A Patch Of dust That Changed History

Battlefield tour Isandlwana-Ward

A patch of dust that changed history

The notion of a ‘Battlefield Tour’ may evoke stuffy old historians going into intricate detail about some long-forgotten battle and a load of incomprehensible jargon. To many it is a niche pursuit solely reserved for military types, collectors of antique weaponry and nerds. Even to those who have previously ventured out on one – or been compelled to during their studies – it may mean disembarking from a perfectly warm and dry coach to stand around in a muddy field before being asked to conjure out of the grey drizzle of a Belgian farmer’s field ‘columns of tanks’ and ‘Battalions of advancing troops’ effecting ‘flanking’ movements into the enemy’s ‘rear guard’.

I am a military spotter, have a passion for history and an unhealthily creative imagination. So even driving rain, the cold and an unhelpful Belgian farmer would be unlikely to put me off. But for those who do think battlefield tours are all a bit of a waste of time, dull or irrelevant, I would say you have not been to Fugitives’ Drift in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. Take away the term battlefield tour, take away the dusty books, take away the military jargon. Replace them with exceptional stories of bravery, superhuman survival, incredible odds, superb military tactics, costly errors, leadership, pride, insubordination, alleged cowardice and unimaginably savage violence. On both sides. At Isandlwana, a force of over 1200 British troops – an entire battalion – was wiped out by the Zulus, “savages with sticks”. The latter only hours later, saw just 140 British soldiers, many sick and wounded, successfully hold their small missionary post, fending off repeated attacks by up to 3000 Zulus.

Rorke's Drift2-Ward

The tiny and isolated post – Rorke’s Drift – held by 140 British against 3000 Zulus

Our guides transported us to 19th century South Africa, and a dusty brown plain in what was then on the border of Natal and the kingdom of Zululand. They told us the stories of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

We were plunged into the period, the political tensions and were introduced to the characters one by one. We felt the unbearable heat of the woollen ‘red coats’ and the excruciatingly ill-fitting steel-capped boots. We stood on the spots where hundreds of men fell in the space of minutes, skewered by Asagai spears or exploded by the then state of the art Martini-Henry rifles. These battles had more drama, colour and highs and lows than the very best Hollywood blockbuster.

We delved into the context, the repercussions and drew out the important lessons in history that are still applicable to the complicated, violent and messy world we live in today. The stories reminded us of the power of the media – even back in the 19th century – to influence the public’s perception of a war fought thousands of miles away. We heard witness contributions from both the British and Zulu sides, and extracts from the press articles and historical reports written in the months following. These highlighted the bias and inaccuracy – and national pride, political influence and selective memory – that creeps into chronicles of historical events.

Beyond the political and military story, we were introduced to the soldiers and warriors themselves, through their oral testimonies passed down through generations of Zulus, and through the desperate final lines scribbled to mothers and sisters back in Britain. They were young warriors who had to blood their spears before they could hope to attract a wife. They were terrified 19-year old boys barely out of training, thousands of miles from home, battling disease, a climate and an environment they could never have imagined.

Rorke's Drift-Ward

Rorke’s Drift

Thousands died on the field of battle, fighting literally to the death in hand-to-hand combat as they clambered over the bleeding corpses of their friends and colleagues. Those lucky enough to survive on the British side went home to a nation that had barely heard of Zululand or Rorke’s Drift, much less of the comprehensive defeat at Isandlwana. They went home changed men. Many would never recover from the apocalyptic scenes, the stench of rotting human flesh, the sight of the unstoppable ‘black wave of death’ careering down the hill or the blood-curdling fear of facing a painful, savage and bloody death again and again over hours and hours.

The formidable Zulus – the greatest warriors in all of Africa who towered over their red coat counterparts – lost thousands more men and just hours after a momentous victory at Isandlwana, would have their battle honour crushed at Rorke’s Drift. Their home and kingdom would be forever changed by the invaders in subsequent battles; invaders who had no real interest in Zululand other than to chalk up another conquest.

