South African Military History Society

KWAZULU-NATAL BRANCH Branch June 1999 News Sheet No. 291

PAST EVENTS: The highlight of our annual activities has always been our Battlefields' Tour and what an occasion it turned out to be this year. It was magnificent! Our tour included the Battles of Isandlwana, Talana and Rorke's Drift. As always our former Chairman, Ken Gillings gave the main commentary, but this year he was ably assisted by our present Chairman, Paul Kilmartin and fellow-members, Brian Thomas, Dr Ingrid Machin and Prof Mike Laing.

Starting off with the Battle of Isandlwana, Ken Gillings chose as his 'stand' the position taken by the Zulu commander on Nyoni Heights. And there before us we had the most wonderful panoramic view of the whole area with the brooding mountain of Isandlwana forming the backdrop. You could virtually see the hordes of black Zulu warriors swarming down from the surrounding plateau on to the broad plain below and ultimately engulfing the hapless British redcoats against the steep sides of Isandlwana. It was really a case of history coming to life in the most vivid way imaginable. All we were short of was the thunderous roar of the Zulu impis, the crash of the guns and the pungent smell of gunpowder.

As our second 'stand', Ken took us to the area where Lord Chelmsford had brunched on that fateful day. And finally, we ended up on the battlefield itself and saw what little hope the British soldiers had of surviving that day although our last speaker, Prof Mike Laing, in a thought-provoking analysis of this battle afterwards, managed to convince several of us to the contrary.

We overnighted at various guest cottages in the Dundee area, but came together for a traditional 'potjiekos braai' at Lennox Cottage of Lennox Hill fame. The evening in itself was well worth the visit, although some of our members from north of Hadrian's Wall felt the R5 deposit for glasses a bit unfair. To quote,"... everytime I nick a glass I have to fork out another R5 deposit - it's just not worth it!" Notwithstanding, a most enjoyable evening was had by all, as was evidenced by the sorry collection of 'optical road maps' and haggard faces on the following day.

Next morning, bright and early, we 'stormed' the 'Heights' of Talana. Ken said it would be a gentle climb and I am sure that both Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing would have agreed, but for us poor mortals it was a battle in itself and the trail to the summit was strewn with wheezing bodies in various stages of exhaustion. However, it was well worth the effort and the view of the battlefield was magnificent. Once again Ken did the honours ably assisted by Paul Kilmartin and Brian Thomas once we regained terra firma in the grounds of the Talana Museum. Incidentally, the Museum itself is well worth a visit, but one needs at least half a day to do it justice.

The final visit of our tour was to Rorke's Drift where we had our lunch prior to the talks. This time our 'stand' was right in where the 'Biscuit Tin Fort' would have been. The whole area has been very well restored with the actual lines of the original makeshift fortifications demarcated with cobblestone paving. Ken gave the main talk with Brian Thomas supplementing with a detailed talk on all the medals that were won, including the famous eleven VC's.

I think that everybody who was on this tour will agree that it was one of the best ever and our congratulations go out to Ken and his team of speakers for their wonderful efforts with a special thanks to our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin who put it all together. Well done!

Our May meeting (not again?)* was marked by the upsets that have bugged us all year. Our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, who was supposed to have given us a short talk on "Gen. Sir Redvers Buller VC", had been called away on urgent business to Johannesburg. Instead our Vice-Chairman, Bill Brady, with only two days notice, was called on to step into the breach. Thank God for John Murray. Yet again one of his prepared talks was pulled out of cold storage and in consequence we had "The Massacre at Glencoe 1692 - Murder in Trust" as our DDH lecture.

Briefly, our speaker touched on the causes of what on the surface appeared to be an inter-clan feud hetween the MacDonalds and the Camphells, but in actual fact had its origins in the context of the Highlanders' innate resistance to English rule dating back to the time of Robert the Bruce.

The MacDonalds misc. wits were Highlanders, had been appointed "Lords of the Isles" IMP litus! part its in. support of Robert Bruce's defeat of the British at Bannockburn in 1314. Unfortunately, over the years their domain had been whittled away by successive English subjugations until they were left with very little actual territory under their control. They were bitter in the extreme by the rise to power of the English supported Lowlanders and particularly by the Campbells who had legally acquired all the MacDonalds' forfeited lands. Apart from being the smallest of the Donald Clans, the MacDonalds of Glencoe were regarded as rogues and cattle-rustlers and loathed by all. Consequently, they were not likely to be missed if some 'dreadful calamity' should happen to have befallen them.

