Our speaker on 12 February 2015 was fellow-member Mr. Nigel Fox, author of a recently published book on a little-known aspect of the 1914 Rebellion, titled A Bullet In The Back. The lecture itself, however, was appropriately titled “The Machine Guns of Mushroom Valley”, as it dealt with one of the little-known, but decisive skirmishes in a very brief military campaign, but which had long-term ramifications and a lasting impact on the South African political scene. It was in effect a quasi-civil war of brother fighting against brother, neighbour against neighbour, and comrade against comrade. It threatened to unleash all the old enmities resulting from the Anglo-Boer War that it was hoped to have been laid to rest after the creation of the Union in 1910.
Inevitably, Mr. Fox, in his well-illustrated presentation, discussed the background and history of the 1914 Afrikaner Rebellion and, in particular, the responses of the various actions of the South African public to the outbreak of World War 1. These varied considerably, with the English-speaking part of the population being enthusiastic supporters of Britain and a large part of the Afrikaans-speaking population being opposed to South African participation on the side of Britain. This opposition varied from voicing disapproval, to an active call to arms to throw the British out of South Africa by force of arms. These were largely dealt with in considerable detail by Dr Rodney Warwick in his January 2015 talk. Details were included in last months’ newsletter. Our summary of Mr. Fox’s talk is limited to the details not included in that newsletter.
Our speaker showed us a photograph captioned “the capture of Gen de Wet” and explained that it was this which had prompted him to embark on his research which led to him writing his book. He knew that Gen de Wet had never been captured during the Anglo-Boer War and had then discovered that he had in fact been captured during the Rebellion - the fact that he sat in an automobile was conclusive evidence that the photograph was representative of a later time period.
Mr Fox commented on the indisputable fact that history is often influenced by a succession of chance events of varying size and importance. Strung together, they can change the course of a country’s history. This happened during the 1914 Afrikaner Rebellion.
He gave us a very full account of the events leading to the death of Gen Koos de la Rey1, describing the succession of chance events which resulted in this tragic event.
Generals de la Rey and Beyers, who supported the rebellion, decided to travel from Pretoria to Potchefstroom late on the afternoon of 15 September 1914, where they were to address the troops based there under command of Major Kemp, a supporter of the rebellion. Their touring car was a dark grey, and in the failing light (it was after 19:00 when De la Rey and his entourage left Roberts Heights) it was almost indistinguishable from black – and therefore easy to confuse with the getaway car of the notorious band of robbers and murderers, at that very moment in time very actively being sought by the police. The gang was known as the Foster Gang and was operating in and around the Witwatersrand. The police were doing their utmost to apprehend the gang and put an end to their criminal activities. The SAP had erected road blocks in many places in the hope of arresting the gang. Gen de la Rey, however, thought that the road blocks had been ordered by Gen Smuts to prevent him and Gen Kemp from reaching Potchefstroom. Thus fate was being given a free hand by all parties concerned, albeit unknowingly and unintentionally.
As it happened, on that very same night, another innocent bystander, a certain Dr Gerald Grace,2 was driving an almost identically dark-hued tourer, and, when he failed to stop at a Johannesburg road block, he was shot and fatally wounded by the police, while his wife was wounded in the arm. The police was on edge, expecting a murderous gang making a getaway and naturally assumed that any speeding motor vehicle disobeying instructions to stop could be the Foster Gang. As a result of this error, Sub Inspector Leach of the SAP issued an order to all the men under his command manning road blocks, not to shoot. This order unfortunately arrived too late to save Gen de la Rey, who had, in the meantime, exchanged seats with Gen Beyers, moving over from the left-hand side to the right-hand side so that the smoke from his pipe would not disturb his fellow passengers.
At about 21:15 a car with bright headlights and travelling at about 60 km/h approached the roadblock. When the Daimler failed to stop at a road block in Fordsburg, Constable Ives lunged forward and tried to pierce the left front tyre with his bayonet mounted on his rifle. The combination of speeding car and revolving wheel knocked him off balance and he staggered back. Constable Charles Dury managed to thrust his bayonet into one of the headlights of the speeding car. On recovering his balance, he managed to fire a hasty shot after the fast-receding car. The bullet ricocheted off the road surface, hit the mudguard and was deflected into the back of the car, fatally wounding Gen de la Rey. In view of this tragedy, General Beyers did not go to Potchefstroom and the rebels’ first plan did not materialize.
