South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 8 September 2016 was Mr Alan Mountain whose topic was General Lord Kitchener's service during the South African War of 1899-1902, when he was Chief of Staff to Lord Roberts and, later, when he succeeded Lord Roberts as Commander in Chief in South Africa. Mr Alan Mountain is the Vice-Chairman of the Cape Town Branch and is a regular and popular presenter of well-researched and thought-provoking lectures locally. I use the word "presenter" instead of "speaker", as Alan's hallmark is his pre-recorded audio-visual historical topics presented digitally by means of state-of-the-art equipment. This is the second of a three-part lecture series on this well-known but controversial personality, ultimately taking us up to the death of Kitchener in 1916 (Part 3 will be presented during the 1917 lecture series).

Our speaker introduced his talk by describing the three major defeats inflicted on the British Army by the Republican Forces during "Black Week", 10 to16 December 1899. These defeats shocked and surprised the people in Britain for a number of reasons. The British army had fought in many colonial campaigns with only a few setbacks such as the one at Isandhlwana during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. In addition, the force sent to South Africa to conquer the Boer Republics was one of the largest ever to leave British shores.

The first defeat was at Stormberg where Gen Gatacre attacked a Boer force and was repulsed by them, suffering 135 casualties and losing some 600 men taken prisoner. The General described this as "a serious reverse". The second defeat took place at Magersfontein, where a Boer force commanded by Gen Piet Cronjé blocked the southern route to a besieged Kimberley. He opposed the digging of trenches until President Steyn appointed Gen de la Rey to assist Cronjé. De la Rey ordered the digging of concealed trenches along the base of the hills. Range markers were placed in the open ground in front of the trenches to enable accurate rifle fire to be directed at the advancing British. The entire Boer force was manning the trenches which were camouflaged with thorn bushes. No Boers were manning positions on the hills themselves.

The British Highland Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Gen Wauchope, deployed and, after a barrage directed at the hills by the British Artillery, which served little purpose, deployed and advanced in a night attack in pouring rain and in muddy ground. They met with a hail of accurate rifle fire and were pinned down in the open veld. The General and 210 others were killed and, on the following day, the surviving British troops had to endure a day lying under the hot sun, sheltering behind bushes and anthills, not daring to move lest they be picked off by the Boer marksmen.

The third disaster overtook the first British Commander in Chief in South Africa, General Sir Redvers Buller and his Natal Field Force of 18 000 men, who had been shocked by the news of the first two disasters. Ladysmith was under siege by the Boers and Buller advanced to relieve the garrison. He chose the direct route to Ladysmith and was defeated at Colenso. Colonel Long had moved his artillery forward into an exposed position. Here the Boer rifle, machine gun and Boer rifle, machine gun and artillery fire forced him to abandon the guns. In one of the attempts to recover the guns Lord Roberts' only son was killed. In the fighting, the British lost ten guns and 1,127 men.

Shocked and worried after the battle, Buller heliographed General Sir George White who commanded the garrison in Ladysmith, urging him to "burn your cipher, destroy your guns and make the best terms possible with the enemy". The total British casualties during Black Week were some 3,000 men.

Two weeks prior to Black Week, Lord Roberts then Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, had written to the Secretary of State for War, offering to "end the war in a satisfactory manner". The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, aged 69, felt that Lord Roberts, aged 69 himself, was too old for the post. After Black Week, Lord Salisbury agreed that Lord Roberts should supersede Buller but on the condition that his Chief-of-Staff should be a younger man. Major General Lord Kitchener was delighted to accept this appointment. Lord Roberts accepted the appointment as Commander-in-Chief and later that day learned that his only son had died of his wounds at Colenso.

Kitchener asked to be given local rank senior to that of the other general officers in South Africa. This request was not approved. Nevertheless he became in effect Roberts's second-in-command.

Roberts and Kitchener left Cape Town for the western front on 6 February 1900 and, when Roberts became ill, Lord Kitchener took command. They had drawn up a plan on the voyage to South Africa aboard the Dunnottar Castle. Although they hardly knew each other, they got on well.

General French misled General Cronjé and successfully relieved Kimberley in one of the last great cavalry charges in history. In a state of shock and after some delay, Cronjé moved east on the night of 15/16 February 1900. The dust of his wagons was spotted by Kitchener's scouts. French was ordered to leave Kimberley in pursuit. Instead of escaping, Cronjé chose to form a laager on the Modder River at Paardeberg.

When Lt Gen Kelly-Kenny was pressured to besiege Gen Cronjé, Kitchener became impatient and thought that he could quickly crush Gen Cronjé in the same way that he had defeated Mahmoud in the Sudan. As Kitchener was junior in rank to Kelly-Kenny a message was sent to Lord Roberts, who replied that Kitchener was in command. Kitchener had failed to realise that he was fighting against well-armed Boer marksmen and not "fuzzy wuzzies". He confidently announced that "we will be in the laager by 10:30" and rode around the British positions giving verbal orders. The British attack was pinned down by accurate Mauser fire. The British units suffered some 1,200 casualties.

