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SIEGE OF THE ALCÁZAR OF TOLEDO, 1936, by McGill Alexander, presented to the SAMHSEC zoomeeting on 8 February 2021
Sieges are not as common in recent military history as they were in warfare during the Middle Ages and earlier. The siege of the Alcázar of Toledo is therefore of particular interest. The war itself was, like most civil wars, a brutal and horrific conflict and it will be necessary to give some background on it before addressing the siege.
I spent two years in Spain with my family, living in the capital, Madrid. We arrived there 44 years after the war had ended. Memories were still stark in the minds of the older Spaniards. But Spain had largely recovered from this awful event in its ancient and turbulent history. The war had shattered the country’s economy, polarised the population and caused untold suffering. Yet, the Spaniards are a remarkable people and had made an incredible recovery.
On the Command and General Staff Course that I was attending at the Spanish Army Staff College, one of the subjects we studied was Military History. In it, we analysed the tactics employed in various battles throughout the world’s history. These included some of those that took place during the Spanish Civil War.
In Spain there had been political upheaval during the 1920s and 1930s. King Alfonso XIII had been compelled to abdicate after the socialist electoral victory in 1931 when the Second Spanish Republic was established. The instability and polarisation amongst the populace resulted, in 1936, in a military revolt that was joined by an alliance of fascist Falangists, monarchists, conservatives, Catholics, and even some law-and-order republicans. This loose grouping called themselves “Nationalists”.
The left-leaning Popular Front government of the Second Spanish Republic formed a coalition with the Communists, Anarchists, Catalan and Basque nationalists and syndicalists or trade unions. Collectively, they were known as the “Republicans”.
The eminent military historian, Antony Beevor, has distilled the vastly complex war as consisting of three axes of conflict: the right-wing opposed to the left-wing; centralism opposed to regionalist autonomy; and authoritarianism opposed to freedom of the individual.
Spain was divided into two as armed conflict broke out in July 1936. This commenced when General Francisco Franco took command of the Army of Africa and went into open rebellion in Spanish Morocco. Most of the Spanish Army’s troops were conscripts, but The Army of Africa comprised two elite professional formations. These were the Spanish Foreign Legion and the Moroccan recruited “Indigenous Force of Regulars”. They were hard, tough, well-trained and brutal.
The two forces together numbered about 30,000 experienced soldiers. But most importantly, they followed Franco unswervingly and he knew he could rely totally on them. The remainder of the armed forces were themselves divided, with most of the Air Force and a substantial part of the Navy supporting the Republican side. The majority of the general officers in the Army too, chose not to go into rebellion against the government.
Internally, both the left-wing Republican government coalition and the right-wing Nationalist alliance experienced fundamental ideological differences. But the strong military leadership of the Nationalists gave them the edge in overcoming their disparate composition. General Franco soon achieved a dominant role and within weeks had become the acknowledged leader. On the other hand, there was absolutely no unity of command on the Republican side – they ignored a fundamental principle of war.
After almost three years of vicious, merciless and devastating fighting, the Nationalists emerged victorious and the Second Republic was replaced by a right- wing military dictatorship with Franco at its head. This remained the case until his death at the end of 1975, when the country peacefully transitioned to a democratic, constitutional monarchy under King Juan Carlos.
One of the battles of that war that intrigued me was the siege of the Alcázar (or fortress) in Toledo. Located only about 70km from the capital city of Madrid, Toledo is a fascinating old city. The massive Alcázar is located on top of the hill on which Toledo is built. It completely dominates the ancient city, which was founded around the third century AD. Its tactical location on high ground inside a bend of the Tagus River made it of military value to successive conquerors. By the time the Civil War erupted in 1936, it housed the Spanish Army’s Infantry Academy.
However, in the Civil War Toledo had very little strategic value to either side. Nevertheless, its symbolic importance lay in its link to Spanish royalty and its legacy in Spanish history. Toledo was also the historic centre of Spanish Catholicism and the Archbishopric of Toledo was the senior church centre in the country. The powerful and godless Communist faction in the Republican side had launched a vendetta against all things religious. The total control of Toledo was therefore an obsession for them and the destruction of this enclave of Nationalist resistance inside Republican territory assumed huge symbolic importance.
The Nationalist relief of the siege of the Alcázar took place in the opening stages of the Civil War. It, therefore, provided General Franco’s right-wing Nationalist forces with a significant propaganda triumph.
