As Editor, it gives me immense pleasure to be able to introduce this, the 100th issue of the Military History Journal, published by the South African Military History Society.
The very first issue, Volume 1 No 1, made its appearance in December 1967. The most significant change from that issue to this, is that it was then, and until very recently, the joint research publication of the South African National War Museum (now Ditsong National Museum of Military History) and the current sole publisher, the South African Military History Society. That first issue was a celebration of two significant 25th anniversaries in South African military history: firstly, the formation of the War Museum in Johannesburg as a sub-unit of the Union Defence Forces in 1942, and secondly, the Battle of El Alamein, 23 October - 11 November 1942.
In his message in that first issue, the then Honorary Editor of the journal, Captain J A Ball, saw the opportunity to explore what he referred to as 'the fascinating kaleidoscope that is our South African military history'. And what an enthralling and dramatic history it is! When one delves into those early articles in the journal, one truly is reminded of how our interpretations have broadened over time. So too, has our collective understanding of the past, for the journal has helped to publicise so many little-known events that have added flavour to our story. And there are many more to be discovered, researched, and written about. South African military history offers enormous scope for further investigation.
In that first issue, readers were reminded of the 25th anniversary of the Battle of EI Alamein, 'that great desert victory,' wrote Ball, 'in which so many South Africans distinguished themselves and wrote their country's name in the pages of glory in the history of war.' At this small desert railway station in Egypt, the British Eighth Army, of which the 1st South African Division was a part, made their stand against the advancing Axis forces. The British launched, wrote Ball, 'the greatest artillery barrage the world has ever known'. It was an epic battle, credited with turning the tide in the North African campaign, and the resolute South Africans played their part in this fight, having earlier so bravely defended their 'Box' against the initial attack during the First Battle of El Alamein in July. They had refused to give in. They fought back. The final battle, in October, saw the forces of the British Commonwealth able to push the Axis forces back well westwards towards Tripoli and, not quite seven months later, the war in North Africa ended in an Allied victory.
In this 100th issue, we pay tribute to a forgotten, yet perhaps just as significant South African 'make or break' contribution to the Allied cause, this time at Marrières Wood in France during the First World War. This desperate and ultimately fatal stand on 24 March 1918, by a mere 500 brave, exhausted young men, is thought to have helped to change the course of the war on the Western Front, leading to the eventual capitulation of the German Imperial forces in Europe a mere eight months later. Under orders to 'hold on at all costs', this handful of men did not surrender until all their ammunition had been expended and less than one in five, mostly wounded, remained in action. Sadly, the commemoration of the centenary of this incredible sacrifice, which some argue saved two British armies that fateful day, slipped by, almost unnoticed in South Africa earlier this year. Its inclusion here, in this commemorative issue, is a small attempt to pay homage to those brave South Africans.
It is hoped that this journal will continue to stimulate the memory and continuous examination of military history in South Africa for generations to come.
To encourage readers to publish South African Second World War poetry, the first editor,
John Ball, included this poignant poem in the first issue of the journal, Vol 1 No 1, December 1967:
LINES WRITTEN ON RE-VISITING
ROBERTS HEIGHTS IN THE SPRING OF 1947
So hushed ... so still
So tranquil now.
Wrapped in a mantle of early Spring.
Beyond the fluttering of two proud Flags
Above long silent guns.
It seems so near ago
That these same silent fields
Resounded to the tramp of untrained feet
Learning to march to War:
That these bright tree-lined avenues
Rang to the strong laughter
And rough warm friendship
Of fine young men
Of divers tongues ...
Drawing together as never before
To forge those bonds of unity
Tempered in blood and heat of battle ...
Tried until the limits
By the fiery blast of alien faith ...
Did stand and hold
At El Alamein.
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