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British, Zulus, and Two Legendary Battles

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ian Knight. Zulu Rising: The Epic Story of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. 600 Pages. Macmillan. 20.

On may 21, 1879, a cavalry brigade with infantry support led by General Frederick Marshall set out from Fort Melville in the British colony of Natal on a melancholy mission: Crossing into Zululand, it was to retrieve the wagons the army had lost four months before in the disaster at Isandlwana, where the British camp was wiped out by a Zulu army, the most humiliating defeat inflicted on a British army by native forces. Among the accompanying war correspondents was Archibald Forbes of the Standard, whose report is not for the faint of heart. This is what he saw:

In this ravine, dead men lay thick, mere bones, with toughened discolored skin like leather covering them, and clinging tight to them, the flesh all wasted away. Some were almost wholly dismembered, heaps of yellow clammy bones. I forbear to describe the faces, with their blackened features and beards bleached by rain and sun. Every man had been disemboweled. Some were scalped. And others had been subject to even ghastlier mutilations. The clothes had lasted better than the poor bodies they covered, and helped keep the skeletons together.

All the way up the slope I traced the ghastly token of dead men, the fitful line of flight. Most of the men hereabout were infantry of the 24th. It was like a long string with knots in it, the string formed of single corpses, the knots clusters of dead, where (as it seemed) little groups might have gathered to make a hopeless, gallant stand and die.

According to Illustrated London News sketch artist Melton Prior, in most cases identification was hard work, “for either the hands of the enemy, or the beaks and claws of vultures tearing up the corpses, had in numberless cases so mixed up the bones of the dead that the skull of one man, or bones of a leg or arm, now lay with the parts of the skeleton of another.” Mostly, it was a question of recognizing “a ring on a finger bone” or “a pair of socks in a few known instances.” Prior’s sketches of the remains proved too graphic for the Illustrated London News editors and had to be cleaned up.

One of Prior’s originals, complete with outsized skulls, is reprinted in Ian Knight’s Zulu Rising, the authoritative study of Isandlwana and the subsequent battle at Rorke’s Drift. Knight combines panoramic descriptions of the landscape with lively testimony from the participants. The battles greatly stirred the Victorian imagination, particularly the heroism exhibited at Rorke’s Drift. They still stir imaginations today. The movie Zulu, with Stanley Baker and Michael Caine in the roles of Lieutenants Chard and Gonville, invariably shows up on British television screens at Christmas time.

The catastrophe was set in motion when Sir Bartle Frère, the British high commissioner, decided that an independent Zululand under King Cetshwayo was an impediment to British interests in the region. Frere knew that military action ran counter to the wishes of Her Majesty’s government, which did not want new commitments at this point. But with communication between London and the colonies being slow, Frère believed that the matter could be settled before the Colonial Office could object. A series of demands that he knew the King could not meet provided Frère with the necessary pretext.

Heading the invasion was Lord Chelmsford, who had previously put down the remnants of a Xhosa rebellion, and who now made Cetshwayo’s capital, Ondini, his objective. His three columns consisted of 5,000 redcoats, a volunteer corps of carbineers, and a hastily trained Natal Native Contingent, with himself commanding the center column. On Jan 11, 1879, this column began crossing the Buffalo River at Rorke’s Drift, where the army’s commissariat depot had been established in the mission station.

Chelmsford’s supply wagons were drawn by teams of sixteen oxen, which meant slow progress, as oxen can only work four hours a day. The nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Horace Smith-Dorrien, serving in the supply train, provides the soundtrack: “The driver who yielded the whip was usually an Afrikander [sic]; the oxen were named and, when the pull became very heavy, were urged forward by name and pistol like cracks of the whip. Such names as ‘Dootchman,’ ‘German,’ and ‘Englischmann’ [sic] were bestowed on them, and when a wretched animal possessed the last it seemed to me there was more emphasis in shouting it out, and more venom in the lash when applying it.”

