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This month's meeting was opened by our Vice President, Mr "Flip" Hoorweg who was standing in for our chairlady who is away on an overseas holiday. Flip commenced with the usual notices and then introduced our first speaker, Mr Avram Pelunsky, a local businessman and keen amateur historian.
The topic of Mr Pelunsky's talk was "The Three Battles Of Gaza - 1917". Gaza lies on the shore of the Mediterranean between Israel and Egypt and, occupying a strategic position on the main coast road between Alexandria and Tel Aviv, has for centuries controlled the approach to Palestine and Jerusalem. When the 1st World War broke out it was under the control of the then Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which was in league with the Central Powers opposing Britain and France. The Turkish forces were made up of soldiers from all over their empire and, in many cases, were bolstered by seconded German officers.
In 1915 the Turkish army launched an assault on Egypt, which although nominally part of the Ottoman Empire was a British Suzerainty at that time. They were opposed by a British force comprised of Imperial troops, under the command of General Maxwell, who repelled this attack by using the Suez Canal as a moat. When the Turks withdrew, Maxwell pushed his defensive line another 10kms forward, to keep ships using the canal out of artillery range of the enemy. The Turks thereupon withdrew back to Gaza with a defensive line south to Be'er Sheva. This resulted in a stalemate. The British forces acquired a new commander, General Murray, whose mandate was still the defence of Egypt. He formed a base line from El Arish to Kossaima in the Sinai desert and closer to the Turkish line. This forward push into the desert required the construction of a railway and water pipeline, so it was March 1917 before Murray was ready to attack the Turks.
He decided to attack Gaza itself by surrounding the town and taking it in one day. Unfortunately early morning fog, other delays such as muddle, confusion, incompetence and the necessity to water and feed the cavalry horses, resulted in the attack collapsing and a Turkish victory in the first Battle of Gaza. The next month was spent by both sides in a feverish augmentation of their forces, in which the British ended up by outnumbering the Turks who were well dug in around Gaza. This made encirclement difficult for the attackers, who now had a new commander, General Dobell, and instructions from London to clear Palestine and take Jerusalem.
On 17 April 1917 an Allied flotilla laid down a naval bombardment on the Turkish positions and an attack was sent in, which had little effect. A full frontal attack was sent in the next day, but this too did not breach the Turkish line. A third attack on the 19th also failed. The Second Battle of Gaza thus ended in a victory for the Turks, because of British bad planning, incompetence and the Turkish resolute defence. Once again the two sides settled down to build up their strength.
Another new British commander, General Allenby, arrived with definite orders to take Jerusalem by Christmas. His plan was simple. He decided to attack Be'er Sheva and thus draw the Turks into the area and so weaken their troop numbers at Gaza. His Intelligence Officer, Colonel Meinertzhagen, drew up a deception plan which hinted at a British attack on Gaza and, at great personal risk to himself, he allowed to it fall into Turkish hands. The German commander, General Kress, was not completely taken in by this but shifted troops back from Be'er Sheva to Gaza to counter this possible attack. The British then launched a surprise attack on Be'er Sheva on 30 October and a simultaneous feint on Gaza. Despite fierce Turkish resistance, Be'er Sheva fell to the Australian Light Horse Regiment and the main attack was then launched on Gaza. With their left flank collapsing, the Turks retreated on Jaffa, thus ending the Third Battle of Gaza. Despite their spirited rearguard defence, Allenby pushed the Turks back towards Syria and on 4 December 1917 entered Jerusalem, achieving his objective of Jerusalem by Christmas.
Flip then introduced our main speaker for the evening, Mr Mario Lupini, well known in the construction field as also in motor racing and the production of motoring magazines. Mr Lupini spoke about "The Italian Involvement In The Anglo-Boer War".
Just before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War there were some 3 000 Italians living on the Reef, mainly in one of the suburbs known as "Little Italy" and also in Orange Grove. Thomas Begbie and Son, a foundry commandeered by the Boers at the outbreak of war, employed about 200 Italian workers. Begbie was well known for his anti-Boer leanings and when his foundry blew up after a massive explosion, killing twelve Italians and wounding another 36, sabotage was immediately suspected. This led to a strong anti-British and pro-Boer movement amongst the Italian community.
