South African Military History Society



June 2003

PAST EVENTS: The May meeting, chaired by our Vice Chairman Bill Brady started with past Chairman, Ken Gillings, giving the latest details of the planned Society Outing to Old Fort and The Visit to the Site of The Battle of Congella on Sunday 8 June 2003 and an update on the plans for the Annual Battlefield Tour to The Thukela Heights on the week-end of 16/17 August 2003. For more information on these 2 trips please read the second sheet of this newsletter, or for further details ring Ken on 083-654-5880.

The DDH for the evening, entitled Military History on a Motor Cycle was given by Ian Sutherland and adopted an unusual format of questions and answers. He began with his family's emigration from Britain when he was a child and going on to his tour of Scotland on a motorcycle as a young man. At each point in the narrative Ian put a question, which related to an historical event or institution linked to his career and his journey. In his introduction he began with his journey as a child on board the Athlone Castle, which had been used as an aircraft carrier in World War II. The voyage from Southampton to Durban took place while the Festival of Britain was in progress.

Ian's high school days were completed at Maritzburg College, established at the time of the Anglo-Zulu War, with its badge featuring the crossed carbine and assegai. Its Victorian Hall, now a national monument, was used as a hospital during the Anglo-Boer War. While studying at Howard College, named after a young man killed in World War I, our speaker joined a rowing club as coxswain. In Durban bay, where the club rowed, many sites of military importance were to be found. To facilitate his journey to and from the yacht mole he acquired a JAWA motorcycle.

After graduation as a mechanical engineer he became an apprentice at the Rolls Royce works at Derby, in England. From Derby, with an interest in motor cycling and camping and with Scottish relatives and friends to visit, he embarked on an extensive trip through Scotland. He showed slides of places of historical interest, which he had taken on the journey. Scottish history featured prominently with the massacre of the MacDonalds by the Campbells at Glencoe; the 1745 rebellion; Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Battle of Culloden; the Highland Clearances of the 19th century; to say nothing of the Loch Ness monster which conveniently makes its ANNUAL appearance JUST before the start of the tourist season!

Ian's motorcycle journey took him as far as Cape Wrath, the most northerly point of Britain and back to Derby via Edinburgh. At regular intervals during this tour, relevant questions of both an historical and of a military history nature were asked as our speaker dared to challenge his audience, but it is pleasing to report that virtually all his questions were answered correctly and in the case of the Highland Clearances the question led to an interesting and knowledgeable debate. The narration was evocative especially for those familiar with at least some of the historical sites mentioned. Ian has two or three other motorcycle journeys, featuring historical sites, to his credit. These could provide us with further "unusual" entertainment in the future.

The main talk of the evening was given by our Chairman Paul Kilmartin as part of his annual survey of the actions and development of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front during the Great War of 1914-1918, later known as the 1st World War. The talk, entitled The Run-Up to The Battle of The Somme was in fact the eighth of the series and took the war up to the middle of 1916, just before the most tragic day in the history of the British Army. The period covered was from the end of The Battle of Loos in mid October 1915 to the 30 June 1916, 8 months in which the BEF did not fight a major engagement but still suffered large casualties in what one historian described as "the day-to-day attrition of trench warfare".

During this time major changes took place in the British political leadership of the war, changes in the high command of the BEF, an increase in the size of the army and a lengthening of the front covered as they took over from the French army in Artois and down to the northern banks of the River Somme. To put these 8 months into the perspective of the whole war, our speaker gave a brief summary overview of how the BEF had arrived at this position. He covered the Causes of the War, the BEF Arrival in France in August 1914, the Battle of Mons, The Great Retreat, the Battle of the Marne (the most important battle of the 20th century), the Advance to the Aisne, the so called "Race for the Sea", the 1st Battle of Ypres, and then in 1915 the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the 2nd Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Loos. He then explained that the war can be broken down into clearly defined stages, with 1914 as the time of Open Warfare, 1915 as the Year of Experimentation, 1916-Aug 1918 as the Battles of Attrition and end August-November 1918 as a closing repeat of Open Warfare. Having set the scene, our Chairman then reviewed 1915 in particular, describing it as the "Unexpected Year" in which there were major changes in strategy affected by outside political influences and when, for the first time, not altogether successful attempts were made for the British and French armies to work together.

