South African Military History Society

Durban Branch April 1999 News Sheet No.289

PAST EVENTS: Our March meeting was yet another deviation from our advertised programme caused by the domino effect of the last minute cancellation of one of the talks at our previous meeting. However we were amply rewarded by having three speakers and as things turned out they could not have been better.

To a near capacity house, our DDH talk was devoted to "O'Neill's Cottage" and it was given to us by George Nel. As you all know O'Neill's Cottage played a vital role in the so-called First Anglo-Boer War of 1880-1881 in that it was the venue for the surrender of the British after the disastrous Battle of Majuba. It was also the family home of our speaker and instead of dwelling on the well-known and documented historical facts, he concentrated mainly on his family's history and how they came to own the farm..

The O'Neills are from an ancient Irish family, which they can trace back to 360AD when they were Kings of the area near Donegal in Ireland. Our speaker charted the fortunes of his family from those Dark Age day's through the turbulent mediaeval times in Ireland to the ultimate subjugation of the Irish by the Normans in the 12th century and finally to the British in the last century when his ancestor, Richard Charles O'Neill, joined the British Army and served in India. On his return to Britain via Southern Africa, affer his tour of duty, his youngest child suffered so terribly on the sea-voyage that the O'Neill family disembarked at Port Elizabeth and settled in the Eastern Cape. He left the Army and, being no lover of British, joined the Great Trek in 1838. The family first settled near Smithfield, then Winburg in the Free State and finally in the Transvaal. Their fortunes improved over the years and one of his ancestors was an adviser to Paul Kruger. Our speaker then traced his family to O'Neill's Cottage and how they came to be settled in the Majuba area at the critical time of the First Anglo-Boer War. Finally he showed a short home-video on the Cottage itself as it is at present and how neglect and chronic lack of maintenance has reduced it to a near ruin. He concluded by saying that he hoped that somehow funds could be made available to refurbish it to its former glory..

Our next speaker was none other than fellow-member, Dave Matthews and his talk was entitled "The Gelib White Flag Incident". It concerned the craven act of treachery perpetrated on the Royal Natal Carbineers during the Abyssinian Campaign of WW2. The incident took place on the 22 February 1941 at a place called Gelib, which was an important road junction and river crossing on the Juba River. It occurred during the Allied assault on the Juba River Line and involved a patrol of the Royal Natal Carbineers which was advancing to intercept an enemy force believed to be retreating towards the Juba River. Perhaps too eager for a fight, they advanced through typical bush country until they encountered a platoon of Askaris about 250 yards ahead of them across an open cultivated field. Their white officer was waving a white flag, obviously intending to surrender. Instead of waiting for the enemy to come to them, three members of the RNC patrol went over to them to accept their surrender. They then refused to hand over their weapons. All of a sudden, a concealed enemy force on the left flank opened fire, ultimately killing thirteen members of that ill-fated patrol. Those remaining managed to regroup and, under very heavy fire, withdrew to call in reinforcements, firstly from the mortar squad that was attached to their platoon and then from their HQ which was located some four miles to their rear. Unfortunately, help was not immediately forthcoming and, until it came in the form of some armoured cars, an intense firefight raged. When the enemy finally surrendered their death toll was in the region of 100. The capture of Gelib signalled the collapse of the Italian's Juba River Line and marked the beginning of the end of their occupation of Somaliland..

However, an RNC officer, Capt. Charles Eustace, who was not actually involved in the incident, pocketed some seeds from an acacia tree at Gelib. These were later planted on his farm in the Loteni Valley as a living memorial to those thirteen Carbineers who died in that "White Flag Incident" way back in '41. Those trees are alive today under the care of the KZN Parks Board.

Our final speaker was our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, and his talk, appropriate to the proximity of St Patrick's Day, was "The History of the Irish Guards". Starting off with Queen Victoria's State Visit to Ireland in the Spring of 1900, our speaker said that the Queen had been so impressed with the courageous performances of her Irish Regiments in the various battles leading to the Relief of Ladysmith that in order to show her appreciation, she established an Irish Regiment of Foot Guards. It was to be known as the "Irish Guards"..

Initially recruits were drawn from Irishmen already serving in the Brigade of Guards, but later, from Irishmen serving in any other regiment of the British Army. So great was the response that within a few weeks no less than four companies plus a Regimental Band had been established. Lord Roberts was chosen as the first Colonel and he promptly ordered his two ADC's to transfer with him. The first Commanding Officer was transferred from the Grenadier Guards and his 2i/c was from the Royal Fusiliers. All other officers were drawn from either the Grenadiers, the Coldstream or the Scots Guards. Their first Regimental Sergeant-Major was taken from the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. The only bond at that stage was that they were all Irish. Their uniform was the red tunic of the Brigade of Guards, but with the buttons spaced in fours with a shamrock on the collar. The bearskin bore a plume in St Patrick's blue on the right side. Their emblem was a squared version of the Star of St Patrick and their famous mascot, Brian Boru, was appropriately an Irish Wolfhound presented to them by the Irish Wolfhound Club. Their first official engagement was the inauguration of the Australian Government in November 1900 and their first Guard Duty was mounted in March 1901 with the first St Patrick's Day Parade two weeks later. Between 1901 and the May 1902 they saw active service in South Africa in the Guard's Mounted Infantry. In May 1902, they received their first Colours, which were trooped at the King's Birthday on 30 May 1902..

From 1902 to 1914, they were stationed in London with activities confined to ceremonial duties. However, within 10 days of the outbreak of WW1 their 1st Battalion had sailed for France as part of the BEF. They saw active service in virtually all the major battles of that war, but suffered tremendous casualties. In terms of those killed in action, they were effectively wiped out twice over. In addition there were 5 736 wounded. During that war a 2nd Battalion was formed, but decommissioned in 1919. To give some measure of their fighting spirit during that conflict, they were awarded no less than 4 V.C.'s, 17 DSO's and 27 DCM's..

Between the Wars, they saw active service in the Army of the Black Sea when they were stationed at what was then known as Constantinople. They were also stationed in Gibraltar, Egypt and Palestine..

In 1939 at the start of WW2, the 2nd Battalion was reactivated and fought in the Hook of Holland and at Boulogne where they suffered 20% casualties. Meanwhile the 1st Battalion took part in the disastrous Norwegian campaign also sustaining heavy casualties, especially among the officers. The 3rd Battalion was formed in November 1940 and, together with the 2nd Battalion, was incorporated into the Guards Armoured Division. They saw service in North Africa, Italy and in Western Europe after D-Day. In WW2, the Irish Guards were awarded 2 VC's, 17 DSO's and 18 DCM's at a cost of 734 dead and 1578 wounded..

Although the Irish Guards were reduced to a single Battalion in 1947, they have seen service in every military theatre, except Korea, since. The Centenary of the Irish Guards is due to take place on the 1st April 1999 and, as part of their celebrations they intend visiting the battlefields of Northern Natal where their illustrious forebears had fought so magnificently that Queen Victoria showed her appreciation of their efforts by bringing them into being..

Our speaker concluded his talk by thanking Mr John Murray of the SA Military History Society, (Johannesburg) for the loan of the talk on the Irish Guards..

After a limited question time, our Secretary, Dr Ingrid Machin, thanked the speakers for stepping into the breach at such short notice and for giving us such an interesting and informative evening.

THANKS: Your Scribe would like to thank all those who stood in for him while he was recently incapacitated and in particular, Dr Ingrid Machin who so ably handled the last Newsletter.

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 21 3983

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