Battlefields are inherently eerie. Often remote and protected from development, there’s an almost unnatural stillness about them – the breeze seems muted, the shush of the grass quieter than elsewhere, and the cairns, graves and memorials somehow unchanged despite the passage of time. But visit with a knowledgeable guide who can narrate the story of the battle, and it’s easy to completely immerse yourself in the story, and almost, just almost, hear the batt le cries, rifle shot and the moans of the wounded, smell the smoke and the fear, and see the epic clash of soldiers gripped in combat. KwaZulu-Natal is home to some of South Africa’s most important battlefields from the Voortrekker-Zulu Wars, the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the Transvaal War of Independence and the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.
Each of these conflicts, not to mention others too numerous to mention here, played an integral part in shaping the history of our fledgling nation – both for the good and the bad.
Sadly, the battlefields tend to be visited mostly by foreigners whose forebearers fought and died on KZN’s plains. If you went to school in KZN,
chances are you visited Isandlwana or one of the other battlefields as part of a school tour, and as good an experience as it is for young people, the geopolitics, nuances and repercussions of these great events can be somewhat lost on kids. The batt lefields are reasonably easy to reach, there are guides on hand and they’re generally surrounded by excellent places to stay and other attractions – so why not veer off the well-beaten track, and see them for yourself?
ISANDLWANA – The Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are two of the most famous battles in South Africa’s history, let alone the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, with one serving as possibly the Zulu nation’s greatest battlefield victory, and the other serving as one of Great Britain’s greatest defensive actions. The Battle of Isandlwana was the first major encounter between the British and King Cetshwayo’s Zulu kingdom. The centre column of the British forces under the command of Lord Chelmsford, camped on the eastern slope of the Isandlwana Mountain – notable for its resemblance to the Sphinx.
Underestimating the Zulu capabilities, the British did not laager their wagons or entrench, and Chelmsford took the majority of his force to search for the main Zulu army, leaving behind some 1400 men to defend the camp. The 20,000-strong Zulu army thoroughly outmanoeuvred Chelmsford, and on 22 January 1879 attacked the camp. In the ensuing battle, more than 1300 British and Colonial soldiers died, and it was Britain’s worst defeat against an indigenous foe in its history. Although there was no casualty count of the Zulu losses, it’s estimated that 1000-2000 Zulu soldiers lost their lives.
RORKE’S DRIFT – But the drama didn’t end as the last soldier fell at the foot of Isandlwana. in the aftermath of the battle, an impi of some 4000 Zulu warriors crossed the Buffalo River and attacked the British Commissariat and Hospital at the Mission station at Rorke’s Drift. A small British garrison of 140 men repelled the Zulu attack for 11 hours through the night, losing only 17 men and leaving 600 Zulu warriors dead. It’s a remarkable battle which saw 11 Victoria Crosses (the most ever received for a single action by one regiment) and 4 Distinguished Conduct Medals awarded to the brave men manning the garrison. The buildings used in the defence have been turned into a museum and interpretation centre, which tell the story in vivid detail, but it’s hard to imagine the stilt, pretty grounds playing host to a night of such carnage.
BLOOD RIVER – The Battle of Blood River was one of the most iconic encounters of the Great Trek, which saw 470 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius defeat a force of an estimated 15,000-20,000 Zulu warriors on the banks of the Ncome (Blood) River on 16 December 1838. Whilst the victory itself is remarkable, what’s even more so is that no Voortrekkers were killed (only three were lightly wounded), whilst there were some 3000 Zulu casualties.
The Voortrekker wagons were laagered, and Pretorius made excellent use of the natural features of the landscape as part of his defences. The battle lasted about three hours, with the Zulus withdrawing in defeat across the river, which ran red with the blood of the dead and wounded, giving rise to the name of the river and battle. Today, two complexes mark the battle site: the Ncome Monument and Museum Complex east of the Ncome River, and the Blood River Monument and Museum Complex to the west, including 64 full size replica bronze wagons set in the format of the original laager.
MAJUBA HILL – Arguably the most decisive battle in the Transvaal War of Independence (also known as the First Boer War), the Battle of Majuba Hill resulted in another humiliating defeat for the British. Fought on Sunday, 27 February 1881, a British force of some 400 men held the top of Majuba Hill, which dominated the Boer positions blocking the Laing’s Nek Pass and the road into the Transvaal When the Boers realised this they stormed the mountain, and killed or captured 256 British soldiers, including the British General, and lost only five men wounded or killed in the process. Although small in scale, the battle led to the signing of a peace treaty and later the Pretoria Convention, between the British and the reinstated South African Republic, ending the First Boer War. The battlefield has a number of graves and monuments to the fallen, and a phenomenal view of the surrounding area.
SPIONKOP – The Battle of Spionkop was one of a number of battles that took place due to efforts by the British to relieve the besieged British Forces in Ladysmith during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 (also known as the Second Boer War). Fought on 24 January 1900, the battle was bloody and technically ended in a Boer victory, though for both sides the battle was in many senses a futile one. The battle is also notable in that both Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi were present as a courier to and from Spionkop and British headquarters, and a warrant officer of the Indian Ambulance Corps respectively.
During the night of 23 January 1900, the British occupied the kop, but as dawn broke they discovered they only held the smaller and lower part of the hilltop. The Boers held the higher ground on three sides of the British defensive position, and to compound this the British had been unable to dig suitable trenches, with the hard rock of the kop only yielding trenches 40cm deep. The Boers counter (attacked as the mist rose in the morning, combining artillery fire with a massed attack which resulted in vicious, close quarters combat. The fighting lasted throughout the day, and both sides withdrew once darkness fell, with the Boers occupying the kop the following day.