South African Military History 


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 120
September 2014

Open House: Malcolm Kinghorn gave his fifth presentation in the Battle Handling series aimed at assisting in understanding the symbols used on military maps during the First World War.Military map symbols began to be used by western armies after the Napoleonic Wars. During the 1914-18 conflict, there was some harmonisation between the British and French systems, including the adoption of red for enemy forces and blue for allies. There are standard icons to depict service arms. For instance, the infantry symbol of a saltire in a rectangle was said to symbolise the crossed belts of an infantryman, while the single diagonal line for cavalry was said to represent the sabre belt. There are also symbols on top of rectangles to represent the size of the force depicted, with an “x” being the symbol for a brigade, “xx” the symbol for a division and so on. The curtain raiser presented by Warren Myburgh, was on the topic The Seven Days Battle 1862:American Civil War.

The Seven Days Battles were a series of six major battles over seven days from 25th June to 1stJuly1862, near Richmond, Virginia, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Confederate General Robert E. Lee drove the invading UnionArmy of the Potomac, commanded by Major GeneralGeorge B. McClellan, away from Richmond and into a retreat down the Virginia Peninsula leading to the culmination of the Peninsula Campaign. It ended with McClellan's army in relative safety next to the James River, having suffered almost 16000 casualties during the retreat. Lee's army, which had been on the offensive during the Seven Days, lost over 20000 men.

(With acknowledgments to

The main lecture by Malcolm Kinghorn was on the poems Ford o’ Kabul Riverand VitaiLampada and their relationship to two military events.

With the centenary commemoration of the First World War to hand, SAMHSEC can, hopefully, look forward to presentations based on the significant body of poetry written during that conflict. War poems often cover the ethos of war rather than actual battles. Some poems are, however, valuable sources of military historical facts. The two poems presented by Malcolm were based on Victorian-era battles, which would probably have faded into obscurity were it not for the poems.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem Ford o’ Kabul River first appeared in The National Observer in November 1890. It recalls an incident involving the 10th Hussars on the night of 31st March 1879, during the Second Afghan War. While the poem suggests that the incident happened at Kabul, it was actually at Jalalabad, which is about 130 km east of Kabul.

The 10th Hussars had been in Afghanistan since the beginning of the Second Afghan War (1878-1880) and were in Jalalabad by early February 1879.With his headquarters at Jalalabad, General Sam Browne was under pressure from several fiercely independent tribes. He decided to deal with the threat. Brigadier-General Macpherson's column was split into two, with the infantry and artillery leaving half an hour before the cavalry, to move rapidly and come upon the rear of the enemy, while two cavalry squadrons, one each of the 10th Hussars and the 11th Bengal Lancers, would confront the enemy head-on. The cavalry rode out at 21h30 on 31stMarch to cross the Kabul River, 4 km from camp.

The ford was generally considered safe, with an initial 10 metre crossing through water less than a metre deep to a small island. The next part of the crossing was much wider, the more so due to the indirect line required to keep to the shallows. In spite of the fact that the river was running strongly, there were no crossing stakes in position. The Bengal Lancers were leading the advance. The Hussars were ordered to keep close behind the baggage mules, which were behind the Lancers. With each man tending to stray slightly downstream of the man in front, by the time the baggage mules were in the second part of the ford, they were off course.

The Hussars blindly followed them into deep water and disaster ensued. Horses panicked and turned, weighed down with packs and saddles. The men fared no better with their heavy riding boots and full ammunition pouches, swords and carbines slung over their shoulders, kicked by the flailing animals and in water up to 5 metres deep.

Back at camp the alarm was raised when several rider-less horses galloped in. Soldiers rushed down to the ford to see what could be done, which was not much by that time, other than lighting a huge bonfire on the island to aid visibility.The following morning a search was conducted, which included the use of elephants to bring in some of the bodies. Many of the dead cavalrymen had been severely injured by their horses. One officer and three men were found alive on a sandbank in the river. Nineteen bodies were recovered out of forty-six lost. Thirteen horses were drowned.On 3rd April, the nineteen casualties were buried in a communal grave in the British cemetery at Jalalabad. A Lieutenant Harford's body was found after a few days. The only item of his equipment missing was his sword. This was found 15 years later in the roof beams of an Afghan hut during the Chitral expedition.

