Twice in less than 23 years, Natal was saved from invasion by the gallant stands made by two small, vastly outnumbered detachments of British soldiers. The first was at Rorke’s Drift in 1879 and the second at Itala in 1901.
Early in September that year, Louis Botha, Commandant General of the Boer Republican Forces, started gathering together the biggest raiding Commando of the guerilla war. With the arrival of the Spring rains, he made ready to move South.
His Commando of picked, tough, fighting men had come from Bethal and South Middelburg; from Ermelo, Carolina and Standerton, and numbered almost a thousand. Across a cold, rain-swept veld, they silently set out from Blaaukop, near Ermelo in the Eastern Transvaal, to begin the second Boer invasion of the Colony of Natal.
The cold rivulets of water ran off their hats and over hunched shoulders. It soaked into ragged and patched jackets and dripped off their noses and sodden beards. Their laps formed cold pools in their saddles, and bodies frozen and wet were chafed by the constant roll of the horses.
Despite the weather, there was an air of excitement among this motley throng, for the long desolate winter months of planning and preparation were past. At last they were on the move. The essential pasture for their horses was now assured, and they became a powerful far-ranging fighting force.
Louis Botha, his brother Chris at his side, headed tbe biggest raiding Commando in this spring revival of Boer activity.
They rode south-east, through Piet-Retief, avoiding the few British outposts and columns along their route, all the time gathering more men. Commandos from Wakkerstroom Piet Retief, Utrecht and Vryheid eventually swelled their ranks to over 2000 mounted men.
Botha’s plan was to invade Northern Natal, disrupt British control to the limit, then cut south to enter the Cape Colony and ultimately join forecs with Smuts who had already succeeded in getting unto the Cape with his small force. An ambitious, but not impossible plan.
British columns sent to catch him got bogged down in the quagmires that passed for roads. Botha with no wheeled transport, was much better off. Using pack animals for carrying supplies, he averaged 10 miles a day with ease, the British barely three.
By September 17th he had reached the Blood River Poort, also known as Spieshoek, about 15 miles west of Vryheid, there to await the Vryheid Commando under his brother-in-law, Cherry Emmett.
British Intelligence reports on Botha’s movements were sketchy. At Dundee, Capt Herbert Gough, with orders for a routine patrol to intercept and escort a convoy of empty British wagons from Vryheid, only had informatiom several days old. To his knowledge Botha was at least 20 miles away.
Gough’s Mounted Infantry, totalling 585 men with the Johannesburg Mounted Rifles under Lieut.-Col. H. K. (Bimbash) Stewart, a pretty rough crowd of irregulars, reached de Jager’s Drift on the Buffalo River on 16th September. Next day, grey, wet and miserable, his advance patrol reported a group of about 300 Boers about five miles beyond the Blood River at Scheepersnek.
By 2 p.m. Gough was in a position to attack. The Boers, meantime, moving north to the Blood River Poort, could with skill, be approached on a converging path by the British, who in turn could remain concealed behind the long low north ridge of the Rooikoppies.
Leaving Stewart and the J.M.I. to guard his transport, Gough impetuously rode forward, certain of his surprise. The Boers, oblivious of their peril, had off-saddled at the foot of the hills. Gough had cornered them.
To complete the attack, his force had to cover a mile of open ground. This the British did at the gallop, fanning out with two field guns bringing up the rear.
The first volley seemned to panic the unsuspecting Boers, when to Gough’s horror, the main bulk of Botha’s force burst out of the Poort. Crossing his front at full gallop, they wheeled to their right, enveloping and rolling up Gough’s flank against the mountain. Others, climbing over the ledges of the Western hill, poured a deadly plunging fire on the hapless mounted infantry. In 10 minutes it was all over. Forty-four killed and wounded and 241 prisoners were the price of Gough’s impetuosity.
Stewart, following some miles behind, was lucky to save the transport and get back to de Jager’s Drift intact. Botha’s men were jubilant. The way south now clear, they re-equipped themselves with British rifles, ammunition, horses, boots and trousers and released their prisoners next day to find their way to Vryheid, sore-footed and trouserless.
Meanwhile the foul weather continued to hamper British columns, while swollen rivers delayed Botha. His horses were in poor condition and the sodden ground made heavy going. Unable to force the pace, British garrisons were able to thwart his attempts to cross the Buffalo River into Natal at both Vant’s Drift and Rorke’s Drift.
