Neil Coppen

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Dying Hard

September29


As the first gun shots ring out a traumatized toddler wails from the stands. An Impi advancing, palms thundering on cow hide shields. ‘Bags’ the General yells ‘We need more sand bags Sergeant!’. The Red Coat ant colony busies themselves, frantically packing a peanut shell fortress while the Zulu’s edge perilously closer. “Hold your fire, gentleman. Hold your fire!” Nee man ,Skiet hom! skiet hom!’ yells a supporter from the side lines. ‘Fire’ bellows the Sergeant. Whips of smoke rising from Martini Henry’s, rubber assegais’ jabbing at the breasts of resilient red coats (they don’t call them the Die Hard’s for nothing). Soldiers and warriors engage in cautious combat before set dressing the battle field with their heaving corpses. Then, as if the director on a film set has yelled Cut! The carnage rises, dusting one another off and gallantly shaking hands. Band stand music blares as a bemused bunch of onlooker’s filter into the beer tent.

I arrive in Dundee for the annual ‘History in Action’ weekend’, meeting Gavin Slater and Peter Jones, two of the core Die Hard’s’ (South Africa’s most prolific historical reenactment group) amidst frantic preparations for the following days battles . Gavin, who runs a washing machine repair company in Dundee, is one of the younger team members and has recently been promoted to the position of Sergeant. Slater tells me that they are preparing to reenact two of the major Red Coat battles’ - The Battle of Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana. The setting for this year’s popular heritage day festival is the Talana museum. I ask museum curator Pam Macfadden how she feels about the ‘Die Hard’s activities. “I don’t care what they do,” she huffs, watching Gavin’s Bakkie wheel tearing up her historic lawn “I’m just here today to make sure they don’t mess up my property”

As far back as 1895 reenactments of the Anglo Boer wars have been recorded. 18 years after the Defense of Rorkes Drift, members of the Gloucestershire engineer volunteers took it upon themselves to recreate the battle as part of a military fete. Less politically correct but none the less rather amusing, are old post cards showing re-enactments in the U.K with Sqauddies doubling as Zulu’s, swathed head to foot in ill fitting black stockings. Reenactments were supposedly carried out in the name of reconciliation, with veterans from alternate sides restaging battles without harboring animosity towards their dead enemies.

I watch Peter and Gavin pacing through the choreography of the battle, getting into character by calling each other by the names of ‘Corporal’ and ‘Sergeant’ There’s something endearing, even childlike about their absolute, unflinching commitment. Jones’ oversees the erection of the Red Cross medical tents while Slater reshuffles sand bags- in this case, bails of peanut shells supplied by a local farmer for the exchange of two tickets to the much anticipated Blarney Brothers concert. Peter seems irked that Rorke’s Drift is coming before Isandlwana in the program. “It’s inaccurate!” he protests “We don’t like to be seen to be rewriting history”. Jones, one of the DDH founding members, is a brash yet efficient military man, billowing with old school bravado. Since 1999 he has taken the part of Major General Penn Symons in the battle of Talana and like so many of Dundee’s history junkies, he bristles with emotion when recalling his character’s story. “Can you believe it, after been shot in the groin with a forty five bullet, Penn Symons got back on his horse and rode to the hospital, in those days it simply wasn’t done for a British officer to fall in front of his men, it would have set a bad example.”
“So how did all this start?” I ask, anxious to discover what incited this motley crew of grown men into dressing up and firing blanks at one another?

Jones takes me back to January 1999 when a group of the British Die Hard’s came out to Dundee to re-enact the battle of Isandlwana. “After watching them we were inspired to form our own re-enactment team. We discussed it with them and they agreed to come back to South Africa to train our army. In the mean time we got busy and sourced people from all over the town. We put notices in the local newspaper saying ‘Your town needs you!’ and ended up recruiting over sixty soldiers. We got a huge bolt of khaki material and the uniforms were cut out by the ladies of the town who sat for weeks sowing on buttons and badges. Three of the ‘Die Hard’s’ came out from England to train our team in the old fashioned military drill and the rest” he says grinning…. “is history”
Jones wife Decima, who heads the Dundee Tourism Information centre, claims the ‘Die Hards’ have managed to attract thousands of tourists to their yearly reenactments. With the battle field route opening up fifteen years ago and the opening of David Rattaray’s popular Fugitive Drifts lodge, interest in the areas history began to blossom again. “The Die Hard’s,” Decima explains “have become great Ambassadors for our town”

