South African Military History Society

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The Chairman, Bob Smith, opened the meeting by welcoming all present, particularly the overseas visitors and the large contingent of ex-Rhodesians. He then reported on the illness of our former Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, who was battling a bit in hospital, and then asked all present to stand in tribute to Lionel Wulfsohn, one of our founder members who passed away recently.

The usual notices were then given out, including advance notice of a film show at the Museum, the Military Tattoo and the forthcoming Anglo-Boer War Conference in Ladysmith in January. A tour of Nooitgedacht Battlefield is being organised for October or November.

Bob then introduced the first speaker, Mrs Marjorie Dean, the well-known travel writer and broadcaster and a member of the national committee. Her tropic was "America's Florence Nightingales - The Women who cared for the Wounded in the Civil War".

Ably assisted by her husband, Colin, on the computer, Marjorie then gave us a well-illustrated talk about these remarkable women. As was the case in the Crimea War five years previously, the beginning of the American Civil War proved the medical services to be hopelessly inadequate with no provision made for battlefield medicine or hospital care. Approximately 3 000 women served as volunteer nurses or assistants in this conflict, but very little is known about them or their experiences.

However, a few stood out because of the magnitude of their service in a time when a woman's place was definitely not on the battlefield. Marjorie then gave brief, thumbnail sketches of some of these extraordinary women, starting with Clara Barton, probably the best known of them all. A well-educated woman, she gave up a good job in the US Patent Office to organise a relief programme for soldiers. She became more and more involved with the Union Army, served at Fredericksburg and the Battle of the Wilderness, eventually becoming Superintendent of Nurses. She went on to become the founder of the American Red Cross.

Dorothea Dix, also a Superintendent of Nurses, filled the same role as Florence Nightingale. Her specialty before the war was the care of the insane but she stands out as the organiser of a national nursing corps and for her organisational ability.

Mary Anne Bickerdyke, a professional nurse and homeopath, was very much more "hands on" and closer to the troops, working in field hospitals and on battlefields, becoming known at "Mother Bickerdyke" and chief of nursing on the staff of Generals Grant and Sherman. Equally famous was Harriet Ross Tubman, a former slave who, after an exciting career as an abolitionist, took charge of nursing requirements for black soldiers and freed slaves. The author Louisa May Alcott and the suffragette Mary Livermore also played important roles while Sally Louisa Tompkins had the unusual distinction of being the only commissioned woman in the Confederate Army, being known as "Captain Sally".

Marjorie went on to handle Rosanna Osterman, a wealthy socialite who used her home as a Confederate Army hospital, and Annie Etheridge, the "sergeant in petticoats" from Michigan. Annie served at Gettysburg, Bloody Angle, Cold Harbour, Belle Plains and Hatcher's Run, earning a medal for heroism. Much of what we know about nurses in this war comes from the pages of the diarist Kate Cumming, who went right through the war as a Confederate nurse.

Using Mary Tepe as an example, Marjorie then dealt with the role of canteen girls (vivandieres) as nurses as well as the important role played by nuns. Marjorie finished off with a tribute to all these brave women, written by Ellen Mitchell, herself a nurse in the carnage of this first modern war.

After thanking Marjorie, Bob introduced the next speaker. This was Professor Tim Stapleton, Professor of African History at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. He is also a research associate with the University of Zimbabwe and has taught history at Rhodes University and Fort Hare, as well as being the author of several books. The subject of his talk was "African Police and Soldiers in Southern Rhodesia (1923-65)"

With Colin Dean still in charge of the computer illustrations, Professor Stapleton took us slowly, carefully and, with the ease of a practiced academic, through the social history of this important military group.

Starting in Matabeleland in 1893 and the Mashonaland Rebellion in 1894 where African troops and policemen first made their appearance in Southern Rhodesia, we followed the ups and downs of these forces through a series of excellent illustrations. Although most remained loyal during a mutiny in 1896, some African soldiers did mutiny and the fear of this recurring influenced the use of African soldiers and policemen in the thinking of the European settlers for years afterward.

By 1915 there were approximately 3 500 African policemen in the ranks, many of whom transferred to the Rhodesian Native Regiment and served with distinction in that unit. At the end of World War I the regiment was disbanded, only to reappear in 1940 as the Rhodesian African Regiment, which served in Italy and Burma, after which most of its members were demobbed in 1946. With independence in 1980 the regiment was re-activated.

What motivated these African soldiers and policemen to serve in the colonial forces? Many say the money, but in fact other factors such as the attraction of the uniform; a certain amount of local prestige; family tradition and, surprisingly, patriotism all played a part. On the whole, however, these loyal and simple soldiers were in many cases considered traitors by their fellow Africans, and even outcasts. However, they were a proud national institution and, with the passage of time, the education supplied by both the police and the army had effect and by 1933 most members were literate and this is attested to by the large body of literature, in the form of letters and diaries written by the soldiers serving in Burma in 1944.

After World War II they began to form an integral part of the urban population. Their education continued and an African policemen's magazine "Ma Polise" was founded in 1963. Members embraced a middle-class lifestyle and teachers were hired to provide schooling for their children in garrison camps and camp life included band performances, beauty pageants and the formation of Boy Scout troops.

An African Police conference was held in 1941 and this brought about many of the above changes, plus improvements to the uniforms worn. Many soldiers and policemen served for 15 or 30 years and these veterans were highly sought after for good jobs in the civil service and as commercial farmers. This in turn created an African elite and the beginnings of a solid middle class. This has stood the country well in the years that have followed since independence.

At the conclusion of Professor Stapleton's talk Bob called for questions, which gave rise to further interesting discussion. Bob then called upon Lynn Mantle to thank the speaker, after which refreshments were served in the lobby.

Ivor C Little

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