The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 3 - June 1972

Isandhlwana - Rorke's Drift - Blood River

(A brief account of the Society's tour to these famous battlefields of the Zulu War over the week-end 8th, 9th and 10th October, 1971).


Since all are by nature endowed to some extent with the faculty for reliving events in retrospect, it is certain that most of those who took part in the recent tour to the battlefields of the Zulu War have enjoyed mulling over details of the expedition.

Friday, 8th October 1971: The task of assembling, loading and embarking 114 tourists and their impedimenta was supervised by Maj. A. C. M. Tyrrell at the S.A. National War Museum with that precision which has become a feature of these Military History Society tours.

We were away on time, soon leaving the steel and concrete metropolis behind us. Headed south-east for Dundee, in due course, we relaxed in that atmosphere of cameraderie and reminiscence that soon imbues a group of kindred spirits brought together in pursuit of a common interest. It was not long before our ears were assailed by "Bertie's" (Comdt. B. G. Simpkins, JCD, MM) "punny" loud hailer. In Bertie's hands this soon brought us to the verge of hysteria. He has used it effectively as an "ice-breaker" on most, if not all of these tours.

Arriving at Dundee at 2015 hours as scheduled, we disembarked and occupied the two local hotels. After a bath and dinner we retired to bed full of anticipation for the morrow.

Saturday, 9th October 1971: Reveille! After an early breakfast we collected our picnic lunches and were on our way to Isandhlwana by 9 o'clock. Within 20 minutes, we had left the tarred road and were howling along a sandy track. The weather was indifferent, with a heavy overcast sky and some drizzle. As we progressed, it cleared a little but skies remained cloudy until the afternoon. Now the public address system was in the hands of Mr. G. A. Chadwick the distinguished historian, who has spent most of his life in Natal and is certainly one of the foremost living authorities on Zululand and the Zulu Wars. After breasting a high rise in the road, the bus slowed and came to a halt well off the road. We followed our leader out of the bus and trudged across rising ground for a hundred yards or so to a high point. From here the whole panorama of the Isandhlwana battle area opened up before us. We saw the stark, grim and forbidding shape of the massif, Isandhlwana, rising from the eastern end of a gently sloping plain, set among the endless rolling hills of Zululand. Here then was the scene of one of the most tragic reverses in British military history. Within minutes Mr. Chadwick had us under his spell as he unfolded the history of the place, outlining the sequence of events as they took place on the 22nd January 1879. A diversion was created by a group of tatterdemalion little Zulu children who had come up from nearby kraals, obviously greatly intrigued by the sight of a streamlined, brightly coloured bus and a crowd of well-dressed "m'lungu" standing around listening to their "chief". What a very different picture their ancestors made here in 1879!

We now descended to the actual battlefield. Here on a knoll, directly opposite the Isandhlwana mountain, there is a small building looking rather like a Swiss mountaineer's "A" frame hut which has been subjected to pressure at its apex. This is the observation point and is in the nature of a memorial. It contains a diorama of the battlefield, and various relics, including hide shields and spears of the kind used by the various Zulu regiments. It is interesting but, in the writer's opinion, the building strikes an incongruous note.

Here we gathered around our tour directors, Col. G. R. Duxbury and Mr. G. A. Chadwick. An excellent and most informative précis, running to some 12 foolscap pages of historical detail, and maps of the area and the battle sequences, was made available to us. This was written and prepared by Mr. G. A. Chadwick, and produced by the Natal Educational Activities Association. It is a very commendable publication and should be in the hands of anyone visiting the area or interested in the history of the place. Furnished with all the facts, we found it very easy to follow the sequence of events as we listened to our tour directors who made us feel that the drama had been enacted only yesterday.

Luncheon was now taken, and here tribute must be paid to the catering officer, Mr. Clayton Holliday, for his excellent management of the essential requirements of the "inner man".

The more stalwart and robust members of the party then set out to follow the trail to Fugitives' Drift on the Buffalo River. This was virtually the trail followed by Lts Melville and Coghill in their bid to rescue the Queen's Colour of the 1st Battalion 24th Foot. All who succeeded in reaching the river, led by Mr. Chadwick, returned, tired but in very good spirits. Making the final descent was no mean feat, owing to the sharply falling terrain and its extremely rocky nature.

The most optimistic amongst us spent the afternoon wandering about the battle areas souvenir-hunting, apparently quite forgetful of the 92 years which had elapsed and during which anything left on the battlefield in 1879 would gradually have been buried below the surface. Enthusiasm was not to be confined by logic and, believe it or not, somebody did pick up a brass button, with the motif of the unit still visible on it! The find was made on the higher slopes of Isandhlwana, on the steeper rocky inclines where the natural deposit had apparently not covered everything as it had on the level ground. When they realised that if anything was to be picked up, it would be found on higher ground, the climbers joined in the hunt, but with little success. Some of the younger ones climbed to the top of Isandhlwana and returned greatly elated by their achievement.

We climbed wearily aboard our bus for the journey back, cheered by the pleasurable anticipation of relaxing in a hot bath before a leisurely sundowner and dinner.

Sunday, 10th October 1971: Again we boarded our bus, our destination today being Rorke's Drift. On arriving at this sleepy mission station, we gathered around the historic little church, where a service was in progress. The harmonious cadences of well-known hymns sung by the African congregation fell sweetly on our ears, creating a feeling of spiritual unity. Here, Mr. Ted Winder, at the invitation of Colonel Duxhury, led us in a simple impromptu prayer which left us deeply moved and very conscious of the fact that we were standing on what was, by its historic and heroic associations, hallowed ground.

We then followed the tour directors around the area of the famous defence while they brought the epic battle of Rorke's Drift to life for us, as our history books had never succeeded in doing.

After luncheon under the tall trees below the hill from which the Zulus' first attack developed, we drifted about in small groups, visiting various points, including the weaving, pottery and art schools run for the natives by the mission. Soon the sun was well down in the west and we had to return once more to Dundee. After dinner we were the guests of the MOTH shellhole which is a veritable museum of militaria and houses a fine collection of Zulu War relics. We were splendidly entertained by our hosts in the MOTH tradition and made many new friends.

Monday, 11th October 1971: The last day of our tour dawned hot and fine. On our homeward journey we made a detour to visit the battleground of Blood River. Mr. Chadwick again supplied an excellent précis which enabled us to follow his erudite lecture. After outlining the events which led up to the final confrontation between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus, he presented a dramatic and realistic account of the preparations for the defence of the laager, and the final victory of the trekkers against overwhelming odds on the 16th December 1838. This battle has been described as "One which was to influence the lives of all who live in South Africa".

After the lecture we made a detailed inspection of the new monument, composed of a laager of 64 copper-bronze Voortrekker wagons, at the time of our visit still to be completed. The monument was unveiled by the Prime Minister on the 16th December.

This was a splendid tour and a credit to all the hard-working members whose labours behind the scenes made the expedition such a successful and memorable event in the Society's calendar. We, like Oliver Twist, shall certainly ask for more.

Note: Copies of the précis entitled "The Battle of Isandhlwana and the Defence of Rorke's Drift " and "The Battle of Blood River" by Mr. C. A. Chadwick may be obtained from the Natal Educational Activities Association, Berea Road Government School Buildings, 480 Berea Road, Durban, Natal.
[Note in 2004 - try the Museum for these: or]

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /