South African Military History Society


Newsletter / Nuusbrief 219
December/Desember 2022

SAMHSEC 14 November 2022 meeting

McGill Alexander told us about Rob Roy – Rogue or Rough Diamond?

Rob Roy MacGregor lived from 1671 to 1734. He was a Scottish Highlander and folk hero who participated in at least three Jacobite uprisings. Sometimes described as the Scottish Robin Hood, he went from being a respected cattle farmer to a notorious cattle rustler. A highly contentious and controversial individual, he played off clan chiefs against each other for his own benefit and ultimately lived the life of a brigand and adventurer, renowned as a champion of the poor.

An exceptional swordsman, he led his clan in battle against the forces of the king, was incarcerated in Newgate prison, yet was granted a royal pardon. Rogue and rebel with a benevolent bent, he lived in turbulent times in a rough neighbourhood where every man was a soldier, whether he liked it or not.

The recording of Mac’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library.

SAMHSEC RPC 28 November 2022

SAMHSEC Requested the Pleasure of historians’ Company to talk about military history on 28 November 2022.

In session 1, Basil Mills, Education Officer at the National English Literature Museum and a well-known personality in Grahamstown, presented a talk on the activities and modus operandi of the South African Battlefield Re-Enactors (SABRE), a local historical re-enactment group of many years standing.

SABRE, which embraces all age groups, engages in a wide range of cross-cultural activities. These range from battle re-enactments, visiting historical military (such as the Eastern Cape’s 19th century fortifications), cultural and literary sites, to the development of skills such as the handling of animals, map reading and craftmanship.

Amongst the many examples illustrated by Basil were the Battle of Grahamstown, Viking raids, a battle of the American Civil War, how to haul a field gun up a hill, historical weddings (that of Olive Schreiner and Samuel Cronwright being a notable example), supporting research (such as the author, Marguerite Poland’s doctoral work on Nguni cattle), learning to inspan oxen, operating an old printing press (with emphasis on the heritage of Thomas Pringle) and the firing of muzzle loading cannons. Fundraising for Fort Beaufort Museum (in this case re-enacting highway robberies) is an example of SABRE’s community related activities.

Through their activities, attention is given to details of clothing, tools and artifacts used at the time. These range from Vikings to Redcoats to amaXhosa armies. Much of the equipment and clothing required has been made by Basil and his wife, Debbie. These vary from ox-hide shields to uniforms, wagons and replica cannons. His family’s involvement has been one of the strengths of SABRE.

Having being conceived by Basil as a holistic education process, concepts embraced throughout SABRE activities have been cross-cultural perspectives, overcoming challenges and the fun element for people of all ages – always emphasising the important of perspective in history.

The recording of Basil’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library.

In session 2, Anne Irwin reviewed two very interesting and worthwhile books, Jambusters: the story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War by Julie Summers and Lumberjills: Britain’s forgotten Army by Julie Foat.

In Jambusters: the story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War, Julie Summers presents a well-researched history of the role played by the members of various branches of the Women’s Institute to ‘keep the wheels turning’ in rural Britain during the Second World War. She has delved into archive material, read diaries and interviewed many women who were involved in the tremendous feat of gathering rosehips, keeping pigs and rabbits, housing evacuees, setting up canteens for the troops, knitting and generally being ‘mother’ to the nation.

The central organisation and guidance for these activities was provided by Lady Denman, who chaired what became the National Federation of Women’s Institutes from 1917 until 1946. It was in the Women’s Institute that the government was able to utilise a well-organised and established group with area representatives and local chairwomen to ease the dissemination of information about what was most needed at any time on the Home Front.

Projects included making thousands of tons of jam from surplus fruit that would otherwise have rotted on trees, in hedgerows and in abandoned gardens and orchards; participating in the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign; as well as the ‘Make do and Mend’ campaign – the latter aimed at finding inventive ways of making clothes from salvaged materials.

Joanna Foat also provides a well-researched insight to the largely ignored work done by women – fondly known as Lumberjills – who joined the Women’s Timber Corps to work in the forestry industry. Her book, Lumberjills: Britain’s forgotten Army, follows the lives of some of the approximately 18 000 women who operated sawmills and ran forestry sites in the absence of the men called to war. They became adept at felling trees and cross-cutting them by hand. The work they did filled a very important function as timber was critical to the war effort, required as it was for everything from building aircraft and ships to coal mining and for communication.

Even though the Women’s Timber Corps was demobilized in 1946, it was only in 2008 that they were given some official credit when the British Government issued a commemorative badge in their honour.

If you would like to know more about the way working in forestry changed the lives of these women, of how they dealt with the stereotypical resistance to the work they were doing and what happened to some of them after the war, I highly recommend that you read this well-written, succinct account of this ‘forgotten army’ of women.


As is custom, on the 146th Anniversary of the Battle of Umzintzani, Prince Alfred`s Guard (Comrades) Association will be holding a Memorial Service for the Regiment’s Fallen at 1000 on Sunday 4 December 2022 at the Regimental Memorial, St. Georges Park, Port Elizabeth.

SAMHSEC 12 December 2022 meeting

Alan Mantle will discuss Leonardo da Vinci as a Military Engineer.

From an early age Leonardo had been apprenticed in the renowned art workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. He ultimately qualified as a Master in the Painter’s Guild of Saint Luke, with experience in the fields of chemistry and metallurgy in addition to painting and sculpting. At the peak of his career and in search of new challenges, he proposed his services to the Duke of Milan as a Military Engineer (refer the letter below)

It is ironic that not only was he without any previous experience in this field, but he was a closet pacifist who defined war as a “madness”. However, as military development was a major requirement of the ruling powers at that time, it became an important activity for him, in addition to his painting and his wide range of scientific studies.

Extract from Leonardo's Letter (1480) to Ludovico Sforza Duke of Milan

Most illustrious Lord,

Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and having noted that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different to those in common use:

I shall endeavour, without prejudice to anyone else, to explain myself to your Excellency unfolding to your Lordship my secrets, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to realize at opportune moments as well as all those things which shall be briefly noted below.

1) I have plans of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2) I know how, when a place is besieged, to remove the water from the moats and make an endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.

3) If, by reason of the height of the banks, or the strength of the place and its position, it is impossible, when besieging a place, to avail oneself of the plan of bombardment, I have methods for destroying every fortress or other structure, even if it were founded on rock.

4) Again I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these can fling small stones almost resembling a hail-storm; and with the smoke of these causing great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.

5) I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, constructed without noise to reach a designated [spot], even if it were needed to pass under a moat or a river.

6) I will make covered chariots, safe and unassailable which, entering among the enemy and their artillery, there is no body of men so great but they would break them. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.

7) In case of need I will make cannon, mortars and light ordnance of fine and useful design, out of the common type.

8) Where the operation of bombardment should fail, I would contrive catapults and other machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offence and defence.

9) And when the fight should be at sea I have kinds of many instruments most efficient for offence and defence; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes.

10) In time of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the construction of buildings, both public and private; and in conducting water from one place to another.

Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay and in painting do as well as any other, whosoever he may be.

And if any one of the above-named things seem to anyone to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency

— to whom I commend myself with the utmost humility.

SAMHSEC RPC 30 January 2023

SAMHSEC is to Request the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history on 30 January 2023.

Session 1 at 1930 South African time is available for you to discuss a military history subject. Please contact André at if you want to use this opportunity.

Session 2 at 2015 South African time is available for you to discuss a military history related book. Please contact André at if you want to use this opportunity.


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