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


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


  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.


[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, 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, ( 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

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My name is History, and my Art is War.

Johann Hamman British Army Anglo Boer war battlefield guides KwaZulu Natal tour guides Dundee history military Boer A battlefield tour is probably the last thing you are thinking about right now. I have been conducting battlefield tours in this part of the world for over twelve years now, and the people I have met many people lured here by the pull of the tales of yesteryear, to put it mildly. History and more apt, military history is the domain of interesting people looking up heroic deeds of forgotten soldiers from equally forgotten battlefields.

I have been on many battlefields. The most epic tour I had done so far was my all too short visit in In Flanders Field museum in the Belgian town of Ypres. The all-consuming confrontation that burst upon the world in the first week of August 1914, and soon became known as the First World War, destroyed every known order, nuance and system known to Mankind at that point in time.

It also, in my humble opinion, made us familiar with the sight and smell of blood in our way. It also established and cemented published opinions of men like Count Von Clausewitz and his ilk in our collective psyches. I have read Von Clausewitz, Liddell Hart, Pakenham, Kruger, Crisp, Farrell and many others who recognized the fact that armed conflict is but a continuation of politics by more persuasive means.

It is also a very convenient legalization of one of mankind’s very basic urges, namely the need to kill your enemy as quickly and as efficiently as possible, without him the same to you. Quite simply put, it is the Art of War. I do not propagate war. I do not support war. I, like any old soldier who came before, or with me, will do anything I humanly can to prevent armed conflict.

Those that eagerly propagate armed conflict in any of its forms, usually as an enhancement of pursuing political dreams or objectives, have customarily never experienced the blood-curdling fear of combat, the visceral reality of people dying violently, or, quite frankly, the smell and sound of it.

I am a battlefield guide. More specifically, I am a military historian that have registered as a tourist guide in KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa, for the simple reason that we are sitting in the midst of the largest concentration of battlefields in the Southern Hemisphere. There are many stories to be told here. The spellbinding tale of our history lies in wait. Are you game for it…?


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The year 2017 – A review on the run

What it is all about. My trusty old Condor at the De Jagersdrift turn-off. I was on my way to the Blood River museum here. This year had proven to be an exceptionally good year, so far. To be quite frank, my best year since the Soccer World Cup descended upon us in all its Blatteresque overindulgence.

We plowed though the biblical seven bad years since 2010, and I am pleased to say that things are looking up considerably. Let us just hope politicians do not spoil this.

History Rules…!!!



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The year of 2017 – a sign of things to come…??

Ian Knight and I, at the Rorke's Drift battlefield.

The famed English writer, Ian Knight, on one of his regular tours to South Africa. He leads a comprehensive tour every year.

Our own year at History’s walk started out as demurely as the one before, and the one after that. January did produce a couple of interesting one, and then Isibindi Eco-Lodge stepped up to the plate.

N5, near Clarence.

Soon we were doing battlefield tours for them almost every day, in February of this year. March slowed down a tad, and then it kicked off again, in April. May to July was equally busy. Our first school tour, for Northcliff, came in in August, and was the three most interesting days on tour in the battlefields, so far. Grade 10 schoolkids, with the concomitant anthropological exercise in human behaviour, especially if some of them thought that others were looking at them. Teenage hormones……sigh.

In september we are touring with the British Army again. Can’t wait.

See you out there.


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So, you want to do a Battlefield Tour…? here’s a few thoughts.

Battlefield tour Rorke's Drift, Johann Hamman, Anglo-Zulu WarSo, you want to do a battlefield tour in the far-off wastelands of the ancient Zulu Kingdom, do you….? Here is a pointer or two:

I am a specialist military history guide, and I do battlefield tours. I am known to do battlefield analyses as well. I have taken clients from practically all four corners of the globe to the most well-known of all our sites, especially the iconic Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

I am NOT a mall guide or a nature guide, although I am qualified in nature guiding. I do not do nature or cultural tours. Visits to Durban or the beach are also, sort of, not on the roster. First of all, it is a good idea to find at least two nights accommodation in Dundee. (See Dundee is my base of operation, and I do all my tours from here. Driving in from Durban, Ballito Bay, Umhlanga Rocks, Kosi Bay, or all other various spots at the coast means that you will have to do travelling of up to 600 km per day before we even start the tour. (Travel agents, please take note here.)

