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Although suffering from the worst drought in decades, one hopes that the rainy season is going to hit Zululand with a vengeance this year. From mid October onwards the heavens open up and the countryside transforms itself from harsh, barren, rock strewn tawny hillsides into rolling slopes covered with emerald green grass, rushing rivers and sparkling air. Looming massively on the skyline, and lit most afternoons by truly spectacular forked lightning streaking across the pitch black sky, Itala Mountain has a particularly eerie feel to it. Just like its cousin 30 miles to the west: Isandlwana.
Situated next to the Mhlatuze River, which, in 1901, formed the boundary between Natal and the Boer Republic of the Transvaal, it commands the road leading from Nqutu to Babanango, and the winding track heading off southwards toward Nkandla. On a clear day, one can see almost a hundred miles in most directions from the summit.
It has always been a strategic spot in the various altercations that have taken place across the centuries here. My interest in the site was originally sparked by a visit with Fred Duke and Neville Worthington many years ago. Then a few months later I came across an old group photograph entitled “The Officers and NCO’s of “G” Squadron, Natal Carbineers, Mooi River Camp. 31 August 1924”.
The soldiers in the photograph still stare self importantly back at you, even after 80 years. What sparked my interest was that a local farmer from Vant’s Drift, Major Harry Walker M.C., was in it, as well as local personalities Curtis Catterall and his son Tommy, who at that time was the Natal Carbineer’s mascot.
And sitting third from right, looking a bit worn and weather beaten, is Captain F.H. Bradley, V.C., whom Steve Watt tells me was never a Carbineer but just so happened to be visiting the unit in time to get himself included in the photograph.
In the last couple of months Bradley’s medal group came up for sale at Dix Noonan Webb, and so, in a roundabout fashion, I was reminded of my trip to Itala and the then Gunner Bradley’s part in the battle.
Bradley's medal group
History only came to be officially recorded with the advent of the white man in South Africa in 1652, and they had reason to mourn Itala’s first appearance on the historical stage. It was in April 1838 that a small party of Boers, ever land hungry and fleeing what they perceived to be the oppressive rule of the British in the Cape Colony, were lured into a devastating ambush at the foot of the mountain by the Zulus.
These Boers had had a terrible year thus far. Their leader, Piet Retief, and over sixty men had been slaughtered in an ambush at umGungundlovu in February. The Zulus had followed up their success by raiding unprotected Boer laagers in the Bushman’s and Blaaukrans River Valleys, raping and butchering nearly 500 Boer women, children and servants. Burning for revenge, those men folk left alive decided on a punitive expedition into Zululand, and came to grief in traditional Zulu style, being led by a decoy body into a large open field at the base of Itala mountain.
The area had been “seeded” with hundreds of cattle, apparently ripe for the plundering. But hidden amongst them were hundreds of Zulus, shields over their backs to deceive the enemy into thinking that they were part of the herd. The tall grass acted as great camouflage and, when knotted in bunches, tripped the Boer horses up beautifully.
The end result was predictable, and the story of Dirkie Uys, a young teenager, turning back to help his father and sharing his fate under a flurry of spears, was burned into the psyche of the Afrikaner nation.
63 years later, the mountain was to be the site of another epic battle during the second Anglo Boer War. On 26 September 1901, to be exact.
By this time, the Boer War had been running for nearly two years. Supposed to be “over by Christmas 1899”, the war had dragged on into its guerilla phase. Those Boers left in the field were being constantly harassed by mobile British columns between the lines of blockhouses erected across the veldt. Their women were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Scorched earth was being vigorously carried out, forcing them to operate in a vacuum across abandoned and devastated farmland and inhospitable open country.
In fact, the end was in sight, and those Boer leaders left in the field could sense it. But one cannot bargain for many concessions at the peace table from a position of weakness. How best to remind the British, then, that the Boers were still a force to be reckoned with? That they could drag the war on for years if needs be?
General Louis Botha’s answer was strikingly simple. Invade Natal once again, stir things up as much as possible and then maybe, just maybe, the British would settle for more generous terms when the parties finally sat down to parley.
His intended route took him from the Transvaal through the Blood River Poort towards Dundee but, seeing that the various drifts across the Buffalo River were heavily guarded by the British, he was forced to veer away towards the east in the direction of Babanango and Melmoth.