The fact that just about everyone thought the war would be over by Christmas 1914 and that the war would be short and fought with open and fast cavalry based tactics, had a material impact on the BEF in 1915 as logistically no one had planned for a lengthy war using trench warfare tactics, with the artillery as the major weapon. That was why 1915 was the "Year of Experimentation", as the army grew to 10 times its pre-war size and everything was in short supply from uniforms and equipment (and frequently the wrong equipment) to experienced officers and NCOs to train and then lead the new volunteer armies. At the same time the BEF had to prove itself to its French allies and this led to its new attack strategy and the unsuccessful attacks in N.E. France at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers, Festubert and others, before the largest and last major battle of 1915, the Battle of Loos. The losses were huge in 1915 and with the politicians taking men and equipment away from the Western Front as they looked for alternative routes to victory, as at Gallipoli, it was clear that changes in leadership and tactics were needed.

Field Marshall French was the wrong man to command the BEF. He had a short fuse and managed to fall out with just about everyone, including the French high command, his own senior officers (who in turn were undermining him) and Lord Kitchener, his Minister of War in London. He was a cavalry officer of the old school and totally unfit to fight a war based on entrenchment, artillery and mud. The way he handled the reserves at Loos, and then reported the "facts" incorrectly in his official dispatch on the battle, led to his dismissal and the appointment of his once friend General Sir Douglas Haig as his successor in December 1915. Haig inherited the munitions and weaponry shortages, the political interference and the arrival of Kitchener's "New Armies" as the BEF expanded even more in size. Haig understood the problems of the Western Front as being defence dominated, but also knew that with surprise and careful planning an initial breakthrough was possible, but that exploitation of that initial dominance was altogether more difficult. Both Neuve Chapelle and Loos had proved that point but at no time had a breakthrough been of sufficient strength or time to utilise the cavalry and so achieve any of their initial objectives.

Planning ahead into 1916 would see more of the same, but with more troops, more guns and ammunition, more joint operations with the French and a change in tactics. It meant that the 8-month gap after the Battle of Loos was crucial to the planning for the next phase of the war and Haig held a series of meetings with the French high command at Chantilly, and these were reviewed in detail. After Gallipoli, the politicians had finally reached the conclusion that victory over Germany could only be achieved on the Western Front, and that despite the heavy losses the war must continue. At this point Paul gave a brief summary on the other war theatres, including Bulgaria, Serbia, the withdrawal from Gallipoli, the status of the war in Russia, Austria, Italy, the Balkans, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Africa and ended with the British naval blockade and the German U-boat campaign. This helped to explain why from the end of 1915 the full focus would be on the defeat of Germany and the Central Alliance on the Western Front.

1916 became the Year of Attrition, or of "wearing down the opposition" and the way the first of these battles was initiated, the German attack on the French at Verdun in February 1916, was explained. The German aim at Verdun was to "bleed the French forces to death", but the result was that both armies lost heavily. This unexpected attack had a major and detrimental impact on the planning, which Paul explained with all the options available, of the intended combined major offensive by the British and French armies on the Somme in mid 1916. It was a battle launched with untrained forces in just 16 weeks, and with limited French involvement because of Verdun, and will be the subject of next years talk on the BEF on the Western Front.

Professor Mike Laing gave an enthusiastic vote of thanks to both our speakers for what he regarded as an excellent and fascinating evening.


Following his DDH talk in April of this year, when he spoke most interestingly about what happened to his father when he became a POW at Tobruk, PROFESSOR PHILIP EVERITT takes it a full military stage further with our main talk for the June meeting. He will present "TOBRUK - A TALE OF TWO SIEGES", which will look at the story of this fortress during the North African campaign. The importance, similarities and differences between the famous siege of 1941 and the catastrophic collapse of 1942, as well as some of the implications of the surrender, will be reviewed. These great events involved a substantial number of South African forces.

We have been very fortunate with some most unusual and fascinating DDH talks in 2003 and the DDH for June will be no different. You just have to look at the title of the talk and who the speaker is, to realise that!!. DAVE MATTHEWS talk is entitled TEDDINGTON LOCK. AN UNUSUAL MILITARY CONNECTION. Whatever next??

