Mostly Battlefields – Kwazulu-Natal (Part 2)

The background

My earlier Post on “Paardeberg (Finding the Canadians)” covers our trip with Sheila (Sam) and John Denner to Kimberley and the Paardeberg Battlefield. The follow-on trip took us to Kwazulu-Natal where we visited a number of battlefield sites, a few of which were described in Part 1. This post takes up the next leg of the trip, which was to cover more of the battlefield sites identified by John over the northern and central parts of Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) province, which lies in the north-eastern quadrant of South Africa.

We continued to enjoy the wonderful hospitality of Pieter and Anlia Genis , family of my wife Gerda, who farm near Vryheid and who had offered their farm as a base for us to visit the various battlefield sites. They 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!

We decided to do the Ladysmith area next, with a number of battlefield sites in the area and the Ladysmith Siege museum on the agenda. We left the farm after an early breakfast, to give us enough time to explore the area thoroughly and  headed to Ladysmith via Dundee.

Battle of Elandslaagte (21 October 1899)

Our first stop for the day was just off the main road at Elandslaagte, where we found the by now familiar, well-kept cemetery commemorating the fallen soldiers.

Well-kept cemetery at Elandslaagte
Well-kept cemetery at Elandslaagte
The cemetery at Elandslaagte
The cemetery at Elandslaagte
Fallen soldiers commemorated at Elandslaagte Battlefield
Fallen soldiers commemorated at Elandslaagte Battlefield

The Battle

Second War of Independence 1899-1902. After the Boer ultimatum to the British, to withdraw troops from the Transvaal and Orange Free State, had expired, the Boers invaded Natal and in the process took Elandslaagte station between Ladysmith and Dundee. The battle ensued when the British sent troops to recapture the area and resulted in high casualties on both sides, with the British regaining control of the area.

Where is it?

Signposted off the R 602 between Dundee and Ladysmith, cross the railway line and follow signs to the sites.

Ladysmith – Siege Museum

After a brief stop at the Information centre, we found the Siege Museum in Murchison Street – it turned out to be a very informative museum, not just about the Siege of Ladysmith but also about some of the battles in KZN and the circumstances leading up to them – it was well worth the visit.  

Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith

The museum has a number of displays consisting of “newspaper cuttings” which set out some of the history in a concise way

Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith

There are also historical photos and displays which give a feel for the time

Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Typical Boer uniform
Typical Boer uniform
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith

The Siege

From early October 1899 the British had a garrison stationed at Ladysmith, which was swelled to 13000 by the garrison in Dundee after the Battle of Talana on 20 October and their withdrawal to Ladysmith. On 30 October the combined garrisons took on the Boers in the Battle of Ladysmith but failed to rid the area of the encroaching Boers – by November 1899 Ladysmith was surrounded and besieged and was only relieved 3 months later after much suffering.

Battle of Wagon Hill (Platrand) (6 January 1900)

Our next stop was the Wagon Hill Battlefield and Cemetery, after once again having to contend with minimal signage and going on “gut feel”. Reading through the names on the commemorative monuments, I came across Lance Sergeant R Reid of the Gordon Highlanders – not any direct relation but just brought it a bit closer to home, as did the others with our surname that we were to come across at other battle sites.

Wagon Hill Cemetery
Wagon Hill Cemetery
Wagon Hill Cemetery
Wagon Hill Cemetery
Lance Sergeant R Reid commemorated
Lance Sergeant R Reid commemorated

The Battle

Second War of Independence 1899 – 1902. This was the Boers attempt to take this strategic hill, during the long siege of British occupied Ladysmith. After a lengthy engagement the British managed to hold the hill, but suffered 183 men killed and 249 wounded while the Boer casualties were 68 men killed and 135 wounded.

Where is it?

Take the R 103 to Colenso and on the outskirts of town turn off at Platrand Lodge. Follow this road past the hotel and continue up the hill until you reach a crossroad from where it is signposted. The GPS position I recorded was 28º 35′ 15.12″ S , 29º 45′ 54.68″ E

Battle of Spioenkop (24 January 1900)

Moving on, our next stop was the well-known site of the Battle of Spioenkop, sited on a hill with magnificent views all round of the green landscape and the overflowing Spioenkop dam far below – we can enjoy the views today but on that day in 1900 it was the site of massive losses of young soldiers on both sides as the British forces tried to defend the hill against the attacking Boers.