The first clash of the war had occurred when the Natal Native Contingent sent out on reconnoiter in an empty landscape finally spotted a party of Zulus. The conduct of one officer, Lieutenant Charles Harford of the 99th regiment, a keen amateur biologist, is described by his superior, Commandant George Hamilton Browne:

We were in rather a hot corner and he was standing to my right rear when I heard an exclamation, and turning saw him lying on the ground having dropped his sword and revolver. “Good God, Harford,” I said, “you are hit!” “No, Sir,” he replied, “not hit, but I have caught such a beauty.” And there the lunatic, in his first action, and under heavy fire, his qualms and nervousness all forgotten, had captured some infernal microbe or other, and was blowing its wings out, unconscious of the bullets striking the rocks all around him as if he had been in his garden at home.

He was just expatiating on his victory and reeling off Latin names — they might have been Hebrew for all I cared — when I stopped him, and told him to get as quick as he could to the right flanking company and hurry them up. He looked at me with sorrow, put his prize into a tin box, and was off like a shot.

This is heady stuff, affording just the right amount of excitement, and convincing everybody that this expedition was going to be a breeze.

His column having only advanced about ten miles in ten days, on Jan 20th Chelmsford set up camp beneath the jagged rock of Isandlwana, described by one of the officers as “queer shaped, like a Sphinx lying down.”

On receiving scouting reports that an enemy force of undetermined strength had been encountered in the Mangeni gorge, Chelmsford sets out on the morning of the 22nd at 3 a.m., with 2,500 men and four guns. His fear was that the Zulus would sneak past him and hit Natal. He thus commits the cardinal mistake of dividing his force.

He commits a second mistake in not ordering the camp at Isandlwana laagered, i.e, protected behind a square of wagons, instead leaving the soldiers and their tents out in the open. Having brushed off prior Boer warnings about the need to laager at every halt, he had stated, “Oh, British troops are all right; we do not need to laager — we have a different formation.”

Chelmsford had great faith in his firepower, supplied by the army’s breech-loading Martini-Henry rifle. “The first experience of the Martini Henrys will be such a surprise to the Zulus that they will not be formidable after the first effort.” Admittedly, his own Regulations for Field Forces in South Africa required that camps be laagered and “partially entrenched on all sides,” but according to Knight that only applied to more permanent camps.

The underestimating of native forces by professional officers was not uncommon: Three years before, when going against the Lakota Sioux, Custer had omitted to bring along Gatling guns and declined the offer of four extra cavalry companies, bragging that he could “whip any Indian village on the plains.”

To make matters worse, Colonel Durnford, the commander of the second column, had been ordered to Isandlwana, presumably to reinforce the camp. But when he arrived, there were no explicit orders awaiting him. Receiving confused reports including one that an enemy force was moving towards Chelmsford, Durnford decided to move out with his men to protect Chelmsford’s rear. Thus the force at Isandlwana was divided a second time.

Meanwhile, King Cetshwayo, having rejected advice to mount a counter raid into British territory — he wanted Chelmsford to be the aggressor — instead had ordered his lieutenants to creep up on the British, taking advantage of the landscape. “Perhaps the greatest Zulu masterstroke was to move some 25,000 men undetected to within eight kilometers of the British camp — and the greatest British shortcoming their failure, despite extensive patrolling, to intercept them,” writes Knight.

Chelmsford had faith in his army’s breechloading Martini-Henry rifle. “The first experience of the Martini Henrys will be such a surprise to the Zulus that they will not be formidable after the first effort.”

Having finally been spotted, the Zulu impi moved at once on the camp, before having completed their rituals. Zulu tactics involved the impi being deployed in the ox formation, consisting of two horns that would envelop the enemy on the flanks, while the main body formed the chest. Its warriors were armed with assegai thrusting spears, man-sized cowhide shields, clubs, and throwing spears. Some carried ancient rifles and muskets; only a few had Martini-Henrys, but did not understand how to operate the rear sights.