Moving further and further south in what was then still the Transvaal, Botha reached Babanango Kop on the 24th. From here his path was guarded by two small fortified posts at Itala and Fort Prospect. Beyond these lay Melmoth, Eshowe and the Indian Ocean. The necessity to take these two posts is highly debatable as they could easily have been by-passed. For Botha to protect his communications was a fallacy as he had none. Stores he needed and fresh horses, too, but despite these requirements the two posts seemed, in all probability, to offer another easy victory.
By now the weather had cleared. From his look-out on the top of Babanango, the rolling green hills of Zululand stretched south to the horizon. To his left Dingaan’s kraal where Piet Retief and his party had been slain 60 odd years before, could be seen in the distance. To his right he could clearly see Isandhlwana, ‘the little hand’, where nearly 1500 British troops, 900 of them white, had been massacred by Cetewayo’s impis 22 year’s earlier. In front lay Itala, a commanding height, eight miles to the South.
Through his fieldglasses he could see the British camp at the base. Further to the left, atop a smooth green dome of a hill, he could make out Fort Prospect. The distance between these two points was 14 miles. He could easily slip through.
But Botha needed time to revive his horses, and another victory like Blood River Poort would slow the British columns bearing in on him. His spies reported that the two outposts were weak and undermanned, and that they should fall to him without difficulty, so he made ready to attack.
Since the battle of Allemansnek, 15 months earlier, Natal had been out of the conflict zone. For the people of this British Colonv the war was far away. They were now more concerned withs their local elections than with activity against stubborn, unconquerable, Commandos. They could hardly have been less interested in Louis Botha’s Commando and the peril facing them.
Six months earlier a detachment from the 5th Mounted Infantry Division had been posted to Nkandhla as a frontier guard. They also provided the garrison at Fort Prospect, a strong point half-way to Melmoth right on the border road. The sum total of their forces was about 400 men.
It was a backwater of the war. Life was pleasant and easy for the troops who made their mark with the local farmers and their families. Their Commanding Officer was an Irishman, Maj. A.J. Chapman, of the Dublin Fusiliers. Chapman was a clean-cut, professional soldier. At 38 he was Botha’s junior by three months, campaign-hardened like his men, with nearly two years of arduous toughening in the mould of veld warfare behind them. Unlike many of his fellow-officers of that period, Chapman was astute, wide-awake and extremely capable, as he had already proved in his successful defence of Utrecht.
Early in September he decided to move his Nkandhla garrison forward to a new post at the foot of Itala almost at the apex of the Transvaal’s southern enclave.
The treeless summit of Itala, over 4800 feet high, slopes gently down to its base in the east, 1400 feet below, along a ridge over a mile in length. This ridge terminates in a narrow, steep spur at the bottom, concealing the outpost site below from the summit. Possession of this spur was the key to the British position. From a cursory examination it appeared a weak position, but in fact it was not so.
On the 23rd September, news first reached Chapman, indicating that he was in the path of Botha’s southern thrust, and from then on his able corps of scouts, under Mr. Gordon Collins, kept him acquainted with his ever-increasing danger. He must fight if attacked, but only great skill and courage could save his small garrison of 220 if they were not to go the way of Gough. Fort Prospect, under Capt. Rowley of the Dorset Regiment, had 148 men manning a strong barbed-wire enclosed position. Rowley had already distinguished himself when he had led the victorious bayonet charge at Allemansnek.
On the morning of Wednesday, the 25th, Chapman drew 80 men from Prospect to bolster the defences at Itala, for his scouts informed him to expect an attack that night. The men worked feverishly with spades and picks, digging trenches about 4.5 feet deep, skilfully laid in the trees at the wooded outpost site. Each trench was to cover those adjacent to it with flank fire. On the north side, a natural rock wall put the defenders on a platform overlooking all approaching ground. The Achilles heel of the position, the rock spur above the camp, was sangared (stone walled) right across, and a machine-gun set up to fire upwards to Itala. Two 15-pounder field guns firing shrapnel were also positioned below the spur.
At dusk Chapman despatched Lieuts. Lefroy and Kane to the summit with 80 men. Chapman, however, was not going to fall into the trap of defending a mountain top as the British had done so tragically before. Lefroy’s party was to be merely a warming reception. Furthermore in the dusk their move had gone unnoticed from Babanango Kop.