Spioenkop Battlefield (24 January 1900)

Spioenkop Battlefield
Spioenkop Battlefield
Spioenkop today - a beautiful spot
Spioenkop today – a beautiful spot with magnificent views
You can see for miles around from Spioenkop
You can see for miles around from Spioenkop

Spioenkop Battlefield (24 January 1900) Spioenkop Battlefield (24 January 1900)

Many British dead were buried in the trenches that were dug before the battle
Many British dead were buried in the trenches that were dug before the battle for defensive purposes
John contemplating the battle - an overflowing Spioenkop dam far below
John contemplating the battle – an overflowing Spioenkop dam far below

As with Wagon Hill, I came across the Reid surname 3 times amongst those who perished – interestingly, two Reid’s appear on the British memorial while one was listed with mostly Afrikaans surnames on the Boer memorial, which was also the first time we had come across a formal Boer memorial at a battlefield site – apparently the Boers tended to remove their casualties to be buried elsewhere, even taking them home again. The Reid’s commemorated were Private PL Reid and Sergeant R Reid on the British side and CK Reid from Pretoria on the Boer side.

One of the British memorials at Spioenkop
One of the British memorials at Spioenkop
Another memorial at Spioenkop
Another memorial at Spioenkop

Spioenkop Battlefield (24 January 1900) Spioenkop Battlefield (24 January 1900)

Monument to the Boers at Spioenkop
Monument to the Boers at Spioenkop
CK Reid from Pretoria commemorated on the Boer memorial
CK Reid from Pretoria commemorated on the Boer memorial

The Battle

This was the climax of a week’s fighting on the north bank of the Tugela river, with the British attempting to break through the Boer line. The battle began after midnight with the British taking the hill early morning, but they were subjected to heavy artillery fire from the Boers below, followed by a day long battle that ended with neither side claiming a decisive victory. There were massive casualties on the British side, less so on the Boer side.

Where is it?

Take the Bergville / Exit 230 offramp from the N3 National road between Jo’burg and Durban and head towards Bergville. After 4 km turn off at the signposted gravel road and follow this road to the entrance. The GPS position at the entrance is 28º 38′ 19.83″ S , 29º 30′ 52.57″ E

Train Incident – Winston Churchill capture (15 November 1899)

The next stop entailed a lengthy search for the site of the train derailment and capture of Winston Churchill, at the time a journalist for a London newspaper. Poor signage caused us to miss a turnoff and we drove for an hour in the wrong direction before some local people took us to the site with its not very prominent plaque on a small stone base. This was a good opportunity to take a tea break and have a look around – we discovered the train line still passes nearby when a long goods train came rumbling past.

Churchill capture site - found after a few wrong turns
Churchill capture site – found after a few wrong turns
Churchill capture site
Churchill capture site

The Capture

Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. With Ladysmith under siege and Boers occupying Colenso, the British needed to know where the Boers were heading and part of their reconnaissance was done by sending an armoured train part way  up the line from Estcourt to Colenso. On one of these recces Winston Churchill accompanied the soldiers on the train, being a young reporter for a London newspaper and out for adventure. That morning the train got as far as Chievely before starting the return journey in reverse – however the Boers had spotted the train and placed rocks on the track at the bottom of a slope, then opened fire on the train as it approached, causing it to speed up to escape the fire. This resulted in the train derailing massively at the point where the rocks had been placed and fighting ensued. A number of British withdrew after getting the engine going again but Churchill was captured and taken to Pretoria, where he later planned and executed a dramatic escape to Mozambique.

Where is it?

Take exit no 194 / Bergville/Colenso from the N3, travel on the R 74  then turn onto the R 103 towards Colenso – almost immediately turn left at a gravel road and drive a short distance to the memorial

Bloukrans (16/17 February 1838)

Finally, for the day, we stopped at this moving site, where a number of Boer families, men women and children, were camping and were attacked by Zulu Impis, leaving most of them dead

Monument to Burgers attacked by Zulus at Bloukrans (17 February 1838)
Monument to Burgers attacked by Zulus at Bloukrans (17 February 1838)
Monument to Burgers attacked by Zulus at Bloukrans
Monument to Burgers attacked by Zulus at Bloukrans

The Plaque reads :

“When the Trekkers entered Natal in November 1837 a large number of family groups camped in this valley. Only a few laagers were formed. During the night of 16 / 17 February 1838, Zulu Impis which had left Dingane’s kraal shortly after the murder of Retief attacked these groups killing 41 men 56 women 185 children and about 200 retainers besides destroying wagons and encampments and driving cattle away”

Where is it?

From the train incident site take the R 74 and turn off a short distance further, then follow the gravel road for about 8 kms to the monument

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.

The Farm

In between travelling to the sites we continued to enjoy the hospitality of Pieter and Anlia and much lively discussion happened at mealtimes The next day was set aside for a visit to two of the best-known sites, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – the subject of the next Post

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