BRITISH HEROIC FAILURE # 5 – ‘Gallant Resistance’: Isandlwana II


Rorke’s Drift went a long way towards counterbalancing Isandlwana, but it could not entirely mitigate the disaster. For that to occur, something positive had to be extracted from Isandlwana itself. To this end, the last stands made by some of the men as the Zulu attack swept over the British camp were ideal. The largest group was the seventy men, mostly from the Natal Carbineers, who had remained with Durnford. They fired until they ran out of ammunition and then continued the fight hand- to- hand until they were killed to a man. The Zulu commander Mehlokazulu later recounted: `It was a long time before they were overcome – before we finished them. When we did get to them, they all died in one place, together. They threw down their guns when their ammunition was done, and then commenced with their pistols, which they used as long as their ammunition lasted; and then they formed a line, shoulder to shoulder and back to back, and fought with their knives.’ The men of the 24th Foot also attempted to maintain pockets of resistance. In his dispatch after the battle, Chelmsford referred to the 24th’s `gallant resistance’, and this line was quickly taken up by the press. The Illustrated London News, for example, described the 24th as standing `high among the most distinguished regiments in the British Army’. Soon after the battle, H. B. Worth published a poem entitled `In Memory of the Officers, Non- Commissioned Officers and Men of the 24th Regiment’:

Great Britain mourns the valiant sons she’s lost

And bitter tears this tragedy has cost,

They fighting died, and all the world must say

Each nobly `did his duty on that day.’

Each single man, a hero in the strife,

O’erwhelmed by numbers, dearly sold his life,

Though great our loss, the enemy lost more –

For every Briton slain they counted four.

In 1883, a painting entitled The Last of the 24th Isandula [sic] was exhibited by the Irish artist R. T. Moynan. On his knees and about to topple from his rocky perch, the regiment’s last survivor stretches out his left arm as he submits to his sacrifice in Christ- like fashion. Moynan’s image bore little relation to the brutal reality of the battle, but the Victorian public had little stomach for that. A sketch made by the artist Melton Prior of the bodies that still lay on the battlefield four months later had to be pruned of its most gruesome elements before it could appear in the Illustrated London News.

Two soldiers from the 24th Foot came to be regarded as Isandlwana’s greatest heroes. After the camp was overrun, Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill retrieved the regiment’s Queen’s Colour from the tent in which it had been stored and attempted to carry it to safety. Lieutenant Nevill Coghill saw him struggling to cross the Mzinyathi and came to his aid, but the current swept the colour away. Melvill and Coghill managed to reach the Natal bank of the river, but there they were both killed by the Zulus. Within days of the battle, the story of their effort to save the colour was circulating, and the men patrolling the banks of the river kept a watchful eye out for it. On 3 February, the bodies of Melvill and Coghill were discovered; the next day, the colour was found. It was carried proudly back to Rorke’s Drift, where the entire garrison assembled to receive it, and was then taken to Helpmekaar. In his report, issued on 21 February, Colonel Richard Glyn drew Chelmsford’s attention to

the noble and heroic conduct of Lieutenant and Adjutant Melville [sic] who did not hesitate to encumber himself with the Colours of the Regiment in his resolve to save them, at a time when the camp was in the hands of the enemy and its gallant defenders killed to the last man in its defence, and when there appeared but little prospect that any exertions Lieutenant Melville could make would enable him to save his own life. Also later on the noble perseverance with which when struggling between life and death in the river, his chief thoughts to the last were bent on saving the colours. Similarly I draw his Excellency’s attention to the equally noble and gallant conduct of Lieutenant Coghill, who did not hesitate for an instant to return unsolicited and rode again into the river under a heavy fire of the enemy to the assistance of his friend.

Back in Britain, the story of Melvill and Coghill’s heroic action first appeared in the press in mid- March. The `saving of the colour’ quickly became the most celebrated moment of Isandlwana. In his poem `In Memory of the Officers, Non- Commissioned Officers and Men of the 24th Regiment’, H. B. Worth wrote:

The colours true were lost, but not disgraced,

And, now recovered, on them may be placed

Another record that fresh lustre gives

To the proud list of names, that yet still lives

Emblazoned on the archives of the past

That to the end of time will be honoured last.

In his poem `The Zulu War’ (1879), George Walter Boyce described how Melvill and Coghill

Bore the Colours safe that day;

Using them for their funeral shroud,

As they fell, while bearing them away,

And every one of their deeds are proud.

