South African Military History Society


It being Armistice Day, the Chairlady opened the November meeting by calling for a minute's silence in tribute to those who laid down their lives for their country and whom we remember on 11 November. She also asked those present to use the moment to remember our Past Chairman, George Barrell who had passed away in October.

She then introduced committee member Bob Smith, who proceeded to deliver an interesting and well-illustrated curtain raiser entitled "The Battle of Wagon Hill, January 1900."

This battle took place during the course of the Siege of Ladysmith in the Second Anglo Boer War and was the result of a determined effort by the investing Boer forces to end the siege, which had been in progress since the 2nd November 1899.

They decided on the strategy of capturing Wagon Hill, a large hill with a commanding view over the town below. This move would bring them into a position where their heavy guns could be brought to bear on the town at close range and so force a British surrender. This would then enable the Boers to push south to confront General Buller's forces advancing to the aid of Ladysmith.

The British garrison had troops ensconced in stone walled forts ("sangars") but the Boers were confident that by using 2 000 men to simultaneously attack the hill at different points they would be able to take the British defences. These were manned by men of the Imperial Light Horse Regiment (ILH), the King's Royal Rifles (KRR), the Devon Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders.

Several Boer commandos were assigned specific points of attack and at 02h30 men from the Heilbron, Kroonstad and Harrismith Commandos launched their attack on the western point of Wagon Hill. At the same time a working party was positioning a naval gun near a vulnerable position in this area known as Wagon Point. The Boer attack caught this group by surprise but they responded immediately, as did men of the ILH. Running battles then developed all over the sides and crest of the hill and the situation rapidly became critical for the British. Often the opposing troops were only several yards apart. The Boers were using smokeless powder cartridges and their opponents could not determine their positions, thus several forward rushes by the British failed in the face of the Boer concealment and high firing rate. Col Hamilton, in charge of the defences, telephoned Sir George White who immediately ordered the remaining squadrons of the ILH into the action, which now became more widespread, and by mid-morning the battle was becoming a stalemate, until a group of Boers, desperate to conclude the engagement and led by Field Cornets "Japie" de Villiers and De Jager, stormed Wagon Point. The British responded to the attack but the Boers pushed their attack forward, although met by determined resistance which culminated in a bayonet charge by twelve blue jackets, which sent the Boers into retreat.

On another part of the hill, Dominee John Kestell of the Harrismith Commando distinguished himself by his bravery in rendering comfort, assistance and water to friend and foe alike.

In the afternoon a violent thunderstorm blew up and caused the Boer attack to peter out. A number of them retreated across the flooded Fouriespruit, in which some were washed away and drowned. White now decided to clear the remaining Boers off the hill in a bayonet charge. Against heavy rifle fire and in the midst of icy hail and lightning flashes, the task was accomplished and the Boer attack was broken off.

The battle of Wagon Hill cost the British 183 officers and men killed, and 249 wounded, and the Boers 68 killed and 135 wounded. The British dead are buried in the official Ladysmith Military cemetery and the Boer dead are buried in the official Boer War Memorial known as Platrand Monument on the crest of Wagon Hill. Five British Victoria Crosses were awarded for the battle.

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The main lecture of the evening was given by Colin Dean, a Past Chairman and long serving committee member. Colin's talk was entitled "Chinese Colonial Expansion in the 15th Century" and was excellently illustrated by means of the latest lap top technology. His talk was dedicated to the memory of George Barrell who gave him a book to read entitled "1421 - The Year the Chinese Discovered the World". This book, written by Gavin Menzies, formed the basis of Colin's lecture. It was first published in 2002 and then updated by recent evidence leading to a second edition in 2003.

Following the collapse of the Mogul Empire in 1355, the Ming dynasty took over as rulers of China. In 1402 Zhu Di became the 3rd Ming emperor, and he started an enormous naval expansion programme that stripped the forests of hardwood. As each proposed ship took 300 acres of prime teak forest, millions of acres of forest were felled. Using these ships he meant to explore the oceans beyond the then-known world, using bribery and gifts and, if necessary, force, to influence and colonise as much of the world as they could.

