South African Military History Society



June 2002

PAST EVENTS: The May meeting, chaired by our Vice Chairman Bill Brady, provided 2 talks covering subject matter separated by 427 years and attracted a good size audience of members. Both speakers talked about single events that were part of a much bigger whole and the contents of both talks could not have been more different both in time and scale. We were to listen to the adventures of a single sailor escaping through Ireland in 1588 after shipwreck from a galleon of the Spanish Armada, and then to the harrowing tale of the British Army's last major battle of 1915.

The DDH was the second in a series of talks given by Dr. Gus Allen, entitled this time Irish Cameo No. 2, but which could have been described as The Adventures of Fransisco De Cuellar in Ireland - 1588. De Cuellar was the captain of the San Pedro, a galleon of the squadron of Cutille in the Spanish Armada of 1588. On 10 August, after all chances of success for the Armada had vanished the fleet was homeward bound round the north of Scotland and to the west of Ireland. After 7 days of continuous action De Cuellar was asleep in his cabin when his 1st Mate decided to break ranks with the squadron in order to complete necessary repairs. For this major breach De Cuellar was summoned to the flagship where he was court marshalled and condemned to death. He was transferred under the custody of the Advocate General (AG) to his ship the Lava for sentence to be carried out but the sympathetic AG obtained a stay of execution as long as De Cuellar stayed on board. The fleet then met heavy storms and 3 ships, including the Lavier, were separated and finally were driven ashore at Streedagh Strand, north east of Silgo Town on the dangerous west coast of Ireland. The loss of life was in excess of 1400, including the AG, but De Cuellar managed to got ashore although with an injury that was to slow his subsequent actions in Ireland as he tried to escape the British forces.

His first attempt to get help was from the monks of the local monastery, but he found it gutted and the bodies of 12 shipmates strung up from the window grills. On bypassing an English military outpost he went through a dense forest only to be attacked and robbed of his gold coins. A beautiful young girl who was part of the robbers' gang took pity and sent him food and advised hin to travel to the tarritory of O'Rourke, a local chief who helped enemies of the British. Before reaching O'Rourke he was robbed again and now, only clad in a piece of old matting and bracken leaves he met a band of naked Spanish sailors and together they reached the temporary safety of O'Rourke's. His aim was always to get to a northeast port and get safe passage to Scotland and on leaving O'Rourke he made his way to the fortress of the MacClancy's, a friend of the Spanish king, where he rested allowing his wounds to heal. However the British knew about MacClancy and sent a force to teach him a lesson for harbouring Spaniards. MacClancy and his followers withdrew to the mountains leaving De Cuellar with 6 months provision to hold his fort. This they did in very bad weather and the British withdrew. MacClancy returned to fete his Spanish heroes, and offered his sister in marriage to De Cuellar as a token of thanks. De Cuellar said no, and fearing that he would be hold against his will, escaped at night and still heading northeast spent 20 days travelling to the fortress of Sorley Boy MacDonnell, at Dunluce Castle. A famous landmark to this day.

There he heard of a ship sailing for Scotland, but with his wounds opening up again, the journey was slow and he missed the ship. The British were now very close and he was finally arrested during a romantic interlude with some local beauties. They however distracted the soldiers and De Cuellar escaped to find help from some farm workers who took him to the Bishop of Derry who arranged for De Cuellar and 20 other Spaniards to go to Scotland. There they were not made welcome, as King James did not want to upset Queen Elizabeth, and after 6 months Catholic sympathisers paid for 4 ships to transport home over 250 Spaniards. As the 4 ships passed Dunkirk harbour Dutch warships attacked them. Two of the ships eluded the attack, but went aground just north of the town and De Cuellar, escaping drowning yet again was cast ashore dressed only in his shirt, just over 1 year since he was first shipwrecked off Streedagh Strand. But this time he was on friendly ground, as Dunkirk was part of the Spanish Netherlands.

The remarkable story given to us by Dr. Gus Allen, covered an individual example of the aftermath of great events in military History (in this case the Spanish Armada), an area which is rarely covered. That he did so in such great detail is a testiment to the information that is available and to the research that our speaker did to unearth that information.