There are two ways of doing a tour with me. Both are optional, which means it will be your own choice which one you take, and I will not order you to take an option.

Option One: The Hop-on Tour

This means exactly that. I hop on in the client(s)’ vehicle, with him/her doing all the driving, and I the guiding. This option will cost you ZAR 1800.00 at this point in time, and applies to every tour I have in my repertoire. It is a day fee, and not a fee per person. I like this option, but, as I have said, it is optional.

Option Two: Using my vehicle

012This option is somewhat more expensive, as I use my vehicle here for the tour. See the page to tour rates for options here. The Condor (see picture) can seat seven (7) persons, but I prefer to take a maximum of five people. This is more comfortable.

This option can also be combined with client vehicles, but the premium fee for my vehicle will remain in place for the day.

I am a military historian by trade, training and inclination. I am an ambassador for my history, and I will gladly teach you yours, if you do not know it. I am happy with lively discussions, and the more I can “bounce” off my clients, the more interesting our day will become.

You will be liable for any incidental costs during the day, like your refreshments, water, cool drinks, or lunch, for that matter, as well as entry fees where applicable, if I did not quote you for it beforehand. Please see the rates page on this web site. I will email you basic information upon first contact, and your itinerary for the day is up to you.

I like to see myself as a dynamic thinker and historian. I will entertain honest inquiries from anybody by all means. Please acquaint yourself with our cancellation policy, as we will not refund last-minute cancellations without good reason, or non-arrivals.


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A veteran tourist and battlefield guide….

Johann Hamman Battlefield tours, Dundee, KZNAfter Rob Gerrard’s memorial service at St. Vincents’ a few observations of this event and the people involved in this business made me think about the profession of battlefield guiding. There are currently three distinct groups of guides operating on the battlefields, namely the serious academics who endeavour to know every little bit of detail they can find and anesthetize their clients with an information deluge, then you have the operators who weave a spell-binding tale of urban legends, grandpa’s tales and something they have read in an Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society manual or an Adrian Greaves’ book and cook up a storm to old toppies and swooning young duchesses, and then you have the Veterans.

Guys (and girls) who have served time in the Armed Forces of Southwest-Africa, Namibia, South Africa and Rhodesia. There are quite a few of us. We are not the best battlefield guides in the world, and we do not work in the colours of fancy lodges or hotels, but we know that to make a battlefield your own, you take this story, and you become an ambassador of this tale. You pay homage to brothers in arms that have fallen beneath your feet, and you dip your hat in a silent, quick salute. You tell the story of the Fallen, of the Silent Parade that will never dismiss, and you make the smoke come alive and the people in front of you smell the fear, the storming surge of a victory’s exultation and you make them smell the blood and the shit of the Dead. And you make them hear it.

Then you are a good guide. When you can guide with a visceral clarity that will make your client never forget, you may be regarded as a good guide. We are not princes. We are Custodians, and we have a responsibility. Those of you who want to chase the glamour, should go work at Disneyland. You do not belong here.

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The Silent Ones

One of my last sojourns into filming, with the Diehards...

The last shots in our border war in Namibia and Angola were fired in 1989, maybe even 1990. Many of us were there. Many of us were not there. The hundreds of thousands of us that were there, and did not write a book about it, are still here. Many of us live in utter deprivation in little rooms and on street corners and are being cared for by favourite granddaughters or unwilling children. Many of us are saved from an ignominious end, living on pet food in some little shack in a “care centre” run by our own people.
There are many, many vets in dire need of support, medical or otherwise. They suffer a slow end in a country uncaring of their plight. Their comrades past and present are often their only salvation, and this had been proven over and over again. Every once so often, some unknown and forgotten hero dusts off his nutria and writes an epistle about service he should have refused, or medals he should have won.
In today’s Beeld, there is such an article. Why do we still write this bullshit so long after the fact…? Do these pen swingers have something to prove…? There are thousands of us who served silently, who died silently, and you do not read about us. No, you only read about the lead-swingers and the bastards who wanted to join the End Conscription Campaign and others of the same ilk. You only read about the psychological trauma bandits and the sufferers galore.
Why do you not read about the guys who did their job, National Service or Permanent Force, who finished the battles, who bled for Pretoria, who are now only names on marble monuments..? Men and women who now seek insurances from the company of past comrades, and who fight for the dignity of friends who are hors de combat..?
It is time to get writing about the real winners of this war. Us, the silent ones.
Silent no more. Let the corridors of power start listening…

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“By the power invested in me, soldier…..”

