt” around Antwerp. The Germans swept on to the French border, but the delay had enabled the French and the newly arrived British expeditionary force to deploy more fully to face the onslaught.

The Germans finally came up against the French forts around Verdun in 1916. Despite the efforts of their siege artillery, the reinforced concrete stood up much better than unreinforced and the Germans were finally held, with massive casualties on both sides. Although this was also to a very large extent due to efforts of French troops and artillery outside of the forts; the overall result together with the enormous manpower losses, were directly responsible for the improved fortifications of WWII such as Eben Emael in Belgium, and the Maginot line in France.
The profusely illustrated presentation was followed by a question and answer session.

The Main Talk, entitled “The War against disease in German East Africa, 1916-1918” was delivered by fellow member Donald Davies. The War in German East Africa for the East African Expeditionary Force, consisting initially of British Regiments from the British Indian Army, and later including the Royal Fusiliers and North Lancashire Regiments, and the 2nd South African Brigade, was quite different from what was initially envisaged. Our speaker suggested that perhaps the Success of Col. Duncan MacKenzie in German South West Africa had led the South African Leadership to believe that “…it would be over by Christmas”.

Far from this, however, for the first signs that the German Schutztruppe were going to make a stand and fight it out, was when the British sent in the British Indian Expeditionary Force in an Amphibious Landing at Tanga in early November 1914. This was successfully repulsed by the German Schutztruppe, and it would be some time before this British Expeditionary had secured the Ports and established a foothold.

In order to capture Lt Col. Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Army, it was necessary to bring in reinforcements to go onto the attack, hence the arrival of Lieutenant-General Jan Smuts with the South African Expeditionary Force in the form of the 2nd Brigade. It soon became apparent that the difficulties facing Smuts’s Army was maintaining a condition within this Tropical Environment to withstand the effects of Tropical Diseases such as Malaria.

This was not successful, and the constant driving forward of this South African led East African Expeditionary Force often meant that basic items such as food and mosquito nets were not readily available. Once the Rainy Season began, the larger body of the South African, British and Indian Army regiments became severely depleted of able bodied men, with the result that the remaining able bodied soldiers, along with the incapacitated soldiers, were repatriated back to South Africa at the end of 1916, and replaced with Soldiers from Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda in a unit named the Kings African Rifles.

The Royal Army Medical Corps played a courageous role in this fight against disease, and thereby reducing the numbers of fatalities, however many of the Medical Personnel died of the diseases that they were fighting. There were also SA Medical Services Corps and a nursing sister named Alexina Donald of Queen Alexander’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve) who was deployed from Europe to take charge as Acting Matron of the South African No. 2 General Hospital in Dar es Salaam (formerly known as The Kaiser Hof Hotel). For her services, she was mentioned in despatches by Lt Gen Jaap van Deventer, and was awarded an Oak Leaf along with the Royal Red Cross (2nd Class) by the King on her return to Great Britain in 1919.

REMINDER – ANNUAL SUBSCRIPTIONS. Please note that members who have not renewed their subscriptions by the end of May 2014 will unfortunately no longer receive newsletters. Please renew yours if you haven’t done so already. Remember that membership entitles you to a national and branch newsletter and two issues of the Military History Journal per annum.


Thursday 12thJune 2014:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “Central Flying School Dunottar” by Colonel Steve Bekker

Main Talk: “The 70thAnniversary of Normandy; Neptune”, by John Oliver

Future meetings.

Thursday 10thJuly 2014:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “John Cummings' ride & the attack on Fort Peddie” by Prof David Walker

Main Talk: “Guadalcanal - The Follow On” by Roy Bowman.

Thursday 14thAugust 2014:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: Mr James van Vuuren will give the Branch an update on the activities and key role of the Provincial Heritage body, “Amafa aKwaZulu-Natali / Heritage KwaZulu-Natal”.

Main Talk: Another in our series on WW1 100: “The Umvoti Mounted Rifles in World War 1”, by Dr Mark Coghlan.

Thursday 11thSeptember 2014:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: WW1 100 “Ectracts from Harold Sampson's Diary” by Jane Sampson

Main Talk: “Genocideof the San” by Dr Alex Coutts.

COMMEMORATION OF THE 115thANNIVERSARY OF THE START OF THE ANGLO-BOER WAR, 1899 TO 1902: “From Anglo-Boer War to World War 1” – Talana Museum, Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal, 20thto 22nd October 2014.

The Society and Talana Museum have combined forces to bring you an impressive array of speakers with an equally impressive series of topics, from the UK, Ireland and South Africa. This event will coincide with the Talana Museum’s Annual “Talana Live Weekend” from the 17thto the 19thOctober 2014. This is an event that military history enthusiasts simply cannot afford to miss. Conference Delegates’ attendance costs have been kept to a minimum at R350 per day or R950 for the three full days. A copy of the programme will appear with the future newsletters.

South African Military History Society /