South African Military 
History Society


December 2007

Contact: Mike Laing 031-205-1951
Bill Brady 031-561-5542

The meeting opened with Dave Mathews providing much amusement with a power point presentation of "candid shots from previous battlefield tours." Dave managed to capture several members in various postures whilst on previous battlefield tours to provide a lighter side to the society meeting.

The DDH talk "The Guns at Nery - 1 September 1914" was presented by former chairman Paul Kilmartin. 1914-1918 was not just about the big battles. There were also "small fights" or "accidental/unexpected collisions" that sometimes had an impact far greater than the number of soldiers involved. Nothing can illustrate that better than the opening weeks in August/September 1914. One of the "small fights" occurred on 1 September 1914, and small as it was by WW1 standards, it was of immense importance.

It was part of a series of military clashes which, added to mistakes by the German High Command, stopped the great German advance on Paris. The 2nd German Cavalry Corps., particularly the 4th Cavalry Division was the "eyes and ears" of both 1st and 2nd German armies. They were in the forefront of the German attack on the retreating BEF 2nd Corps from MONS to NERY. At 2000 hours on 31 August "L" Battery of the RHA (Royal Horse Artillery) arrived at NERY a village situated between 2 plateau on the high Western bank of a stream, which ran northwards through a deep ravine. At 0530 hours, Lt. TAILBY came through the fog at high speed, after a search of the area, to report that he had seen German Cavalry less than a mile away. BRIGADIER-GENERAL C.J. BRIGGS immediately ordered all the Cavalry to take firing positions behind the walls of every available building. At 0540 hours the 1st German shell landed, among The BAYS horses, killing many, followed by rifle and m/c Gun fire. At the Northern end of the billet the 5th Dragoon Guards were shelled; the fog and general smoke made life very difficult. But these were members of the old professional British army, all with long service in the cavalry, and the cavalry were soon planning counter attacks on the German positions.

"L" Battery had 200 horses and 6 x 13 Pounder guns and limbers. The first shell burst over "L" Battery when it was in mass formation. Many horses were killed and other horses tried to bolt. The result was an immediate and chaotic shambles and 3 of the 6 guns were lost. The men under the command of Captain Bradbury (later awarded a posthumous VC in the engagement) managed to get the 3 remaining guns unlinked and despite being under fire, manhandled them to face where they thought the German positions were enfilading the British position with shell, m/c gun and rifle fire. The German shelling was extremely accurate and C gun received a hit directly on the muzzle; it now stands in the Imperial War Museum where it is known as "The NERY Gun." After non-stop firing for 1 hour, just 3 men were left able to assist in sharing the firing and fetching more shells until they ran out of shells at 0800 hours when happily for them, "I" Battery, attracted by the sound of battle, arrived in support. Estimates of the damage caused vary, from knocking out 9 German guns (with 3 saved) to knocking them all out. Sgt. NELSON wrote afterwards: "We fired the last 2 rounds remaining with the gun and with them silenced the only German gun which appeared to be shooting. When "I" Battery opened fire from a position behind us, they completed their destruction." As a result of damaging the German artillery and causing them to concentrate their fire at the RHA, it gave the cavalry the chance to counter attack, almost unnoticed. The biggest success came from the 5th Dragoon Guards. Without waiting for senior orders, the Dragoons wheeled to the right, galloped to within 100 yards, dismounted and opened rifle fire from the shoulder, "Pumping a stream of bullets into a target such as may never be seen again and which certainly did not recur in 1914 - 1918." The target was the 4th German Cavalry Division. They were all in such a position that they were unable to deploy, or even turn to face the enemy. They were in their tradition of "shoulder-to-shoulder." 300 Dragoons, firing accurately at 15 rounds per minute had a devastating impact. The Bays and the 11th Hussars had similar if not as destructive an impact on the German Cavalry.

The role of the RHA and the 1st Cavalry Brigade was a triumph for the professional soldier, particularly the leadership of senior NCOs when officers were killed. It highlighted the training and experience of those who had been under fire before. From all who took part, it was heroism of the highest order.

150 men were killed and wounded, but the German Cavalry losses at Nery caused problems for the German 1st Army and resulted in their eventual failure at the decisive Battle of The Marne 1 week later.

The main talk was by guest speaker Andrey Sharashkin on the Russian front of the Second World War.

Andrey is a Senior Counselor of the Embassy of Russia, Pretoria. This presentation was unusual as it included both still and moving film made during the battles. It began with the humiliation of Germany by the Versailles Treaty, and the rise of Adolf Hitler and fascism in Italy and Germany. Hitler's aim was to restore the greatness of Germany. First was the military reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, followed by the Anschluss of Austria in 1938. Then, there was Munich and the Sudetenland in September 1938. On 31 March l939, Chamberlain announced Britain's guarantee of military assistance to Poland. But, on 1Septermber, came the German attack on Poland (made possible by the pact with the USSR on 23 August). On 17 September, the Red Army advanced into Eastern Poland and occupied it. The Western Front remained quiet until May 1940 when the Blitzkrieg hit the French and the British. The British retreat through Dunkirk followed, and by June 1940 Hitler was in Paris. Meanwhile, Russia had sensed future trouble, and fought a costly war with Finland, from Dec. 1939 to March 1940, to possess territory of strategic importance for the security of Leningrad. The Red Army had shown serious shortcomings, and when Barbarossa struck in June 1941, the army was overwhelmed by the speed and violence of the German blitzkrieg tactics: suffering millions of casualties and prisoners.

