My Name is History, and my Art is War – Blood on iTaleni Hill

VOORTREKKER-ZULU CONFRONTATIONS OF 1838

The Vlugkommando and the Battle of Italeni, April 11, 1838

PART 1

  1. Introduction

Ian Uys's map of the Battle of Italeni.

The Battle of Blood River is one of those epic confrontations in the momentous history of this country that has held people in its grip for almost 180 years. There are more than just a few historians who have strong opinions about this battle, and there are even some that says it never took place at all. (Map on the right – Ian Uys)

Whatever may have happened on that momentous day, one thing is clear as a bell: we will never fully know what exactly happened on that day, as many of our primary resources that could have enlightened us were destroyed during the Anglo Boer War, the diary of Andries Pretorius being but one case in point.

There are, however, more than just a few recorded recollections of the battle, and this document has been written from some of them. Gerdener’s book on Sarel Cilliers is very old, and must be read in conjunction with Preller and Jansen’s work. Together they provide much of the original information available on this battle. The diary of Anna Steenkamp, a niece of Piet Retief, also provided some insight. It is necessary to point out that several frustrating discrepancies do exist between these sources, which calls for careful perusal.

  1. The origins of the battle

The primary reasons for the final punitive expedition that resulted in that epic battle on the banks of the Ncome River on December 16, were the treacherous attacks on Piet Retief and his men at uMgundgundhlovu and the subsequent attack on the Voortrekker laagers in the area of the confluence of the Blauuwkrants and Sondags Rivers near the current towns of Colenso, Weenen and Estcourt. A number of accounts exist of the attacks on the Trekker laagers during the night of February 16, 1838.

About 10 000 Zulu warriors attacked a settlement of widely spread out Trekker encampments just after midnight on February 16th. The precise location of all the different family laagers is unsure, and the fact that the Zulu warriors broke up into groups over an attacking front of about 40 km, indicates just how widely spread out they were.[1]

2.1. The Vlugkommando

The Blood River expedition was not the first attempt by the Trekkers to avenge their dead and inflict retribution on the Zulu army. They knew they had to come up with a deadly response, otherwise the Zulu army would keep on attacking them. Many supported the idea of an attack on the Zulu army to revenge the dead of Blaaukrantz, and on April 11, 1838, a commando of about 347 men under the joint leadership of Piet Uys and Andries Hendrik Potgieter crossed the Tugela on the way to uMgundgundhlovu, the capital of the Zulu king, Dingane kaMpande.[2]

Rumours of Sekonyela demanding back his cattle Retief had taken from him, started to surface as well, bringing on the added worry that they could be attacked by him as well as Dingane.[3] The patrol Maritz had sent out towards Port Natal to determine what may have happened to Piet Retief, returned on the 18th of March, and they were accompanied by three Englishmen who brought the news that if they launch an attack against the Zulu king, the British colonists would also help. The laagers were now moved from Doornkop to what would eventually become Vechtlaager, or Gatslaager.[4]

At the same time, a volunteer commando of English settlers at Port Natal, under the leadership of John Cane, also set forth against the Zulus. It was a force of about 30 Europeans and 1500 Zulus who had turned against Dingane.[5] The commando went under the name of iziNkumbi, with the motto, “For justice we fight.”

It was all a bit of a contradiction, as they attacked and razed Zulu settlements on the way to uMgundgundhlovu, slaughtering hundreds of men and capturing several hundred women and children. When they reached a rather large Zulu village, the inhabitants fled, and this band rapidly collected all the Zulu cattle they could find. Severe disputes promptly flared up on how the loot should be distributed, leading to a stick fight between Cane and Ogle’s supporters. Any further military action was deemed pointless, and the commando returned to Durban.[6] Only two men died in this effort. One was bitten by a snake, and John Cane shot one for stealing.[7]

The Voortrekkers were also having problems of their own. Old resentments and disagreements caused a meeting to be held on March 28, 1838, to elect a leader for the punitive expedition that was planned against Dingane. Neither Potgieter nor Uys would serve under Maritz, and neither of these two would serve under each other. Uys would have to consult with the other officers, including the “prickly” Potgieter.[8]

The attacking force left in two sections, on April 5 and April 6. Uys took about 150 men with him, including his 14 year-old son Dirkie.[9] Potgieter had about 200 men with him. It was a purely mounted force, as no wagons were taken. They left what was called the Double Laager, on the western side of the Blaauwkrantz River, near what would be Frere, today, continued towards the location of the modern day town of Winterton, crossed what would most likely be the Klein-Tugela River, and then crossed the Tugela at Skietdrif.[10]

They continued to what would be Ladysmith today, in a north-easterly direction, crossed the Klip River, swung to the right in an easterly direction, crossed a river their compatriots in the Blood River commando would soon name Wasbank, and continued past the modern day post of Helpmekaar, descended the heights, and crossed the Buffalo near Rorke’s Drift. They then moved south, towards Qudeni, where the Zulu army would ambush them at what would later become the Battle of Italeni, near Itala Hill.[11]

They found the vanguard of the Zulu army on the morning of April 11, when they crossed the Buffalo River below the current day Helpmekaar heights, close to Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana.[12] The Trekkers followed quickly, but they were unaware that the wily Zulu commanders were luring them deeper and deeper into Zululand.

The main Zulu Army was waiting at iTaleni Mountain, close to uMgundgundhlovu.  They numbered several thousand warriors, and very likely under the command of their induna Nzobo.[13] Norval writes that the two Trekker commando’s met at the Tugela River, but that was impossible.[14] The Trekker chased a group of Zulu pushing cattle through a ravine, and found themselves in a wide valley with a steep hill on the right, and low ridges to the left.[15]

Typical of the Natal countryside, the valley floor was crisscrossed with dongas, gulleys and ravines. Amazingly now, on their left were about 3000 Black Shields warriors, 4000 White Shields on the left and another regiment cutting off their retreat behind them. They had no idea of the regiment at their backs. This would prove fatal later.

Norval wrote that they had no wagons with them, as they did not want to curtail their mobility.[16] Everything they needed were carried on extra packhorses. They waited at the Umhlatuze River for the English commando from Port Natal that was supposed to come and help them, but they never showed up. When the Trekkers pursued the Zulus with the cattle, they had no idea that they were now gradually led into an ambush.[17]

They were completely unprepared for what awaited them. Their battle tactic was one of movement, and the terrain they now found themselves in, could not have been more unsuitable for that. The battle tactics of their Zulu adversaries were still unknown to them, but their first instruction was about to begin. The Zulu commanders chose their terrain very well. They were masters of the ambuscade, and the terrain could not have been better suited for them.

There was one regiment behind the Trekkers, at their backs, which they did not know of at the time. This effectively closed off their escape route. According to Norval, the tale of the battle that started at this point was made up of fragmented accounts, sometimes contradictory, which is not abnormal for confrontations of this nature.[18]

It was quickly decided that Uys would tackle the white shields on the right, and Potgieter would go for the black shields on the left. There is regrettably no consensus among the available sources on what happened next, or how many Trekkers were fighting in each commando. They moved into the narrow ravine as quickly as possible, and very quickly, unbeknownst to them at this stage, their way out was cut off. No plans of action, or backup plans were put in place, and the two commandos would now be effectively fighting with their backs to each other.[19]

Piet Uys now stormed the Zulus on his front. According to Ian Uys, Koos “Grootvoet” Potgieter wryly asked if they were going to fight the Zulus hand to hand.[20] The first few volleys led to initial success. They shot the Zulu commander, and forced the enemy to rush up the hill. The Trekkers gave chase, but now the severely uneven terrain started to work against them. The commando started breaking up in smaller groups, and this was what the Zulus were waiting for. Uys wrote that the Trekkers were only used to fighting the Xhosas in the Eastern Cape, and they had no idea of the military prowess of the Zulu Army yet.[21]

Binckes put it succinctly:

 “The Boers immediately gave chase, firing as they ran, but found it difficult to navigate the rough terrain and several ravine crossings. Consequently, they began to break up into smaller groups and eventually lost sight of each other.”[22]

This was fatal. The battle very quickly degenerated in a scrambling mess. The accounts of Binckes and Norval differ slightly from each other at this point. Binckes writes that Uys saw the two Malan brothers chase a group of Zulu warriors into thick brush, and he realised that the two lads may be in mortal danger here.[23] It could have been at this point where Frans Labuschagne’s horse threw him.[24] The other men were charging over the dead and dying Zulus to get at the fleeing warriors, which led to some confusion. Many of them were separated from the commando, and Piet Uys himself got engaged in a fight in a mealie-land here.

