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)

 

SAIF AL ISLAM GADDAFI – MY TRIPOLI TOUR GUIDE

Libya Part I - 114

Nathan, Saif, Lisa and I return from our tour of the city

Saif al Islam was fashionably late. So fashionably late in fact, that we had got more and more comfortable in his suite as the minutes ticked by. We were wondering if he would actually turn up when he suddenly appeared in the room unannounced. We shot guiltily out of our seats, although I am not sure why since we had been let in by his security guards and he was expecting us.

Nathan the cameraman and I had had ample time to nose around – ostensibly setting up the lighting for the interview – while his secret police stood around the doorway with scowls on their faces and bulges in their dark leather jackets. The living room was the height of decadence, with gold brocade sofas carefully distributed across the shiny parquet floor to be shown off to best effect under the discreet spotlights in the ceiling. Chaises longues covered with plush burgundy cushions occupied corners, accessorized with delicate dark wood occasional tables and standing lamps. Although seemingly designed to mimic a period style cosy reading corner, it looked more like an expensive furniture show room and there were no books in sight. Nathan and I took pleasure rearranging the furniture to suit our purposes, upsetting the delicate feng shui in the process. Lisa the correspondent and I had read that the rest of the suite included a jacuzzi and an intriguing-sounding Finnish bath somewhere too, although none of us dared venture that far into the lair.

Libya Part I - 377

Gaddafi’s army on the streets

Colonel Gaddafi’s son was dressed in ‘skinny’ jeans, a casual rumpled checked shirt and trendy trainer-esque shoes. He was clean-shaven, his hair closely shorn and sported expensive looking rimless glasses. He had everything of the cosmopolitan jet-setting playboy about him, relaxed and smiling – seemingly without a care in the world. He oozed confidence and a certain ‘ownership’ of the situation and circumstances. But if you had been asked to guess at his background or position, powerful son of an African or Middle Eastern dictator would not have been your first choice.

It was 3rd March 2011 and barely a fortnight into Libya’s revolution. The Regime was still feeling strong; the Gaddafi family still very much in charge. We were ‘guests’ of the regime; fed propaganda, and at this point gently imprisoned in the 5-star Rixos hotel in the centre of Tripoli and ‘invited’ to be escorted to events set-up by the regime. This was before Gaddafi’s closest entourage became aggressive, before their desperate attempts to cling onto power translated with the foreign press into overt intimidation and monitoring.

Libya Part I - 279

Hosted as guests of the regime, Gaddafi supporters mysteriously ‘appeared’ everywhere we went

The interview had been a coup and one we had secured by literally loitering outside the doors of Saif’s suite and badgering his entourage. It was the first interview given by Colonel Gaddafi’s heir apparent and his most media-savvy and cosmopolitan son. Saif had studied at the London School of Economics and had a reputation for being a bit of a party boy as a student. Now he was back in Libya alongside his father, running his media campaign at a time when the country looked to be heading in the same direction as Tunisia and Egypt before it – adding another uprising to the so-called Arab Spring.

Saif did not seem unduly concerned that his father’s empire might be about to come crumbling down around them and his legacy with it. He humoured us as we asked pointed questions and laughed off any suggestion that Colonel Gaddafi was losing his grip after over 40 years in power.

Lisa then asked him why every journalist invited into the country was effectively imprisoned in this luxurious spa hotel. Was it because he and his father did not want us to see what was really going on? What of the demonstrations on the streets we were hearing about? And the youtube videos purporting to show violence bubbling in some districts of Tripoli?

His response was a dismissive wave of the hand as if swatting away an annoying fly, followed by a magnanimous sweeping gesture and with the lightest chortle:

– “You are free to go wherever you wish! You can see whatever you like, we have nothing to hide.”

– “You are not in prison here!”

Lisa grabbed the opportunity:

– “So prove it.”

His bodyguards looked uncomfortable and one of them shuffled in his chair, scraping the legs across the parquet floor. Saif waved them off. He was enjoying this.

– “Prove it. In fact, why don’t you come out with us, show us your city.” Lisa insisted.

– “Of course! No problem, we will organise it.” He said.

Lisa was like a dog with a bone. If he left the room, we would never get the chance again.

– “9 o’clock tomorrow morning? You’ll take us to where we want to go in Tripoli”

And before he knew it, he had agreed. Much to his bodyguards’ alarm.

We never expected Saif to actually turn up the following morning. But he did. Colonel Gaddafi’s son arrived with a flourish. His cream armoured car, closely followed by an identical SUV with bodyguards on board, was waved through the gates by the armed guards. The mini convoy sped down the long driveway flanked by towering lush bushes and manicured flower beds towards the grand pillared entrance of our palatial prison. As the cars came to a halt beside us, bouncing our reflections back at us in the bullet-proof glass, Saif al-Islam hopped out of the passenger seat and greeted us warmly. He remembered our names and joked as we got in “you don’t have any guns with you do you?”

Journalists who had been hanging around in the lobby were left open-mouthed as Nathan, Lisa and I clambered into the armoured car and drove off. Nathan filmed Lisa and Saif’s conversation from the front passenger seat and, squeezed between Saif and a side window in the back, I filmed shots of Tripoli and close-ups from an alternative angle, so that we could edit it later as a standalone exclusive interview.