When the siege commenced, it was the annual summer holiday period and not many staff or students of the Infantry Academy were there. Consequently, the fortress was defended by a very mixed force of just over a thousand military personnel supporting the Nationalist rebels.
Hurriedly drawn from across the province in which Toledo was situated, they comprised 100 officers, about 800 para-military police known as the Guardia Civil, 150 Infantry Academy cadets, 40 soldiers from the Army’s nearby Gymnastic School and some 200 civilian Falangists and other Nationalist sympathisers. But there were also 550 women and 50 children, mostly families of the Guardia Civil and of instructors from the Infantry Academy. There were also more than 100 Republican civilians held as hostages. The total number of people inside the Alcázar when the siege began was therefore close to 2000.
The commander of the besieged garrison was the Director of the Gymnastic School, Colonel José Moscardó, an experienced 57-year-old veteran of the long Rif War in Spanish Morocco (1911-1927). Besides rifles and pistols, the defenders had less than 30 mostly very old machine-guns, one 51mm (2-inch) mortar with only 50 bombs and four crates of incendiary hand grenades; but they had about 800,000 rounds of rifle ammunition and some explosives salvaged from the armament factory.
The siege began on 21 July 1936 with an artillery bombardment and the defenders held out for almost 70 days, until the garrison was relieved by Franco’s Nationalist forces. Besieging the fortress were approximately 8000 Republican militia, including women combatants. They had several artillery pieces, a few armoured cars and some small tanks. The Republican Air Force performed reconnaissance, artillery observation and bombed the Alcázar on 35 occasions.
Franco’s Spanish Army of Africa had been airlifted from Spanish Morocco to southern Spain during the last few days of July. Transport aircraft for the air operation were supplied by Hitler and Mussolini, who saw a potential ally in Franco. It was the first major airlift operation of this kind in military history and decisively boosted the Nationalist forces. Now under Franco’s command, the Nationalist forces in the south began a fighting advance towards Republican Madrid. The troops carried out wanton slaughter of any of the population that was sympathetic to the Republicans.
Two days into the siege, the Republicans demanded the surrender of the Alcázar or they would execute Colonel Moscardó’s 24-year-old son, who they had captured. Moscardó refused, and his son was shot.
The effect of this ruthless act by the Republicans on the defenders was profound. Their resolve to hold out after that was strengthened like steel. And no man or woman dared complain about their suffering in the awful weeks that followed, because each one knew that the colonel had given his son rather than surrender. The callous act proved to be a psychological mistake for the Republicans.
Fighting in the more than two subsequent months was ferocious, if intermittent. Early in the siege, all communication by the garrison with the outside world was cut. For several weeks, Moscardó had no idea when or even whether he could expect to be relieved. Between 14 August and 17 September eleven assaults by the Republicans were repulsed by the Nationalists. An attempt by the Republicans to negotiate the evacuation of the women and children was met with a unanimous refusal by the women, who resolutely insisted that they would never surrender and, if need be, would take up arms for the defence of the Alcázar. Perhaps they were under no illusions about their fate if they left the shelter of the Alcázar, given what the Republicans had done to the colonel’s son.
From the start, there was a shortage of rations for the defenders. Close to 130 horses and mules had been brought into the Alcázar prior to the commencement of the siege. These were systematically slaughtered for their meat. The fortuitous early discovery of two thousand 90 kg bags of fine wheat in a warehouse in a part of the town adjoining fortress and then still under control of the Nationalists, alleviated the problem of bread, at least. There was no shortage of water, thanks to a number of wells inside the Alcázar and several large cisterns, which were carefully protected from bombardment.
The Republicans laboriously dug two mines under the southwest tower of the Alcázar and in the resultant explosion on 18 September the tower was completely destroyed. They then launched four successive attacks on the fortress, supported by armoured cars and tanks in an effort to exploit the breach. But the rubble provided the Nationalist defenders with an excellent defensive barrier. They repulsed every assault, so, the Republicans responded with a continuous artillery bombardment throughout the night and into the following day.
In a dawn assault on 23 September, the defenders were driven back from the breach into the courtyard, but Moscardó brought up reserves and the Republicans were again repulsed. The Republicans regrouped and launched yet another attack, this time led by a tank. Wave after wave of Republicans assaulted the breach, but again they were forced back. During that month of September, the Alcázar was subjected to almost constant artillery and aerial bombardment and reduced to a pile of rubble. Still, the defenders refused to surrender and held the attackers at bay.
