South African Military History 


Newsletter No 58 July 2009/Nuusbrief Nr 58 Julie 2009

SAMHSEC regrets the passing of fellow member Doug Boyder on 24 May 2009.

SAMHSEC's annual meeting in Grahamstown on 13 Jun 2009 was preceded by a morning tour of Sidbury Park, Assegai Bush Post and Highlands, organised by Alan Bamford. Attendance by PE members was up from previous years and was much appreciated.

As Richard Tomlinson was not available to present the next in his series on South African Fortifications, Ian Copley stepped into the breach with a presentation on Hartebeespoort Forts: Then and Now. Forts along the Magaliesberg were controlled from Rietfontein West - a fortified communications post with a garrison, which also functioned as a staging post for convoys between Pretoria and Western Transvaal. Rietfontein (also known as Baden-Powell's HQ Camp) specifically controlled the two important passes over the Magaliesberg - Silkaatsnek and Commando Nek - as well as the bridge over the Crocodile River linking Pretoria and Rustenburg. Some photograph (mostly taken by Lt. Gibbes of the Northumberland Fusiliers) of the camp and its fortifications taken in August 1901 were compared with present-day views. A metal (Rice-pattern) fort, similar to one at Rietfontein, at Silkaatsnek with the Lincolnshire Regt examining guard in action and a system of 5 blockhouses at Commando Nek were shown with their original condition recorded by the Royal Engineers, Wilson's 'With the Flag to Pretoria' and more Gibbes views, compared with their present ruinous state. Supply by mule train and cable way was demonstrated. The most common feature of present views was the huge increase in vegetation compared with 100 years ago. The presentation concluded with aerial views of an impressive zigzag mule track to the 5th Blockhouse at Commando Nek and an unusual photograph of it under construction.

Yoland Irwin's curtain raiser was on "One Fourteenth of an Elephant" - a book by Ian Denys Peek (ISBN 0-553-81657-8). The author was captured at the fall of Singapore in 1942 and a POW until 1945. The title refers to the Japanese view that an elephant could do the work of 14 men. He was one of the many POWs put to work to build the railway from Thailand to Burma. The book outlines the route which he took, the camps in which he was housed and the conditions under which the POWs were kept and worked. The story depicts the conditions in the camps, the food they had to eat, the friendships developed and the hardships endured. More than 25% of the POWs used to build this "Death Railway" died as a result of disease, malnutrition or accidents. The main diseases were cholera, malaria, dysentery and malnutrition conditions like Beriberi (Vitamin B1 shortage - Thiamine). Others died as a result of amputations or surgery with few anaesthetics, painkillers or antibiotics. There was very little protein in the POWs' diet and fresh fruit was only seen when locals came to sell food. The POWs were paid a small amount of money, so on the occasions that food was available to purchase, they did so. Other luxury items, like toilet rolls and soap, were also available, although at highly inflated prices. This book, by no means the only on the subject, is highly enjoyable and a fascinating read.

The main lecture by Alan Bamford was a sequel to his lecture in July 2008 on the Bishops War Record in the 19th Century (see SAMHSEC Newsletter 47, August 2008) and covered the Bishops First World War Record. Bishops has a Chapel built to commemorate 110 Old Diocesans who gave their lives in the war. The Bishops War Record, with foreword by John X Merriman, OD and former Prime Minister of the Cape, records names of 800 old boys and staff on active service, of which 110 paid the supreme sacrifice, 150 were wounded and 144 received honours and awards. Capt Oswald Reid received the VC for gallantry in Mesopotamia in March 1917. The 800 servicemen came from a school where numbers averaged only 200 per year between 1886 and 1911.

Alan detailed ODs participation in the war, year by year, giving salient actions and turning points and highlighting exploits of ODs recorded in the School Magazines. Maj Eric St. Leger of the 16th Royal Irish, cut off at Cambrai in 1914, with 7 men made their way at night through German lines. In 1915, Charles Bull described the war at the Belgian front. Jack Currie told of service in German South West Africa. Lt Douglas Robb of the 17th London Regiment described the bombardment of Neuve Chapelle. Six months later, on 26 September 1915, he was killed in action at Loos. Lt Pat Smith of the Royal Scots Fusiliers wrote from Rouen, Flanders about death and destruction. By 1916, 7 more ODs had died. The number on active service had risen above 500. News of Deville Wood came from Ronald Rawbone, 1st SAI Division, who was hit in the right arm and saved from death by a piece of shell going through his haversack. Norman Fenix survived a head wound in Delville Wood but was wounded again on October 12 after going over the top. He lay in no man's land for a day, but died of wounds at Rouen 4 days later. Bishops was praised for its exemplary number of volunteers as 30 recruits departed from Cape Town in June 1917. Already 700 of the Bishops 800 were in uniform and the list of fallen had risen to 54. Lt Edward Hare died on 24 March 1917 in aerial combat. Lt J. D. Wilson of the Indian Cavalry raided an enemy trench with another officer and 10 men and was awarded the MC. Wilson died in November 1918 of malaria and dysentery in Palestine. As 1918 dawned, Lt Harold Goodall commanded a trench mortar battery of the Royal Field Artillery. He later became Bishops' first casualty after Hindenberg's spring offensive commenced on 21 March. This offensive claimed 10 ODs - two captains, five lieutenants, two NCOs and a Private. Reg Hands died on 18 April, succumbing to gas. Lt Girdlestone was killed in a mid-air collision. The magazine editorial of December 1918 'rejoices with the civilized world at the glorious victory of Britain and her gallant allies'. The final cruelty, the influenza epidemic, struck and claimed more lives.

Half year membership for half of the normal subscription is available from 1 July 2009 for the rest of the year.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on Monday 13 July 2009 at the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. Richard Tomlinson will present the next in the series on South African Fortifications. The curtain raiser will be on the 25 pdr gun howitzer by Pat Irwin. The main lecture will be on the 9th Scottish Division by John Stevens.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

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