By 1420 China had the greatest navy in the world. It comprised 3 800 ships of various types, supported by a further 3 000 merchantmen as auxiliaries, with a host of small craft for duties as despatch and police boats. In 1421 a 1 000 strong fleet sailed from China. The 70 largest junks in the fleet were each of 1 500 tonnes displacement and had watertight compartments which gave strength and could be used to hold water or provisions. Each had six decks, was brightly carved and painted and carried 24 cast bronze cannon. Other auxiliary junks carried horses and all the building materials necessary to repair the fleet at sea, victuals and troops. This grand fleet of 1 000 ships, and manned by 70 000 people, sailed from China in February 1421 under the overall command of the eunuch Zheng He. Once at sea the fleet broke up in to four smaller flotillas as follows:

Admiral Hong Bao, accompanied by Admiral Zhou Man, crossed the Pacific and passed through the Magellan Strait, penetrating to the South Shetlands before turning back because of ice. The climate was warmer in 1421 than it is now and Hong Bao was able to sail NE along the ice edge, around to the North of the South Orkney Islands, making a landfall at South Georgia, before pressing on to Australia.

Admiral Zou Wen also passed through Magellan and then turned north up the east coast of the Americas. In present day New England they put a party ashore to erect a stone laboratory and then continued northwards. He then divided his flotilla. One half crossed the Atlantic, stopping at Corvo in the Azores (where a laboratory they erected was later found by the Portuguese), then at the Canaries and the Cape Verde Islands before returning to China via the Cape and the Indian Ocean. The other half of his flotilla, under his command, also crossed the Atlantic to the west coast of Greenland where they established a settlement and observatory recently uncovered by modern excavation. Because of the climatic conditions prevailing, Zou Wen was able to pass north of Greenland, down to Iceland, and then through the Bering Strait and home to Beijing.

Admiral Zhou Man broke away at Magellan and turned northwards up the west coast of South America moving as far as the Pacific North West before cutting back across the Pacific to New Zealand, where his command was struck by a tsunami resulting from a comet striking the earth. He limped back to China with only 93 men remaining!

When all of Grand Admiral Zheng He's ships finally returned home to China in 1423 they found that it had changed dramatically. The emperor Zhu Di was dying and as his grandiose plans had almost bankrupted China, his Mandarins were reversing everything that he had achieved. When he finally died in 1424 his son Zhu Gaozhi issued an edict overturning all his father's works and forbidding further voyages. Grand Admiral Zeng He was pensioned off as Imperial Harbour Master in Nanjing and all records of his voyages were destroyed. However, Zeng He preserved some of his maps and records and set up two stone pillars bearing the names of the countries his personnel had visited over the course of seven voyages between 1405 and 1433. Modern research and archaeology around the world has finally given Zeng He and the Chinese the place in the history of exploration which they deserve.

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9 December
CR Geoff Hardy - Excerpts of the Boer War diary of Private J. L. Hardy with the Royal West Kents.
ML Terry Willson -The British Sniper of World Wars I & II.
20 January 2005 (THIRD THURSDAY)
CR Gerald Zwirn - Voices from the past.
ML Flip Hoorweg - The Saint Michiel and Meuse-Argonne offensive, 1918.


9 December 2004
Annual Dinner - Cotton Fields Restaurant, Umhlanga Rocks: 7.00 for 7.30 pm
20 January 2005 (THIRD THURSDAY)
DDH Phylomena Badsey - The Life of Vera Brittain
MAIN Dr. Stephen Badsey - The Battlefield of Normandy

Cape Town

December - in recess
Next meeting will be on Thursday 20th January 2005

Eastern Cape

9 December
CR Ian Pringle - Commandant Pieter Kritzinger in the Bedford and Adelaide districts during the Anglo Boer War
ML Andrew Cook - Great Last Stands
Ivor Little (Scribe) (012) 651-3647

For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
For Cape Town details contact John Mahncke (021) 797-5167
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn (041) 373-4469

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