Our Chairman Paul Kilmartin gave the main talk of the evening, as he continued his annual review of the main battles fought by the British army on the western front during the 1st World War. In this talk, the 7th in the series, he reached the end of 1915 with The Battle of Loos - September 1915. To put this battle into its correct perspective, our speaker explained how the BEF (along with the French and Germans) did not expect the war to last until 1915 and the impact this had on the longer term planning and the eventual development of the army and its strategies. All major belligerents believed that the war would be short and open due to improvements in technology and the belief that trench warfare, as experienced in the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, would be "unlikely to recur".
But the Great War was the first when, at the start in August 1914, three countries had armies in excess of 1m men. Their commanders did not understand how easy it was to lose control of armies of this size with the limited communications of the time. This loss of control was first demonstrated by the German army, at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. With the war extending, in time it developed into the 3 distinct phases on the western front of Open Warfare, Experiment and Attrition and each of those phases was explained in detail. As the war moved unexpectedly into 1915, it became the year of experiment as the allied army commanders - most with a cavalry background - attempted to fight a war against an enemy with no flanks to turn. Their strategy was simple: attack with infantry, advance rapidly and create a break-through for a general cavalry advance. To do that they experimented with their tactics and how best to use the infantry, the artillery, their communications and what was the best option in using them together as a single unit to create the opening for the cavalry.
These "experiments" led to BEF losses in 1915 of over 100,000 men in 32 days of fighting at the 4 assault battles of Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert and finally at Loos. Tragically a high percentage of these casunities were lost in just 12 days of fighting and exclude the high casualties at the defensive 2nd Battle of Ypres in April 1915. To fight this experimental phase the BEF was expanded. Starting with 2 infantry corps of 4 divisions and 1 cavalry corps of 1 division in August 1914, this was increased by the time of Loos to 2 armies with 35 divisions.

An important aspect of the fighting in 1915 was the trench systems being used and to help understand what went wrong at Loos, our speaker described the evolution of the different trench designs by the British, French and German armies and it was clear from this that the Germans had evolved a trench system of defence in depth which made any attack and any early breakthrough extremely dangerous, as the BEF was to find to its cost. The overall strategy for 1915 showed the Germans on the defensive as they switched troops to ensure a quick victory on their eastern front with the French and British forces to co-ordinate attacks with French only forces in Champaigne in the south and combined attacks in Artois in the north. This strategy had filled in the first half of the year and the combined attack of the French at Vimy and the BEF at Loos was the last chance for the much-needed breakthrough for 1915. A major political row between Field Marshall French and his political masters in London, due to a massive shell shortage did not help the army.

The Battle of Loos began on 25 September 1915 with 6 infantry divisions (and 2 further divisions held in reserve) attacking over a 6-mile front. Originally the British commanders were strongly against the battle being fought in such open and barren ground. However they were over-ruled by Kitchener, who wanted the BEF to support General Joffre of the French High Command "even though by so doing, we suffered very heavy losses indeed", and the battle went ahead with the first British use of chlorine gas in the war. The gas was released at 0515 hours despite it being a still morning and by 0630 hours over 150 tons of gas had been released. Much of it stayed over no mans land and some even blew back into the BEF trenches. Where, in some places it blew gently into the German lines it had a major impact on their defences.
The artillery barrage began at 0630 and the infantry advanced, suffering high casualties from their own gas and artillery and from the well-defended German lines. Only in the south of the line did the infantry reach their initial objectives when the 1st 15th and 47th divisions of IV Corp made substantial gains. The 1st division made the most progress and took the second German trench line at its most vulnerable point. It was the crucial time of the battle. Given re-enforcements they could have advanced in all directions - they were the spearhead that French had wanted, but the commander of 1st division had other ideas. He sent his re-enforcements against an untouched part of the German line, where nothing was achieved but further heavy losses and the time lost enabled the Germans to counter attack and regain their lost trench position.

But worse was to come. Haig, the army commander, had wanted the IX Corp, the reserves, to be positioned close to the line and under his control. French refused and placed them 5 miles behind the line and only put them umder Haig's command at midday. The result was a disaster, as they were not available to provide the backup needed early on day 1 and were only in position to advance by 1100 hours on day 2. Once again they were used against untouched German positions and not where a breakthrough was still a possibility. The just under 10,000 men of the 21st and 24th divisions were volunteers to a man and this was their first taste of action. Their attack resulted in losses of 385 officers and 7,861 men. The German losses were nil. The battle was all but over, but lasted officially until 8 October, by which time the BEF suffered a total of 60,000 casualties and Field Marshall French was replaced as Commander in Chief by General Haig, due to French's handling of the reserves. The Battle of Loos was another of the great "near misses" in that crucial year of 1915.

Dave Mathews thanked both speakers, with a warm endorsement for their research and presentations.


Having spoken to the Society in detail on an annual basis about the events of each year of the Anglo-Boer War, the main talk for the June meeting will be given by our previous Chairman KEN GILLINGS, on the closing months of that conflict in 1902. He will provide us with a full canvass of all that happened in the last 5 months of the war at what will be the Society's first meeting after the 100th anniversary of the end of that war on 31 May 1902.