Although I soon discover some locals are less than enthused by what they see as ‘an excuse for yet another old boys club’. A woman who runs a Dundee coffee shop scoffs when I mention the name. “The Die Hards” she says, rolling her eyes, “don’t talk to me about those Die Hards. Once they put on those bloody uniforms , they become impossible to deal with, traipsing through my coffee shop in their muddy boots, calling each other General this or Sergeant that, No man. Once upon a time there used to be hundreds of them and now their membership has petered out something terrible”
“Why’s that” I ask?
She leans over and raises a suspicious brow – “ internal politics”

Alex Donalson, the ‘Die Hard’ secretary is quick to dismiss the claims “There’s a great camaraderie amongst our members. “I’ve got both Boer and English blood in me. My one grandfather fought against the other grandfather in the war, so I’m sitting on the fence, I don’t know if I’m British or Boer, but it doesn’t worry me, I’m not interested in Politics. There’s no politics in the Die Hards. We have Afrikaans, German and English people playing Red Coats. It’s just a game that we play”

Understandably the games grown men play are bound to stir up certain sensitivities and this year is no exception. Decima tells me the Boer’s have been excluded from the re-enactment after it was decided to stick to the more popular Red Coat battles. “Now it looks like none of them will be coming out to support the event’ she says sadly, “It’s impossible to please everyone”
Slater shakes his head when I mention the inevitable consequences of waking histories ghosts. “Sometimes it seems the Zulus are still fighting that war” he says shaking his head “We are still sitting with the problem of colonialism. That’s why political parties are like they are. They are still fighting wars from long ago. Every year when we get to the Isandlwana re-enactment, we tell the Zulu re-enactors, we know you guys win, but attack us and fall back, at least let the battle last twenty minutes to half an hour. The first year I joined, that battle took sixteen seconds. We were still marching a picket line to go stand duty when the Zulu’s began to moer us already. I think two guys made it back to the flag and they were sprinting to get there. They couldn’t even do a fight and retreat, they just had to run for their lives to get there”
“We’ve been existence for eight years,” confirms Peter “and I’m relieved to tell you that in all that time we have never had a serious or fatal injury, but you’ve got to remember that when the Zulu’s are re-enacting they get very worked up and more often then not its almost like a blood lust, and even although we have enforced the use of rubber spears, you’d be surprised when they get carried away the damage they can do!”

