The Chairlady, Lyn Miller, opened the May meeting with the usual notices and then introduced Mr Terry Leaver, a long serving member of the Society and former committee member, who would deliver our curtain raiser for the evening.
Mr Leaver opened his talk by asking the rhetorical question "Why do we commemorate VE day?" Whilst answers to such a question seem obvious, there has to be a time when battles and wars fade into obscurity, and this would explain why we no longer commemorate the sacking of Babylon in 1595 BC; of Troy in 1250 BC, or of Rome by the Goths in 410 AD. Terry went on to remind us of the almost universal acceptance of 11th November 1918 as Remembrance Day, whilst very few French, and rather more British military units, still commemorate the 18th June 1815 as Waterloo day. We still, however, commemorate the 8th May 1945 as the day when World War II ended in Europe. He then went on to provide some possible reasons as to why this is still done.
Firstly, the 8th May was the day when the final surrender document was signed, in Berlin, by the full Allied group of Generals. There had been 2 surrender procedures already - the famous one on 4th May on Luneburg Heath, to General Montgomery; and then a second one at Eisenhower's HQ at Rheims, on 7th May. The Russians were not prepared to accept any surrender process not staged in the enemy's capital (Berlin), and which did not include the Russian High Command. A definitive surrender ceremony therefore also took place in Berlin.
The personal connection to the War by people still living was another reason. Illustrating this point, Terry showed an Active Service bible, and christening mug passed on to him by the bereaved mother of a young RAF relative, an only son, who was killed in a bomber crash while returning to the UK to attend his father's funeral. Terry also recalled the deaths of 2 brothers, nephews to Terry's mother, who died when H.M.S. Barham was torpedoed and blown apart in the Mediterranean, in November 1941.
A third reason for the commemoration is surely the thanksgiving felt by every individual, nation and race who had been forced to face the formidable and very real evil that was Hitler and the Nazis. The entire world, bar the Axis powers, had rallied to the allied cause, and the casualties numbered over 55 million. If there were ever a reason to stop and reflect upon the folly and waste of war, these figures alone should be sufficient.
Terry then traced the events over the last 2 weeks of the War, seen from the German side, when the ragged remains of the Wehrmacht, some five million men in number, faced over nine million allied soldiers. He concluded with a moving poem by L/Bombardier Les Parsons, entitled "Remembrance Day".
The Chairlady then introduced the main speaker of the evening, Mr Rod Hooper-Box, who delivered the by now traditional annual lecture on weaponry on behalf of the South African Arms and Armour Collectors Association (SAAACA). Supported by other members of the Association and with the visual aid of swords loaned for the occasion by members and the Military Museum (courtesy of Hamish Paterson) he delivered a detailed talk entitled "Cut and Thrust: A Century of British Swords".
Before 1788 there was no standardisation of British cavalry swords. There was merely a convention. Heavy cavalry would use straight, long, heavy swords, and light cavalry curved, short, light swords. In 1787 a Board of General Officers called for examples of swords in use in the varied and largely independent cavalry regiments. Two models were then decided upon, neither being great designs: the heavy being an unwieldy cutting sword - more a hacker - and the light being slightly better but insufficiently curved to cut well.
John Gaspard Le Marchant, a British cavalryman, noted the poor performance of the '88 swords in Flanders in the campaign of 1793-4. He studied the superior swords and swordsmanship of Britain's Austrian allies.
By 1796, his Pattern for a Light Cavalry sword had been approved, while for the Heavies a copy of the Austrian '75 was adopted. The latter was made famous in the Richard Sharpe novels, although its hatchet made it an inefficient thruster. The curved light Patterns became the Waterloo sabre, probably the most effective light cavalry sword ever. It remained in service for thirty years and in Yeomanry Regiments until the 1860s.
After the Napoleonic War a major change was made, away from straight heavy and curved light to compromise slightly curved swords intended as dual cut-and-thrust weapons. These were the Pattern 1821s for Heavy and Light - influenced by French designs of the war period. They were in fact the beginning of a long line of cut-and-thrust swords, which lasted throughout the nineteenth century. None were optimal at either the cut or the thrust. Almost immediately there were complaints that the blades were too weak, the blade being too narrow and the fuller too deep.
The Pattern 1853 introduced a universal model, i.e. from then on there was no difference between the swords of the Heavy and Light Cavalry. The pattern '53 had a 3-bar guard, wider blade and narrow, shallower fuller, all of which increased the sword's weight and made it stiffer and sturdier. By 1854 complaints were coming in that the sword bent like a hoop. It was concluded that severe unofficial use created metal fatigue and aggravated the problem of faulty manufacture.
