| Entry 13 of 49
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We were in no rush this morning. We went to breakfast at around 0800hrs and discovered that most people had eaten and left. Buller’s Rest Lodge caters for both tourists and people on business. At the moment, being rather out of season, business people outnumber the tourists. They had already eaten and left for work. Breakfast was most pleasant with the usual cereals, porridge and a fry.
We left for the day at around 0915hrs and drove out of Ladysmith on the N11 in the general direction of Newcastle. We turned off on the R602 and headed across country to Dundee, via Glencoe. Once at Dundee we took the opportunity to stop at the Talana Battlefield & Museum. I would have missed it but Ruth and the children saw a steam train and carriage just off the main road on the far side of town.
"Nestled at the base of Talana Hill the museum is set in a 20 acre heritage park.
The Zulu name "Talana" meaning "the shelf where precious items are stored" is a most appropriate name for this large and varied museum.
The museum comprises 17 buildings, dedicated to subjects as diverse as war and agriculture, mining, industry and domestic life.
We are situated just outside the town of Dundee, Kwa Zulu Natal - South Africa, and are within short driving distances of some of the most famous battlefields in the country; Blood River, Rorkes Drift, Fugitives Drift, Isandlwana, Elandslaagte, Spioenkop, Colenso and the Siege of Ladysmith."
I would describe this as one of those unscheduled lucky stops. The Talana Museum is rather like the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, Belfast. It has a coal mining exhibit, a railway station and steam train, farm implements, the original Smith house (owned by the family who created Dundee in the 19th century) and a battlefield cemetery. We took around two hours walking around the various exhibits. The children loved this place.
We learnt of the history of Dundee and the tragedy of the Battle of Talana. Talana was the first battle between the British and the Boers and took place on the 20th October 1899. British troops wore Khaki for the first time on this battlefield and assaulted extensive Boer positions overlooking Dundee before having to withdraw towards Ladysmith.
"With the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War on 11 October 1899, the major concentration of British troops in Natal, was at Ladysmith. A detachment of artillery, infantry and cavalry (some 4000-5000 men) had been sent forward to Dundee under command of General Sir William Penn Symon's. The decision to hold and defend Dundee was a political one - the coal mine owners were a powerful and influential group and had pressurized the Natal government to defend the Dundee area because of the coal mines. Ships calling at Durban harbour with troops and supplies needed bunker coal to fire their engines.
From 11 October, Boer commandos, some 14 000 strong crossed into Natal over Lang's Nek and passed Majuba. As they advanced they split into three columns. The right column, under command of General Kock advanced south past Fort Mistake to capture the railway line at Elandslaagte, thus preventing British reinforcements at Ladysmith from reaching Dundee. The left column, under General Lukas Meyer, made a wide sweeping movement into the Utrecht and Vryheid area to round up support. The central column under General "Maroela" Erasmus advanced towards Dundee.
British intelligence relied on the Natal Scouts and Basuto guides. The knowledge of the Boer movement into Natal was excellent and Penn Symon's made arrangements for special trains to evacuate civilians and supplies from Dundee. Many did not leave as they were assured that there was no danger to the town from the Boer forces and Penn Symon's declared that he "had no plans but would be guided by circumstances."
On Thursday night 19 October, the Boer left column congregated at Doornberg, a large flat topped mountain 19 km north-east of Dundee near the Blood River battlefield. Here they were led in prayer before advancing in the pouring rain on Dundee - their aim, to control the high-lying ground around the town.
"Maroela" Erasmus and his 2000 burghers planned to hold Mpati.
Talana and Lennox were to be occupied by Lukas Meyer with his 4000 men.
At 2:30 am on Friday morning, in the inky wet darkness some 4km beyond Smith's Nek (along the present road to Vryheid), Meyer's advancing burghers came into contact with a British look out post. A message to Penn Symon's did not cause any alarm. He believed this was a raiding party, despite a warning the previous morning that an attack was imminent. When Grimshaw sent a second message that, in order to prevent any further movement by the Boers, he had taken up a position in the bed of the Steenkoolspruit (which runs between the town and the foot of Talana), Penn Symon's sent out two companies of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in support.
By first light on the morning of 20 October the Boer forces had taken up their positions.
On Talana the commandos from Utrecht (under Commandant Joshua Joubert), Wakkerstroom (under Commandant Hattingh) and Krugersdorp (under General Potgieter), and a portion of the Ermelo commando, together with 3 guns (two 75mm Krupp field guns and one 75mm Creusot, under Major Wolmarans of the Transvaal Staats Artillerie) were ready and waiting.
