South African Military History Society


Most members of our society are amateur historians of military history whose interest began outside the classroom and was probably aroused by reading historical fiction or watching films. This was the contention of Marjorie Dean, committee member and former history teacher, who delivered the curtain raiser at the lecture meeting on 9 May.

Most of the formal history teaching in schools ends up as a battle to stuff dates, names and places into the heads of pupils for whom they have little meaning or relevance. The brighter ones memorise enough to get them through their exams, then promptly forget it all. That is why for most of us a love of history begins when we are already adults, and frequently because our interest has been stimulated by an excellent book or a film or TV series based on a book. Rarely are these scholarly works. Almost invariably they are historical novels, and their purpose is not history teaching. It is 'history telling'.

The professional historian's method is to examine and analyse the past in depth. The novelists tell their stories by creating characters with whom the reader can identify and weaving around them forward-moving plots that arrive at the kind of defined conclusions often denied to history.

Writing a good historical novel is not easy. It involves extensive research, much background reading and a meticulous respect for detail. Yet some of the world's greatest literature has come to us in the form of historical fiction. The Greek poet Homer gave us an immortal account of the fall of Troy. Shakespeare presents an eloquent and inspiring Henry V before Agincourt. Napoleon's invasion of Russia becomes a vivid saga in Tolstoy's War and Peace.

On a slightly lower literary level we learn much about life in Nelson's navy from C S Forester's Hornblower series; of what it was like in the WW1 trenches from Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front; or what happened to the defeated Confederacy in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Films have also played a prominent role in arousing interest in history, especially the military kind where action and drama are easily brought together.

The order 'fix bayonets', in whatever language, has set the adrenaline pumping in many generations of infantrymen. In the last 400 years or so, the cold steel bayonet has been the most visible and intimidating of all hand weapons. It was the subject of the main lecture of the evening, given by members of the SA Arms and Ammunition Collectors Association.

The bayonet did not originate as a weapon of war. It began life as a spike plugged into the muzzle of the musket used by hunters. Denny Rademeyer explained how, in the 1600s, when firearms could not be relied on to kill, it was useful for the hunter to have something at the end of his musket to administer the coup de grace. A plug in the muzzle impedes loading, so when the bayonet came to be used as a military weapon it developed the familiar socket or sleeve characteris-tics. It thus became possible for the infantryman to fire his musket, then advance on his enemy using it as a pike.

There are two possible origins for the name of the bayonet. One arises from its first appearance in the region of the French town of Bayonne. The other is its possible derivation from the French name for the crossbow bolt, the bayon. In subsequent manifestations it became a sword, a spike and the multi-purpose, short dagger-type weapon used today.

An alarming development in the late 19th-early 20th century was the saw-backed bayonet, around which many blood-curdling legends have arisen. The fact that the teeth were, as the name implied, intended as a saw rather than to inflict a greater wound was shown by Colin Amm, who used a saw-backed bayonet to cut through a piece of wood.

Much of the effectiveness of the bayonet in killing the enemy lay in the state of medical methods used at the time the wound was inflicted. Gruesome statistics produced by Dr Stanley Brown showed that far more deaths were likely to result from infections picked up in treatment, or lack of it, than from the original wound.

Finally Wim Moote explained the numerous forms the bayonet had taken throughout history, in the American Civil War it even took the shape of a trowel, and the many purposes for which modern bayonets are designed. Among other things, these include wire cutting and bottle opening. The days of the bayonet charge appear to be over.


The South African Military History Society will convene a luncheon at 12h30 on Sunday 9 June 2002 at the Rand Club, Loveday St., Johannesburg, to remember this very special event in South Africa's history. The Rand Club has been chosen as the venue because it is one of the few surviving buildings in Johannesburg with direct links to the events of 1988-2002. Cost of the luncheon, including wine, will be R155 per person. Safe parking is available. Visitors and guests welcome. For more information and to book, call Lyn Miller at (011) 442-7540 during office hours, or (011) 447-1637 after hours. CLOSING DATE IS 31 MAY 2002!



13 June
CR Colin Dean - The German Underground
ML David Williams - The Battle of Sidi Rezegh, 1941
11 July
CR Geoff Hardy - Aspects of the Spanish Civil War
ML Paul Schamberger - The Siege of Mafeking


13 June
DDH Bill Brady - USS Harry S Truman
ML Ken Gillings - A Summary of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902

Cape Town

13 June
Richard 'Dickie' Bullen - Operations of V-Force in Arakan/South-West Burma 1942-43

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

Contact number in Cape Town: John (Jochen) Mahncke (021) 797-5167

Contact number in Durban: Dr Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983

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