In the early 1880s, the Fine Art Society commissioned the military artist Alphonse de Neuville to depict two scenes illustrating Melvill and Coghill’s exploits. In the first painting, Saving the Queen’s Colours [sic], they are shown attempting to carry the Colour through a mass of Zulu warriors; in the second, Last Sleep of the Brave, their bodies are discovered on the riverbank. De Neuville’s paintings were very popular, as was indicated by their frequent reproduction as engravings and lithographs. They helped make the story familiar to Britons back home. In its review of the paintings, the Spectator declared:

English gentlemen who `sit at home at ease’ could hardly help feeling sentimental, for a few minutes, over the story of how the two officers fought their way through the Zulus; how they rode away, wounded to the death, with the colours they had saved; and how they were found in the early morning lying dead, side by side, still holding the torn flag. The incident is one which requires no School- board to explain its meaning, or any philosophy to appreciate its beauty. It is just one of those sparks of derring-do, which help to make a tradition for the race, rather than obtain any very definite end.

In 1907, five years after posthumous Victoria Crosses were first permitted, Melvill and Coghill were each awarded one.

The second element in the effort to recoup the disaster at Isandlwana was retribution. `Our only cry now is revenge, revenge,’ declared Sergeant John Tigar of the 24th Foot in a letter to his mother. This sentiment was to have bitter consequences for the Zulus. As Chelmsford’s force made its way back to the battlefield at Isandlwana, it brought with it a number of prisoners they had taken during their march, and they rounded up more stragglers from Isandlwana. These Zulus were all shot. At Rorke’s Drift, meanwhile, as many as five hundred wounded Zulus were massacred the next day as British troops and their African allies roamed the battlefield; Inspector George Mansel of the Natal Mounted Police later described the scene as being `as deliberate a bit of butchery as I ever saw’. For the remainder of the war, the British used Isandlwana as an excuse to massacre Zulus. Two months later, the British won a decisive victory at Khambula. In the battle itself, two thousand Zulus died, in contrast to a mere twenty-six British soldiers. The carnage continued afterwards: an enlisted man described how a patrol had discovered about five hundred wounded men the next day. Although they begged for mercy, `they got no chance after what they had done to our comrades at Isandlwana’.

At home, however, retribution was a more complicated issue. To be sure, plenty of people called for vengeance. Worth wrote:

With British blood the plains of Afric stream

And wholesale death and slaughter is my theme:

War was not waged for conquest or for lust,

Ere long the savage foe must bite the dust,

For England promptly will avenge their fall,

Such carnage doth for swiftest vengeance call.

These demands for revenge for Isandlwana were often couched in moral terms, with the Zulus presented as uncivilized savages who were in need of correction at British hands. `The tide of savagery has periodically been rolled back,’ wrote Alexander Wilmot in his History of the Zulu War (1880), `and it was either necessary that this should be done, or that white men should abandon South Africa.’ Other observers pointed to Cetshwayo’s tyranny and cruelty. The Reverend Holditch Mason, a former missionary in South Africa, wrote in a pamphlet that was published in 1879:

People in England, reared up within the shelter and protection afforded by the natural barriers of our sea- girt island home, and taught to regard wanton cruelty with horror, even when practised in the vivisection of dumb animals, can scarcely realise the idea of human beings suffering torture, too terrible to mention, at the hands of the Zulus. Nor can they wonder at the consternation of the scattered British colonists of Natal on discovering, as they did, when Ketchawayo [Cetshwayo] came to the throne a few years since, that he was fully bent on a war of extermination against Europeans of all nationalities, and that he was already stirring up the natives over all South Africa, and destroying those amongst his own people known to be in favour of peace and civilisation.

In February 1879, John Noble, the author of a number of books on South Africa, read a paper before the Royal Colonial Institute in which he referred to Cetshwayo as a `ferocious savage’ who was a `constant menace’ to the European settlers of the Transvaal. `If we leave the aboriginal races,’ he asserted in his conclusion, `in ignorant barbarism, forming communities of savage tyrants and slaves, we are strengthening powers of evil which will again and again reproduce themselves.’

Other Britons, however, saw the war as an unprovoked invasion of sovereign territory. John Colenso, Bishop of Natal and a vehement opponent of the war, declared that:

England’s collisions with the savage races bordering upon her colonies have in all probability usually been brought about by the exigencies of the moment, by border- troubles, and acts of violence and insolence on the part of the savages, and from the absolute necessity of protecting a small and trembling white population from their assaults. No such causes as these have led up to the war of 1879. For more than twenty years the Zulus and the colonists of Natal have lived side by side in perfect peace and quietness.

The solicitor and labour reformer Robert Spence Watson delivered a lecture in Newcastle in May 1879 in which he described the war as `a stain on the honour of this nation’: `The English people are engaged in a strange enterprise in South Africa. They are deliberately and of malice aforethought compassing the subjugation and possible extermination of a gallant though savage people. They have embarked on an aggressive war which must be troublesome and costly in any event; – a war in which failure is not to be thought of, but in which, the greater the success, the greater their disgrace.’ He added: `We invaded their country, and the Zulus, in self-defence, have killed 2500 of our troops in all, while we have upheld our prestige by killing three times as many Zulus.’ (Italics in the original.) As a concluding question, he asked: `Will [England] not show the nations of the world that, to her, honour is dearer than revenge; and that Justice and Mercy, Honesty and Truth, are more righteous and more powerful factors in the dealings of man than all the gigantic and infernal paraphernalia of thrice- accursed War?’