Zulu memorial Rorke's Drift-Ward

Modest and beautiful: a rare Zulu memorial to those warriors who fell at Rorke’s Drift

I would challenge even the most hardened soul not to have a lump in their throat by the end of the tour. The haunting recordings of Zulu songs and British marching bands accompany you as the open safari Land Rover rattles across the gravelly uneven ground to the different vantage points and key areas of the battle. To the spot where the first two posthumous Victoria Crosses in history were earned – the highest award for valour in the British Army to this day. To the ridge line where thousands of Zulu warriors lined up with their shields and spears stamping their feet in deafening unison, before moving as one onto the ill-fated British line of defence. To the missionary house under siege and ablaze, where one man ground his fingers down to the bone scraping through mud brick walls to carry his injured comrades to safety. The unnamed and last red coat left standing at Isandlwana who from his hiding place in the rocks picked off as many enemy as he could with his remaining bullets, then watched as his boyhood friends were hung from meat hooks, disembowelled and left tasting their own testicles. The feathered barefoot warriors who could outrun cavalrymen on their horses and charged unfalteringly into an unrelenting barrage of lead.

memorial Isandlwana-Ward

Painted cairns litter the Battlefield of Isandlwana – each representing the exact spot where soldiers fell and were buried

Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are tiny battlefields in the middle of the vast plains of what is now Kwazulu Natal, the peppering of painted white cairns, humble monuments of remembrance and a small museum the only signs left of the carnage of the 22nd January 1879. But they were momentous events in history: they played a key part in changing the face of South Africa as we know it today and the Zulu legacy. Isandlwana would be remembered as the greatest ever Zulu victory, and one of the worst defeats in British military history. The battle of Rorke’s Drift still boasts the highest number of Victoria Crosses awarded – eleven – in one single battle. After the carnage of the battle of Isandlwana, Britain would no longer send men under the age of 18 to war. But they were also battles that could and should have been avoided, invasions across territories that were not sanctioned by leaders or politicians on either side. For Britain, it was war waged when heavy losses were already being suffered on another front in Afghanistan. And it was a mission launched out of contempt and with a lack of cultural understanding of their enemy. The aftermath was a political cover up of the defeat at Isandlwana and a contrasting over-hyping to the press of Rorke’s Drift. Mistakes we continue to make more than a century later and lessons from which we must learn.

Buffalo river crossing point-Ward

Buffalo river, a raging torrent (at the time) in the path of the few surviving British on a desperate retreat from Isandlwana, which claimed dozens of lives

But the political and military lessons should never tarnish the undeniable and incredible courage of the British soldiers and Zulu warriors who took to battle that day in 1879 and the thousands of men who gave their lives for their countries and comrades without hesitation.

You come away from Fugitives’ Drift informed by the history lesson and intrigued by the political machinations of the day. But most of all you are moved and inspired by the ordinary Zulu and British men who marched to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and displayed unparalleled courage, resilience and dignity.

(our trip was booked through AfricaAndBeyond.co.uk)

 

Advertisements

A window into Iraq

First published in Soldier Magazine in Jan 2008.

cct 1

Back at base camp: Capt Lorna Ward and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) at the COB outside Basra

OVER the past two months I have been living a very different existence from usual. There isn’t really a typical day on the flagship Live at Five show on Sky News where I am a producer, but it is a long way from the British Army’s base near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where I am at the moment.

cct2

Patrol break: Capt Lorna Ward (centre of picture) and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with 1 Scots, US and Iraqi troop

As a Territorial Army officer, I was mobilised in October 2007 to deploy to Iraq as the commander of the Combat Camera Team. Essentially the team provides in-house broadcast and photographic output of the activities of the British military in Iraq. In a country where few foreign journalists have the ability to get out on the ground, we provide an essential window into south-eastern Iraq.

Providing footage and access to troops on the front line is vital so that people not just in the UK but all over the world can see what we are doing and how – and why – operations are carried out. But it is important to point out that this is not about propaganda. We aim to provide objective coverage, albeit from a UK military perspective, of what is really happening on the ground.

cct3

In the thick of it: Capt Lorna Ward (centre) and Cpl Andy Holmes (left) on patrol in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with a member of 1 Scots

Since arriving out here we have deployed on and covered all the operations, while dealing with the hazards associated with service in the Iraqi theatre – roadside bombs, rockets and bullets. So far we have managed to get video footage and/or stills into the national press on average once a week.  Our words, pictures and videos are also featured on a daily basis in specialist publications, as well as in UK local, regional and military media outlets.

