KwaZulu's battlefields provide a fascinating and moving experience of South Africa's history.
Any touring map of the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa is dotted with red markers naming numerous battles, from SpionKop in the northwest to Ndondakusuka in the southeast. They recall the capture of Churchill, Rorke's Drift, Isandlwana, Blood River, the death of the Prince Imperial of France, numerous battles, famous or forgotten, fought in a parade of campaigns: Zulu vs Zulu, Boer vs Zulu, Brit vs Boer (1), Brit vs Zulu, Brit vs Boer (2).
Why do we memorialise these many battles of the nineteenth century? Sometimes, battles are the climatic turns of history, as Rob Caskie remarked to me: before the battle of Ulundi in 1879 the Zulu were the most famous warrior nation in Africa, afterward they were destined to be the garden boys of apartheid.
Battles – well told – bring home the awfulness of men sent on campaigns of disease and slaughter. At SpionKop, that terrible, futile battle, Ghandi was a stretcher bearer. He remarked ‘I now know what men are capable of, but I do not know for what’; the experience of seeing such confused slaughter apparently turned his mind to passive resistance. Our guide, Raymond Heron, told us that history repeats itself, but having been with him at SpionKop one is given pause to wish it not to be so, and to treasure Ghandi’s wisdom.
Battles also create heroes. Rorke’s Drift is an astonishing tale of bravery. Well earned were the 11 VCs awarded that long night. One hundred untested soldiers guarding a hospital were thrown into an unexpected and savage drama by the sudden attack of 4000 Zulu. Their desperate defence defies belief and their names still inspire their descendants. And, of course, Winston Churchill, whose youthful desire for fame was amply granted by his astonishing – foolhardy – bravery at the site of a Boer ambush of a troop train near Colenso; he was captured, leapt the wall of his prison in Pretoria and escaped in a long, tense, flight to the border of Mozambique. His story, so well told, made him not only a hero, but gave him the fame to win a seat in Parliament. Moreover, his experience of the disasters suffered by Britain at the hands of the Boers gave him the insight to tell Parliament that modern war would be totally different to that seen in the times of Kings.
We were very fortunate to be guided by two brilliant battlefield guides, Rob Caskie and Raymond Heron, at two very different battles. Their knowledge, so well expressed, brings these battlefields back to life, and death. Through their words you are there, learning the lessons, inspired, appalled. These Great Guides plunge visitors into this world of war, of bravery, futility, defeat and triumph, ‘Lest…’ as Rob concludes his tours ‘We Forget’.
Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 28 Feb 2010
Location: Southern Africa | South Africa
Themes: the past | 1850 - 1945, inspiring