South African Military History Society


Past meeting - Johannesburg
Non-combatants can often play as vital a role in a military situation as the combatants themselves. This was certainly true of the Zion Mule Corp, whose service at Gallipoli in 1915 was the subject of the curtain raiser given by Felix Machanik at the society's 13th December meeting.

Russia declared war on Turkey in November 1914, whereupon the Turks ordered all the Jews of Tel Aviv, who were mostly of Russian origin, to leave the city immediately or be executed. Around 11 500 Jews fled to Alexandria, where the British and Egyptian governments offered them refuge. Under the leadership of Vladimir Zev Jabotinsky, a former journalist, and the one-armed Josef Trumpledor, the Russian Army's first Jewish officer, the idea was born to form a regiment to help the British in the conquest of Palestine.
The British rejected the offer of armed assistance, but supported the formation of a corp of muleteers to help supply the allied armies fighting on the arid Gallipoli peninsula. Thus was formed the Zion Mule Corp, which eventually comprised 500 volunteers and did sterling work in that disastrous campaign. Few of them had ever handled a mule before, lives nor been under fire.
When the campaign ended the respect gained for the service and bravery of the Mule Corp helped persuade the British Government to allow the formation of a Jewish unit in the British Army. This eventually expanded to become the Jewish Legion that fought with General Allenby in the liberation of Palestine.

Truth is well known to be the first casualty in war. Public attitudes are deliberately conditioned and frequently manipulated by the varying stories told and the omissions, selections, deceptions and simple lies justified on political and strategic grounds. Public emotions are appealed to through popular songs, poetry and the inspiring pronouncements of political and military leaders.
The main talk of the evening was given by society member W Murton on the use of words and music in war. It was lavishly illustrated with extracts from poems and speeches, and by tape recordings of music from the two world wars.
Many of the impressions of wartime events prove extremely durable, and often find a place in history. An example is the story of the seige of Jericho, when the walls are purported to have came tumbling down to the sound of trumpets. Thus was extolled the power of Joshua, the instrument of the Lord, and the fact that the hapless citizens of Jericho were thereupon slaughtered is conveniently forgotten.
Popular music is particularly evocative of patriotic emotion in wartime, and along with poetry can express the feelings of self-preservation, the need for comforting support, and pride in self and nation that dominate in wartime. Moreover, they are frequently the best indicators of the scale of these emotions.
The talk ended with a discussion of some of the musical instruments of war and an extract from an emotional account of the bombing of Hiroshima.

It is one of the consolations of a colonised people that they invariably make a cultural impact on those who colonise them, and this was certainly true of the British conquest of the Zulus. In the curtain raiser to the lecture meeting of 15th January society committee member the Venerable Russell Campbell explained the impact the Zulus had on the British using the example of the Reverend George Smith, one of the heroes of Rourke's Drift.
The Zulus had a dramatic effect on British society in two ways. By convincing Bishop Colenso that the Bible could not be accepted as literal truth they influenced religious life in Britain itself, and through their victory at Isandhlwana in January 1879 they had a direct impact on British military thinking.
Initially, as an Anglican Priest in the Diocese of Natal, and later as a Chaplain to the Colonial Volunteers, in which capacity he was at Rourke's Drift in the famous battle there, the Reverend George Smith had first-hand experience of how both these Zulu influences worked themselves out. He is shown in two of the famous painting of the Rourke's Drift battle as working tirelessly to keep the beseiged supplied with ammunition, although he himself did not bear arms.
The life and fame of this one man brought home to both sides the reality of the colonial experience.

The history of codes used in warfare can be traced back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, although it has only been in the two world wars this century that their use has been mechanised. The breaking by British mathematicians of the famous German Enigma coding system was the theme of the main lecture given by society committee member Colin Dean.
The simplest form of code, taking one alphabetical letter to represent another, becomes progressively more complicated and subject to error as the number of alphabets used increases. The solution to this problem has been to use machines employing rotors to increase the choice of alphabets. All that is required of the operators is to set up the machines according to prior instructions and coded messages can be transmitted between them with a choice of alphabets for each letter "longer by far than the complete works of Shakespeare, War and Peace, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Don Quixote, the Canterbury Tales and Paradise Lost, all put together".
This was the capability of the Germans' famous Enigma machine of WW2, a development of an America invention of 1917, and used in the inter-war years for conveying commercial traffic. How to break the coded messages transmitted by Enigma became a matter of survival for Britain when the U-boats using them were threatening to sever the country's ocean lifelines.
A Codes and Cipher School had been set up in 1930 at Bletchley Park, 80km north-west of London, and the task of breaking and reading the Enigma messages was entrusted to a team of brilliant mathematicians, mainly from Cambridge University, and led by a tragic genius named Alan Turing.
The interception operation was codenamed Ultra. Building on pioneering work done in pre-war Poland, and using a combination of techniques and insights, the team was able, throughout the war years, to decipher a high proportion of Enigma traffic in sufficient time to be of use to the allied war effort on land and in the air, but especially against the German navy's U-boats in the Atlantic.

Mrs Eileen Song (011) 432-0582 has a collect of odd volume of The Times History of WW1 which she is prepared to give away free to anybody wanting them. She stresses that these are odd volumes and in some cases there is more than one copy of a particular edition.


12th Feb
CR John Murray The Massacre of Glencoe- 1692
ML Prof D Fourie The Evolution of Regimental Colours in SA
12th March
CR Martin Ayres Military Incompetence
ML Maj-Gen R de Vries Case Studies in Mechanised Warfare
12th Feb
Bill Brady The Channel Dash - 1942
Cape Town
19th Feb
Cdr W M Bissett South Africa's Coastal Defences

George Barrell (Chairman/Scribe) (011) 791-2581

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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