At the same time Botha despatched 1800 of his men, keeping back only about 200. These divided into three groups. 600 under Chris Botha made for the summit of Itala; 800 under Opperman, Potgieter and Scholtz went by a different route to encircle the base camp and 400 under Emmett and Grobbelaar were to attack Fort Prospect. Full moon was two nights away and the clear night was lit from dusk to near dawn.
Crouching cold and stiff amongst the rocks at the summit, the small British detachment watched and silently waited. Towards midnight the approaching sounds of the Boers could be heard. Soon a large body of men, about 600 in all, could clearly be seen approaching in the moonlight.
At 100 yards the first British volley crashed out. Though caught, stunned and shattered the Boers recovered quickly. Scurrying forward from rock to rock, Chris Botha’s men soon worked their way in and around their adversaries. Fighting was hard and bloody and soon weight of numbers began to tell. The small British force was too small to contain the attack. Kane died shouting that there would be no surrender and with him fell many others including Lefroy shot through the stomach, arm, leg and chin.
In half-an-hour the summit was in Boer hands. Those British who still survived uncaptured retreated down the way they had ascended, fighting hack all the way until they were safe behind the sangared spur. They numbered a pathetic 14.
In the meantime the outpost had been surrounded and very heavy rifle fire was poured in from all sides. The Boers charged right up to the trenches, firing as they ran, only to be driven back at bayonet point. These veteran British troops had not experienced such ferocious attacking on such a scale at any time throughout the war. The Boers seemed possessed of a heroic madness which, but for the remarkably stubborn defence, would have carried all before it. The rifle fire from the trenches was like a curtain of lead beating down everything in its path.
The full fury of the first attack lasted five hours, the defences of the outpost being strained to the limit. Casualties on both sides were high, but Chapman could least afford them for he had already lost 66 of the 80 men in his summit reception party – over 20 per cent of the garrison.
By first light around 6 a.m., all firing had ceased and the attack seemed to have spent itself. Dr. Fielding, the British Medical Officer, decided that he must go to the summit to attend to the wounded there. He, an orderly and two bearers left the sangars on the spur with a truce flag, but to his surprise, as he reached a wide hollow 600 yards up the ridge, he found a large body of Boers about to resume the attack. Fielding was immediately made prisoner but released and allowed to go on as soon as Commandant Opperman appeared. Fielding’s work that day saved many lives on both sides.
Almost immediately the attack was resumed more violently than before. The gunners, who had gallantly manned the two 15-pounders during the night, were too exposed now and were soon shot down. The guns ceased firing. Themachine gun on the spur became hopelessly jammed and the battle now resolved into Lee-Metford against Lee-Metford, for the Boers were by now nearly all equipped with captured rifles. The Burghers, with the edge on marksmanship, were technically at an advantage.
A tornado of lead enveloped the post. Bullets screamed and howled, the ground rapidly became covered with a shower of broken branches and chopped leaves, the screams and groans of stricken men and of the pathetic unprotected horses filled the air; dust and earth flew in all directions and the constant ear-shattering crash of hundreds of rifles made a sound to match all the thunderbolts of hell, as the Boers tried to batter the defences to pieces with rifle fire. No cover could withstand this inferno, and men fell thick and fast, yet each attack melted away under the galling return cross-fire of the defenders.
The position was reaching a stalemate and a battle of attrition developed. By now, Louis Botha, realising the importance of the sangared spur ordered that it be taken at all costs. This was an almost impossible task, for 600 yards of absolutely coverless ground had to be crossed. The troops behind the sangars were no mean shots themselves and blew each new attack to pieces before it got far.
Meanwhile ammunition was getting very scarce on the spur and every effort to get boxes of cartridges up by man or mule failed, all being shot down from behind on that exposed suicidal face.
In desperation Chapman called for volunteers. Several surviving artillery men came forward. The first two away were both shot down on the fire-swept slope. Dashing out, heedless of danger, went Driver F. G. Bradley to return eventually with both wounded men; then gathering an ammunition box he forced his way up the ridge to the spur.
This feat he repeated, as though he bore a charmed life. For this act he was later awarded the Victoria Cross.*
By late afternoon, after 17 hours of heavy, unrelenting, attack, both sides were exhausted. Chapman’s force had taken a fearful toll of the attacking Commando, but they had suffered 81 killed and wounded and lost a further 40 as prisoners. This was nearly half his total strength. The troops, bleary-eyed, with hands burned, shoulders raw and faces scorched, their ammunition nearly exhausted, could hardly be expected to withstand another concerted attack. They were ready but hardly able.
