Londinium was equipped with massive defenses: several forts were built along with the immense London Wall, remains of which are still recognizable in the city.

Londinium Bridge. This model shows how the Romans built the first bridge across the River Thames, where London Bridge now stands.

It was the geographical features of the area that brought about the foundation of Roman London. There is no strong evidence of any occupation on the site before the conquest in AD 43. London stands at the lowest convenient bridging point of the THAMES. There was a way through the marshes from the south and on the north side two gravel hills (now ST PAUL’S and CORNHILL) stood above the flood plain and gave a firm foothold. The combination of these elements of topography and geology gave the site a military importance in the eyes of Roman army surveyors. There can be no doubt that military necessity provided the impetus for the bridging of the Thames and the establishment of a settlement on the north bank. Both the Roman government and private traders then took advantage of the convenience of the site.

The Thames was much wider and shallower than it is now. Recent excavation evidence, however, plus alignments of roads coming from the south through SOUTHWARK, suggests that the original alignment of the ROMAN ROAD Watling Street centred on the WESTMINSTER area and a possible ford. In about AD 50 new roads in Southwark were built converging on a point across the river from the site of the new settlement. Pottery and coin evidence indicates that the city was not begun until this date. The fledgling city was destroyed soon after in AD 60 during the revolt of Queen Boudicca and her tribe, the Iceni. Tacitus in his accounts notes that at this time London was not yet classified as a full Roman settlement but was an important centre for businessmen. The Governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, raced to reach London but his assembled forces were not large enough to save the town and he evacuated those inhabitants able to leave. Boudicca destroyed the town by fire and massacred those left behind. Colchester and St Albans suffered the same fate. Evidence of the disaster can be found in the layers of burnt debris and pottery.

The archaeological evidence of recent years shows that there was a basic plan from the beginning for the growth of Londinium, ultimately to extend over the 330 acres it was to occupy when walled in the late 2nd century. Fine wares, glass, jewellery and other objects from the Mediterranean testify to the city’s importance as a commercial entrepôt. In the rebuilding after the disaster priority seems to have been given to business premises, no doubt fostered by the benevolent eye of the newly appointed procurator (tax collector), Julius Classicianus. He realized that repression after the revolt would not regain lost taxes and is recorded as having set the province on its feet again. The fragments of his grand tomb, erected by his sorrowing wife Julia Pacata, were found on TOWER HILL in 1852 and 1935 and are now restored in the BRITISH MUSEUM. (A copy of the inscription is in the MUSEUM OF LONDON and on site at Tower Hill.)

The nucleus of the new settlement was on Cornhill and around the walbrook stream, the town’s main source of water. By the AD 70s the settlement had expanded and the main public buildings, the basilica and FORUM, were in place on high ground to the east of the Walbrook. By the end of the 1st century other public buildings, the GOVERNOR’S PALACE, the Amphitheatre and the ROMAN BATHS in Cheapside and Upper Thames Street, had been added.

The commercial vitality and growth of Londinium depended on the port facilities. The waterfront lay about 100 metres north of its present position, just north of UPPER and LOWER THAMES STREET. Excavations near PUDDING LANE revealed a mid-1st-century wooden landing stage which was superseded by a major timber-faced quay some twenty years later. The quay was backed by warehouses which continued in use until the end of the 4th century. New waterfronts were built in the 2nd century and again in the early 3rd century, as shown in excavations at CUSTOM HOUSE, ST MAGNUS and Seal House. This last waterfront extended for at least 550 metres.

Londinium reached its zenith in the early 2nd century. It saw the visit of the Emperor Hadrian in AD 122 and the building of the fort and rebuilding of most public buildings prior to that date indicate some preparation for an imperial visit. Fire again destroyed an area of the city in AD 125–130. Excavations west of the Walbrook provided evidence of the area’s recovery after the fire. It was extensively replanned and rebuilt as shops and houses. However, by the end of the 2nd century the area was abandoned with little trace of later-Roman occupation.

The economic effects of Clodius Albinus’s revolt in AD 192 must have been felt, but were soon overcome when Septimius Severus defeated Albinus and came to Britain himself, to die at York in AD 211. It was about this time that the province was divided into two, with York as the capital of Britannia Inferior, and London the capital of Britannia Superior. It left London less a military and commercial area in the 3rd century and more an administrative city. The encircling city wall was also built around AD 200, evidence for the transportation of its construction materials being found in the Blackfriars barge.

Public monuments of some size were erected in the early 3rd century, including a monumental arch (pieces of which have recently been found as part of the later 4th-century river wall). The TEMPLE OF MITHRAS was built about AD 240 on the east bank of the Walbrook and continued in use until early in the 4th century. An altar inscription, found reused in the river wall, indicates a TEMPLE OF ISIS was rebuilt some time between AD 251 and 259. During the 3rd century, however, the city’s population appears to have changed from that of all classes and occupations to a much smaller population drawn from the wealthier levels of society. A number of large polychrome mosaics from private houses testify to the wealth of certain members of the population, doubtless rich merchants or government officials. With the contraction of the population, many buildings were demolished and not rebuilt and the industrial workshops around the Walbrook were replaced by private houses.

At the end of the 3rd century came the revolt of Carausius (AD 287–93), followed by that of Allectus (AD 293–6). Constantius Chlorus rescued London from being ransacked by Allectus’ army in AD. A mint was established in London by the usurper Carausius in AD 288 and continued in use, after his defeat, until AD 326. It opened again for a short time in AD 383, using London’s 4th-century name Augusta.

At the start of the 4th century, Britain was divided into four smaller provinces and Londinium became the capital of Maxima Caesariensis. This was in accordance with the Emperor Diocletian’s policy of devolution to improve administrative efficiency. The city’s defences were strengthened in the same century. A huge section of wall still in a remarkable state of preservation was found within the TOWER OF LONDON in 1977. This can almost certainly be ascribed to the known restoration work carried out in 396 at the orders of Stilicho, a great general under the Emperor Honorius. Stilicho had kept the Visigoths at bay in Italy, and when he was executed as the result of a palace intrigue in 408 it left a weak emperor helpless at Ravenna. The way was open for the barbarians to attack, which itself led to the recall of the legions from Britain by Honorius in 410. Some 50 years later the walls of London were still high and strong enough to afford protection against the Saxons, but it is not known for how long after the mid-5th century the city remained inhabited.