The camp commander, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine, hearing shots on his left flank, and receiving reports of Durnford’s men falling back on his right under heavy attack, ordered his men to line up on both sides of the field guns. Smith-Dorrien again provides the soundtrack, describing the attackers emitting “a curious, humming-buzzing noise”: “They were giving vent to no loud war cries, but to a low, musical murmuring noise, which gave the impression of a gigantic swarm of bees, getting nearer and nearer.”

The 24th Infantry was an experienced regiment. Rather than blazing away independently, Knight notes, they were trained to fire slow and deliberate, as volleys delivered in this way had a devastating impact. A recent archaeological find of a group of bullets neatly bunched together on top of each other suggests “a calm and unhurried manner.” But the British were too few and too spread out, “pretty, but too extended,” in the words of one lieutenant. And Durnford’s men being out on the right meant that the defenders were in effect “fighting two separate battles.”

While this was happening, the right horn of the impi had snuck around and fell on the camp from behind. “The Zulus came on us like ants from all sides,” notes one of the survivors. According to Knight, the men formed “receive cavalry squares,” infantry practice when in a tight spot, with the soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder with the officers in the middle. But with the tents having “collapsed like a pack of cards,” the jumble of tent poles and ropes prevented them from forming up properly. They ended up defending themselves “with just their pockets knives, or with their fists,” according to a Zulu warrior.

Having failed to react to the first report of the attack, Chelmsford’s force was too scattered to mount a quick rescue. When Chelmsford’s lookout suddenly realized that the tents had disappeared in his telescope, he knew it was all over. Only about 100 men got away, and these were all on horseback.

Back at the depot at the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, Lieutenant John Chard, an engineer, was temporarily in charge of the garrison with Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead as his second in command. Both were regarded as rather dull and unambitious officers; Bromhead came from an old military family, but was indolent and half-deaf to boot.

Rather than flee, which with men sick in the hospital was considered hopeless, it was decided to defend the mission station, consisting of a store, a kraal, and a hospital. Chard ordered an improvised defense barrier to be thrown up, consisting of mealie sacks, biscuit tins, and two wagons. In case the outer defense line should collapse, he also ordered that an inner perimeter be prepared to withdraw to. Amid these activities, the native troops deserted, leaving him with 152 men.

Disobeying Cetshwayo’s orders, the Zulu reserve under prince Dabulamanzi, eager to get in on the kill, crossed the river and entered Natal with 4,000 warriors. Contrary to Isandlwana, this time their attack was noiseless and ghostlike. James Reynolds, the surgeon, described the sight: “On they came at the same slow slinging trot, their heads forward, their arms outspread, and all in a dead silence. Here and there a black body doubled up, and went writhing and bouncing in the dust; but the great host came steadily on.”

Here the British fire discipline and superior marksmanship asserted itself. Trooper Harry Lugg reported “some of the best shooting at 450 yards” he ever saw, while in the hand-to-hand fighting at the barricade the bayonet was put to furious use. Curiously, notes Knight, for people used to using the assegai, the Zulus seemed to fear the bayonet more than the bullets. They believed themselves immune to bullets, thanks to the ritual medicine, but the bayonet proved a man’s mortality most convincingly.

After fierce fighting, the hospital, its straw roof on fire, had to be abandoned, with everybody retreating to the inner perimeter in front of the storehouse. In addition, Chard had ordered a pyramid-shaped redoubt built of mealie sacks, from the hollow top of which sharpshooters could fire over the heads of their fellow defenders. Throughout, the Reverend Smith was making himself useful by passing out ammunition, praying for salvation, and admonishing the men not to cuss: “Don’t swear, men, don’t swear, but shoot them, boys, shoot them.” This is surely what is meant by “muscular Christianity.”