On Lennox the commandos from Vryheid (under Ferriera), Middelburg (under Trichardt), Piet Retief (under Engelbrecht) and a few men from Bethal (under Greyling) had taken up their positions. Three guns were kept behind Lennox and were not used during the battle.
Maroela Erasmus and his men were in position on Mpati.
At daybreak the tops of the hills were covered in swirling mist. In the British camp life started as usual with the troops standing to at 5:00am. At 5:20 they were dismissed to get breakfast, water the horses and start the usual camp duties. As the mist slowly cleared away from Talana, the troops in camp could clearly see the figures silhouetted on the skyline.
Were they the Town Guard, their own men sent out during the night, or the enemy?
The question was soon answered. Just after 5:25 am the first shells landed in the British camp. An anxious Lukas Meyer had waited for movement on Mpati, whose instructions were to support him in the attack. The position on Mpati was some 335 metres higher than Talana and was encased in mist for much of the early morning. Eventually at the urging of his men "to say good morning to the British", Meyer gave permission to start firing. The Boer range was good, their second shell landed near the entrance to Penn Symon's tent - where it buried itself in the wet ground. This prevented many of the Boer shells from exploding.
Penn Symon's issued orders for a frontal assault on Talana hill. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers were to advance to the Steenkoolspruit, with the King's Royal Rifles in support. The Leicestershires, 67 Battery, Natal Police and a company of the Natal Carbineers were left in the camp to defend it in case of an attack from the rear. Colonel Moller and the 18 Hussars (the cavalry) were sent out to behind Talana hill to cut off any retreat by the Boers.
Although confusion reigned briefly in the British camp, discipline and training soon prevailed. The 67 Artillery Battery started to fire on Talana hill, but was slightly out of range. Within 15 minutes the 69 and 13 Batteries had limbered up, moved to the 3450 metre range, and commenced firing on the hill.
In his diary Gunner Netley recorded his impression of their rapid movement through the town where the civilians were "supplying the men with coffee and cocoa, also some bread and butter, which comes very acceptable indeed."
The British shelling of the hilltop was accurate and heavy. Major Wolmarans withdrew his guns to safety from the forward slopes of the hill, and they took no further part in the battle.
Members of the Town Guard joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as they moved through the town. On Talana the Boer guns were no longer returning the British fire, Meyer was waiting for Erasmus on Mpati to make a move and so force the British to change the direction of their attack.
Penn Symon's came down to the Steenkoolspruit to give the orders for the advance. The Dublin Fusiliers and the King's Royal Rifles would lead the attack with the Irish Fusiliers in support. At 7:20 am a company of the Dublin Fusiliers emerged in open order from the spruit and started running to Smith's farm some 700 -900 metres away. They were closely followed by the King's Royal Rifles. Meanwhile, the Boers had moved down from the crest of the hill to the plateau. As the British advanced they were cut down by a deadly hail of rifle fire from the Boer marksmen. They sought cover in the gum trees around Smith's farm.
In a letter to his father Sergeant Harrington wrote: "Never shall I forget the dreadful storm of bullets that smote us those awful moments. Exposed to a crossfire from thousands of rifles, men commenced to fall rapidly, whilst the air and ground around us were torn by the fearful hail. For my part I never hoped to reach the wood… to my joy, however, the edge of the wood was at length reached, and by great good luck I struck it just where there was a little bit of wall, behind which I dropped, and had barely done so when tow bullets struck the uppermost stones." One of the distinctive memories of the battle was the smell of eucalyptus as the gum tress were stripped bare by the Boer rifle fire and the trees wept.
By 8:00 am the artillery had moved up to a position along the Steenkoolspruit and were concentrating their fire on the slopes of Talana hill. A group of King' Royal Rifles on the right wing, who tried to leave the plantation, came under heavy fire from Lennox and were forced to take cover among the farm buildings.
Brigadier-General Yule, in command of the infantry, realized the futility of a frontal attack and allowed the men to seek what cover they could. There was no further movement in the battle for some time.
By 9:00 am Penn Symon's had become impatient because the attack was not going forward. He rode onto the battlefield to encourage the troops and order them up the hill. Despite requests from his officers to take cover, retire from the field, or dismiss the trooper he was riding alongside him carrying his pennant, he moved forward. Inevitably, he was shot: at the first stone wall just at the edge of the trees, he was fatally wounded in the stomach. He handed over command to Yule and rode back to camp to a hospital.