The warriors fled into thick brush in the defile, and when they pulled the Trekkers in, they promptly turned around and doubled back to cut them off. Uys and 19 men rushed to the aid of the Malan brothers. [25] Piet Uys was mortally wounded during this action. A Zulu spear struck him from behind, in his lower back, and came out in his chest. He still managed to pick up a Trekker (Meyer) who had also been thrown from his horse, and placed him behind him. They got away from the immediate danger, but Uys was very badly wounded.[26]

The retreat now began in earnest, and here another Trekker, Pieter Nel, was thrown from his bolting horse. His brother Willem managed to retrieve the animal, but he was too late to help Pieter, who was now on foot, and running for his life. Another Trekker, Koos Moolman, saw a Zulu aiming to throw a spear at Pieter Nel, who had taken an assegai in the face by now, and he warned him, but it was too late. Nel went down under the flashing assegai blades, and they had to leave him to his fate.

Uys was now bleeding badly, but the men refused to leave him. He was revived with brandy when he fainted, but about 500 paces on, he slipped from his horse again.[27] One of the Malans lost his horse, but Willem Gabriël Nel shot a pursuing Zulu warrior from a horse, which he then gave to the one cousin. They began an impossible rear-guard action, trying to keep the Zulus at bay to provide opportunity for the men with Uys to get away, but they were soon overwhelmed. Uys had fallen from his horse for the third time, and this time he ordered Karel Landman to take over, and get the men away to safety.[28] The men were confronted by an almost vertical stony ridge now, where Willem Nel and Jan Landman went to the right, while the rest of the men went to the left of the ridge.[29]

Nel and Landman was now separated from the rest. The Uys men reached the top of the ridge, where many warriors now blocked their way. They now had no option but to charge a way open through the enemy throng. Three men died in the ensuing hand to hand melee, when they were trapped by the Zulu against a donga.[30]

Uys was still alive, and had four men with him now, including his son. Some sources place Hans Dons De Lange with this group at this point in time. They came to a small stream, where de Jager and Dirkie fell behind. Jan de Jager later stated that a number of Zulus burst from the reeds, and grabbed Dirkie. His horse lost its footing during the crossing, and de Jager then left him, racing away to get to Uys and the remaining men.[31]

Uys was finally left, when the Zulus got too close, and the two brothers with him were forced to leave. On the other side of the ridge Jan Landman and Willem Nel broke through the last Zulu cordon, and managed to get to safety.

Curiously enough, the account of Potgieter and his commando is less definite, more vague, and with several discrepancies.[32] Potgieter may have realised that the terrain was totally unsuitable for mounted men. He may also have realised that it was impossible to conduct a running, mounted battle over the terrain, against so many enemy warriors, and had simply tried to save lives and recover what was left from clearly a very ill-planned and very poorly conducted attack. He may also have lost his nerve, which was unlikely. We will sadly, never know.

According to Norval’s map, the surviving Uys men broke through the cordon of enemy warriors on the ridge, and started moving towards the Potgieter commando. He moved in the direction of the Black Shields, the bulk of which were still on Itala Hill, with a number of them deploying to the level area in front of the hill. The retiring survivors of the Uys commando must have been visible to them on their left side ( in an easterly direction). At a distance of about 200 metres he waved a white rag, which was the signal for his men to open fire while still sitting on their horses.[33]

There is little agreement on what happened next. Norval quotes two writers who were of opposing opinions. Nathan mentioned that the Potgieter men did fire several salvos in the direction of the Zulus, but Boshoff disagreed. He wrote that Potgieter gave the order to retire without any shots being fired. The commando then wheeled in the direction of the fleeing Uys men, who were still heavily engaged with the enemy. Gert Rudolph, from the Uys commando, tried to elicit the help of the Potgieter men, but Hendrik Potgieter refused to move.[34]

The breakaway group from the Potgieter commando attacked the Black Shields, possibly to effect a cover action to allow these fleeing men to get across the stream.[35] The Zulus had, by now, realised that the Potgieter commando was less than keen to continue the fight, and charged them, while beating on their shields and creating a uproar which caused havoc among the already agitated Trekker horses.

