NEWSLETTER No 397
Tonight's meeting was fortunate to have two of the overseas speakers at the Conference at Dundee. We had a surprise contribution by Martin Everett, Curator of the Royal Welsh Museum at Brecon - the 24th Regiment that fought at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. We saw beautiful pictures of the buildings and contents, including the Colours that were saved by Coghill and Melvill. This was an interesting introduction to an important military museum.
This evening's DDH lecture was by Peter Ardington (from Mandeni) entitled "The Battle of Ndondakusuka", 2 December 1856" (also called "The Battle of the Princes"). This battle took place close to the John Ross Bridge overlooking the Tugela River, between the R102 and Mandeni. It was a battle between two brothers and their followers: Cetshwayo and the Usuthu versus Mbuyazi and the iziGqoza.
Mpande had granted land at the lower Tugela to Mbuyazi, who now moved south with his 30 000 followers. Cetshwayo grabbed this opportunity to eliminate the only threat to his succeeding his father. He took 20 000 warriors, followed Mbuyazi and caught up with him at Ndondakusuka. Mbuyazi and his 7 000 warriors fought a hopeless battle; they were overrun and the helpless women and children were slaughtered in the valley next to the Mathambo stream, close to the R102. Thousands of bodies floated down the Tugela. The body of Mbuyazi was never found.
This was a bloody succession by conflict, between two of the sons of Mpande, precipitated by Mpande himself. Peter pointed out that the maps in the books by Laband and Torlage have errors, the hill Nquzo being labeled Ndulinde. (Those who could not attend this excellent presentation can find information about the battle in "The Washing of the Spears" by Donald Morris, pages 196 - 198.)
The Main Talk was by Dr. Stephen Badsey, who had addressed us in January 2005, on aspects of Normandy, 1944. He is well known as a military historian, and has published over 70 journal articles and books. The title tonight was: "Ninety years on; recent and changing views on World War I". We all had our preconceived expectations about what we would hear. We were wrong; Stephen used a broad brush as he presented his talk and pointed to areas which are being re-examined from the three extreme aspects: Museum and collections of artefacts; Field groups who walk the battle fields and "relive" the battles; Academics, who are unearthing documents and drawing conclusions about causes and outcomes.
At the beginning, it was a European war and most concentrated on the Western Front in France. There are few studies of WWI from the USA. (They only entered in 1917, and fought battles in 1918.) There is now a gathering of international academic historians cooperating on a re-evaluation of the evidence which will prove our previously accepted prejudices to be wrong.
For the old Empire, the war had important effects. Both Canada and Australia fought as separate (national) divisions free of Mother Britain. This generated a strong new national loyalty (with important impacts in WWII at Dieppe and Tobruk). South African troops fought in German South West Africa and Tanganyika but the slaughter of the South African Brigade at Delville Wood would have its effect on South Africa's role in WWII.
It is difficult to believe that the Imperial War Museum originally was built on the idea of "the War to end all Wars", and that people did not expect it to become the wonderful treasure house that it is today. As the years go by, so the veterans, the survivors, die away. We are left with written memoirs (and some recordings).
The attitude of the public, the press and the academics is changing again. The film "Oh What a Lovely War", 1969, is typical of the negative attitude of the time, linked to the war in Vietnam. Field Marshall Bramwell, the last CIGS to have served in WWII, wrote a fine description of the victorious achievements of the British Armies at Amiens in 1918. A reviewer used the term "butcher" about Douglas Haig. A statue to him was erected in London; a vociferous minority want it pulled down. Why? What did Britain "win"? People remember Paschendale and the Somme, and what is gone.
At Verdun, the French army faced mutiny. Defend, yes; attack, no. Did the British army ever face mutiny? The verses of poets like Siegfried Sassoon should have had, but did not have, that effect. The troops did mutiny in the British training camp at Etaples because of the brutal regimen.
The 1930's saw "the battle of the memoirs". These are about what the writers thought at the time. 70 years on, it is time to reassess. Even post WWII, there were no posts in British universities specifically for military historians. This has changed. We now have academics in Britain, France, Germany and USA cooperating and bringing together different points of view. Haig must be important: the large number of recent biographies show this.
Why was the Indian army so large? All the men were volunteers! This was a global war, yet we hear so little of the Eastern Front, the Ottoman Empire; the Balkans. How is the War commemorated? The Cenotaph in London, Poppy Day? No longer is November 11 about the Great War, but about all wars that involved Britain (Malaya, Suez, Falklands, Ulster, Iraq). There are so many myths. Did the Great European War have to happen? Was the Schliefen Plan "cooked up" post 1918 to explain Germany's defeat? How did the myths come about? They are so difficult to give up.
Facing possible defeat on the Western Front, did Britain deliberately embark on the war in Palestine to give Britain a bargaining chip if the armies were driven out at Calais? Look at the cascade effect: Britain, through T.E. Lawrence, promises the Arabs independence; then makes the Balfour Declaration in 1917; promising a Jewish homeland, and then after 1918 gets the Mandate of Palestine and reneges on the promise to the Arabs. The final outcome is the carnage in Gaza, 2009, which we can watch on our TV whilst relaxing in the lounge.
And in those final victorious battles of 1918, was success due to the British improving compared to 1916, or was it due to the Germans deteriorating? And what was the real contribution of the American Army in those battles beginning in September 1918? These are the favourite questions of the revisionist historians. And which is it: 1914/1918 or 1914/1919 as we often see? 1918 was the armistice and "killing" stopped. 1919 was the signing of "peace" at Versailles.
Mike Laing thanked the three speakers. He reminded Martin Everett that the experiences of the 24th played an important role in training SADF Infantry in the 1970"s; and that Peter Ardington brought back memories of how we would drive north over the John Ross bridge yet not be aware of the dreadful carnage on the hillside. The talk by Stephen Badsey was important because he showed how ideas must change as new material is found and how we must be willing to abandon our preconceived notions when faced with the ultimatum of facts.
For 2009 are now due R175 per single and R185 per family.
Anniversaries - at this time in history.
South African Military History Society / email@example.com