South African Military History Society


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 160

January/Januarie 2018

SAMHSEC’s December meeting took place on Monday 11th at the usual venue in Port Elizabeth.

The members’ slot was taken by Malcolm Kinghorn who showed a short Canadian Broadcasting Corporation video commemorating the centenary of the Halifax explosion on 6th December 1917. Malcolm summarised as follows: The Halifax explosion had been the subject of a curtain raiser in September 2008 and was recorded in SAMHSEC Newsletter 48) as follows: ”… the Halifax Explosion, which killed over 2000 people. The SS Mont Blanc collided with the SS Imo while entering Halifax harbour in Nova Scotia, Canada on 6th December 1917. She had been loaded in New York with 2300 tons of picric acid (used in making lyddite for artillery shells), 200 tons of trinitrotoluene (TNT) and ten tons of gun cotton (explosive made by seeping cotton in acids), with drums of benzol (high octane fuel) stacked on her decks. When some of the benzol drums broke loose and caught fire, the crew abandoned ship. At 09:05 the Mont Blanc blew up. The blast flattened the immediate area for two square kilometres and devastated 1300 more. Most of the windows in Halifax were blown out. The ship's gun landed 2 km away and the stock of one of her anchors 5 km away. The resulting wave rocked nearby ships, some from their moorings. Smaller vessels were sunk. A settlement of the Micmac (Native American tribe of the area) was washed away.

A rising hill opposite the site of the explosion gave an excellent view of the ship on fire. There were many spectators, with a high percentage of eye injuries caused by shattering windows among the thousands of wounded. After the blast, a number of secondary fires occurred”. Before the dawn of the atomic bomb, this was the largest man-made explosion in history.

Halifax explosion memorial 6th December 2017

The curtain raiser, titled Majabigwaduce: the second biggest naval disaster in US history was given by John Stephens.

During the American Revolutionary War, the largest combined infantry-naval operation by the American colonists, known as the Penobscot Expedition, met with disaster off the Majabigwaduce Peninsula on the coast of Massachusetts in the summer of 1779. A British force of roughly 750 men of the 74th and 82nd Highland Regiments had landed there to establish a base with the aim of protecting vital British seaborne supply lines from Halifax, which were being severely harassed and plundered by American Privateers.

When the Massachusetts Legislature became aware that the British were landing in the area, they hastily put together the largest seaborne operation of the war to drive them out. The Americans arrived at Majabigwaduce with all the advantages of sea power, strength and guns and should have easily overrun the British, who were still in the early stages of constructing a fort. The Americans even managed to land troops and marines while under fire and gained a commanding position from which to launch a final assault on the only partially completed British fortifications.However, as a result of conflict and dispute between the American army and naval commanders, who had equal authority, and neither of whom would compromise, there was a standoff which gave the British time to strengthen their defences and restrict American attempts to breach the fort.

When the Americans finally resolved to attack they were also faced with a powerful Royal Navy fleet which had arrived on the scene and which forced them to flee up the Penobscot River in an attempt to escape. Unfortunately for the Americans, the wind and weather were not in their favour and there was no escape from the Penobscot River. Out of their fleet of some 44 ships, one managed to escape, three were captured and the remainder were destroyed by their crews to prevent capture. This resulted in the second worst naval disaster in the history of the United States after Pearl Harbour. The costs of the disaster were enormous and effectively bankrupted the state of Massachusetts at the time.

It is interesting to note that Majabigwaduce was the last place to be vacated by the British nearly a year after the war ended, and the first place to be reoccupied during the 1812- 1815 war between the United States and Great Britain, and was again the last place to be vacated at the end of that war.

The main lecture, Horses in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), was presented by Anne Irwin.

She began by outlining the relationship between humans and horses that has been forged over thousands of years, pointing out that horses have played a significant role in war over the past 3 000 years.

What makes the Anglo-Boer War particularly interesting is not only that it was the last fully horse-powered war in history, but the sheer number of horses required by both sides – as well as the shocking number of horses that died.

