South African Military History Society


Tzar PETER THE GREAT of Russia, (1689-1725) was the subject of Dr. Felix Machanik's curtain raiser on our evening of 10th March. Having been interested in military matters from a tender age, Peter was brought up in this tradition. The Army, and later on the Navy, which he created almost from scratch, remained his main concern. He was a man of great stature (nearly 2 m tall), ruled with an iron fist, drank excessively, and had a violent temper. During his reign he had tens of thousands put to death who resisted or displeased him. His main antagonists were the Russian church and the aristocracy who refused to accept his modern ideas. But he was also a "workaholic", and studied continously: shipbuilding to construct his navy, astronomy and geography for navigation, surgery to assist his wounded soldiers in the field, and administration to overhaul his corrupt government. He visited many European countries to learn more, often under an assumed name. His reforms were drastic, among them he introduced an all-encompassing tax system from taxing drinking water to beards and salt to coffins. He was always short of money for his many projects.

Peter fought many battles, conquering the Turkish fort at Asow in 1696. In 1701 he lost at the Narwa, but won against the Swedes at Poltawa in 1709. It gave him control of the eastern Baltic. He lost Asow to the Turks once again in 1711, but in 1722/23 wrested the north coast of the Caspian sea from the Persians. This effectively ended the Turkish dominance in that region. To control - and defend the vast Russian empire, he built battleships at Voronezh on the Don, 500 miles from the sea, and later maintained a navy presence in the Baltic and the Mediterranean. He also increased the output of iron ore and founded the iron works at Tula to produce small and large guns. (Felix brought one of the smaller examples to show us the workmanship.) Realising that trade and industry had to be developed, he encouraged private enterprise and imported artisans from foreign countries to train his own people. And he never forgot his soldiers, giving cash awards for long service and bravery, and presenting medals for officers and ordinary soldiers. He instituted old-age pensions for them and loyal servants, as well as their widows and orphans. For the building of his capital city, St. Petersburg, which was also called the Venice of the north, he sent a corps of 30.000 labourers from Moscow. Peter the Great reformed and rebuilt Russia from a backward, riot torn and illiterate country to modern state and set it firmly on the map of Europe.

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The main lecture was presented by Louis Wildenboer who spoke about the Anglo-Boer War battles at Magersfontein (11.12.1699) and Paardeberg (17.2.1900), which followed on the battles at Belmont (23.11.), Graspan (25.11.), and Modder River (26.11.) Anyone who has ever tried to describe battles in logical and chronological order will appreciate that this is extremely difficult and frustrating, for the speaker as well as for the audience. (And for the Scribe, who has to chose between enjoying the talk or writing down details in darkness for his Newsletter. This time the Scribe decided to enjoy.)

Louis succeeded admirably in keeping his listeners spellbound, and with the help of clear maps explained the two battles between the Boers and the British effortlessly.

If Magersfontein was a victory for the Boer's for all the right reasons, (positive reconnaissance, use of the high ground, strategic planning, good leadership) with the British failing in all these departments, Paardeberg became a British victory and a rout for the Boers. The reason was that this time the British created the advantages and employed their troops accordingly.

Using excellent slides - then and now - Louis took us to the battlefields, introduced us to the Boer and British commanders and gave us character descriptions of them, warts and all. He also followed up on their careers and what happened to them after the war.

A series of comparative charts listing types of weapons, guns, troop strengths and losses completed the interesting lecture, and the vote of thanks by Terry Leaver was endorsed by hearty applause.

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Next Meetings:
14th April 26th Annual General Meeting
Bruce Green: The Origins of Scottish Military Uniforms

19th May John Mahncke: A German POW in Egypt
Henk Loots : Collecting and Researching Medals

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The Johannesburg Historical Foundation announces a full day Anglo-Boer-War-Tour to the Magaliesberg on 17th April. For further information please contact: Alan Bamford at 646-41 79 or the Chairman at 453 63 53.

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Members Corner:
In 1944 three Junkers Ju 290 A-S (4-engine heavy bomber prototypes) of the Luftwaffe, undertook a round trip from Germany or Poland non-stop to Manchuria, a distance of about 12.000 km one way, apparently to collect a load of scarce non-ferrous metals. John Mahncke would like to hear from any member who has information on this remarkable feat. His research in Germany has drawn a blank.

JOHN MAHNCKE (Chairman & Scribe)
(011) 453 63 53

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