It was probably not for long. There is little archaeological evidence but the Anglo-Saxons, it is known, especially from several poems, stood in awe and dread and shunned ‘the work of giants’ as they called the Roman buildings, now standing derelict.

London, according to the twelfth-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, was founded in 1108 BC by Brute, a god or demi-god descended from Venus and Jupiter. About a thousand years later King Lud, said to be a close relative of Cassivelaunus, the British chieftain contemporary with Julius Caesar, improved the place and named it Ludstown in honour of himself. John Stow, the Elizabethan historian, derided this explanation of the name, though he failed to offer any convincing alternatives. In more recent times the name was said to be derived from a personal name based on londo, fierce or bold, or from a tribal name. This is now discredited by most modern scholars. All that is certain is that the Romans frequently made use of Latin names and anglicized them and that within a few years of the conquest in AD 43 the place was known as Londinium. There is a late-1st-century ad jug in the Museum of London whose inscription includes the word Londini.

ROMAN FORT • London Wall, EC1.

Still preserves the line of the Via Praetoria (main street). The Via Principalis of the fort ran at right angles to it. The fort was built to the north-west of the city in the early 2nd century according to the coin and pottery evidence. Since it would have had little defensive effect it probably served as a barracks for the garrison attached to the Governor’s Palace. Substantial portions of the barracks are buried under WOOD STREET police station. The area of the fort was about 12 acres with the usual playing-card shape associated with such forts – about 270 metres north to south by 220 metres east to west. Although the stone walls were quite substantial they were not felt to be strong enough when the fort was incorporated into the LONDON WALL at the end of the 2nd century. The north and west sides were thickened on their inside face by additional layers of masonry with rubble infill that brought these walls up to the required width. The two parts side by side can be seen in the remains in the public garden in NOBLE STREET. In a room at the west end of the underground car park (entrance from London Wall) are the remains of the west gate of the fort and part of a guardroom excavated in 1956.


London was the hub of the Roman road network in Britain, but to understand how the system developed it is necesary to go back a little farther, to pre-Roman times. The River THAMES was the most important factor. Before the embankments were built in the 19th century, it was wide and shallow. In the Roman period, the land level was higher than at present, and the tide would not have risen much above WESTMINSTER, which became a convenient fording place for traders wishing to cross the river. Travelling inland from the Kentish ports, travellers would have crossed the Westminster ford, and then struck north or west to the important tribal capitals at Wheathampstead (near St Albans) or Silchester, west of Reading. An east–west route would also have developed, aiming for the third of the main tribal centres, at Colchester, following a track which kept to high ground along the line of OXFORD STREET and OLD STREET. It is likely that Roman engineers made use of these routes; the two main alignments of WATLING STREET north and south of the river converge on the early river crossing. When LONDON BRIDGE was built (within 15 years of the Roman invasion of AD 43), short connecting tracks would have been made to the nearest established roads.

The long straight alignments of Roman roads resulted from the method of surveying used by the engineers who built them. The roads were set out by sighting between points on high ground, the actual lines being carefully chosen to avoid, if possible, steep inclines and marshy ground. Roads would deviate from the direct line if there were advantages such as better ground conditions; a good example is the diversion of Stane Street at Ewell, which follows the chalk formation and stays clear of the difficult London clay for several miles. Important Roman roads were usually about 7 metres wide, and were frequently set on an embankment about 1.5 metres high, known as an agger. Excavations of buried roads reveal the original surface layer of fine stone chippings.

For much of their length, the Roman roads in London are still in use as modern thoroughfares.

Watling Street • This approaches from Dover, Canterbury and Richborough along the line of SHOOTERS HILL, before taking a curving route through DEPTFORD and NEW CROSS much like the present road. Northward, the alignment is followed almost exactly by the present road from MARBLE ARCH to EDGWARE. The substantial construction of the original road has been disclosed by excavations for pipe-laying.

Ermine Street • This was the main artery to Lincoln and York, and its course from BISHOPSGATE is closely represented by Kingsland Road, Stoke Newington Road and Stamford Hill.

Colchester Road • It is followed by present roads east of STRATFORD. The River LEA was crossed at OLD FORD, where remains of Roman masonry have been found near Iceland Wharf. From this point, a road must have gone direct to ALDGATE and on, if not to the bridge, at least to the main east–west street through LONDINIUM. Evidence is scant for such a road.

Silchester Road • This was the main artery to the west of England. It is represented by the course of OXFORD STREET, NOTTING HILL (a possible surveying point), HOLLAND PARK and GOLDHAWK ROAD, where remains have been excavated. Eastward, the road must have connected to NEWGATE, with a branch to OLD STREET, OLD FORD and STRATFORD; much of this route is now lost.

Ludgate–Hammersmith • A Romanized form of the early trackway followed the line of the STRAND through KENSINGTON, to join the main western road at CHISWICK.

Stane Street • It connected London with Chichester, the tribal capital of Sussex, and its course is approximately that of the present road from BOROUGH HIGH STREET to TOOTING. Traces have been found under buildings in Borough High Street, and the buried road surface directly under NEWINGTON Causeway. With the passage of time, the modern road has deviated in places; BALHAM HIGH STREET is about 55 metres from the original line, and CLAPHAM COMMON South Side almost a quarter of a mile further west, but Clapham Road and Kennington Park Road are on the Roman line.

London–Brighton • This was an important road for the traffic in corn and iron from Sussex. It probably branched from Stane Street at Kennington Park, on the course of Brixton Road, Brixton Hill and Streatham Hill.

