KwaZulu-Natal battlefields and the Irish 

Today University of KwaZulu-Natal students visit the Anglo-Zulu War battlefields to hear about their proud Zulu heritage. But they also learn about other peoples, like the Irish, who fought and died on African soil – which we hope that GIDC2020 delegates will visit on a post-congress tour.

SA battle terrain

There are two major types of battlefield terrain in South Africa. First, the open plains, the areas of scrub bush, savanna lands of acacia trees and of occasional flat-topped koppies.

In this terrain, cavalry rules supreme, whether irregular or regimental. Here, if cared for properly, horses were less prone to sickness. The oxwagon could trundle along at the leisurely pace of a human being – but for longer.

The second type of battle terrain is the thornbush, especially common in the Eastern Cape. This allowed for a mixture of warfare engagements – but skirmishing was generally the order of the day rather than set-piece battles. 

Seven bloody decades

In what is now KwaZulu-Natal, these two terrains merge to create the country’s most dramatic battlefield landscapes. Appropriately it was here, near and just over the old Natal midlands border with Zululand, that some of the most interesting and dramatic battles in South Africa’s history occurred, particularly in the seven or so decades from 1838 until 1906. Here

  • Zulu fought Boer;
  • British fought Zulu;
  • Boer fought British; and
  • Zulu fought Zulu.

And to confuse matters, Zulus, in the African contingents, joined colonial British forces, and occasionally Boer commandos, against Zulu armies. Here in KwaZulu-Natal were the marchlands of South Africa, where the fates of colony, republic and kingdom were decided.

The Irish troop in

And here also were Irishmen fighting. Indeed it can be said that the largest concentration of Irish buried on the African continent is in the Tugela valley. Memorials exist to the Connaught Rangers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Inniskilling Fusiliers, Royal Irish Fusiliers and Royal Irish Rifles.

Irishmen fought and died at the battles of Isandlwana (1879), Rorke’s Drift (1879), Majuba (1880), Colenso (1899), Spion Kop (1900), Vaalkrantz (1900) and Tugela Heights (1900).  Prominent Irish commanders in KwaZulu-Natal included Dubliner General George Colley and Antrim-man General George White.


MacBride's Brigade fly the flag sent to them from Dublin by the Irish Transvaal Committee; it is now in the National Museum of Ireland.


The battle of the Irish

At the battle of Talana/Dundee (1899), Irishmen fought and killed Irishmen. The Irish workers on the Johannesburg gold mines had formed themselves into two commandos on the Afrikaner side of the Anglo-Boer war. The First Irish Transvaal Brigade was led by American-Irish Colonel John Blake and Mayo-based Major John MacBride, and the Second Irish Transvaal Brigade by Irish-Australian Colonel Arthur Lynch.

These pro-Boer Irish volunteers found themselves ranged against Irish regiments. A contemporary humorous ballad entitled ‘How the English fought the Dutch at the battle of Dundee’ ran:

On the mountain side the battle raged, there was no stop or stay;

Mackin captured Private Burke and Ensign Michael Shea,

Fitzgerald got Fitzpatrick,

Brannigan found O’Rourke

Finnigan took a man named Fay – and a couple of lads from Cork.

Sudden they heard McManus shout, ‘Hands up or I’ll run you through’
He thought it was a Yorkshire ‘Tyke’ – ’twas Corporal  Donaghue!
McGarry took O’Leary, O’Brien got McNamee,
That’s how the ‘English fought the Dutch’ at the Battle of  Dundee. 
The sun was sinking slowly, the battle rolled along;
The man that Murphy ‘handed in’ was a cousin of Maud Gonne,  
Then Flanagan dropped his rifle, shook hands with Bill McGuire, 
For both had carried a piece of turf to light the schoolroom fire.
Then Rafferty took in Flaherty; O’Connell got Major McGue;
O’Keeffe got hold of Sergeant Joyce and a Belfast lad or two.
Some swore that ‘Old Man Kruger’ had come down to see the fun;
But the man they thought was ‘Uncle Paul’ was a Galway man named Dunn.
Though war may have worse horrors, ’twas a frightful sight to see
The way the ‘English fought the Dutch’ at the Battle of Dundee. 
Then some one brought in Casey, O’Connor took O’Neil;
Riley captured Cavanagh, while trying to make a steal.
Hagan caught McFadden, Carrigan caught McBride,
And Brennan made a handsome touch when Kelly tried to slide.   
Dicey took a lad named Welsh; Dooley got McGurk;
Gilligan turned in Fahey’s boy – for his father he used to work.
They had marched to fight the English – but Irish were all they could see –
That’s how the ‘English fought to Dutch’ at the Battle of Dundee.



(Above) Professor Donal McCracken introduces UKZN students to the Spion Kop battlefield, overlooking the Tugela River.
(Above) UKZN students pause at the Zulu war memorial at Rorke’s Drift.