Standing in his path, he found a small British position, established only a month before, on 25 August 1901, on the slopes of Itala Mountain.
The “fort” at Itala was manned by a garrison of approximately 300 men of the 5th. Division, Mounted Infantry, comprising members of the Royal Lancasters, Lancashire Fusiliers, Middlesex, Dorsetshires, Royal Dublin Fusiliers and 2 guns belonging to the 69th. Battery, Royal Field Artillery, and a Maxim. Some Zululand Police, the “Nonqai” were also present. Major A.T. Chapman, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was in command.
Even today, it seems a curious place to site a defensive position. Lying at the northeastern foot of the mountain, one can still trace the remains of an old irrigation ditch that must have supplied them with water, and some old farm buildings that were requisitioned. A eucalyptus plantation lies to the east of the stable. Sangars and trenches were constructed for defences. However, the whole position is overlooked by a ridge some 300 feet high (where one of the cemeteries now stands) and 150 yards away to the south. This ridge was obviously the tactical key to the fort, and it was decided to place the Maxim up there, protected by a stone sangar.
However, the ridge was in itself overlooked by the summit (which is one hell of a climb – believe me, I’ve tried it!) hundreds of feet higher and to the west. Should the Boers take any of the high ground, then the British position would rapidly become untenable.
On gathering intelligence of the imminent arrival of Louis Botha’s force, Major Chapman sent approximately 80 men to the summit under the command of Lieutenants B.P. Lefroy (Royal Dublin Fusiliers) and H.R. Kane (South Lancashires). The area is boulder strewn and a defensive works, facing west, was constructed.
The Boers approached the summit from the west just after midnight, in full moonlight. After an initial firefight, the Boers withdrew to surround the position, and in bitter fighting about 500 men under the command of Commandant Chris Botha overran the position just after midnight. Lieutenant Kane died at his post, shouting “no surrender, men”. Lt. Lefroy, although critically wounded, survived and was subsequently awarded a D.S.O. Six men were killed on the summit and about 50 captured. The remainder broke though the Boer lines and made a fighting retreat down the hill to rejoin their comrades, losing a further 8 men as they did so.
The Boers, now reinforced to about 1 600 men, then moved down the ridge and, by 2 a.m., attacked the main position and the fortified ridge from all sides. The Boers actually broke into the main position in one instance, Commandant J.F.S. Blignaut being killed while attempting to capture one of the guns.
These 2 guns made an invaluable contribution. It was light enough for the gunners to see the Boer concentrations, but not light enough for the Boers to pick off the gunners hidden in the gloom at the foot of the mountain.
However, the Maxim gun on the ridge soon ran short of ammunition, and Major Chapman called for volunteers to carry some up, although the area was swept by heavy cross fire. 15247 Driver E.N. Lancashire and 10694 Gunner W.G. Ball at once stepped forward, grabbed a box and sprinted across the open piece of ground. But Lancashire had not made it even halfway before falling, wounded. Frederick Henry Bradley and 14494 Gunner W.H. Rabb immediately left their cover and ran out. Rabb grabbed Lancashire, and managed to get him under cover, the ground being swept by bullets the whole time. Bradley went for the ammunition instead. In the rather dry words of his V.C. citation, “Driver Bradley then, with the aid of 25209 Gunner A.B. Boddy, succeeded in getting the ammunition up the hill”. What he actually did was to grab the ammunition box and drag it to the shelter of a nearby rock. Back against the sheltering stone, puffing, panting and sweating, he was joined by Gunner Boddy. They managed to break the box open, filled their pockets and then stumbled, crawled and, where possible, darted up the hillside, dodging enemy fire the whole way, until they could deliver the ammunition safety to the gunners on the ridge.
Although their efforts were instrumental in keeping the Maxim going, by 7 a.m. it had jammed due to earth being thrown up by Boer bullets and its’ handler, Lt. Troundale, had to cease fire. The Boers then drove the British off the spur and were able to fire down all day at the main British position underneath them. The Gunners were forced to take cover, but the Boers were unwilling to mount a frontal assault during daylight and a stalemate developed.
