South African Military History 


Newsletter No 48/Nuusbrief Nr 48: September 2008

The fourth in the series on historic artillery pieces in South Africa by Pat Irwin was on the 15-pdr 7cwt BL Field Gun, the standard field piece of the British army during the Anglo-Boer War. Due to the number captured by the Boers, it was also the most widely used gun on the Boer side. A total of 349 were used in the war. Developed from an earlier 12-pdr 6 cwt gun, the 15-pdr is easily recognisable by shape of its breech and its characteristic recoil system: a spade recoil attached to a telescopic spring case on the trail. It had no shield. First introduced in 1892, by 1895 the British army was fully equipped with these guns, which, however, failed to take fully into account technology advances in France and Germany. The main deficiency of the gun was its restriction to a single shell type, viz. shrapnel, which limited the effective range to about 3 800 metres, thus being substantially outranged by the Boer field guns in the early part of the war. The Boers, interestingly, produced case shot for the gun. It also had a slower rate of fire than the Boer guns. The 15-pdr gun and carriage were relatively easy to maintain and repair. Four crew served the gun and rode on the gun as well as the limber. It was generally pulled by mules. There are at least nine of these guns in South Africa. They range from fine examples in the Saxonwold Museum and Smuts House to two rusting barrels in a Potchefstroom cemetery. Several stand in the open.

Malcolm Kinghorn's curtain raiser was on the Halifax Explosion, which killed over 2,000 people. The SS Mont Blanc collided with the SS Clara while entering Halifax harbour in Nova Scotia, Canada on 6 December 1917. She had been loaded in New York with 2,300 tons of picric acid (used in making lyddite for artillery shells), 200 tons of trinitrotoluene (TNT) and 10 tons of gun cotton (explosive made by seeping cotton in acids), with drums of benzol (high octane fuel) stacked on her decks. Some of the benzol drums broke loose and caught fire. The crew abandoned ship. At 0905 the Mont Blanc blew up.The blast flattened the immediate area for 2 square kilometers and devastated 1300 more. Most of the windows in Halifax were blown out. The ship's gun landed 2 km and the stock of one of her anchors 5 km away. The resulting wave rocked nearby ships, some from their moorings. Smaller vessels were sunk. A settlement of the Micmac (Native American tribe of the area) was washed away. A rising hill opposite the site of the explosion gave an excellent view of the ship on fire. There were many spectators, with a high percentage of eye injuries caused by shattering windows among the thousands of wounded. After the blast, a number of secondary fires occurred. This was the largest man-made explosion until the dropping of the bomb at Hiroshima in 1945.

Peter Gordon's main lecture on Xhosa Warfare described how Imi-sila (tails, after their ox tail insignia) were a chiefs' messengers to alert clans that war had been declared. Their message: Ilizwe lifile (the country is dead) meant "war has been declared". They gave bikel' amaziko: notice that all warriors should meet at the Great Place on a certain day for uku-yolela: where the great chief would issue his commands publicly. The Tola (war doctors) - different to ama-qira (witch-doctors), who were diviners and dealt with witchcraft, sorcery and disease - were used only in times of war to perform uku-kafula (make invincible). The potency of the qungu (forces pent up in a dead body), was so great that the slayer feared them as much as he had feared the living foe. To liberate and render them innocuous, the stomach of the dead had to be ripped open, after which the qungu became dissipated and harmless. If a warrior failed to liberate the qungu, he himself would die.

The battle order adopted by the Xhosa consisted of uKala (advance scouts), younger men who ranged in one's and two's well ahead of the army, searching for sign of the enemy. They were followed by iNtlola (scouts), also a considerable distance ahead of the main army and some distance behind the advance scouts. Behind these two screens was the umKosi (main army), composed of veterans who had experience of war. Those who had excelled in previous battles were known as amaTwala'ndwe and wore the insignia of the highest military order among the Xhosa, two blue-crane feathers (Indwe is the Xhosa name for the blue-crane).The main army had two divisions. The iNtshinga consisted of mostly clans of royal lineage with a sprinkling of commoners who had found favour because of their council or their war record. The iQauka were mostly commoners with a few royals who had lost favour. On the flanks of the main army were amaPiko (wings). These had a similar function to the 'horns' used in earlier times. Behind the main body was the iQoqo (reserve) - known as abafanenkosi (those who die with the chief) - under the immediate command of the great chief, who was also the commander in chief of the whole army. At some distance on both left and right flanks were stationed iNkongo (flying columns) to protect the army from being taken in the rear and to attack enemies in the line of march.

The Xhosa tradition had been to wear izihlangu (sandals) made from goat skin when going on a long journey, to the hunt, or to war until Paramount Chief Tshiwo ordered his men to lay off the sandals (the amaXhosa still use the expression: ukubetha ngezika Tshiwo: to go barefoot) to improve speed when closing with the enemy or when chasing an enemy in flight, especially when dealing with the lightly armed and swift Khoisan. Tshiwo's smiths were ordered to forge udini (a broad-bladed assegai with a short handle) for close combat. Udini are still known as umkhonto ka Tshiwo - Tshiwo's spear.

When engaging an arrow wielding foe, armies were instructed to hlanganisa or dibanisa amakhaka (to combine or join shields): the line in front would crouch behind their shields, while all the lines behind, also in a crouching position, lifted their shields above their heads, untill they heard nothing but stones hit on them. They would then know that the enemy arrows had been exhausted and attack.

However, after encountering Boers, the Xhosa found that their shields didn't stop bullets and these were soon abandoned. They quickly learned not to use this battle order against disciplined foe armed with firearms and changed to guerrilla tactics, attacking in small groups and then fading into the bush. Attacked waggons were immobilised by killing the lead oxen.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on Monday 8 September 2008 in the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club. The curtain raiser will be on War Poetry by Piet Hall and the main lecture on 5 SA Infantry Battalion by Jock Harris.

Members might be interested in Ivor Markman's history blog Constructive comments are welcome.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
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