Mr Fox then discussed the battle of Sandfontein and the shortage of horses and mules at the outset of the German South West African campaign. He described the vital contribution made by motorcar owners and dealers in the Transvaal, like Hyde and Lindsay Saker of the Transvaal Automobile Club, who lent seventy vehicles to the Government. He described the adaptations made to these cars to turn them into purpose-fitted, self-sustainable off-road vehicles that could operate off the beaten track. The Government supplied the fuel and paid for the running costs. He showed us photographs of the adapted vehicles and the very effective pipe-frames fitted to the cars which enabled them to approach farm fences at a reasonable speed, lift the fences and slide through underneath the fences without so much as breaking one strand. Two of the cars were also fitted with mountings to which maxim machine guns could be attached.
He also discussed the nine Rolls Royce armoured cars commanded by Lt-Cdr. Whittall, RN, during the SWA Campaign and which saved the day at the Battle of Trekkoppies.
The Germans had been informed of the presence of armoured cars by one of their pilots who mistook them for water trucks. The attacking Germans were supported by two field artillery batteries and the South Africans had only one 15 pounder BLC anti-aircraft gun, nicknamed “Skinny Liz”. The armoured cars, with their machine guns, forced the Germans to abandon their attack. Skinny Liz fired one round at the Germans and is now found, in a place of honour, at the Regimental Headquarters of 10 Air Defence Regiment in Kimberley (an identical and similarly modified field gun, dating from the same era, is to be found mounted on display at the entrance of Fort Wynyard).
Mr Fox then described the Battle of Mushroom Valley, near Marquard (north east of Bloemfontein), in which Gen Louis Botha defeated Gen Christiaan de Wet’s commandos. It should be noted that the battles during the 1914 Rebellion were more in the nature of skirmishes, Mushroom Valley being a larger skirmish.
De Wet’s commandos were camping in the valley for the night. By a stroke of luck for Gen Botha the rebels had failed to cut the telephone line from Mushroom Valley to Winburg, so a loyalist in the Valley was able to telephone the stationmaster at Winburg Station to inform him of de Wet’s presence. The station master handed the telephone to Gen Botha, who, as luck would have it, was at the station at that very moment in time. Gen Botha, being alerted of de Wet’s whereabouts, accordingly planned his strategy and decided to surround the Rebels that night and mount a surprise attack at daybreak.
Colonel Brand was to advance on Hoenderkop and attack the Heilbron and Frankfort Commandos from the west. Gen Botha, supported by a battery of guns of the Cape Field Artillery, followed the Marquard Road to attack de Wet in Mushroom Valley. Colonel Coen Brits was to cut off de Wet’s escape route through the mountains and Brigadier General Lukin and the right flank of Colonel Brand’s force were to cut off the southern escape route. Dr Louis Bothma has recorded that only one in four of the rebels carried a proper rifle, the others carrying shotguns and even .22 rifles.
Gen Botha surprised the rebels on the morning of 12 November 1914, but not everything went to plan. Col Britz and Gen Lukin were constantly at loggerheads and their personal vendetta negatively impacted on their judgment and actions, so that they inevitably failed to arrive at their allocated positions at the allotted time. Gen de Wet and a large part of his force were thus able to escape through the gap in Botha’s encirclement. Gen Botha’s orders had been transmitted by heliograph and, when Gen Lukin’s signaller requested the code word to verify it, this was not transmitted. So it was assumed that the orders had been sent by the rebels in an attempt to mislead the Government forces.
What really transpired is that while Gen Lukin was standing with two signallers next to a heliograph on a koppie and observing the action, there was a thunderstorm and he and the signallers were struck by lightning. One of the signallers was killed and Lukin was unconscious for five minutes and his legs were temporarily paralysed.
Many of the troops had been transported in the cars made available to Gen Botha by the Transvaal Automobile Club and others. Two of these had been modified and fitted with machine guns. These were moved to the front and they fired at the rebels who were ill-equipped to face this type of attack. They fled in all directions. In addition Botha had a battery of CFA guns3 which came into action at 07:30, as the rebels were breaking camp. Gen Botha ordered them to “skiet” and the shells burst above the rebels who rode away as fast as they could. Gen Botha ordered the gunners to unload but this is done by firing them. Their aim was spot on much to the distress of the general.
It was a short “battle” and the available records do not give accurate details of rebel losses. Some details appear on the various memorials to the fallen on both sides erected in the area. Our speaker showed us a number of photographs of these.
Statistics released by the Union Defence Force were UDF – 6 killed in action and 20 wounded, Rebels – 22 killed in action and an unknown number wounded. A large number of wagons were captured and a number of rebels taken prisoner.
Gen de Wet was pursued by his former comrades in arms in the Government forces. These were largely transported in motor cars. He attacked the railway station at Virginia and, after this, told his burghers to accept Botha’s generous amnesty terms. He, with a few followers, headed for South West Africa where he hoped to join Manie Maritz. He was finally caught near Vryburg by Coen Brits’ motorised column. Gen Kemp crossed the Kalahari but surrendered in January 1915. Maritz escaped to Angola.
