South African Military History Society


Prominent among the many fine soldiers of Britain's 19th century army officer corps was General Sir Ian Hamilton. He was the subject of the curtain raiser given by Bob Smith at the 12 December society lecture meeting.Hamilton was born in 1853 on Corfu, where his father was serving with the Gordon Highlanders. Before sailing at age 20 to join his father's old regiment in India he had learned both French and German, and while there he became sufficiently proficient in Hindustani and various local dialects to be employed as an interpreter. A spell at the Army School of Musketry in 1878 kindled a lifelong interest in the subject, and in the course of his career Hamilton did much to modernise the army's musketry tactics.

Hamilton was wounded at the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881, and although recommended for the VC, was turned down for being too young. The second Anglo-Boer War brought him back to South Africa from India, where he had been aide-de-camp to the commander-in-chief of the Madras Presidency, General Fredrick Roberts, had married, and had established himself as something of a writer and journalist.

He was again recommended for the VC after the Battle of Elandslaagte, but was this time rejected as too senior. He survived the siege of Ladysmith, and subsequently fought numerous actions against the Boers. In the First World War he commanded the 1915 Gallipoli expedition, and was only saved from blame for the debacle by the intercession of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. It was afterwards found that the commander-in-chief, Lord Kitchener, had ignored Hamilton's requests for reinforcements and extra ammunition. Hamilton died in October 1947.

Hamish Paterson gave the main lecture of the evening, From Charleston to Camden, South Carolina. He began by describing the course of the American War of Independence from its beginnings on the road to Concord in April 1775, to the evacuation of Boston and the recovery of New York. This British victory was followed by defeats at Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776-77. The British capture of Philadelphia in the following year was overshadowed by the disaster at Saratoga, which brought France into the war on the side of the rebels.

A lull followed in 1779, and Spain too joined the rebels. Late that year Lord Germain decided to open a new front at Charleston, South Carolina, to exploit the success at seizing Savannah in Georgia. Landing the troops and preparing for the siege took several months, but on 8 May the bombardment began, and two days later Charleston surrendered with the bulk of the southern rebel army, seven generals and 5 677 men. British cavalry later destroyed the remaining rebel body fleeing into North Carolina.

Commanding an army about 5 000 strong, rebel general Horatio Gates marched to meet the British defending forces concentrated at Camden, north of Charleston. After a short skirmish both armies withdrew to deploy in the dark. This left the rebels' weakest force facing the strongest British units, but before Gates could rectify his mistake the British attacked and the continental militia fled. The British crown was, for the moment, in control of South Carolina.

Military blunders and bloopers was the subject of the curtain raiser at the 16 January lecture meeting when Martin Ayres presented the eighth in his series of SNAFU talks.

The term 'friendly fire', when used to describe the killing of one's own people, has always been something of an oxymoron. Yet examples are legion. The duel between British artillery at Waterloo and the newly arrived Prussians is one. Another was the killing by British pickets of the first of British soldiers to die in WW1. Yet a third was the appalling loss of US aircrew and aircraft in training accidents.

The illusion that political leaders know better than their generals how to wage war has caused innumerable disasters. Hitler's conduct of the German war in Russia is the classical example. Churchill's WW2 decision to detach a substantial portion of the Commonwealth's North Africa forces to Greece led to disastrous losses and ensured subsequent German victories in the Desert War.

Among the most ludicrous of all bloopers was the 1798 French expedition to 'throw off the English yoke in Ireland'. The 1 000 men under General Humbert and the 3 000 under General Hardy were to sail simultaneously for Donegal. But Hardy was delayed, and after initial successes Humbert surrendered to the British. Hardy sailed into a British fleet and his ships were dispersed. Then a third force of 270, led by Irish exile Napper Tandy and unknown to the other two, sailed into Donegal harbour, drank the town dry, and sailed out again.

The main lecture of the evening, the Battle of Helvetia in the Anglo-Boer War, was a remarkable piece of forensic analysis presented by Peter Goodship, who disclosed yet another cover-up by the British C-in-C, General Kitchener. Helvetia was a British post perched on the escarpment bordering the Drakensberg. Its importance derived from its position at a crossroads 10km north of Machadadorp, and its 4,7-inch naval artillery piece nicknamed the Lady Roberts Gun. The garrison comprised five officers and about 250 men of the King's Liverpool Regiment, plus various detachments. It was commanded by a Major Cotton, an experienced soldier.

After a short fight the garrison surrendered when the Boers over-ran Helvetia on the night of 29 December 1900 and destroyed the gun. The defences were poorly prepared, and Major Cotton had delayed rectifying the weaknesses even when they were pointed out by his superiors The general morale was low, and there was excessive drinking. This was also true of the officers, who took a relaxed approach to their duties. Only the NCOs appear to have maintained soldierly standards, and the granddaughter of one of these, Sergeant Johnson, had flown from Britain especially to attend the lecture.

At the subsequent court martial Major Cotton was sentenced to be cashiered, despite his having sustained an incapacitating head wound early in the action. What appeared as a miscarriage of justice was taken up by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor who invented the world's greatest fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. His diagnosis was confirmed by the society's own Professor Ian Copley. Kitchener had only recently assumed overall command from General Roberts, and to protect his own record he contrived get the verdict overturned and Cotton re-instated.

In previous talks to the society Peter Goodship has revealed the cover-up that Kitchener engineered for the British defeat at Nooitgedacht on 13 December 1900.



13 February
CR John Bleloch - The Heliograph
ML Achilles Kallos - The Balkan Wars of Independence: 1821-1922
13 March
CR Terry Wilson - The Jacobs Rifle
ML Paul Kilmartin - The Mystery of the Flight of Rudolph Hess: 1941


13 February
DDH Lt. Ray Locke - I watched the sinking of the Bismark
ML Major John Buchan - The History of Flying Boats

Cape Town

13 February
Robin Smith - An Outline of the American Civil War 1861-65

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