The History of the KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields: Leopard-Skin, Khaki and Redcoat

The History of the KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields: Leopard-Skin, Khaki and Redcoat

Spear of the Nation
Between his coronation in 1816 and assassination a mere 12 years later, King Shaka and his awe-inspiring regiments sallied forth across the length and breadth of modern-day KwaZulu-Natal, trampling and dispossessing all rival tribes in their path with the innovative weaponry and battle-strategies born of the king's military genius. Gone were the throwing-spear and small shield of his forefathers - standard issue during three centuries of inter- clan warfare - replaced by the stabbing- spear and full-length body-shield designed to facilitate Shaka's lethal new concept - encircling his enemy with a horn-shaped pincer movement and engaging in highly-effective hand-to- hand combat.
Cannibals and Colonists
Many who fled before the all-conquering Zulu impis took refuge in numerous caves dotted amongst the scenic, undulating terrain southeast of Dundee .Without livestock or the leisure to plant crops, however, hunger soon drove these 'scatterlings' to desperate, grisly means of survival in the so- called Valley of the Cannibals.
During this consolidation of his Zulu empire, King Shaka established a working relationship with the predominantly British colonists and adventurers who by now regularly dropped anchor off Port Natal. This situation was to change drastically at the hands of Shaka's co-assassin and successor - his half-brother Dingane.
The Great Trek (1836 - 1852)
Seven years into Dingane's reign - but a thousand kilometres south in the Cape Colony - the Boer people were about to embark on an exodus of biblical proportions from perceived tyranny at the hands of the British. Three decades of entrenched Colonial dominion saw the Boer - who by now were also known as the Afrikaaner - accumulate yet another descriptive epithet. They were about to become 'Voortrekkers'... a nation 'going forth' to seek political self-determination and survival of their cultural identity and language.The tall ships of their predecessors' emigration from Europe would be replaced by the most-enduring outer symbol of Afrikaanerdom - the covered ox-wagon.
Betrayal and Revenge
Of several wagon trains to embark on the arduous journey into an unknown hinterland, the group led by Piet Retief entered the Kingdom of the Zulu in 1837, and immediately began negotiating with Dingane for land to establish an independent Boer territory. On 6 February 1838 - the day scheduled to finalise their agreement - King Dingane had Piet Retief and 101 Voortrekkers put to death at his royal settlement near Ulundi . Dingane's impis then massacred other groups of would-be settlers camped in the vicinity of Estcourt . The survivors eventually regrouped and abandoned the site still referred to as Weenen - their 'Place of Weeping'. They headed inland... intent on revenge.
River of Blood
Within nine months the Voortrekkers believed themselves capable of defeating Dingane's Zulu hordes, and at Wasbank on 9 December 1838, vowed to sanctify that date and build a church... should God grant them victory over their enemy.
Exactly one week later - along the banks of a river near Dundee known to the Zulu as 'Peaceful One' - a 15 000- strong impi attacked the 460 Voortrekkers... and experienced the first failure of their Shaka-devised battle strategies.Traditional weapons, ox-horn formation and unquestioning bravery proved no match for the flintlocks, field artillery and mounted marksmen of the Boer's own unique tactics... and the ensuing carnage remains known as 'The Battle of Blood River'.
King Dingane fled northwards, only to be assassinated in a forest on the edge of Swaziland... while the Voortrekkers built their Church of the Vow three years later in a more secure Pietermaritzburg, and religiously maintain their Day of the Vow.
Peace and Murder
While the enthronement in 1840 of King Mpande served to normalise relations between Zulu and Afrikaaner - and maintain a cordial Zulu-British atmosphere - his son and heir-apparent harboured dreams that would impact on Colonial authorities firmly ensconced south of the Thukela River.Prince Cetshwayo ascended to the throne in 1872, but unlike the Shakan era, his expansionist campaign included the harassment - and murder - of pioneer farmers.Six years of resulting British dissatisfaction led to The Ultimatum - a boundary award and list of demands presented to the Zulu on 11 December 1878, near the mouth of the Thukela River, by representatives of the High Commissioner of Natal, Sir Bartle Frere. When King Cetshwayo failed to respond by the prescribed deadline - New Year's Eve 1878 - his silence was interpreted as defiance... and the British authorities declared war.
Anglo-Zulu War 1879
