Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Blood on the Painted Mountain (1879)

'Blood on the Painted Mountain' was the description used by Ron Lock as a title for his authoritative book about the Zulu victory at the Battle of Hlobane on the 28th March 1879. Published in 1995, the book tells the story of Hlobane and the subsequent British victory at Kambula - just one day later. Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Ron - albeit on a battlefield belonging to a different generation - Spion Kop.
Hlobane Mountain
The Zulus in this part of their homeland (the abaQulusi) were separated by some distance from the main Zulu power base in Ulundi. No.4 Column of the British invading force under Evelyn Wood had been charged with eliminating what was felt to be a relatively isolated Zulu force. There were an estimated 1,000 Zulus on the mountain with a large number of cattle. Wood attacked with a contingent of 614 mounted troops. The picture above shows the mountain from end to end. The lower plateau on the right was the objective of Lieutenant Colonel John Cecil Russell. The upper plateau on the left - or to the East - was to be taken by Lieutenant Colonel Redvers Buller.

Two Bottles for Dirk 
Our small group was being advised by Major Paul Naish, a longstanding friend of mine and an authority on African military history. Paul managed to secure a 4x4 vehicle in exchange for two bottles of whisky and we were therefore able to cover all of the main areas of interest on this fascinating battlefield without several hours trekking from point to point.

The entry point is through a decaying mining town called Vryheid and we parked up our vehicle and switched to an open backed truck in the old coal yard. Our first stop was above the Intyentika Nek where a force of about 80 men from the Border Horse along with Barton's Squadron of the Frontier Light Horse were cornered by Zulus (only 7 escaped).
Intyentika Nek

Unfortunately for Wood and his relatively small command, the opposing Zulu force had been massively bolstered by an army of more that 20,000 warriors heading for No. 4 Column's camp at Kambula, just a few miles away to the North. The colonial riders had been caught by surprise and had nowhere to go.

On the opposite side of the mountain lies the main track up to the plateau. This had been the route taken by Buller as he executed the attack on the Eastern end of the mountain. Wood and a small group of his staff officers had followed the route shortly after Buller had made the ascent. This understrength party were astonished to find themselves opposed by Zulu  (abaQulusi) snipers hidden in the rocks just below the skyline.

It was here that one can find the only remaining British war graves. Those of Captain Ronald Campbell of the Coldstream Guards and Llewllyen Lloyd a civilian interpreter. Both were killed when they tried to press forward unaware of the fact that the Zulus had arrived in strength and frustrated that the Border Horse contingent were moving away from the scene of battle having become separated from Buller's main force. (A few days earlier we had come across a memorial to Lloyd in St John's church, Mooi River back in Natal).

It is a bumpy ride up to the high plateau. On the top the ground is rocky but flat. We travelled up in winter time but in the summer I am told that it is a sea of lush green grass.

Buller's force, realising their predicament, fought a fighting withdrawal away from  their route of ascent but towards the intersect with Russell's force which they assumed would have secured the lower plateau. Unfortunately Russell had withdrawn from the mountain having received an ambivalent order from Wood who was now aware of the size of the opposing force. Buller was on his own!

The Devil's Pass, Hlobane Mountain
The fighting on the top of the mountain was intense with the British force desperately trying to link up with Russell and find a way off the mountain. Russell was gone, so the only way out for the survivors was via a steep decline known as the Devil's Pass which lead down to the lower plateau, known as Ntendeka Nek and shown on the photograph above.

Myself on Hlobane Mountain - Position of A Squadron FLH
It is difficult to imagine how mounted men could have navigated their way down this slope - and many never made it. The survivors made for Kambula hotly pursued by Zulu warriors. I will cover Kambula in a future blog entry.