Joseph Kruger dismounted in the face of the charging black shields, probably to get a more stable shooting platform, and this cost him his life. When he tried to remount his already bewildered horse, it threw him. Botha’s horse lost its footing on the about turn, and fell on him. One of the Oosthuizen cousins shot the warrior who was about to kill Botha, and he and his horse gathered themselves and got away. Kruger was not so lucky.[36]

Hermanus Potgieter was the man closest to Kruger, who was now running for his life. The two Oosthuizen cousins managed to bring the Zulu warrior closest to Kruger down, enabling him to grab the tail of Potgieter’s horse. A spear thudded into the rump of the horse at that moment, causing it to kick violently, hitting Kruger in the stomach and disabling him.[37] He fell down, and died in a welter of flashing spears when the first warriors reached him.

The Potgieter commando fell back across the Umhlatuze River, where they discovered that the men guarding the pack horses were gone, and the horses bolted. They were under pressure now from the front and the back, and the hidden Zulu regiment now showed itself, barring their way from that valley of death. Potgieter was now forced to try and find a way out over Itala Mountain. The hidden regiment combined with the Black Shields, and made their way to where Uys and his small band of volunteers were still trapped.[38] Koos Potgieter, with the balance of the Uys men, now also fell back in the direction where they hoped to find the pack horses with their ammunition supply.[39]

Koos Potgieter and the men with him now attempted to open a way towards the pack horses, which had been left to their fate. The men who had to hold the approximately 60 horses and the supplies they carried, fled, and it fell into enemy hands. Koos Potgieter tried to retrieve them, but it was unsuccessful.[40]

Potgieter and the remnants of the Uys commando then proceeded to try and break through the enemy cordon in the direction of Itala Hill. At the Umhlatuze River almost all the Black Shields left on the field of battle engaged them, and the most heavy fighting of the day now ensued. For almost 30 minutes they had to beat the warriors off with rifle butts and employ their fight and flee method without pause.[41] Warriors would grab at the horses’ legs and the stirrups in an effort to slow them down, and the riders had to knock them down with their rifle butts.

It was during this desperate melee that the rifle of Piet Uys’s brother, “Swart” Dirk Uys, exploded, and blew his thumb off. The men broke through in a running fight on the eastern slopes of Itala Hill, where some of the servants were also killed in action at this stage. Both commandos were in full flight at this point, with several rearguard actions being fought to keep the Zulu vanguard back.[42]

The number of Zulu warriors killed in action is estimated at 500 to a 1000. Both the commandos were now fleeing, with the Zulu warriors in pursuit, until they crossed the Buffalo River again. It is believed that a small party of Zulu spies continued the pursuit, but they were ambushed by the Trekkers in a mealie-field.[43] The riders tarried briefly in the Honey Mountain heights before they continued through the night.[44] The Battle of Italeni, on April 11, 1838, (the Zulus referred to this as the Battle of Mpoi) claimed the life of ten Trekkers.[45] The survivors reached the safety of the laagers in little groups, on the evening of April, 12.

2.2. A critical look at the battle

When one attempts a cursory evaluation of this battle in terms of the ten principles of warfare, it falls apart from the first instance. The Trekkers were not trained soldiers at the time, and their opponents had all the advantage in terms of terrain and mobility.  It is not clear if someone took over command of the Zulu force after the induna was shot in the opening move of the fight. What was abundantly clear is that of the two Trekker leaders, only Potgieter had some experience fighting native forces, while Uys made up for his lack of experience with his courage and fiery leadership.

Their horses were not suitable for this kind of work, as it seemed that the gunfire unsettled them, and several horses lost their footing in the very rough terrain, or threw their riders at critical moments. It is unclear who was responsible for their logistical arrangements with the commando of packhorses, but the ease with which the Zulu warriors took the horses and equipment indicates little thought was given to the protection of their supplies or the creation of a fall-back position in case they needed to regroup. Command confusion led to further difficulties, and at the end the men could do no better than to retreat in the possible manner to rethink what had happened on this day.[46] A number of painful lessons were learned on this day, which stood them in good stead on the eve of that fateful confrontation on the banks of the Ncome River on December 16, 1838.