Both the 1821 and the 1853 saw service in the Crimea, where complaints abounded.
In 1864 a new bowl-shaped guard with a Maltese cross cutout design was attached to the '53 blade of the Pattern 64. This had a relatively long life as it coincided with a period of limited warfare.The 2nd Afghan War of 1878 changed the situation and the sword proved unpopular and cumbersome. The guard, in particular, was criticised for damaging clothing.
The next variation on the theme was the Pattern 1882. Although in some ways an improvement on the '64, being lighter and handier and with a better folded over guard, it was found that the desire for lightness had been taken too far and the blades were weak. Tests on horse and sheep carcases showed blades breaking after only four cuts. It was concluded the blades were too soft.
The Pattern 1885 is again similar in form. By 1888 doubts were surfacing regarding the strength of blades, as a result of fighting against the Mahdists in the Sudan, where too many blades bent or broke. This time it was concluded the fullers were too deep and the metal too brittle.
In 1890 two distinguished engineers were asked to investigate testing, choice of materials and the form of the blade, the first time swords were submitted to scientific analysis. The result was the Pattern 1890 which was an improvement in terms of materials and manufacture, but not meaningfully in terms of form.
Yet another variation came out in 1899, this time with a larger guard, without the Maltese cross. The Pattern 90s and 99s were the swords of the Anglo-Boer War. Neither proved satisfactory, even though opportunity for mounted swordplay was severely limited in the face of bolt-action rifles and machine guns.
In 1903, Lord Roberts stated the primary weapon of the Cavalry was to be the rifle, although swords were to be retained. Committees between 1903 and '08 led to the adoption of the Pattern 1908, a revolutionary designed straight purely thrusting sword, viewed by many as the best ever introduced into the British Cavalry. Certainly this sword is well made, of quality material and well balanced. However, it had no chance to prove itself in battle during WW I, or thereafter. The sword was clearly obsolete in the face of static trench warfare, tanks and aircraft.
The nineteenth century was one of controversy, failure and complaint as argument raged between proponents of the cut, the compromise cut-and-thrust and the thrust. Poor quality and design faults bedeviled the period which, ironically, was bracketed by the excellent slicer of 1796 and the praised thruster of 1908, the latter being the last design adopted. It is clear that in the end the thrust won through against the cut.
Hamish Paterson thanked the speaker on behalf of those present. The audience were then invited to view and handle the swords on display.
Ken Gillings - KZN Branch member and former Chairman, reports as follows:
Having raised sufficient money to restore the Natal Field Artillery's historic 2.5 in RBL guns, the Gunners' Association and the KwaZulu-Natal Branch of the SA Military History Society would like to restore the 9 pr RML gun at the Old Fort. While there is no history of this gun available (mainly due to the years of paint that have obliterated the serial number), we believe that it may have been used in the Battle of Ulundi and possibly the Battle of Lang's Nek (incorrectly known as Laing's Nek) as well.
To kick-start the campaign, we still have the copy of "The Road to Ulundi" that was donated to us by a Canadian. This remarkable collection of water colours by Col John North Crealock was bound into a volume by the University of Natal Press in 1969. The edition was limited to 1000 copies, of which this is number 603.
Crealock, Lord Chelmsford's military secretary during the Eastern Cape Operations and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, was a soldier artist. On his return to England after the War, he preserved 189 of his drawings in an album that was left in the care of his Regiment, the 95th Regiment of Foot.
Mr R A Brown MA (Oxon), who was the Librarian at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, obtained the Regiment's permission to reproduce 67 of Crealock's paintings, which are remarkably accurate depictions of some of the events and places of the War. Many years ago, the late George Buntting of Fugitives' Drift and I managed to find Fort Evelyn between Babanango and Katazo by taking the book with us into the veld. Until then, it had been thought that the Fort was situated on the hill above the village.
Ike's Bookshop estimates the value of the book to be in the region of R1500. We are open to offers from R1000 for this remarkable and valuable item of Africana. Please let me know if you are interested - Tel: 031 266 2233 / 083 654 5880 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Website news: The Society has acquired its own domain name and the website is now to be found at: http://samilitaryhistory.org while e-mails may be addressed to email@example.com The Society's website contains around 700 articles and during the first three weeks in May attracted a total of no fewer than 47 000 readers - known as "hits" in Internet jargon. Those of you who have not yet browsed the site are invited to please do so. Additions to the various listings and links as well as corrections are always welcome. Should you want an article from an out-of-print Journal please contact Joan Marsh via the above e-mail address and she'll do her best to copy it for you or scan it for placement on the website.
Eastern Cape - Port Elizabeth:
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
Ivor Little (Scribe) (012) 651-3647
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