For the DDH, Professor Mike Laing will cover his recent visit to the battlefield of El Alamein with a talk entitled ALAMEIN : THEN AND TODAY. There is no doubt that he will bring his own and unexpected slant to the visit he made in the year of the 60th annivenary of one of the major turning points of the Second World War.


We apologise for errors that crept into one section of the last newsletter. The need for accuracy in the Zulu language was beyond our English typist, but despite thorough and as it proved accurate proof reading, the wrong version was passed for printing. If any member would like a "corrected" version of Dr. INGRID MACHIN's talk on THE FORMATION or THE ZULU "REGIMENTS" please contact the Chairman.


It is that time of the year again when we prepare for the Annual Hanlefield Tour, which will take place on the 17/18 August 2002. This year we will concentrate on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 with visits to ITYOTYOSI, the location of the death of The Prince Imperial, on Day 1 and the Battle sites of HLOBANE and KHAMBULE on Day 2. In addition, although from a different war, we will take the opportunity to visit the site of the BATTLE of LANCASTER HILL at the end of Day 1. Our main speakers will be KEN GILLINGS at Ityotyosi and a local guide ALEX WOOD at Lancaster Hill on Day 1, and then RON LOCK on Day 2. Supporting speakers include, at this stage, are IVA CLEMENTS and PAUL KILMARTIN. We are delighted that fellow member RON LOCK will be the main speaker on the Sunday as he is the author of "BLOOD ON THE PAINTED MOUNTAIN", the successful book on these 2 battles. It is an exciting program that has been arranged by your committee.

Full details are included on the back of this sheet.


11 July
DDH Robey Leibbrandt & Operation Weissdorn - Charles Whiteing
MAIN The Battle of Sidi Rezeg - 1941 - Professor Philip Everitt
15 Aug
Please note: This is theTHIRD Thursday
12 Sep
Natal Carbineers Additional Battle Honours - Maj Keith Archibald
The Action at Mpanza - 1906 - Prof Paul Thompson
Naval Volunteers in the Anglo-Boer War - Mark Coglan


Day I - Saturday 17 August 2002

Depart Durban approx 0700 hours in order to rendezvous at the BABANANGO HOTEL at 1030 Hours for refreshments and a toilet break. Aim to leave the hotel at 1100 hours. Drive in convoy to the site of the DEATH of THE PRINCE IMPERIAL, with the aim of being ready and settled by 1200 hours.

Talk 1 by KEN GILLINGS on : PRINCE IMPERIAL and THE ACTION AT ITYOTYOSI - the location where he was killed. Followed by Picnic Lunch 1300 - 1345 hours



Departure 1430 hours. Drive in convoy to VRYHEID and to LANCASTER HILL. There will be a guided tour of the key locations of the BATTLE of LANCASTER HILL by ALEX WOOD, from 1530 - 1700 hours. ALEX is the District Conservation Officer, KZN Wildlife.

Drive in convoy to OXFORD LODGE, arrival estimated for 1730 hours. A group Bed and Breakfast discount has been negotiated at R 144 per person sharing or R 216 per person for their own room.

Dinner will be a braai at the MOTH's FREEDOM SHELL HOLE (and their MUSEUM), at 1900 hours. The SHELL HOLE is just 200 metres from the hotel. Please bring your own food for the braai, but NOT your own drinks. The Moth's will provide a bar service and in return for that service, all the remaining facilities will be without charge. Moth's prices are the most reasonable in town!!

Day 2 - Sunday 18 August 2002

Breakfast at 0700 hours in order to rendezvous outside the OXFORD LODGE at 0800 hours. Plan to depart at 0815 hours and then drive in convoy to HLOBANE, arriving in the HLOBANE region at 0915 hours.


Depart HLOBANE at 1045 hours and drive in convoy to KHAMBULE, aiming to arrive at 1130 hours.


Picnic Lunch will be at 1230 hours. Please note that there are NO facilities at this stop!!

Estimated time for departure for Durban - 1330 hours.

As usual, as the main speakers are providing their services at no charge (both Ken and Ron are professional tour guides) there will be a donation of R 20 per head to Society funds. This year, as our Chairman will be away on an 8 week retirement holiday, committee member DAVE MATHEWS will handle the organisation of the tour.

He can be contacted on 910-2696 (o), 083-253-7888 (cell), 266-5439 (h), or 910-2849 (fax). Please contact him ASAP to put your names down for the tour, so that we can confirm numbers with the hotel to confirm the discounted price. Remember friends of members are welcome. More news will be given at the next meeting of the Society on 13 June.

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001
Telephone: (031) 201 3983

South African Military History Society /