South African Military History 


Newsletter No10: July 2005
Nuusbrief Nr 10: July 2005

The June meeting took place at the usual venue of the Prince Alfred's Guards Drill Hall where the local branch enjoys the facilities of both a lecture room and the bar facilities of the Regiment. The meeting was well attended with more than thirty members present of which no less than eight had traveled through from Grahamstown. How appropriate as the Settler City has a rich heritage of military involvement not only from the days of the Frontier but to the present times of the well established Grahamstown Army Base.

The Pipe Opener was delivered by Des Kopke who has spent a lifetime in education and with a name like that a descendant from the old German Settlers whose influence is widespread throughout the Border area. His talk was on the old Concentration Camp at Stutterheim which was in operation at the time of The Anglo Boer War. In his talk he illustrated the pitfalls of oral history as he sketched those times. The Camp was situated close to the fortified ganger's cottage on the Kubusie Woolwash side of Stutterheim. The camp was of a temporary nature as it was moved within six months to Fort Glamorgan which is on the West bank of East London. The issue at stake is the cemetery associated with the old camp. It is fact that camps of this nature, where ever situated, saw the deaths of many of the inmates which were mainly women and children. The Camp Supervisor was adamant that no persons died in Stutterheim and this claim is supported in that no names appear on the plinth of The Vroue Monument in Bloemfontein.

Local residents, of long standing, however maintain that it is remembered that three graves were to be found on the site of the camp. The site in question has at some time been turned into a car park and the surface area has been graveled and curbed. In 1984 the town's local historical society issued a booklet on the area and its historical attractions. In the booklet the centre page depicted a cemetery on the area of the old camp site and as to where it should have been located. This is at variance with Government Surveyor maps which show however that the camp was situated on land allocated to the Berlin Missionary Society in the early 1820's. A visit to the site revealed curbing about 150mm above ground, the gravel and nine hollows in the gravel where someone could be buried. Such are the pitfalls of oral history!

The Main Lecture was by fellow member Chris McCanlis, BCR, who related how a British army retreated from Kabul to Jellalabad in 1842 and just one man arrived alive.

At the time, the British were very concerned about their NW Frontier of India, Afghanistan, ruled by Emir Dost Mahommed, who had tenuous hold over savage, disunited tribes. To strengthen himself, Dost Mahommed sought Russian support. In 1839 the British replaced him with Shah Soojah, an Emir who had been exiled in India. British troops were stationed in various towns until Shah Soojah got established, which he never did as he was seen by his people as a British puppet. Furthermore, bribes to tribal chiefs guarding the mountain passes were reduced, which effectively cut off communication with the outside world, the introduction of an efficient tax collection system and Afghan resentment of British promiscuity, even by senior officials, with Afghan women fuelled ill-feeling towards the British.

The Headquarters of British Army of the Indus was in the Kabul Cantonment on low, swampy ground surrounded by hills. The forage stores, commissariat, fort and armouries were outside the walls. The Commander was Major General Sir William Elphinstone, who was physically incapable of exercising effective command and was not well regarded by his subordinates. His Second in Command, Brigadier John Shelton, was efficient, but of a difficult disposition and loathed by all, including General Elphinstone.

Akbar Khan, son of the exiled Dost Mahommed, fanned rebellion. The British Resident in Kabul was murdered with no British reaction. Thereafter, the commissariat stores outside the Cantonment were looted. Attempts to retake the stores and to prevent rebels sniping from the surrounding hills resulted in disgraceful routs of British forces. When the Kabul Political Agent tried to negotiate with Akbar Khan, he was murdered and his dismembered body displayed around the Kabul Bazaar.

General Elphinstone himself then tried to negotiate. Incredibly, clearly impossible terms that the British withdraw forthwith, leaving behind their guns and most of their married officers and their wives as hostages, were accepted. It was close to midday on 6 January 1842 when the withdrawal started, with Afghans sniping and breaking into the baggage train as they went. The Afghan mob burst into the cantonment, looting and murdering anyone left behind.

The withdrawing column consisted of some 16 500 persons, of whom 4 500 were fighting men. The backbone of the force was a British regiment of dubious reputation, supported by Afghan, Sikh and Indian infantry, cavalry, artillery and sappers. The rest of the column consisted of white families and camp followers.

It had been hoped to reach Jellalabad in a week and Khoord Kabul on the first day. In fact, they only reached Begramee, 20 minutes gallop from Kabul. Afghan rebels carried off most of the food, ammunition and horse fodder. On the second day, discipline broke down. The Afghan infantry and sappers deserted. Afghan rebels captured the artillery. Stragglers were murdered by Afghan women. On the 3rd day, the column was at Boothak, amidst heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures. Sniping and exposure continually reduced numbers. Only 3000 strong, including 500 fighting troops, the column reached the Jugdulluk Pass on 12 January. Here Afghans had erected a thorn barrier across the pass. Fighting now broke out between mounted troops, who, desperate to get through the barrier, rode down the infantry, who in turn fired on the mounted men. Akbar Khan, who was riding parallel to the line of march, was appealed to. General Elphinstone, Brigadier Shelton and all the white families and proficient officers were taken hostage.

Once through the Jugdulluk Pass, only 20 officers and 45 European soldiers remained. Many were killed at the Sourkab River crossing. The rest arrived at Gandamack at dawn on 13 January, 20 muskets strong, with 2 rounds of ammunition apiece. Here they had no cover and were massacred by tribesmen. An officer with the Regimental colour wrapped around his body was taken prisoner and later held to ransom. The 15 horsemen who had got through the thorn barrier at Jugdulluk were cut down one by one, until only one, Surgeon Bryden, arrived at Jellalabad.

News of this disaster was not believed in England at first. It had already been decided to evacuate Afghanistan on grounds of cost. Shah Soojah had been abandoned and duly murdered. In the spring a British "Army of Retribution" reached Kabul, where they blew up the Grand Bazaar and rescued Akbar Khan's hostages. General Elphinsone had died in captivity.

Brigadier Shelton was made the scapegoat for the tragedy. He was court-martialed on a series of charges ranging from cowardice to disrespect to his commanding officer. Shelton was acquitted on all charges except, curiously enough, one of taking horse forage from the Afghans.

Military History Tour to Mount Misery and The Waterkloof .
Our second tour is planned for 19th to the 21st August and takes in an area rich in Frontier history. Mount Misery is aptly named for it was in the Waterkloof area that in the War of 1850 - 53 that the British Redcoats faced absolute misery at the hands of Macoma and his tribesmen.Colonel Piet Hall, an acknowleged expert of those times will be leading the party and members are urged to reply early to the invitation to join the tour. Bookings open 1st July and should be directed to the Scribe either my e-mail or phoning him on 083 636 6623. There is a wealth of information on the area which to all intents has never really been opened up and discovered by tourists and enthusiasts of military history. This is then very much a ground breaking exercise and promises to be a well patronized outing. A full tour description has been posted to all members either by e-mail or ordinary mail.

Next Meeting.
Our next meeting will held at the Prince Alfred's Guard Drill Hall on Thursday 14th July, 2005. Derek Langman will give the Pipe Opener on local Victoria Cross recipients and Dr. taffy Shearing will cover the main lecture. Her topic is The Cape Rebel of the Anglo Boer War. She has a wealth of expertise and has written a number of books on that campaign let alone having done her thesis on that War. It is a talk not to be missed. The usual times apply for the meeting.

Ian Pringle - Scribe/Secretary - SAMHSEC and or 083-636-6623

South African Military History Society /