South African Military History Society



May 2004

PAST EVENTS: The April meeting was also the AGM of the KwaZulu-Natal Branch of the Society, and to run that part of the evening, Dr. Ingrid Machin took the chair. She was able to announce that as no new names had been put forward, the Society committee was re-elected en bloc, news that was greeted with applause from a full audience.
Paul Kilmartin started his 7th year as our Chairman by announcing that he thought it was now the time for serious consideration to be given to finding his replacement, and that he hoped a new Chairman would be in place by the next AGM in 2005 or by 2006 at the latest. He emphasised the need for members to give this serious thought, as, in his opinion, new blood and new ideas were now needed to bring a fresh impetus to drive the Society forward.

In an informative and often amusing DDH talk, guest speaker John Goodrich dealt with Military Traditions. General military traditions include the awarding of decorations for valour, merit and service; and also distinctive regimental attire, music and the greeting of superiors. For example, the speedy mobilisation of British forces during the Falklands War in 1982 has been ascribed to unit cohesion, regimental pride and esprit de corps based on traditions fostered by the publication, in British magazines, of British Regimental Histories and Traditions. Most military traditions usually result from a single well-remembered incident or action unique to a regiment or unit and our speaker, stating that examples of British regimental nicknames are numerous, gave us many examples, including the following few: The Gloucester Regt (28th Foot) nicknames "For and Afts" and "Glorious" commemorate famous back-to-back actions. In 1811, at the Battle of Albuera, the severely wounded Col. Ingles - C.O. of the 57th Foot (The Middlesex Regt.) urged on his men with shouts of "Die hard my men!" The regiment is now known as "The Die Hards". The phrase "The thin red line" originated from the heroic defeat of the Russian cavalry by a limited and inadequate infantry line of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders.

On a lighter note, The Inniskilling Fusiliers (27th Foot) earned their nickname "The Skins" during the Napoleonic Wars, when 400 men bathing in the sea rallied naked to repel a rumoured French attack. More recently, in World War II the women in the Home Guard, not issued with regular uniforms, were to be distinguished by armbands over their civilian clothes. The War Office order, however, directed that they were to wear "nothing at all"; hence the nickname "Lady Godiva's Own". Apart from nicknames, customs in some regiments perpetuate their proud traditions. Every year on Waterloo Day, 18 June, in memory of the heroic defence by sergeants of the 27th Foot (The Inniskilling Fusiliers) the sergeants take over from the officers and attend the Officer's Mess Dinner. Once a year the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters hoist a scarlet tunic at their Regimental Headquarters in memory of a brave young subaltern who risked his life to run the jacket up a flagstaff to signal their position at the siege of Badajoz in 1812 during the Peninsular War. On 1 August every year the men of the Suffolk regiment (12th Foot) wear roses behind their cap badges to commemorate the Battler of Minden in 1759, before which battle soldiers picked and wore roses.

Some traditions involve music, e.g. the playing of The Last Post at 21.50 hours, instead of the gazetted time of 2200 hours, by the bugler of the 11th Hussars, in memory of Lord Cardigan, who died at that time in March 1868. At combined regimental mess dinners, members of regiments rise when their own marches are played. Although some South African regiments have adopted the traditions of their allied units, some homegrown traditions have appeared. Piet Haan, the rooster mascot unfortunately eaten by the C.O. of the 12th Engineer Regiment, is represented on the cap badge, shoulder flash and regimental Colours of the regiment. The 31st Battalion (Bushmen's Battalion) during the S.W.A/Namibia Border War established a new tradition of drinking buried wine to celebrate any achievement by the unit. In November 2002, the official magazine of the Ministry of Defence - The South African Soldier - published a letter decrying traditions. A howl of protest arose, and it was pointed out most strongly, that "Men Die, but Regiments March On". John Goodrich more than made his point on the importance of maintaining traditions in military life.

The MAIN talk was given by Robin Smith, who helped to fill a large gap in our coverage of military affairs, with a comprehensive account of the closing months of The American Civil War. His talk, entitled From The Wilderness to Appomattox, started with a summary overview of how the first 3 years of the war had evolved and with emphasis on the territory held by both sides prior to the final stages and battles of the conflict. He also gave a review of the large number of Federal army commanders used, and the disruptive role that President Abraham Lincoln and other politicians had on the appointments, before the final and successful appointment of General Ulysses S. Grant to command an army of 662,000 men. On the Confederate side General Robert E. Lee, a born leader, had absolute authority over his army but even he had problems with his President, Confederate Jefferson Davis. He also suffered from having a smaller army and supplies that were described as at "subsistence level". With summer approaching in 1864, the Confederate army was limited by necessity to a position of strategic defence, and Lee had already advised his President that his army was not in a position to invade enemy territory.