Chapman himself, shot through the right leg, waited and listened as the Boer fire slackened and died away. After an hour he sent out scouts who returned with the heartening news that Botha’s men were drawing off.
Gathering his stores onto wagons, Chapman decided to fall back on Nkandhla. Leaving a small unarmed party to assist with the wounded, he pulled out at 9 p.m. and, completely exhausted, he and his men limped into Nkandhla at 4 a.m. on the 27th September. Soon after this Fielding returned to the camp and took charge.
For Emmett and Grobelaar their attack on Fort Prospect had been even less successful. Shrouded in mist, Prospect was forewarned of the attack by the firing coming from Itala. At 4.30 a.m. a blast of rifle fire shattered the night air, as an outpost discovered a large party of Boers attempting to cut the barbed wire on the perimeter. Shooting was fast and furious for a while and soon the Boers drew off. Although Capt. Rowley had only 80 men, Fort Prospect was basically very strong, with stone redoubts, cleverly laid out trenches, a machine gun, and the lot surrounded by barbed wire. A second Boer attack before dawn was no more successful than the first, and thereafter they contented themselves with long range rifle-fire until they decided to withdraw about 4 p.m. The Boers lost about 60 men here, the British one killed and nine wounded. Rowley himself had a lucky escape when a bullet pierced his helmet, and grazed his forehead, but inflicted no other damage.
At Itala the British losses were 22 killed and 59 wounded. In addition six native servants died and four were wounded.
The Boer losses, as might be expected were much heavier. Early tallies stated that 332 bodies had been buried, but this figure was later corrected to 128. In addition 21 others were buried at the laager site at Gelykwater, making a total of 149 dead. These included two of Botha’s best Commandants, Scholtz and Potgieter. Opperman too was wounded. At Prospect 40 Burghers were buried. There were estimated to be about 280 wounded.
The tragedy of the horses at Itala cannot go unmentioned, for there, devoid of protection except for a small stone building into which a few were crammed, out of 300, 153 died, 40 were wounded and 30 disappeared. In addition 82 draft mules were killed and four wounded.
At Itala the British artillery fired 63 shells and the troops 70 040 rounds of rifle ammunition. The true fury of this defence can be gauged by comparison with the Battle of Kambula which was the most expensive and the key battle of the Zulu war, and where the 2000 British troops fired 66 400 rounds.
By nightfall on the 27th, Botha’s advance had been checked. His frontal attacks against fortified positions had failed. His casualties were severe and his ammunition stocks almost done. His position could have been desperate, but he was not the type of man to lose heart. He not only had to preserve the freedom of his Commando, but he had to get them back to the Transvaal. As so often happens, fortune favoured the bold, for by a stroke of gross British negligence, the supply wagon convoy, en route to Nkandhla from Melmoth, was allowed to fall into Botha’s hands – 30 wagons with one White policeman and eight Zulus, six of whom were shot in the encounter. These supplies were manna to Botha, and setting off, first eastward and then to the north, he cleverly outwitted every single column and blockhouse line to get his men back to the Transvaal. Such was the mettle of this dynamic man that a month later he was able to launch his Commandos into the brilliant victory against Benson’s Column at Bakenlaagte, near Kinros.
As for Chapman, the Boer War offered him no more action. His gallant stand was rewarded by promotion. He retired from the army in 1919 as a Brigadier-General and died in 1950 aged 87.
Neither Itala nor Prospect has changed much in 70 years. There are still a few bullet-holed sheets to be seen in the iron roof of the old house at Itala, and at Prospect several of the trenches are still over six feet deep. The British graves are still marked, but are now neglected, and the Boer graves, long unmarked, have now disappeared, except for the few beautifully tended at Gelykwater farm.
On the summit of Itala stands an impressive stone monument, erected by the people of Eshowe and the local district as a token of gratitude to those heroic defenders who gave their lives in defence of Natal at Itala and Fort Prospect.
*Bradley settled in South Africa after the War and served as a Major in the Witwatersrand Rifles in the 1914-1918 War. His VC is exhibited with his uniform in the Africana Museum in Johannesburg.South African Military History Society / firstname.lastname@example.org