BRITISH HEROIC FAILURE # 5 ‘Gallant Resistance’: Isandlwana I


In January 1879, the officers of the 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot invited their counterparts in the 2nd Battalion to a celebratory mess in their camp at Helpmekaar in Natal. By this point, the former had been stationed at the Cape for several years, while the latter had only recently arrived. The battalions would now be fighting alongside each other for the first time in the war that had just been declared against the Zulus. They were not only celebrating the upcoming campaign, however, but also the anniversary of the most famous moment in the regiment’s history. Thirty years earlier, on 13 January 1849, the 24th Foot had made the disastrous charge at Chillianwallah that had resulted in the loss of over three hundred men. Two officers from the 1st Battalion, Captain William Degacher and Lieutenant Francis Porteous, offered a toast, expressing the hope `that we may not get into such a bloody mess, and have better luck this time!’ Three weeks later, Degacher and Porteous, along with twelve other officers from the 1st Battalion and four from the 2nd Battalion, lay dead on the battlefield at Isandlwana. Instead of having `better luck’ this time around, their regiment had for the second time been at the epicentre of one of the greatest heroic failures in British military history.

After the great warrior and chieftain Shaka assumed its leader- ship in 1816, the Zulu kingdom rose from a tiny, insignificant tribal group to a powerful political and military entity that controlled territory stretching from what are today the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique in the north to Natal in the south. Shaka built what by African standards was a massive army of 25,000 men and used it to overturn the traditional system of ritualized warfare by fighting wars of annihilation, in which the losers were either killed or assimilated into his forces. Within a few years, he controlled over 11,000 square miles (28,500 sq km) of territory, inhabited by 250,000 people.

In 1828, however, Shaka was murdered in a coup engineered by two of his half- brothers. If he had lived a hundred years earlier, he would have left the Zulu kingdom all but invulnerable. But the kingdom’s emergence had occurred simultaneously with the fundamental alteration of southern African politics caused by the British acquisition of the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1806. The British initially saw the Cape purely as a strategic stopping- off point for their naval and merchant shipping, and were content to leave the Zulus and the other tribal groups who occupied the interior of southern Africa largely to their own devices. Complicating matters, however, were the Boers, the descendants of the colony’s original Dutch settlers. Between 1834 and 1840, fifteen thousand Boer Voortrekkers headed north from the Cape into Natal as they sought freedom from British control. The British wanted neither to see a rival European colony established nor to have to cope with the instability resulting from the warfare that would almost certainly break out between the Boers and Africans as they competed for land and resources. In 1843, they therefore annexed Natal as a province of the Cape Colony. At the same time, they signed a treaty with the Zulus that established the border between Natal and Zululand as lying along the Thukela and Mzinyathi Rivers, with the intention of preventing further Boer incursions into Zulu territory.

If the British and the Zulus were reasonably satisfied with this arrangement, however, the Boers were not. Determined to get out from under British authority once again, they headed further north, into the territories that would later become the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. There, they again encroached on Zulu land, a problem that became more acute as more settlers arrived. The situation was further complicated by the discovery of large deposits of diamonds along the Orange River in the late 1860s, creating a powerful economic incentive for the British to reassert their claim to the region.

These pressures for the expansion of British authority in the interior, however, went against the wishes of the Liberal government that came to power in 1868, which favoured a `static’ imperial policy and instead sought to grant the Cape Colony increased self- government, as had already occurred in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Those places, however, differed from the Cape Colony in two very significant ways. First, there was no equivalent of the Boers, or European settlers who sought to establish independent republics outside British authority. (Canada, to be sure, had the Québécois, but their cultural and religious differences had been accommodated through a series of concessions dating back to the Seven Years War.) The second factor was the presence of a large number of indigenous people. By 1900, the aboriginal populations of Australia and New Zealand had declined from a pre- contact peak of a million each to under 100,000, while that of Canada had declined from two million to under 150,000. In South Africa, in contrast, a million whites and 3.5 million indigenous Africans competed for the same territory.

The already complex political dynamic in the Cape Colony was further complicated in 1874, when a Conservative government under Benjamin Disraeli replaced Gladstone’s Liberals, bringing a more forthright imperial policy to Westminster with it. The colonial authorities at the Cape convinced the new colonial secretary, the earl of Carnarvon, to countenance a scheme of confederation for South Africa as the best means of protecting Britain’s interests in southern Africa. Confederation entailed the annexation of not only the Boer republics but also Zululand; in this new British vision of a united South Africa, an independent Zulu kingdom could no more continue to exist than an independent Boer republic. The lieutenant governor of Natal, the distinguished general Sir Garnet Wolseley, believed that in military terms the annexation of Zululand would be a simple task, as he had been convinced by Britain’s experts on indigenous affairs that the Zulus regarded their leader, Cetshwayo, as a tyrant and were eager to depose him. Wolseley was also convinced that the new Martini- Henry rifle would give the British near- omnipotency on the battlefield.

