South African Military History Society


The Society Evening of 9th June was opened by Mr. Hamish Paterson who presented a well illustrated talk on Military Load Bearing equipment, i.e. uniforms and packs.

Roman soldiers were sometimes referred as Mario's Mules since they had to carry everything they required themselves. But then soldiers of all armies all over the world up to the present have never been exempted from this chore, especially the British soldier who at one time had been forced to endure Trotter's Terror, an especially evil kit-construction, leading to respiratory problems.

Although modern equipment has become more practical over the years, soldiers are still required to carry packs of between 30 to 40 kg, no mean feat when required to fight with it.

The main speaker of the evening was Prof.I.B. Copley, who presented his paper covering the 1st battle of Silkaatsnek on 11th July 1990.

After the fall of Pretoria on June 5th 1990, the British forces found themselves in command of most strategic points but with an enormously extended line of communications across extremely rough country.

Conditions were ideal for guerilla warfare conducted by the Boer fighters who knew the terrain intimately and adapted to the harsh circumstances using the countryside to their advantage. The remainder of the Anglo-Boer war was conducted in this manner: thinly spread trained troops with cumbersome trains of equipment pitted against highly mobile partisan horsemen.

The 11th July marked the beginning of this type of war with four Boer actions leading to three successes, of which Silkaatsnek was but one. On this day, General de la Rey, who had commanded the northern sector of the Boer forces at Diamond Hill,(fought on 11th and 12th June)and travelling north of Silkaatsnek towards Rustenburg with a force of 200 men, received reports from his scouts that the Nek was only lightly held by British forces, and he decided to attack.

The British troops were under the command of Lt.Col.The Hon. W.P. Alexander and Col. H.R. Roberts and were supported by two guns and one machinegun. The troops had arrived on 9th and 10th July to take up defensive positions, but due to late arrivals and a wrong interpretation of the kopjes and mountain shoulders around them, Col.Roberts did not arrange his defences and pickets to maximum advantage.

During the night ot the 11th, Boer troops krept into positions up the mountains and along the shoulders on both sides of the nek. Early next morning sharpshooters opened fire and surprised the British defenders who then had a hard time fighting against an almost invisible enemy while their guns did not have much opportunity to engage.

There seems to have been much confusion among the defenders with soldiers leaving their positions, abandoning the heliograph, their only means of communication with H.Q. at Pretoria. This left Col. Alexander in the dark and, although he heard firing from the Nek, he remained inactive.

Throwing their own guns and machine guns into the battle, the Boer force began a frontal attack from the cover of thick bush and this forced the British troops to retreat, leaving their own guns behind which, since not spiked, were turned and used on the enemy by the Boers.

Sporadic firing from both sides continued during the day with the Boers eventually gaining the upper hand. Col. Roberts, himself wounded, realised the hopelessness of his situatiom and, with 70 casualties on his hands, decided to surrender. Nevertheless, some officers and troops managed to escape during the following night.

The ensuing board of enquiry found both Col. Roberts and Alexander to blame for the debacle at Silkaatsnek and were fired by Lord Roberts.

Apart from the effect on morale on both sides, particularly for the Boers, the battle itself has not been accorded great importance by most historians and so slipped into historical oblivion.

Mr. David Panagos thank Prof. Copley for his lavishly illustrated talk including aerial photographs, and for his detailed and exhaustive historic detective work in unearthing all the facts.

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The Chairlady announced that the annual Roderick G. Murchison Memorial prize has been awarded to Gill Vernon and Denver Webb for their article in the June 1991 Journal: A strange medley of filth and confusion: The History of Waterloo Bay and the Fish River Mouth. Congratulations for a well deserved award.

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The Friends of the Museum advertise a special evening on 5th August with the theme: The Gulf War. There will be a charge of R 10.- per head.

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The Ladysmith self-drive tour will take place with the following itinerary:

Sat. 4th July at 8 AM. Theme: The siege of Ladysmith. To get siege area into perspective: Start siege Museum & then visit Cove Redoubt, Rooifort, View from Convent Hill & Intombi Cemetery. (Guide Maureen Richards.)

Picnic Lunches: Burgher Memorial.

Afternoon: Ladysmith besieged: Visit positions of "Long Toms"/Boer artillery: Umbulwana (or Lombard's Kop/Gun Hill/Pepworth). (Guides: Steve Watt & Maureen Richards.)

Evening: Get-together.

Sun.5th July. Battle of Wagon Hill: Visit Caesar's Camp (Burgher Memorial), Wagon Hill & Cemetery & "All Saint's Church. (Guide: Maureen Richards)

Accomodation will be at the Army base. Cost: R 25.- per day, per head.

Dinner 5 - 6 p.m., breakfast 6 - 7 a.m. Sunday no breakfast but Tea at 10 a.m. and Lunch at 12 noon. Jacket & Tie.

The Army Base is situated on the right as one drives in from Harrismith to Ladysmith. Report to main-gate (duty room) for allocation of accomodation.

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Future Meetings:

9th July. Cmd. & Mrs. Fordred. Dogs of War.
Observation balloons.

13th August. Dr. W. Murton. The Rhine Cauldron.
An airborne soldier's experience.

9th July. Mr. A. Hall. The Boston Tea Party.
13th Aug. Evening Outing to visit 8th Armoured Div. HQ. Old Fort Road.
(Enqu.: Mrs. T.v.d. Watt, Tel. 764 2970

Cape Town
For information please tel. 617 441 - after hours.

John Mahncke (011) 453 63 53

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