By 26 September, Franco’s Nationalist columns had reached the village of Bargas, 6 km north of Toledo. The next morning the desperate Republicans launched a final assault on the Alcázar, but were again driven back. Shortly afterwards the fearsome Legion and Regulares swarmed into Toledo and the Republicans retreated in disorder. The Alcázar had been relieved!
Colonel Moscardó greeted Franco with the words: "Nothing new in the Alcázar, my General. I give it to you destroyed, but with its honour preserved!".
The number of defenders killed in action during the siege is given as 82, with 430 wounded, 150 severely bruised, 57 missing, 30 deserters, three suicides and five other deaths amongst the men. None of the women and children were wounded and only two elderly women died of natural causes. Two babies were born inside the Alcázar during the siege.
Some sources claim that the over 100 hostages held by the Nationalists were never seen again. The account we were given at the Staff College made no mention of the hostages. If there were hostages, the Republicans certainly appeared quite willing to sacrifice them, so they were of no value to the Nationalists. Does one keep hostages alive if they are of no value in negotiations and they are consuming precious supplies needed for one’s own survival? An interesting moral dilemma and one which those sympathetic to the Republicans used to accuse the nationalists of murdering them.
Due to the disorganised nature of Republican militias, particularly early in the war, there is no record of their casualties during the siege, but the consensus is that they were high. By the time the siege was lifted, sufficient rations remained for only a further six days.
The Republicans had thrown badly needed men, artillery and other resources into their desperate efforts to capture the fortress. They could have far better used them to confront Franco's northern advance through western Spain, but they became obsessed with the symbolic importance of Toledo.
Franco was criticised by some of his generals for giving the relief of the Alcázar of Toledo priority over the capture of the country’s capital, Madrid. He simply relieved his critics of their commands. The respite given to the Republicans by Franco turning aside to relieve Toledo had enabled the defences around the capital to be significantly improved. It was another two and a half years before he succeeded in taking Madrid.
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that taking Toledo was a massive propaganda victory for the Nationalists, while its loss was a devastating blow to Republican morale. The powerfully symbolic relief of the Alcázar by Franco’s troops secured for him the uncontested leadership of the Nationalists. He made sure that the Alcázar was painstakingly and accurately rebuilt after the war and turned into almost a shrine.
However, the Legionnaires and Moroccan Regulars who relieved the garrison went on a rampage in the town, committing terrible atrocities in their killing spree. Apparently, war correspondents were held back from Toledo during the relief so that they would not witness what was expected to take place. But the Republicans, when they had commenced the siege ten weeks earlier, had carried out a similar purge, murdering priests and right-wingers. One-half of all the clergy of the Bishopric of Toledo were slaughtered by the Republicans. The graves of priests and nuns were desecrated as their decaying bodies were dug up and put on grisly public display by Communists ridiculing religion. They told the religious Catholics, many of them uneducated peasants, that this was evidence that there is no eternal life.
Later in the war, another son of Colonel Moscardó, a lieutenant in the Nationalist infantry with his father’s name, José, was captured at Barcelona and also executed by the Republicans. The colonel himself was promoted to general’s rank during the war and played a significant role as a field commander. He died 20 years after the siege, revered as a national hero. His remains and those of his wife and their four sons are interred inside the rebuilt Alcázar.
Before the terrible, bloody Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, it had become significantly internationalised. Mussolini’s Fascist government in Italy assisted the Nationalists with Naval, Air Force and Army support. This included providing them with 660 planes, 150 tanks, 800 artillery pieces, 10,000 machine guns and 240,000 rifles. A contingent of 50,000 Italian soldiers fought on the Nationalist side.
Hitler formed the German Condor Legion of Luftwaffe and army volunteers to fight for the Nationalists and to assist them with military training. Germany provided Franco with 600 planes and 200 tanks. The Condor Legion, which totalled about 16,000 men achieved notoriety for their bombing missions, which ominously presaged the looming Second World War bombings. There was strong logistic support from Portugal’s Salazar regime with around 10,000 volunteers joining the Nationalists. There was even a Catholic “Irish Brigade” fighting alongside the Nationalists for a time.