The annexation of Zululand, however, required a better justification than British convenience. The British got one in 1876, when a conflict broke out between the Boers and the Zulus. Though the Boers quickly gained the upper hand, the war crippled the Transvaal’s treasury, giving the British a pretext to declare that annexation was the only thing that could save the Boer state. Though the Boers were far from eager for a British takeover, in their impoverished and demoralized state they made little protest. The annexation of the Transvaal in turn provided an excuse for carrying out the annexation of Zululand, which could now be presented as necessary to protect the Boers in their new role as British colonial citizens. The British, who had previously sought to balance Boer and Zulu interests, thus shifted towards a more pro-Boer policy. In November 1878, Sir Bartle Frere, the governor of the Cape Colony, issued an ultimatum in which he demanded that the Zulus remake their entire society by dismantling their army and placing themselves under the direction of a resident British official. This was, of course, impossible for the shocked Zulus to comply with, and they now conceded that a war with the British, which they had long sought to avoid and feared they could not win, was unavoidable. They were given only thirty days to submit to the ultimatum, and when the deadline expired on 31 December, the British invaded Zululand.

The British believed that they would easily crush the opposition. `If we are to have a fight with the Zulus,’ declared Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford, commander- in- chief of the British forces in South Africa, `I am anxious that our arrangements should be as complete as it is possible to make them. Half measures do not answer with the natives. They must be thoroughly crushed to make them believe in our superiority, and if I am called upon to conduct operations against them, I shall strive to be in a position to show them how hopelessly inferior they are to us in fighting power, altho’ numerically stronger.’ Here, Chelmsford illustrates the complexities of Britain’s sense of itself as an imperial power in the late nineteenth century. On the one hand, he positions the British as underdogs who must find ways to overcome the numerical superiority of indigenous peoples. But, on the other, he is full of confidence that Britain’s technological advantages in weaponry will prove decisive. His wish to `crush’ the Zulus fulfilled British desires for power and dominance, but sat uneasily with more benevolent conceptions of the purpose of empire. These contradictory sentiments engendered competing desires for the outcome of the war: the British of course wanted to win, but they also wanted to see themselves as noble and benevolent rather than bloodthirsty and rapacious. There was thus a clear need for heroism of a non-aggressive sort. That need would be fulfilled, albeit at a high cost of British lives.

Chelmsford assumed that the Zulus, aware of Britain’s superiority in weaponry, would seek to avoid a pitched battle. Instead of concentrating his forces, he thus divided his sixteen thousand men into five columns, which permitted more rapid movement. He took charge of the third, or central, column himself. The plan was for them to converge on Cetshwayo’s capital at Ondini. He under- estimated, however, the Zulus’ confidence in their military prowess, and their faith in their preferred strategy, known as `the horns of the buffalo’, in which the flanks of their attack enveloped the enemy while the centre engaged the bulk of the opposing forces.

After crossing the border into Zululand, Chelmsford decided to establish a forward camp in the shadow of a sphinx- like hill called Isandlwana. He assumed that, as he moved north, the Zulus would retreat towards Ondini and harass the British with small- scale attacks. The poor site chosen for the camp reflected Chelmsford’s complacency. Rather than lying on open ground that would allow a large Zulu force to be spotted from some distance away, it was overlooked by the rocky promontory of Isandlwana and the rising ground that led up to it, which would allow a Zulu army to approach virtually unseen. Chelmsford did not think that this would matter, as he did not expect a full- scale Zulu attack and was confident of his ability to repel one even if it came. He made no attempt to post sentries behind the hill, where they could see an oncoming Zulu force, or laager (i. e., entrench) his army by using his supply wagons as a defensive barrier. Cetshwayo, however, had formulated a strategy that directly contradicted British expectations. Aware that his best chance of dissuading the British from bringing the full brunt of their military resources to bear was to inflict an early defeat upon them, he sent twenty thousand troops to confront the invading army. He hoped that once they were made aware of how difficult it would be to conquer the Zulus, they would be convinced to reconsider their planned annexation of Zululand.

Early on the morning of 22 January 1879, Chelmsford rode out at the head of a column in order to carry out reconnaissance in the hills surrounding Isandlwana. This left Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine of the 24th Foot in charge of the camp, but, at around 10 a. m., Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Durnford arrived from Helpmekaar with a contingent of Natal volunteers; he outranked Pulleine and thus assumed command. Durnford encapsulated all of the complexities of the Anglo- Zulu War. On the one hand, he was brave and eager for action, but, on the other, he recognized that the war against the Zulus was unjust. `As a soldier I should delight in the war,’ he wrote, `but as a man I utterly condemn it.’