By October 1941, the Germans were within striking distance of Moscow. The whole population was digging antitank trenches. Tram lines were dug up and welded into anti-tank tetrahedra; whole factories were dismantled and shipped to the Urals. On 7 November, Stalin made his famous Holy Mother Russia speech to the troops at the great military parade that was held in Red Square, and the troops then marched straight out through the snow and sleet into battle. (These reserves came from Mongolia, thanks to the overwhelming victory by Zhukov over the Japanese at Khalkhin Gol in August 1939.) The Wehrmacht was stopped within 40 km of the Kremlin, and the counterattack, beginning on 5 December, drove them back 200 km. The fierce winter now became a desperately needed ally of the Red Army. The troops found a truckload of German medals, presumably for distribution to the conquerors of Moscow! From September 1941, Leningrad was besieged. There was no power, the temperature dropped to -40oC, the citizens starved, a million died before the siege was finally lifted in 1944. The only entry was the "Road of Life," across the ice of Lake Ladoga. Mid-1942 saw the massive drive by the Germans southeast to the Volga and finally to the assault on Stalingrad. By November, the Germans were in the city (now totally rubble) pounding the stubborn defence under Chuikov. Operation Uranus was the massive Russian counterattack. The German army was encircled and Paulus was forced to surrender in February 1943. The 6th Army had been liquidated: a great victory for Russia, the turning point of World War II in Europe. The Red Army would not suffer another major defeat.

In July 1943, the Germans launched Operation Citadel at Kursk to cut off a bulge in their front line. But their planning was too slow and too obvious. The attack ground to a halt against miles of prepared defences. The counterattack, planned by Zhukov, drove the Germans back 150 km to beyond Kiev. This was the largest tank Battle in history, over 1 500 tanks were involved. This victory was celebrated by a wonderful fireworks display in Red Square. By August 1944, the Red Army was at the Vistula River, and had to witness the abortive Warsaw Uprising. By January 1945, the Red Army had liberated Auschwitz (near Krakow), and then in April began the final drive on Berlin. This great battle, under Zhukov, cost 300 000 Russian casualties. On 8 May, Keitel signed the surrender document, Zhukov signed for the USSR. There was a great victory parade in Moscow, led by Zhukov on a magnificent white charger.

Thus the Red Army liberated the states of Eastern Europe from Nazi control, but Russian Communist influence remained for more than 40 years. Most people don't appreciate the total destruction of Western Russia during the Great Patriotic War, every town and village was smashed to rubble, every bridge destroyed, all railway lines ripped up, and millions of dead. After Barbarossa, Stalin had called for a "Second Front" directly against Germany. The great D-day could only come on 6 June 1944, but Britain and USA had been engaged with Germany from November 1942, first in North Africa, then in Sicily, then in Italy. (The USA gave the Russians, desperately needed elsewhere, 400 000 trucks, making the Red Army truly mobile). Other supplies were sent from Britain by the perilous Arctic convoys. Many South Africans served on these ships, and in 2005 at Simonstown, they were given awards by the Russian government to thank them for their contribution. We also saw copies of the delivery notes for donations from people of the Union of South Africa to the Russian people - money, clothing, foodstuffs, even blood for transfusions. Such fascinating archival material!

This presentation should be seen and heard by every one who claims to be a serious student of military history. Its content gives an insight into the causes of the Cold War; the great pride of the Russian people in their achievement of driving the Nazi invaders from their country; the need for secure borders; the terrific struggle to rebuild the nation after its staggering losses. There followed a vigorous question-and-answer period, with several questions being more "political" than "military".

John Cooke thanked the three speakers for their contributions which made this such a wonderful evening: Dave, for his Looney Tunes pictures; Paul, for his carefully researched and detailed story of the guns at Nery; and Andrey, for his magnificent presentation of the Eastern Front, painted with a broad brush: as he said, "The victory is my victory, even if I was born 20 years after."

* * * * * * *

Annual Dinner;
13 Dec. 2007 - 19h00/19h30 - Chez Nous Restaurant

We have been most fortunate to secure a booking at the above restaurant in 13 Blue Heights Centre, Westville Rd., Westville; The cost is R100,00 per person less 10%. Menu consists of a three course meal with four selections from each course. There are still limited bookings for members and guests. Chez Nous Tel No. 031 266 7011

Please notify Bill Brady for bookings on tel/fax 031 561 5542 cel 083 228 5485 or

* * * * * * *

THURSDAY - 17 January 2008 19.00 for 19.30
Please note the date for January meeting!!!

Usual Venue: Murray Theatre, Civil Engineering Building, Howard College Campus, UKZN

DDH: An Engineer at War - The European Fortifications of the 17th century by fellow member Philip Everitt, who will discuss contemporary innovations in warfare with particular reference to the work of the French Engineer Vauban (1637-1701), Chief Engineer of Louis XIV.

Main Talk: Operations in the Sudan 1885 - 1898 by fellow member Dave Matthews, who will present a detailed account of the transportation and campaign of an army from Egypt, deep into the Sudan, to avenge the death of General Gordon at the Battle of Omdurman

* * * * * * *

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: February to April 2008

* * * * * * *

South African Military History Society /