South African Military History Society

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As usual, the meeting was opened by the National Chairman, Bob Smith, who commenced with the monthly announcements of interest to members.

The Battle of Square Hill took place on 21 September 1918 and the City of Cape Town had seen fit to commemorate this battle, in which the lst Battalion of the Cape Corps played a prominent and heroic part. The City laid on an impressive service, presided over by Her Worship, The Mayor, Helen Zille, and as our own Cape Town Branch members had been involved, Bob called on Hamish Paterson to give a very brief summing up of the Battle for those present at our meeting. It was also announced that at present there is a display set up in the Military Museum showing the proud traditions of the Cape Corps since its establishment in 1781.

22nd September was the 42nd anniversary of the Durban branch and was commemorated by a formal dinner at the Durban Country Club. Our branch had sent best wishes and has had a commemorative parchment made up, which will be hand-delivered in the near future.

Bob then gave details of our up-coming tours and lectures, before introducing the curtain raiser speaker. This was Mrs Ann Bourdon who was to speak on "The Battle of Marathon". Ann was born in London and after studying the classics, European literature and art history, developed an interest in military history, particularly the fields of logistics and supply through the ages.

She proceeded to give us an extremely interesting and entertaining description of the Battle of Marathon, which occurred in 490 BC.

Commencing 2 500 years back, Ann described the patchwork of city-states and islands that made up ancient Greece and which were united by only one thing in common - their language. They were immensely proud of this and considered all non-Greek speakers to bleat like sheep; i.e. baa baa, hence our modern word barbarian. One of the prouder city-states was that of Attica (Athens) and as such Athens made a habit of supporting the small Greek-speaking island states that had fallen under the rule of the expanding Persian Empire under King Darius I. This irked the "Great King", as he was known, and he decided to overwhelm the Greeks, and in particular Athens, once and for all. After a successful operation against Eritrea to the north of Attica, he then turned his attention to Attica.

This would be a hard nut to crack, as the city was well fortified and impregnable from the sea. Darius then decided to do an amphibious landing at Marathon, north of Athens. It offered an easy landing place with good grazing for the Persian cavalry and was undefended. He put 15 000 imperial troops ashore there and started consolidating his beachhead. The Athenians had by this time also mobilised and, calling on their neighbouring states, one of which supplied 1 000 men, quickly mustered an amateur civilian army, of 10 000 under the leadership of an elected general known as Miltiades. They gathered on a hill overlooking Marathon and then, strangely enough, the two armies settled down to watch each other for the next eight days.

Miltiades was awaiting reinforcements from Sparta, which declined to participate, as the omens were not good until the next full moon. Miltiades received this disturbing news from the professional messenger, Pheidippides.

Pheidippides made the 200 km run from Athens to Sparta in two days, had a two-day rest and then ran the same distance back to Marathon, to deliver Sparta's reply. A remarkable feat. The story that he then ran on to Athens and died on reaching there has no basis in fact.

On receiving this news, Miltiades decided to attack at once, as Darius was obviously awaiting reinforcements. He drew his men up in three separate blocks and then ordered a headlong charge by all three. This charge by infantry unsettled the Persian troops, who at first resisted, and then advanced against the Greek centre as it deliberately fell back. The Persians then pushed into an arc as Miltiades' two wings closed on their flanks - the classic encirclement movement. Thus encircled, the Persian troops were decimated as they attempted to pull back to the beach. In so doing, they lost 6 400 men. The remainder re-embarked onto their waiting ships and made off to attempt a sea-borne attack against Athens, which they reasoned would be undefended. Miltiades then made a forced march south to cut them off and the attempt was abandoned, resulting in an overwhelming victory for the Athenian forces.

The Greek dead were buried at Marathon, under a tumulus that can still be seen. A monument was also erected, a replica of which stands at Marathon, while the original is in Athens in a museum. Factual accounts of the battle still exist in the writings of Herodotus and Thucydides, while the name Marathon has become synonymous with long-distance running.

Ann's talk was followed by a brief question time, after which Bob thanked her for her excellent talk and, after a brief question period, introduced the next speaker.

This proved to be John Murray, a former committee member and well-known speaker at our lecture meetings. His subject was "The Royal Marines", an interesting choice of topic.

John commenced by relating the story of a Royal Marine gun crew that formed part of the anti-aircraft defences of Biggin Hill at Lympne during World War II. As related to him by a very good friend, John told how, in July 1940, this gun crew methodically continued firing at every dive-bomber until they too were obliterated, a perfect example of iron discipline under fire. Another example of Royal Marine discipline and determination was Operation Frankton in December 1942. This valiant episode has been fully recounted in both print and film under the title "The Cockleshell Heroes".

Having proved his point of the Corps' dedication, John then gave us a brief history of the Royal Marines, the United Kingdom's fourth most senior military formation, after the three senior regiments in the Guard's Brigade. This served as a background to the detailed description of the make-up of the modern Corps and its operational capability; the Fleet Protection Group; Assault Group; Special Boat Service and Band receiving particular attention.

We were told how commandos, rifle companies and the Amphibious Ready Group operate and of the Marines who serve in these groupings. This led naturally to how Marines are trained and the courses they have to do to qualify.

John then returned to the history of the Corps, mentioning as an aside that although the Corps' official quick march is "A Home on the Ocean Wave", its unofficial quick march is "Sarie Marais", to commemorate the title of Commando.

The Royal Marine Corps has had the Freedom of the City of London since 1664 when it was known as "The Admiral's Regiment". The Queen's and Regimental colours have only one battle honour on them and this is "Gibraltar". This signifies the capture by a Marine force of the Rock of Gibraltar in August 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and is symbolic of other worldwide activities and landings. In 1827 George IV also authorised the present regimental badge of a globe encircled by laurel leaves and the motto "Per Mare Per Terrum".

To illustrate this global reach of the Royal Marines, John then led us through the various vicissitudes of the early Corps, changes in uniform and the influence of Admirals such as Anson, Jervis and, latterly, Mountbatten, on the Corps. Detailed account was also taken of significant actions in which the Corps participated from 1782 to the present day, visiting en route Ceylon, Trafalgar, Algerian pirates, Navarino, the Napoleonic Wars, West Africa, the Boer War, both World Wars, Malaysia, Borneo, Korea, the Falklands and Northern Ireland.

John then closed by describing the running down of the Royal Marines by successive government since World War II, until the Corps reached its present size and shape as a small but highly trained and useful military arm.

On conclusion of this marathon survey of four hundred year of history, John was thanked by committee member John Parkinson for his detailed and extensive research which he had passed on to us.

The talk was followed by a brief question period, after which the meeting adjourned for tea and coffee in the lobby.

Ivor C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

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Web-site warbles

Please look at the battlefields TOUR planned for 2009 to Europe and North Africa - details from Ken Gillings if you do not have e-mail or Internet. (031 702 4828)

Members are offered a free copy of a reference work entitled "A moment in time - The British Army" by G A McKinley of Australia. Details from scribe@samilitaryhistoryorg or on the web-site under "books"

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Sat 8th November
Can you spare an hour (or more!) to help feisty octogenarian Ivan Feinstein collect on Poppy Day? From 08h30 - 13h00 at a variety of venues from Sandton to Killarney. Ivan will spoil you with drinks etc and he really needs help as several of his stalwarts have died. Please contact him at 011-485-5024.

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For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Mike Laing 031-205-1951 (
For Cape Town details contact Bob Buser (Sec'y/Treas) 021-689-1639 (
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469 (

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