KZN, Battlefield Tours, Johann Hamman, Dundee, Natal, For far too long have we neglected this treasure. David Rattray knew this from the beginning. I never saw eye to eye with him, but we were never enemies. There is a number of guides shaping and building their own repertoires in his name, sliding forth on the coattails of his legacy, as far as I am concerned. I was never one to subscribe to the aberration “Why spoil a good story with the facts.” In fact, this makes my blood boil on the spot.
Would I go out there and construct a tale that makes my clients stare at me like I am the Hound of the Baskervilles revisited….? Throw in any number of fun and glorious accidents and happenings to make the tourists pay that one more rand more….? No.
I have listened to the CD’s, for sure. It’s fascinating stuff. I would not have bought it otherwise.  I also believe that we, as battlefield guides, have a responsibility towards the memory of the men and women who fought these battles on this blood-soaked part of this country. That means that you respect the memory of these brave people, many of whom met their Maker while fighting an equally brave enemy, and you do not urinate on the legacy these people left behind, by telling unsuspecting visitors all kinds of little fibs to try and establish some kind of a reputation as a raconteur. Bull.
No. You research the spellbinding tales, from Shaka to Dingane, from Piet Retief to Christiaan de Wet, from Henry Burmeister Pulleine to John North Crealock, from Charlie Pope to Edgar Anstey, from Mehlokazulu ‘The Eyes of Heaven” Kasihayo, to Sarah Rorke, that Afrikaner girl who married John, and left her countenance on museum walls and in history books, and you shout it from the heavens. You become the ambassador of our story, and you share it with the foreign audience that flocks to our part of Africa to hear it.
You become a battlefield guide. Among the best in the world….

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A Professional Battlefield Guide – some personal opinions by Johann Hamman

Touring the Anglo-Zulu War Battlefields with one of my groups. Johann Hamman Dundee Battlefield guide

What does a Professional Battlefield Guide Really Do?

I have published this article on my Linked-In profile as well. Any good battlefield guide, especially in KZN, will know that guiding clients around any battlefield in the province is one of the most intellectually stimulating pastimes in the country. This small group of men and women are among the best in the world at what they do, and I believe the following will explain why. The list is by no means exhaustive.

Books and other Printed Matter

1.1.      Any professional battlefield guide will have the most basic books  about   the industry in his or her library. In KZN, this will include Donald Morris’s 1994 Pimlico Edition of his iconic work, The Washing of the Spears. He established a benchmark from which several writers launched their own work. Several British writers  like Ian Knight, have also contributed to this genre, and it would be advantageous to get as many as you can afford. It is necessary to buy every single book you can find, as many of  them are not useful for guiding purposes.

1.2.      Maps and other sources, like historic documents and diaries,  would not be amiss either, but not everybody would have access to it.

A Personal Approach – use of aids

2.1.      I am of the opinion that it is imperative that you stamp your own,                       individual approach to the science of battlefield guiding. Do not copy other guides, but take what is good, from their work, and add your own personal touch to it. A professional guide should endeavor to know as much as possible about the battle, the events leading up to it, the way the battle was conducted, the aftermath, and a sensible analysis of the events. See paragraph  7. for a checklist for analysis.

2.2.      If you employ audio-visual aids on the battlefield, like maps or pictures, be organised. There is nothing worse than a guide who scrambles in his or her car or bags for maps or pictures and cannot find it.

2.3.      I use chairs as little as possible, as I like to walk my battlefields, but your clients might dictate otherwise. Ask them if they want/need chairs. An umbrella or two has always been most welcome in the glaring sun. Many foreign visitors badly              underestimate the African sun.

2.4.      A professional guide will always be one step ahead. Do not offer something you do not have, like a name of a bird you have no clue about, or some vague name of an ancestor that may or may  not have taken part in a battle. Nobody knows everything, and  to presume to do, is arrogant and unprofessional.

