South African Military History Society

Tel (+27)(0)10-237-0676 Fax (+27)(0)86-617-8002


The meeting was opened by the Deputy-chairman, Jan-Willem Hoorweg, due to the unavoidable absence of the Chairman.

David Scholtz outlined the plans for a tour of the Pretoria forts - Schanskop and Klapperkop - which will take place on a Sunday morning in late November. There was huge enthusiasm so it was agreed that the finalised date and times would be announced at the next meeting.

As a result of the unavoidable changes to schedules caused by the refurbishment of the auditorium, The Majestic has informed us that the films for the rest of the year will be as follows:
Sunday 18 October: Hey Boo! This is a film about the life of Harper Lee, who wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird". Her only other book "Go Set a Watchman" was discovered recently and published this year to huge interest.
Sunday 22 November: Regeneration This film deals with the effects of being on the Western Front in World War I on several well-known literary figures. It is based on a novel by Pat Barker, and deals with the treatment of officers at the Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh for what we would today call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, using psychiatric methods devised by among others Sigmund Freud. At the hospital are Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen and other writers. It also looks at the treatment available to 'other ranks', i.e. not officers, at a hospital in London, using electric shock treatment. For details contact The Majestic (011) 486 3648

The first speaker of the evening was Kevin Garcia who is a very senior History teacher educated in both USA and South Africa. His subject: "'... I am having immense fun running the Navy': Theodore Roosevelt and the birth of the Modern American Navy". This talk was accompanied by a power-point presentation.

In 1865, at the close of the American Civil War, the US Navy was amongst the largest and most combat-experienced in the world. The speaker here touched on the visit to Cape Town of CCS Alabama in August 1863 and the Confederate family ties of Theodore Roosevelt's mother. However this powerful force was allowed to deteriorate during the next 15 years and came to be one of the weakest navies in the world.

Fortunately, in the following 30 years, beginning about 1880, American naval power underwent a renaissance. By 1910, the US Navy came to be rated the third or even second most powerful force anywhere. Several political and military figures were responsible for this. The founder of the US Naval War College, Stephen B Luce, Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin F Tracey and naval historian and strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, all share credit for this transformation. However, the 26th US President, Theodore Roosevelt is often identified as the crucial central figure in this process. As Commander-in-Chief, he not only advocated changes in naval policy, he carried them out.

Roosevelt was orientated toward sea power from the earliest stages of his political career. He sought the growth and strengthening of the US Navy while in power, and out. As president, Roosevelt pushed for the expansion of the US battle fleet. He also advocated the emulation of the Royal Navy and the construction of the first American equivalents of HMS Dreadnought, the all big-gun battleships. At the same time he was very careful not to give the British any reason to think that he was in competition with them. Roosevelt also began the construction of the Panama Canal specifically for the purpose of facilitating the movement of naval vessels from the main Navy bases, on the east Coast, to the Pacific Ocean and the American west coast.

The culmination of Roosevelt's advocacy of a strong navy was the circumnavigation of the world by the US battle fleet in 1907-1909. The voyage of the so-called "Great White Fleet" was the longest movement ever attempted by such a large formation of heavy warships. The success of this effort changed the balance of power in the Pacific and marked the beginning of a growing confrontation of American and Japanese naval power which finally ended in Tokyo Bay, September 1945.

The main speaker of the evening was Nicki von der Heyde, a very experienced battle-field guide, whose talk was based on her book: A Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa. The book was on display and was much admired as it was illustrated on every page with maps, pictures and photographs plus it gave directions on how to find the battlefields. The talk began with the story of how the book came to be written and recounted some of the experiences Nicki had during her month-long 6 000 km research trip.

She then went on to show maps, photos and portraits of some of the more obscure and unsung battlefields together with a brief description of the action at each. The first site was Aliwal North with its blockhouse and Garden of Remembrance plus the Concentration Camp graveyard. Next was the site of the battle of the Stormberg in 1899 where Maj-Gen Gatacre with 3 000 men planned to force the Boers off the Kissieberg. Unfortunately, he was given false information about their positions and the element of surprise was lost. The resulting carnage was appalling and the British retreated to Molteno and when they arrived there Gatacre discovered that 600 men had been left behind on the Kissieberg and forced to surrender. This was part of the infamous British "Black Week" during the Anglo-Boer War.

The third site was near Addo where the British were on the trail of Smuts who had gone there to try to persuade the Boers in the area to join against the British. Unfortunately, Smuts suffered a form of poisoning as a result of eating an aloe known as "Hottentots Bread".

In the Western Cape, Smuts had an HQ at Van Rhynsdorp of which we were shown photos. Near here, between Garies and Kamieskroon is the grave of Charles Darter of the Namaqualand Border Guards. Darter was ambushed and killed by the Boers in 1902. Subsequently, the SA Government specially purchased the tiny area of land which comprised the grave.

The next site was of the Battle of Fabersput in 1900. This is quite a trek from the main road involving at least seven farm gates. General Sir Charles Warren and his men camped by the original farmhouse. The Boers wanted to surround him by night which they did very successfully, hiding 57 marksmen in the garden. When the shooting began there was panic and the horses stampeded, resulting in the deaths of around 16 men on each side.

At the site of the Battle of Vegkop there is a small museum to commemorate the clash of the Trekkers under Potgieter and 4 000 Matabele. The Trekkers formed a laager and pushed thorn-tree branches under the wagons to strengthen the barrier then provoked the Matabele into attacking. The Trekkers' guns became so hot that they could barely be reloaded by the women and children. The Matabele dead piled up but warriors who were sweating were judged to be alive and quickly finished off. When they were finally driven off taking with them the Trekkers livestock, 1 137 spears were collected inside the laager. One of the survivors in that laager was a young boy who would become very well known - Paul Kruger!

The battle of Groenkop (between Bethlehem and Harrismith) took place on Christmas Eve 1901. General de Wet wanted to boost flagging morale by attacking a supply depot so 450 Boers climbed the hill and attacked. The British fled leaving behind 20 wagons filled with Christmas food and drink. The General allowed his men to have a feast!

The last site reviewed was at Wepener in the Free State, where a seventeen-day siege took place at Jammersdrift on the Caledon River in April 1900. The British garrison under Col EH Dalgety numbered about 2 000 whist General Christiaan de Wet had about 6 000 men. The Boers launched several attacks and on the night of 13th April the British only managed to hold their position thanks to a tip-off from a friendly Basuto. The Boers kept re-attacking until 23rd April when they received news of the approach of Roberts and so withdrew. Many of those who fell are buried in the churchyard at Wepener but the battle areas are undisturbed so it is still possible to find "doppies" and other militaria.

The talk ended with some views on the future of battlefields tourism and its importance to the South African economy.

The vote of thanks to both speakers was proposed by Marjorie Dean. She commented favourably on A Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa which she felt was a must-have for all households in SA.

Pat Henning

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Colonel Mike Bradley (who was the Specialist Guide during the SAMHS tour to the Battlefields of Egypt and Libya in May 2009) has offered to put together a Centenary Pilgrimage of about 10 days to Delville Wood (and other battlefields of the Somme) in July 2016. A day's visit to Normandy will also be included in the itinerary, which is available in the October KZN newsletter on the web-site for reference.

Costs: GBP1550.00 per person in a twin room
GBP 400.00 single supplement
Cost of flights to Europe not included

Ken Gillings of our KZN branch reports that numbers are close to the required 20 and asks interested persons to contact him urgently (031 703 4828 / 083 654 5880 / ) if you are interested in participating.

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NB Remember to bring cash for poppies which will be available at our November lecture meeting in return for a donation to SA Legion
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For Cape Town details contact Johan van den Berg 021-939-7923
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676

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