The March meeting was opened by the Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, when he welcomed our guest speakers and their families and gave out the notices for the month. He then called on Bob Smith to inform the members present of the Society's next outing which, in this case, will be to the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. Most of our members have driven past it, a few may even have visited it, but most of us just take its existence for granted as part of the scenery. However, Bob has, with Felicia Fourie, a well-known tour guide and expert on this aspect of South African history, arranged to give us a private tour, with particular reference to the friezes on the interior walls. There are many significant little touches to these, which one does not pick up unless they are pointed out. For instance, how many of us know that Paul Kruger is shown as a little boy in one of them?
This tour will take place on Saturday 26, May 2007 and members should meet at the N1 North Shell Ultra City at 08h30. The tour will cost R50 per person, plus parking fees at the Museum and will last about three hours. This will be followed by a picnic lunch at Fort Schanskop (bring along your own picnic basket). Bob is also investigating the possibility of a tour to Berg-en-Dal battlefield later in the year.
Next up was John Murray, who briefed members on the forthcoming Siege Week-end at Ladysmith over either the last weekend in March or the first weekend in April. This will include a classic gun run on Swartkop and a number of other re-enactments, which will include visiting teams from the Royal Navy and British Army. Full details can be found on the website www.swartkopchallenge
Flip then introduced our curtain raiser speaker, Mr David Williams. Dave is Deputy Editor of the Financial Mail and a well-known face-to-face presenter on Summit TV. He also appears on Classic FM's Business Day programme and is Deputy News and Sports Editor for M-Net. Educated at King Edward's in Johannesburg and later obtaining his BA degree, Dave also served as a national serviceman and reservist in the 6 Signals Regt and Military Intelligence. He is the co-author, with Greg Mills, of the book "Seven Battles that Shaped South Africa" and this was the subject of his talk.
The first selected battle was Blood River in 1838, which ensured the survival of the Voortrekkers in Natal and left a legacy of racial bitterness, which survives to this day. The second battle was Isandlwana (1879), which, although the worst defeat of the British in the 19th Century, nonetheless set up the Zulu nation for shattering defeat and its demise as a military power in South Africa. The third was Majuba (1881), which ensured that the Boer Republics survived as political entities, and paved the way for the Second Anglo Boer War. This resulted in the 4th battle, Colenso (1900) that finally confirmed to the British that they were engaged in a full-scale war and not yet another colonial adventure. The subsequent effort put in to crush the Boer armies by the Empire as a whole led to the defeat of the Boer Republics and to a political accommodation between the opposing white nations. This not only resulted in Union in 1910 but also the domination of South African politics by the Afrikaner nation, which only came to an end in 1994.
Battle number 5 was Delville Wood, where Boer and Brit fought together in the interests of Britain in 1916, only 14 years after the end of the Boer War, a remarkable phenomenon and one that was repeated again at El Alamein (1942). Although showing a commitment to British interests which are hard for us to understand today, these two World Wars on the side of Britain also led to friction between Afrikaners and English-speaking South Africans and shaped post-World War II politics.
The final battle was Cuito Cuanavale (1987/88) in Angola. Here South Africa fought a holding battle, which enabled the politicians to arrive at a lasting peace (so far) in our region. This was also a controversial battle in that, although it did not take part in this battle, it is symbolic for the ANC of the smashing of the power of the SADF. It was also the only one of the seven battles in which the British played no part.
Dave dealt with these seven battles in detail, outlining the logistical problems inherent in fighting over the long distances in South Africa, particularly before the advent of the railway, and even relevant today. He dealt with the role of the indigenous population caught up in these wars, and often to be found fighting on both sides, and the large part played by citizen armies in our history. This tradition of having a small standing regular force and calling up citizen forces in time of need persists today and is one of South Africa's democratic strengths.
Flip thanked Dave Williams for an excellent talk, and Dave then excused himself as he had another engagement. Our raffle draw then took place and the winning ticket for "The U-boat War" was drawn by Lyn Miller and claimed by John Summers-Vine.