London–Lewes • This road also served the corn-growing and iron-producing areas of Sussex. Its course in London has been traced by careful probing and digging in gardens and allotments. Branching from WATLING STREET at Asylum Road, PECKHAM, it followed the alignment of Blyth Hill, CATFORD, where the buried agger remains intact. It then ran through west WICKHAM to a point on the North Downs. The only section of this road in use today is the three mile straight length through Edenbridge, but the route has survived in the form of parish boundaries and property divisions. Thus, it is represented through Peckham and NUNHEAD by the alignment of back garden fences and walls.

London–Stevenage • This road left the CITY at CRIPPLEGATE, and the course is marked by REDCROSS STREET and GOLDEN LANE, Highbury Grove, HIGHBURY PARK and parts of Blackstock Road. Traces of an agger here have been found in the grounds of ALEXANDRA PALACE, and there are more substantial remains north of Potters Bar.


Edgar pacificus

A contemporary portrayal of King Edgar in the New Minster Charter.

The events of 1006 were typical of the calamity that befell England between 980 and 1016: a generation of escalating misery during which time Viking armies roamed practically unopposed across the rolling hills of southern England, looting and burning at will. A sense of the scale of the violence can be gauged simply by the number of conflicts recorded, particularly once the eleventh century got under way. Across England, there were (give or take) eighty-eight instances of armed violence recorded in the written record in the thirty-five years up to and including 1016; this compares with fifty-one conflict events recorded over the whole of the preceding eighty years. For the people of southern England, whose experience of Viking incursions had dissipated in the early tenth century, it would have felt as though a forgotten nightmare had dragged itself upright from the mire – a revenant horror, long thought staked and buried, stalking abroad once more.

There are, of course, some issues here about the trustworthiness of the written record – chroniclers sometimes had a vested interest in minimizing or exaggerating the travails of various monarchs – but it is evident that the quarter-century after Eric Bloodaxe’s death in 954 had been noteworthy for its stability, its lack of dramatic incident. This seems, in large part, to have been down to the firm grip of one king – a man largely forgotten today, but with a good claim to being one of the most successful and impressive of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England: Edgar pacificus – Edgar the Peaceful. It is a name that conjures up images of quiet and contemplation, a just and gentle ruler whose benevolent rule would usher in the golden age of peace and plenty that twelfth-century chroniclers imagined he and his subjects had enjoyed. It was they, however, and not his peers, who conferred the epithet pacificus upon him: his contemporaries would take a rather different view.

King Eadred died in 955, one year after seeing his rule extended, formally and finally, to include Northumbria within the English kingdom. He was succeeded by his nephew Eadwig, Edmund’s son, but he died in 959 and was succeeded by his brother, Edgar. The most famous achievement of Edgar’s reign – and the one incident for which he is chiefly remembered – came towards the end of his life. In 973, he arrived at Chester with – according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – his entire naval force, there to meet with the other principal rulers of Britain. Different Norman historians give varying lists of the potentates who were present, but probably among them were Kenneth II of Scotland, Malcolm of Strathclyde, Iago ab Idwal Foel of Gwynedd and Maccus Haraldsson, whom William of Malmesbury called archipirata (‘arch-pirate’) and others referred to as plurimarum rex insularum (‘king of many islands’ – probably Man and the Hebrides). No doubt there were serious and practical issues to discuss – matters of borders and security and the safety of shipping and trade and so on. What Anglo-Norman historians saw fit to record happening there, however, was a most extraordinary spectacle: at least half a dozen of the most powerful men in the islands, cowed into submission by Edgar’s majestic presence (or, more likely, the menacing presence of his enormous war-fleet), rowing the English king in a barge down the River Dee. It was a very physical, and very public, demonstration of what it meant to be a ‘little kinglet’ in Edgar’s Britain.

It may be that the way this incident was reported in Anglo-Norman sources was deliberately intended to promote an anachronistic idea of English superiority – issues of insular power dynamics were very much alive in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and, indeed, have never really gone away. But there is little doubt about who was at the top of the British political food chain in the 970s and, regardless of the details of what took place, it seems likely that the meeting was partly concerned with thrashing out issues of precedence, of putting lands, people and princes into their rightful places; for Edgar seems to have been a king who was obsessed with order. His laws reveal an administration that was determined to regulate and reform – creating nationwide standards of weights and measures and ensuring that coinage was made to uniform standards everywhere it was produced: gone were the idiosyncratic designs of the old Viking kings at York. Edgar’s coinage would look and weigh the same, whether it was minted there, or in Exeter, Chester, Canterbury, Lincoln or Norwich (or anywhere else that coins were made). He was also interested in bringing the whole of his realm into administrative harmony and ensuring that justice was both available and correctly applied. Wessex had long been organized by shires and hundreds, but everywhere else had had different (though perhaps similar) systems of organization. Edgar – perhaps drawing on precedents set by his immediate predecessors – formalized this system, creating new stipulations for the way that courts were held at the hundred (or wapentake in ‘Danish’ areas) and shire level, making attendance obligatory for the land-holding class.

What really cemented Edgar’s legacy, however, was the unprecedented period of peace and stability that England seems to have enjoyed until his death in 975. It was a peace that was achieved to a certain degree at the expense of others: repeated punitive raids into Welsh territory demonstrate that Edgar, despite his nickname, was no pacifist. (Indeed, pacificus can be translated as ‘Pacifier’, just as it can as ‘Peaceable’ or ‘Peaceful’.) It was also a peace paid for through unprecedented investment in the kingdom’s naval defences: during his reign the number of English warships, according to later accounts, reached an improbable 4,800, and it is likely that reforms to the manner in which ships and mariners were recruited and obliged to serve the king began during Edgar’s reign. It also seems likely that the king’s naval power was founded in part on paid fleets of Viking mercenaries. The swelling of English royal authority may have meant that, for some Viking war-bands plying the seas around Britain, the risks of plunder were becoming intolerably high, while at the same time the wealth that the English king commanded may have become an increasingly attractive source of patronage to those prepared to work for him.