(SAMHSEC’s field trip in May 2013 included tracing the route of the 10th Hussars in pursuit of Boer Commandos in the Uniondale area in 1902.)

The second poem presented was VitaiLampada by Sir Henry Newbolt. The second stanza refers to the Battle of Abu Klea, which took place on 17th January 1885 in Sudan, between a column of the Gordon Relief Expedition and Mahdist forces.

While the main British force, the River Column under Sir Garnet Wolseley, travelled by river to Khartoum, the Desert Column of approximately 1400 soldiers under General Stewart started from Korti in Sudan on 30th December 1884 to cut across country to Khartoum. Time was running short according to what little information was available from the garrison. The force was composed of four regiments of camel-mounted troops (Guards, Heavy, Light and Mounted Infantry) formed from detachments of the various regiments in Egypt, the River Column and a detachment of the 19th Hussars, mounted on horses. Four light field pieces and a small Naval Contingent with a Gardner machine gun completed the force.

The poem refers to the gun as a Gatling. It is possible that Newbolt chose the word Gatling, which scans the same as Gardner, to avoid confusion with the word ‘gardener’.

As the Desert Column approached the wells at Abu Klea, they were set upon by a Mahdist force. Stewart formed a square, with the guns on the north face and the Naval Contingent with their Gardner machine gun on the left rear corner. As the British advanced to outflank the Mahdist force, a gap opened up towards the left rear corner of the squareso that the Gardner could be run out to provide covering fire. Two companies of the Heavy Camel Regiment were also wheeled out of the square to support the Gardner gun. The square closed behind them leaving them exposed.

The Gardner gun had been found reliable in Britain, but had not been tested in desert conditions where sand could get into its mechanism. After seventy rounds were fired, the gun jammed. As the crew tried to clear it, they were cut down in a rush by the Dervishes. The weight of the rush pushed the surviving sailors back into the face of the square.

Several Dervishes got inside the square, but found the interior full of camels and could not proceed. The troops in the rear ranks faced about and opened fire into the press of men and camels behind them and were able to drive the Dervishes out of the square and compel them to withdraw.

The battle was short, lasting barely ten minutes. Casualties for the British were 9 officers and 65 other ranks killed and over a hundred wounded. The Mahdists lost 1100 dead. Colonel Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards was killed by a spear to the throat. Frank Rhodes, a brother of Cecil, was awarded the DSO for his conduct during the battle. Gunner Alfred Smith fought bravely to save his officer, Lieutenant Guthrie, and was awarded the VC. Also present was Sir John French, who was later to play prominent roles in both the Anglo-Boer War and the First World War.

The full poem Ford o' Kabul River can be seen at:
VitaïLampada can be found at:

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstigebyeenkomsenuitstappe

The next meeting will be at 19h30 on 8thSeptember at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The ‘open house’ will be the next in the Battle Handling series presented by Malcolm Kinghorn. The curtain raiser and main lecture will be combined in a presentation by John Stevens entitled Oh What a Lovely War – an analysis.There will be no video screening prior to the lectures, the series having come to an end.

John provided the following preview: This is the fascinating story of how a 1960’s film came to be regarded as an icon of our understanding of the British involvement on the Western Front during the First World War. We will uncover the origins of the film and unwrap the subtle innuendo of the common soldiers’ outlook on the war in typical British style, but articulated in song, and analyse the brilliance with which the story is told. There will be time for some discussion in which we can share interpretations of how we perceive the film to have achieved its goal.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemenebelang

Individual members’ activities / Individuelelede se aktiwiteite

Peter Duffell-Canham has had published his uncle John Duffell-Canham’s book on his experiences in the South African Naval Forces during the Second World War. This has made a valuable slice of our naval history available to a wider audience and future generations. See review below.