Yule now gave the order to storm up the hill and take their objective - the stone wall on the edge of the plateau. The dash up the boulder -strewn hillside was fraught with accurate and heavy Boer rifle fire. The stone wall proved to be a severe obstacle, despite providing cover. The King's Royal Rifles managed to make it up to the wall. An attempt by the Irish Fusiliers to move up the donga on the south-west face of the hill, met with disaster as it did not provide the shelter and cover that they expected.
Indian stretcher bearers moved to and fro across the battlefield with their green doolies, picking up the British wounded. The stretcher bearer corps were raised in India, but volunteers were also recruited from the local Indian population to serve as non-combatant medical personnel. The front verandahs of the two Smith homesteads were used as field dressing stations, prior to moving the wounded on doolies to the church and other large halls and warehouses which served as temporary hospitals, in the town.
On top of Talana, Meyer continually tried to heliograph Erasmus, without response. His supply of ammunition was running low and he decided that if there were no sign of support from Erasmus by 11:30 am he would start withdrawing his men from the hill. A few men would remain to protect the withdrawal. Slowly the fire dwindled and Colonel Gunning of the King's Royal Rifles gave the order to storm the hill.
After a lull in the firing, the men rushed across the plateau in an effort to reach the top of the hill. They were met by a furious hail of rifle fire from the Boers, who had retired to the crest of the hill. The artillery, not aware of the movement of the British troops, decided to bombard the hillside and hilltop, in an effort to dislodge the Boers. This bombardment cleared the hillside of their own men as well. They were forced to take cover from the shrapnel of their guns. It was imperative that the artillery be warned of the position.
Signaller Private Flynn of the Dublin Fusiliers jumped up and exposed himself in an effort to "call up" the guns. After repeated unsuccessful attempts he ran down the hillside to deliver the message personally.
Immediately the bombardment ceased, the British troops stormed up the hill, clambering up the last rocky vertical section to reach the top.
Meyer had started moving his troops off the hill. They were to regroup at the Doornberg Mountain.
The resistance had thus diminished as the British troops made the final dash up the hill. By 2:00 pm the entire position was in British hands. The artillery had been brought up into Smith's Nek - but did not fire on the retreating Boers. Probably no one will ever know why - it is said that Colonel Pickwoad saw a white flag and sent to Yule for instructions before opening fire. It is also suggested that he believed some of the mounted men in greatcoats to be the 18 Hussars and was afraid to open fire on his own men once again. The men on the hill also stopped firing as they heard the "all clear" sound across the field. When some of the men believed this to be a mistake and started firing the "all clear" sounded again.
Thus the Boers rode off northwards under the eyes of the British. The hungry, wet and weary British troops made no attempt to stop them. Late that afternoon. leaving the Dundee Town Guard to man the hill, the British troops returned to their camp, along streets lined with cheering townsfolk."
We inspected the graves of the Irish Fusiliers in the cemetery. After Talana we headed out along the R68 towards Nqutu before turning off to Rorke’s Drift.
The Defence of Rorke’s Drift22nd/23rd January 1879
"Here they come, as thick as grass and as black as thunder!"
“In January 1879 the British invaded KwaZulu in South Africa, without the sanction of the Home Government, in a war brought about by the misguided policy of "Confederating" Southern Africa under the direction of the Governor-General Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere. The fiercely indepedent AmaZulu people refused to lay down their arms and accept British rule over the Sovereign Kingdom. The British General Officer Commanding, Lord Chelmsford, despite having abundant military intelligence on the AmaZulu, had a misconceived idea of the fighting prowess of his enemy. The result was that on 22nd January a British force of seventeen hundred strong, was attacked and only some four hundred men, of whom only some eighty Europeans, survived at a place called Isandhlwana.
Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande commanded an impi, the Undi 'corps' of 4,500. His men had played little part in the action at Isandhlwana, but goaded on by his men, and despite the orders of his brother, King Cetshwayo kaMpande, not to cross the Buffalo River into Natal, he chose to attack the British supply base close to a river crossing known as Rorke's Drift, which the AmaZulu called KwaJimu. The post was established in a trading store-cum-mission station that consisted of a dwelling house and a chapel, both sturdily built of stone. The house was doing temporary duty as a field hospital, the chapel was full of stores and there were only 104 men who were fit enough to fight. The command of the post had passed to Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers, when Major Henry Spalding of the 104th Regiment left on the morning of the 22nd January. Commanding a company-strength was Lieutenant Bromhead of the 24th Regiment.* James Langley Dalton, a volunteer serving as an Acting Assistant Commissary and a former Staff Sergeant, ordered the construction of barricades connecting the two buildings with sacks of corn, and an inner barricade with biscuit boxes.