It’s been a very busy few months and the team is now past the half-way point of the tour of duty.  There have been a few close shaves but morale is high and our tightly-knit team is having a ball doing the job it has been trained for and providing an important insight into the on-going, if changing, role of UK forces here.

With the run up to Christmas we had our hands full with charity runs, carol services and hundreds of messages from the troops, which we sent back to print and broadcast outlets. On top of the normal festive messages, we covered visits from Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as the handover of Basra Province to Iraqi control.

Christmas may be over but the pace of life here is still intense. The team and I have just got back from Baghdad.  We were based in the ‘red zone’ and went out on dismounted patrols with the joint US/UK Military Transition Team and the Iraqi Army in the volatile, divided Sunni/Shia district of West Rashid. Not only is this a first for a Combat Camera Team, it is a rare experience for any British troops, the vast majority of whom are based in Basra.

The challenge of working in the field, writing copy, editing pictures and distributing stories takes on a whole new meaning when you are in the middle of the desert, eating rations, living out of a backpack and dodging rockets. Add to that the nightmare of communications and accessing email, it’s easy to see why this might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for me, as an ex-Regular soldier, it has to be one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever undertaken.

The Media Operations Group is a specialist Territorial Army unit that provides operational capability and training support to the Armed Forces – wherever they are deployed. Our role is providing the expert knowledge, experience and equipment, to create an effective link between the military, the media and the public. 

Royal Welsh soldiers see progress in Basra

First published 12th Nov 2007 on Ministry of Defence website.

As Armed Forces personnel around the world were preparing to remember their fallen comrades on Remembrance Sunday, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh were out on patrol in Basra Province looking for ways to help local people prepare for the winter.

C Company deployed to the Al Qurna district in the north of Basra Province, visiting projects set up by the British Army in neighbouring villages. The convoy carried a JCB digger, which was used to dig irrigation ditches for date palm plantations in one village and excavate land for a new school in a neighbouring settlement.

Major Richard Crow, who oversees the projects on behalf of the Multi-National Division (South East), explained the importance of such visits:

“We’ve come to the village and, following advice from the last time, we’ve brought a light-wheeled tractor. We’ve been digging some irrigation ditches so they can grow some cash crops and crops for feeding themselves.

“The reaction has been very positive, we’ve been welcomed in and seen lots of smiling faces. We’ve been able to discuss with the leaders what we can do to help them.”

The 2 Royal Welsh soldiers endured a difficult first few months of their tour in Iraq. Having the opportunity to meet ordinary Iraqis and see the difference they have made to their living conditions and prospects gave the soldiers a considerable boost in morale as they near the end of their operational tour.

Private Read, from C Company, who was mobilised from the Territorial Army to join the Royal Welsh on tour, said:

“This operation has been really good. I’ve been here before on other tours and it’s very different now; we can actually talk to the locals, where we couldn’t before. We actually feel as if we’re achieving something so it feels brilliant. We’ve really moved on.”

2 Royal Welsh returned to their base in time for their Remembrance Sunday memorial service. They were planning to remember, in particular, the three friends and colleagues they have lost during this operational tour. Having now seen the positive result their efforts have had on the ground, many of the men from 2 Royal Welsh will go home feeling the last six months’ sacrifices may not have been in vain.

Mixed fortunes for RAF officer hit by stray bullet

First published on Ministry of Defence website on 24th Dec 2007.

Quick thinking medics have helped save the life of an RAF officer after he was hit by a stray bullet while working on his base in Basra, southern Iraq.

Flight Lieutenant Neil Lawrenson was walking along the road at the Contingency Operating Base in Basra when a bullet quite literally ‘fell’ out of the sky and lodged in his arm. The stray bullet had been fired by local people just outside the base where celebratory gunfire is a common occurrence.

Although getting hit by the bullet was a stroke of misfortune Flt Lt Lawrenson’s luck then changed when he realised that help was close at hand. The RAF officer was lying just a few feet away from the Incident Response Team’s crewroom. The Incident Response Team, or IRT as they are referred to by most personnel on the base, are the emergency medical team who are dispatched to incidents involving UK troops deployed in the region.

The medics were straight on the scene and quickly moved the casualty into cover. As the sirens warning of indirect fire attacks began to sound across the camp the medical team were already treating their patient as IRT nurse, Sgt Leanne Kirkwood RAF, explained:

“We got alerted to a casualty nearby, just outside the IRT accommodation,” she said. “It was a gunshot wound and we immediately picked up the standby equipment, made our way outside and found the casualty sat on the blast wall. He had a gunshot wound to his upper arm, no obvious other injury and was conscious at the time.”