On the Republican side, much was made of the role of the famous Communist sponsored “International Brigades” of volunteers. Approximately 40,000 foreign nationals (mostly Communist sympathisers), apparently from 53 different countries, fought for the Republicans. But although there was also support from Mexico, the most significant aid to the Republicans came from the Soviet Union. Figures of support from the Soviets vary, but appear to have included about 700 aircraft, 350 tanks, 1500 artillery pieces, between 2000 and 3000 military advisors and a political commissar attached to every unit in the Republican forces (with the same rank as the commander of the unit). Ideological solidarity notwithstanding, the Republican government had to pay for all arms and supplies received from the USSR, which would give them no credit facilities. This totally depleted Spain’s financial reserves.
Other major powers, such as the UK, France and the USA remained neutral and followed a policy of non-intervention. Both Germany and the USSR used the Spanish Civil War to test their aircraft and modern armament, but perhaps more importantly, they studied the war to develop their tactical thinking – particularly during the offensive.
Although Franco ended the war as military dictator of all Spain and remained in that position for almost 40 years, many monarchists and fascists were disappointed that he never restored the monarchy after the war, nor fulfilled radical fascist aspirations. Despite the material support that Hitler and Mussolini provided, he did not join them in the Second World War and Spain remained neutral or non-belligerent throughout that conflict. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Germans and Italians now demanded payment for their support during the Nationalist campaign. Spain did also fund a division of volunteers, known as the División Azul (Blue Division) to fight alongside the Germans against the Red Army on the Eastern Front between 1940 and 1943.
The Spanish Civil War was, in a sense, a conflict that bridged the attrition warfare of the First World War and the mobile approach to battle of the Second. Some of the battles in Spain were reminiscent of the stalemate confrontations of the Western Front, while others illustrated innovative manoeuvre, with tanks, artillery and aerial bombardment presaging the blitzkrieg tactics of rapid movement.
In April 1985 the Spanish Army Staff Course that I was a part of went on a guided tour of the rebuilt Alcázar. Our guide was a dapper, slightly-built full colonel who was immaculately turned out in his uniquely adorned uniform. He was modest and respectful to this group of 30 officers, all of us his juniors in both age and rank. He spoke quietly, but clearly, without emotion and using his words economically.
Colonel Fuentes had been an 18-year-old cadet officer at the Infantry Academy when the war broke out in 1936. A quick calculation told me that now made him 68 years of age, though still serving. Whether still as a regular soldier or in the reserves, I do not know. He looked fit and healthy and at least ten years younger than he was!
He had been one of the defenders of the Alcázar, survived the 70-day siege and fought throughout the remaining two and a half years of that vicious war. On the left lower sleeve of his tunic was the special decoration “Alcázar”, awarded only to those who had defended the fortress. On the right upper sleeve of his tunic was the Spanish flag insignia of the Second World War Blue Division that had fought the Communist Red Army on the Russian Front from 1940 to 1943. On his chest, below the ribbons for several decorations (including the MedallaMilitar and the Cruz Roja al MéritoMilitarenCampaña) I identified those of the Medal for the Spanish Blue Division, and what looked to me like the German Iron Cross, Second Class. He also wore the ribbons of the campaign medals for the Ifni War of 19571958 and for counter-insurgency operations in Spanish Sahara during the early 1970s. On his left upper sleeve were two wound stripes. On the top right pocket of his tunic, he bore the insignia of his parent unit: the Spanish Foreign Legion.
I came away from that visit to the Alcázar de Toledo deeply aware that there are conflicts that took place during the 20th century that were of great significance, but that were, for most of us, totally eclipsed by the First and Second World Wars. My respect for the ordinary men and women of Spain, who I had always found so hospitable, friendly and genial, grew immensely as I realised what suffering and division their country had been through.
Perhaps one day the divided people of our country will also learn to live together in peace and harmony, and to strive for the prosperity of our land.
Wikipedia: Asedio del Alcázar de Toledo
The Spanish Civil War
Mac’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library.
to the report in the February 2021 newsletter relating to Lt Cecil Featherstone, MC and the escape from Tobruk
Following the talk on 25 January 2021, we received a number of responses dealing with Cecil and his fellow escapees from Tobruk from old acquaintances and fellow members.
David Hobson confirmed that Cecil (Quills) is buried on his old family farm,
Glen Doone, in the Jansenville district where he died on 30 May 1965.
