I was first introduced the strange allure of visiting battlefields when my father and I stopped off, on the spur of the moment, at a battlefield site where my father thought his late father (who was only 14 years old when the English burned his family farm to the ground, leaving his mother with the choice of sending him to war to join whatever Boer regiment he could find, or taking him with her to a concentration camp. The former option was the one he begged for) may have fought. Quite frankly the visit was boring. Then a man and his young son wandered over to us and introduced himself, and he began to explain what had happened at that site. He gave dates (which didn’t correspond to the dates my grandfather would have been there). He pointed out to us where the Boers were, who their leaders were, where the English were and who their leaders were and who moved where and at approximately what time. His son was caught up with his enthusiasm and my father was clearly having a jolly good time. I asked some questions, and then, through the answers, a whole episode of history magically came to life.
I have also attended some of the historical tours around Grahamstown as part of the National Arts Festival, and had some blood curdling accounts of the Frontier Wars dramatised for me.
Having had this wonderful encounter with a real time guide (who was handsomely tipped by my father for sharing his knowledge so generously with us) and having had some melodramatic and condensed versions of the Frontier Wars, I was a little bit skeptical about the usefulness of a mere book. (The author, Nicki von der Heyde is a specialist battlefields tour guide in KwaZulu Natal).
I started in the Eastern Cape (the battlefields are arranged regionally which makes holiday planning easy) and was a little disappointed to find only one Frontier War Battlefield. There are another 70 battles ranging from the Angl0-Zulu War, various colonial conflicts and battles between the Voortrekkers and the less obliging people they encountered through to the expected accounts of the First and Second Anglo-Boer Wars.
The book is visually appealing and has been very cleverly designed with an array of special features. Each site is discussed in the same way using the headings of How to get there, Context, Action, Aftermath and Principal combatants. There are lots of photographs, both historical and modern. Fact and feature boxes also add to the contemporary feel of the book and, of course, to the interest.
I picked the battlefield closest to Johannesburg where I reside to start my detailed reading. The Battle of Doornkop in which the British, led by General John French, broke through the Boer lines and took the city of Johannesburg in 1900 (important enough for Johannesburg citizens, I think). Unlike some of the other battlefields there are no GPS coordinates. The hills in Soweto don’t sound particularly suitable for a nearly completely immobile person to explore, so I left this one to theoretical knowledge only. I did find the timeline interesting, as well as the whole story – one I hadn’t known about Johannesburg before.
I will definitely be consulting the Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa before taking any trips so that I can incorporate a visit to a battlefield or two as part of the excursion if at all possible.
The book will be of interest to military historians, people with long standing Anglo-Zulu War, Frontier War, Voortrekker and Boer War family connections, and tourists with a particular interest in military history.
- Title: Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa
- Author: Nicki von der Heyde
- Publisher: Struik Travel
- Year: 2013
- ISBN: 978-1-43170-100-1