After the Federal army crossed the River Rapidan, The Battle of Wilderness started on 4 May 1864 with a Federal southerly advance through thick undergrowth and second growth timber, which caused the battle lines of both attack and defence to become confused and disorganised. There were heavy casualties for both armies, approximately 25, 000 in total, and with both sides now in defensive positions the battle had reached a stalemate by 7 May. That evening Grant decided to outflank the Confederates by marching, in silence, 12 miles to the east and to join up with his refreshed cavalry under the command of General Sheridan. On 11 May, Sheridan's 10,000 cavalry successfully attacked and destroyed the Confederate cavalry of just 4,500 men, with their CO - the highly regarded General Jeb Stuart - killed in the action. Despite this, the Confederate infantry were strongly entrenched and it took 4 days of bitter fighting to drive General Lee's men back even a few hundred yards. Both sides suffered huge losses and although Lee had preserved his position, in the 8 days since the start of the battle he had lost better than one third of his corps, division and brigade commanders. As he digested this loss, news came through of the news that would be the hardest to bear for Lee, the death of Stuart. With the losses suffered, Grant realised the futility of further assaults on entrenched positions and again moved to the east, this time to the Hanover Junction on the North Anna River, in an attempt to reach Richmond, the Confederate capital. The battle there was more like a skirmish by comparison with what had gone before, and after an aborted attack on the entrenched positions at Richmond, the federal troops moved south again to cross the James River in order to invest Petersburg and to attack Richmond from the south.

The fighting had now gone on for 40 days and the Federal losses were estimated at 40, 000 with Confederate loses at less than that. Lee was now in friendly country, helped by the local people and with the advantage of knowing the countryside and its features. As he had forecast the 2 armies now settled down to a very long siege at Petersburg, from entrenched lines over 25 miles long. Direct attack was out of the question and Grant eventually took the decision to dig a 500 ft tunnel under Confederate lines and to detonate 8000 pounds of powder. 15, 000 troops were ready to assault after the powder was sprung, but despite the great damage to Confederate men and positions, the Federal attack failed with over 4,000 casualties. Over the following months the noose was slowly tightened around Lee's army at Petersburg and Richmond and then in early 1865 he was left without a port outlet to the sea after Wilmington was taken. Grant's fear was that Lee would leave Richmond and slip away to open country and on that basis Grant planned his spring offensive. Lee did not leave and in late March 1865 the Federal army successfully attacked on wide fronts, Petersburg fell and Lee sent a message to his president that he could no longer hold Richmond. As Grant arranged to cut off any retreat by Lee's army, Richmond fell. The date was 3 April 1865. The Federal army finally caught up with the Confederates at the Appomattox River, where 6 Confederate generals were captured, along with several thousand prisoners, equipment and supplies. On 7 April Grant wrote to Lee suggesting a meeting should take place in 2 days time and on Palm Sunday 9 April 1865, the 2 great generals met - Grant covered in dust and Lee immaculate in a new uniform - and the lenient peace terms, so wanted by Lincoln, were agreed. The American Civil War was over, although it was several weeks before the final remnants in the west surrendered. Six days later President Lincoln was assassinated as he sat watching a play in Washington and by comparison, the last known veteran of the war died in 1956. With these 2 statistics Robin Smith brought a memorable main talk to a fascinating close.

Our Vice Chairman Bill Brady gave a warm vote of thanks to both speakers, for what he described as an "exceptional evening" on 2 subjects that, hopefully, we will hear more about in the future.

THURSDAY - 13 MAY 2004

The main talk for May was due to be given by Lt. Col Rupert Robson of the British Army, but at very short notice he has been posted away from South Africa. The trials of being a serving officer!!

