South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 536
MAY 2022


The incumbent Chairman Charles Whiteing opened the meeting welcoming members and guests to the 2022 Annual General Meeting. The chairman of the AGM col. Pat Acutt with Lt.Col. Robert assisting were welcomed and the meeting duly handed over to them. Col. Pat Acutt reminded all present of their duty to elect the new chairman and committee and proceeded to invite the outgoing chairman Charles Whiteing to deliver the Chairman' s report for 2021/2022. (This item is available a a separate document.) Col. Acutt requested committee member to present the Treasurer's Report as the current Treasurer Donald Davies is away on assignment.

Following the delivery of the two reports, the meeting proceeded to elect the new Chairman. The current chairman Charles Whiteing indicated he was not standing for reelection, with Professor Phil Everitt declaring his availability and was subsequently elected to the post.

The next item was the election of Committee members. Six of the existing committee members declared their willingness to stand again and were duly elected. These members were

Prof. Phil Everitt - Chairman
Charles Whiteing - Vice Chairman
Dr. Lt./Col. Graeme Fuller
Ulrich Deubi
Donald Davies - Treasurer Dr John Cook

Dr John Hart - new committee member and Treasurer designate.

The new Chairman Professor Phil Everitt continued with the general meeting and introduced Professor Donal McCraken to present his talk titled "Maj Gen John Ardagh (1840-1907), attempted scapegoat for Britain's disasters during the Anglo Boer War".

The thoroughly researched presentation was delivered with Donal's usual quiet Irish humour and enjoyed by all present with Phil Everitt delivering the vote of thanks.

The date of the next meeting on 14 May 2022 was announced as were the two talks:
The DDH talk will be given by Roy Bowman titled "The Carrier that Never Was."
The Main talk will be given by Dr John Hart titled "A History of Ukrainan National Identity. "

The Chairman thanked all for their attendance and wished then a safe journey home

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The main speaker for the afternoon of 9th April, was Prof Donal McCracken,on Maj Gen John Ardagh (1840-1907),“attempted scapegoat for Britain’s disasters during the Anglo Boer War”.

British Military Intelligence dated from 1873. Previously,in the British Indian empire, the political officers, usually military men seconded to the civil authority, acted in part as bureaucrats and magistrates, but also often as intelligence officers. The Intelligence branch had grown out of the War Office’s Topographical and Statistical Department, established after the Crimean War in 1855.

Unrest in Ireland necessitated the establishment of the Special (Irish) Branch, soon known simply as the Special Branch, attached to the London Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard, which fell under the British Home Office. The nexus of Irish Intelligence and British army is hardly surprising given the fact that Irish republican bombs were exploding periodically in London.

Major-General Sir John Charles Ardagh was a County Waterford man, the son of the local TCD-educated fox-hunting rector of Rosmire, Rev William Johnson Ardagh. John went to a private academy in Waterford and proceeded, at the age of 16 in July 1856, to Trinity College, Dublin. At Trinity an aptitude for mathematics soon scuppered a career in the church and led Ardagh into engineering and the Royal Engineers.

There followed an extraordinary career, often serving either as a military engineer or as a field intelligence officer, which took Ardagh to Iceland, the Levant, Malta, the Balkans, the congress of Berlin, demarcating the boundaries of Bulgaria and Greece, action in the Egyptian/Sudan debacle and six years in India, where he was private secretary to the viceroy. He also served as a section head in the army’s intelligence division in London.

Ardagh was not a fighting soldier, he was quiet, polite, efficient, an excellent committee man, an organiser and fixer – be it of military fortifications, commissions of inquiry or negotiated treaties. At the age of 55 John Ardagh married Susan Hamilton (1854-1935), the widow of the Earl of Malmesbury.

In 1896 he was made major-general and director of the British Military Intelligence Department. Ardagh once commented that, ‘the good Intelligence officer can seldom hope to find his work, as a whole, understood or its magnitude realised’.

Before the opening months of the South African war the link and relationship between the Intelligence Department and the War Office was not what it should have been. Ardagh’s office was in Queen Anne’s Gate while Viscount Wolseley, was across St James’s Park in Pall Mall. This ‘poor cousin’ status is illustrated by the fact that budget for running the seven sections of Military intelligence, including the library and mapping section was a meagre £11 000. By contrast, the annual budget of the Transvaal Republic for Intelligence was £92 000. Even by the end of the war, the annual budget for British Military Intelligence stood at only £28 000.

Ardagh wrote one warning memorandum after another, and even had his section produce a 119-page book on the military capacity of the Boer republics. This information was largely ignored. Only twelve intelligence officers were despatched to South Africa prior to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer war, although when Roberts arrived in South Africa to take command of the British army in the field in December 1900 he brought several more Intelligence officers.

Queen Anne’s Gate came under strong criticism that it had failed to estimate the strength of the Boers; that it was ignorant of the armaments’ aid to the Boers; that it failed to guess the Boer’s offensive plans relating to Natal; that no warning was given to the government about the Boer plans; and that British troops in the field were left without maps and topographical information. Wolseley, commander-in-chief of the army stated; ‘For most of our [recent] reverses the blame must rest with our Intelligence Department, whose information was throughout defective’. Ardagh went to see Wolseley, who feigned a misunderstanding: “Oh, my dear fellow, of course, I never meant anything of the sort. I am speaking at the Mansion House in a few days, and I will make a point of putting the matter right”. He did not keep his promise.