President Kruger capitalised on this feeling by calling in a certain Commandant Ricchiardi and using him to exploit this grievance. Ricchiardi was a soldier of fortune. After serving as a captain in an Italian cavalry regiment, he served under General Aguinaldo in the Philippine War of Independence against the Spanish and it was there that he learned his guerrilla tactics. He then joined the newly formed Italian Scouts in the Boer forces as their Commandant. The Scouts themselves were a mixture of highly trained cavalry officers from some of the best regiments in the Continental armies, aristocrats seeking adventure and a good leavening of just plain brigands. When Kruger sent for Ricchiardi, he and his Scouts were on the Eastern front at Colenso and had formed part of the Commando that captured Winston Churchill at Chievely. After speaking to Kruger, Ricchiardi and some of his officers then led a 1 000-strong march from Johannesburg Market Square to the Town Hall, culminating in a few fiery speeches and a rush of recruits for the Scouts. This march gained Ricchiardi much notice by the newspapers of the world and this interest was to continue for the rest of the war.
With the Boer retreat and the British capture of Johannesburg and Pretoria, Ricchiardi's name was linked to two unsuccessful clandestine operations organised by Italians in 1900. The British detected these before they could be carried out in Johannesburg and Pretoria and arrested some 500 plotters who were then deported. As a result of these failures, Ricchiardi contented himself by blowing up the bridge and railway station at Irene. At the same time Italian farmers in the region were being rounded up as part of the British "scorched earth" policy and sent off to the concentration camps, whilst other Italians were making fortunes selling goods to the British garrisons.
By now Ricchiardi's Italian Scouts had reached their maximum number of about 200 men, who formed part of the Boer rearguard as they were pushed back to the Mozambican border. The Scouts were by now equipped with their own locomotive hauling a single flatbed on which was mounted a "Long Tom" gun to assist them in their rearguard duties. They were also paid a reward for each bridge that they blew. This they did with enthusiasm and hardly a day passed without some mention of Ricchiardi's exploits in the Press, this leading to the British putting a price of 300 pounds on his head, the same amount as for De Wet. Apart from a spirited action in conjunction with the Johannesburg Commando, near Witfontein, east of Pretoria, skirmishes were the order of the day.
With the Boers now obviously heading towards defeat, Italy came out openly on the side of the British and any Italian captured serving with the Boers could be tried for this offence in an Italian court. The name of the Scouts was then changed to the International Corps, which by then more accurately reflected its make up. Ricchiardi was then given the job by Botha of carrying a counter proposal to General Pole-Carew from President Kruger in response to British peace overtures. This he did at Waterval Onder. A few days later his name was put forward for promotion to Vecht Generaal but this was opposed by other Boer commandants who did not want a foreign general. By then the Boers were cooped up in Komatipoort and President Kruger moved down to then Lourenco Marques to await a ship to Holland. Ricchiardi went after him in an unsuccessful attempt to get Kruger to stay and fight a last ditch action at Komatipoort. In the course of this he was arrested by the Portugese and then paroled, which meant that he could not return to the Transvaal. The International Corps was dissolved and Ricchiardi returned to Italy.
He subsequently married Hannah Guttman, President Kruger's granddaughter, and commenced a new career as champion of the Boer cause and in organising free emigration to southern Argentina for those Boers who would not sign the "Oath Of Allegiance". In 1923 he suffered a stroke and then spent his last years with his family in Casablanca in Morocco, where he died in 1940.
Ricchiardi was not the only Italian to gain fame in the Anglo-Boer War. Mr Lupini continued by naming others who had distinguished themselves in this conflict both in the Scouts and with De Wet. A large number of Italians also served with the British forces, particularly Italian immigrants serving with the Australian contingent. Many Italian Argentineans who came across with the horses from Argentina as grooms also then enlisted in the British forces.
The war had a serious impact on the Italian population of the Reef which, when the War ended, had dwindled from 3 000 to 1 200. These people then went on to re-establish the large Italian population that we have today.
At the close of his most interesting talk Mr Lupini faced a large number of questions before being thanked for an excellent lecture by Mr Colin Dean.
DVD Raffle - March
Book sale and Museum exhibition
Margaret Rush is selling second hand books for the benefit of the Museum Library - from R2 apiece - after the lectures. Donations of books welcome. She also says the BHAMBATHA REBELLION CENTENARY EXHIBIT at the Museum is well worth a visit!
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