All of these achievements added up to what most medieval writers felt constituted a ‘Good King’: he enforced justice, brought prosperity, upheld the Church and bullied and humiliated all the other (non-English) inhabitants of Britain – especially the Welsh. This was the sort of thing that was guaranteed to ensure a favourable write-up, and indeed his obituary in the D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is largely comprised of effusive praise. And yet, in the eyes of the chronicler – almost certainly Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (d. 1023) – all of his achievements were undermined by the ‘one misdeed […] he practised too widely’. King Edgar, Wulfstan disgustedly reveals, ‘loved foul foreign customs and brought heathen habits into this land too firmly, and he enticed outsiders and lured dangerous foreign-folk into this country’.

This censure may have stemmed in part from the pragmatic and conciliatory approach that Edgar adopted. Large parts of his realm had been settled by people of Scandinavian origin for over a century, producing a mixed population whose tastes, trading connections and family ties were as intimately tangled with the wider North Sea world as they were with the populations of Winchester, London or Canterbury. Edgar understood that local interests and national cohesion could be jointly served by recognizing the distinctiveness of local laws and customs in those regions which had become – in Anglo-Saxon parlance – ‘Danish’. In his fourth major law code, Edgar promised that ‘there should be in force amongst the Danes such good laws as they best decide […] because of your loyalty, which you have always shown me’. The sudden shift from third to second person feels clumsy when written down, but read out loud at a Northumbrian wapentake or north Mercian thing-site, it may have had real dramatic force: that sudden turn to the camera, the steady eye contact that the pronouns imply, delivered a disarmingly direct and personal address from the king exclusively to his Danish subjects.

In some ways, this recognition of a separate and parallel legal tradition stands at odds with Edgar’s stated intention (in the same code) to create laws for ‘all the nation, whether Englishmen, Danes or Britons, in every province of my dominion’. But, seen more broadly, this limited concession (it does not seem to have overruled all the king’s other edicts relating to coinage and administration) can be understood as the product of a keen political intelligence, one that recognized that – in the long term – the cause of national unity was better served by establishing trust and mitigating grievance than by lumbering authoritarianism. The result was the real ‘Danelaw’, a practical solution intended to bring the most reluctant of his new subjects willingly inside his vision for a coherent and cohesive English state.

Attitudes towards strangers in Anglo-Saxon England had not always been kind, but xenophobia seems to have peaked in the late tenth century, perhaps buoyed by the rising sense of English identity that had been growing since the reign of Athelstan but conditioned over two centuries of Viking depredations of one sort or another. For his own part, the king seems to have been alive to any threat that such sentiments could pose to the peace of his realm (and his revenues). In 969, ‘King Edgar ravaged across all of Thanet,’ apparently because the locals had roughed up some Scandinavian traders. Hostility to foreign nationals on England’s estuarine outposts has a distressingly long history, but few have responded so robustly as Edgar. According to the Norman historian Roger of Wendover, the king was ‘moved with exceeding rage against the spoilers, deprived them of all their goods, and put some of them to death’.

It was presumably this sort of thing that so offended Archbishop Wulfstan. In 975, however, he would doubtless have been relieved to discover that no longer would he have to endure the ‘foul foreign customs’ that Edgar had so perversely enjoyed. For in that year the king died. He was thirty-one years old. There followed a disputed succession and the short reign of Edgar’s son Edward, known as ‘the Martyr’ – the last of the long line of ‘Ed’ kings. When Edward died in March 978, he was replaced by his brother Æthelred. The new king was only a boy of twelve, but he came to the throne already in shadow, his people divided in their loyalties: Edward had died, not of natural causes like their father, but at the hands of men loyal to Æthelred, done to death at Corfe (Dorset). Whether the new king was himself complicit in the killing has generally been doubted by historians, but it can have done little to endear those people to him who had supported his brother’s claim. Even as stories of Edward’s (improbable) sanctity and martyrdom began to spread, so Æthelred’s reputation was stained – like Eric’s – with fratricide. Little that occurred over the following forty years would help to restore it.

The Hanoverian Army at Waterloo

The Hanoverian contingent in Wellington’s army was integrated fully into the British divisional structure; it comprised five infantry brigades, a cavalry brigade, two artillery batteries and a ‘reserve corps’ that was not committed to the battle.

Hanover had had a close connection with Britain since the accession of the Elector of Hanover to the British throne as King George I in 1714, but although this connection had exerted some influence upon British foreign policy, and despite sharing a ruler, the states and their armies had remained separate entities. Hanoverian troops had fought alongside the British in the eighteenth century, as they had under Marlborough’s command even before the accession of George I, but the separation of the states was demonstrated by the exit of Hanover from the war against France following the withdrawal of Prussia in 1795, by which Hanover’s position became militarily untenable. Upon the renewal of the war between France and Britain after the brief Peace of Amiens, Hanover was occupied by Napoleon and part incorporated into his satellite Kingdom of Westphalia. The state of Hanover was only restored after the defeat of Napoleon.

Hanover’s military contribution to the Napoleonic Wars was displayed most prominently in the King’s German Legion, the excellent Hanoverian formation in the British army. The Hanoverian army, which in organization and uniform had closely resembled the British, had been disbanded in 1803 and was only resurrected during the ‘War of Liberation’ against Napoleon. Its infantry comprised both regular battalions (Feld-Bataillone) and militia (Landwehr), and from February 1815 each ‘Field Battalion’ was linked to three Landwehr battalions in a regimental structure, but for field service each battalion remained an independent entity. Organization was on basically British lines, though with trained skirmisher sections (every twelfth man) rather than flank companies of British style; two of the regular battalions at Waterloo (Lüneburg and Grubenhagen) were ‘Light Battalions’ with all personnel thus trained. The Landwehr battalions each had four companies. Uniforms were largely of British style, in red (except for the green-clad light battalions and the Feldjäger corps), although the initial shortages in equipment evident when the army was first organized in 1813 may not have been overcome entirely, with continuing use of older uniforms and ‘stovepipe’ shakos. An example of the initial shortage of equipment concerned Battn. Bennigsen, renamed Verden in early 1815, which at first received white shakos manufactured as tropical headdress for the British army in India. Although the Hanoverians used the British black cockade, officers wore yellow sashes in place of the British crimson, and some Hanoverian troops had British knapsacks painted yellow.