I leave the ‘Die Hard’s’ that afternoon, to attend a Potjie and Sing Along at the Moth Shellhole –War Memorial Hall. A quaint bar nestled in amongst an eclectic array of war souvenirs. “There’s a few million Rand’s worth in this room” Mrytle tells me. Myrtle is a member of the moths and wife of Andre- a sometime Die Hard and practicing priest at the St James Anglican church. Myrtle clutches my arm and takes me on an impromptu tour of the hall. She delights in pointing out such historical oddities as a Nazi helmet still wearing the skull of its soldier, an old chair with the signature of General Smuts scrawled on one side, a bugle bent out of recognition from the fields of Isandlwana. “See that coin with the bullet pierced through the centre,” she says excitedly “that coin saved a soldiers life”
In Dundee history can be a little overwhelming. Travel in any direction and you’re likely to stumble upon the site of Blood River, Talana, Isandlwana or Rorkes Drift. It’s the type of town where an anthill, more often then not, turns out to be a landmark, every park bench- a memorial. Here history is the currency of conversation, the centre of drunken debate, both a binding and dividing force. It’s hard not to meet someone who doesn’t claim to be the descendent of some famous General or fallen soldier. My evening at the moth hall takes a surreal turn when a drunken war time ‘sing along’ begins. I stumble to my car at two o’clock in the morning pursued by the discordant strains of ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’
The following morning I meet Gavin and the DDH team on the battle grounds of Talana. They are busy kitting up in their red coats, water bottles and pith helmets. Surrounding them are the usual array of small town fete stalls- a church tea garden, Boerewors sizzling on open skottels, ouma’s engaged in marathon pancake cook offs. Incongruous (but not at all out of place) is a pot bellied man pawning off an impressive range of authentic rifles, assegais, bugles and bullet shells. It’s a veritable toy store to the avid battle heads, who congregate around him like pocky faced kids at a comic convention.
While waiting for the battle to begin I strike up a conversation with a young guy, dressed in period Boer attire. “We’re from the Oranje Vrijstaat Artillire Corps,” he proudly declares “We are here to show people in a living format how the Boers lived during the war, what they ate, what their rifles looked like. We take it as far as actually living like the Boers did. It’s good to experience what our forefathers went through in those days”
You’ve got admire these guys, resurrecting a history that would otherwise lie dormant in apartheid text books.
“Where did you find your costume?” I ask
“The back of my grandpa’s cupboard” he smirks, dunking a rusk into enamel mug while next to him a bunch of similarly dressed boers, obsess over a magnifying instrument.
“That’s called a heleograph” he says
“A what?”
“A Heleograph, it was used during the Boers and the English in the war as a form of Morse code, reflecting flashes of sunlight to soldiers camping out on nearby hills”
“Still I can’t understand why any one choose to endure a staple diet of bully beef in the name of recreation?” “We started this group, to show young people how it all worked. People usually walk past an old field gun without even looking at it, but as soon as it’s fired they suddenly become interested, because it’s now a living thing. They can smell it, they can see it, they can touch it. It’s not something in a book, its not boring anymore”
“What about your girl friends, what do they think of your hobby?”
“Oh they love it” he grins “most of the time they dress up and join in”
Back at camp Die Hard, Gavin is addressing his regiment in preparation for the Rorkes Drift reenactment. He carefully works through the logistics of each soldier’s death, generally knocking out the soldiers over seventy first. Slater emphasizes the importance of allowing the younger more agile guys to survive a bit longer. “We’ve got to do a lot more theatrics: dive off the roofs of buildings, fall off the wagons, get slaughtered and so on. In the past our reenactments have been criticized for being too static, so this year we are trying to introduce a bit more action”
I glance around the team and joke that if that was the case most of his team will be obliterated within the first few minutes. As with Peter Jones most of the ‘Die Hards’ are members of the ‘old guard’ –a benign military euphemism for pensioners. It’s why Jones keeps emphasizing the need for things to be handed down to a younger guard and hence the recent appointment of more able bodied Gavin. “If we don’t continue to bring in younger members then we could have a situation, where to coin a phrase, it would die out ,but that’s not going to happen” Jones assures me “As the older soldiers retire we are making sure the younger one’s are coming in”

An Impi of Zulu re enactors are jogging around the property, roaring fiercely into the lenses of tourists cameras’. Nubile young warriors who when standing next to the ‘Die Hard’s’ draw embarrassing attention to their garish red coats and huffing pink faces. Minutes before the Rorkes Drift re-enactment, I ask Gavin if he’s feeling nervous about the battle but he points out that his apprehension resides more with the stringent new gun laws that threaten to close the event.
“There’s a possibility that the police might raid today’s reenactment and demand to see our gun license’s, this of course would be disastrous for us. The laws originally stated that antique firearms do not require a license, which means that all Martini Henry’s that we have in our possession should not require a permit. Unfortunately re enactment groups are not covered in the new dispensation and this is making things increasingly difficult for us”

