120th anniversary of the Anglo Zulu war (January 1999)
In January 1879, British soldiers crossed bayonet with assegai, confronting Zulu warriors in the bloody battles of Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift. Over a century later those same sites echoed to the volleying of Martini Henrys and the war cry of “uSuthu” as once again these battles were re-enacted on the field of conflict.
Members of the Company made the 6,000 mile long trip to take part in the commemorations of the 120th anniversary of the Anglo Zulu War as guests of the kwa Zulu nation. A departure from our normal home service –we had to totally reequip- all to the highest standards – to portray a section of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot, as they would have been in Zululand in 1879.
This was the first time re-enactors had been used in South Africa and we were determined to do it right – 30 Company members travelled out allowing us to portray two sections, giving us a much more fluid way of working in the field. We arrived at Jo’burg for onwards transit to Durban where the first of many public engagements awaited. We were co-hosts of a gala dinner attended by Chief Butelezi at the Royal Hotel, our first exposure to the gathering media bandwagon that our trip triggered off.
The following day saw us relocate to Dundee, and having settled into barracks the evening was spent preparing for our first appearance as the 24th Foot. Our trip to Isandlwana was a very emotive one, hardly anyone else there bar us; standing formed up in full kit under the shadow of the mountain. Enough of the emotions, barked orders from our NCO’s got us drilling under the hot African sun. It was 90 in the shade, if there had been shade! Back to barracks for further preparations – the following day we were to meet the Zulu.
Standing once again on the mountain, our first sighting of the amaButho was the appearance of some coaches. As they approached the noise of rattling spears against shields and singing could be heard, and some 150 warriors in full regalia were disgorged from the coaches in front of us. They rapidly deployed and started to advance towards us, singing, stamping their feet and banging shields, the noise reaching a crescendo when they broke into a run towards our small Company. – formed in two ranks with fixed bayonets. We stood our ground and later learned that they were testing our mettle, to see if we would break in front of them or not! Having established mutual respect, rehearsals began.
The amaButho themselves were an interesting group, Zulu society is very structured and the ranks of the amaButho represented groups from all over Zululand, exactly the same as the Royal Army that fought the British in 1879. Descendants represented all the regiments from their tribal areas, in many cases of warriors who fought in the war.
Come the day itself – 22nd January 120 years on. We were to take part in a wider range of celebrations, with the Royal Regiment of Wales, the RA unveiling a monument to their fallen, and the dedication of a Zulu memorial to their dead. Quite emotive in itself, we were not ready for the reality. By mid morning some 15,000 people had assembled predominantly Zulu, with thousands singing in unison their old praise songs. Mixed in with this was a heavy media presence, loads of UK based, but also American, Canadian, New Zealand and South African – SABC covered the event live!
We set out for our re-enactment of the battle, very conscious that the crowd represented about half the impi that faced the Brits on the field of battle – and we were less than half a Company! Obviously we couldn’t recreate the battle itself but we choose to dramatise some parts of it. A close order section volleyed towards the Zulu centre, holding them back with rifle fire as open order our other section extended attempting to hold back the right horn. For a while ewe held them but then a shout of “uSutho!” and the Zulus rose up and charged overwhelming our close order section who broke up into desperate hand to hand struggles as their right horn flanked our other section as they tried to fall back – a final last stand by our Colour Sergeant, drummers and a few survivors before the inevitable end.
The Zulus loved it, everyone keen to be first into the red soldiers lines, lots of noise, more singing and praise chanting before the impi moved off and we reformed [surprisingly with no casualties] to give the VIP’s three cheers.
The following day saw us at Rorkes Drift, again an emotive place where we staged displays of drill and living history for the public. Come dusk, a torchlight tour of the site, the story of the battle being told as redcoats held flickering torches. A last post bugle call rang out, bringing a lump to the throat of those present.
The following days saw us back at Isandlwana – we spent more time there than the Central Column and more time than any redcoats other than the lads buried there! Then onto Helpmaaker – a day’s safari and a move to Eshowe – the site of Pearson’s fort where his column was besieged for 3 months after Isandlwana.
From there back to Durban and home – a very campaign hardened bunch, the kit stood up to it well and we had few casualties – courtesy of the local wildlife – one spider bite, one cattle tick and a cracked rib, along with quite a bit of heat exhaustion, sunburn and what was affectionately known as Cetewayo’s revenge!
A marvellous experience for all whom took part – and just as important a real honour and privilege to stand with the Zulu nation to help remember and commemorate the events that touched both nations so deeply 120 years ago.