A Hanoverian contingent, sometimes termed the ‘Hanoverian Subsidiary Corps’, had been stationed in the Netherlands since the end of hostilities in 1814; but the reserve corps of Landwehr had been formed in Hanover shortly before the beginning of the 1815 campaign by General von der Decken. The Hanoverian forces were initially under the superintendence of Sir Charles Alten, who suggested to the Hanoverian government that due to the inexperience of the newly formed units, the recruits should be permitted to volunteer into the King’s German Legion, to bring their battalions up to strength; but this suggestion was declined. Instead, the KGL battalions were reorganized into six companies each, and the supernumerary cadres of officers and NCOs were transferred temporarily into the Landwehr to provide experienced leadership for the young soldiers. KGL captains stepped up to field rank as part of this process, and two of the Hanoverian brigade commanders were also drawn from the Legion. The connection between British and Hanoverian formations was emphasized by the fact that Wellington reported Hanoverian casualties alongside the British losses, published together in the London Gazette, including officers’ names, just as Portuguese losses had been reported during the Peninsular War when they, too, were part of a joint army.

The Hanoverian brigades were distributed as follows.

I Corps: 3rd Division: 1st Hanoverian Brigade

Commanded by Major General Count (Graf) Kielmansegge, a member of a distinguished Hanoverian family who took command of the division after Alten was wounded, this was the strongest Hanoverian brigade, comprising five Field Battalions (York or 1st Duke of York’s, Bremen, Verden and the light battalions Lüneburg and Grubenhagen), and two companies of the Field Jäger Corps, a unit of sharpshooters. The brigade was involved heavily during the campaign: at Quatre Bras it held the extreme left of the position, and in the initial dispositions at Waterloo was posted to the west of the Charleroi-Brussels highway, between the brigades of Ompteda and Colin Halkett. Two battalions lost their commanding officers at Waterloo: Grubenhagen (Lieutenant Colonel von Wurmb, killed) and Bremen (Lieutenant Colonel Langrehr, mortally wounded).

II Corps: 2nd Division: 3rd Hanoverian Brigade

This Landwehr formation comprised Battns. Osnabrück, Quackenbrück (these sometimes referred to as the 2nd and 3rd Duke of York’s respectively), Bremervörde and Salzgitter, and was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hugh (or Hew) Halkett of the 7th Line Battn., King’s German Legion. Brother of Colin Halkett, commander of the 5th British Brigade, he was an experienced Peninsula officer who had also served in north Germany and the Netherlands in 1813–14. Initially at Waterloo the brigade occupied a position in reserve on the extreme right of Wellington’s line, north of Hougoumont. In the final advance one battalion was supporting Hougoumont, and Halkett ordered the others forward, but his brigade major was killed before the order could be delivered, so Halkett and the Osnabrück Battn. advanced alone. Halkett observed a French general, ‘trying to animate his men to stand’ – it was actually Cambronne – so he dashed at the Frenchman, who surrendered, but Halkett’s horse fell and when he got up he discovered that Cambronne ‘had taken French leave in the direction from where he came. I instantly overtook him, laid hold of him by the aiguillette, and brought him in safety and gave him in charge to a sergeant of the Osnabrückers to deliver to the Duke; I could not spare an Officer for the purpose, many being wounded.’

4th Division: 6th Hanoverian Brigade

This brigade was with Colville at Hal and so was not involved in the Battle of Waterloo; it comprised Field Battalions Lauenberg and Calenburg, and Landwehr Battns. Bentheim, Hoya and Nienburg. Its commander, Major General Sir James Lyon, was the senior British officer with the Hanoverian contingent; he had commanded Hanoverians in the 1813 campaign, notably at Goehrde. He came from an ancient family and had been born aboard ship, in mid-Atlantic, when his mother was returning home after his father, Captain James Lyon of the 35th, had been mortally wounded at Bunker’s Hill. Sir James had the unusual distinction of having served at the Battle of the Glorious First of June (1794) when a detachment of his regiment (25th) was serving as marines aboard the British fleet; he had also commanded the 97th in the Peninsula.

Reserve: 5th Division: 5th Hanoverian Brigade

Commanded by Colonel von Vincke, this brigade of four Landwehr battalions (Gifhorn, Hameln, Hildesheim, Peine) was posted at the extreme left of Wellington’s line at Waterloo, and was not heavily engaged.

6th Division: 4th Hanoverian Brigade

Another brigade of Landwehr (Battns. Lüneburg, Münden, Osterode and Verden), it was engaged at Quatre Bras, initially deployed behind the main British line; at Waterloo it was on the left wing and not heavily engaged. Its commander was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Best of the 8th KGL Line Battn.

Hanoverian Reserve Corps

Used as garrisons in various locations in the rear of the area of the campaign, this formation was led by Lieutenant General Count (Graf) F von der Decken and comprised four brigades: 1st (Lieutenant Colonel von Bennigsen): Field-Battn. Hoya, Landwehr Battns. Bremerlehe and Mölln; 2nd (Colonel von Beaulieu): Landwehr Battns. Ahlefeldt, Nordheim and Springe; 3rd (Lieutenant Colonel von Bodecken): Landwehr Battns. Celle, Ottendorf and Ratzeburg; 4th (Lieutenant Colonel von Wissel): Landwehr Battns. Diepholz, Hanover, Neustadt and Uelzen.