However, we are delighted that fellow member RON LOCK, a distinguished historian and author, has agreed to take Lt. Col. Robson's place at very short notice to talk to us on THE ACTION AT NTOMBI DRIFT. This is a lesser known action of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, when a Swazi renegade named Mbilini (whose actions were identified by the British as one of the causes of the war) attacked a British replenishment column that had become stranded on the banks of the flooded Ntombe River, near Luneberg in what is now Mpumalanga Province. The escort, a Company of the 80th Regiment, under Capt David Moriarty and bivouacked on either side of the river, was attacked by an impi led by Mbilini himself in the early hours of the 12th March 1879. 62 of the original 106 men and 17 civilians were killed in the action - the second disaster to befall the British after Isandlwana.

This talk will provide new information on a little known aspect of the war for most members.

Fellow member Dr. DEENA PADAYACHEE who will talk to us about SOME IRONIES OF MILITARY HISTORY will give the May DDH. We did not know what to expect from the DDH last month, and it was worth the wait and the same applies for our next DDH. Come along and find out!!!


At the April AGM meeting, and before handing over to our re-elected Chairman, Dr. Ingrid Machin took the opportunity to announce to the meeting, that The Felix Machanik Memorial Prize, awarded annually to the best main speaker to the Johannesburg Branch, had been won in 2003 by our Chairman Paul Kilmartin, for the talk he gave in Johannesburg on RUDOLF HESS: HIS FLIGHT TO SCOTLAND - MAY 1941. Many congratulations!!!


At the April meeting, our Chairman took the opportunity to introduce and thank Jilly Norris, who in turn thanked her friends Elizabeth Woodcock and Jill Webber, for the work they had done to produce a spectacular quilt which is now being used to raise funds for the Society to help in the restoration of the historic field guns at Old Fort which were used at the coronation of King Cetshwayo at Mlambongwenya, near Ulundi, in 1873. This restoration project was started by the Durban Branch of the Gunners Association (with Ken Gillings leading the way) and has the backing of AMAFA, the South African Military History Society and British military historian Ian Knight. When the guns are finally restored they will be unveiled at a special ceremony, by King Goodwill Zwelithini. The Society asks all members to buy a raffle ticket for R10, as at the ceremony, the winning ticket will be drawn for the winner of THE QUILT.

This is a marvellous gesture by the 3 lady members of the Society, as the money raised by the Society will go a long way to assisting in the restoration of a true piece of KwaZulu-Natal history, and we applaud their efforts. Buy your raffle tickets at the next meeting or ring Jilly Norris on 031-767- 4128 and those who took raffle sheets at the last meeting, to please return them with the money at the next meeting.


If it has slipped the mind of the few remaining members who have not paid, please send you subscription ASAP to Joan Marsh in Johannesburg, or directly into the Society account at FNB Bank, Brumalake Branch, A/c 50391928346, Branch code, 25-66-55, Name South African Military History Society. Dues are R120 for a Single Member or R140 for a Family Member.


Details of the BATTLEFIELD TOUR - 2004 were sent out with the March newsletter. We are aiming to have a maximum of 75 members and friends attending, as more than that makes the organisation very difficult. We already have 66 members booked, so we are nearly full. If any member wants the details re-sent, please contact PAUL KILMARTIN, on 031-561-2905 or 082-449-7227 or to


Your committee have requested that all members send contact details (particularly e-mail addresses) and the requested format was sent out with the March newsletter. We have had a good response so far, but would ask all members who have yet to do so, to please forward their details to Dr. INGRID MACHIN, ON 031-201-3983, so that we can complete our member's database for ease of future contact. For extra copies of the format sheet please contact PAUL KILMARTIN, details as above.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: June - August 2004


10 June 2004
Talk 1 - D. Day: I Was There - Lt. Cdr. Colin Lawton
Talk 2 - D. Day: The Role Played by Gen. G. Patton - Prof. Mike Laing
Talk 3 - D. Day: The Invasion - 6 June 1944 - Paul Kilmartin
Sat/Sun 19/20 June 2004
Annual Battlefield Tour to Battlefields of
iNtabamnyama and Vaalkrans. Jan-Feb 1900
Ken Gillings - Organiser
8 July 2004
DDH - The Battle of Crossbarry: 1921 - Brian Kennedy
MAIN - The capture of Winston Churchill: 1900 - Dereck Petersen
12 August 2004
Base Visit: 19th Field Regiment HQ.
Ken Gillings - Organiser

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

South African Military History Society /