After numerous assaults, the attacks faltered around midnight, and around four they stopped. The Zulus reappeared briefly, but vanished, not because of recognition of the bravery of the defenders, as suggested in the movie, but because they spotted Chelmsford’s force on the horizon.

When surveying the field after the battle, Bromhead told a colleague that he felt as if he was walking on air, as he never expected to see daylight again . . . In front of the verandah and outside the hospital and near the two blue gum trees the Zulu bodies were lying three deep. Gunny especially pointed out one young Zulu Induna with a plume head dress, telling me that he was a very gallant man, and had headed a charge three times. “But we got him the third time.”

In the battle of Isandlwana, according to official figures quoted by the author, 727 white troops and 471 black troops perished on the British side. The Zulu figure is unknown. At Rorke’s Drift, the British had fifteen killed and two mortally wounded, while the Zulus suffered an estimated 1,000 killed or wounded.

In recognition of bravery, a survivor from Isandlwana, Private Samuel Wassall, was awarded a Victoria Cross for saving a fellow trooper. Lieutenants Melville and Coghill, who had tried to save the colors of the 24th, later retrieved from the river, got theirs posthumously in 1906, after the statutes had been amended following lobbying by family members.

Isandlwana, of course, also produced its cowards, among them Lieutenant Higginson, who, grabbing somebody else’s horse, in true Flashman fashion managed to leave men behind him on three occasions. (Needless to say, Flash himself was present in both battles, as briefly told in Flashman and the Tiger.)

The defenders at Rorke’s Drift were awarded eleven Victoria Crosses. Chard and Bromhead became the toast of London, though not everybody was impressed. Jealous colleagues still saw them as lackluster officers and General Sir Garnet Wolseley grumbled, “It is monstrous making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke’s Drift, could not bolt, and fought like rats for their lives which they could not otherwise save.” In Knight’s opinion, the point about the defenders at Rorke’s Drift is that they were ordinary men, who rose in spectacular fashion to the occasion.

The battles inspired Victorian artists. From the battle of Isandlwana, the Irish painter R.T Moynan has a solitary soldier killed in the “self-confident martyrdom” typical of the Victorian age, as Knight puts it. Equally popular motifs were Lieutenants Melville and Coghill’s “dash with the colors,” depicted with varying degrees of accuracy — one version has them surrounded by exotic jungle. From Rorke’s Drift, the burning hospital forms the dramatic background in the best known renderings.

Among the myths Knight disposes of was the rumor the Zulus used torture at Isandlwana. There were no tortured drummer boys, as the Victorians believed, but there was mutilation galore, as Zulu custom holds that the spirit residing inside a man must be set free by ripping his belly open. In addition, a Zulu quoted admits that “some of our bad men cut away the lower jaws of those white men who had beards and decorated their heads with them.” It is practices such as these which, despite Knight’s scrupulous evenhandedness, make it hard to warm to the Zulus. All the horses were killed as well, but that at least had a military rationale, “because they were the feet of the white men.”

Defeats demand scapegoats. The most convenient was Colonel Durnford, since he was dead and therefore could not defend himself. As an engineer, he was blamed for an insufficient grasp of tactics. But as Knight points out, he did not interfere in Pulleine’s dispositions and had only arrived an hour before the attack. He did take his troops with him when leaving again, but the ultimate responsibility rests with Chelmsford, Knight notes, for sloppy staff work and ambiguous orders.

Obviously, setbacks to British imperial power could not be tolerated: The Zulus had to be vanquished, and hence a new force was assembled. A new commander, Sir Garnet Wolseley, had also been picked, but Chelmsford managed to defeat the Zulu army in the battle of Ulundi on July 4, 1879, before Wolseley could take charge. Nevertheless, the Duke of Cambridge saw to it that Chelmsford never commanded troops in battle again.

As for army procedures, a revised edition of Chelmsford’s Regulations was published in February 1879, making the laagering of camps obligatory “when halting, though but for a few hours.” All too often, military wisdom comes at a high price.