Michael Irwin recently participated the World Pipe Band Championships in Scotland as part of a composite band of the St Andrew’s College Pipe Band, Grahamstown and the 1 Medical Battalion Pipe Band, Durban. While there, the band visited two sites of military historical interest: Stirling Castle and the site of the Battle of Bannockburn where Robert the Bruce gained a significant victory over the English during the First Scottish War of Independence. The 23rd and 24th June marked the 700th anniversary of the 1314 battle. Whilst there he also attended the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Members’ forum/Lede se forum

Nothing has been received this month.

World War I Centenary Year / Eerste Wêreldoorlog Eeufeesjaar A note on VitaiLampada

The poem VitaiLampadawas related to an event at Clifton College, Bristol,which Sir Henry Newbolt had himself attended. Malcolm Kinghorn mentioned in passing, that on one of the school’s cricket pitches, now known as Collins' Piece, the highest-ever cricket score was reached. This was in June 1899, when in an inter-house match, 13-year old A. E. J. Collins, scored 628 not out over four days. After completing school, Collins joined the British Army and studied at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, before becoming an officer in the Royal Engineers. He served with the 2nd Sappers and Miners in India and was promoted to Lieutenant on 23rd June 1907.He married in the spring of 1914. Collins was sent to France when the First World War broke out later that year. He was killed in action on 11th November 1914 at the First Battle of Ypres, while serving as a Captain with the 5th Field Company, Royal Engineers. He was 29 years old. Collins had been mentioned in dispatches and also represented the Royal Military Academy at cricket and rugby. His wife Ethel lived as a widow for over fifty years, dying in September 1966. Collins’ younger and only brother who was a Lieutenant in the 24th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment was killed in action on 11 February 1917, aged 27.

(Clifton College was the headquarters of the US army in Britain for part of the Second World War.)

For background and information on the War at Sea during the Great War, go to the list of ships sunk and follow the links:
For example:The list of shipwrecks in September 1918 includes ships sunk, foundered, grounded, or otherwise lost during September 1918.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

World War I

The man who started WWI: 7 things you didn't know [The short video is of interest.]
Tim Butcher Special to CNN 29th June 1914

800,000 Red Poppies Pour Like Blood From The Tower Of London
Katherine Brooks The Huffington Post   4th August 2014

‘With moments to spare, the gunners opened fire’: Australia’s surprising but vital successes in the opening days of World War One 1st August 2014

In pictures: World War One battlefields 100 years on
BBC News in pictures 31st July 2014
[These are excellent photographs.]

World War II

Iceberg aircraft carriers

Tony Rennell MailOnline 15th August 2014

Vietnam War

F8 operations off CVA (Essex Class) Aircraft Carriers
‘Steve’ 27 Charlie 13th May 2014

Aftermath of 9/11

9/11 cancer cluster revealed with 2500 Ground Zero workers diagnosed 28th July 2014

History in the making

South Africans in the DRC
Stephan Hofstatter& James Oatway Times LIVE 22nd August, 2014

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang


Duffell-Canham John 2014 Seaman gunner do not weep: At sea with the SANF during the Second World War Simon’s Town Naval Heritage Trust

This is the kind of book which we see all too infrequently – a ‘straight from the shoulder’ narrative by a South African in naval service during the Second World War. It is doubly interesting in that it is an account of the little ships (such as the whalers converted to minesweepers) of the South African Naval Force, the progenitor of the South African Navy.

As the author rather modestly states, the book makes no claim to detailed historical accuracy, but is an “unashamed attempt to stir memories and generate nostalgia”. This it achieves admirably. It is primarily a story told from the heart, but, perhaps without deliberate intention, is also a social history and a naval history. Many of the events described dovetail well, and enhance our understanding of, actual historical events. The work is also bursting with a strong sense of humanity and common decency: the story of Maria, and the sailors’ relationships to the child victims of war they encounter are particularly heart-warming. Subsequent generations who do not have any direct experience of the kind of events describedcan only marvel at how ordinary men coped with the situations in which they found themselves.

