South African Military History Society

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The Chairman opened the meeting which commenced with the AGM for 2015. There was a quorum and the Minutes of 2014 AGM were taken as read. This was followed by the Chairman's Report for 2014 in which he thanked members of the committee individually for their particular contributions and described the three very successful tours that had taken place to Val and the Museum. The Treasurer, Joan Marsh, gave her report and the accounts for 2014. As there were no "Matters Arising", the minutes, reports and accounts were approved and seconded. The Chairman, Malcolm King, was re-elected as were the members of the committee who stood with the addition of one new member, our Scribe Pat Henning. We bade a sad farewell to Lynn Mantle who was standing down after 15 years on the committee organising the speakers each month. She received a much-deserved presentation.

Lastly, the prizes were awarded to the best speakers of the last 12 months as voted by members. In the category of Main Lecture the placing was as follows: first, Gil Jacobs - The Longitude Problem; second, Maj-Gen Tony Dippenaar - Surgery in Wartime; third, Col Jan Malan - An Overview of the fighting east of Cuito Canavale 1987-1988; fourth, Kathleen Satchwell - Consider your Verdict: Court Cases of WWI. In the Curtain Raiser section: first, Ian Thurston - James Stewart: Actor, Oscar-winner, Bomber Pilot; second, Terry Wilson - Africa; the Rifles of British Imperialism; third, Marjorie Dean - President Lincoln's Spy; fourth, Peter James Smith - The Boy Scouts in WWI. Our warmest congratulations to everyone. The AGM was then closed.

Marjorie Dean reminded us that 8 May would be the anniversary of VE Day, and that the SA Legion will be holding a Commemorative Parade on Saturday May 09 at 10h00, to which all members are invited. Please contact the SA Legion if you want to attend because of the catering arrangements. Tel: 011 486 4533. She also drew our attention to movies still to be shown in the quarterly series of historic films. Next movie is "The Gathering Storm", a film made for television which deals with the life and career of Winston Churchill in the 1920s and 1930s, as he follows the emergence of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain. The film stars Albert Finney as Churchill and Vanessa Redgrave as his wife Clementine Churchill ("Clemmie"); Finney gained many accolades for his performance, winning both a BAFTA Award for Best Actor and an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor. Book with The Majestic at 011 486 3648.

The speaker for the evening was John Myburgh SC who has had a most distinguished career in law. He was appointed a High Court Judge in 1991 and Visiting Professor of Law, University of the Witwatersrand in 2002. He has also chaired numerous commissions of enquiry, tribunals and investigations. His lecture was titled "Unification or Death - The events leading up to WWI" and covered the brief period from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (28 June 1914) to Great Britain's declaration of war on Germany (4 August 1914).

By the time the First World War came to an end, a conservative estimate of the number of people who had died in the war was 14,7 million, made up of 8,4 million military dead and 6,3 million civilian and added to this were 21,9 million wounded men. The map of Europe was redrawn. The war toppled four imperial dynasties: the Romanovs in Russia, the Hohenzollerns in Germany, the Habsburgs in Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans. Britain and France, two of the victorious nations, were left drained of energy, wealth and prestige even as they drank from the poisoned chalice of victory.

The spark that ignited the conflagration that became the greatest war the world had ever known, was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg thrones, by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. In a period of little more than 5 weeks, five leading nations of Europe were at war: Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. Three of those nations had monarchies with close family ties.

The Congress of Berlin in 1878 had recognized Serbia as an independent country and prohibited it from uniting with Bosnia which was placed under Austro-Hungarian occupation. Austria-Hungary was a Dual Monarchy and Presiding over the empire was Emperor Franz Joseph whose private life was rich in tragedy. His heir was his nephew, Franz Ferdinand, who was married morganatically to Countess Sophie Chotek, thus their children could not succeed to the thrones. Although not regarded as his social equal, she was able to accompany him on his inspection tours in his capacity as Inspector-General of the army. So, they were in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 where seven assassins recruited by The Black Hand awaited them. The motto of this group was "Unification or Death". [Hence the title of the lecture.] Three of these assassins were Bosnian Serbs: Gavrilo Princip, Trifko Grabez and Nedeljko Cabrinovic. The three were each given a revolver, bombs and cyanide - they were to commit suicide by taking cyanide after the assassination. They were joined by a four-man cell: a 23-year-old Bosnian Serb teacher, Danilo Ilic; a Muslim carpenter, Muhamed Mehmedbasic, a native of Herzegovina; Cvijetko Popovic, an 18- year- old high school student, and Vaso Cubrilovic, aged 17 years, a student - they too were given a revolver each, bombs and cyanide. The seven assassins were positioned at intervals along the route that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie would take through the city. There was a sudden change of route and, as Princip went to the aid of a comrade he was suddenly able to fire two shots killing both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie.

