A Professional Battlefield Guide – some personal opinions

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 my following opinion will explain why. The list is by no means exhaustive.

 1.       Books and other Printed Matter

 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.

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

 2.       A Personal Approach – use of aids

 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 endeavour 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 for a checklist for analysis.

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.

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. And yes, obviously an old gent is going to want to sit down, so offer him a chair. An umbrella or two has always been most welcome in the glaring sun. Many foreign visitors badly underestimate the African sun.

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.

 3.       Gauging your clients/audience

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.

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.

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 to you, never mind what you say.

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?

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.

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. Ask me about it…!!

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.

A professional guide will keep on gauging his or her client(s) 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 who just want to go home and have a beer.

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

 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.

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…”

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, and you may as well go home.

 5.       You appearance/conduct on the day

 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.

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 that may make your blood boil.  

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.

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.

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

Do not talk too fast. You may have an encyclopaedic 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.

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 wilfully intrude or interfere with another guide on any battlefield. I will not even entertain the thought.

 6.       Taking care of clients on the day.

 A professional guide will ensure that all clients are suited and fit for the day’s undertaking. Check on sun protection, especially during summer, appropriate (closed) shoes, and chronic medication, if required. Why closed shoes, especially in the heat..? The answer is simple – insects. 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.

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.

 7.       A Short Overview of the Principles of War

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.

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 these principles of war in brief:

1. Objective:

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

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.

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.

4. Surprise:

Can be physical or psychological. Ensures moral superiority over the enemy. Protection of battle plans.

5. Concentration:

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

6. Economy of Effort:

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

7. Flexibility and Mobility:

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

8. Simplicity of Plan:

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

9. Unity of command:

Ensuring effortless co-operation between all units of force. Chelmsford’s Isandlwana campaign is a classic.

10. Morale:

No troops will carry out the best of plans without good, or any, for that matter, morale.


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