Wendy van Schalkwyk, formerly of Aberdeen, advised that he gave his medals to his great friend and former Jansenville Mayor, Sid Fourie, for safe keeping in the local museum. It was later learnt his medals were taken from the Jansenville Museum to be put into correct order by someone from Port Elizabeth and we hope that they are still in good order?
Wendy added that Quills always laughingly related that he was awarded his Military Cross for only running away from Rommel and his German forces! In later life he married Dorothy, who was a ballet teacher from England. She arrived by train at 3 am one morning in the bitter cold at Miller Station, which lies on the old Klipplaat and Graaff–Reinet line. He went to meet her unshaven, untidy and in his greatcoat to see her reaction! She is buried at Glen Loch in the Miller area.
Captain Walter Roughton, Wendy’s grandfather, served in the Secret Service during World War II and Cecil was his contact. Sadly, she said her late mother destroyed all the letters.
Ian Uys in Knysna kindly supplied us with information that Quills was a 2nd Lieutenant during WW1 and had served in the 1st Battalion, 7th London Regiment. He was Mentioned in Despatches by Sir Douglas Haig for “Gallant and distinguished services in the field”.
Johan Minnaar of Graaff-Reinet wrote below to say this of his father, known as “Shanks”, and Gieter Muller who were with Quills when the three drove the escape trucks in their headlong dash to flee from Tobruk
“Gieter Muller was a local - he was the Groundsman at Union High for many years. As a child I regarded him as a giant. He was very tall and well built and was known for his crushing handshake. There's a rugby story about him pursuing the opposition's wing to the try line and before tackling him, Gieter Muller shouted "Cawood, sit neer die bal!" - Cawood obliged. (Everyone was terrified of Gieter Muller.)
It was my father who suggested they escape. I will send you a copy of his story should you wish. During their escape they were shot at by the Germans. A fellow on Gieter Muller’s truck was killed. I have a picture of the truck with the blood splatters on the side.
Those who escaped joined the Allies at Alamein thereafter. My father's friend Con Kingwill, who was an Old Grey, did not escape -he was injured whilst spiking a gun after the Allies had surrendered at Tobruk. (He was one of the last surviving members of the DMR). The shrapnel was removed from his leg many years later by a local doctor in Graaff-Reinet. It was a huge piece of metal which he often showed us.
After the war my father returned from Cairo by Dakota. The journey took three days because they did not fly at night and slept over at various stops. My father returned to farm at Poplar-Grove until his retirement in 1987.”
Then your Scribe unearthed an old magazine confirming that Quills had left school to enlist in WW1 and below is an abridged version from the Grey School magazine of 1916.
Extract from the Grey School magazine of 1916.
Grey Scholars for the Front – Two join overseas Contingent – Farewell scenes
Wednesday afternoon September 15th witnessed a thrilling and unique spectacle at the Grey Institute. The whole school assembled in front of the building below the flagstaff to say good-bye to two of the present pupils who have enlisted in the Overseas Contingent and were leaving for Potchefstroom.
It was a proud day for the school that two present Greys, F. Warren and C.R. Featherstone had, whilst pupils, offered their services and had been accepted. The two boys were leaders in the school having done much for the furtherance of its interests. They were assured that when they were away in Europe the school would remember them with great affection and pride.
The two were presented with a wristlet watch each on behalf of the school and Principal. Featherstone on behalf of Warren and himself expressed thanks for the gifts and said they would help to keep Grey in remembrance in the future days. Both Warren and himself felt proud that their school thought so much of them where upon three cheers were called and they were wished Godspeed.
“The Readeption of Colonel Brereton: Scapegoat of the Bristol Reform Riots 1831” given to SAMHSEC by Pat Irwin on 29 January 2021
Pat presented a review of a book which looks at the life and times of Lt Colonel Thomas Brereton who was born in 1782 and died by his own hand in 1832, aged 50. It is of particular interest to us because of the time Col Brereton spent at the Cape during the 5th Frontier War (1818-1819). The full title is The Readeption of Colonel Brereton: Scapegoat of the British Reform Riots 1831. It was researched and written by John Brereton, a descendent of Colonel Brereton, with the intention of examining whether the historical scapegoating and demonization of him was in any way justified.