I try to imagine what would happen if the new laws made it impossible to use real weapons in reenactments. The prospect of a bunch of elderly men running about creating sound effects for toy guns is a depressing one. Meanwhile I spot Peter scanning the stands on either side of the field, his disappointment palpable. So far only a handful of spectators have arrived, down at the entrance gates there’s little indication of a last minute rush.
The Die Hard’s line up and respond appropriately to their Sergeant’s orders. “Move to the right in two’s, fall in officers, by the left, quick march, left, right, left” A bunch of bemused Zulu warriors traipse behind and secure positions on the field. The Rorke’s Drift re-enactment lasts a good twenty minutes before the men limp’s back into camp and crack open their beers.
Sitting amongst an amusing series of anachronisms I get chatting to one of the eldest members of the team, Denis Holmes. Behind him a Zulu warrior and Die Hard are staging a mock confrontation for photo snappy German’s, next to them a soldier chats on his cell phone while dozing on a stretcher. Holmes has lived in Dundee since 1968 and as far as re-enactment’s go he’s a true veteran. He brims with nostalgia when harking back to the good old days. The days when the DDH were an army of a hundred and twenty men strong and over five thousand spectators pitched up to support them.
“One of the first re-enactments in Feriesbergh turned out to be a very eventful,” he says chuckling “Our blanks set fire to the grass and we had to stop the re-enactment between the Brits and Boers while the fire engines came in to put out the fire, after they managed to put it out, we had this burnt grass between us. We looked like Chimney sweepers after we finished that re-enactment.”
While disappointed at the day’s turn out, Holmes remains upbeat even philosophical about the Die Hard’s contribution to society.
“Inside everybody we know that war is a waste of time, a waste of good life but it seems to be an inevitable part of our history. There will always be war, so if we like it or not we won’t be able to avoid it, all we can try do is educate people”
Another Die Hard elaborates on the senseless killing that occurred over the period. “If you take these wars in Dundee, you’ll find that the night before the Boers and the British were partying together and the next day they were killing each other”. Similarly Peter Jones believes that the Re –actor’s primary purpose is education. “We believe it is right that our youth should admire the bravery of those brave British and Zulu soldiers but we also believe firmly that war is a dreadful waste of time and should be avoided at all costs and if we can get that message across in our re-enacting then we have done our job”

Later that afternoon Gavin gives his men a low down on the Isandlwana Drill. Like a coach prepping his rugby team, a team who cant really be blamed for their obvious despondency. Their fate has long been determined and whether they like it or not they must now fight to loose. Reenacting History I decide is a bit like playing a fixed match- no fun when you’re on the loosing side
A rousing British anthem booms over the speakers. As DDH take their positions on the playing field. Despite the miserable attendance, Jones retains his stiff upper lip, bossing the men around with fitting military fervor. Pat Rungren an ex Die Hard, offers a running commentary over the loud speakers. He tells us he has assumed this role since his prodigious size made re-enacting an impossibility. I grin at the image of two weedy stretcher bearers’ attempting to lug his cumbersome corpse off the field. The battle begins and the red coats set about the motions of defending the colours, surrounding a flag pole positioned at the centre of the field. The Zulus arrive in trademark buffalo horn formation. There’s a scuffle before a young soldier wrenches the flag from the ground and makes an ill fated dash toward freedom. A gargantuan warrior, hot on his heels, intercepts him with a jab of the rubber assegai. Soldier and flag flails to the ground. The Zulu’s commemorate by waving the cloth over the massacred heap of red coats. Once again history has been made or at least replayed. Again the dead rise and shake hands, a meager applause greeting their efforts. An announcement follows over the speakers “For those of you interested the rugby is on in the beer tent. 22 -13 to the Cheetahs” What’s left of the spectators, quickly clears off to witness a more tangible form of confrontation.

“This year’s problem is not the DDH,” grumbles Peter, post Isandlwana, “It’s the audience. You can’t have an event of this magnitude with only a handful of people.”
“I know,” mumbles another “this year you could fit the entire audience inside the beer tent!”
“Even the camp followers didn’t dress up this time round” laments Gavin. The camp followers I learn are the equivalent of historical groupies-soldiers wives who previously entered into the spirit of Re-enactment by dressing up in period costume.
“Hey look on the bright side,” chirps a cocky young soldier “at least the cops stayed away”
“I have my own theory.” says Peter, begrudgingly hanging up his uniform “I think that perhaps after eight years we might just have reached the end of the Dundee publics’ interest.
Alex Donaldson the Die Hard responsible for sourcing the artillery, thinks it all boils down to the big bang factor. He tells me of his plans to introduce an authentic Isandlwana canon into next year’s re-enactments. It appears he might just have a point, skop, skiet and donner is not what it used to be. In an age of interactive video games, over bloated action films, war on television, it’s all about bigger bangs now days

I depart from Dundee a little depressed yet optimistic for the 24th regiment’s reenacting future. Peter Jones the proficient ring master to his military circus, his ‘show must go on’ ‘never say die’ tenacity ensuring that the DDH aren’t committed to the dusty annuls of history just yet. Whether they march proudly or hobble reluctantly into the future, well that’s the responsibility Gavin Slater now has to bare.

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