The British army realised early on that in order to successfully compete with the mobility of the Boers, their slow-moving infantry would also have to be mounted. As there were not enough local horses available, large numbers had to be imported from all over the world, including 50 000 from the United States and 35 000 from Australia – many of which were landed in Port Elizabeth.

Soon after arriving on the shores of South Africa, the horses would be loaded on trains for transport to the line regiments where they were needed. While the larger imported horses might initially have appeared to be superior to the smaller, hardy Boer horses, they did not prove to be equal to them for a number of reasons – not least that they were unused to the terrain and weather conditions.

The number of horses that died in the war was unprecedented. Overall figures indicate that on the British side, over 326 000 horses and more than 51 000 mules died between October 1899 and May 1902. The life expectancy of an imported horse was only six weeks from the time of its arrival in South Africa. Apart from dying in combat, other reasons for the demise of horses included the trying conditions they endured during the long sea voyages: they suffered from being confined to their narrow stalls; from inadequate aeration; and from the lack of exercise which led to poor muscle tone. They thus arrived with their immune systems severely compromised, making them susceptible to various diseases. It is estimated that approximately 6 000 horses died of Horse Sickness during the last two years of the war. Many others died from overwork and exhaustion. Given the regular loss of horses in combat, it was not always possible for the imported horses to be adequately rested and acclimatised, or for the sick ones to be treated and quarantined. To compound this, there were not always adequate veterinary supplies available to treat the horses, nor a ready supply of clean water. The Boer horses also died in their thousands.

Overgrazing and insufficient food supplies entrenched low-level malnutrition. Unlike the Boer horses, the imported horses were unused to surviving on the natural veld grass. Their larger size also made them more dependent on the fodder that had to be imported in large quantities from places such as Mexico and Argentina – leading to a lasting legacy of khakibos, blackjacks and cosmos in this country. The provision of fodder for Boer horses, usually in the form of wheat and oats, was beset by inadequate transport and supply – a situation worsened by the scorched earth policy of Lord Roberts and especially Lord Kitchener. Horses were also slaughtered for their meat, especially during the sieges of Mafeking, Ladysmith and Kimberley. During these sieges, the British troops produced chevril, a Bovril-like paste, by boiling down the horse meat to a jelly and serving it as a type of ‘beef’ tea.

Apart from the obvious accoutrements of war, horseshoes and nails were regarded as essential to the war effort. Both became so scarce that horseshoes were sometimes removed from dead animals and the veld scoured for scrap metal to be cast into horseshoes.

Many soldiers on both sides formed emotional bonds with their horses, viewing them as comrades rather than simply as military property. Boers rode their own horses, ownership of which was vital for their survival in the field. Horse-thieving was commonplace however, with the appearance of stolen horses occasionally altered by cutting the manes or tails to avoid recognition.

It was in honour of the role played by horses in the Anglo-Boer War that the first horse memorial in South Africa was erected in Port Elizabeth and unveiled on 11th February 1905. The second horse memorial was unveiled at the Weston Agricultural College at Mooi River (formerly a remount camp) on 31st May 2009.

An interesting footnote is that the 120 500 imported horses that survived the war were sold to local farmers in the year after the war. The presentation included a number of poems such as For want of a nail, a shoe was lost by Benjamin Franklin and Voorslag by A. G. Visser.

The Horse Memorial at Weston Agricultural College, Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal.
Photo: Pat Irwin.

Detail of the Horse Memorial at Weston Agricultural College.
Photo: Pat Irwin.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe

The next SAMHSEC meeting will be on Monday 8th January 2018 at 19h30 at the Eastern Cape Veteran Car Club in Conyngham Road, Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be by Franco Cilliers on the subject of South Africa’s Mobile Watch Units: A brief history. The main lecture will be by Ian Copley on The Spanish Armada.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang

Membership fees 2018

Joan Marsh, our National Secretary, has informed us that there will be no increase in subscriptions for 2018. This is the second year running that there has been no increase.
Single membership remains R235.00
Family membership remains R250.00
Subscriptions are due on 1st January 2018.

