South African Military History Society

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The September meeting was opened by National Chairman, Bob Smith, when he welcomed all present and commenced with the usual notices.

Bob congratulated the Eastern Cape Branch on its fifth birthday and complimented it on its phenomenal growth in membership over such a short time. He also drew members' attention to a possible tour of Nooitgedacht Battlefield on Saturday, 14 November, that is still be negotiated and will be confirmed at the next meeting. Also of importance is the forthcoming Anglo-Boer War Conference to be held in Ladysmith in January 2010.

Bob then introduced the curtain-raising speaker, who was Ms Ann Bourdin. Ann was born in London and, after a career spanning nine countries, has retired to South Africa. Her particular interest is in logistics and battlefields and she has spoken to the Society on a previous occasion.

The subject of her talk was "Thermopylae and Salamis 480BC". Ann had previously spoken to us about the Battle of Marathon and thus her talk was a follow-on about two battles that took place 10 years after Marathon. After Marathon the Persians had retired in disarray and their defeat still smarted. King Darius had died and his son, Xerxes, determined to avenge his father's defeat and secure the Eastern Mediterranean for Persia, by conquering the Grecian Archipelago once and for all.

Compared to the collection of Greek city-states at the time, Xerxes commanded a vast empire with its attendant military might. However his forces were composed of national armies and fleets speaking several languages, using different methods of communication and employing different tactics, and this was to prove a weakness.

Xerxes made the necessary preparation and then marched on Greece, by bridging the Hellespont between Turkey and Northern Greece. This was in itself a magnificent engineering achievement and boded well for his venture. The Greek army was severely outnumbered by about ten to one but had the advantage of being an homogeneous force. It was decided not to attempt a frontal battle but to retire ahead of the advancing Persians until they had fallen back on the narrow isthmus where the sea enters the Peloponnese in a double narrows. This area is known as Thermopylae. At that time there was only one means of crossing the isthmus at Thermopylae and that was via a narrow pass betwixt the sea and mountains. Here the Greeks decided to make a stand to allow the evacuation of the civil population from major centres, such as Athens. It was going to be a desperate struggle and to make up for their reluctance to get involved in the Battle of Marathon ten years previously, the King of Sparta, Leonidas, took 300 veterans to block the pass at Thermopylae. They were joined by 19 000 hoplites from all over Greece.

Thermopylae means "Hot Gates", a reference both to hot springs in the vicinity and the fact that the pass was only 50 yards wide in three places, hence the term "gates", and, in an attempt to force the defile, Xerxes sent in his Medes, a national army from Media. Leonides sent his Greek troops back to the rear, keeping only his 300 Spartan and 700 Thespian troops to hold the pass. For three days the Persians launched wave after wave against the defending Spartans, in an action that has since been immortalised in both literature and film. Eventually, a local Greek traitor, Ephialtes, led the Persians over a goat track to take the Spartan and Thespians in the rear. The defending Greeks were slaughtered to a man in a famous "last stand". The Persians then advanced and sacked a deserted Athens.

Xerxes now had to cross the isthmus at Corinth to continue his conquest and to do this had first to dispose of the Greek fleet under the command of Themistocles. Xerxes was convinced that this fleet, holed up in the narrows between the island of Salamis and the mainland of Attica, was hiding from him to escape battle. Therefore, he carried out a two-pronged attack around Salamis and entered the narrows, which are a mile wide. His fleet was promptly ambushed by the more manoeuvrable Greek Triremes, which created havoc among the Persian ships. Instead of laying alongside and boarding the enemy in the Persian manner, the Greeks relied on their superior speed and agility to ram the enemy ships, which had no room to manoeuvre in the narrow channel. The Greeks sank 200 ships with the loss of 40 of their own. Xerxes was now stranded in Attica with no transport and no hope of advancing further and was eventually defeated and forced to withdraw at the Battle of Platae the following year.

The self-sacrifice of Themopylae and the first great naval battle at Salamis had saved Europe from an Asian invasion and preserved Greek democracy to the benefit of the western world.

Ann was thanked by committee member Marjorie Dean for her most interesting talk and then Bob introduced the next speaker. This was Judge Kathleen Satchwell and the subject of her talk was "From the Frontier to the Trenches". Kathleen, who is a High Court Judge in Johannesburg, has a passionate interest in the Battlefields of World War I and in particular the connection between them and the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. She has done extensive research in this direction and we were grandly treated to some of the results of this research.

Assisted by Colin Dean on the computer, who had also just "run the machinery" for Ann's talk, Kathleen then took the Great War Memorial at Port Alfred as her starting point for a fascinating trip back into history. Commencing with a map of the "Frontier District" of the Eastern Cape, Kathleen pointed out the towns of Bathurst and Port Alfred, and the hamlets of Salem, Southwell, Clumber, Shaw Park and Coombes. These were the places of origin for the names appearing on the Port Alfred monument. Among these are three sets of brothers and 16 cousins, all aged between 18 and 31, although the youngest was 15 when he went off to war.

Using family photographs, slides and maps, Kathleen then handled each of the fallen in turn, either individually or by family. Space does not permit us to reproduce the full story of each of the 20, but Kathleen was able to bring home vividly the tragedy of these frontier families who lost their sons and many male relatives. By following the course of those young men's short military careers, we also heard of the South West African campaign and then of the campaign against the Sannusi tribesmen in North Africa where, at the Battle of Halazin, Charles Dugmore became the district's first casualty. Most of the twenty served first in German South West Africa. Some also served in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. A number passed through the Borden Training Camp in the UK but inevitably they found themselves on the Western Front in France.

Using maps of this area, Kathleen showed us where these young men were stationed and in action and where they tragically lost their lives. All the old names came together. The Somme, Armentieres, Vimy Ridge, Arras, Cambrai and Messines Ridge and, one by one, the twenty dwindled, their passing recorded by letter, telegram and official forms. The story continued through Montauban, Bernafay Wood, Trones Wood and the epic Delville Wood. Theipval and Butte de Walencourt followed and so on to the end of the War, with one man lost at sea and another on his first air patrol over the frontline of France.

Kathleen's talk was an amazing and interesting work of research and she was also able to strike an emotional chord in the audience with the old photographs of happy families together, letters home to sweethearts and mothers and then newspaper obituaries.

She was thanked by Marjorie Dean for this excellent talk and then Bob adjourned the meeting for the evening, after which refreshments were served in the lobby.

Ivor C Little

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June Journals

If you have still not received your June issue of the Military History Journal please contact Joan Marsh at any of the letterhead contact places. It might be that your subs payment has been incorrectly allocated...

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Put your money (and time!) where your mouth is! - don't just talk about military history - come and actively help needy military veterans:

If you can spare an hour (or more) you will be amply rewarded by lots of interesting chats and kind supervision by convenor Ivan Feinstein - himself an octogenarian. Shifts run from 8-30 to 13-00 and take place at various shopping centres.Contact Ivan at 011-485-5024 or 082-509-7509

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