When Lord Roberts arrived, he decided to use his artillery to shell Cronjé, his burghers and their wives and children into submission. Kitchener was sent to repair the railway lines at Noupoort. After Cronjé's surrender, the British army advanced along the railway to Bloemfontein, where the two generals made their plans to advance along the railway to Johannesburg, the Witwatersrand and Pretoria. Kitchener was actively engaged in carrying out various operations, keeping the railways in good working order and resolving problems. With the capture of Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal Republic, it was thought that the war would come to an end. Kitchener was appointed to succeed Lord Roberts as Commander-in-Chief in South Africa on 29 November 1900.

In England it was thought that the fall of Pretoria heralded the end of the war. In reality, a low-intensity, but ferocious guerrilla war was to rage all over South Africa for a further two years.

Kitchener attempted to end the war by convening a meeting of the Burgher Peace Committee (surrendered Boers) on 21 December 1900 and encouraged them to send messages to those still on commando to persuade them to surrender. These messages were rejected with contempt. At this Kitchener then laid plans to end the war and he extended Lord Roberts' scorched earth policy ruthlessly. Farmhouses were burnt and destroyed, crops, cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and poultry were either confiscated or slaughtered. Old men, women and children were rounded up and incarcerated in what became known as "concentration camps".1 Able-bodied men were either on commando or locked up in camps - some were sent overseas to St Helena, Ceylon and other places. The Boer commandos continued to roam the country, attacking the British who now included Canadian, Australian and New Zealand troops as well as what they saw as "Rebel Boers". They fed and armed themselves from captured supplies. A network of approximately 8,000 blockhouses - and interconnected with barbed wire fences - were built along the railway lines and at bridges from attack to protect these from attack. All-in-all this vast network of fortifications crisscrossed the veldt of South Africa for a distance of 6,000 kms.

Numerous additional blockhouses and barbed wire fences were erected all over the country to hinder the mobility of the commandos. Drives were organised in the enclosed areas using thousands of troops to try and wipe out the commandos and the scorched earth policy and rounding up of civilians enforced ever more strictly. Those still fighting were threatened with banishment. But the Boers continued to resist. Boer and black families driven off the land were incarcerated in concentration camps which, at least initially, were inefficiently run and some 27,900 Boers, mostly women and children, perished because of poor health services in the camps. Many black people who had been imprisoned also died.

At the end of February 1901, Kitchener met with General Botha at Middelburg to discuss peace. However the independence of the two Boer republics was not negotiable in the eyes of the Boers and other obstacles, including the opposition of Lord Milner, resulted in the breakdown of negotiations.

Kitchener had his heart set on becoming the next Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army (and subsequently the Viceroy) and badly wanted to end the war as fast as possible. Since the steps he had taken had not had the desired effect, he decided to impose the death penalty on Cape rebels. He also armed Africans and Coloureds - by March 1902, there were 10,053 of these.

Our speaker pointed out that Kitchener did not seem concerned about the long-term consequences of his policies and the understandable deep divisions which they would cause in South Africa.

He read two moving extracts, one about the feelings of British soldiers forced to carry out Kitchener's farm burning policy and the other an extract from a speech by David Lloyd-George prophesying that South Africa would reap the whirlwind of Kitchener's policies. Another extract foretold that South Africa could become a new America.

By this stage (early 1902) large parts of the Transvaal and Orange Free State were blackened wastes. The Boers still had some 22,000 men under arms but exhaustion was setting in. A preliminary meeting was held on 12 April 1902 with proposals from both sides. The British were surprised to hear the Boer wish to remain independent - after all who would not be proud to be British. Milner took part in this meeting and his jingoistic ideas proved to influence the talks. Eventually, on 15 May 1902, the peace talks started in Vereeniging.

After long discussions between the various factions among the Boers, proposals for peace were placed before the British, who rejected them out of hand. Kitchener and Milner wanted complete surrender. Ten proposals were placed before the Boer delegates, one of which allowed self-government to the two Boer Republics. These were declared to non-negotiable by the British. On 31 May 1902 the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed and peace returned to a devastated land and a poverty-stricken population. The Boers had been defeated by an army larger than the population of the two Boer Republics. The aftermath of this war has had a great influence on the development of South Africa for over a century.

Kitchener had wanted a speedy victory but was denied this. Despite protests over the maladministration of the concentration camps and calls for his resignation, Kitchener survived to see the Boer leaders sign the Treaty of Vereeniging. His own contribution to the negotiations was to inform Gen Smuts that, in his opinion, a Liberal Government would rule Britain within two years.