Flt Lt Lawrenson was quickly evacuated by ambulance to the Field Hospital on the base where surgical staff operated immediately and removed the bullet. A second operation the following day cleaned up the wound and patched him up. Consultant anaesthetist, Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Kate Prior (Royal Navy), explained:

“What we’ve done today is a second operation. He’d had his emergency surgery but today was a planned procedure to have another look at the wound, to make sure it was clean, that there were no signs of any infection. The wound has been sutured closed and dressed and he’s gone back to the ward. The nursing staff will look after him and make sure that he’s comfortable.

“The plan is to get him back to the UK. He’ll probably have a couple of weeks of sick leave and then he may well come back out as he’s got another two months of his tour.”

The round went through Flt Lt Lawrenson’s upper arm but, by yet another huge stroke of luck, it entered his arm at such an angle that it left almost no damage, not hitting the bone or any muscle. Had it gone in at a different angle, the clinical staff believe he may well have lost his arm.

Flt Lt Lawrenson spent a few days recovering on the ward before being flown out of Iraq and back to the UK. He described the strange turn of events:

“I was in the Force Protection Operations office where I work; my colleague and I were going to go for some lunch. I was standing waiting to cross the road and it just felt like someone had punched me in the arm. We were looking around and thought someone might have thrown a stone or something. I grabbed my arm in pain and started to feel it was getting wet. Because of what had been going on outside, we knew there was celebratory fire, we realised I’d been shot.

“I sat down and my colleagues got the medics, who are based just round the corner. I wouldn’t say it was blur, I can remember what happened, but there were lots of people around. They patched me up and I was brought here. It didn’t feel too bad at the time, it was just constant aching, a painful aching feeling that wouldn’t go away.

“From the X-ray, they realised the bullet was still in my arm. They were more concerned about the chest X-ray, because a bullet can go anywhere and there was no exit wound. It was lodged in my arm though. I waited a while and then went into theatre, where they removed it. I went to theatre again to get it checked out, make sure there was no infection and close it up.

“I told my wife over the phone, she didn’t believe me and thought I was joking. I think the shock hit her when I spoke to her after the operation.”

Surprisingly Flt Lt Lawrenson was somewhat philosophical about the whole experience:

“It’s just one of those things. You might think you’d be shot outside the base; I was out on patrol a couple of days before and we had the usual gunfire. But no, I get shot back on the base. Just one of those things – what goes up must come down, as they say.”

Iraqi soldiers beat Brits in New Year’s football match

First published on 3rd Jan 2008 on Ministry of Defence website.

Iraqi Soldiers have beaten their British military trainers and mentors from 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment in a friendly five-a-side football competition held to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

The British soldiers from 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment are attached to the 1 SCOTS Battle Group and members of 14 Division of the Iraqi Army. They have been training and monitoring their Iraqi counterparts in military fieldcraft, weapon handling and patrolling skills.

But during the football match, held on 31 December 2007 at the Contingency Operating Base in Basra, the Iraqi soldiers taught the Brits a few lessons of their own despite the British lads being determined to make up for their last meeting when they were trounced by 22 goals to 3.

The soldiers from 1 Lancs put together five teams against three from the Iraqi soldiers and after several good natured but hard fought games, the tournament was finally won, after a penalty shoot out, by the Iraqis who promptly celebrated with their flag.

Major Hamish Cormack from 1 Lancs said:

“Today we’re playing football against one of the Iraqi Army units that we’re responsible for mentoring, monitoring and training. We’ve played them in the past when we’ve been out down at their barracks and that was part of the fun side of our job down there.

“So we decided that we would invite them back here to celebrate New Year’s Eve and have a rematch, and give ourselves a chance to recover some glory after they stuffed us. I think it was 22 – 3 in the last game.”

The fun of the football match also gave the Iraqi and British commanders the chance in a relaxed environment to reinforce links and discuss future plans:

Major Cormack added:

“Anything that gets us to build a closer relationship with the Iraqis that we work with is a good thing. Football is one of those great levellers and it really managed to break down a lot of the barriers.

