The curtain raiser advertised for the Society's 8 May lecture meeting had to be cancelled owing to the indisposition of the speaker, Captain Ivor Little. Committee member Hamish Paterson stepped into the breach at short notice with a talk entitled 'Finding Military Ancestors'. He was speaking from experience as one who is often approached with such requests.
Genealogy is a popular hobby throughout the world, yet in many public organisations it is viewed with
horror. That is because some inquirers pose questions that are impossible to answer. For example: 'My
great-grandfather served in the Anglo-Boer War under an assumed name, can you tell me what it was?'
Yet, naively, an answer is expected.
To be able to trace a military ancestor it's essential to provide some basic information. Without a surname and initials nobody can help you. Add a regimental number, rank, unit, date of birth and military records and you stand a much better chance.
To obtain such information it is useful to check for any documents relating to an ancestor's military service. Enlistment or discharge papers, records of service, kit issue documents, movement orders and ID tags can provide important clues. Medals can help. Usually these are engraved with the name and rank of the recipient. For medals awarded before or after WW2, unit or corps may be included. However, the possibility of mistakes must be allowed for.
Photographs are a problematic source of information. Only a small proportion can reveal such useful clues as clear insignia, characteristics of dress, type of load-bearing equipment and so on. Inscriptions on the back of photographs can be misleading unless written by contemporaries.
It's important to remember that a courteous query is more likely to be answered than a rude one. Care
should also be taken to address inquiries to the source most likely to be of use. This saves the source's
time, and perhaps ruffled feathers. A definite 'no-no' is to respond to a query that has been answered that
the information received is already known. This can make things difficult for the next inquirer. Another is to
argue about the price charged for information. Much time and expertise can be involved in answering
queries concerning military ancestors. It should also be understood that after agreeing a fee for information,
anything additional also has to be paid for.
Finally, it is wise to be prepared for unwelcome surprises. The truth is capable of demolishing decades of cherished illusions. A long diet of family recollections can boost a perfectly ordinary military career, or even a delinquent one, into something monumentally heroic.
You have been warned.
The main lecture of the evening was the always enjoyable, annual presentation of the South African Arms and Ammunition Collectors Association. (SAAACA). The membership of this highly successful organisation now exceeds 1 000.
The subject was the development of the gun (small arms). Each of the three speakers illustrated his section of the talk with numerous, appropriate examples. The first volley was loosed by Denny Rademeyer. He traced the origins of the personal weapon from the 13th century discovery that, when compressed, a mixture of saltpetre, carbon and sulphur could be used to fire a projectile. This development was first manifest in the small cannon held in one hand and fired by means of a slow match held in the other.
The use of both hands in this way restricted the shooter's ability to aim. The search for greater accuracy and convenience culminated a century later in the wide adoption of the matchlock. A squeeze of the trigger would bring the match into contact with the powder and the shooter could concentrate on his aim. A variation on this system was the wheel lock, although this was too expensive for the common soldier.
The final development of the infantryman's personal weapon in the era of black powder was the muzzle-loading, smoothbore musket, fired by striking flint on steel. The flintlock musket - such as the British Army's 'Brown Bess' - became the mainstay of European armies well into the 19th century.
The second speaker, Terry Willson, explained how, from the middle of the 19th century, the development of small arms had accelerated sharply. The traditional black-powder charge, that had been in use for the best part of 600 years, and which had made the battlefield a very smoky place, gave way to smokeless powder. The clumsy, slow-in-action muzzle-loaders were gradually replaced by the breach-loading, bolt-action guns with rifled barrels. These could be mass-produced more cheaply, and in greater variety. The loose-powder charges gave way to cartridges containing both propellant and projectile. Rifles with magazines rapidly replaced the single-shot versions. A race began to reduce weight, both in the gun and its ammunition. Most of the small arms in the hands of South African collectors fall into these categories.
The last of the speakers, Peter Wells, showed how these changes culminated in the self-loading, rapid-firing weapons in use today. The machine gun in its many forms began life in the 19th century. An early example was the multi-barreled Gatling gun, operated by turning a handle. Sir Hiram Maxim designed a more advanced model. He was born in the USA, although resident in Britain and employed by Vickers, the UK arms manufacturer. Another innovator was John Moses Browning. The Vickers machine gun, of which an example was present, was a robust, reliable, belt-fed weapon that requiring two men to handle, and served with distinction in both world wars.
All small arms in use with modern armies are today auto loading, and most have selective fire capabilities.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581For Durban details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983 For Cape Town details contact John Mahncke (021) 797-5167
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