The wars in South Africa during the second half of the nineteenth century witnessed many aspects of the evolution of military technology and military tactics. They also witnessed a revolution in military photography. From around the middle of the nineteenth century, pioneering photographers had struggled to carry cumbersome equipment to scenes of warfare. A number of daguerreotypes were taken during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, but it was the photographs taken by Roger Fenton, James Robertson and others during the Crimean War of 1854-1856 that have been called ‘the first serious photographic record of a military campaign’ (Lee, 1985). The rudimentary technology of the day, requiring long exposure times during which the subject had to remain still, meant that Fenton and his contemporaries, including pioneering ‘war’ photographers such as Felice Beato, mainly had to photograph portraits of those involved in numerous conflicts around the world or static scenes where significant battles had recently taken place. As photographic technology continued to develop slowly, however, the social impact of war photography took a major leap forward during the American Civil War of 1861-65 when Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner took their photographs in the immediate aftermath of battle. Their photographs of the dead of the battle of Antietam (1862) caused a sensation and set a new benchmark for bringing the realities of war to the public (Lossing, 1996).
The photographic history of two significant conflicts that took place in South Africa in the late nineteenth century neatly captures this progression of both taste and technology. Despite an increasing number of photographers finding opportunities to travel with armies, relatively few of the many campaign photographs taken in the second half of the century survive. Glass negatives broke, or deteriorated in storage or were sometimes lost at sea during shipping home, while early prints readily faded unless carefulIy preserved (Hodgson, 1974), Thus few contemporary photographs survive from, for example the Anglo-Zulu, War of 1879. The short duration of that war may also have contributed to the scarcity of images ‘from the battlefield’. Some important scenes were nevertheless captured, including a number depicting the inglorious aftermath of episodes during the conflict. But the Anglo-Zulu War took place just too early for the major advances in both printing and camera technology that were about to revolutionise the utility of photography as a medium and point to the development of photo-journalism as we know it today. With the invention of the half-tone process in the 1880s came the ability to reproduce photographs directly in print media. Fast on the heels of this printing revolution, in 1888, came the launch of Kodak’s box camera, which used rolled paper film, and made the art of photography accessible (at a price) to all.
Specifically aimed at the amateur market, Kodak’s cameras meant that at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 many soldiers possessed cameras and used them freely at any opportunity. For example, General Sir Henry Colvile reportedly carried a small camera with him during the Modder River Campaign (Hodgson, 1974). A literal army of amateur photographers was ready to record scenes from the theatre of war for the first time (Lee, 1985). An example was Lt-Col Percival Marling VC, 18th Hussars, who, besieged in Ladysmith with his men, records in his autobiography: ‘Monday, March 6th : My birthday, thirty-nine today. “B” [his wife Beattie] and I drove to Colenso yesterday in a springless country cart with tilt over it and a cane chair Iashed under it, all over Buller’s battlefields. We took six dozen photos to be developed today’ (Marling, 1931).
Coupled with a large number of professional photographers ,commissioned by specialist magazines such [as]Black and White Budget or Navy and Army Illustrated, the number of cameras in that theatre of war means that there are today many more photographs from the Anglo-Boer War than from the Anglo-Zulu War of just twenty years earlier. Indeed, the sheer number of photographers unfortunately means that many of their names are sadly now lost to history. Importantly, however, the reproduction of their photographs in print means that the historic images they took have fortunately survived.
The proliferation of photographic equipment near or even at the front line led to a number of early ‘action’ photographs being taken during the Anglo-Boer War. But still most photographers tended to capture largely posed subjects and static scenes. This perhaps limits the dramatic effect of such photographs to modern eyes, but it brings one major advantage: it is often possible to identify the precise spot at which the photographer stood while pointing his lens at a battlefield, and compare the scene he saw then with that same location today. This ‘then and now’ comparison can be further enhanced through the use of photographic software, which enables the historic and current day views to be superimposed to produce a ‘blended’ photograph that provides a window on a lost world.
