South African Military History Society


From early times communications have been indispensable to the successful conduct of warfare, and the heliograph is one device that has featured prominently in war waged in South Africa. This devise for using the rays of the sun to send messages over comparatively long distances was the subject of the curtain raiser given by John Bleloch at the society's 13 February lecture meeting.

The human voice, gestures, the trumpets, whistle, beacons, bells, sunlight reflected off polished shields, were only some of the means by which simple messages could be sent on the battlefield. Runners, gallopers, dogs and pigeons have also played a part, and to limited extent they still do. But it was not until the napoleonic era that some degree of sophistication was introduced into military communications. A Frenchman named Chapper invented a 'radiating telegraph machine' for exchanging messages. This was later improved by the British and used in the Peninsula War, and on naval ships. In the 19th century three giants emerged on the communications scene. Samuel Morse, born in 1791, started life as an artist before developing an interest in electromagnetism. He invented the telegraph machine and developed the code of electrical impulses by which messages could be send over long distances. The idea rapidly caught on, and within a short time telegraph systems were being installed all over the world, including under the oceans. Henry Mance, born in 1840 and working in telegraph services in India, invented the heliograph based on the heliostat devised by the German scientist Karl Friedrick Gauss. This was an immediate success, and was soon in use for military communication in sunny climes such as India. Afghanistan, Africa and southwestern USA. For obvious reasons it did not meet with such success in Europe. The heliograph assumed particular importance in South Africa's wars. In the Anglo-Boer War it was used extensively by both sides. The mechanism was simple. It consisted of a mirror mounted on a waist-high tripod, equipped with a sighting devise, and a mechanism for tipping the mirror attached to a Morse key. There was usually an additional mirror that could be adjusted to ensure that the sun always fell on the signalling mirror. Sighting was achieved by the operator looking through a small hole in the signalling mirror and lining up his target with a bracket that projected about 18 inches in front of his eye. As he tapped out his message on the Morse key the beam of light projected by the signalling mirror would be interrupted in accordance with the code signals.

The distance at which messages could be read depended mainly on the diameter of the signalling mirror and the clarity of the atmosphere. But 20 miles was seldom a problem, and ranges in excess of 100 miles have been achieved.

The numerous Balkan wars of the 19th and 20th centuries are an intriguing subject for most amateur military historians, although a vague and infinitely complicated one. These wars were the subject of the main lecture of the evening given by long-time society member Achilles Kallos, whose book on the subject will be published shortly.

Greece's victory in its 1821-1833 war with its Turkish imperial overlords made it the first Balkan country to gain its freedom by military means. A series of conflicts followed, ending only with the expulsion of Greek forces from Asia Minor in 1922. Besides the various battles illustrated by slides and maps, the speaker discussed the disputes between King Constantine of Greece (1868-1923) and his prime minister Eleftherious Venizelos (1864-1936); the parts played by the royal houses of Serbia and Bulgaria; and the characters of the important military commanders of all the countries involved. These included Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Turkey.

The strength of the Greek navy played a crucial role in the steady diminution of Turkey's imperial role in the Balkans by being able to prevent the Turkish fleet from leaving the Dardenelles. It was thus unable to take control of the Greek Islands and move its troops by sea to the war zone.

Bulgaria was dissatisfied with the outcome of the First Balkans War, and in the course of the Second Balkan War she attacked her former allies, Greece and Serbia, and attempted to seize the Aegean port of Salonica. The attempt failed because the Greeks had already occupied the town.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire tended to be drawn into the political vacuum in the Balkans left by the retreating Turks, and the opening shots of World War One were fired in the Bosnia city of Sarajevo by a Slav nationalist who assassinated crown prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in June 1914. In the following year an Austro-Hungarian army supported by German troops invaded Serbia. Among the final battles of the war were those fought on the Macedonian front in 1918. The collapse of Turkey at the end of World War One presented an opportunity for Greece to settle accounts with its old enemy, and Greek forces invaded Asia Minor. After initial successes, and achieving a considerable penetration of Turkish territory, their penetration was first halted and eventually reversed by Turkish forces rallied by Mustapha Kemel "Attaturk' . Eventually the Greek army was forces to evacuated Asia Minor altogether.

Members are reminded that their choices for the annual Felix Machanik and George Barrell prizes for the best lectures and curtain raisers presented during the year 2002 must be in by the date of the next lecture meeting on 13 March. Those unable to attend the meeting may fax their choices to (011) 678-1454.



13 March
CR Terry Wilson - The Jacobs Rifle
ML Paul Kilmartin - The Mystery of the Flight of Rudolph Hess: 1941
10 April
Annual General Meeting
ML John Murray - The Easter Rising, Dublin 1916


13 March
DDH Brian Kennedy - The Fighting 69th
ML Bill Brady - Operation Barbarossa: The German Invasion of Russia, June 1941

Cape Town

13 March
Rodney Marwick - The Battles for Riet and Pforte, 1915

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

Contact number in Cape Town: John (Jochen) Mahncke (021) 797-5167

Contact number in Durban: Dr Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983

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