Whatever his personal opinion, however, once the war started, Durnford’s duty was to fight. Upon hearing reports of increasing Zulu movements, he decided to take aggressive action. Pulleine protested that his orders were to defend the camp rather than to go on the offensive, but Durnford countered that Chelmsford had ordered him to attack if a suitable opportunity arose. He set off with a detachment of mounted troops to chase down the Zulus. He had only gone about 4 miles (6.4 km), however, when two scouts informed him that a huge Zulu army lay directly ahead. Durnford ordered a retreat, but it was too late. His advance guard had spotted a few Zulus running away and had chased them up a ridge. What they saw upon reaching the top was a shock: a massive Zulu army of around twenty thousand men. It is still debated whether the Zulus intended to attack that day, or whether they did so only after the British blundered into them. Whatever the case, their presence in such large numbers took the British totally by surprise. As the Zulus swept towards them, Durnford ordered a fighting retreat to the camp. Upon reaching a deep donga, or dry watercourse, he commanded his small force to take up a defensive position. Their steady, accurate fire impeded the progress of the Zulu advance for perhaps half an hour, but they could not hold them indefinitely as their ammunition supply was dwindling.

Back at the main camp, one of Durnford’s officers, Captain George Shepstone, galloped up to Pulleine and reported that a massive Zulu force was rapidly advancing towards them. Pulleine, however, failed to recognize the magnitude of the threat. Instead of concentrating his forces in a tight defensive formation that would have maximized their advantage in firepower and might have saved them, he deployed them along a wide front. The difficulty of holding such an extended line quickly became apparent. Lieutenant Horace Smith-Dorrien of the 95th Regiment later recalled that the Zulu advance was `a marvellous sight, lines upon lines of men in slightly extended order, one behind the other, firing as they came along, for a few of them had firearms, and bearing all before them’. The advance was temporarily halted by a barrage of British artillery and rifle fire, much of the latter coming from the 1st Battalion of the 24th Foot, whom Pulleine had deployed in a forward position in order to bolster the right side of the line. But the Zulus could only be checked, not halted. As Durnford’s men ran out of ammunition and ceased firing, they left the 1/24th exposed and undermined the stability of the entire British right flank. The Zulus saw this and surged forward into the camp. `In a moment,’ wrote Captain Edward Essex, `all was disorder.’ As the British frantically fled across the rugged terrain, those on foot were swiftly run down and killed; only those on horseback stood a chance. Nine hundred and twenty-two British soldiers and 840 African auxiliaries perished at Isandlwana; only fifty- five of the former and 350 of the latter survived. Some men fled almost immediately, while others doggedly resisted. In the end, it made little difference which option they chose. In the nineteenth century, only the retreat from Kabul proved a bloodier British defeat, and even then Isandlwana topped it for the number of British regulars who were killed. (710 perished at Kabul.) A staggering 75 per cent of the men who fought on the British side at Isandlwana died.

Isandlwana was a traumatic defeat, made more so by the fact that it had been inflicted by a non- European foe. The British public required three things to cope with a military disaster of such epic proportions: redemption, retribution and remembrance. The first was made possible by the outcome of another battle that took place on the same day. At Rorke’s Drift, a fording point of the Mzinyathi, there was a homestead owned by a Swedish missionary named Otto Witt, who, when the invasion of Zululand began, lent his property to the British army for use as a supply depot and hospital. The post was defended by a garrison of two hundred men from the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Foot, under the command of Major Henry Spalding. On the afternoon of 22 January, however, Spalding had ridden to Helpmekaar to try and speed the arrival of some promised reinforcements. This left Rorke’s Drift under the command of Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, who was there to ensure that the ponts, or floating bridges, that the army needed to cross the Mzinyathi when it was in flood remained secure. The highest-ranking remaining officer from the 24th, meanwhile, was Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, who like Chard had no combat experience.

After the camp at Isandlwana was overrun, Rorke’s Drift lay directly in the path of the Zulus. 19 Chard and Bromhead initially thought of attempting an evacuation, but realized that they could not move quickly with the thirty- five invalids who were in the hospital. They thus began preparing to defend the post with the hundred able- bodied men who were available. In a fierce fight that lasted until well after dark, they managed to hold off between three and four thousand Zulus. Only fifteen British soldiers were killed and seventeen wounded, while 350 Zulu corpses lay on the battlefield. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded, the highest total ever given for a single engagement.

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