I was recently part of a tour of a number of the Zulu and Boer War battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal. The tour was organised by Ian Fletcher Battlefiled Tours (IFBT) and guided by the South African Military History Society’s own Ken Gillings. On a previous IFBT tour, to the Crimea, I had been able to locate the site of a number of Fenton’s historic photographs and I thought the process of superimposing these on the modern photographs I had taken from the same location produced interesting results. So, in advance of the KZN tour, I researched a number of historic photographs from both the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1901 in the hope of finding the spot from which they were taken and being able subsequently to produce a further set of ‘blended’ photographs. The results are published with this article; I hope they may be of wider interest.
THE ANGLO-ZULU WAR, 1879
Rorke’s Drift and iSandlwana
The British invasion of Zululand was launched in January 1879. One of the three major columns that comprised the attack, the ‘Centre Column’, comprising men of the British 24th Foot together with Colonial and Native Contingent Troops, crossed the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River at Rorke’s Drift and eventually made camp at the foot of the hill of iSandlwana. On 22 January 1879, a significant proportion of the British-led force was surprised there by a major Zulu attack; casualties were high on both sides and few of the British and Colonial forces survived. Some months later, the scene was revisited by British troops for the purpose of recovering abandoned wagons and burying the dead. A photographer, Frederick Lloyd, accompanied the troops and captured the scene at the foot of the iconic hill, with a number of the wagons still standing where they been had left in the heat of battle (Knight, Castle, 1993). The highly distinctive shape of iSandlwana makes it easy to trace the exact spot where Lloyd stood. Photo 1 is the result of blending Lloyd’s original photograph with mine.
Photo 1: iSandlwana
Photo 2: Rorke’s Drift
Photo 3: iSandlwana
The Siege and Relief of Ladysmith
Twenty years after the Anglo-Zulu War, British troops were again engaged in major conflict in KwaZulu-Natal. This time they faced a different enemy. British attempts to impose governance systems on the Afrikaner population of South Africa had resulted in numerous disputes and culminated in the outbreak in October 1899 of what was quickly to become the most significant struggle in the series. In the KZN theatre of that war, following significant battles at Talana and Elandslaagte, British forces withdrew to Ladysmith. After attempted delaying actions at Farquhar’s Farm and Nicholson’s Nek, the troops entered the town. As they did, the British Mounted Infantry were photographed riding along Murchison Street by Horace Nicholls. Nicholls’ photograph was taken from the first floor balcony of the Royal Hotel. During my visit, the staff of the hotel very kindly agreed to allow me access, through one of the hotel bedrooms, to the same balcony so I could line up a modern photograph from the very same spot where Nicholls had once stood. The blended result is Photo 4 – which suggests the troops would have not a little trouble with traffic if they tried the same thing today!
Photo 4: Ladysmith
Photo 5: Ladysmith Town
Photo 6: Ladysmith Town Hall
Photo 7: Colenso
Photo 8: Spioenkop
Photo 9: Hart’s Hill
Ladysmith was finally relieved at end of February 1900. The fame of the siege and relief of Ladysmith attracted many, now, sadly, mostly nameless, photographers. Another of their shots that can readily be located today was taken from one of the hilly ridges that surrounds the town. The distinctive shape of Ladysmith Town Hall is central in the blended photograph (See Photo 10). This image shows clearly the extent of the town’s urban development over some 110 years. What in 1900 was an important but small town in the middle of the veldt is today a sprawling metropolis.
Photo 10: Ladysmith
Lee, Emanoel, To the Bitter End – a photographic history of the Boer War, 1899-1902 (Penguin Books, 1985)
Lossing, Benson, J Matthew Brady’s Illustrated History of the Civil War (Portland House, 1996)
Hodgson, Pat, Early War Photographs (Osprey Publisging Ltd, 1974)
Knight, Ian and Castle, Ian, The Zulu War – Then and Now (Battle of Britain Prints International Ltd, 1993)
Knight, Ian, Zulu – Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, 22-23 January 1879 (Windrow and Greene 1992)
Gillings, Ken, While they kept the flag flying- The Relief of Ladysmith – Battle of Thukela Heights, 12th to 28th February 1900 (2nd edition, Just Done Productions. 2012).
I should like to acknowledge warmly Ken Gilling’s encouragement to write this article and his very helpful contribution to the text. I am also grateful to Susanne Blendulf, editor of this journal, for her enthusiasm for the idea and her help in shaping this article.South African Military History Society / firstname.lastname@example.org