South African Military History Society

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Jan-Willem Hoorweg, our new Chairman, opened the meeting with the attendance figures and the notices. He asked the members to consider a 7.30pm start in place of 8.00pm so as to allow members more time to chat after the meetings. He said that if the change was made it would be announced well in advance. He requested a show of hands on the matter.

The curtain-raiser for the evening was Flora Sandes: The British rector's daughter who became a Serbian national heroine. This was given by Peter Griffiths of the East Rand Military History Society and was illustrated with wonderful photographs from the period. Flora Sandes was the only British woman to serve openly as a soldier in WWI and also the first commissioned woman officer in the fighting ranks of any modern army. Moreover, she served with the Serbian army which experienced unparalleled death and suffering.

Flora Sandes was a spinster of thirty-eight when WWI broke out - albeit one who owned and drove her own car and was an intrepid globe-trotter. Primarily in pursuit of adventure, Flora leveraged her training with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry [FANY's] to join an expedition to Serbia with six other volunteer nurses. During a third nursing stint in Serbia in October 1915, whilst attached to the crack 2nd Regiment of the First Army of Serbia as a medical orderly, Flora was caught up in a grueling retreat which claimed the lives of 100 000 of the 250 000 Serbian soldiers who took part in it. When Flora had exhausted her medical supplies and could no longer help the wounded she refused to leave the regiment so Col Militch offered her a place in the regiment as a private soldier. There were already a few women soldiers in the Serbian army so there was precedent for this. Flora enthusiastically agreed and she always remembered it as the proudest moment of her life.

Eventually, the remnants of the regiment were sent to Corfu to recover. Conditions were appalling - cold and very wet with fires forbidden to the troops. As a result Flora went into town to badger the British and French authorities - she came back with much needed supplies of food plus was issued with 3250 sets of British army uniforms and underwear for her regiment. She was promoted to sergeant for this. On 15 November 1916, Flora narrowly escaped injury when her holstered revolver deflected some of the fragments from a Bulgarian hand grenade. After having some of the fragments removed, without anaesthetic, she was transported to the military hospital in Salonika. Here, an a-d-c of the Prince Regent of Serbia arrived to award her the Kara George Star and promote her to sergeant major. During further convalescing in England, Flora wrote an article for the Morning Post called "The Serbian soldier - what he endures and deserves." A public appeal and speaking engagements helped Flora to obtain sufficient clothing to provide an entire Serbian army division with shirts, pants and knitted socks.

Flora's wounds healed just in time for her to return for the great offensive of September 1918. Only 83 766 Serbian soldiers could be mustered for this from an army that had been 650 000 strong in 1914. The offensive turned into a triumphal procession as the Allied forces marched through newly-liberated towns and villages. Flora, now regarded as a national heroine, was often singled out for affectionate mobbing. In June 1919, by a special act of the Yugoslav Parliament, Flora was promoted to lieutenant - thus becoming the first commissioned woman officer in the fighting ranks of a modern army.

The main speaker was John Murray who gave a media-rich talk on The Mary Rose. He began by tracing its early history. She was built in 1545 on the orders of Henry VIII as the flagship of his fleet and was the first purpose-built English warship. She was to be used in his wars against the French in support of his tenuous claim to the French throne and was named in honour of his sister, Mary, and the Tudor rose - the symbol of their dynasty. She was costly to build and 400 oaks went into her construction. Unfortunately, there were serious design-flaws but Henry VIII so terrified his naval advisors that they did not dare to recommend adjustments to the ship. In the ensuing war, the French fleet took the offensive on the Solent and the English fleet was trapped in Portsmouth. Whilst attempting to tack to escape the blockade, the Mary Rose heeled over, took in water and sank quickly. Tumbling equipment and cannon caused chaos on board and the anti-boarding nets on the decks prevented officers and men from escaping. Out of a crew of 415 only 15 survived and they were mainly men who had been up in the rigging at the time.

There are conflicting views about the sinking which was clearly witnessed by many people on land. Apart from the design flaws, the ship had been sitting in port for a long time which would have had a detrimental effect on her timbers. Added to this, she was overmanned by troops, considering her size.

At the time, Venetian experts were hired to refloat the ship. They tried to do this with the use of strong cables as the tide rose. However, they only managed to raise the sails, masts and some guns because she was lying at an angle. Eventually, the ship collapsed on to the seabed with her starboard in the silt.

In the 1960's the search began for the Mary Rose by scuba-diving in the area of the wreck. In 1967 this area where the ship lay had to be leased before exploration could go ahead. It turned out to belong to the Queen who leased it to the exploration team for the peppercorn rent of 1Pound per annum.

Between 1968 and 1978 exploration went ahead with the use of pingers which resulted in the discovery of 2 ships guns, timbers and the shape of the ship where she lay. Prince Charles became president of the charitable trust in charge of operations in 1979 which gave the exploration a huge publicity boost.

When explored, the wreck proved to be a time warp of Tudor sea life and plans went ahead to raise her. By tunneling under the wreck 170 wires were looped beneath her and airlifts were used but only after guns and large planks had been removed. Eventually, the Mary Rose was lifted with the aid of barges which lifted her sideways because of the way she was lying, before pulling her up. On 11 October 1982, the ship surfaced to the sounds of a gun salute and klaxons and was finally lifted onto a barge. Once in the open air she was at risk after such a long immersion and had to be sprayed constantly with water.

The Mary Rose was housed in a special building with a protective skin over it and the spraying continued for a further 12 years as a preservative measure. A huge selection of items was discovered such as pocket compasses - the forerunners of the pocket watch. The empty space left on the sea bed was next explored resulting in the discovery of still more Tudor artifacts plus the raising of the original anchor and the missing part of the ship. The Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth is well worth a visit, not only to view all the items from the ship itself but also the display concerning the exploration and raising.

On Saturday 14 May the MHS had a successful outing to Val for Boer 'n Brit Day. The weather was extremely cold and wet but proceedings went with a swing - including a book launch, a visit to the cemetery, and a visit to a memorial. This memorial was to Arthur Martin-Leake who was born in Standen, Hertfordshire, on 4 April 1874. He is one of only three men to have been awarded 2 VCs. Surgeon Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) Martin-Leake was a member of the South African Constabulary then Royal Army Medical Corps, attached to the 5th Field Ambulance. On 8 February 1902, at Vlakfontein, Martin-Leake went out into the firing line to dress a wounded man under very heavy enemy fire only 100 yards away. He then attended a badly wounded officer and while doing so was shot himself. He only gave up when thoroughly exhausted and then refused water until other wounded men had been served. He was awarded his first VC for this. During the period 29 October to 8 November 1914 near Zonnebeke, Belgium, Martin-Leake showed conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in rescuing, whilst exposed to constant fire, a large number of the wounded who were lying close to the enemy's trenches. For this action he was awarded a bar to his VC.

The group made a stop en route home at the Heidelberg Cemetery which contains the burial ground of the Heidelberg Concentration Camp. Many thanks to David Scholtz for organizing and sponsoring this trip.

Pat Henning

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