South African Military History Society


Past meeting - Johannesburg
The fortunes of war have always defied logical explanation, and the subject of the curtain raiser at the 13th March meeting, "The Unluckiest Divisions in WW1", detailed the remarkable misfortunes of three British divisions caught up in the German Army's March 1918 offensive on the Western Front. These were the 21st, the 25th and the 50th divisions, which, despite being moved about from one section of the front to another, consistently found themselves facing each successive German attack.
The speaker, Martin Ayres, described how Ludendorf's armies, reinforced with troops freed from the Eastern Front by the Russian surrender, helped by the weather conditions, and using infiltration tactics never before experienced on the Western Front, broke the British trench lines and for the first time in over three years were able to penetrate deeply into allied-held ground.
The three divisions were among those sent to support the troops retreating from the initial German onslaught, but were themselves forced back in the seven days it took before the attack petered out. Their remnants were then reinforced by raw recruits and sent north, where they found themselves facing the second stage of the German offensive and suffered the same fate as they had done previously. They were gassed, blasted by high explosives, and driven from their defences by storm troopers armed with the first machine pistols and a new weapon, the flame-thrower.
When this phase of the German offensive had spent its strength the three divisions were sent to join the French Sixth Army in a section of the front where it was believed they would be left alone to recuperate and train their replacements. Unfortunately, it was the very place Ludendorf had chosen for his next attack.
The Germans had planned for complete surprise, and were aided by the stupidity of the French commander in packing all his forces into the front-line trenches. The result was virtual annihilation, and speedy retreat for what was left of the seven British and French divisions involved, with the 2nd Devons sacrificing themselves to a man to allow the rest of their division to withdraw.
By the time the attack ended, the 50th division had been wiped out and the 21st and 25th, though badly mauled, had held fast on the flanks of the retreat. All three divisions were later rebuilt in time to take part in the allied counter offensive that eventually ended that "war to end all wars".

The main lecture of the evening, on the Castles of England -- also including those of Scotland and Wales -- was given by Louis Wildenboer, and was splendidly illustrated.
Despite the fact that the last successful armed invasion of Britain took place more than 900 years ago, the land of Britain has been much fought over through many centuries, and is littered with the remains of fortifications dating back before the Romans.
After his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror parcelled out his conquered lands to his followers and allowed them to build castles, or fortified strongholds, to overawe the vanquished Saxons. He brought with him from France the latest ideas in castle building. These were to erect a tower, or "keep", on a piece of raised ground called a "motte" and to build a walled forecourt known as a "bailey" to accommodate retainers and livestock.
The castle was a dwelling, an armoury, a weapon manufactory, a centre for administering justice, a prison, and a refuge for the local people in times of danger.
The first Norman castles were probably built of wood, but such structures were later replaced by stone towers and ring walls strong enough to sustain protracted sieges and resist the various siege weapons and devises developed over the centuries. These varied from catapults, to the huge sling known as a Trabuchet, to mining, scaling ladders and battering rams. Each in its turn was countered by developments in defensive techniques.
There was no fixed pattern for castle building, however. As time went on advantage would be taken of local conditions, such as outcrops of rock, the presence of a lake and the availability of water, or easy access from the sea. The main criterion, to ensure the maximum possible security, was achieved right up to the time gunpower made castles obsolete, although much building was also done for decorative effect.
A common feature of virtually all castles was a strong gatehouse flanked by towers and blocked by a heavy wooden door and one or more of those iron or wooden gratings known as a "portcullis". Some might have a drawbridge across a moat or ditch, and a "sallyport", or small gate in the ring walls, through which the defenders could launch their own attacks on the besiegers. Protected in this way even a small garrison could hold out for a considerable time against a much larger besieging force.
The building and extension of castles could only be done under licence from the king, who himself would be no mean castle builder. William the Conqueror built the famous Tower of London to command his capital, London, and to function as a royal residence and prison. Edward 1 built numerous fortress castles in Wales, such as Conway, Caernavon and Harlech, to subdue and overawe the Welsh.
All the medieval kings either built castles or added to existing ones, an excellent example being Windsor Castle where modern extensions are still used as a royal residence.
Castle keeps were cold, cramped, uncomfortable, and frequently more convenient living quarters would be erected against the ring walls. Many of these were magnificently appointed. With the advent of gunpowder many castles were turned into residencies and the inconveniences associated with their original defensive purpose were considerably modified. These now provide picturesque attractions for tourists, equipped as they often are with their original dungeons and instruments of torture. Others were wrecked, or "slighted", by the Parliamentary forces as punishment for being held for the king during the English civil wars of the 17th century. These are now no more than picturesque ruins, although still impressive as examples of medieval military architecture.


10th April Annual General Meeting / ML Capt Ivor Little The Scottish Navy
8th May CR George Barrell The experiences of a teenager in the blitz / ML Louis Wildenboer The battleship
10th April Talk and discussion with Maj Gen Phil Pretorius and his panel from the National Museum of Military History
Cape Town
10th April Annual General Meeting, followed by a talk by Sq-Ldr Patrick Wells
George Barrell (Scribe)
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CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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