Our DDH curtain-raiser was given by fellow-member, Ian Sutherland, and covered a recent "European Battlefields' Tour". Our speaker took the opportunity of turning an ordinary common or garden visit to a family member overseas into an extremely interesting and informative military history tour encompassing some of the most famous battlefields in Europe. These not only included such well-known battles as Arnhem, Waterloo and Culloden, but also he managed to dig up all sorts of military interests in such seemingly mundane places as Carlisle (1745 - Jacobite Rebellion), Cropredy Bridge (1644 - Civil War), Oxford (Civil War) Hendon (RAF Museum) and Portsmouth (HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and Mary Rose). Even just waiting at a railway station brought to light a locomotive named after the Royal Scots Greys whose famous charge at Waterloo is immortalized in Lady Butler's painting entitled "Scotland Forever".
What was so interesting was that our speaker was able to glean so many interesting military history facts out of virtually nothing. In his closing words he said his secret was to study his travel maps very carefully for any indications of battlefields and then try to do as much research beforehand. He finished off his talk with a series of photographic slides that covered the various places he had visited. Maybe at some stage in the not too distant future, we, as a Society, could organize such a tour of Europe and visit some of its more famous battlefields....?
Our main talk for the evening was on "Trooper Henry Bizley" and it was given by Gilbert Torlage, who many of you will remember from his brilliant commentary on our battlefields' tour to Spion Kop just under two years ago. Trooper Bizley was our speaker's wife's great- grandfather who kept a most meticulous record of his experiences during the Anglo-Boer War.
He was a member of the Natal Carbineers which formed part of the Natal Field Force from March 1900 to March 1902. However, our speaker concentrated only on those events occuring between the end of March 1900 and June 1900, namely Buller's advance after the Relief of Ladysmith until the Boers had finally withdrawn from Northern Natal into the Transvaal.
Our speaker, very cleverly, put the experiences as recorded in Trooper Bizley's journal into the context of the broader canvas of the history of that time. These events included the outflanking movement by the Natal Field Force under Buller to the east around the Boer's Biggarsberg line at Helpmekaar, the rapid advance through Northern Natal to Dundee, Newcastle and to Lang's Nek where they were held up until yet another outflanking movement to the west around Botha's Pass and Alleman' Nek rolled up the Boer's defence line along the Drakensberg into the Transvaal.
Our speaker took up the story from the beginning of April 1900 with Trooper Henry Bizley's account of his moving with his troop from their base camp at Highlands through Estcourt and Chieveley, to Ladysmith. From there they were moved on to Elandslaagte, where they were deployed for nearly three weeks to counter any Boer attacks from the Biggarsberg while Buller consolidated his Field Force before going on to the offensive. During this time he went on several patrols until his horse was temporarily put out of action by a debilitating skin infection.
Our speaker then went on to describe Buller's ruse of pretending to withdraw the unit Bizley was in back to Ladysmith, but in actual fact swinging them eastwards as soon as they were out of sight of the Boers entrenched in the Biggarsberg and then joining up with the rest of the Natal Field Force which was heading in the direction of Helpmekaar.
At this stage our speaker digressed from the British advance to cover events that were taking place on the Boer side. Botha had been withdrawn from the Natal front to re-organize and build up the morale of the defeated Boer commandos in the Free State. Lukas Meyer had been put in command of the Boer forces in Northern Natal, but he was not a popular commander. He was stubborn and believed that the British attack would be made along the railway line to Dundee.
Consequently, he disregarded reports of large-scale troop movements to the east. He placed his weakest commandos to protect his eastern flank at Helpmekaar. Finally when he was advised that a British attack on Helpmekaar was imminent, he stated categorically that the British would never attack on a Sunday. The nett result was that the British broke through the Biggarsberg line, the Boers were outflanked and routed and Lukas Meyer was relieved of his command.
Going back to Trooper Bizley and his diary, he described how they had struck camp at Elandslaagte and marched towards Ladysmith initially, but then on the second day had veered towards Helpmekaar. And how the Boers had set fire to the veld at Washbank Spruit ahead of their troop. He then described the build-up of Buller's force and the artillery duel of the opening phases of the battle at Helpmekaar. After the battle he mentioned the arduous march up the Biggarsberg into Helpmekaar and the burned-out houses left behind by the fleeing Boers.
After their brief stay in Helpmekaar, he covered their rapid advance to Dundee, Newcastle and Lang's Nek where they were finally held up by the Boers, who were now entrenched along the Drakensberg. Throughout his writings there are clear references to his impressions of all that was going on around him, particularly with regard to food which would have tied in with his previous training back in England as a grocer. There are also passages devoted to the devastation that was left behind when the Boers retreated and indications of their panic-stricken withdrawal - things that would not normally have been recorded in an official army officer's report, but which nevertheless, gave an insight into the humanity of the man.
Trooper Bizley then went on to describe how his troop, along with the British forces, were held up by the Boers under Chris Botha at Lang's Nek, Buller's suggested peace terms and their rejection by the Boers and the 'rumours' of the build-up of troops at Botha's Pass. This ties in with the British surprise attack on the latter and with the breakthrough to Allerman's Nek and the Boer's retreat from Natal due to the threatened British encirclement from their rear. It ends with the capture Lang's Nek by the Natal Carbineers and their ultimate withdrawal back to Dundee.
All in all it was a wonderful account of the thoughts of an ordinary young man thrown into the throes of one of the most difficult periods of the Anglo-Boer War and how he survived. It is hoped that our speaker will at some stage prepare and submit a manuscript of this talk to the S.A. Military History Journal for possible publication. It was truly an account of living history that should not be forgotten, but shared by all those who are interested in the history of that War.
After a thought-provoking question time, fellow-member, the Rev. Ernest Pugsley thanked both our speakers for their most interesting and entertaining talks.
ANGLO-BOER WAR CENTENARY TOUR:
The British Cultural and Heritage Association (1820 Settlers) is planning a 5-day tour of the Anglo-Boor War and Anglo-Zulu War Battlefields in Northern Natal from 20-23 October 1999. This tour will cover the following: - Churchill's Capture at Frere, Clouston, the Colenso Museum, Hart's Hill, the Ladysmith Museum, Spion Kop, Wagon Hill, Wagon Point, Intombi Camp, All Saints Church in Ladysmith, Isandlwana, Fugitives' Drift, Rorke's Drift, the Talana Museum, Talana (the re-enactment of Battle), Ulundi and Fort Nongai. Travel will be per air-conditioned luxury bus and the accommodation will be at the Royal Hotel in Ladysmith (2 nights) and the Royal Inn at Dundee (2 nights). The cost will be R2 850 per person. For full details and booking, telephone: (031) 202 6174.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 21 3983