South African Military History Society


The Irish have a fighting tradition second to none. Their soldiers have been present on virtually every European battlefield in the past four hundred years, habitually in the service of a country other than their own. In the First World War, however, their presence in the British Army was at least in part an expression of their small country's outrage at German aggression against another small country, Belgium. The curtain raiser at the Society's 11th November meeting, given by committee member John Murray, was entitled The Irish Regiments in the First World War.

Irish involvement in England's fighting forces dates back as early as the 14th century, when mercenary bands served in the Hundred Years War, and later in Henry VIII's military adventures on the European continent. When Britain's first standing army was established, one of its first regiments was the original Irish Guards raised by Charles II in 1662. Thereafter recruitment was slowed, though not ruled out, by the ban on Catholics serving in the British Army. The three towering military figures of 19th century - Wellington, Wolseley and Roberts - were all Irish, and in this century there were Alexander, Montgomery, Alanbrooke and Auchinleck. So the Irish have a long tradition of service to the British military, but the Irish contribution in WW1 was remarkable both for its size, given the small population from which it was recruited, and the fact that at the time Ireland was in political ferment.

The subject of Irish self-rule had been a divisive factor in British politics for some time when the war intervened and a long-awaited settlement had to be postponed. The frustration that resulted led to the 1916 rebellion, which was suppressed with a degree of harshness that has not been forgiven to this day. Yet during this stressful period the Irish units in the British Army remained totally loyal and their fighting qualities undiminished. Irish units were present in most of the engagements on the Western Front, including that disastrous first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, and in other theatres such as Salonika and Palestine. Despite the absence of conscription, Ireland was to raise a total of 80 battalions to serve in the Great War. That is twice the number of to-day's British Army, and, having regard to the reduction in establishment terms, close to four times the manpower.

The main lecture of the evening was given by society deputy-chairman Hamish Paterson on the role of the Natal Volunteer Force in the Anglo-Boer War. The first units of the force were raised in 1855 when it was expected that the small garrison of Imperial troops would be withdrawn to fight in the Crimean War. By the end of that year it has a strength of 152 cavalry and 187 infantry. Its size and fortunes fluctuated until 1872 when new legislation imposed a more formal structure and a volunteer staff. Following the defeat at Bushman's River, John George Dartnel was appointed Commandant of Volunteers and of the Natal Mounted Police, posts he would hold for the next three decades, during which time he turned the units into an effective force.

The Natal Volunteers accompanied the invasion of Zululand in 1879 and fought at Inyezane and Isandlwana. They also covered the retreat of Colley's force from Laing's Nek in 1881. The Volunteers were mobilised, though reluctantly, when war became inevitable in 1899. By that time they had acquired a medical and veterinary corps, and had trained with Imperial units.. The Dundee Rifle Association took part in the Battle of Talana on 20th October, but were left behind when General Yule's column retreated to Ladysmith. The guns of the Natal Field Artillery were outranged at the Battle of Elandslaagte the next day, and the Natal mounted rifle regiments successfully covered the British left flank at the battle of Rietfontein. Thereafter they were besieged in Ladysmith. The Durban Light Infantry provided half the crew of the armoured train that was ambushed at Chieveley on 15th November, when Winston Churchill was taken prisoner. The greatest moment for the Natal Volunteers came during the operations that preceded the Battle of Spion Kop, 24-25th January 1900. Action took place at Acton Homes on 18th January when some 80 men of the Natal Carbineers commanded by Major Duncan McKenzie ambushed a 300-strong Boer commando. Unfortunately, this opportunity was not exploited by the British forces that marched to disaster a week later. McKenzie's squadron, together with a squadron of the ILH, were the first units of the relief force to reach Ladysmith. The Natal Volunteer Force was demobilised in October 1900 after serving one year and eight days, but was mobilised again in September 1901 to meet General Louis Botha's second expedition to Natal.


9th Dec
CR Prof Ian Copley A Photographic Record of the Northumberland Fusiliers in the Anglo-Boer War
ML Peter Goodship Battle of Nooitgedacht Re-Assessed
20th Jan
CR Heinrich Janzen The Battle of Isandlwana
ML George Barrell Magersfontein: The "Court Martial" of Lord Methuen
9th Dec
Annual Dinner
Cape Town
is in recess
Battlefield etiquette Members visiting battlefields or taking part in re-enactments during this season of commemoration are respectfully asked to observe the following rules in order that these sites should not be irretrievably spoiled for future generations.

Metal detectors may not be used under any circumstances. Under the new legislation they can be confiscated if used without a permit.

Do not buy artifacts offered by casual sellers at or near battlefield sites.

If you find a button or insignia, cartridge or any other relic, leave it where you found it. If you are concerned that somebody else may remove it, bury it under a stone or in a shallow hole.

Digging in and around graves and memorials is prohibited by both the current National Monuments Act and the new National Heritage Resources Act.

If you see that a headstone or memorial has been damaged in some way, report it to the National Monuments Council's (NMC's) Graves Division.

Do not remove damaged sections of memorials or headstones from their original sites.

Do not attempt to repair damaged memorials or headstones. This may only be done under the authority of a permit from the NMC.

If you see anybody breaking the law or damaging a site by removing artifacts, report them to the NMC or the police.

SUBSCRIPTIONS FOR 2000 Your Committee has approved the following subscriptions for next year: Single R80 Family R90 Overseas (single) R150.

SEASONS GREETINGS The Chairman and all committee members wish to extend Season's Greetings and a wish for a safe and peaceful holiday to all our fellow members.

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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