The Hanoverian cavalry brigade, commanded by Colonel H S G F von Estorff, comprised the hussar regiments of Prince Regent’s or Lüneburg; Bremen and Verden; and the Duke of Cumberland’s. Their uniform was of British hussar style, the former blue with scarlet facings and pelisse, the other two green with scarlet facings and scarlet and green pelisses respectively; the Duke of Cumberland’s wore shakos and the others busbies. Estorff was not present at Waterloo, and two regiments were with the force detached at Hal; only the Duke of Cumberland’s was at Waterloo, a volunteer regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Adolphus von Hacke (or ‘Hake’) and named after the fifth son of King George III, who was to become King of Hanover in 1837. The regiment was in reserve at Waterloo when Uxbridge noticed them beginning to move to the rear without orders. He sent his ADC Sir Horace Seymour to stop them; Seymour recalled how von Hacke ‘told me that he had no confidence in his men, that they were Volunteers, and their horses their own property’. Seymour described how ‘in the exigence of the moment I laid hold of the bridle of the Colonel’s horse, and remarked what I thought of his conduct; but all to no purpose’ and the regiment trotted away from the battlefield. Hacke was court-martialled subsequently and the regiment split up among various Allied corps to perform escort duties for the commissariat; Mercer of the Royal Horse Artillery recorded that ‘Being all gentlemen in Hanover, it is easy to imagine they are rather irate at this degradation … They are all amazingly sulky and snappish with every one …’.


Two Hanoverian foot artillery companies served with the army, those of Captains von Rettberg (attached to the 4th Division) and Braun (5th Division); they were constituted in British style, the former with five 9-pounders and a 5½-inch howitzer, the latter with five 6-pounders and a howitzer. Braun’s company served at Quatre Bras, and both at Waterloo. The Hanoverian artillery wore a uniform like that of the British Royal Artillery, in the same colouring, but with the usual Hanoverian distinction of yellow sashes for officers.

Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton De Wiart

Adrian Carton de Wiart during World War II, photographed by Cecil Beaton

(1880–1963), VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO

Born in Brussels, brought up in Cairo and educated at the Oratory School, Edgbaston, Carton de Wiart abandoned his studies at Oxford to enlist in Paget’s Horse in 1899. Wounded in South Africa, he ended the Boer War as a subaltern in the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoons. Seconded to the Somali Camel Corps in 1914, he was wounded in the campaign to track down Mahomed bin Abdillah Hassan, the ‘Mad Mullah’, and, admitted to the DSO, was invalided home the next year.

Having had his left eye removed, Carton de Wiart rejoined his regiment in France. But he was to return wounded so often to the same hospital that, it is said, silk pyjamas with his name on were reserved for him (Sheffield in Keegan, 1991, 325). Losing his left hand in 1915, he was awarded the VC in 1916, only to be wounded again. He was, by war’s end, a brigadier and a celebrity in the army. His eye-patch and empty sleeve invited the inevitable nickname, ‘Nelson’.

Appointed second-in-command, and later head, of the British Military Mission to Poland in 1919, Carton de Wiart witnessed a good deal of military activity but was unable to exert much political influence. However, he fell in love with the place and its people sufficient to be loaned an estate near the Soviet border and settle there after resigning his commission in 1924.

His life as a Polish country gentleman, ‘happily shooting duck’ (DNB), was interrupted in 1939. Again made head of the British Military Mission, he could do nothing save evacuate his staff and their families from Warsaw to Romania. Back in England, although in his sixty-first year, he was appointed to command the 61st (Territorial) Division based in Oxford, while in April 1940 he was chosen to command MAURICEFORCE for the campaign in Norway. Landed at Namsos with a small staff, supposedly to co-ordinate a pincer-attack on Trondheim, it was not long before Carton de Wiart realized that German air superiority rendered his position untenable and recommended evacuation. Had a less famously brave man made the request, it might not have been listened to. As it was MAURICEFORCE was evacuated with very few casualties.

Norway was Carton de Wiart’s last active command. Appointed Head of the British Mission to Yugoslavia in April 1941, his aircraft crashed off North Africa en route and he was taken prisoner. Imprisoned near Florence and thrown into the company of other captured British senior officers, he proved himself ‘a delightful character [who] must hold the world record for bad language’ (Ranfurly, 1994, 123). Escaping, only to be re-captured, his Italian captors sent him to Lisbon in August 1943 hoping that, as an unwitting intermediary, Carton de Wiart might secure favourable armistice terms.

In one of his more eccentric decisions Churchill had Carton de Wiart promoted lieutenant general and made him, less than a month after his return to Britain, his personal representative to the Chinese generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek. It was a position requiring more tact and delicacy that Carton de Wiart possessed, especially as, never having been to China, he imagined it full of ‘whimsical little people . . . who . . . worshipped their grandmothers’ (Carton de Wiart, 1950, 235). Developing a fondness for Chiang and his wife, and disagreeing with Mountbatten when he was supposed to be liaising with him, he appeared before the cabinet in January 1945, only to deliver a report on the China situation that lasted a full six-and-a-half minutes.

But Carton de Wiart’s inadequacies as a diplomat tended to enhance his reputation as a man of action and inspired leader of men. Regarded with enormous affection as a beau sabreur (French, 1991, 1200), almost a throwback from a previous age, he was, it is said, the model for Evelyn Waugh’s Ritchie-Hook character in Men at Arms.

Finally retired in 1947, Carton de Wiart wrote his entertaining memoirs, Happy Odyssey and, a widower in 1949, married again in 1950. Living in the west of Ireland and still waging his personal war against the local duck population, he received honorary degrees from Aberdeen and Oxford Universities.

The Aden Group

Johnson in Yemen: having been proposed for the venture by Col David Stirling, he arrived there on a Canadian passport under the name of Cohen and with a pocketful of sovereigns.

Undercover: Liam McSweeny in Arab dress as former SAS men fought a desert war in Yemen.

The London circle was known as the Aden Group. Before that, it had been the Suez Group, political cheerleaders for the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal Zone, with Israeli complicity, in 1956. One of the group was Neil (“Billy”) McLean, a British Member of Parliament, wartime veteran of SOE in Albania and the Far East, and SIS “asset.” Another was Air Minister Julian Amery, son-in-law of the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.