Gauging your clients/audience

3.1.      Some clients would be less averse to a dry, academic lecture than others, and a good, professional guide could ascertain this with some leading questions on the way to the battlefield. It is always good to develop a multi-cultural approach to this subject.

3.2.      What is the most common profile of a battlefield visitor, especially in KZN? To my mind, they are mostly UK visitors,  with a breakdown of American, Continental European, Australian or local visitors. A professional guide will draw his or her visitors       into the tale and place them in the middle of the event as it happened.

3.3.     A professional guide looks after his clients all the time, and let their body language guide him, up to a point. Knowing the story on a battlefield is not even half the job. If your clients are uncomfortable for any reason, they are not going to listen, never mind what you say.

3.4.      Clients who are feeling ill, are hungry, cold or too warm, are not appreciative clients. Neither are clients who are lost. I have seen guides leave their clients on Isandlwana Mountain at Captain Younghusband’s cairn, walk away from them, across the shoulder of the mountain to Captain Shepstone’s grave, and then let foreign clients find their own way to him. The question that arises here, and in similar situations, is what if one of them  had been bitten by a snake, which is not inconceivable, or had                     taken a stumble and broken something, all because they were unaided?

3.5.      Some clients may only want a rattling good yarn. They are not really concerned about all the facts of the battle on the day. I change my presentation on the fly here, but will take care not to drop standards I have set.

3.6.      Take out as many as tactical detail as safely possible, e.g. names of company commanders, maybe unit names, but remain with the more salient figures and events. Keep personal comments to a minimum, but preferably none at all. If clients are not susceptible to comments like that, one wrong word can blow a tour out of the water.

3.7.      A professional battlefield guide will never add something extra just to spice up the story for clients who are not informed about the history. The term “why spoil a good story with the facts,” is an aberration which makes my blood boil on the spot.

3.8.      A professional guide will keep on gauging his or her clients throughout the tour. Information overload is an insidious enemy which can slowly make inroads on your clients’ enjoyment,  especially on a hot day, and six to eight hours later you can have an exhausted and numbed bunch of people on your hands

The veracity of your information – Was it Percy or Tommy…

4.1.      If you do not know, then do not guess. This is imperative. If you have research sources on hand that may help you, there is NOTHING wrong with looking it up, and presenting the real  answer.

4.2.      There is nothing more embarrassing that to be told by one of your clients that you are wrong, especially if he is right. Serious military history buffs will not concern themselves with flippant information, like Pip the fox terrier at Rorke’s Drift, or the real name of the horse that Louis Napoleon rode. The tales of Louis Napoleon’s dalliance with Zulu maidens is also a classic. If you get involved in such a discussion, ‘plausible deniability’ is not going to work. Tell clients if something is rubbish, or not, and if you do not know, tell them that you have not heard of it before. It sounds better than “I do not know…”

4.3.      Much of the information available, especially on the iconic battles of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana in general, but Isandlwana in particular, is based on conjecture, speculation and analysis of military protocol in place at the time. It is important that clients know this. You may just have a Mike Snook or Richard Holmes in your group, and if they blow you out of the water, nothing you can say, will rescue you from that point on.

You appearance/conduct on the day

5.1.      Some of the older, more experienced tour guides will have clients that know them from a previous experience. A new client is not a friend. Any undue familiarity will not work. Playing games with clients on a battlefield is not funny, especially if you make yourself look stupid.

5.2.      A professional battlefield tour guide will endeavour to avoid political discussions. It can be very difficult not to get drawn in, especially if clients make outlandish assumptions and offensive remarks.

5.3.      The Anglo – Boer War concentration camps are an old favourite. The moods/opinions of the client/s will guide you here. Terminate it as soon as possible. Change the subject to something less volatile.

5.4.      Show respect. A professional battlefield guide will never tell clients that he or she does, or does not agree with, or like what happened on the day, or something similar. This is not a contest, and as much as we would like to re-organise history, it is not possible.

5.5.      A professional guide will be presentable. You need not be overdressed, but be neat, at least.

5.6.      Do not talk too fast. You may have an encyclopedic knowledge of the battle, but many clients don’t, and especially UK clients may have problems following your accent. Make sure you understand what they are saying or asking and that you understand what they want. Do not swear, even if the clients do.

