South African Military History Society


The average level of competence among Britain's general officers was notoriously low at the high point of British imperialism during the reign of Queen Victoria. Just how low was the subject of committee member Martin Ayers' curtain raiser at the Society meeting on 12th January.

Martin related, in humourous vein, the appalling mistakes made by no less than 11 British generals of the period, ranging from Lord Auckland, who launched the ill-fated Afghan expedition of 1839, which sought to deter the much-feared Russian advance into central Asia, but which only resulted in humiliating defeat, through the almost comic-opera situation that developed between Lords Raglan, Lucan, and Cardigan in the Crimea, to Lord Kitchener, whose handling of the Battle of Paardeberg during the Anglo-Boer War was an outstanding example of military incompetence.

The lesson to be learned from the examples Martin cited -- and doubtless there were many more -- was that it is folly to promote senior officers to high command on seniority alone, and that the afflictions and limitations that come with advancing age can disastrously reduce competence under battle conditions.

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The main talk of the evening was given by Lt.-Colonel Tom Ely on the Imperial Indian Army, the force that succeed and absorbed the army of the East India Company when the British Crown assumed the government of India after the mutiny of the Bengal Army in 1857, and which provided the basis for the post-Independence Indian Army, now one of the largest in the world.

Col. Ely, a sapper, and regular officer of the British Army, was for a few years seconded to the Indian Army after taking part in the Normandy landings in 1944. He described the composition of the Indian Army -- manned exclusively by Indians from the so-called "martial races", and officered mainly by British personnel in its earlier days, but increasingly by Indians as Independence approached; its role in keeping the peace on the ever-troubled North West Frontier with Afghanistan; its relations with the British Army in India, whose main purpose was to maintain internal order; and the part it played in two world wars.

The history of the Indian Army marches in step with the turbulent history of the British on the sub-continent, and Col. Ely's account ranged from the beginning, when the presence in India of "John Company -- as the British East Indian Company was popularly known -- was restricted to coastal trading stations; through the century or so during which the British Empire in India was expanded into the British Indian Empire; to the "great Calcutta killings" of 1946 and on to Independence in 1947, when the country was partitioned and possibly half a million people were massacred in the subsequent exchange of populations.

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9th February - Prof. Ian Copley - The Mystery of Lt. Pilkington
- 2nd Battle of Silkaatsnek

9th March - K Couldridge - The Bloody Fighting 95th
- Fighter Aces (Video) or lecture


9th February - Colonel Franz Verfuss - The new SANDF and the new SA

Cape Town:

9th February - Maj. Anthony Gordon - The wreck of the Birkenhead

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The video on the Museum and its work has been completed and is now available at a price of R79,95, plus R8 p&p if not collected. Please contact Tony Spiers at the Museum on 646-5513

George Barrell

(011) 787-1524

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