South African Military 
History Society


January/February 2008

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

Fellow member Phil Everitt presented the DDH talk entitled "The Fortifications of Europe - Part 1; Vauban and his Time." Phil explained the origins and characteristics of the "Star Shaped Fortresses of Europe" (similar to the Castle at Cape Town).

In 1453, Mohammed II, destroyed the walls of Constantinople, with especially built super artillery pieces. This event marked the beginning of a major change in fortification design. The medieval castle with tall narrow walls and towers became obsolete. Walls became massively thick and were set into the ground. Provision was made for artillery defence and enfilade and covering fire became critical considerations. These developments continued through the 16th century and reached a high point during the 17th century which also marked the real beginning of the "scientific age"

Phil showed how geometric and scientific principles were combined in the "star forts" with bastions and ravelins ditches, covered way and outer glacis slope to prevent any wall from being easily bombarded and to give enfilade fire on the attacking forces. The most well known of the military engineers of this time of siege warfare was Marshal Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, 1633-1707, chief engineer of the "Sun King", Louis IVX. Vauban rose from the ranks and was responsible for or involved in over 160 fortifications which defined the borders of France, many of which covered the WWI battlefield sites such as Ypres and Lille. A great number are still standing today. Although he was not the originator of most of these ideas (he was responsible for the glacis slope and the socket bayonet), he also developed the art of siegecraft, and published treatise on both defence and the attack. The latter was by means of zig-zag approach trenches always avoiding enfilade, with successively nearer parallel artillery trenches. Finally the outer defences would be breached by artillery or tunneling and the main wall reduced by mining. Vauban provided detailed calculations of explosive charges required and their effects. The defenders often resorted to counter-mining in exactly the same way as was done in WWI.

Vauban's principles were followed by many but throughout he remained practical and derided those "academics" who tried to formalize his methods into "systems". He designed each work according to the topography and site characteristics. He provided detailed calculations for the logistical requirements of attack and defence. His legacies live on today in the form of the surviving structures as well as detailed relief models constructed to elicit the necessary funds from the King. He died out of favour with Louis because he realized that the methods used to raise funds for the military were causing unrest amongst the civil population and he dared to suggest a more equitable and in fact modern concept of taxation. If his warnings had been heeded the revolution may never have happened. He died in 1707 and his remains were scattered later at the time of the revolution but in 1808 his heart was apparently recovered and placed by order of Napoleon in Les Invalides where it exists today in close proximity to the remains of Napoleon himself.

The work of Vauban and his peers was directly responsible for the formation of a scientifically oriented professional corps of artillery and engineers, and the first military academies being established. The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich was established in 1741 to educate the military branch of the Board of Ordnance to produce officers for the Artillery and Engineers. (Sandhurst came later). The École Militaire was founded by Louis XIV in 1750 and opened in 1760.

The main talk was delivered by fellow member Dave Mathews on "Operations in the Sudan 1885 - 1898."

At the April 2007 meeting Dave presented a fascinating talk about "Gordon of Khartoum" ending with the slaughter of Gordon by the troops of the Mahdi in January 1885. This sequel began with the death of Gordon and the withdrawal of the British from the Sudan, ending with the Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman.

There is a hiatus of 10 years but in 1892 Kitchener is appointed Sirdar of the Anglo-Egyptian army and he is determined to wreak his vengeance for the death of Gordon. [He had commanded the rescue column that arrived 48 hours after Gordon's death].

From now on this is a campaign of careful planning, attention to detail, and the importance of logistics. To fully appreciate the complexity of Kitchener's strategy, one needs to follow the moves on the map as his army systematically advances 1000 kms down the Nile, from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, sometimes by rail, and sometimes even by camel to their final great victory. Between 1887 and 1889 the Mahdists fought battles against Ethiopia with a final victory at Gallabat. In 1889 the Mahdists attacked Egypt but were defeated and they withdrew 100 km to the south of Wadi Halfa, thus beginning their decline. In 1892 Kitchener had become Sirdar, and Thomas Cook offered boats that could transport men up the Nile. By 1896 the time was ripe for action. Berber with the Mahdist army was the ultimate target for 1897, but first Kitchener drove the construction of a railway to carry men and supplies. He appointed General Hunter as commander of the fighting troops.