5.7.      A professional battlefield guide will never embarrass another guide in front of his or her own clients, is never rude to any clients, will never enter into a discussion with clients about another battlefield guide , and will not willfully intrude or interfere with another guide on any battlefield.

Taking care of clients on the day

6.1.      A professional guide will ensure that all clients are fit for the day’s undertaking. Check on sun protection, especially during summer, appropriate (closed) shoes, and medication, if required. Take care that asthmatics have their medications on them, and that any heart problems are declared, as it can, and will lead to problems out there.

6.2.      I have had problems on occasion when I took a client, against my better judgement, on the Fugitives’ Trail. The man had a heart attack that night in my house. Smoking, overweight clients who are in no condition to walk that trail in summer must be avoided. Not all battlefields are so strenuous, but fatalities have been recorded in the heat of summer with regard to the Battle of Isandlwana and the Fugitives’ Trail.

A Short Overview of the Principles of War

7.1.      The tale of many of the battles of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 were first retold by survivors of these confrontations. We are faced today with a myriad of secondary sources that retell these tales merely as a bloody romance. Many of these accounts are         coloured with the personal views of the narrator of the author, and leave little for the serious student of military history.

7.2.      Professor Hugh Strachan wrote that the edifying tradition of military history has endeavoured to produce what is called a checklist of principles of war. We will look at them in brief:

7.2.1.   Objective:

The importance of selecting the primary target of the current campaign. The importance of maintaining this objective is paramount here.

7.2.2.   Offensive:

The offensive is always the sought – after objective of officers on a tactical level. It maintains morale, and only it can lead to victory. It is the opposite of defensive, which       disperses resources, surrenders the iniative to the enemy, and is only acceptable as the prelude to a counter-attack.

7.2.3.   Security of Forces:

This has much to do with keeping up a guard while delivering the blow. This deals with the importance of   protecting one’s lines of communication while destroying that of the enemy.

7.2.4.   Surprise:

Physical or psychological. Ensures moral superiority over the enemy.

7.2.5.   Concentration:

Bringing the overwhelming mass of troops to bear on the most decisive point of the enemy’s position.

7.2.6.   Economy of Effort:

The ability to judge the upper limit of resources required to gain the knockout blow.

7.2.7.   Flexibility and Mobility:

Important elements in attacking with surprise. Decisive concentration. No more effort than what is required.

7.2.8.   Simplicity of Plan:

No excessive complexity of plan.Guard against overtaxing  training, capacity and command structure of men in the field. Inherent risk of breakdown.

7.2.9.   Unity of command:

Ensuring effortless co-operation between all units of force.

7.2.10. Morale:

No troops will carry out the best of plans without good morale.


Thanks for looking over this article.  If you found it interesting I would appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment below or follow me on Facebook.  I always have information on Battlefields in my local area.







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A battlefield analysis with the 4th Battalion, Duke of Lancaster’s at Isandlwana

Lt.-Col. Lighten, extreme left, and the visitors from the Duke of Lancaster's 4th Battalion, at Isandlwana - Johann Hamman, Dundee, KZN, South Africa

The Duke of Lancaster’s, on the right, with Lt.-Col. Lighten on the right. We briefly, applied the following principles to each of the two battles mentioned, and discussed and absored it as the day allowed. Permit me to state that if the soldiers of the future, which were you at some point in the past, were to gain any knowledge of war, or increase the stock of actual experience, they must perforce read military history.  This profession is not sculpted entirely by desk-bound theory, and reading must be complemented by succinct and readily assimilable analysis. This checklist of immutable principles of warfare will serve as an aid for a subaltern suddenly faced with the command of a company, or a vade – mecum for a staff officer, if you like.

