The Anglo-Boer war begins
At 05.40 on October 20th 1899, a commando of Boers caused mayhem when, from their lofty position atop Talana Hill, they fired on British forces camped to the east of Dundee in Natal, as it was then named. Those shots were the first salvos of the Anglo-Boer war of 1899 – 1902.
No time for tea
The Brits, who were at breakfast, put down their tea cups, stiffened their upper lips, and brought their own guns into action. Without further ado, they shelled the top of the hill, forcing the Boers to take cover. The hilltop field guns fell silent. The British began to advance across the plain toward Talana. Heavy enemy rifle fire soon had those troops sheltering among gum trees. Gradually, and amidst much firing from both sides, the British toiled up the slope. They summited at about 14h00, routing the Boers, who hastily retreated. The Battle of Talana was over.
A waste of human life
It was a Pyrrhic victory for the British who sustained heavy losses, among them their commanding officer, Major General Sir William Penn Symons. The Boers, who were said to be fine marksmen, suffered fewer casualties. But lives were lost in vain. The battle served merely to fan the flames of war. Further bloody battles waged in other parts of Natal until the Treaty of Vereeniging, signed on May 31st, 1902 ended hostilities. As a member of the battle re-enactment team, the Dundee Diehards once told me, “War is a complete waste of human life.”
Today, part of the Talana battlefield falls within a 20 acre heritage park that includes the renowned Talana Museum.
Developed and curated by formidable historian, Pam McFadden, the museum and a number of restored buildings on the site contain priceless collections of cultural, social, and military artefacts. It’s a dynamic museum, where regular events promote awareness and understanding of our diverse heritage. One such event is the annual Talana Ghost Walk during which Pam and other military historians relate what happened during that first terrible battle. They also tell of the ghosts of fallen soldiers that are said to roam the hillside.
Well, I don’t believe in ghosts, but in case I’m wrong, I join the walk one year.
Who believes in ghosts?
“People do see ghosts,” Pam assures me when we set off in drizzly conditions at dusk following a wreath laying ceremony in the museum cemetery.
We pause at a row of mighty gum trees, the same ones where British troops sheltered from the bullets hailing down on them from the top of the hill. Pam has been urged to remove those trees – they’re invasive alien species – but she refuses. “They’re part of the heritage,” she argues. “Soldiers were saved when bullets struck the trees instead of them.”
Their ghosts are often seen here.Pam McFadden
We continue and Pam points out stone walls. Originally used to define cattle pastures, they gave the British added cover. But, when scrambling over the walls, the soldiers were instantly visible and thus easy targets. And so sections of the walls were broken so that the troops could climb through. At a gap in one wall, Pam tells us that Captain Pechell and Lieutenant Taylor were killed there. “Their ghosts are often seen here.”
Another ghostly manifestation that people report is the sound of pitiful keening. It’s the distressing cry, they say, of a little fox terrier, Rose, that was found lying at the side of her fallen master, Captain George Weldon. Troops recovering Weldon’s body, took Rose into their care.
We walk on. Someone gives an eerie wail that provokes a ripple of laughter. I feel uncomfortable. What if it’s all true and Captains Weldon, Pechell, and Taylor hover now, witness to the jesting?
Army rations and a drop of Dutch courage.
We reach the plateau where a welcome fire blazes. We enjoy ‘army rations’ (sandwiches and sherry/Dutch courage) while Pam recounts the story of the battle from a different perspective. She tells too of phantoms often seen right where we’re gathered. They include horses charging down the hill. A man behind me neighs while beating his chest to feign the sound of galloping hooves. I peer around for spectral shapes. Nothing supernatural emerges from the darkness.
We descend, our torches lighting the way. It’s a still, moonless night, undisturbed by any unnatural sounds. No ghostly forms materialise. No ghosts are busted. At the bottom, I get into my car, and as I drive off, I see the last of the stragglers come off the hill.
No such things as ghosts – or is there?
The next morning I call in at the museum to say goodbye to Pam. I’m about to leave when two of last night’s walkers, André and Lizelle enter. It turns out that they were those last stragglers. I recognise André – it was he who’d made those mock sound effects. Lizelle has something to show us. She switches on her camera. “I didn’t download the pictures so no one can say I altered them,” she says. We look at the last two pictures she’d taken on Talana Hill. The first shows André against the pitch black night. The last shows him bending down to pick up litter. Over his shoulder is the ghost of a British soldier.
I don’t know what to say or think. That ghosts exist is a preposterous idea. But there, before my eyes, is what could be a ghost. Lizelle sends me a copy of the image featuring André and ghost, along with another image comparing the ‘ghost’ she’d cropped from the original photograph with a picture of a British soldier in khaki dress and wearing a helmet. The ghost picture reveals the shape of the helmet. Red splotches are, Lizette believes, blood.
A trick, or for real?
Some weeks later, I show the images to someone who knows a lot more than I do about photography. She insists it’s the outcome of a clever, technical trick (I think she mentioned long exposure; moving subject) and not any evidence of ghosts.
Authentic spook? Or cunning camera technique? Perhaps I’d been played? Whatever the truth though, it’s the irony that strikes me: of an Afrikaner – a Boer – carrying a wounded British soldier down Talana Hill.
Before Covid, the ghost walk was part of Talana Live that was held over a weekend as close as possible to Oct 20th to commemorate the battle. The programme included, among others, battle re-enactments performed by the Dundee Diehards, talks by military historians, vintage car displays, dance displays, and hauntings in some of the heritage buildings. The ghost walk concluded the weekend.
Talana Live has been cancelled, as it was last year, but the Ghost Walk will go ahead on Wednesday 20th October this year, starting at 17h00.
Tickets: R80 per adult. R40 per scholar includes ‘army rations.’
Booking is essential as numbers are limited.
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