Notes:

[1] Norval, EJG, Bloed, Sweet en Trane: Die verhaal van die Voortrekkers, Bienedell Uitgewers, Pretoria, 2002., p. 221.

[2] Gerdener, GBA., Sarel Cilliers: DIE VADER VAN DINGAANSDAG, JL van Schaik-Uitgewers, Bpk., Pretoria, 1925, p. 60. They would be known as the Vlugkommando later, meaning  the commando that ran away.

[3] Binckes, Robin, The Great Trek Uncut. Escape from British Rule: The Boer Exodus from the Cape Colony, 1838, 30° South Publishers (Pty) ltd., Pinetown, 2013., p. 338-339.

[4] This site is now situated under the Wagendrift dam, just outside the town of Estcourt, today.

[5] Binckes, Robin, Op. cit., p. 339.

[6] Ibid., p. 340.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. Binckes was polite when he referred to the strong-willed Potgieter as prickly. Maritz was probably too sick already to lead the expedition, and the other two were far too stubborn to serve under each other. It led to a situation where you had two de facto commandos working next to each other.

[9] Binckes mentioned his age as 12 years, while Norval was of the opinion that he was 15 years old.

[10] George Chadwick, Trek Routes and Laagers in Natal, kindly made available in part to the writer by the Heritage Foundation, VTM, Pretoria.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ian Uys differs from Binckes in his article written for the South African Military History Society Journal. He is of the opinion that they saw the Zulu impi on the 9th, near the Babanango Mountains after they crossed the Tugela, but that is just wrong. The Tugela is nowhere near this part of Northern Natal. Several writers confuse the two rivers with each other.

[13] Binckes, Op.cit., p. 341. He was killed in the first stage of the battle when a Trekker with the name of Pieter Nel shot him.. Other sources state that this may have been  the famous general Dambuza, but that is impossible, as he was in action at Blood River eight months later, when he commanded the Isihlangu Mhlope (White Shields).

[14] Ibid. Binckes did not refer to any meeting point. They both did mention that Lucas Meyer was Piet Uys’s deputy, but Ian Uys thought otherwise. In his article on the Military History Society’s website he indicated that Field Cornet Koos “Grootvoet” Potgieter was the deputy. See Uys, Ian, The Battle of Italeni, Article in the Military History Journal, South African Military History Society website www.rapidttp.com/milhit/vol045iu, Volume 4, No. 5.

[15] Binckes, Op. cit., p. 341.

[16] Norval, Op. cit., p. 254.

[17] Ibid.,p . 255. The Trekkers had no real idea of Zulu tactics at this point, and would pay dearly for their brashness, but they learned fast. The Battle of Blood River would illustrate that perfectly.

[18] Norval, Op. cit., p. 257.

[19] Binckes, Op. cit., p. 341. This meant that they would not see other, and would thus not be able to assist each other if difficulties should arise. Which it did.

[20] See footnote 12. They stopped within metres of the Zulu horde, dismounted and fired on them.

[21] Uys, Op. cit., as per footnote 12.

[22] Binckes, Op. cit., p. 341.

[23] Binckes, Op. cit., p. 341.342. According to Norval they were cousins, not brothers.

[24] Norval, Op. cit., p. 258. It is remarkable how many of the men were thrown from their horses during the struggle.

[25] Ibid. Dirkie Uys, Piet and Gert Rudolph, Willem Gabriel, Pieter, Louis, Philip and Gert Nel, Karel Landman and his son Jan Abraham, Jan Meyer, Hans Breytenbach, Gert (Jan ?) de Jager, Jacobus and Jan Moolman, Hans Dons De Lange, Jan Steenkamp, a Snyman and Daniël Malan, according to Norval, who harvested these names from several sources.

[26] Binckes, Op., cit., p. 342. His blood streamed down the flanks of his horse, Welsier.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Norval, Op. cit., p. 260. Binckes’s version of events gets a little sketchy from here on. His version of the death of Dirkie Uys is disputed by more than one source.