They are:

1.            The Object, which encompass the need to select the primary target, and not to be deflected from that aim;

2.            The Offensive, which is the stronger form of warfare, and it affirms morale,  and only it can lead to victory. Defensive is a weaker norm, because it disperses resources and yields the initiative to the enemy. Only acceptable as the prelude to a counter-attack;

3.            Security of Forces, the importance of keeping your guard up, while striking the enemy, protecting your own lines of communication, while falling upon the enemy’s ;

4.            Surprise, which is physical or psychological, and ensures moral superiority over the enemy. It must be read in conjunction with Offensive;

5.            Concentration, which is bringing the biggest mass of troops possible to bear on the decisive point;

6.            Economy of effort, which is the level at which the commanding officer decides the upper limit of strength required. This is notwithstanding the concentration principle, and has bearing on the point of using a  sledgehammer to swat a fly;

7.            Flexibility and mobility, important elements in attacking decisively, concentrating effort, and using surprise, with no more effort than is required;

8.            Simplicity of plan, as excessive complexity may overtax training, capability and command structures of the force involved. Carries its own risk of breakdown;

9.            Unity of command, ensuring effective co-operation of various parts of forces involved; and

10.          Morale, probably the most important principle of all. No amount of troops will achieve the primary objective without it.

In order to supply some perspective, I will briefly elaborate on the work of General Roland de Vries, retired and erstwhile Commanding Officer of 61 Mech Battalion, and widely seen as our own Heinz Guderian and Rommel rolled into one.  He is a staunch advocate of the all-important principle of mobility. Under his tutelage we have expounded the principles even further, and below follows a brief outline of what he had in mind:

1.            Selection and maintenance of the aim – The First Principle: – careful consideration of the true aim, well-formulated, clear, concise, unambiguous, decisive and binding. The execution thereof should lie within the grasp of those entrusted with the achievement of the end result;

2.            Concentration of effort – The Critical Principle: – Concentration of forces at the decisive point and time; it is the concentration of strength against weakness, all in one, conceptually, physically and psychologically. Be there first with the most;

3.            Economical use of Force – The Regulating Principle: – Sensible application of military capability, including cost, space and time, in relation to the intermediate objectives and the results stated as achieved in the end. Sustained resilience is implied, the ability to bounce back, where the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts;

4.            Unity of Command – The Force-multiplying Principle: – The cohesive and binding power of dynamic command and leadership in attaining unity of effort at each organisational level, tempered by sound judgement, responsibility, teamwork and mentorship – an unbroken chain of mutual trust, respect and understanding.

5.            Manoeuvre – The Victory Principle: – Seek and maintain the initiative and freedom of action by any means possible. Place the enemy on the horns of a dilemma.  Agility, mobility, flexibility of mind and clever utilisation of combat power;

6.            Offensive Action- The Élan/Audacity Principle:- Aggressiveness, tempered with initiative creates opportunities to be grasped with the aim of winning engagements and battles as to win the war. Set the terms of battle yourself.

7.            Cooperation- The Integration of Effort Principle:- The unvarying quest to achieve interdependence, teamwork, mutual support, spontaneous cooperation and shared responsibility. Implies combined arms integration and decentralisation of control on ground level;

8.            Flexibility- The Setting the Pace Principle:- Acting faster than the enemy, the ability to meet rapidly changing situations head on, tempered by mental agility and ability to improvise;

9.            Surprise- The Physical and Psychological Shock principle:- Mystify, mislead and surprise by means of agility and creative conception. Hit the enemy in his centre of gravity. Simultaneous attacks on his sensory, physical and psychological assets. Pre-emption, disruption and dislocation;

10.          Security – The “Keep our Secrets” Principle:- Deny information to the enemy at all costs, create conditions on the battlefield that will induce greater own initiative and freedom of action. Achieve mission more freely.

11.          Intelligence- The Finger on the Pulse Principle:- Maintenance of information superiority and situational awareness on every level, within sensory, physical and psychological spheres of warfare. Avoid being surprised by the enemies at all cost.

12.          Maintenance of reserves- The Aces High principle:- Adequate reserves to be planned for and provided at each appropriate level of warfare. Reserves allow commanders to influence battles at opportune moments. Soldiers can be reinforced when required, provides comfort and positively influences morale. Momentum can be maintained and opportunity exploited.

13.          Logistical support – The Enabling Principle:- Implies sound balance between the teeth and the tail. Embraces physical and moral components of warfare within sphere of logistics and administration. Adequate support makes mission accomplishment possible.

14.          Maintenance of morale – The Final Principle:- Implies engendering esprit de corps and caring for your people. Embraces tenacity, resilience and confidence in yourself, and others you are fighting with. High discipline, sound leadership, excellent training, skill at arms and comradeship.

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