Having anticipated the Zulu attitude, Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford immediately launched a two-pronged assault, and ready-assembled British columns invaded Zululand from the southeast coastal belt and inland from the vicinity of Dundee... while Redcoats garrisoned in the northwest mountains around Utrecht were given a 'watching brief'. The Central Column was the first to engage Cetshwayo's army, but Chelmsford had grossly underestimated his foe... with results that took Fleet Street editors completely off guard and shook the Empire to its core.
22 January 1879
Unexpectedly employing diversionary tactics, an estimated 15 000 Zulu warriors surprised and successfully split the British force at Isandlwana, near Nquthu, and in a two-hour engagement killed all but 74 of the 1 500-strong invading troop. The Queen's Colour was finally lost a short distance away at Fugitives Drift... but only after a valiant rear- guard action by survivors of the carnage who were pursued across the Buffalo River. Lieutenants Coghill and Melville were immortalised for their bravery.
Within hours and a mere 15 kilometres due west of Isandlwana, some 4 000 Zulu attacked the Swedish mission station at Rorke's Drift used by the British as a magazine and field hospital. Here, the 'Heroic Hundred' earned 11 Victoria Crosses - the most ever awarded for a single engagement - while holding the impi at bay for 12 hours. When the Zulu finally retreated they left behind 500 dead - to the 17 British fatalities.
The regiments invading from the eastern seaboard were also set upon that day, ambushed by 5 000 warriors lying concealed among bushes and gullies. Although their casualty list was high, the 4 000-plus British repelled wave after wave until late afternoon when the Zulu withdrew... allowing the column to continue its march.
Siege and Rescue
Led by Colonel Pearson and without further incident, these invaders from the coast reached Eshowe the following day, but did not immediately press on towards the Zulu capital of Ulundi as originally planned. And when news of the disaster at Isandlwana reached Pearson a week later, he decided to attempt no further advance whatsoever. This, in turn, compelled Zulu commanders in the southeast to resort to a new strategy. They laid siege to the British settlement, blocking communication and supply routes for more than two months, until Eshowe was finally relieved after the Battle of Gingingdlovu.
C. E. Fripp's painting of the Battle of Isandlwana.
Northern Exposure
Unlike the Coastal and Central columns, the troops under Captain Moriarty who filed out of the mountainous northwest encountered no enemy action until the second week of March... when they were outnumbered and almost annihilated at Ntombe Drift in the vicinity of Paulpietersburg. Surprisingly, the superior-numbered Zulu force withdrew, allowing the British to consolidate... only to be defeated a fortnight later on the slopes of Hlobane Mountain near Vryheid.
Buoyed by this victory, King Cetshwayo's army sought to press home their perceived advantage... but it was the Zulu's turn to underestimate their foe.
Pivotal Victory
Early afternoon on the day after Hlobane, an estimated 25 000 warriors launched themselves against a fortified British position at nearby Kambula. They were repelled again and again... eventually taking flight and pursued on horseback until nightfall. Although this crushing defeat proved to be the turning point of the Anglo-Zulu War, Lord Chelmsford adopted a less cavalier approach and called for reinforcements.
Death of a Dynasty
Among newcomers to the front was the great-nephew of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, Prince Louis Napoleon, who had personally begged Queen Victoria's permission to accompany the fresh troops. Exiled to England in 1870, Prince Louis was legally barred from receiving a commission in the British Army, but allowed to join Chelmsford as an extra aide-de-camp. Any hopes of resurrecting a Napoleonic dynasty in France died on the first day of June, 1879, when the Prince succumbed to 17 assegai thrusts while on patrol with a scouting party.
The Final March
Many similar skirmishes punctuated Lord Chelmsford's determined efforts to converge on the Zulu kingdom's Royal Seat. Soon after the formerly-beseiged Coastal Column passed through Melmoth, the full might of Britain's war effort was concentrated alongside the Umfolozi River... a stone's throw from the Zulu capital of Ulundi. Here, on 4 July 1879, the British dealt their enemy the death-blow... routing the Zulu army for the last time, capturing Cetshwayo and tearing his realm asunder.
A Short Peace for the British
While the Redcoats and impis were shedding blood on Zulu soil, anti- British sentiment was simmering north of the Vaal River, where in 1877 Voortrekkers had watched with deep resentment the annexation of their self- proclaimed Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek by agents of the Crown. Three years of negotiation repeatedly failed, and within 18 months, British veterans of the triumphant Zulu campaign once again found themselves on war footing.