In doing so, the author unearthed a wealth of historical documentation which, to all appearances, had not been looked at for 200 years. These included official military and civil documents such as court records and correspondence. He also exposed the web of lies and deceptions fabricated to condemn Col Brereton and exonerate important establishment figures from justifiable blame. The word ‘Readeption’ in the title is a rather archaic term, which in this context, suggests ‘recovering or regaining what has been lost’.
The life of Lt Col Thomas Brereton
Thomas Brereton was born in England into a family which can trace its history back to 1087 following the Norman conquest of 1066. The formerly aristocratic family had by the eighteenth century however lost much of its wealth and influence. At age 16, Thomas, through the offices of an uncle, joined the 8th West India Regiment as an Ensign. Promotion (in his case based entirely on merit rather than the purchase system) was relatively rapid as he moved between units and, aged 22, he was a Captain in the Royal African Corps (RAC). At 28 he was a Brigade Major, distinguishing himself at the Battles of Martinique and Guadeloupe and in 1815 at age 33 was promoted to Lt Col and Commanding Officer the Royal African Corps (RAC). At the same time, he was entrusted with the Lieutenant- Governorship of Senegal. Three years later he was posted to the Cape with the RAC and was made Commandant of the Eastern Cape Frontier Region.
In this capacity he was instructed by the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, to carry out what is known to us today as the Brereton Raid. Upon his departure from the Cape in 1819 he was presented with a handsome engraved sword by the officers and men of the RAC – now in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown. He returned to the Cape briefly in 1822 as Commander of the Cape Garrison, but the following year returned to the UK as Inspecting Field Officer of the Bristol Recruiting District, the second largest such district in the country at that time – a position he retained until his death eight years later.
The Brereton Raid
Four chapters in the book are given to Brereton’s time in the Cape Colony, including one each on the ‘Battle of Amalinde’ and ‘The Brereton Raid’, and their political consequences. Without going into detail, the ‘Raid’ was a large cattle recovery operation into amaNdlambe territory in December 1818. Apart from the unusually large scale of the operation, it was the type of activity which took place back and forth across the border on a fairly regular basis throughout most of the 19th century.
The crux of the matter, however, was Somerset’s injunction to Brereton to provide military and political support to Britain’s ally Ngqika in his dispute with his uncle, Ndlambe. This had followed on from the former’s defeat at the Battle of Amalinde a few months earlier, as a result of which the amaNgqika had lost much of their cattle to the amaNdlambe. The ‘raid’ however escalated into a major expedition with the intention of capturing Ndlambe himself, as well as recovering cattle. Apart from British troops, the raiding force consisted of a large but unknown number of amaNgqika bent on revenge against the amaNdlambe. The expedition failed to capture Ndlambe, but returned after three weeks with an estimated 23 000 head of cattle, which some contemporary commentators considered excessive. The net result was the relative devastation of the amaNdlambe homeland, for which the clan and its allies in turn took revenge, invading the Colony in January 1819 and attacking Grahamstown itself in April 1819 as part of a wider plan of conquest.
‘The Brereton Raid’ has been interpreted differently over time. Broadly speaking, there are two types of history written about it: Firstly, there is a colonial narrative, which while often hubristic in nature, also tended to blame the individual rather than the faulty decision-making which led to the problem. In this case it might be argued that Somerset shifted the blame for the consequences of the raid to the soldier who had carried out his instruction. This kind of approach persisted until the middle of the twentieth century.
Secondly, there is what is broadly termed a revisionist approach which examines history from a more modern perspective using new insights, methods and techniques, and sometimes new material which has come to light or highlighting points which might have been overlooked in the past. One thread of this approach is neo-Marxism and its derivatives which, since the 1970s, have infiltrated the humanities in western academia, particularly in Britain and America. This is reflected at both the methodological and ideological levels. One of the methodologies it employs is the castigation of individuals and the re-interpretation of historical events in terms of the ideological framework within which the neo- Marxist ideology operates i.e. the class struggle and related notions of oppression and exploitation – hence the re-writing of history from a different perspective.
One feature of this approach is a questioning of the authenticity and value of what one might otherwise think of as verifiable facts. Alongside this is a more recent trend which, according to one South African revisionist historian, suggests that ‘a great deal more imagination needs to be brought to historical interpretation than has hitherto been the case’. Evidence as such, should be used in a way which supports the case being argued, rather than be viewed objectively.
