Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Red Soldier 
Frank Emery
Hodder & Stoughton 1977

A book that tells the story of the Anglo Zulu war through the letters of British solders.

The "soldiers eye view" of a battle is often an interesting one, and although by definition a very narrow view, when enough are stitched together can produce a compelling account.

The vast majority of the accounts in the book are told from the British perspective, with just a few Zulu accounts, as retold by Bertram Mitford (Through the Zulu Country, 1880) adding a touch of balance.

Given the authors and the intended audiences of the original letters,  many are short of detailed accounts of combat, and long on complaints of food and lodgings (or lack thereof). Cheerful optimism before Isandlawana, and stoic determination after, seem to be the prevailing mood.

From a wargamers perspective, the accounts provide interesting details that could influence the way we depict the conflict - descriptions of the conditions suggest that for the most part the Red Soldier was a wet, muddy, ragged mess, who slept in the open on the bare ground, in full kit, for weeks on end, and was anything but the paradeground redcoat as modeled by most figure manufacturers.

If I have any misgivings about the book, is that it needs to be read with a healthy critical eye, as the origins of some of the enduring myths of the Zulu war are evident in the letters. Many of those at Helpmekaar and Rorkes Drift retold secondhand 'details' of Isandlwana as truths. The 'little drummer boys, strung up by the Zulus on meathooks and mutilated" is one of such. This was noted in a number of letters - all written by individuals who were not at Isandlwana. Clearly they were simply repeating camp hearsay, and as Knight and others have pointed out that there were no youngsters employed as drummers or buglers in the regiments at Isandlwana, and "boy" was a rank, not a description of age. (Also, one cant expect the redcoat of the time to have much sympathy for the Zulu practices of hlomula and qaqa - ritual mutilation of fallen enemies...)

I found it very much worth the time I spent reading it.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

28mm South African Infantry: Italy 1944

I had a very clear goal when I first (re)started WW2 skirmish wargaming: to create a South African force for gaming the East African Campaign of 1940-41. I soon discovered that while suitable models were available to represent British, Italian, Indian, Eritrean, Somali and Ethiopian forces of the conflict, no (or few) miniatures existed that could represent Union Defence Force soldiers of that period. Realising that my initial choice would need conversion and sculpting skills way beyond what I could handle, I turned my attention to my second choice: a force representing part of the SA 6th Armoured Division in Italy 1944.

Its been an great introduction to the hobby. Being mostly equipped with British, Canadian and American kit, its a force that can be easily built from a huge selection of miniatures from various suppliers. Yet its a force that has not attracted the attention of many (any?) wargaming publishers, and getting an understanding of their campaign has meant delving into the history books. Along the way it has challenged me to research way deeper than I had expected before I started, and my enthusiasm for the project continues to grow.

My original intention was to restrict my collection to literally one squad and a few supports, for use with skirmish rules. But currently I am working towards expanding the force to fit into  "Platoon Plus" sized games: Victory Decision, Bolt Action, Disposable Heroes and the like. The force is very much a Work in Progress.

By way of introduction, shown here are the first two squads of infantry, and a few supports. I have attempted to represent units of the First City/Cape Town Highlanders, a temporary amalgamation of the two regiments that existed only for the Italian campaign as part of the 12th Motorised Brigade. (One company of the Southern Rhodesian Defence Force also served as part of the combined unit.) The Vickers MG team would more likely have been a Royal Durban Light Infantry unit, as they provided the heavy weapon support company for the FC/CTH, despite my modelling the NCO wearing the tam-o-shater.

Officers and NCO's

Rifle Section

Bren Section
Vickers MG Team
Platoon specialist and supports

6-pdr QF antitank gun of the 1st/11th, South African Artillery

Artillery HQ jeep, with Cape Corp driver

I have added a project page here, which I will use to collate references and resources associated with the project. By way of making a start, I have included some uniform reference pix, which tend to suggest that uniform regulations were, at best, "mere guidelines".

All figures are either Warlord Games/Bolt Action or Artizan Designs. 6-pdr crew are a mashup of Warlord Zulu torsos and British Infantry heads/legs.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Battlefields: Isandlwana

South Africa, I like to say, is contested ground. Everywhere you go, you tend to discover hints and echos of our turbulent past.

In addition to the major battlefields, there are countless sites of skirmishes and struggles. Each one provides a connection to our rich history.

In Nieu Bethesda's dusty cemetery, a single British soldier's grave. On a West Coast game farm, Boer War buttons, spurs and collar badges unearthed during construction. In a Colesberg farmhouse, the directive requisitioning the building for use as the British staff HQ, framed on a wall in the voorkamer.

These sort of fragments can speak louder than battle sites, which, more often than not, have been destroyed by agriculture, development, or neglect.

But none speak louder than Isandlwana. Its preservation aside, there is something incredibly poignant about the site. Even on the drive to the site, you begin to notice whitewashed cairns scattered in dips and hollows, or visible on the skyline. By the time you reach the heart of the battlefield, you can see cairns in every direction you look, tracing the course of the battle across the eastern front of Isandlwana field, and plotting the course the fleeing invaders took down to the Mzinyathi river.

The cairns mark where the remains of British men and their local allies were buried. The British only managed to return to bury their dead in June/July of 1879, six months after the battle, and the remains were collected together and covered with stones. Each cairn marks the remains of up to 10 soldiers. Most were never identified.

Many of the Zulu dead were also left where they fell, simply covered with their shields, or were buried together in shallow graves north of the battlefield on the Nyoni heights.

Given that very few of the dead at Isandlwana were afforded formal graves, its a great thing that the site has been so well preserved. It stands as their collective cemetery, the strange-shaped hill as their memorial.

In the interest of completeness, I must point out that there have been formal memorials erected on the site - mostly at the "colonial cemetery" where the remains of those men identified by friends and colleagues lie buried. At the Nek there are several, including one to the men of the 24th, and near the entrance to the site is a more recent memorial to the Zulus who lost their lives on the field.

Of the remains identified, the majority were of local "colonials". Hence the more formal cemetery now known as the "Colonial Cemetery"

Memorial to men and offices of the 24th.
Memorial to the Zulu dead. Pic courtesy of www.africainscribed.travel
The Isandlwana battlefield is administered by Amafa Heritage KwaZulu-Natal which charges a small fee to visit the site. It is in a good state of preservation, is fenced, and the road across the nek has been re-routed around the site to limit degradation. There is not a great deal of "interpretation" or information provided at the site, so its well worth having a battlefield guide to provide context... we were shown around the area, including the skirmish site at Sihayo's homestead, the crossing points of the Mzinyathi, and the twin battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift by Paul Garner - a knowledgeable and entertaining guide.

There is plenty of accommodation in the immediate area, and in and around Dundee, (the closest town), ranging from budget to comfortably luxurious.