The Battlefields Region of KwaZulu-Natal covers a broad stretch of land from the Drakensberg in the north to Greytown and Stanger near Pietermaritzburg in the south. The landscape is made up of rolling hills and grasslands punctuated by the passes, rivers and kopjes that made up the central geographic features of these historic battles.
The region is home to 63 battle sites that shaped the history of South Africa during the 19th century. They were all fought between three main protagonists (Zulus, British and Boers) disputing rights to power and land in the region during the Voortrekker-Zulu conflict of 1838; the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879; the 1st Anglo-Boer War of 1880/81; and the 2nd Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.
Alongside the major battlefield sites, the region has many memorials, cemeteries, graves, forts, museums, and places of interest.
Major Battlefield Sites:
Voortrekker-Zulu Conflict, 1838
Rob Gerrard, Battlefields
"The Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are taught to every member of the British and American Armed Forces as ‘Dos’ and ‘Do Nots’. "
Battle of Blood River
Fifty km west of Dundee lies the battleground of the Battle of Blood River where on December 16th, 1838, 468 Dutch Voortrekkers famously repulsed a force of between 15,000 and 20,000 Zulus.
The battle followed the massacre of the famous Boer leader, Piet Retief, and his men on the orders of the Zulu King, Dingane. The Boer commander, Andries Pretorius, created a laager with 64 ox wagons and made a vow that if he and his men survived the battle, they would hold the day sacred in perpetuity. No Boers died during the battle and December 16th is now celebrated as a Day of Reconciliation.
Anglo-Zulu War, 1879
Battles of Islandwana & Rorke’s Drift
During a 24-hour period on January 21st/22nd, 1879, the British army fought two engagements which have gone down in history as classic examples of both the best, and the worst, way to fight a battle. While searching for the main Zulu army, the commander of the British force, Lord Chelmsford, split his force in two and failed to defend his camp at Isandlwana. When a Zulu force of 20,000 made a surprise attack using the ‘buffalo horns’ formation developed by the legendary King Shaka, the British were routed leaving more than 1300 dead.
Later that same day, a Zulu force of 3,000 attacked the base camp at Rorke’s Drift which was defended by just 156 men. By retaining discipline in close formation, the Zulus were repulsed with the deaths of only 17 British. 11 VCs were won during the engagement.
1st Anglo-Boer War, 1880/81
Battles of Laing’s Neck, Schuinshoogte & Majuba
In February, 1881, the British state of Natal found itself vulnerable from attack by the Boers of the neighbouring Free State and Transvaal. Decisive battles were fought at Laing’s Neck, Schuinshoogte and Majuba where the British commander, General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, was fatally wounded. Although a treaty securing the future of the Boer Republics was signed, it sowed the seeds of the second Anglo-Boer War a few years later.
2nd Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902
Battle of Talana, Battle of Elandslaagte
For a few years after the first Anglo-Boer War, the Boer republics remained relatively free of British influence but the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 changed all that. The Battle of Talana took place on October 20th, 1899, when 14,000 Boers attacked 4,000 British troops. The British managed to repel the attackers and later defeated the Boers at Elandslaagte which was quickly followed by the Siege of Ladysmith when the Boers besieged the British for 118 days. Two years of hard fighting later, the Boers finally succumbed. Crucial to the victory was the British scorched earth policy of sending Afrikaner women and children to concentration camps where many perished from malnourishment and disease.