Links to the 1831 Reform Riots in Bristol
A consequence of this neo-Marxist approach is that Brereton was castigated for the ‘Raid’, not taking any account of the contexts of the situations in which he found himself – which were not of his own making. By a wild stretch of the imagination, some historians of this persuasion have moreover linked the event of the ‘Raid’ to the 1831 Reform Riots in Bristol to ‘prove’ the ‘brutality of the man’. The second half of the book, as the title suggests, is devoted to these riots and to the Court of Enquiry and Court Martial which followed.
The background to the rioting was the 1831 passing by the English Lower House of Parliament of the Reform Bill to extend the franchise. The House of Lords, however, voted it down for a second time: there was strong opposition by the political establishment, led by the Duke of Wellington, to any kind of electoral reform and extension of the franchise. As a consequence, unrest began to spread across England in late October 1831. In Bristol, protests were triggered by the arrival of an anti-reform judge, who openly demonstrated his contempt for the citizenry, including the merchant class. The protests quickly degenerated into a riot, led and egged on by a small radical group. Public buildings and homes were set alight and perceived establishment figures threatened.
The military, which were expected to control the rioting, were however, legally not permitted to act without direct and written instruction from the civic authorities, i.e. the Mayor and Councillors, then known as the Magistrates. This was not forthcoming: nearly all of them either fled or went into hiding, rather than take responsibility for authorising military action. During the peak of the unrest, not a single magistrate could be found. Brereton (who sympathised with the Reform Movement) responded by walking into the crowd and persuading them to disperse, but Radicals took the opportunity for further arson and looting. Brereton, who was the senior military man in the district, found himself in the unenviable position of having to maintain law and order, but without adequate forces or jurisdiction to do so. At one point, a troop of Dragoons who had arrived from elsewhere and were not under direct command of Brereton, attacked the crowd, which is where most of the casualties, including fatalities, occurred. By recent neo- Marxist reasoning, this reflected no less than elements of the class struggle and related modes of oppression.
Throughout the period, Brereton had only a small number of exhausted troops under his command, who as far as possible he kept away from the crowd. After three days, order was restored by a combination of a posse comitatus of the city's middle-class citizens, combined with additional military forces and Brereton’s own persuasive skills.
The post-riot enquiries
When the inevitable enquiry took place afterwards, the Magistrates who had fled from their duties needed to find a scapegoat to point the blame to for their failures, as is the wont of politicians. In this case, elements of the military establishment who had failed to provide either direction or support for Brereton, joined them to divert blame from themselves. This is a standard feature of scapegoating and is a not an uncommon phenomenon in armies, including the British Army.
The net result was that both the Court of Enquiry in November and the subsequent Court Martial convened in January 1832, were heavily loaded against Brereton. He was accused of ineptitude, failing to take decisive action and being too lenient in the suppression of the rioters. Procedurally he was not permitted the normal opportunities for defending himself nor was he able to call his own witnesses. Deeply depressed at the recent death of his wife and, as he saw it, the likelihood of dismissal, disgrace and loss of livelihood that faced him, Colonel Brereton shot himself on 13 January. There was no official or military presence at his funeral nor as his cortege passed through the streets of Bristol. The citizens of the city however, aware of the injustice done, lined the streets in their hundreds.
Although this book is in essence a biography and was not intended as military history as such, it has fulfilled this role combined with that of being a political history. In dealing with his material, the author, clearly not a professional writer, is commended for avoiding dogmatic traps and simplistic explanations, but rather recording and interpreting events as he saw and understood them. While by no means painting his subject as a paragon of virtue, he is understandably, based on his material, sympathetic to his ancestor’s situation and circumstances. He does not judge him by today’s norms and values.
A comment on the presentation
While the research constituting the book would appear to be thorough, informative and even enlightening, similar plaudits cannot, regrettably, be given concerning the book’s overall presentation, which leaves much to be desired. It is replete with typographical and careless errors. Grammatical expression is sometimes poor, awkward and ambiguous which makes for difficult reading: some sentences, for example, have no verb in them; punctuation is inconsistent and often absent; and paragraphing is haphazard and needs to be attended to. Historical accuracy and inconsistent spelling of names are problematic too. In short, the work appears not to have been independently edited or proofread.
