Our meeting was as usual opened by the Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, who thanked Bob Smith, our Deputy Chairman, for standing in for him whilst he was away on leave in the Eastern Cape. He then requested that all those present stand for one minute's silence in honour of Nick Embleton who was a member of our Society and had passed away the Saturday before. Flip also wished Hamish Paterson, who has been seriously ill and hospitalised, a speedy recovery and return to our meetings, where his organisational abilities are sorely missed. After delivering a few notices, Flip reminded all members of the 40th Anniversary Gala Luncheon to be held at the Museum on Sunday 19th November 2006. This will take the form of a three course Buffet Sunday Lunch, with wines included, for only R100 per person and will be a prestige occasion on a first come first served basis as seating is limited. Members interested in attending what promises to be a memorable occasion are urged to contact the Secretary (address as per letterhead above) to book their tickets. Tickets will be available at the lecture meeting or by post.
Flip then introduced our first speaker for the evening, Mr C.R. "Huffy" Pott who was to speak on "The Battle Of Bergendal". Mr Pott hails from White River where he is a prominent businessman and part owner of Oak Valley Farm, formerly Frischgewaagd Farm, the site of the battle of Bergendal. His interest in the battle stems from this fact and he is the author of the book "The Bergendal Battle: August 1900" on which his talk was based.
The battle site lies near Bergendal railway station on the main highway and railway between Belfast and Machadodorp. This battle was the last set piece battle of the Anglo Boer War and took place between the 21st and 27th August 1900. With the fall of Pretoria, President Kruger had retreated northwards to Machadadorp, which was then the new capital of the Transvaal Republic. The British were determined to force Kruger out of the country altogether and to this end set up a two pronged attack with General Roberts chasing him up the railway line and General Buller swinging in from the South East, the only time that these two British generals acted in concert in one operation. The combined British force numbered some 19 000 men with 82 guns.
Seeing that the net was closing in on Kruger, the Boer Generals Louis Botha and Ben Viljoen set themselves up as a rearguard across the railway line just outside Belfast at Bergendal. With between 4 000 to 5 000 men, the Boers dug in along an 80km stretch of escarpment in well-prepared positions. With their overwhelming numerical superiority, the British viewed this forthcoming action as a mopping up operation and as far as they were concerned were "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut". The ensuing battle was not well reported as most of the foreign press had gone home with the fall of Pretoria, but was to prove a bloody one. Over the seven day battle the British suffered 385 dead, more than at Colenso, whilst the Boers lost 78 dead. The Boer ZARP (Police) contingent was placed on a koppie slightly ahead of the rest of the Boer forces and came under an intensive British barrage, the heaviest artillery barrage yet laid down on any target at that time. The 75 men were finally overwhelmed by a combined assault by 1 500 men of the Liverpool Regiment, which took heavy casualties during the battle, as did the Rifle Brigade and Devon Regiment. The battle was distinguished by many acts of chivalry and bravery on both sides and by an earthquake which struck the battlefield on the third day. Eventually the sheer weight of numbers told and the Boers retreated over Long Tom Pass and introduced a new phase of the war in the form of guerrilla warfare. The battlefield is today marked by a replica of the original British monument to the fallen, plus a large modern monument erected at a later stage.
Flip thanked Mr Pott for a most interesting and well-presented lecture and then introduced the main speaker for the evening. This was Mr John Murray, well known to all our members as a leading businessman and amateur historian with a special interest in the Irish Guards and Southern Irish Regiments. Mr Murray has served on the National Committee and has addressed the society on several occasions previously. The subject of his talk on this occasion was "The French Foreign Legion". Unfortunately, for reasons not revealed, John's illustrated slides were not available, but he pushed on and gave a most in-depth history of the Legion.
John explained that his interest in the French Foreign Legion had been piqued during his research into the Irish Guards, where he had come across a guardsman by the name of Ian Malone who had been interested in joining the Legion. John had then decided to do a bit of research into the Legion and this lecture was the result.