Gen de Wet and the other rebel leaders were tried in special courts in 1915. They were sentenced to prison terms of six years (although no one served more than two years). Heavy fines were also imposed. In December 1915, Gen de Wet was released on parole and within a year the other rebel leaders were also released after their fines had also been paid by their supporters. A number of shops had been looted by the rebels and their owners instituted civil actions against them. The Helpmekaar organization was founded to raise the compensation money as required by the courts, through public subscription. More than enough money was raised and the surplus money was utilized to establish the newspaper Die Burger.4 In the 1960s, the rebels were classified as war veterans and the survivors were granted a war veterans’ pension.
No medals were awarded for service during the rebellion – this applied to both sides. But most of those in the government forces later served in the German South West African campaign and qualified for campaign medals for their service there. The use of motor vehicles by Botha’s forces played a vital part in the pursuit of the rebels and their defeat. As a result of this, motor vehicles were taken into service in SWA and played a vital part in the logistic support to the fighting troops there. The machine gun carrying motor cars used in the battle of Mushroom Valley were not used in SWA. Proper armoured cars, however, were used.
The Chairman thanked our speaker for an interesting talk on a little known aspect of South Africa’s history and presented him with the customary gift.
We welcome Mr Nigel Fox, our speaker this evening, who has joined our ranks as member of the Cape Town branch, having recently moved from Gauteng to Riebeek Kasteel. We look forward to seeing him at future meetings.
ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING
Members are reminded that the Annual General Meeting will take place prior to the April lecture. The date is April 9, 2014. Members not paid up by that date, will not be eligible to vote.
A BULLET IN THE BACK: THE 1914 AFRIKANER REBELLION by Nigel Fox
A pamphlet advertising the above-mentioned book - authored and recently published by this month’s speaker, Nigel Fox - was enclosed with the February newsletter. Copies of the book were also on sale at the February meeting. Retail Price: R195 (incl. VAT) Anybody that might have missed the pamphlet and is interested in obtaining a copy, can contact either the editor at email@example.com, the Branch Secretary or the Branch Treasurer, whose details follow at the end of the newsletter.
REBELSPOOR: DIE AANLOOP, VERLOOP EN AFLOOP VAN DIE BOERE-OPSTAND VAN 1914-1915, by Dr. Louis Bothma
In the centenarian commemoration of the First World War, hardly any mention is made of a political upheaval and armed reaction locally that had direct bearing on the global cataclysm – the Rebellion of 1914-15. It is not surprising, as the “insurrection” hardly received any mention in the mainstream histories of the First World War other than brief mention in a paragraph or two, or a footnote. In modern South African histories it also receives scant coverage – at most a page-and-a-half – pictures included. Very few books on the subject had been published in the previous century - mostly in Afrikaans, a few in Dutch and hardly any in English. This can be explained by the fact that most participants were rural Afrikaners who still were still republicans at heart and ex-combatants of the “English War” of 1899-1902, as they tend to refer to it, with a mere twelve years separating the two events. It was, however, a major crisis for the subjugated Afrikaner section of the population in the Union of South Africa: It pitted bittereinders from the South African War fighting on the Rebel side against bittereinders fighting on the government side. Brother against brother, family against family, and friends and comrades of yesteryear, against each other. It was a civil war in microcosm, in the context of the larger European civil war then underway. It had a profound impact on the Afrikaner psyche, having to deal with the fact of now being an imperial subject loyal to a king thousands of kilometres away whose subjects not only caused them immeasurable hardship, suffering and physical loss, but also having to come to terms with the fact that Afrikaner took up weapons against fellow Afrikaner twelve years ago and having to forgive them for that. The Rebellion only served to bring all that mental anguish and bitterness to the surface again. It certainly was the greatest test of the noble imperialist idea of “union”, since its inception in 1910, but it can be argued that had the sore not burst open in 1914, it could have taken place at a later stage, and have had a much more profound impact on the British efforts at appeasement amongst the various population groups in South Africa. Dr Louis Bothma’s book is a fresh and thought-provoking look at the origins of the 1914 Rebellion and is the first substantial work to appear since the ground-breaking work of Dr G D Scholtz, Die Rebellie, 1914-15, published in 1942. It is certainly the most comprehensive and substantial work on the subject to date, and is highly recommended to the serious, as well as lay historian with an interest in contemporary South African history, as well as those interested in the history of the First World War. It can only be hoped that Dr Bothma’s book will in due course be translated and published in English, so as to enable a greater market to be reached, but also to counter a general bias amongst English readers and speakers, as well as regards the radical decision of Afrikaner subjects to oppose the government of the day’s automatic entry in the First World War. As it was an almost spontaneous, popular uprising amongst the largely bittereinders of the war of 1899-1902, poorly co-ordinated and provisioned, it was rapidly suppressed by the better-equipped, mechanised and superiorly armed government forces.
