The KwaZulu-Natal battlefields have always been very much worth a days trip reliving the past. The Drakensberg and Natal Midlands offer many opportunities to re-discover British, Zulu and Boer clashes on the battlefield. Infact KwaZulu-Natal now hosts the Battlefield Route, an experience that is a South Africa tour highlight.
Driving past Colenso today, it is hard to visualize that just over one hundred years ago General Buller's forces were spread across this same piece of veld. British soldiers struggling to cross the Tugela River against the concentrated fire from Boer guns sited in the hills surrounding the besieged town of Ladysmith.
Amongst them a 25-year-old former soldier turned newspaper correspondent for the London Morning Post, by name of Winston Churchill, and a young London-trained lawyer, serving as a stretcher bearer, named Mohandas Ghandi.
As you journey further, it is even more difficult to imagine that the scenic and tranquil landscape of central and northern KwaZulu-Natal was once the focal point of major military clashes, where over a span of 70 years, one historical drama after another unfolded against the backdrop of the African veld and the majestic Drakensberg mountains.
The region boasts the largest concentration of battlefields in South Africa, drawing visitors from all over the world.
It is here that military engagements that were to shape the course of South African and world history, and rock the pedestal of the British Empire, raged over thorny hills and sweeping grasslands.
MAJOR WARS The first involved the continuing clash between the Voortrekkers and the Zulu nation during the period 1836-1852. Refusing to be subjected to British rule in the Cape Colony, the Voortrekkers headed for the hinterland. They wished to govern themselves and maintain their cultural identity and language, but after crossing the Drakensberg mountains, the trekking groups came into contact with the Zulu in Natal, leading to disputes over land and other issues.
After trekker leader Piet Retief and 101 of his group were killed by King Dingane, there followed a series of battles, particularly around present day Estcourt. At the Battle of Blood River (16 December 1838), the Zulu forces were repulsed and King Dingane forced to flee.
Thereafter the Zulu nation was in conflict with British forces in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
The first battle of the war was at Isandlawana, when the 1500 strong British invading force was routed by Zulu impis. On the same day, the Zulus attacked Rorkes Drift, a small Swedish mission station used by the British army as a magazine and hospital. It was here that for 12 hours the „heroic hundred" repelled a force of 4000 Zulus, losing 17 men and winning 11 Victoria Crosses - the most ever awarded for a single military engagement. The war was typical of the British army's attitude in the Victorian era, in that it was a campaign waged not only against a courageous and forceful enemy, but also against distance and natural obstacles. Despite considerable experience in the field, the British generals underestimated the fighting ability of the Zulus, resulting in a series of disasters.
The Anglo-Zulu War also saw the last hopes of a Napoleonic dynasty die, when Prince Louis Napoleon, the great nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was attached to the British forces in Zululand as an observer; was killed while on patrol.
Two years later (1880-1881) the British were again at war in South Africa, this time against the Boers in the First War of Independence (1880-1881) - also referred to as the First Anglo-Boer War. After a series of engagements, including Laing's Nek and Schuinshoogte, and a British defeat on Amajuba, (the hill of doves), the armistice was signed at O'Neills Cottage at the base of aMajuba mountain and later the peace treaty at Hilldrop House in Newcastle, once the home of author Rider Haggard.
The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) saw Britain and the Boers one again in conflict.
Battlefields are scattered like patchwork across the region as a poignant reminder to this bitter and bloody period, which was precipitated by the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886.
With the northern triangle of Natal an especially vulnerable region, towns such as Colenso, Dundee, Estcourt, Glencoe, Ladysmith, Newcastle, Utrecht, Volksrust, Vryheid and Winterton became key points during the three year war.
Britain marched into the Anglo-Boer War in the South African spring of 1899, confident that it would all be over by Christmas. But, as Rudyard Kipling was to write, the comparatively small bands of volunteers from the Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were to give Queen Victoria's proud British army „no end of a lesson".
Names such as Winston Churchill, Generall Sir Redvers Buller, Mohandas Ghandi, Jan Smuts and Louis Botha are part of the rich tapestry of the war, which records the triumph and tragedy of famous battles and engagements such as Talana, Spionkop, the Armoured Train incident, Colenso Heights and the 118 days Siege of Ladysmith.
The Bambatha Rebellion (1906) stemmed from Bambatha, a chief of the Zondi tribe, leading a protest against the imposition of a poll tax. After four policemen and a trooper were killed at Ambush Rock, colonial forces were called up and Bambatha and his men were trapped and killed in the Mome Gorge. More details of the Battlefields in South Africa
Touring the Battlefields
Most visitors to the region treat their Battlefields getaway as a self-drive experience. Armed with informative maps and brochures obtainable from the tourism Associations and information offices in the region, this can be a rewarding journey of personal exploration.
An recommended alternative is to employ the services of a specialist battlefields guide. Many of the guides are brilliant raconteurs, able to make the most mundane historical events come to life. They often produce a show worthy of the finest theatre group. Standing on the spot where men fought and died, they interweave historical detail with anecdote and emotion.
Or you may prefer a battlefields guide who uses the facilities of a coach tour to take you in air-conditioned comfort to a range of battle-sites in a single day's outing. The excursion will follow the progress of a war from site to site, or explore local sites from different wars.
Dundee Die Hards
The Dundee Die Hard team was formed in 1999 when it was decided to re-enact the Battle of Talana, the first engagement of the Anglo-Boer War. The re-enactment team dressed up in khaki uniforms (the actual battle on 20 October 1899 saw British forces wearing khaki uniforms for the first time), identical to those worn by British soldiers a hundred years before, and carrying rifles and blank ammunition, fought a Boer Commando on the original battle side. This was undertaken under the supervision of the British „Die Hards", a group of 'soldiers' who travel the world re-enacting famous battles.
The Dundee Die Hards have 24 members and are the only permanent re-enactment team in South Africa. They wear either red or khaki, depending on the war; and take up arms against both Boer and Zulu groups. Naturally, they cannot perform a battle without an enemy and enthusiastic Zulu impis and Boer commandos are enlisted for the day.