The French have always used foreign mercenaries in their armed forces, an example being the famous Irish expatriates who under the name of "The Wild Geese" fought for the French against the British in the colonial wars. After the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the French found themselves with a large number of these mercenaries and other ne'er do well's who as trained soldiers without a job were becoming a nuisance and dabbling in riots and crime. In 1831 King Louis Phillipe had had enough and they were all gathered up into the Army, under the sobriquet of the French Foreign Legion. Starting off as a despised bunch of misfits, over the last 175 years the Legion has proved itself a unique and efficient fighting force, whose history has been inextricably bound with that of the French Empire. The Legion started with about 3 500 men who were expressly forbidden to be used in a military capacity in mainland France and were thus employed in all the French overseas possessions and as expeditionary troops.
The Legion's most famous battle, and one which set the tone of the Legion's reputation of fighting to the last man, was in Mexico in 1863, where at the battle of Camerone a group of Legionnaires, under Captain Donjou, went down fighting. Donjou's wooden hand is still a prize exhibit at the Legion's museum and the story of this last stand is always recounted at Legion parades. The Legion also fought bravely against the Carlists in Spain, the Crimea, Italy, Syria, Dahomey and above all in North Africa. In World War I they were employed in the Near East, Gallipoli and the Western Front where they suffered horrendous losses. The Legion reached its pinnacle in 1935 and thereafter went into decline as French fortunes also declined.
The Legion has not been well served in literature, being either romanticised or villainised. The truth is that prospective legionnaires enlist for a period of five years. They may use a pseudonym on enlistment should they so desire and may then revert to their real names after one year's service. Many choose to do this as they are escaping personal problems and the Legion is a means to do this, and most people joining the legion do it for that reason and not because of politics. It is also a place of refuge for people caught on the losing side in a conflict or a lost cause, such as White Russians after the Revolution, Spaniards after the Civil War and Germans after World War II. At the moment 46% of legionnaires are East European and the 7 500 strong regiment is composed of 158 different nationalities under an elite corps of French officers. After serving for three years the legionnaire may apply for, and receive, French citizenship but if he is wounded in the service of France he can obtain that privilege immediately.
Contrary to popular fiction, it is exceedingly difficult to get into the French Foreign Legion. Applicants are carefully vetted and only one out of every four applicants is accepted and these are drawn from a wide background of all trades and professions, which enables the Legion to tackle just about any job it is confronted with. The retention rate is high and desertions by disillusioned romantics or shirkers is less than 5%, a remarkably low percentage. This, despite the high standard of discipline and physical fitness in which a Legionnaire has to be able to march 24kms per day in desert conditions.
Since World War II the Legion, which was originally a Heavy Infantry regiment, has become a highly mechanised and modern Light infantry unit. It served with particular distinction as part of the Free French Army at Bir Hakeim in the campaign in the Western Desert during World War II. This action included the one and only female ever to have served in the Legion, a 25-year old woman by the name of Susan Travers.
The Legion is forever linked with North Africa, and Algeria in particular, but it also made its mark in French Indo-China where, after eight years of fighting culminating in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Legion emerged with its reputation enhanced, even though the French had withdrawn and its Empire was slowly shrinking. It was the Legion's home in Algeria which almost caused its disbandment. After being in Algeria for 130 years, and building up its base at Sidi Bel Abbes from a camp to a city, the Legion found itself embroiled in a war of independence which it could not win. When General De Gaulle granted Algeria its independence, many Legionnaires sided with the French opposition OAS against De Gaulle and for a while its fate hung in the balance, as De Gaulle contemplated disbanding the Legion. However, he was persuaded not to and the Legion went on to continue serving France in Chad, Djibouti, Zaire, Lebanon, Gabon, the first invasion of Iraq and Bosnia. In all these countries it has proved ideal for peacekeeping and police actions and its future is once again assured. The Legion has, after 175 years of continuous action, an admirable record by any standards.
Flip Hoorweg thanked John for his most interesting and well researched lecture and after a short question period adjourned the meeting for tea.
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