Our next speaker then took the podium. This was Mr Robin Smith who would deliver the main lecture of the evening.
Mr Smith "collects battlefields" as a hobby in his present retirement and has travelled extensively throughout the world viewing and studying these scenes of former conflict. He is a member of the Crimean War Research Society and has toured extensively in the Crimea, as well as Gallipoli, France and Belgium. A well-known writer on the Second Boer War, and keen historian of the Imperial Light Horse Regiment, he has also spent a lot of time investigating the battlefields of the USA. Thus, his talk was on "Nine Days in April - Grant's Pursuit of Lee, April 1865".
Using a Power Point presentation, Robin took us through Confederate General Robert E Lee's last desperate nine days of attempting to save the Confederate Army of Virginia, and thus the Confederacy, from destruction. Using detailed and beautifully prepared maps, Robin led us through these dramatic nine days, illustrating his talk as he went along with photos of the battlefields then and now and the participants in those battles.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S Grant, the Commander of all Union forces, had pushed General Lee's army into Richmond and Petersburg, just south of that Confederate capital, after a series of horrific battles. Lee was now defending his capital city and the Confederacy itself. Using sea and rail connections denied to the Confederacy, the Union armies built up a huge stockpile of supplies at a small village on the James River known as City Point. This briefly became the busiest port in the USA, and possibly the world. Using rolling stock and rails brought in by sea, they also built a military railroad leading north towards Petersburg, to replace the damaged original line, and soon had trains operating on a regular schedule. Lee settled down for a long siege but this did not take place.
The Union Forces invested Petersburg and slowly gripped Lee on the inside of a great crescent. He attempted to break out, by means of a frontal attack aimed at the Union Fort, Stedman and his forces took this fort but before they could consolidate their break-through, it was retaken and the proposed breakout came to nought. The Union troops then went onto an offensive, swinging up around the South West side of Petersburg to a place known as Dinwiddie Courthouse. To avoid being surrounded, the Confederate forces pulled back towards the west and a race began in a westward direction, with Lee retreating and Grant trying to cut him off. The two forces clashed again at Five Forks, where Union General Warren was stopped and pushed back by Confederates Lee and Anderson, but this was a temporary victory as Major General Griffin came up on the Union side and rescued Warren from defeat. A brilliant cavalry charge by Major General Custer at Gilliams Field over on the left flank resulted in another Confederate defeat and a further retreat northwards towards a small stream known as Hatcher's Run. Petersburg was now surrounded, Lee was moving northwest and, after heavy fighting, Union troops finally took Petersburg. There Grant was visited by President Lincoln and together they planned their future action on what to do after the by-now inevitable Confederate defeat.
Grant continued to try to head off Lee, who now was heading for North Carolina to join forces with Confederate General Johnston, and attempted to concentrate at Amelia Court House where he expected to find stores for his army. The stores never arrived and, after two hard fights with Union troops at Painesville and Jetersville, Lee was forced to set off northwards again. Wild battles at High Bridge, Cumberland Church and Sayler's Creek followed, all resulting in a continued Union advance. Grant now moved into the town of Farmville, where he took up residence in the local hotel, and opened correspondence with Lee, inviting him to surrender. Lee's response was negative and he now ensconced himself at Appomattox, west of Farmville, from where he put out feelers for a general peace agreement, as discussed between him and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Grant's forces now succeeded finally in heading off Lee at Appomattox Station and then finally Appomattox Court House, where, after a pair of desperate and bloody last stands, Lee's tired and starving forces were finally crushed.
Lee surrendered to Grant under the most magnanimous terms, enabling the defeated troops to return home and get on with their lives, and the American Civil War was brought to an end.
After a short question period Marjorie Dean thanked Robin for his well-researched talk, and in particular for his brilliantly drawn maps, after which Flip adjourned the meeting for tea, reminding members in closing that the next meeting will be the Annual General Meeting.
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