“For example, today we’ve got the Brigade Commander who’s come down from the City, we’ve got the commanding officer with the battalion here, so it gives us an opportunity in a very relaxed environment to talk about where we’re going next with supporting them and how we can be of more assistance.”

Lieutenant Colonel Saeed from the Iraqi Army said:

“The British forces have trained my Battalion. We have learned so much from the training in military skills. My relationship with the British Officers has been very good, and the instructors have been great with the soldiers.”

“Today we came here to play football with the British Army but we also wanted to say Happy New Year.”

C Company: the Royal Marines who mean business

First published on Sky News on 29th May 2010.

marines

It is the middle of the night as the men from C Company march down to the Helicopter Landing Site on the Forward Operating Base in Sangin.

The last time these boys left camp, they came back without one of their most popular and experienced Royal Marines.

As the two Chinooks roar out of the pitch darkness, the tension is palpable.

These men mean business – loaded with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, bridging equipment and mine detecting kit, they move swiftly and efficiently onto the aircraft.

We’re crammed in, hanging off ceiling straps as the aircraft lurches over the hills just feet from the ground.

Then suddenly we’re off the ramp and piling into a huddle on the ground in the hope that our chosen landing spot is clear of IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Mine-detecting kit is deployed and we set off gingerly across the fields. Every marine is quite literally checking his every footstep, staying low and wading through rivers on the way.

C Company is heading for a suspected Taliban compound a few hundred metres away. Just last week a local teenager struck up a friendly conversation with a passing patrol here.

Having identified the commander, he ambled off to collect his suicide vest from a neighbouring compound. He then walked back over to his new ‘friends’ and blew himself up.

The young Taliban recruit failed to take anyone else with him on his suicide mission, but C Company know there are more where he came from.

Assisted by soldiers from 1 Scots, the marines watch over the Afghan National Army as they clear through a series of compounds and question locals.

And all of this in the face of an intensely frustrating challenge – “courageous restraint” dictated by their rules of engagement.

This means using as little force as possible, sometimes staring an insurgent in the face and letting him walk away.

The idea is to protect the surrounding local population, win them over, and strip the Taliban of support.

But when your best mate has just been killed by an IED set by an enemy who doesn’t play by the rules, that’s a very big ask.

Today the mission was a success; the Royal Marines with the men from 1 Scots put “boots on the ground”, disrupted Taliban activity and reassured the local population.

But most importantly for the Marines from C Company, everyone came back.

Safely on the ground, Troop Sergeant ‘Smudge’ Smith gathers his boys into a huddle.

As every man remembers the mate and colleague they’ve lost, he tells them how proud he is of them.

They’ve held it together and teamwork has got them through a horrific couple of days.

They’ve got a job to do and giving their friend a proper send-off will have to wait until they get home.

Rite of passage on an Afghan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 28th May 2010.

footie in helmand

He only has to shave once a month, is desperate to learn to drive and has a chilled pint – his first legal drink – with his name on it down his local pub in Dumfries.

But Private Anton ‘Ando’ Anderson will have to wait another three weeks for all that; first he has a job to finish in Afghanistan.

The young soldier from 1 SCOTS Battle Group is based in Helmand Province.

He is among a handful of British soldiers who have set up a home of sorts in a Patrol Base near the town of Sangin, and is one of the youngest.

Just a month after his 18th birthday, Anton was sent out as a Battle Casualty Replacement for a few short weeks.

He has now served almost four months after he volunteered to stay on.

And what a rite of passage.

Nicknamed ‘Bacha’ – ‘young boy’ in Dari – Anton holds his own on patrol.

In charge of the life-saving and cripplingly heavy Electronic Counter-Measures equipment, at a skinny 5ft 7in, he carries more than his body weight in kit patrolling the Green Zone in temperatures in the 50s.

Bacha takes the unrelenting army banter with a chuckle and says he hides when the older lads try to put him on latrine-emptying duty one too many days in a row.

“It doesnae help when I look like I’m 12 years old!” he grins.

His mother may be worried about him, but it is fairly obvious the more senior soldiers have taken him under their wing and created a family environment in the small dusty compound in this dangerous part of Afghanistan.

His patrol buddies do however draw the line at eating the teenager’s food after his toxic attempts at making porridge and his own home-cooked favourite “mince and tatties”.

That is no doubt something his mum will gladly give him a few tips on when he gets home next month.