[29] Ibid. These men were still labouring with the dying Uys. Ian Uys’s version differs, in that he is of the opinion that the men with Uys went on the other side (right) of the ridge.

[30] Ibid. Gert Nel, Louis Nel en Jacobus Malan. Their broken rifles, with shattered stocks, were later found in uMgundgundhlovu, by the Pretorius commando.

[31] Ibid. There are at least five different versions of the death of Dirkie Uys. One has him seeing his dying father lifting his head for a last time, whereupon the boy broke away from the fleeing men and joining his father, to die with him. Sarel Cilliers himself debunked this version. Another version had the Zulus capturing him alive, taking him to the King, where he was slaughtered alive. Many years later some old Zulu presented this version, and Dirkie’s powder horn, to the family, but this is unlikely, as he could have picked it up after Dirkie died in battle. The most likely version is where Dirkie died in the crossing of the little stream, when his horse fell. He was probably dead before his father died, with Piet Uys unaware of  it.

[32] Ibid., p. 263. Binckes’s account differs substantially from Norval here. Norval is far more detailed, and also covers differences in the story as recounted by other writers. See Binckes, Op. cit., p. 342-345.

[33] Ibid., p. 263. This was a mistake, as a number of their horses immediately started to panic, and they had  to retire.

[34] Ibid., p. 264. Was this the actions of a coward, or a prudent man who did not want to see more of their men killed? Whatever historians may have surmised from this, about 18 men broke away from the Potgieter commando to assist Uys’s stricken men.

[35] Ibid. Among them were Joseph Kruger, Hermanus Potgieter, Adolf Botha and two Oosthuizen cousins.

[36] Ibid., p. 264-265.

[37] Ibid. Different accounts exist of this event, as there are writers who were of the opinion that the pack horses were still there.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., p. 266. The most desperate part of this struggle now ensued.  Hendrik Potgieter and his demoralised men fled, and no organised resistance was possible from that quarter.

[40] Ibid. According to Norval the men tried to fight their way through towards the pack horses, where they could get fresh ammunition, so one would assume they could see the horses. It is not clear why Hendrik Potgieter’s men could not find them.

[41] Ibid. This meant that they loaded their rifles while mounted, jumped off the horse, fired, quickly reloaded again, retreated out of range of the warriors, and dismounted again to fire. They had employed this method with great effect against the Matabele at Vegkop, where Hendrik Potgieter was also in command.

[42] Ibid. There is an account of a young Trekker who lost his horse at this stage, and nobody wanted to pick him up. He apparently managed to hide in the dense bush. He killed two Zulu warriors who had a horse at a later point, and managed to escape. Binckes does not mention it. One can only wonder at the number of servants, or “agterrryers,” killed.

[43] Ibid., p. 267. Norval also writes that they shot an induna who was riding on Retief’s horse. It is not clear if this information had been confirmed, as Retief’s horse had been seen at the Battle of Blood River as well.

[44] Ibid., More precisely, on Vermaak’s Farm, near what would be the Greytown Road  today. The Honey Mountains are the Biggarsberg Mountains today, named after Alexander Harvey Biggar, a former British army officer who was killed in action at Opathe Gorge during the Blood River campaign.

[45] Ibid., According to Norval they were Pieter Lafras Uys, Dirk Cornelis Uys (his son), Frans Labuschagne, Johannes Petrus (Pieter) Nel, Louis Jacobus Nel (brother of J.P.), Gerrit Cornelius Nel (brother-in-law to the Nel brothers), Jacobus Malan (had brother murdered with Retief), Dawid Eduard Malan (son of Jacobus Malan), Johannes Augustinus Malan (son of H.P. Malan), and Josef Kruger (brother-in-law to A.H. Potgieter).

[46] Pretorius, Robbertse, Norval, Binckes and several of the older writers, found this battle infuriatingly difficult to research. The map of Ian Uys, as available on the website of the South African Military History Society, (http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol045iu.html) does not correlate with Norval’s map in several instances. Even the direction differs. There is also no concensus on the names of the fallen

This entry was posted in Battlefield Tours, Personal, Tourism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.