My Flickr photo set for Hlobane is here.
The story of the Fugitives Trail at Isandlwana can be found here.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Aftermath of the Battle of Isandlwana (1869)

Last week I fulfilled one of my ambitions by walking the Fugitive's Trail in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The trail marks the route taken by survivors fleeing from the British Camp at the base of Isandlwana following its' destruction by a 20,000 strong Zulu Army on the 22nd January 1879.
War Graves at Isandlwana Camp
The British force at Isandlwana was in excess of 1,300 strong and the most accurate analysis of historical records gives an estimate of only 65 survivors. Half of the casualties occurred during the defensive battle around the environs of the camp. The other half occurred after the camp had been destroyed as the survivors took the trail back to what is now known as Fugitive's Drift on the Buffalo River which, at that time, marked the boundary between Zululand and Natal.

Younghusband's Cairn
The start of the trail is above the site of the Colonial Cemetery (near the Wagon Park as located during the Battle). On the right the cairn marking the last stand of some twenty soldiers from soldiers of C Co. 24th Regiment can be seen half way up the hill. The battlefield is littered with cairns marking the graves of the fallen and it is easy to discern where the fighting was fiercest as the firing line folded and the panic set in. This area marks the spot where the Zulu Army right hand 'Horn of the Buffalo' swept onto the battlefield via the rear of the defending troops.

The Start of the Fugitive's Trail
Heading down towards the River Manzinyama we passed a line of cairn's which purported to mark the place where Lieutenant Edgar Oliphant Anstey fought to the last with remnants of F Co. 24th Regiment. Anstey's body was recovered by his brother two days after the battle and now lies buried in Woking, England.
Anstey's Last Stand, Fugitive's Trail

The two guns of N Co, 5th Brigade, Royal Artillery were lost near this spot as the gunners desperately tried to take them to safety. The horses were killed in their trails and the guns were hauled back to Ulundi as tribute to Cetawayo. I will cover their recovery in a later entry on this blog when I write about the Battle of Ulundi and the final days of the Anglo - Zulu War.

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The section of the walk through to the crossing point on the Manzinyama is fairly straight forward. Mainly a traverse across even ground through rough, rocky scrub. The cairns are less evident after a time but my friend, Major Paul Naish, told me that there were originally many more - some on the Natal side of the Buffalo river. Over the years they have been washed away or have fallen into disrepair.

Abonga Points the Way
The second part of the walk is uphill through open scrub. Hot work in the sun and a little more difficult to navigate. Luckily our local Zulu Guide, Abonga, was able to point the way. At the top we were rewarded with a view of the Buffalo River. At this time of year, very low and easy to cross. On the 22nd January 1879 the water was 20 feet deep and fast flowing. A challenge for the horsemen involved. I say horsemen because to have a chance of escape, a horse was absolutely necessary. Those on foot soon fell victim to the pursuing Zulus.

View of the Buffalo River from the North Bank
The Crossing Point at Fugitive's Drift
The final section of the walk is the most difficult. It's a steep descent through thick, prickly bushes slipping and sliding on loose shale and rocks. Stiflingly hot too! However, easily achievable in the peace and quiet of modern times during Winter. I cannot begin to imagine how the original fugitives coped with this route - gunning their horses on and skirmishing with Zulu warriors. At the river the we paused to splash about in the crystal clear water near the beach where Smith Dorrien (of WW1 fame) crossed on a requisitioned transport pony hotly pursued by twenty Zulus (according to his autobiography).
Melvill & Coghill Grave

The end of the trail is marked by the impressive memorial to Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill. Both were awarded VCs for their actions on the 22nd January 1879. Melvill who was the Adjutant of the 1st Bn, 24th regiment had taken the Queen's Colour when the camp collapsed and, pursued all the way, managed to get this iconic object half way across the Buffalo river. He was accompanied by Coghill who was also on Colonel Glyn's staff.

Three of us completed the 10km trail - One Brit, one Russian and one Zulu. The scenery was magnificent and the history almost overwhelming. A fantastic experience on a truly momentous battlefield walk. The others in our party took time out to explore the wider attractions of Fugitive's drift including the cool beer available in the bar at the nearby Fugitive's Lodge! Incidentally, for accommodation I would recommend Isandlwana Lodge overlooking the site of Isandlwana Camp. A wonderful place to stay.

For photographs relating to this walk click the following links:
- Click here for pictures of Isandlwana and The Fugitive's Trail.
- Click here for our Pre-Walk Research.