First War of Independence 1880 - 1881

In late 1880, emissaries of the Boer republic made another peaceful attempt to regain their independence, but when it, too, came to nought... war was declared.

British forces were marched northwest from Port Natal-Durban to Newcastle, from where they first attempted, on 28 January 1881, to invade Boer territory at Laing's Nek, in the vicinity of Volksrust. This attack failed, as did the second incursion, ten days later on the nearby Schuinshoogte ridge. The shortcomings of scarlet uniform, gleaming white helmet and conspicuous fighting formation saw the tide turn irrevocably against the British on the morning of 27 February 1881, on verdant slopes at the Battle of Majuba.

General Colley had led his troops up this 'Mountain of Doves' during the night, only to be killed as the Boer soldiers who climbed to an even higher position at daybreak put the British to flight. An armistice was signed a few days later at the foot of 'Majuba', followed by a peace treaty in Newcastle.

The subsequent Pretoria Convention, signed in October the same year, was never wholly acceptable to the fiercely independent Afrikaaner, and their discontent simmered for eight years until boiling over into the real Anglo- Boer War.

The Place of Gold

Across the Vaal River in the Zuid- Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal), the Gold Rush that followed discovery of the precious metal in 1886 further undermined the Boer's sense of security. They witnessed a massive influx of 'foreigners' - mostly British - and imagined themselves overrun by these uitlanders in the very near future. President Paul Kruger moved to strip these unwelcome fortune-hunters of any political rights by amending the Voting Act... which led to a failed uprising in 1895. The die was cast, though, and attitudes on both sides continued to harden until the inevitable occurred at 5 p.m. on 11 October 1899.

Anglo-Boer War 1899 - 1902

The immediate support of kommando fighters from the Orange Free State gave the Boer two fronts from which to threaten the northern triangle of Natal. They invaded, occupied Newcastle on 15 October, and pushed southeast for five days before clashing with British regiments on Talana Hill near Dundee.
Uniforms now daubed with khaki-brown paint, the 'Redcoats' drove their enemy from this strategic high ground, but at great cost. The following day, 21 October, a British victory at Elandslaagte, south of Glencoe, freed the rail corridor for survivors of Talana Hill to escape further south still... to Ladysmith.

The Young Lion in Africa

When Boer patrols from the Orange Free State were spotted crossing the Drakensberg Mountains into Natal near Winterton, the British dispatched a camouflaged, armoured reconnaissance train from Estcourt. Among its complement was a recent addition to Britain's war effort... the 25-year-old Sandhurst-trained cavalryman and newspaper correspondent, Winston Churchill.

On 15 November 1899, Boer guerillas ambushed and derailed the train, killing a number of British soldiers and capturing Churchill. Within two months, however, the future Prime Minister had escaped from prison in the Transvaal, slipped back into Natal and rejoined the push to relieve Ladysmith.

The Siege of Ladysmith

Along with its attendant battles, this tragic chain of events remains a bleak epic in Britain's long history of imperialism. The deliberate massing of regiments in an area encircled by hills offered Boer field-commanders the perfect opportunity to isolate and harass their foe with impunity. To prevent a disaster of humiliating proportions, British officers were directed from the highest quarter to relieve the town at all costs.

A High Price

Ten days before Christmas 1899, Sir Redvers Buller's first attempt to cross the Thukela River near Colenso failed dismally, and the number of brigade hospitals hastily erected adjacent to the battlefield bore testimony to its outcome.

It is generally accepted that the Battle of Colenso was the first-ever to be recorded for posterity on cine- film.

History regards Buller's next foray - in late January 1900 - as the most bloody and futile of all his attempts to relieve the beleaguered town... with 500 fatalities in hilly terrain around Winterton. This was the desperate Battle of Spioenkop... from which the Boer emerged relatively unscathed.

The Mahatma

Witness to the grim aftermath of Spioenkop was visiting lawyer Mohandas Gandhi, who volunteered his services as stretcher-bearer alongside thousands of indentured South African Indians - and colonised Africans - who played ancillary roles in Britain's drama.

Gandhi's 'South African Experience' profoundly influenced the evolution of his 'Great Soul' for future liberation of the Indian sub-continent from British dominion.

