In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
The weather had deteriorated steadily as I drove. The bright promise of an early summer’s morning had changed to a sullen threat of rain. Not only the weather disturbed me; it was ages since I had seen an other car, or even a human being. It was a dammed long twenty kilometres, and I was becoming uneasy. This was not a country where a man would choose to get lost, and I was afraid that was what I was.
The scenery had changed as well, the tall green spring grass giving way to a rock strewn sullen brown earth. The tumbling coffee coloured streams were behind me, as were the straggling African trees. The road degenerated from a fairly good hard top to a pretty bad rock and mud track, which caused the suspension on my undistinguished Japanese car to drum incessantly through my buttocks and up my spine, giving me a headache.
Just as I was contemplating turning around I saw the sign. Isandlwana. Thank you, Jesus. A few hundred yards further was even better news. Isandlwana National Park Visitor Centre, one kilometre was indicated to the right. It was too grand a title for the nondescript building which masqueraded as the Visitors’ Centre. At least there were toilets, in theory if not in fact. It cost me eight rand to visit the site, about fifty pence at the time. There was a guard on the gate who solemnly tore my ticket in half and returned it to me. I wondered if he was a Zulu, but he looked nothing like the splendid men featured in Stanley Baker’s magnificent film of that name, so I decided he was Xhosa.
It was about a mile to the car park up a track of gravel over which the tyres crunched noisily. I got out of the car and closed the door, locking it with the key. I was the only person there and mine the only car. There was total silence apart from a sharp little wind, which whistled around me emphasising the quiet. It was not a comfortable silence, but a chilly feeling which disturbed me.
The scene was dominated by the hill of Isandlwana; a dark brown rocky outcrop shaped like a crouching lion rising several hundred feet from the otherwise fairly flat plain. All around, but at a few miles distance the low hills of Natal rimmed the brown plain. At this place on 22nd January 1879 the British Army suffered their greatest ever defeat at the hands of non white troops. Here, at this very spot, with their backs to the lion shaped hill, 1329 British and native troops died. The first battalion of 24th Regiment, the Warwickshires, lost 599 men, slaughtered. In addition up to 3000 brave Zulus also lost their lives, and as many were wounded.
As I tramped towards the hill I realised that, as also today, the soldier’s gave their lives in a cause less honourable than their courage deserved. ‘Ours is not to wonder why, ours is but to do or die.’ I examined the monuments, cairns and crosses on the battlefield, the wind moaning softly, with no other sound present. Everywhere lay piles of large white painted stones, each stone representing the body of a British soldier, where they had lain dead in groups after the battle.
Zululand had not been a democracy in 1879, nor was King Cetawayo an elected leader, but among the African tribes at that time, the Zulu nation was an entity which worked. The two great white tribes of Southern Africa, the British and the Boers, feared the military power of the Zulus to destroy them and their fragile colonies. During 1878 Zulus made a number of raids into the British colony of Natal, stealing cattle and killing the occasional person. The British Governor of South Africa, Sir Bartle Frere, issued an ultimatum to Cetawayo. It was one that he knew the King could not accept, and Frere was banking on his refusal. On 11th January 1879 British forces under Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand.
Cetawayo did not want to fight the British, whom he respected rather than liked, but above all he feared them. Just below the hill there was a larger than normal group of stones, their white paint faded and peeling from years in the fierce African sun. This was where the British made their last stand, forming square as the 20,000 Zulus in their impis overwhelmed the 1500 redcoats and their mercenary black soldiers.
Sadly, and depressed by this blanketing silence, I headed towards the car, delighted to reach the parking area where my feet ground noisily in the gravel. I took a Coke from my back pack and as I drank another car drove up from the road. I spoke to the two couples as they got out. White South Africans. Perhaps they would not understand my feelings. The soldiers buried here were my ancestors, and their voices seemed still to carry in the wind in this silent place. As today, it is entirely possible to support the warriors and oppose the war. I did my duty when Australia was in Vietnam*, without ever totally believing. ‘Ours is not to wonder why’.
The few survivors of Isandlwana fled across the Tugela River, some ten miles away. The most notable of these were Lieutenants Melville and Coghill, who rode on horseback while carrying the regimental Queen’s Colour. They were cut down in the swirling waters of the Tugela, at a place now called Fugitives’ Drift, the colours thrown into the flowing river, from where they were recovered several weeks later. These now hang in Brecon Cathedral, not far from the regimental museum.
I drove away from this place in low spirits, and, as the guard ambled across to open the gate, I looked back at that mesmerising hill. It reminded me of the film ‘Close Encounters of the third kind’ with people trying to recreate the hypnotic hill they had seen in their visions.
The story is simply finished. The right wing of the Zulu army, little used at Isandlwana, attacked Rorke’s Drift mission station, garrisoned by 139 men, mostly of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment. There were around 5000 Zulus and the fight lasted until early on the morning of 23rd January. The station was capable of being defended by steady troops, and when the Zulus gave up some fifteen British soldiers were dead. The British stopped counting the enemy dead at around 600, burying these brave men in a common grave. Cetawayo’s fears were realised. He knew he could not sustain losses like those he had suffered in two days of fighting. His kingdom was seized and incorporated into Natal. His army was destroyed efficiently and his capital burnt to the ground. The king himself went into hiding but was soon captured. He was taken to London, met Queen Victoria and returned to Zululand where he died in 1884, a broken man.
Fourteen Victoria Crosses were awarded, eleven of them for Rorke’s Drift. Despite the implications of Stanley Baker’s politically biased film, that Rorke’s Drift was a Welsh victory, eight VC’s went to Englishmen, three to Irishmen, two to Welshmen and one to a Swiss.