South African Military History Society


Members are reminded that the society's Annual General Meeting will be held on 8th April before the main lecture of the evening. Subjects to be covered are the audited accounts for 1998; the election of a new chairman and committee; and the awarding of prizes for the best lectures of the year.

To the British forces fighting the Boers in the western Transvaal, the Hartbeespoort area on the southern side of the Magaliesberg mountains was a major frontier in 1901. In the curtain raiser at the society lecture meeting on 11th February, Professor Ian Copley presented a collection of drawings and photographs taken in the area during the guerrilla phase of the war. Some photographs were taken from Wilson's With the Flag to Pretoria (et seq), vol III, and some from an album in the archives of the Lincolnshire Regiment. The original owner of the album is unknown, and all the contents were unlabelled. More photographs were taken from the album belonging to Lt. Gibbes of E Company, Northumberland (5th) Fusiliers, who was taken prisoner at Nooitgedacht . Other official photographs of forts taken by the Royal Engineers were obtained at the Public Record Office in Kew. The artist, YBB, who made many sketches, including Kalkheuwel, incorporated in With General French and the Cavalry by S Goldman, could not be identified. An official drawing of Silkaats Nek, included in the official history, was done by camera ver (pinhole image on a ground-glass screen for tracing), and was notable for the contrast between the barren and dusty landscape of the area a century ago and the many trees growing there now.

The main lecture of the evening, given by society deputy-chairman Martin Ayres, detailed the life and military successes of the Duke of Marlborough, Britain's Greatest General , that soldier ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill who never fought a battle he did not win, nor besieged a fortress he did not take.
John Churchill was born in 1650 to a Royalist family impoverished by the English Civil War, whose fortunes were restored when Charles II came to the throne in 1660. John's sister Arabella became a mistress of the king's brother, the Duke of York, later James II. At the age of 16 John gained an appointment as page to the Duke, and a commission in the King's Own Company of the First Guards a year later. Further promotions came largely from his liaison with the king's mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland. At one stage John served with the English regiments that fought with the French King Louis XIV, whose aggressive ambitions he later played such a vital role in frustrating.
In the Glorious Revolution of 1688 John sided with the Protestant usurpers William and Mary against James II - Mary's father - whose cause he had served in the Monmouth Rebellion two years previously. In the service of William, John's military career blossomed, although he remained subordinate to the king's Dutch generals. But his connections with Mary's sister Anne, and his wife Sarah's close friendship with the princess, incurred Mary's displeasure, and at one stage John was confined to the Tower of London on a charge of treason.
It was not until Anne ascended the throne in 1702 that John received the preferment his talents had earned him and he was awarded command of the combined English and Dutch forces. In the ensuing 10 years John Churchill dominated the battlefields of Europe and the councils of the allies combined against France. In both fields he displayed a skill unmatched by any other general in British history. Despite the prevarication of the Dutch, and the jealousy of the allied commanders - although with the unfailing military support of the Austrian Prince Eugene - he was able to win the crucial battles of the War of the Austrian Succession - Blenheim, Ramilles, Oudinarde and Malplaquet . In the process he accumulated much honour and great wealth, as well as raising the prestige of British arms on the continent of Europe. His downfall came when his wife, through her tempestuous behaviour towards the queen, lost him the royal favour and he was dismissed on trumped-up charges. He spent his exile travelling Europe feted alike by former allies and foes until reinstated in the royal favour under George I.

The curtain raiser at the 11th March lecture meeting was given by society member Dr Walter Murton on his experiences as a lowly airman being shipped across the Atlantic in 1942 for flying training in the USA, and his return as a junior officer six months later. He sailed on a French troopship, the Pasteur, and was given the duty of lavatory cleaner. The facilities were of a most rudimentary kind, coupled with a complete absence of privacy. With the job went a badge of office -- an apron and a cleaning cloth. The situation, though humble, was not devoid of humour, the boisterous kind in which young men revel when entering military service. The return journey to Britain brought a complete change of status. The carefree young airman had become an officer with serious responsibilities. Although totally ignorant of naval gunnery, he was appointed to command the ship's gun crew, and part of the job was to watch for the wakes of torpedoes on the night sea. The experience proved profoundly emotional. In later years it evoked comparisons with the wisdom of Pliny the Elder, who wrote of the tribulations of young men being trained for a military career and their eventual acceptance of the responsibilities it involves.

The main lecture of the evening, Smuts the Man, by Penny Grimbeek , Curator of The Smuts House Museum, featured the contradictions and inconsistencies in the life of a man of ideas who came to appear as a man of action.
Smut's father thought his puny son, running wild on the family farm, and usually alone with his thoughts, would never amount to much. When Jan was 12 years old his elder brother, who had been sent to school, died of typhoid, and Jan moved up in the family hierarchy.
He was sent, for the first time, to the tiny school in Riebeeck West before going to Stellenbosch to take his matriculation for entry to Victoria College, later Stellenbosch University. There he distinguished himself as a brilliant scholar, and after completing a combined BA BSc degree was awarded the Ebden Scholarship for study in England.
He chose to read law at Cambridge, and was the first person to do two parts of the Law Tripos in one year instead of the usual two. He came first in both examinations, a feat described by the press at the time as unprecedented . Cambridge kindled an interest in philosophy, and while still in the midst of his studies Smuts completed a book on the American poet Walt Whitman entitled A Study in the Evolution of Personality. In this he wrote: Every individual form of life is a unity, a centre of activity dominated by one fundamental property. It is this ultimate internal unity that shapes the innumerable products of life into an orderly and harmonious whole.
Smuts returned to South Africa infused with the ideas of the great thinkers, poets and philosophers, and of English liberal democracy, but was soon caught up in politics of the day.
Disillusioned by the treachery of the Jamieson Raid he decided his future lay in the Boer republics. There he rose swiftly in political life while becoming convinced of the injustice of British rule. During the Anglo-Boer War Smuts proved himself a formidable commando leader and guerrilla fighter, but was strong in his advocacy of peace when it became obvious the war had to end. The part Smuts played in persuading the British to grant the Boer republics their freedom made him only limited friends among his own countrymen, many of whom regarded him as a turncoat. Nor was his popularity strengthened by his support for Britain in WW1 and his emergence as an international statesman through his support for the League of Nations and the prominent role he was to play in the formation of its successor, the United Nations. His support for liberal policies of freedom worldwide always appeared in conflict with his reluctance to confront racialism in his own country.
Such contradictions between Smuts the idealist and Smuts the politician were to remain with him throughout his life.


8th April
Annual General Meeting
Hamish Paterson - The Battles of Lexington and Concord: The American War of Independence -- 1775
13th May
George Barrell - The Success of the Blitzkrieg : The Battle of France 1940
Rod Hooper-Box - Long Rifles in Battle 1795-1902 - British Weapons in South Africa

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

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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