South African Military History Society

NEWSLETTER -- February 1997

Past meeting - Johannesburg
The history of British military action in India dominated the society's 12th December meeting. The curtain raiser was given by committee member Felix Machanik, who described how he had brought the all-but-forgotten remains of South Africa's first VC, Lt-Col Joseph Petrus Hendrik Crowe, from London's neglected West Norwood Cemetery for honourable reinterment in his home country.

Crowe was born in January 1826 at Uitenhage, the youngest son of a British father and an Afrikaans mother. In 1846 he joined the 78th Regiment, later the Seaforth Highlanders, and left for India the following year where he served the next 10 years in Bombay. After a short period of service in Persia he returned to India at the outbreak of the Mutiny in 1857 and, under the command of Maj-Gen Havelock was awarded his VC for "Distinguished and Gallant Service" at Boorzeke Chowkee. He was wounded at the relief of Lucknow.

Seeking promotion he transfered to the 10th Regiment (Lincolnshires) in 1858 and subsequently served in South Africa on the frontier and as Commandant of Port Elizabeth and Fort Beaufort. Later he saw service in the East Indies, Japan, China and Malaya, and was promoted to Lt-Col in 1875.

He retired after 29 years in the army and died at Penge in Surrey in 1876. His remains were exhumed in 1976, and 100 years after his death he was buried with considerable ceremony and in the presence of living relatives at the MOTHS Garden of Rememberance at Uitenhage.

The main lecture was given by society deputy-chairman George Barrell on the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

The British commercial presence in India started at Surat in 1600 and later spread to Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta in 1690. The struggle to fill the power vacuum left by the decline of the Mogul Empire from the early 18th century saw the emergence of the British as the dominant power some 50 or so years later. The British subsequently began to interfere with long-established Indian customs, in particular the caste system, in the process of imposing imperial order on feudal chaos.

By the mid-19th century this process of westernising India had caused so much resentment that the introduction of the famed "greased cartridge" for the new Enfield rifle was sufficient to trigger a mutiny in the army of the Bengal Presidency -- which included most of the sub-continent north of the Deccan Peninsula -- that was soon joined by numerous disaffected landowners and their rentinues.

The mutiny began on 10th May 1857 at Meerut, a large military cantonment 40 miles north of Delhi, and was accompanied by much slaughter. It subsequently spread throughout the entire Indo-Gangetic plain, with numerous atrocities being committed on both sides. The European and Eurasian populations were massacred at Delhi, Cawnpore and Jansi, and at Lucknow the Residency came under seige.

After a long and uncomfortable wait for siege guns and reinforcements the British recaputed Delhi in the following September. A relief column under Maj-Gen Sir Henry Havelock reached Lucknow a few days later, although only to join the besieged. The new British C-in-C, General Sir Colin Campbell, arrived from Calcutta in the November and ordered the evacuation of the residency. He fell back on Cawnpore and eliminated all resistance there before recapturing Lucknow. The leader of the mutiny, Nana Sahib, eluded capture by fleeing into Nepal.

After the mutiny India came under the direct rule of the British Crown, and began the slow process of introducing India to self-government. It merged the armies of the three presidencies into a single Indian Army recruited from "martial races", meaning people who were more inclined to put loyalty and professionalism above politics. This army served loyalty through two world wars and has proved itself a unifying and strengthening force since Indian independence in 1947.

In the curtain raiser for the first meeting of 1997 Professor Ian Copley explained in words and pictures how he and David Panagos had located three new Anglo-Boer War forts in the Haatbeestpoort area.

After establishing its headquarters at Rietfontein West Military Camp at Ifafi on 1st January 1901, the Lincolnshire Regiment began garrisoned all the Magaliesberg forts including those built previously by the Northumberland Fusiliers.

After locating the first of these forts at South Hill (two miles south), and following a supply road which forked to another fort "in between", a third fort was located literally hanging over the Crocodile as it passes through its gorge in the Witwatersberg. From records of a visit to the region by General Barton it was confirmed that this must be Fort Anderson.

As no such officer of that name served in any of the regiments known to have been in the area, it was deduced that it must have been named after a "Bible reader" named Anderson who was temporarily attached to the Fusiliers and who tended the wounded at Nooitgedacht and distinguished himself under fire. Not being eligible for a military decoration it is surmised he had a fort named after him instead.

The Battle of Monte Casino -- or more correctly the four battles of Monte Casino -- was the name given to the repeated allied attempts to force the Germans' formidable Gustav Line defences across the width of Italy between Naples and Rome, and which lasted almost five months through the severe winter of 1944 to early May of that year. Under the highly competent command of Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring the Germans not only succeeded in slowing the allied advance up the leg of Italy. Their determined defence also led to the cancellation of a planned amphibious landing in the south of France which might have materially shortened the war.

In addition, it resulted in the total destruction of the Monte Casino monastery, the home of the ancient Benedictine order and one of the great gems of Renaissance architecture, in an action that remains a source of controversy among military historians to this day.

Monte Casino was also a battle in which many South Africans took part, a few of them present on the evening, as members of possibly the most multinational allied army that fought in World War Two. In addition to the American and British components it included Indians, Gurkhas, New Zealanders, Poles, French and Jews. All were under the command of the British General Sir Harold Alexander.

In a lavishly illustrated and detailed talk, committee member Heinrich Janzan described the problems the allies faced in their efforts to force the strategically located defenses of the Gustav line. These centred on the town of Monte Casino and incorporated the numerous natural features of mountainous country, fast-flowing rivers and flooded valleys. He also described the failure of the massive amphibious landing at Anzio, north of the Gustav Line, which it was intended should sever the Germans' lines of communication and take their positions in the rear. Instead, it was so effectively sealed off by a few hastily assembled German divisions that it was at one time believed it might have to be evacuated in an operation reminiscent of Dunkirk.

The first three assaults on the German positions along the Gustav line all ended in failure and heavy casualties, with the appalling weather, the natural features of the region, and the ruined town and monastery all providing excellent opportunities for the hard-fighting German defenders. Finally, in a fourth assault, lasting 22 days and ending only on 18th May 1944, the allies succeeded in breaking through and opened the road to Rome and to eventual victory in the north of Italy many months later.


Johannesburg: 13th Feb
CR Rev N R Campbell Did the Boers have chaplains?
ML Hamish Paterson The Fetterman Disaster of 1866 in the American Indian wars
Johannesburg: 13th March
CR Martin Ayres The Unluckiest Division in World War 1
ML Loius Wildenboer The English Castle
Durban: 13th Feb
Nick Steele The use of mounted units in colonial wars
Cape Town
13th Feb Cmd W E Bisset The South African Navy
George Barrell (Scribe)
(011) 791-2581

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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