South African Military History Society

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There were congratulations and "thank you" all around when the chairman, Bob Smith, fresh from a holiday in Greece, opened the July meeting. Bob commenced by thanking the office bearers who stood in for him during his absence and then thanked the June speakers, both of whom were present, for what he had heard were excellent talks. He then gave the meeting a briefing on the situation in Durban where the renaming of Edwin Swales V C Drive had caused a lot of a concern among military historians. The dispute has now been resolved thanks to the intervention and generosity of our own committee member, David Scholtz. David has kindly offered to fund a monument to Edwin Swales to be erected in the quadrangle of Durban Boys' High School, Swales' old school. This announcement by Bob brought a heartfelt round of applause from the audience.

It was then the turn of Colin Dean to come forward and announce the winner of the George Barrell Memorial Prize for the best curtain-raiser talk of 2008/9. This was our own Felicia Fourie for her talk "Four Women of the Anglo-Boer War". A cash prize and a framed certificate were then handed over to Felicia by Marjorie Dean.

More congratulations and thanks followed when, in a surprise gesture that left him stunned, Hamish Paterson was called forward and Malcolm King presented him with a gift for all the hard work he puts in as our museum liaison officer.

This done and with everybody settled down, Bob then introduced the curtain-raiser speaker. This was Mr Dean McElwee.

Dean was born in Durban and after doing his National Service in the Infantry, went into the hotel trade. This was followed by a spell in retailing and other corporate positions. He is at present the Business Development Specialist for Nestle.

The title of Dean's talk was "My Father's Cap Badge Collection". His father, Alan Conway, who was present in the audience, had served in the Royal Engineers and as a hobby had amassed over 1 300 British Army cap badges. Some of these were on display for the audience but Dean used a series of electronic slides to illustrate his talk.

Commencing with the Roman Army, which used identifying markings on their shields to distinguish between their legions, Dean followed through from shield markings to uniform colours and facings, introduced in the 17th century. By 1751 the use of privately designed badges had grown to such an extent that a Royal Warrant was issued emphasising that only authorised badges or numbers were permitted on uniforms. In 1768 the first metal regimental badges appeared on British Army headdress.

Caps were introduced in 1894 and by 1898 all British regiments had adopted a proper badge for wearing with these caps. The design of these badges is mostly uniform in that they all detail past associations; notable service by the regiment; and awards to it, and they thus encapsulate in their design the regimental history. Although uniform in purpose, each badge is thus unique as no regimental history is the same as another.

Dean then took us through a selection of badges, explaining the significance of the castles, sphinxes, keys and other symbols, and also, in some cases, the regimental motto. Sadly many of the famous old regiments have been amalgamated with others but the new regiments' cap badges are also a means of carrying through badge motifs from the past and we were shown a few examples of these.

Dean's talk was followed by an interesting question period, after which he was thanked by Bob, who then also then gave out the usual notices regarding future events. He then introduced the main speaker for the evening, Mr Charles Leach.

Charles is a fourth generation native of the Zoutpansberg region and, after a career in teaching, he and his wife established the now-thriving business of Leach Printers. He has a strong interest in the history of the Zoutpansberg, and in particular in the areas around Polokwane (Pietersburg) where the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) were active. It was thus no surprise that the title of his talk was "Lt 'Breaker' Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers".

Charles called on Hamish to come forward and set the scene around events in the Anglo-Boer War in 1901 leading up the start of Charles' story. Using an excellent series of electronic slides, Charles then took up the story of this rather unsavoury episode towards the end of the war. Notwithstanding the many books and even a movie, the story of the Bushveldt Carbineers, and in particular Lt Morant, is an ongoing saga and cause of enquiry.

Avoiding any melodrama or histrionics usually associated with Morant, Charles first gave the geographical background to the story and a brief account of an action in Duiwelskloof. Here the Bushveldt Carbineers suffered casualties that affected the survivors and apparently spurred a desire for vengeance. Charles then showed us photographs of the principal role-players, including two officers seconded to the Bushveldt Carbineers, and in particular a certain Captain Taylor.

A quartet of these role-players, Lt Morant, Lt Handcock, Captain Witton and Captain Taylor, using in particular the death of Lt Hunt in Duiwelskoof as an excuse, then went on what can only be described as a murder spree. Charles showed us a list of their victims in chronological order, detailing each incident and, when possible, showing pictures of the victims. Some were mere children or young boys. They also took care to eliminate any possible witnesses. Inevitably they overstepped the mark by killing a Swiss missionary. The subsequent enquiry led to the court martial of the four and the death sentence for Morant and Handcock. Witton received a lengthy prison sentence and Taylor escaped justice. They protested to the end that "they were only following orders" and subsequent books have latched on to this theme. This has resulted in a form of almost hero-worship which still persists in Australia, for Morant although controversy around Morant (and to a lesser degree, Handcock) still exists.

Charles' lucid and factual account left little room for doubt that this was a group of cold-blooded killers who fully expected to get away with it in the fog of war, but came badly unstuck.

After another interesting question time, Bob called upon Hamish Paterson to thank the speaker and then invited all present to repair for coffee provided by Dean McElwee, courtesy of Nestle.

Ivor C Little

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