Now or Never

When Buller's regiments again failed to breach enemy lines - within a fortnight of Spioenkop, at the Battle of Vaalkrans - Britain launched the most concerted offensive ever seen in the Southern Hemisphere prior to the Falklands War almost a century later.

From the first dawn attack on 21 February 1900, blood was spilled for six days in a series of punishing encounters on the hills surrounding Ladysmith. Collectively known as the Battle of Thukela Heights, these hard-fought victories were ultimately crowned with British re-occupation of the town by nightfall on the 26th.

Beyond the Arena

Sensational newspaper reports detailing the 118-day siege incited war-fever around the globe... inspiring more French, German, Italian, Frisian, Russian, Irish-American and other anti- Loyalists to fight alongside the Boer, while the Crown called on additional reinforcements from its colonies in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Britain finally deployed about half-a- million men in the field... to the estimated 78 000 mustered by the enemy.

Prayer and Deliverance

Believing the tide of war had turned in their favour, British troops set about recapturing Dundee which they finally accomplished after penetrating Boer defences on 13 May. A week later they experienced a minor setback at Scheeper's Nek, south of Vryheid, when a company of Bethune's Mounted Infantry surprised a congregation of Boer folk and Swaziland policemen at prayer. The church-goers forced the British to withdraw after a short, sharp engagement.

General Buller's regiments captured Botha's Pass, west of Newcastle, and advanced into the Orange Free State within a month of relieving Dundee, and later broke through into the Transvaal Boer Republic a little further north at Allemans Nek in the Volksrust area.

This Far and No Further

On 24 September 1900, Boer commandos heading east towards the coast were stopped in their tracks at Fort Prospect, near Babanango, by a vastly- outnumbered British garrison.

Coincidentally, it was at Italeni - only a short distance away but more than a year later - where the second Boer invasion of Natal came to a standstill.

This followed the Battle of Blood River Poort, southwest of Vryheid, on 17 September 1901, where the British failed to prevent Louis Botha's commandos breaking through from the Transvaal. This disastrous engagement saw the Boer capture three field guns while killing 16 officers and 273 enlisted men.

The War ends...

Sporadic fighting continued for eight- and-a-half months... in northern Natal, the Cape Colony and within the two Boer republics... until signing of the Peace Treaty in Vereeniging on 31 May 1902.

...and Recriminations Begin

Often described as the 'last of the gentlemen's wars', the Anglo-Boer War was also one of controversy and extreme, lasting bitterness- due mainly to the concentration camps built by the British in response to the guerilla tactics of their enemy.While a total of some 12 000 Boer and British soldiers died in battle, death toll estimates among White and Black civilians in the concentration camps reached a staggering 42 000.

Survivors of these camps returned to devastated homesteads and wasted land - the result of Lord Kitchener's scorched earth policy, whereby Boer farms suspected of supporting the commandos were put to the torch.

Civilian losses on the Crown's side were financial - the three-year Anglo- Boer War cost the British taxpayer 200- million pounds sterling.

Return of the Spear

Zulu antipathy towards both British and Boer remained at low intensity throughout the war... with one notable exception. Three-and-a-half weeks before the Peace Treaty was signed, Zulu warriors launched a surprise attack against Boer folk gathered on Zuinguin Mountain between Vryheid and Paulpietersburg... killing 56 at the Battle of Holkrans.

Bambatha and the 'Modern' Struggle

Anti-settler feelings among the Zulu resurfaced in the Greytown district four years after the Anglo-Boer War, when Colonial authorities suspended the powers of Chief Bambatha for 'tax evasion'. He rebelled... and convinced a number of fellow traditional leaders in the region to follow suit. Fearing for the lives of local Whites, a police column entered the area to bring to safety three women and a child. During their return journey on 4 April 1906, four policemen - plus a trooper and his dog - were killed by the Zulu at Ambush Rock. The British Army was sent in... and Chief Bambatha, along with his followers, were trapped and killed in the Mome Gorge. This effectively put paid to the rebellion that ultimately claimed some three-and- a-half thousand lives.

Chief Bambatha is considered one of the forerunners of this country's Freedom Struggle from the iniquities of apartheid.

A Final Twist...

Ironically, the rebellious chief shared his Greytown roots with the birthplace of Boer Commandant-General Louis Botha, who led the second invasion of Natal and went on to become the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa in 1910.