The crunch came on 13 February 1692 when soldiers of the Earl of Argyle's Regiment of Foot who were drawn mostly from Clan Campbell, fell upon their unsuspecting hosts, the MacDonalds of Glencoe and in violation of the Highlanders' 'Code of Hospitality', massacred them. This was done with the full knowledge of King Williarn III of England who felt they should be used as an example for their tardy taking of the "Oath of Allegiance". However, although the ruling hierarchy was wiped out, 90% of the MacDonalds managed to escape by way of an alternate exit to their valley due to a blizzard that was blowing at the time. As far as the Highlanders were concerned it was and still is, a terrible blot on Scottish history, but it did have the effect of coercing all the other clans into accepting Scottish union with England and the Protestant William of Orange as flick king.

Our main talk for the evening was back to our Anglo-Boer War Centenary theme and concerned "The Battle of Koedoesberg Drift". It was given by Steve Lundestedt who had journeyed all the way from Kimberley to give us his talk. Our speaker used photographic slides and overhead projections to illustrate it and started off by outlining the causes of the battle. It was a battle that should never have taken place. Koedoesberg Drift lies about 32 kms west of Modder River where the British had made their HQ after the disastrous Battle of Magersfontein. Because of possible rebellion in the northern areas of the Cape Colony, the British thought that the Boers might cross through into that area via this Drift and thereby pose a possible threat to their western flank. In addition, Lord Roberts, who was overall commander of the British forces in Southern Africa, wanted to create a diversion so that his plan to outflank the Boer entrenched position at Magersfontein along their eastern flank would not be prematurely discovered. Also he wanted to restore the confidence of the reconstituted Highland Brigade after their recent heavy defeat sustained at Magersfontein.

From the Boer side, although it did attract the attention of Gen.De Wet and his commandos, they never felt it was a serious outflanking movement to relieve Kimberley.

On 3rd February 1900, General Hector MacDonald with the Highland Light Infantry, some cavalry and artillery units marched out via Fraser's Drift to Koedoesberg Drift with the idea of constructing a fort to control die river crossing at the latter. It was a hellishly hot day and his force suffered heavily from the scorching sun. They reached Koedoesberg Drift on the next day and set about building the fort, but very soon realized that the key to the position was the Koedoesberg itself. Two companies were sent to occupy the summit, where they dispersed a small group of Boer scouts. Meanwhile De Wet and his force had arrived to investigate what was going on and had climbed the northern and western extremes of the mountain. Sniping started immediately and continued into the following day while reinforcements were being called up on both sides. The Boer guns opened up with shrapnel on the soldiers on the summit who were forced to withdraw to below the crest. On seeing the effect on the British soldiers, De Wet tried to get his men to charge the position, but his men were not too keen and only a few obeyed the command. The effect was minimal.

At that stage two significant events occurred: MacDonald brought up reinforcements to assist on the summit and De Wet sent a commando to attack the British guns that were deployed on the south bank of the river. The Boer advance on the summit was checked and their positions overrun. At the same time, the British cavalry under Col. Babbington arrived, but unfortunately wasted their time by standing off at about 6-8 kms distant, until it was too late to take any effective action

-- The Boers, who were alarmed at the sudden developments and the possible encirclement posed by the cavalry, withdrew, with De Wet covering their retreat by charging at the cavalry. All this was unbeknown to MacDonald who had planned a dawn attack for the following morning. In the meantime, Roberts ordered them to return to the main force at Modder River without delay. However, on the following morning the Boers were gone and at sunset the British force withdrew and were back in base on the 9th February 1900. It was a pointless operation and one that has been dubbed, "The Battle that should never have happened". Tactically, it did succeed in drawing attention away from Roberts' preparations for his outflanking move to the east and it did restore the shattered confidence of the Highland Brigade. But, by the cavalry standing off as they did, they allowed De Wet to escape - a blunder, which was haunt the British for the rest of the War. After our usual interesting 'question time', fellow-member, Dave Matthews conveyed the thanks of the meeting to our speakers for a most interesting and entertaining evening.

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 21 3983

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