He returned to England to be created a Viscount, receive the Order of Merit, the thanks of Parliament and a grant of £50,000.

Fellow committee member Ian van Oordt thanked Alan Mountain for an exceptionally fascinating and deeply-moving presentation which was in his mind one of the best in many years. He presented him with the customary gift.

1 The Spanish first used the term "Reconcentrado" - hence the English name "Concentration" (the notoriety and stigma attached to the British-run camps during the SA War led to similar camps for foreign "aliens" during the First and Second World Wars to be known euphemistically as "internment camps"). Contrary to popular belief, the British-introduced concentration camps in South Africa (the British colonies of the Cape and Natal, as well as in the erstwhile Boer Republics of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal) and the Oranje-Vrijstaat (Free State) were predated by American concentration camps for Native Americans (Indians - 1838); Spanish camps in Cuba (1895-1898), and British-built and - run camps in Nortwestern India. Ed.



SAMHS 50th Anniversary Dinner: The Gauteng Branch of the Society has organised a lunch on the 16th of October for its members to commemorate the formal founding of our society in 1966. The founding of the various branches in different centres around the country then followed (founding dates in brackets): Kwazulu-Natal (1968/1969); Cape Town (1975), and Eastern Cape (2004). Bloemfontein and the Western Transvaal also had branches by 1970 but both were later discontinued.

Our congratulations and best wishes to the Society on our 50th anniversary.

From the Chairman, Committee and Ordinary Members of the Cape Town Branch.



13 OCTOBER 2016: Part One - BATTLE OF BLAAUWBERG by Ms Barbara George
Our first speaker for the evening will give an overview of a recent overseas visit to Europe and the United Kingdom, where 15 different Archive Repositories in 4 countries were visited in the space of eight weeks to collect material - some of it hitherto not accessed since the battle itself.
She will share some thoughts on the similarities and differences, challenges, experiences, people and events during this hectic two-month whirlwind research endeavour in collecting material for fellow-member Ian van Oordt's in-depth study of the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806.

Waterloo as one of the most famous battles in modern history, needs no introduction. Having recently visited the battlefield on its 201st anniversary, our speaker will present the talk as a photographic tour of the battlefield from a "then and now" perspective.
The whole battlefield today is protected and although it is still used for agricultural purposes, no further development is allowed and buildings can only be maintained and repaired, but not extended.
To orientate and inform the audience, selected old paintings will highlight specific areas of the battlefield, such as places where heavy fighting occurred or of prominent buildings, and recent photographs will show what these places look like today. There are a number of museums on the battlefield of which some are new, but most are housed in the original buildings that played a role during the battle. The museums are outstanding in their content, but under the poor lighting conditions, difficult to photograph properly. However, the photographs will give a good idea of what is displayed.

The photographic tour will start off at the battle of Quatre Bras the day before Waterloo itself, and move on to Waterloo proper. The viewer will see where the Allied and French lines formed up, Hougoumont farm, the killing field, and where Capt Mercer's artillery battery covered themselves in immortal glory, and the charge of the French Cavalry of Ney and Kellerman took place. Moving eastwards, in the vicinity of La Haye Saint, the assault by D'Erlon's Corps, the charge by the Scots Greys, Papelotte, La Haye and the sunken road will be graphically portrayed to give a clearer understanding of events on that fateful day. The audience will also follow the Prussian advance, the crucial clash at Plancenoit, view the Prussian monument, Napoleon's observation point, La Belle Alliance and the fallen eagle. Finally we will visit Napoleon's and Wellington's bivouacs the night before the battle.

All positions of the photographs taken will be clearly shown on a map prepared for this talk.


Major Heitman's annual overview of the security situation in Africa has never failed in the past to draw a full-house as far as attendance is concerned - this year it certainly would be no less so, in view of the continuing unstable political situation and economic turmoil in many an African state. As with his previous lectures, he will probably start the evening with a short introductory talk on an as yet undisclosed subject. This will be the final lecture in the year's programme. Make sure you don't miss it.
The lecture will be illustrated.


No lectures are scheduled for December as the Cape Town Branch will be in recess in view of the upcoming summer holiday/festive season at the end of the year. The Branch will routinely commence with its activities on the third Thursday of January, the date being the 19th of January, 2017.

Commemorating the Centenary of the Advent of the Tank

Exactly one hundred years ago, on the 22nd of September, 1916, the tank made its debut on the battlefields of the Somme, adjacent to Delville Wood, which holds special meaning for South Africans. The following article tells the story of its debut.

The Story of the British Tank

Readers are referred to the original article which was
Published by "Britain at War" Magazine
15 September 2016


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /