South African Military History Society

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We were again fortunate to be in the auditorium for our meeting. This time the electrics were fully operational so everything went well.

The meeting was opened by our Chairman, Malcolm King, and he particularly thanked Hamish Paterson for leading the tour of the museum's Boer War and WWI exhibits. We were reminded of the forthcoming movies to be held in the auditorium - Regeneration 18 October and The Red Baron 22 November - for details contact The Majestic (011) 486 3648.

The first speaker of the evening was Colin Harris who has lectured to us before. Although his career was engineering, he became fascinated with military history after touring the American battlefields at Gettysburg and Antienam. His subject was Bronkhorstspruit: Where it all started? Jan Smuts' statement that "the Jameson Raid was the real declaration of war in the great conflict of the Anglo-Boer War," formed the basis of the talk which in some ways challenged this. Was the real beginning more likely to have been a long time before? Even before the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886?

A brief sketch of events prior to 1886 set the scene for the talk. In particular, Colin made reference to the happenings peculiar to the south of the continent in the great "Scramble for Africa" which got under way in the 1870's.

This was followed by a description of the so-called "ambush" of the British 94th Regiment at Bronkhorstspruit on 20 December, 1880. The reasons for the regiment being at that place at that time were detailed. The amazing fact was that the British O/C refused to believe that he was about to be ambushed by the Boers and categorically declared that what could be seen was simply some cattle! Also examined were the strange circumstances as to why the two companies and the Regimental Band should have taken so long to reinforce the British Garrison at Pretoria. The hysterical cries of the Victorian newspapers of "Ambush!" and "Boer Savagery!" were put to rest as the talk reviewed the series of events that unfolded in the 45 minutes or so at high noon on that fateful day when 156 British soldiers were either shot dead or mortally wounded. Also questioned was who was ultimately responsible for the tragic losses.

At the end the question was posed; was Smuts correct or does the answer lie buried in some dark mysterious archive in Whitehall where so much Colonial expansion was connived at?

This talk was accompanied by a slide presentation of pictures and maps.

Katherine Munro, Hon. Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at Wits, delivered the main lecture of the evening which was Memory, Commemoration, Memorials and Architects of the First World War. The lecture explored the way in which massive losses of soldiers in WWI was commemorated in orderly cemeteries, customs addressing collective grief, symbols marking loss and in the extraordinary memorials to the missing. The Imperial [now Commonwealth] War Graves Commission was begun in 1917 as a result of the impetus of Fabian Ware who had devised the renowned dog tags. There was to be no repatriation of bodies within the British Empire.

Thus, the war cemetery at Forceville became a template and eventually there were 2400 cemeteries in France and Belgium. It was decided to level class distinctions in the cemeteries and so both officers and men had the same type of grave. Headstones, not crosses, were used and each bore a regimental insignia and then a religious symbol. Each grave had to contain a body - no empty ones were allowed - and face east. The surrounding gardens were considered very important and carefully laid out to give an atmosphere of serenity and beauty in contrast to the chaos and filth of the trenches. The symbol of the poppies was in line with this theme of beauty.

As there were to be no empty/fake graves, there was the problem of those dead who could not be found or buried. There were areas along the front known as Red Zones which are super toxic to this day. These were so full of unexploded shells and chemically contaminated water that it was impossible to even attempt to remove any bodies from them. The problem of the missing bodies was solved by erecting memorials which could serve as focal points for grieving families. There are even memorials on some of the least toxic of the Red Zones and these are reached by high-set board-walks [similar to SA ones over sand dunes and through fynbos] so that no one can accidentally detonate an old shell.

National identities of Empire countries were forged through the politicization of loss and commemoration, including South Africa. South Africa typified WWI with its huge mobilization of 146 000 whites, 83 000 blacks and 2 000 coloureds of whom 7 000 were killed and 12 000 wounded.

As visiting the graves in Belgium and France was geographically and financially impossible for most families, memorials in their own countries became very important as did symbols of remembrance like the poppy. Think of the stunning display of ceramic poppies surrounding the Tower of London to mark the centenary of WWI.

Part of Katherine's motivation for visiting the WWI cemeteries was to search for two of her relatives - one British, Sidney Lucas, and the other South African, CF Barbe - and to see how they were remembered. She showed us pictures of small metal cupboards set into the sides of memorials at each CWGC cemetery where you can quickly and easily check through the list of names of those buried or remembered there. Also she showed us pictures of the memorial at Delville Wood with its two small shelters on either end and drew our attention to the skillful lay-out of the whole place. We also saw pictures of the Menin Gate at Ypres taken during the evening memorial ceremony. This ceremony takes place at 20h00 when the Last Post is sounded with people starting to gather there at 19h00 and the traffic being stopped at 19h30.

Everyone there was engrossed but we came away with the sense of peace given by the memorials and cemeteries.

Pat Henning

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

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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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