Mostly Battlefields – Kwazulu-Natal (Part 1)

The background

My previous Post on “Paardeberg (Finding the Canadians)” covers our trip with Sheila (Sam) and John Denner to Kimberley and the Paardeberg Battlefield. This is the follow-on to that trip.

There was just a day to recover and prepare for the next leg of the trip, which was to cover a number of battlefield sites identified by John over the northern and central parts of Kwazulu-Natal province, which lies in the north-west quadrant of South Africa. When we had discussed the visit with Pieter and Anlia Genis , family of my wife Gerda, who farm near Vryheid, they immediately offered their farm as a base for us to visit the various battlefield sites and went far beyond normal hospitality in driving us around and providing meals and a place to sleep for four days – they surely deserve a medal!

Majuba Battlefield (27 February 1881)

Saturday 9th February 2013 : We left Pretoria by about 10h00 and drove the “back roads” via Delmas,  Leandra, Standerton (where we introduced the Canadians to Spur Burgers) through to our first stop at the Majuba Battlefield site, which lies between Volksrust and Newcastle just off the N 11, with the Majuba Hill being visible from some distance away. We drove in to the Commemorative Farm, wondering if it would be open for visitors and came across the caretaker, one Hendrik de Beer, who took a break from tractor-mowing the vast lawns to show us the small museum – not particularly impressive but he was quite informative and willing to tell us what he knew, in the absence of a guide.

Majuba Hill
The imposing Majuba Hill
Memorial to the Boers at Majuba
Memorial to the Boers at Majuba

Unfortunately we did not have time to walk up the Majuba Hill, which requires 2 to 3 hours, which would no doubt have given us a better feel for the battle.

The Battle

First War of Independence 1880 – 1881. This was the major deciding battle of the war. This was the second attempt by General George Colley and his troops to break through the Boer defences and enter the Transvaal. They climbed the imposing hill overnight intending to shell the Boer positions from above. The Boers scaled the summit and eventually forced the British to flee, killing Colley in the process. 280 British men were killed, wounded or captured while the Boers lost 2 men. This led to the signing of a peace treaty at the nearby O’Neill’s Cottage.

Where is it?

Signposted off the N 11 between Volksrust and Newcastle.

Laing’s Nek Battlefield (28 January 1881)

From Majuba it was a short drive to the roadside Laing’s Nek Battlefield site where we found that there was nothing at all to indicate it or the events that took place but nevertheless stopped and scouted around for a while. It seems best to arrange with local farm owners to access the site which is on private land.

The Battle

First War of Independence 1880 – 1881. This was the first attempt by British forces under General George Colley to break through the Boer defences to the Transvaal. The Boers were entrenched on both sides of the road through the nek and successfully defended their position.

O’Neill’s Cottage

A further short drive took us to O’Neill’s Cottage which served as a hospital and was where the peace talks were held and the treaty was signed after the Battle of Majuba. It originally belonged to Eugene O’Neill.

O'Neill's Cottage, near Majuba
O’Neill’s Cottage, near Majuba
O'Neill's Cottage
O’Neill’s Cottage
O'Neill's Cottage
O’Neill’s Cottage

From a distance the old house looks attractive but on closer inspection was clearly run down and had nothing at all inside – definitely an opportunity waiting, to turn it into something special which will persuade passing traffic to drive the short distance from the main road to view it.

Where is it?

Signposted off the N11 between Volksrust and Newcastle, not long after the Majuba and Laing’s Nek sites.

Battle of Schuinshoogte (Ingogo) 8 February 1881

The rest of the day’s drive to the farm went quite slowly once we turned off the National road, due to the condition of the road  and occasional “stop and go’s”; unexpectedly we saw a sign to Schuinshoogte, which was not on our agenda but, curious to see it, we took the turn-off and followed the country road for a few Km’s until we came to the cemeteries and memorials a distance from the road on both sides and spent some time exploring them in the tranquil setting of rolling hills.

Schuinshoogte battlefield

Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte Cemetery
Schuinshoogte Cemetery
Schuinshoogte battlefield
John at Schuinshoogte
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield

The Battle

General George Colley and troops were escorting a convoy from Mount Prospect to Newcastle when they were attacked by Boer forces near the Ingogo River, on the Schuinshoogte plateau. Under siege the whole day, Colley withdrew his forces overnight. British casualties were high.

Where is it?