On 9 July, a foreign office official called Wiesner was sent from Vienna to Sarajevo to investigate and collect facts about the assassination. He concluded that there was nothing to link the Serbian government to the plot. The Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, was not keen on action, fearing that an Austrian attack on Serbia might draw in other powers, particularly Russia, which would be forced by pan-Slav sentiment to come to Serbia's assistance. Equally hesitant was the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Tisza, who feared that the Russians might strike at them whilst Germany left them in the lurch. So the attitude of Germany became a decisive factor. The British felt that if the Austrians took action against Serbia the Germans would support them and there would be a 90% likelihood of a European war. Kaiser Wilhelm felt that Russia and France would not become involved in the Austro-Hungarian squabble with Serbia and went away on his annual cruise. The Austrians decided that they should confront Belgrade with an ultimatum framed in terms harsh enough to ensure rejection which would open the way to military intervention. The date set to do this was 23 July 1914.

Unfortunately, although secrecy was of paramount importance, the plan was leaked to the Russians about 16 July and to the Serbians by 17 July. However, plans went ahead and the ultimatum was delivered on schedule on 23 July giving Serbia 48 hours to reply. On 25 July Serbia mobilized the army three hours before replying to the ultimatum and Russia activated its pre-mobilisation law. The Serbs agreed only to some of the ultimatum's conditions. On 27 July, Tsar Nicholas of Russia proposed opening negotiations with Austria but this was rejected. Then the British attempted to convene a four-power conference of Britain, Germany, France and Italy but Germany was not interested as the Kaiser considered that every reason for war had been removed. However, Austria declared war on Serbia confident of German support if the war widened. Now, in terms of the Austro-German Dual Alliance of 1879 the two countries were required to assist each other in the event of either of them being attacked by Russia or a power supported by Russia.

Added to this, the Franco-Russian Military Convention of 1893-4 provided that in the event of a general mobilization by any of the powers of the Triple Alliance (Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy), France and Russia would simultaneously and immediately mobilise their total forces and deploy as quickly as possible to their frontiers, without the need for any prior agreement. Russia, although not bound by treaty to assist Serbia, saw itself as protector of the Balkan Slavs. The British remained unsure but on 30 July Russia mobilised. Britain asked France and Germany on 31 July if they would respect Belgian neutrality - France agreed but Germany gave no reply.

In place in Germany was the Schlieffen Plan which envisaged an attack by seven-eighths of their army going through Belgium and Holland into northern France, bypassing the fortified French frontier and heading for Paris whilst the remaining one-eighth held the Russians at bay in the East. The Germans calculated that it would take them and France two weeks to mobilise whereas Russia would take six. They also planned to shorten their sweep by avoiding Holland.

On 1 August, the German Ambassador to Russia handed them the German declaration of war. Then on 3 August, Germany declared war on France. The following day Britain declared war on Germany, as the 1839 Treaty of London by which she guaranteed Belgian neutrality was still in place. So the conflagration began and Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, said: "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them again in our lifetime."

The lecture was followed by a Power-Point display of maps of troop movements and photographs of the protagonists in the lead-up to the war. This concluded with the sounding of the Last Post.

David Scholtz thanked John Myburgh for taking us so clearly through the train of events which had allowed us all a better understanding of how the war started.

Pat Henning

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Appeal for research help

Rev Peter Houston, a KZN branch member, is interested in anecdotes, reminiscences and stories which would illustrate the troops' attitude to padres in general and Anglican chaplains in particular during the Border War of 1966-1989. Contact him at Tel: 032 525 4529 (office) Cell: 082 433 5464 or e-mail

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AGM Reports

Any member wanting copies of the Financial and other reports or minutes presented at the AGM is invited to contact Joan at the letterhead address and she will send them copies.

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CR = curtain raiser; ML = main lecture; DDH = Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture;

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