World War I Centenary Years / Eerste Węreldoorlog Eeufeesjare

Major engagements in January 2018

There were no major land battles during January 1918.

On the naval front, one engagement of note took place. The Battle of Imbros occurred on 20th January 1918 when Ottoman naval units engaged a flotilla of the Royal Navy off the island of Imbros in the Aegean Sea. The Ottoman battlecruiser YavűzSultânSelîm (formerly the German SMS Goeben of 1914 fame) and the light cruiser Midilli attacked and sank the British monitors HMS Raglan and HMS M28 before assaulting the Allied naval base at Mudros in Greece.

Having achieved their mission, the two Turkish ships then turned homewards but unintentionally ran into a minefield where Midilli was sunk and the YavűzSultânSelîm, pursued by British destroyers,damaged. Eventually with the assistance of Turkish destroyers and shore batteries, the YavűzSultânSelîm managed to beach herself. Six days later, having suffered air attacks, she was towed to safety in the Black Sea. In a prolonged continuation to the engagement the submarine HMS E-14 attempted to sink the YavűzSultânSelîm before she could be towed to safety. In this the E-14 was unsuccessful and herself ran into trouble when one of her torpedoes exploded prematurely and she was consequently bombarded by shore batteries. Her captain and one crew member were killed, and the rest of the crew taken prisoner when the boat was beached.

The net result of the engagement was that, despite the loss of the two monitors, with the most modern cruiser of the Ottoman Navy sunk and her only battlecruiser put out of action, the Ottoman Navy's offensive capability was effectively curtailed until the end of the war.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang


Restormel Castle: one of the oldest and best preserved Norman motte-and-bailey castles
Brad Smithfield Vintage News 6th December 2017

The Amber Room in the Charlottenburg Palace, dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World,’ disappeared during WWII, perhaps torpedoed in a submarine
Kate Bulo Vintage News 2nd December 2017

Historic aircraft

The flaming coffin, the German heavy dive bomber the Luftwaffe hated
Russell Hughes War History Online 8th December 2017

World War I

The Halifax explosion: A local history account: The story of Able Seaman Bert Saunders
Christian Cassidy West End Dumplings © 2017

Shot and blinded, a pigeon named Cher Ami continued her flight and saved 197 American soldiers at the end of World War I
Martin Chalakoski Vintage News 2nd December 2107

The opening frontier battles of World War One were fast-moving compared to the long and terrible stalemate which later defined the conflict
Andrew Knighton War History Online 3rd December 2017

World War II

Wartime bomb shelters – saving lives from bombing raids
Lincoln Riddle War History Online 7th December 2017

Cold War and post-Cold war

Herman Kahn: The physicist, nuclear-war strategist, and Cold War ‘scenario planner’ who inspired Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’
Boban Docevski Vintage News 3rd December 2017

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang


The aircraft carrier: King of the Pacific 9 minutes Contains rare colour footage.


Our Chairman, Malcolm Kinghorn, has suggested that the attached document, a Christmas letter by Robin Smith, a KZN Branch member, would likely be of interest to SAMHSEC members asit has been widely circulated elsewhere within the Society. Thank you to Robin for permission to include it.

Members are invited to send in to the scribes, short reviews of, or comments on, books, DVDs or any other interesting resources they have come across, as well as news on individual member’s activities. In this Newsletter, there have been contributions by Malcolm Kinghorn and Jonathan Ossher.

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn:
Secretary: Franco Cilliers:
Scribes (Newsletter): Anne and Pat Irwin:
Society’s Website:


The original caption translates as:
Christmas and New Year spent very nicely with our comrades.
What a difference compared to Christmas 1916!
Gifts even arrived from our loved ones,which no-one expected.

Sourced at:

South African Military History Society /