The one thing that both sides could agree on, however, was the heroism of the men who had fought the Zulus. The journalist James Ewing Ritchie opposed the war on the grounds that it was immoral and expensive: `The mob and the pictorial papers will glorify the returning heroes who have crushed a savage who was mad enough to defy on his own behalf and that of his people the British power, and the British public will have to pay the bill.’ He criticized the desire for revenge after Isandlwana:

At the present moment we are witnessing a sorry spectacle for a Christian nation – that of a whole people hemmed in one corner of Eastern Africa, waiting to be swept off the face of the earth by the finest soldiers and the most scientific instruments of murder England has at her command. Their crime has been that in defending their native soil from the tread of the foe, they annihilated an English regiment, and for such an act there is no hope of pardon, in this world at least . . . Already in England and in Africa the blood- stained demon of war has sown her seed and reaps her harvest; already there have been bitter tears shed over hundreds of fallen warriors in desolated homes, and women wail and children vainly cry for loved ones whose bones now bleach the distant plain of Isandula [sic]. And there will be sadder and darker tragedies to come if the wild instincts of the people are to be gratified and the Zulu Kaffirs are to be exterminated.

But even Ritchie admired the men who had fought and died: `We have sacrificed valuable lives, but the men who have fallen have been embalmed in the nation’s memory, and the story of their heroism will mould the character and fire the ambition and arouse the sympathies of our children’s children, as they did of our fathers in days gone by.’

Ritchie’s reference to the men who had perished at Isandlawna being `embalmed in the nation’s memory’ was accurate. Only a year after the battle, pilgrimages to the battlefield were already being undertaken by a handful of hardy tourists. The travel writer R. W. Leyland decided to visit South Africa on account of `the prominence into which it had been brought by the late Zulu War’. At Isandlwana, `the scene of the catastrophe’, he

walked about in the grass, picking up numbers of bullets, empty cartridges and various other articles. Among them was a small cake of paint in a little tin case, a lead pencil, several uniform buttons, a stud, tent pegs, nails, etc., etc., all lying as thrown down. But the most unpleasant sight were many bleached human bones. They had been washed by heavy rains out of the shallow graves in which they had been interred . . . We noticed some bodies partially exposed, portions of skeletons being visible. In one instance the leg bones, encased in leather gaiters, protruded at the bottom of a grave, and close by were the soldier’s boots, containing what remained of his feet.

Bertram Mitford, who toured South Africa in 1882, declared in the introduction to his travel narrative that he had gone there `with the object of making the round of the battlefields’. At Isandlwana, he saw the cairn marking the last stand of Durnford’s men and the graves of the British dead. His experience of touring the battlefield was similar to Leyland’s:

there is no lack of traces of the melancholy struggle. In spite of a luxuriant growth of herbiage the circles where stood the rows of tents are plainly discernible, while strewn about are tent pegs, cartridge cases, broken glass, bits of rope, meat tins and sardine boxes pierced with assegai stabs, shrivelled up pieces of shoe leather, and rubbish of every description; bones of horses and oxen gleam white and ghastly, and here and there in the grass one stumbles on a half- buried skeleton.

Back in Britain, Isandlwana was commemorated via a number of memorials to the fallen. In the parish church at Bredgar in Kent, for example, a memorial was erected to Private Ashley Goatham of the 24th Foot, who had died at the age of twenty- four. The stone obelisk read:

They stood their ground cool and bold

In that disastrous day

And fought like warriors we are told

Till all were cut away.

The heroism and sacrifice of the men who fought at Isandlwana thus became the source material for reshaping the battle from a disaster into a test that had proved the mettle of ordinary British soldiers.

This was not, however, what it had truly been about. Instead, its most direct consequence was the destruction of the military capacity of the Zulus and the dismemberment of their kingdom. In the Anglo- Zulu War, six thousand Zulus perished, four times as many deaths as the British suffered. In the final major confrontation, at Ulundi, 1,500 Zulus died as opposed to only thirteen British soldiers. After fleeing from the battlefield, Cetshwayo was swiftly captured, deposed and imprisoned. The British divided Zululand into thirteen chiefdoms, each one under the control of a compliant leader. This `divide and rule’ strategy, however, soon collapsed into infighting and civil war. In 1882, the British attempted to restore Cetshwayo to power, but the back of the Zulu kingdom had been broken, and he could do little to diminish the chaos. After a clash with his rival Zibhebu, he was deposed for a second time, and died soon afterwards. His son Dinzulu attempted to form an alliance with the Boers against the British. He defeated Zibhebu in 1884 and briefly regained authority over a portion of Zululand, but the British had no wish to see a resurgence of Zulu power, and they annexed Zululand in 1887. Thus ended the long struggle of the Zulus to maintain their independence in the face of European colonialism.

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