At dawn, Lt. T.E. Fielding and two stretcher bearers set out for the summit to attend to the wounded of both sides. The Boers allowed them safe passage through their lines.
At dusk, after some 19 hours of solid fighting, the Boers withdrew. Only six men had been killed in the main camp but almost 60 had been wounded. In addition, it had not been possible to feed or water them during the day, as to attempt to do so would have meant exposure to Boer fire.
As the Boers rode off, they released the prisoners on the summit, allowing Lt. Fielding to utilize them as stretcher bearers to carry the wounded off the summit and into camp. Estimates are that 23 Boers were killed and about 50 wounded. The 22 British dead were buried where they fell, in five separate small graveyards around the mountain.
Itala Camp North - New Plinth among 3 marked graves
Gunner Bradley was awarded the Victoria Cross (London Gazette 27 December 1901) and promoted to Bombadier. Although Rabb was originally also recommended for the Cross, he had to settle for the Distinguished Conduct Medal along with Lancashire, Ball, and Boddy.
F.H. Bradley was born at 5 Huntingdon Street, Kingsland on 27 September 1876. He was the son of Edward Thomas Bradley, of Barnet. His Queen’s South Africa medal indicates that he served at Talana, the Defence of Ladysmith, Laing’s Nek and operations in the Transvaal and Orange Free State.
He went on to serve in the Zulu Rebellion in 1906 as a mounted machine gunner in the Transvaal Mounted Rifles. Commissioned in the 10th. Infantry (Witwatersrand Rifles), he served as O.C. “C” Company in German South West Africa in 1914.
He commanded six batteries of mortars, Royal Field Artillery, in the Somme until wounded near Delville Wood in November 1916. He returned to South Africa and joined the active Citizen Force, becoming Officer Commanding, “G” Squadron (Dundee and Dannhauser), Natal Carbineers He was awarded his Volunteer Decoration and 1937 Coronation Medal. In 1928 he was posted to the Reserve of Officers, and died in Gwelo, Southern Rhodesia, on 13 March 1943.
Itala remains the same today, massively indifferent to the bloody events that have taken place there. The blood that once again soaked into its stony soil in 1901 has long since washed away. It has a forlorn, stark, forbidding air to it. No one goes there any more. In fact, it’s doubtful if even a handful of people know what’s there.
The cemeteries dotted all over the hillside are neglected. The monument on the summit is a constant target for vandals and lightning. The barbed wire around the graves is all gone. Crosses lie scattered on the ground, and weeds grow up with abandon. The gum trees toss and sway in the wind as it moans through the grass, awaiting its next sacrifice to human folly.
In memory of M.O.T.H. Fred Duke of Vryheid and Neville Worthington, of Dundee. Two of the pioneers of battlefield tour guiding in this area.
About the author: Pat Rundgren was born in Kenya and grew up in what was then Bechuanaland and Rhodesia. He has nearly 10 years infantry experience as a former member of the Rhodesian Security Services. He is passionate about and has a deep knowledge of the battles, the bush and Zulu culture. He has written numerous articles on military subjects and militaria collecting for overseas publications, has contributed to several books and is currently busy with his eighth book. His wide ranging knowledge and over 20 years guiding experience and unique story telling will bring events alive to his listeners. His books “What REALLY happened at Rorke’s Drift?” and on Isandlwana and Talana have gone into a number of reprints. He is a collector of militaria with special focus on medals. He also organises and conducts tours around the battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal and tours into Zululand to experience traditional and authentic Zulu culture and life style. Pat is currently the Chairperson of the Talana Museum Board of Trustees and one of the volunteer researchers.
- “Louis Botha’s attempt to invade Natal”. Private publication by George Chadwick.
- “The Anglo Boer War Anniversary 1899 – 1999” Spink Sale Catalogue of Orders, Decorations and Memorabilia. Page 256. Bombadier Alfred Bartholemew Boddy’s D.C.M. sold for 1 700 Pounds.
- “The Victoria Cross 1856 – 1920”. Edited by Sir O’Moore Creagh and E.M. Humphris. J.B. Hayward and Son, Polstead, Suffolk. 1985.
- “Victoria Crosses of the Anglo Boer War” by Ian Uys. Fortress Financial Group, Knysna. 2000.
- Input from Steve Watt and G.D. Trotter.