Self-published 2014; Paperback: 530 pages; colour & b/w photos, 13 maps. RRP R295,00
IRON FIST FROM THE SEA: SOUTH AFRICA'S SEABORNE RAIDERS 1978-1988, by Douw Steyn & Arne Söderlund
This seminal work documents the clandestine seaborne operations undertaken by South Africa’s 4 Reconnaissance Commando Regiment. It breathtakingly reveals the versatility and effectiveness of this elite unit which worked with a range of other South African and Rhodesian forces, including the Rhodesian SAS, to engage in a range of raiding and war fighting activities. These operations saw the clandestine reconnaissance of harbours, the sinking of enemy shipping and the destruction of shore installations in Angola and Mozambique. Just some of the tasks undertaken by this extraordinary maritime capability which totalled no more than 45 operators, both black and white.
With unparalleled access to previously secret material, the authors, both of whom worked to develop 4 Recce’s operating capabilities, trace the origins of the Regiment back to the 1970’s when the South African’s determined the need for a maritime force projection capability. They relate how maritime doctrine was developed within South Africa’s wider Special Forces capability and how joint operational approaches were configured with the South African Navy. This saw the development of a range of swimmer, reconnaissance, diving and boat operator training courses, along with the design of specialist raiding craft and amphibious assault platforms, which were designed to operate from the Navy’s existing ships and submarines. All of which demonstrated the immense potential of this newly emergent force and the resourcefulness of its individual operators. Required to successfully complete a gruelling selection process, the operators of 4 Recce were relentlessly tested to prove their physical and mental mettle, not to mention their leadership skills and initiative.
Steyn and Söderlund’s chronological analysis of the operations undertaken by 4 Recce and the South African Navy is stunning to behold. They impartially detail the secret and specialised actions which saw both success and failure. From Cabinda on the West Coast to Tanzania on the East Coast, 4 Recce, whose existence and capability was largely kept secret even within the South African Defence Force, conducted numerous clandestine raids. They attacked shipping and strategic targets such as oil facilities, transport infrastructure and even ANC offices. And sometimes the raids did go wrong, spectacularly so in one instance when two operators were killed and Captain Wynand Du Toit was captured. He was later paraded in front of the world’s media, much to the embarrassment of the South African government.
This is a fascinating work and one that will enthral anyone with an interest in Special Forces operations. Profusely illustrated with many previously unpublished photographs, it stands as a testament to the authors’ endeavours as, respectively, the former Operations Commander of 4 Recce and the former Commander of the Task Group of the SA Navy - as well as the incredible operators of 4 Recce.
Publisher: GG Books UK & Helion & Company (November 2014); Paperback: 496 pages, c 100 colour & b/w photos, 10 maps. RRP R685,00
12 MARCH 2015: THE DARDANELLES CAMPAIGN by Alan Mountain
The Dardanelles Campaign was bold and brilliant in its conception, but it was beyond the imagination and conservative training of the man who was suddenly given the responsibility for carrying it out. The result was the beginning of what is considered by many military historians to be the most ignominious defeat the British ever suffered at the hands of an enemy for whom they had utter contempt and a country which they labelled “the sick man of Europe”. In his presentation Alan Mountain deals briefly with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of the Young Turks and why they sided with Germany rather than Britain, notwithstanding the long-standing historic relationship between Britain and the Ottoman Empire. He deals in some detail with the events of the naval bombardment of the Turco-German defences in the Dardanelles and ends with an overview of the campaign and its consequences with the advantages of hindsight.
09 APRIL 2015: MATJIESFONTEIN AND WAR: THE ROLE OF THE FAMOUS ‘LAIRD’ by Dr Dean Allen
A native of Somerset in the West Country of England, Dr Dean Allen’s long association with South Africa began in the mid-1990s when he began his studies at Stellenbosch University. Having recently taken up an appointment as a Senior Lecturer at Bournemouth University in the UK, Dean was up until now based at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town. Dean has taught at Universities in South Africa, Australia, Northern Ireland and England and is widely published in the areas of sports history and sociology. It was during research for his Master’s Degree (that focused on Sport during the Anglo-Boer War) that Dean first visited Matjiesfontein and a fascination for the history of this region led to a PhD that was completed in 2008. His long-awaited book, Empire, War and Cricket in South Africa: Logan of Matjiesfontein, published by Penguin Random House (Zebra Press), will be released early in April 2015.
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