The book is a fascinating and well-researched account of a decent, competent and well-regarded officer who was made a scapegoat for events over which, through circumstances, he had relatively little control. Exposure of this travesty of justice, especially in the case of the Bristol riots is to be welcomed. The scapegoating* of Brereton has, until recently, been uncritically accepted and even propagated by some historians who ought to know better. It is more the pity that some of the castigation directed his way has been driven more by ideological concerns than a concern for historical accuracy. The book, 350 pages in length, was published by Grosvenor House in December 2018 and retails in hard cover for £20.00 (R480.00+)
*For those interested in the concept of scapegoating, British military historian Michael Scott, who has made a study of the topic, provides us with a useful working definition in his lecture on the subject to the National Army Museum in London, and his subsequent book on the topic, Scapegoats: Thirteen victims of military injustice. ‘Scapegoating’, he states, ‘is when something has to be hidden by some very powerful people, often part of the military-political hierarchy, who are at fault.’ There are several classic examples of this in South African military history, examples being Lt Henry Harward at Ntombi Drift, Lt Col Anthony Durnford at Isandlwana, Lt Jahleel Carey and the death of the Prince Imperial and General Sir Charles Warren at Spioenkop. Michael Scott’s lecture is available on Youtube.
SAMHSEC RPC ZOOMEETING 22 FEBRUARY 2021
SAMHSEC’s RPC on 22 February was addressed by Anne Samson from
London on “Facial furniture: beards and moustaches in the early Union Defence
Force” and Jaco Pretorius who reviewed the book “Anglo-Boer War Blockhouses
– a Military Engineer’s Perspective by Simon C Green”.
Summaries of the talks will be included in the April 2021 newsletter as this edition is already longer than usual.
There were 38 participants in the RPC. Average RPC attendance to date has been 36. The discussions after both talks indicate that the RPC concept is coming into its own as a communication platform between military historians. Thanks to speakers who have addressed RPCs and Andre who coordinates the roster.
If you have something you would like to share during a RPC, please contact Andre at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONTACT BETWEEN THE BORDER HISTORICAL SOCIETY AND SAMHSEC
Following an invitation facilitated by Pat Irwin for SAMHSEC to participate in the Border Historical Society (BHS) presentation on “The War Memorials of the Transkei and Ciskei” by Donald Davies on 16 February 2021, we have established contact between the BHS and SAMHSEC. Thanks to Pat for taking this initiative. We look forward to a fruitful relationship!
REMINDER FROM FEBRUARY 2021 NEWSLETTER: NOTICE OF SAMHSEC AGM
Notice is hereby given of the SAMHSEC AGM to be held at 1900 on 8 March 2021 by means of Zoom. The Chairman’s and Treasurer’s reports for 2020 will be distributed to members in advance. Nominations for members to serve on the SAMHSEC Committee for 2021 and agenda points for the AGM are to be submitted to me by e-mail to email@example.com before 28 February 2021, please.
NOTICE OF SAMHSEC ZOOMEETING 8 MARCH 2021
Robert Harm will address the SAMHSEC zoomeeting on 8 March 2021 on Minesweeping in the South African Navy
NOTICE OF SAMHSEC RPC ZOOMEETING 29 MARCH 2021
SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history at 1930 on 29 March 2021
THIS IS THE CAPTAIN SPEAKING
SAMHSEC is fortunate that 25% of our members are ladies. It is a pity that the 2020 Committee did not have the benefit of a lady member. Fortunately, the better normal of the future means that any member who has access to e-mails and WhatsApps at least once a day can be a committee member. I look forward to having lady members on the Committee again. Please, Ladies, contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you are prepared to contribute to SAMHSEC as a committee member. Rest assured that our strategy that we are members for the history, not the hassle, ensures that committee duties are not onerous; in fact, our next actual committee meeting will be the first, as we have conducted all committee affairs by e-mail and, more recently, WhatsApp since we established SAMHSEC in 2004.
While plans to commemorate the Bicentenary of the arrival of the 1820 British Settlers, which is of particular importance to us in the Eastern Cape, were restricted by the pandemic, SAMHSEC presented four 1820 Settler-related talks during the 2020, three of which are in the SAMHS Zoom library. I encourage members to continue to prepare 1820 Settler-related talks to present to SAMHSEC meetings; after all, the Settlers’ contribution to the development of South Africa didn’t end in December 1820! Please contact Andre at email@example.com to reserve your slot on the speaker roster.