When the Zulus attacked, wielding their short stabbing assegais, they were unable to reach the men behind the barricades and they were blasted by rifle fire at point blank range. Most of those who did mount the breastwork were repulsed by the bayonets of the defenders. Some of the Zulus were armed with rifles, purchased from unscrupulous traders, but they were not trained marksmen and the British soldiers were able to pick them off at long range.After a number of unsuccessful attacks the Zulus set fire to the hospital, burst in and began to spear the patients. A private named Alfred Henry Hook, a Gloucestershire man, kept them at bay with his bayonet while his friend John Williams hacked holes in the wall separating one room from another and dragged the patients through one by one, the last man had dislocated his knee. Williams had to break the other to get him out of a window and into the yard where the barricades offered some protection. Fighting went on all night in the fitful glare from the blazing hospital as the Zulus made charge after charge on the barricades. Both sides fought with desperate courage. A patient from the hospital, a Swiss born adventurer Christian Ferdnand Schiess, stabbed three Zulus in quick succession after he had clambered over the breastwork.
In the yard Surgeon James Henry Reynolds tended to the wounded, oblivious to the life and death struggle going on all around him. Those too badly hurt to shoot propped themselves up as best they could and reloaded the guns, and re-supplied ammunition to those who were still on their feet. When dawn came at last, the Zulus drew off taking their wounded with them and leaving at least 351 dead around the barricades. Later Lord Chelmsford arrived on the scene with a column of British Soldiers.”
In total 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded for gallantry at Rorke’s Drift. 150 officers and men defended this outpost against over 4000 Zulus. Some cynics have suggested that the extolling of the victory at Rorke’s Drift softened the blow of the great defeat at Isandlwana. I choose to remember Rorke’s Drift for standing firm in the face of great adversity.
"In the room where I now was there were nine sick men, and J was alone to look after them for some time, still firing away, with the hospital burning. Suddenly in the thick smoke I saw John Williams, and above the din of battle and the cries of the wounded I heard him shout, 'The Zulus are swarming all over the place. They've dragged Joseph Williams out and killed him.' John Williams had held the other room with Private William Horrigan for more than an hour, until they had not a cartridge left.
The Zulus then burst in and dragged out Joseph Williams and two of the patients, and assegaied them. It was only because they were so busy with this slaughtering that John Williams and two of the patients were able to knock a hole in the partition and get into the room where I was posted. Horrigan was killed. What were we to do? We were pinned like rats in a hole… "All this time the Zulus were trying to get into the room. Their assegais kept whizzing towards us, and one struck me in front of the helmet. We were wearing the white tropical helmets then. But the helmet tilted back under the blow and made the spear lose its power, so that 1 escaped with a scalp wound which did not trouble me much then, although it has often caused me illness since. Only one man at a time could get in at the door. A big Zulu sprang forward and seized my rifle, but I tore it free and, slipping a cartridge in, I shot him point-blank. Time after time the Zulus gripped the muzzle and tried to tear the rifle from my grasp, and time after time I wrenched it back, because I had a better grip than they had.”
Private Alfred Henry Hook, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot
We visited the Museum at Rorke’s Drift, built over the remains of the hospital building. We also inspected the graveyard, Rorke’s Drift Memorial, local church and Zulu Memorial. This is a peaceful backwater, well off the beaten track. We headed back to Ladysmith, via Dundee, in the afternoon. I had planned to return to the Siege Museum in Ladysmith but time was rather against us. I did find out one interesting fact from a booklet I obtained at Talana.
“In 1899, two 6.3” Howitzers were hastily sent to Ladysmith from the Cape Colony. Besieged Ladysmith, terribly short of artillery, utilised the two front loaders to good effect. The “Twins”, silent reminders of the Siege, are justifiably proud of their ‘retired’ stance, guarding the entrance to the Town Hall. During 2004 it was discovered that the gun on the right, with serial number 33, is in fact a Boer gun and has an interesting history. It was looted from the Boer-held Johannesburg Fort in 1900 and is the gun that fired the salute at Paul Kruger’s inauguration as President of the Zuid Afrikaanse Replubleik in May 1883.”
It is a bad day when you do not learn something new! Back at Buller’s Rest Lodge we went to their small museum room and then got a drink at the bar before dinner. We were introduced to the family and a number of the guests. The honesty bar system was explained; I felt immediately at home. There were a number of Scots round the dinner table that night. Dinner was quite a relaxed and informal affair. I really wished that we could have stayed for another couple of nights but sadly we have to move on in the morning. Perhaps one day we can return to Buller’s? I have no hesitation in recommending the place.
| Entry 13 of 49
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