Saif had no prior knowledge of where we wanted to go and playfully left the itinerary in our hands; instructing his driver to take us where we wanted. We chose the districts of Fashlun and Tajoura, both suburbs of Tripoli where anti-Gaddafi feeling was rumoured to be taking hold.   I have to be honest, there was no sign of unrest or evidence of the regime using violence to squash public discontent. We were only in any one place for a matter of minutes so who knows what was going on under the surface. It was clear though that Saif’s armoured SUV was recognised immediately wherever we went.   But Gaddafi did not bat an eyelid when we asked him to pull over and get out for a walkabout on the main street of Fashlun. And no sooner had he emerged from the armoured car than he was surrounded by supporters waving pictures of his father, and lunging at him to shake his hand.

Libya Part I - 91

Saif goes on an impromptu ‘walkabout’ on the streets of Fashlun

On this occasion we could not accuse him of having set it up and if the people coming out of their homes to greet him – who arguably could just have stayed indoors – were doing so out of duress or fear, they were hiding it well. He was by no means mobbed, we passed through quickly and this was just one road in Tripoli on a single day in March 2011.   I am not suggesting that this represented a country’s support or indeed that this meant Saif al Islam was loved by the Libyan people. Indeed, a matter of days later we would witness demonstrations and riots in Fashlun and Tajoura for ourselves. But he had done what very few leaders and commanders I have worked with before and since would dare to do: he had taken a big risk with the media and brazenly pulled it off. As far as public relations exercises went, it was an impressive display.

Libya Part I - 21

The uprising Saif denied was happening – a captured tank in Zawiya

As Tripoli fell to the rebels in 2011, Saif al Islam was pictured smiling broadly – reportedly still in the capital. Sitting in an armoured SUV, he wagged his index finger – a gesture that had become a trademark during his rallying speeches – warning that the Gaddafis were not done. When he was tracked down just over two months later by rebel forces, he was pictured with a bandaged right hand. Although official reports said the injuries were sustained before capture during a NATO air strike, others suggested his rebel captors had tried to chop off the offending digit to silence its wagging once and for all.

That was nearly four years ago. Last week, after a trial that lasted nearly 18 months, a court in Tripoli sentenced Saif al Islam to death by firing squad.

But he was not in the courtroom. He was in a jail over 100 miles away in a town called Zintan. His captors are refusing to hand over their prize to the government in Tripoli. That government in Tripoli is locked in a power struggle with another government based in the Eastern city of Tobruk. The initial optimism after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 for a united and democratic Libya is long gone. The country has descended into civil war with ISIL fighters reportedly cashing in on the chaos. It is hardly surprising then that the verdict has garnered more column inches in the international community than it has in the country itself.

International organisations focus on reports of torture, human rights and the fairness – or lack thereof – of the Libyan justice system. Their arguments are falling on deaf ears with Libyan leaders battling for survival and fighting each other. And in practice, a sentence passed down by a court that does not hold the prisoner, and with little real control over the country it purports to represent seems somewhat academic. Most Libyans have more pressing worries than the fate of Saif al Islam anyway.

I remember the once grinning, defiant playboy cum aspiring leader. I reluctantly found him educated, eloquent, convincing and even charming. He made the mistake of believing his own hype. When trusted confidants and government ministers defected to the West like rats leaving a sinking ship, he laughed. As his people rioted in the street, he dismissed them. He ignored the most blatant signs that his time was up. It was the behaviour of the most arrogant of men. So it is difficult to imagine how he feels now: dressed in grubby prison overalls, sitting in a dingy cell in Zintan, with his home and country in a violent semi-anarchic chaos. His own arrogance robbed him of a chance to start a new life abroad. His captors now deprive him of the chance of a martyr’s death. And the people of Libya, many of whom used to cheer his name and many of whom thought he heralded a new era for their country have expressed barely a passing interest in his fate.

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. 

BLOG: Mogadishu – city of colour

If I expected subdued or morose when I arrived in Mogadishu, or imagined that for Somalis life was a tough war-ravaged event to survive through gritted teeth, it was yet another preconceived idea that was very quickly dispelled.

Whereas in many other Muslim countries, I’ve seen women cloaked in black and resolutely avoiding any eye contact with anyone, here the swathes of fabric covering their modesty could not be more vivid.  Fuscias, lemon yellows, bright greens flash past confidently as I make my way down shopping streets.  And far from averting their eyes, I’m greeted with beaming smiles and waves.

Primary school children bob down the street in apple green shirts with their beige shorts, competing for attention with those from the secondary classes, in their canary yellow smocks and headscarves.  Buildings join the rainbow with walls of one house clashing furiously with its neighbour.  Trucks carrying charcoal and straw are not immune; with their slats painted every shade of pink and purple.

Image

Illiteracy gives shop-keepers a worthy reason to get the paint brushes out.  They’ve devised an ingenious and artistic way to advertise their wares to passers-by unable to read.  Plastered across the walls either side of their entrances are large elaborate cartoon-like drawings of the items that can be found on the shelves inside.  So the streets become one long picture book; burgers depicting snack bars, an open mouth with tongue sticking out directing you to the dentist, hand-drawn computers – a technical shop and a haphazard selection of squiggly-shaped women’s footwear – a fashionable shoe shop.

The aim of the bright billowing gowns may be to conceal.  Their effect is an African celebration.  The aim of the childlike drawings along every wall may be to entice and inform.  Their effect is to draw the eye away from the pockmarks in the cement and  bring vibrant hues to the dusty streets and remnants of buildings torn apart by years of bloody war.  They shout out in big bold print, that cracks no matter how traumatic, can be painted over.  And as long as they can draw it, they’ll be selling it on the streets of Mogadishu.

Image