The History of the KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields: Leopard-Skin, Khaki and Redcoat
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.
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.
- A Brief Introduction to the Battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal
- The History of the KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields: Leopard-Skin, Khaki and Redcoat
- Some of the most important KwaZulu-Natal Battlefield sites
- The Battle of Isandlwana
- The Battle of Rorke's Drift
- The Battle of Spionkop (Spioenkop)
- Helpful Hints to Remember When Visiting Battlefields