See below for News of the BATTLEFIELD TOUR - 2003

THE SOCIETY OUTING - Sunday 8 June 2003

The arrangements for the Society Outing, please note on SUNDAY 8 June 2003, are as follows:

1. 09h00. Meet at the Old Fort, Durban - JUST TURN UP!!
2. 09h10. An introduction by Major Keith Archibald.
3. 10h00. Move to Congella Park.
4. 11h00. Drive to North Pier, Durban Point, via Wyatt Road cemetery to visit British graves.
View the harbour entrance from the roof of the Famous Fish Company and order lunch (for those who wish)
5. 13h30 End of tour, with lunch at local restaurant optional.

Speakers: Background to, and the advance to conflict, The Battle of Congella, the theories about the battle site, the Voortrekker graves and the Siege of the Old Fort: Major Keith Archibald

Dick King and Ndongeni Zulu: Dr Ingrid Machin

The Old Fort after the Siege: Ken Gillings

One of the side objectives of the tour is to reposition the barrel of a naval gun that has been knocked off its platform.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES : July 2003 - September 2003

10 July 2003
DDH Custer's Last Stand. The Battle of Little Bighorn - Lt. Col Ray Lotter
MAIN The Death of the Desert Fox - Charles Whiteing
14 August 2003
16/17 August 2003(Sat/Sunday)
Ken Gillings - Organiser
11 September 2003
DDH Recent Discoveries on the Death of Bhambhatha - Ken Gillings
MAIN The 1st, and Last Surviving, SA Recipients of the VC - Brian Thomas


Date:16/17 August 2003 and the Tour will be to:


On Day 1 there will be visits to Hussar Hill, Cingolo, Monte Cristo and Hlangwane and on Day 2 to Colenso Koppies, Wynne Hill, Harts Hill and Pieters Hill

Meeting place - Day 1 - will be as usual at the Escourt Ultra City on the N.3, at 9.30 am

Overnight on Day 1 will be at the Royal Hotel Ladysmith, where the following excellent prices have been negotiated. Single Bed and Breakfast: R200.00 per room and a Double Bed and Breakfast: R300.00 per room (i.e. R150 pp!!). In addition a special dinner buffet for the SAMHS has been agreed @ R60.00 per person. While this is not mandatory, we need a minimum of 30 guests to have this arranged for us. Those who have stayed at this hotel on previous Society tours will know that we get well looked after.

Those members and friends wishing to take advantage of these sharply reduced prices must
At the same time, please indicate to the hotel if you will be having dinner.

It is important that we know who will be attending the tour and at the last meeting a name sheet was passed round and this will be repeated at the next 2 meetings in June and July. Any member not attending these meetings, and wants to go on the tour, please ring Ken Gillings on 083-654-5880 to advise him. Also those wishing to buy a copy of Ken's book on the Thukela Heights can order in the same way. See section on Guide Book below.

Speakers: As usual our past Chairman Ken Gillings will be responsible for the planning of the trip and will be our main guide. However he will be supported by a further (at present) 8 speakers and these include :

Paul Kilmartin, Bill Brady, Dereck Petersen, Dr. Ingrid Machin, Charles Whiteing, Ganes Pillay, Major Tony Gordon (from SAMH Society Cape Town, whose father fought in the battle) John Murray (from SAMHS Johannesburg, who will concentrate on the role of the Irish regiments on the Thukela Heights, prior to the formation of the Irish Guards on 1 April 1900) and guest speaker Gilbert Torlage.

Departure: Again, as usual, we will aim to close after lunch so that all members can be on the road by 2.30 pm on the Sunday.

Guide Book: We are pleased to announce that we have approached the publishers of Ken Gillings excellent Raven Press paper back on The Battle of the Thukela Heights and they have agreed to let us have a bulk supply at a 30% discount. That means that all members and friends who are going on the tour will be able to buy the book for R36.00 and it will prove to be of immense value for all attendees.

This tour could prove to be one of the best Battlefield Tours in recent years and we hope that it will be well supported by members and friends of the Society.
For further information, please ring KEN GILLINGS on: 083-654-5880 or 031-266-2233

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001
Telephone: 031-201-3983

South African Military History Society /