Enjoyable and entertaining to read, this book is nevertheless very informative on the issues of the day and well as the conditions which the men of the SANF experienced in the Mediterranean theatre. It is pleasing that the book has not been edited for ’political correctness’, but retains the language of the day and describes situations as they were seen at the time.

This book is highly recommended reading. - PI

The book retails at R190.00 and is available from the South African NavyMuseum in Simon’s Town or can be ordered by post for R235.00 incl p & p. Contact either WO1 Harry Croome at or Admiral Chris Bennett at
Alternatively write to Naval Heritage Trust, P O Box 521, Simon’s Town, 7995.

Winter Jay (Ed) 2014 The Cambridge history of the First World War Volumes 1 (Global War); II (The State) and III (Civil Society). Cambridge Cambridge University Press

Based on 25 years of research, these three volumes, comprising 76 individual contributions totalling 2300 pages, provide a comprehensive and authoritative account of the military, political, social, economic and cultural history of the Great War. The work as a whole needs to be seen within the broadest interpretation of what constitutes military history. The volumes provide what is termed a ‘transnational’ guide to the course of the war and how the dynamics of conflict unfolded throughout the world.

Volume I, broadly speaking, surveys the military history of the conflict, showing the brutal realities of a global war among industrialised powers. It covers the military activities and tactics in the various theatres of the war (including naval and air warfare), addresses weapons systems, the rules of engagement and the laws of war. Volume II examines the war from a predominantly political angle exploring the multifaceted history of state power and highlights the ways in which the different political systems responded to, and were deformed by, the pressures of war. Every state, for example, faced issues of military-civilian relationships and the distortions caused by the growth of war economies, yet each was unique in the way these worked out. It also analyses the various armed forces including their approachesto logistical issues, combat and tactics, morale, disaffection and discipline. The economic aspects of war (such as food production and finance) are covered as well as the use and abuse of science.

Volume III explores the social and cultural history of the war and considers the role of civil society in the conflict. It sheds new light on culturally significant issues such as how families and medical authorities adapted to the challenges of war, and the shift that occurred in gender roles and behaviour, that would subsequently reshape society. It also examines the war's treatment of populations at risk, including refugees, minorities and internees, to show the full extent of the disaster of war and, with it, the continued value placed upon kindness and the generosity of spirit that persisted amidst the horror, bitterness and hatred which prevailed. It covers too, the role of religion, propaganda and the arts as well as memorials and memories. The volume concludes with a reckoning of the costs and consequences of the five-year conflict. Written by a global team of historical experts, these volumes sets new standards in our understanding of the Great War. As one might also expect from a University of Cambridge publication, presentation is exemplary. At a price of around£90.00/volume (equivalent to R4 860.00 for the set of three)this will be out of the reach of most individuals but it is hoped that a number of South African libraries will invest in it. For those in the Eastern Cape who might like to consult the work, all three volumes are in the Rhodes University Library. (940.3.CAM)

PI (With acknowledgments to:

Conflict in the Middle East

For those interested in the background to the current Middle East conflict, the following site, titled 40 maps that explain the Middle East by Max Fisher is both comprehensive and historically accurate.

For a German perspective on the First World War, HayleyVos of East London, and her sister have found their great grandfather’s Great War diary written while on active service. They are publishing each day of his diary 100 years to the day, at the following link:

Members are invited to send in to the scribes, short reviews of, or comments on, books, DVDs or any other interesting resources they have come across, as well as news on individual member’s activities. In this Newsletter, there have been contributions and suggestions by Fred Nel, Richard Tomlinson, Malcolm Kinghorn, Barry Irwin, Ian Pringle, Michael Irwin, Peter Duffel-Canham, Dennis Hibberd, Yoland Irwin and Ted Botha.

Chairman:Malcolm Kinghorn:
Secretary: Richard Keyter:
Scribes (Newsletter): Anne and Pat Irwin:
Society’s Web address:  

"As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are only doing their duty, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted, law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any worse for it. He is serving his counrty, which has the power to absolve him from evil." - George Orwell

South African Military History Society /