South African Military History Society

Newsletter No 280 DURBAN BRANCH June 1998

PAST EVENTS: Our May meeting was one of those evenings that will long be remembered as a highlight in the annals of our Society. To a packed lecture theatre our curtain-raiser was on the subject of "John Buchan" and it was given by fellow-member, Major John Buchan. Disclaiming any family relationship with his namesake, our speaker traced the life and career of the original John Buchan from his birth in 1875 in Perth, Scotland to his education at Glasgow and Oxford Universities, to his joining the Civil Service in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War in 1901 as part of "Milner's Kindergarten". In 1907 he joined Thomas Nelson & Son who published most of his prolific writings over the next 33 years. In the same year he married Susan Grosvenor who was a cousin of General Lyttleton of Anglo-Boer War fame. During WWI he joined Military Intelligence and served with the British HQ Staff in France and became Director of the newly formed Department of Information in 1917. In 1918 this was upgraded to a Ministry under Lord Beaverbrook where he became Director of Intelligence. After the War he represented the Scottish Universities in Parliament and was appointed Lord High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland. In 1935 he was created First Baron Tweedsmuir of Elseheld and became Governor-General of Canada in the same year. In 1937 he was made Chancellor of Edinburgh University and was awarded Hon. LLD's by both Yale and Harvard Universities. He visited the USA in 1939 where he met Pres. Roosevelt thereby creating a vital link for Britain in the coming War. He died in 1940. However, although it was only a part-time hobby, his greatest claim to fame was his prolific writings. Not only was he capable of writing such adventure thrillers as The 39 Steps and Prester John, but he was also responsible for many works of great academic value such as his 24 volume Nelson's History of the War, Oliver Cromwell and The South African Forces in France. He was also an expert mountaineer, fly-fisherman and horseman. All in all, a truly remarkable man.

Our main speaker for the evening was our newly elected Chairman, Paul Kilmartin and his subject was "The First Battle of Ypres - 1914". By means of the latest computer technology, overhead transparencies and computer generated slides, we were treated to a magnificent presentation of one of the most crucial battles of the early stages of Great War.
Our speaker gave a brief resume of the events leading up to the start of the Great War, the Schlieffen Plan and the resultant German offensive, the Battles of Mons and the Marne and the retreat of the Germans to the River Aisne. As these battles have been included in previous Newsletters (Nos. 258 & 269) they will not be repeated here, suffice it to say that once again our speaker emphasized the role of the British professional soldier. For although he had fought in all conditions and in all corners of the world, he had never fought against a modern European army. The opening battles of the War had been fast moving engagements, but after the failure of the Schlieffen Plan and the near trapping of their First Army at the Marne, the Germans withdrew and formed an almost impregnable line along the high ground overlooking the Aisne. This line was to remain virtually static for the next four years. However, to the north-west of Paris there was open countryside and both the Allies and the Germans realized the strategic importance of this area. For the Germans it meant that they could control the Channel Ports thereby cutting the vital supply lines to the British Expeditionary Force and also, they could isolate the Belgian Army. For the Allies this manoeuvre had to be stopped at all costs. This was the start of the "Race for the Sea". After describing the various battles that took place in this Race for the Sea, our speaker was of the opinion that the First Battle of Ypres was the culminating battle in that Race and for the Allies it was crucial to their survival. He also felt that the role of the Belgian Army had been underrated by history as their gallant defence of Antwerp occupied a large number of German forces for nearly six weeks and had allowed the Allies sufficient time to deploy their troops into position and block the German advance on the defence line from Arras to the Channel coast.
The Allied line comprised the Belgians from the coastal town of Nieuport to just north of Ypres, the French cavalry and the BEF in the Ypres salient and the French southwards to Arras. The First Battle of Ypres was a continuous battle from the l0th October to the 18th November 1914 with four phases of concentrated attack. The first phase was along the Yser Canal from Nieuport on the North Sea to Duxmunde when the Germans attacked the remnants of the Belgian Army. After some desperate fighting King Albert of the Belgians ordered the sluice gates at Nieuport to be opened, thereby flooding the whole low lying area which kept the Germans at bay. The next stage was at Armentiers where the BEF were driven back, but the German attack stuttered and failed to take the open road to Ypres. Although Allied losses were enormous, they managed to shorten and hold the line. The next phase included a major attack on Geluveld where the BEF were subjected to one of the heaviest bombardments of the War and retreated. In addition their First Corps staff was wiped out at a staff meeting at Hooge and, but for the timely intervention of the Second Worcesters under a Major Hankey, the Germans would have broken through. As it was, the Germans were driven back and all the positions that had been lost, were retaken on the same day. Phase four was when the Germans made an all-out attack along the Menin Road, but their elite Prussian Guard was decimated by accurate BEF rifle-fire at Nonne Boschen. This effectively marked the end of the Battle and apart from some desultory artillery fire on the following two days nothing further happened. On the morning of the 18th November there was silence, but it took until mid-morning for the BEF to realize that they had won a great victory against a superior German Army. But the cost was enormous. To quote two authorities:- "The British Regular Army stood and was destroyed" and "The BEF was effectively destroyed as a professional army". Their losses alone amounted to 58 000 with the total on both sides in excess of 250 000. The Germans had lost over 150 000. The line that the BEF had held was to remain virtually static for the next four years. This battle was to be called the First Battle of Ypres and it marked the start of the four year stalemate. After a subdued question time (we had been stunned by the brilliance of the presentation!),fellow-member, Phil Everitt thanked both our speakers for their well researched talks and to Paul for his outstanding presentation To those members who did not attend, you missed the talk of a lifetime.


June 11th
MAIN: "The Battle of Stormberg" - Talk by fellow member, Ken Gillings.
July 9th
DDH :"Dieppe" - Talk by fellow-member, Prof Mike Laing.
MAIN:"Churchills in the Anglo-Boer War Context" - Talk by Mrs M Richards.
August 13th
Visit to the Natal Carbineers in Pietermaritzburg to be arranged.
September 10th
"Zukhov and the Khalkin Goll" - Talk by fellow-member, Prof Mike Laing.
MAIN "Arnhem" - Talk by fellow-member, Pat Budd.
Sept. 12/13th
Battlefields Tour - "Ladysmith Siege Sites".
October 8th
DDH:"The K-Class Submarines". - Talk by fellow member, James Porteous.
MAIN "The Siege of O'Kiep". - Talk by fellow-member, Dave Matthews.
November 11th
80th Anniversary of Armistice Day.
November 12th
DDH : "Patton and Pearl Harbour" - Talk by fellow-member, Prof Mike Laing.
MAIN: "The Military Brilliance of Shaka" - Talk by Dr Alex Coutts.

BATTLEFIELDS' TOUR: "Ladysmith Siege Sites"- September 12/13 1998 - DIARISE!

Unless otherwise stated, the venue for all meetings will be the First Floor Lecture Theatre, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of Natal, Durban which is housed in the building on the right of the Memorial Tower Building (opposite the entrance to the Elizabeth Snedden Theatre), commencing at 19h30 on the second Thursday in the month. Please bring your own refreshments.


Dr Ingrid Machin, (Secretary) Durban Branch,S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY,4 Hadley, l0l Manning Road, Glenwood, 4001. Telephone (031)21 3983

South African Military History Society /