From Newcastle take the R 34 and after about 11 Km turn right onto a gravel road, continuing for 2 to 3 Km until you find the cemeteries on both sides of the road

We eventually reached the farm after dark and were warmly welcomed by the Genis family – Pieter and Anlia

Talana Battlefield, Dundee (20 October 1899)

Sunday 10th February 2013 : We enjoyed a bit of a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast (my favourite – krummelpap!!) before setting off for a visit to Talana Battlefield and the many-faceted museum on the site.  Anlia had booked us for lunch which was traditional “boerekos” (farm style food) and we spent some time afterwards checking out the exhibits, spread over the large site in various old and new buildings, as well as the gravestones marking the burial of those who died in the battle.

Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee
Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee
Lunch at Talana - Sam (Sheila), Gerda and Anlia
Lunch at Talana – Sam (Sheila), Gerda and Anlia
Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee
Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee
Talana
Talana
Talana
Talana
Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee
Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee

We were fascinated to see that a group of people were dressed up in the uniforms of the participants and were practising for a re-enactment of the battle – “British” in their redcoats with white strapping and the “Boers” in khaki shirts and pants.

"Redcoats" and "Boers" practising for a re-enactment
“Redcoats” and “Boers” practising for a re-enactment

The Battle

Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. This was the scene of the first battle of the war, following the expiry of the Boer ultimatum to the British on 12 October 1899, also the first time the British forces wore khaki uniforms. The Boers attacked the garrison at Dundee and succeeded in occupying the town while the British garrison withdrew to join the troops in Ladysmith, which shortly thereafter came under siege by the Boers for 118 days.

Battle of Talana
Battle of Talana
Battle of Talana
Battle of Talana

Where is it?

On the outskirts of Dundee on the R 33 road to Vryheid

Blood River Battlefield (16 December 1838)

Then we moved on to the Blood River Battlefield for a look at the famous site of the battle between Boer and Zulu, which has such significance for the Afrikaners – the friendly caretaker showed us around and had us watch the short film of the background to and events of 16 December 1838, which was quite moving. We walked down to the laager of bronze wagons a short distance away and enjoyed a picnic tea while imagining the traumatic events of that day.

Blood River Battlefield (16 December 1838)
Blood River Battlefield (16 December 1838)
Bronze wagons form a "laager" at the battlefield site
Bronze wagons form a “laager” at the battlefield site
Blood River Battlefield
Blood River Battlefield
The bronze wagon laager
The bronze wagon laager
A wagon re-created in bronze
A wagon re-created in bronze
Blood River Battlefield
Blood River Battlefield
Picnic tea at Blood River
Picnic tea at Blood River

Later, on the way out, we took the road to the “other side” of the river where a new Zulu commemorative complex has been built. Interesting to see a somewhat different take on the battle.

The Battle

At this battle a party of Voortrekkers, intent on avenging the killing of Piet Retief and his 70 companions earlier in the year, were on their way towards Dingane’s headquarters and, when they heard the Zulu army was close by, formed a laager of wagons on the banks of the river. Waves of attacks by the 15000 strong Zulu army were repulsed by Boer rifle and cannon fire and up to 3000 Zulus were killed while 4 Boers were wounded. The battle marked the end of Dingane’s power in Natal. The Ncome river ran red from the blood and became known as the Blood River

Where is it?

Signposted about 20 Km from Dundee on the R 33 to Vryheid.

Blood River Poort Battlefield (17 September 1901) 

Next on our itinerary and not far from Blood River, but arising from a completely different era, lies the Blood River Poort Battlefield, with a simple cemetery to commemorate the Boer and Brit soldiers who fell on the day

Blood River Poort Battlefield (17 September 1901)
Blood River Poort Battlefield (17 September 1901)
Cemetery at Blood River Poort Battlefield
Cemetery at Blood River Poort Battlefield
Blood River Poort Battlefield
Blood River Poort Battlefield

The Battle

The British forces based at Dundee engaged a large Boer Commando at Blood River Poort, but were outflanked by the Boers and forced to surrender.

Where is it?

Off the R 34 to Utrecht – 5 Km from the junction with the R 33, turn right onto a secondary gravel road and after another 8 Km turn left at the sign to Goedekloof farm – about 1 Km further lies the cluster of graves.

A Bit of Birding

Birding was a side issue on this trip, limited to some snatched sightings while travelling and when investigating the battlefield sites. At Talana I did some ad hoc atlasing and listed some 20 species including an African Harrier-Hawk and Mocking Cliff-Chat

The Farm

In between travelling to the sites we enjoyed the hospitality of Pieter and Anlia and much lively discussion happened at mealtimes

The next couple of days were to be very busy with visits to some of the better-known sites such as Spioenkop, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – the subject of the next Post

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