Amery would later double, secretly, as “Minister For Yemen.” In September 1962, King Hussein of Jordan visited London, met Amery, and appealed for non-recognition of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Amery asked McLean to visit the country to obtain ground truth about the war. Could the royalists hold out? Was the Egyptian Air Force using chemical weapons against civilians? Using journalistic cover, McLean took to the hills of Yemen with enthusiasm. In December, he returned to advise Macmillan that the Egyptians could be defeated. In January 1963, the British cabinet received an unsourced intelligence assessment, based on McLean’s report, suggesting that to recognize the YAR would be to surrender control over the Gulf to America. Diplomatic recognition of the Sana’a regime withheld, the movement toward a deniable military intervention began.

The operation had a slow start, possibly because McLean and others depended on the Secret Intelligence Service to handle recruitment, while the Saudis acted as banker for this enterprise. In mid-April, at White’s, a gentleman’s gambling club in London, Amery and Home (then Foreign Secretary) met SAS founder Colonel David Stirling, Brian Franks, by now Colonel-Commandant of the SAS, and McLean. By this time, McLean had visited Yemen again. British positions in the Aden Federation were coming under guerrilla assault from Yemen, confirming the worst fears of the U.K. government about recognizing the YAR. A delegation from the Yemeni royalists had visited Israel, which was now delivering arms into areas under royalist control.

One of those involved in the later operation recounts what happened. “McLean told the gathering, ‘Whatever the Egyptians are telling Washington, the coup in Yemen is not a success. Resistance continues. We have to get some sort of operation going.’ Home reported that SIS was having difficulties. Alec [Home] said, ‘I will talk to SIS but they say they have no agents in Yemen and it will take six months to set something up.’”

Stirling snorted: “Rubbish. I can produce a guy in London who has just given up command of 21 SAS [the reserve regiment ostensibly dedicated to stay-behind actions should the Warsaw Pact invade western Europe]. He could put something together.” The man Stirling had in mind was Jim Johnson, former Guards officer and a broker at the insurance market, Lloyds. Franks telephoned Johnson immediately and invited him to have a drink at the club. As they exchanged regimental small talk, Franks asked Johnson: “Do you fancy going into Yemen and burning the MiGs which are upsetting the tribes and bombing them? The tribes have no defense against them.” Johnson thought this was a good idea. At a later meeting in London, Johnson and McLean met the Imam’s foreign minister, Ahmed al-Shami. Johnson asked what funds were available. Al-Shami laid his checkbook in front of them and wrote a check for around $10,000. The money trail, which ultimately led back to Saudi Arabia, had to be concealed. Franks picked up the check and funneled it through the Hyde Park Hotel account, a process made easier by his role as chairman of the hotel board.

Johnson took leave of absence from Lloyds and opened a secret headquarters near the headquarters of 21 SAS. The commander of the regular, full-time 22 SAS Regiment obligingly provided unattributable weapons including Swedish submachine guns, which were stored in Johnson’s fashionable London home on Sloane Avenue. Stirling drummed up his wartime comrade and one-time driver, Major John Cooper, now working as a contract officer for the Sultan’s Armed Forces in Oman.

On 6 June, the anniversary of D-Day, Johnson, Stirling, and Cooper were at a mansion in Paris to meet two mercenaries nominated by the French Secret Service. These were Colonel Roger Faulques, a scarred veteran of a Vietnam prison camp and the Algerian war, and Robert Denard, a hulking freelance soldier from the French Atlantic coast. The gathering also included senior government officials from London and Paris. If Kennedy was mentioned, it was in less than reverent tones. The SIS also probably came in for its share of criticism. Much wine was drunk. Johnson later told the author: “We were entertained royally. The French side said they had a lot of ex-Foreign Legion Paras who had served in Algeria and spoke Arabic. But it was the wrong Arabic, Maghrib Arabic. They were unintelligible to everyone but themselves.”

What emerged from this gathering was a decision to send an advance party of four French and four British freelances on a reconnaissance mission to Yemen, led by Cooper, whose experience with the French Resistance during the Second World War would be useful in calling in Israeli supply drops. Back in London, the word was sent to Morse signals specialists serving with 21 SAS. On arrival, they were “invited” to join Johnson’s secret army. Three regular soldiers serving with 22 SAS—Geordie Dorman, a mortar expert; Corporal Chigley, a medical orderly; and Trooper Richardson, all-round firearms expert—were given leave of absence, or sheep-dipped (nominally discharged from the Army), to join the team.

The French volunteers drove from Paris in an official staff car, with a uniformed military driver and concealed weapons. One of them was Tony de Saint-Paul, alias Roger de Saint Prieux, a tall, sinister figure with deep-set eyes who went into battle dressed as an Arab, a curved dagger at his waist. He was to meet a painful death in Yemen soon afterward.

Shortly before they were to leave, Johnson received word that the U.K. government had taken fright. Scandals in high places, including the forced resignation of War Minister John Profumo, meant that there could be no other source of political embarrassment for the time being. Risky military adventures were not wanted. Nevertheless, Johnson hastily booked the team in ones and twos onto any flight available out of Britain, in the direction of Aden, before the British government could intervene. In a duplicitous farewell that night, Lord Home dined with Johnson and the team.

Cooper flew first to Tripoli, in Libya. He later recalled: “We had just collected our baggage from our various incoming flights when one of the cases broke open, spilling out rolls and rolls of plastic explosive.” Some of the Libyan security guards, he added, “actually helped us repack the stuff. I told them that stuff was marzipan, because of the smell, for various Arab heads of state.”

In Aden, the mercenaries and their dangerous cargo were able to bypass the usual formalities with the help of a young officer serving with British forces there: Captain (later Lieutenant-General) Peter de la Billiere. DLB, as he is known in SAS circles, arranged for the team to move by a Dakota of Aden Air to a border area controlled by an ally among local rulers, the Sharif of Beihan. Then the party of six, dressed as Arabs, with two guides, loaded their camels and joined a train of 150 camels carrying supplies to the royalists to cross the border. It was a hazardous journey, moving by night to avoid Egyptian aircraft, in single file through minefields.