The first target for 1896 was Dongola on the river. On 6 June Firket was taken by a night attack. The Mahdist troops were routed. Kitchener now paused for 3 months as men arrived by rail and his gunboats came down the river. In September with 13 000 men he took Dongola [bypassing large numbers of the enemy, leaving them for the gunboats]. In January 1897 the rail line from Wadi Halfa was half way to Abu Hamed across 200 kms of formidable Nubian Desert. On 29 July his army advanced down the Nile from Merowe to Berber. The Mahdists abandoned Berber and retreated 100kms, past Atbara to Shendi [on the Nile]. On 31 October the railway reached Abu Hamed. Kitchener now had secure logistics; reinforcements arrived and on 1 January, 1898 the army assembled: all was ready for the final advance. In April the Mahdist army of 10 000 advanced and made contact. On 8 April 1898 Kitchener ordered a night advance and night attack [again]. A one-hour artillery bombardment of the enemy Zareba followed by an infantry assault totally destroyed the enemy at the cost of less than 50 dead.
The British Army took up summer quarters for 4 months by the Nile at Atbara. The army grew to 22 000, supported by field guns, Maxims and gunboats. On 24 August this formidable all-arms force began its advance down the river on Khartoum. On 31 August Omdurman was in view. On 1 September Hunter deployed his men and the gunboats shelled the Mahdi's tomb. The army waited. The Dervishes attacked in blocks. [The battle is most beautifully described by Kitchener in his Despatch]. At 06.50 the field guns, gunboats and Maxims opened fire, with infantry firing in volleys. At 08.00 the gunboats shifted their fire to deliberately support some infantry that experieced problems. The 21st Lancers [with Winston Churchill] move to attack 300 Dervishes. They charge, straight into 3 000 of the enemy concealed in a ravine. The charge succeeds, but at severe cost in men and horses to the Lancers. [Churchill describes this in detail in "My Early Life"]. There follows a confused series of attacks and counterattacks, then the Mahdist army is broken, and the Anglo-Egyptian army advances driving the Mahdists into the desert towards the region of Darfar. The walls of the town are broken down with howitzers and the Khalifa's house and Mahdi's tomb are occupied. The Khalifa is trapped and killed, large quantities of stores are captured. On 4 September 1898 the British flag was raised over Khartoum. Mahdism had been annihilated. Gordon had been avenged.

This overwhelming victory had many lessons. By 1899 the railway line from Wadi Halfa had reached Khartoum. It is still in use. The gunboats were critically important, and were brought in kit form down the Nile to be assembled at Kosheh [between Wadi Half and Dongola]. Kitchener had a superior understanding of logistics, and he fought a modern all-arms war, considering he was an engineer. In 1900 Kitchener became chief of staff to Lord Roberts in South Africa where he planned the blockhouse system and the scorched earth land clearances.

And as for the Darfur desert west of Omdurman, killing still goes on 110 years later.

Former chairman Paul Kilmartin comprehensively thanked the speakers for two very carefully researched and well presented talks with such excellent illustrations on subjects that are quite unique.

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Annual Dinner; 13 Dec. 2007;

This event proved to be a marked success for all those that participated. The committee plans to hold a dinner to commemorate our society's 40th anniversary this year. This will be combined with our annual dinner and coordinated by Charles Whiteing. Please liaise with Charles on any suggestions you may have

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THURSDAY - 14 February 2008 19.00 for 19.30

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

DDH: Aircraft Carriers by fellow member John Oliver. John will take us through the development of the Aircraft Carriers from the early 1900's up to a brief look into tomorrow. The talk portrays representative ships and a few aircraft to highlight the changes that have occurred.

Main Talk: The Six Day War by fellow member Adrian van Schaik. Adrian will describe the story of a small country that decided to take on four Middle East countries and won. An amazing military strategy that has now become a must know for any modern day commander

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South African Military History Society /