Ardagh’s Dept sent at least seven memoranda between June 1896 and September 1899, giving the government details of the military preparations being made by the Boer republics and unambiguously the dangers facing the British. They also published a secret handbook entitled, Military notes on the Dutch Republics of South Africa. Compiled in Section B, Intelligence Division, War Office.


The secret Military notes handbook became public knowledge and went a long way in clearing Ardagh’s tarnished reputation. The British press was not slow to realise that Military Intelligence had been made a scapegoat. One newspaper bluntly commented, ‘The Intelligence Department did its work faithfully and well’. As the existence of Military notes was now public knowledge and no longer confidential, the War Office could not continue, on the grounds of secrecy, to refuse Ardagh’s renewed demand that it be republished and made public. However only 50 copies were printed it was not widely distributed. The government was now embarrassed, which did not endear Ardagh greatly to them.

This matter placed a great strain on Ardagh. On top of the controversy and the need to direct his department in time of war he had other responsibilities. These included working on a committee investigating trans-oceanic telegraph cables as well as the implementation of The Hague Convention of early 1899. Concerning the latter, one of the matters which Ardagh had to defend was the British insistence that it had the right to use expanding bullets, or dum-dum bullets. The British position on dum-dum bullets was what it had been in 1889, that possession of these was necessary, in case ‘we have to deal with savages or with an enemy who is himself using an expanded bullet’. It is little wonder that Ardagh became ill and was off duty for some time, his place being taken in Military Intelligence in an acting capacity by Colonel William Everett.

In March 1901 Ardagh’s five-year term as director of Military Intelligence came to an end and no attempt was made to renew it. Ardagh certainly had nothing lined up for himself in advance. In a confidential memorandum written a few days before he left Queen Anne’s Gate Ardagh, laid out the history and work of the department, ending ‘my object is not to justify what I conceive the S. O S. [Secretary of State for War] is satisfied requires no exculpation, but rather to assure that in the future my successor as D.M.I. [Director of Military Intelligence] shall not be – as I have often been – a vox clamantis in deserto’.

Ardagh’s successor was Leeds-born William Nicholson, one of Roberts’ ‘Indian Ring’, having served many years with Roberts in India and later serving as his military secretary. He took over from Ardagh with the higher rank of lieutenant-general and in November 1901 the Mobilization Section of the British army was attached to Military Intelligence. This also meant an increase in staff and budget, as well as elevating Nicholson to the position of director-general. The ethos of Military Intelligence was to be very different under Nicholson. Things were now more bureaucratic, more regimented and less personalised.

John Ardagh was awarded the Queen’s medal for the war. The reason for this was most likely because after he left Military Intelligence, and while the war was being fought, he sat on a commission established to investigate claims against Britain in relation to the hundreds of foreign ‘undesirables’ whom the British had deported from South Africa during the war.

Ardagh was back in South Africa later in the year, ironically now with the temporary rank of lieutenant-general, to revisit sentences imposed because of martial law. But in August 1902 Ardagh formally retired from the army and in December was appropriately appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG). He did not, however, receive a peerage.

Parliament established a royal commission to ‘inquire into military preparations and other matters connected with war’. The Intelligence men convinced the royal commission and the commission laid no blame on the Military Intelligence Department for the lack of British preparedness for the war. Moreover, the commission relied heavily on information supplied to it by the Intelligence Department.

The report stated that the Intelligence Department, ‘was undermanned for the work of preparing for a great war ….. But a considerable measure of success must be admitted’. Regarding the major criticism of Intelligence that it failed to supply adequate maps for use in the field, the report observed; ‘The outcry therefore in regard to the absence of good maps was not altogether well-informed’. The 1903 Royal Commission had, if not directly, then certainly by implication, vindicated Ardagh.

Ardagh retired and lived in Wales, giving support to the Red Cross and serving as a British government director of the Suez Canal Company. After he died in September 1907, Lady Ardagh wrote a 479-page biography published as, The life of Major-General Sir John Ardagh by his wife Susan Countess of Malmesbury (Lady Ardagh) with portraits; and illustrations from drawings by Sir John Ardagh.

Susan Ardagh also wrote down an account of a conversation she had had in 1903 with former Secretary for War, St John Brodrick, which she bequeathed to the Public Record Office in 1936. In this, Brodrick fully admitted that, when he was under-secretary for War, prior to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer war, he had seen the Intelligence Department’s book Military notes on the Dutch Republics of South Africa. However, he frankly stated to her, “if I had admitted that Sir John Ardagh told us the truth, people would naturally say:‘If you were told [sic] the truth, why did you not act upon it, and they would think it was my fault’.

The thoroughly researched presentation was delivered with Donal’s usual quiet Irish humour and enjoyed by all present.

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South African Military History Society /