South African Military History Society


There were late and unavoidable changes to the programme for the society lecture meeting on 9th September. Unisa history professor Albert Grundlingh, who was to give the main lecture, was unable to do so, and instead his talk was read for him by former society chairman, Kemsley Couldridge. Marjorie Dean kindly expanded her curtain raiser on the Campaign for Atlanta in the American Civil War into a main lecture.

The subject of Professor Grundlingh's talk was the Anglo-Boer War in the Afrikaner consciousness during the 20th century. It described how the war left a legacy of recriminations and bitter memories, none more controversial than the crowding into concentration camps of Boer women and children made homeless by the British scorched earth policy. The neglect and incompetence with which these camps were run caused the death from disease of approximately 10 per cent of the Boer population, and gave the Afrikaners common victims to mourn and common grievances to nurture. Although the common tragedy of the camp experience provided a rich potential for nationalist exploitation, little of it was converted into writing until the 1930s.

It was only with the vigorous promotion of Afrikaans as a standard, written language, distinct from Dutch, that it became increasingly possible to reach the masses with accounts of the trials and tribulations the war had imposed on the Afrikaner. These popular works tended to glorify the Boer generals and "bitterenders" and condemn the conduct of the British. These concerted efforts to unite a hitherto diverse people under the banner of Afrikaner nationalism coincided with the drift to the cities of a mainly rural people impoverished by depression and drought. There, their privations in a British dominated environment could be related to the days of the Anglo-Boer War. This surge of ethnic and nationalist sentiment reached its zenith in 1938 at the celebrations of the centenary of the Great Trek. Infused with a religious element, the war came to be seen as part of the Afrikaner's "sacred history". In the 1940s interest in the war gradually declined, and after the victory of the National Party in 1948 its memories were no longer so necessary as an ethnic rallying point. In government the party slowly shed its populist image and began addressing itself to a wider constituency.

The proclamation of a republic in 1961 was seen as a symbolic restoration of the former Boer republics defeated by the British, who must now be drawn into a broader white nationalism. During the 1960s and 70s much was done to promote the interests and prosperity of the Afrikaner. This was partly at the expense of an increasingly politically conscious Black majority population ensnared by the policy of apartheid. Gradually the Blacks came to represent the threat to Afrikaner domination that the Uitlanders had done before the Anglo-Boer War. Fortunately the situation was this time resolved without war when apartheid was abolished. Afrikaners now face a changed political environment with a general sense of unease and disillusionment, acutely aware that blind acceptance of past versions of their history have led them dangerously astray. Drained of much of its overtly Boer-Brit antagonism, the war has now become part of a wider South African heritage in which the role of all races is at last being recognised.

In the American Civil War, Atlanta, in the southern State of Georgia, had considerable strategic importance as a railway and communications centre. Its capture by the Union forces in 1864 split the Confederacy in two, and sealed the fate of the Confederacy. Despite its military significance, however, the impetus for the Atlanta campaign, as Marjorie Dean explained, was largely political. Its timing was dictated by the presidential elections due to be held in the northern states in November 1864. The Confederacy pinned its hopes on a victory for the Democrats, and the possibility of a negotiated peace.

The invasion of Georgia was entrusted to General William T Sherman, a close friend of the Union C-in-C Ulysses S Grant, but by no means the best general available. He commanded a combined army of 110 123 men with 254 guns. Opposing him was General Joseph Johnston, a cautious soldier who did not enjoy the full confidence of the Southern president, Jefferson Davies. Following the Confederate debacle at Chattanooga, in Tennessee, Johnson had been busy rebuilding his army into a force of just 54 500 men and 144 guns. With a command only half the size of Sherman's he had no choice but to adopt a defensive strategy. This was contrary to the wishes of his president, who was aching for offensive action to retake Tennessee.

The campaign on both sides was centred on the railways and the supplies they brought. Sherman needed a major battle soon, near the Tennessee border, which he had the best chance of winning. If he was to achieve a major victory, Johnson needed to withdraw towards Atlanta, harassing Sherman all the way, and then to attack when his enemy's supply lines were seriously stretched. This "Fabian" strategy would have stood greater chance of success had Jefferson Davis not consistently rejected Johnson's pleas for cavalry action against the railway in Sherman's rear. Sherman's "advance to the sea" began on 6th May, and by July he had advanced over 60 miles of difficult country, in appalling weather. Atlanta was only 30 miles ahead. Yet despite innumerable battles and skirmishes, Johnson's army was still undefeated and Sherman had not achieved his decisive battle.

Then victory was handed to him by Jefferson Davis who, frustrated with Johnson's defensive strategy, replaced him with General John Bell Hood, one of Johnson's three corps commanders. Hood was 32 years old, a man of great personal courage, who had distinguished himself at Gettysburg and Chickamaunga. He had lost a leg in action and his left arm had been paralysed by shrapnel. However, his record was not distinguished and his leadership powers were unproven. When he went over to the offensive, as Jefferson Davies demanded, the Confederacy was doomed. With Johnson in command Sherman never won a battle. When Hood took over, Sherman never lost one. Soon all Atlanta's rail communications had been severed, the city was in Sherman's hands, and the White House rejoiced that the war could now be won. Lincoln won his election. The way to the sea was now open, and Sherman presented the port city of Savannah to Lincoln as a Christmas present

Bookdealers' branches at the Bryanston Shopping Centre, at 12-7th Street Melville, in shop 29 Mutual Square Rosebank, and in Rivonia, at the Cloisters Shopping Centre, have kindly agreed to display large-size posters detailing our coming lectures. They can also track down those special "out of print" or rare books at the best prices for you, and we thank them for their support.

Members are reminded that well worth a visit is the exhibition of Anglo-Boer War transport at the James Hall Transport Museum in Rosettenville. Admission is free, and the exhibition continues until January 2000.


14 Oct
CR Heinrich Janzen The Battle of Elandslaagte
ML Dr Felix Machanik The Lancers in the Anglo-Boer War
11 Nov
CR John Murray The Irish Regiments in WW1
ML Hamish Paterson The Natal Volunteers in the Anglo-Boer War
14 Oct
DDH Pat Budd Major Helmut Wick
ML Dr Ingrid Machin African Military Levies
Cape Town
14 Oct
Johan van den Berg Tale of Two Skirmishes: Modderfontein & Blood River
SPEAKERS FOR 2000 Lecture organiser Kemsley Couldridge has asked for possible speakers for next year. Any member willing to speak, or who knows of a good speaker on a topic of interest, should contact Kemsley at Tel: 440-5686 as soon as possible. With guest speakers, please make sure to provide a contact phone/fax number.

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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