From a mountain village called Gara, headquarters of Prince Abdullah bin Hassan, Taylor sent out reconnaissance patrols stiffened by his mercenaries in spite of continuous air raids in which attacks with iron bombs were followed with low strafing runs by Yak fighters using machine guns. Next, he set up an ambush for Egyptian infantry and tanks obliged to climb a gully to reach Hassan’s redoubt. Each gun position was camouflaged and sheltered by rocks, with additional shelter nearby in case of air attack. Cairns were built as markers, or orientation points for the defenders. Cooper wrote later: “As the enemy reached our markers, our men opened up with devastating effect, knocking down the closely packed infantry like ninepins. Panic broke out in the ranks behind and then the tanks started firing, not into our positions but among their own men. Then the light artillery opened up, causing further carnage.”

The mercenaries’ campaign ran for the next three years, during which the Egyptians were increasingly confined to paved roads. They hit back with air power and poison gas.

For example, on 4 July 1963, McLean, back in Yemen, reported to the U.K. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on his visit to a village called Kowma. “I went to the exact spot where two bombs had landed…. Even after an interval of about…five weeks during which heavy rains fell…I was immediately aware of, from between twenty and thirty yards away, an unusual, unpleasant and pungent smell…rather like a sweet sour musty chloroform mixed with a strong odour of geranium plant…I was told that all of the 120 people in the village still have severe coughs, irritation of the skin and of the twenty-two people injured, many still vomit black blood after severe coughing.”

A gradual stalemate developed. The Egyptians placed a bounty on the heads of the mercenaries. Just before he was blown up by an enemy shell, the Frenchman Tony de Saint-Paul wrote: “The Egyptians’ price on my head has now grown from $500 to $10,000. I hope they increase it even more.” His companion, known only as “Peter,” blinded by poison gas, survived a two-week journey by camel to Aden, before being flown home to France. Though outgunned, the royalists enjoyed two powerful advantages thanks to the mercenary force. First was the use of tactical communications, which gave the Imam’s men flexibility the Egyptians usually lacked. Second, the supplies parachuted by Israel into drop zones controlled by Cooper gave the royalists an increasingly sophisticated edge. Jim Johnson, the political commander of the mercenary force, flew on some of these missions, using a new identity supplied by Israel with a Canadian passport and an escape kit including gold sovereigns. Serial numbers on the weapons Israel supplied had been filed off. Wood shavings in the containers were imported from Cyprus and the parachutes from Italy. A total of 50,000 British rifles was also dropped by civilian aircraft piloted by former Royal Air Force pilots, one of whom was now on Johnson’s team.

In 1965, 300 camels were used in the buildup for a royalist ambush on a road linking Sana’a and the Saudi border at a defile known as Wadi Humaidat. The ambush would need 81-mm mortars to destroy an Egyptian convoy and cut the road. The historian Clive Jones writes: “In what was perhaps the most efficient battle fought by the Royalists, 362 soldiers of the First Army, backed by 1,290 tribesmen…directed by two British and three French mercenaries cut this main supply route and, despite several days of determined Egyptian counter-attacks, held on to their positions.”

In 1966, the French mercenaries launched a barrage of covering fire to assist a royalist advance on Sana’a, but the Imam’s men did not move. The royalists’ lack of resolve went beyond the front line. Johnson, after conferring with the Saudis who bankrolled the operation, concluded that a stalemate that pinned down 70,000 Egyptian soldiers in a war of attrition suited the Saudis nicely. With a new, Socialist government in London, SIS was also lukewarm about the right-wingers’ Yemen adventure. So in October 1966, Johnson wrote a memorandum describing “the apparent lack of interest by HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] and the stated indifference to our activities by MI6 [SIS] coupled with the absolute disinterest…of HRH [Saudi Prince] Sultan we appear to have three courses open to us….” He nominated the first of these, “to withdraw as soon as possible from the Yemen before disaster overtakes us,” for “there is no indication that HMG wants us to continue now.”

On 6 October he confronted the Saudis and asked: “Do you want us to win this war or not? The British have announced the date to leave Aden. If I go before they leave, it will be a shambles.”

The stalemate became a political fact in 1970, recognized by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, backed with a $300 million bribe from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to compensate Egypt for lands lost to Israel during the 1967 war, the outcome of which was affected by the absence from that battlefield of Nasser’s lost army in Yemen. The timing of this event oozed with dramatic irony. It was the year in which Communist guerrillas, based in the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (formerly the British-controlled Aden Federation), launched an offensive on Oman, coming close to bringing that kingdom into Moscow’s orbit. The SAS were to spend the next six years defending this gateway to the Gulf. No one now sought to defend Kennedy’s idealistic, unquestioning support of newly independent former colonies with a taste for republican government. Such countries were now part of a global battlefield over which the Cold War was being fought for real.

To Rorke’s Drift I

Painting of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift by Alphonse de Neuville which took place in Natal during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. De Neuville based the painting on eyewitness  accounts and it depicts several events of the battle occurring at once. Defenders depicted in the painting:
Lieutenant John Chard (to the right at the barrier in pale breeches with rifle)
Corporal Scammell of the Natal Native Contingent incorrectly shown in the uniform of the 24th or Corporal William Allen (handing cartridges to Chard)
Corporal Ferdinand Schiess (wearing a bandoleer and stabbing a Zulu at the barrier with his bayonet)
Chaplain George Smith (bearded man handing out cartridges from a haversack)
Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton (sat in foreground with a wounded shoulder)
Surgeon James Reynolds (attending to Dalton’s wound)
Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (stood in the centre  of the painting pointing to his left)
Private Frederick Hitch (stood behind Bromhead)
Private Henry Hook (carrying Private John Connolly on his back away from the burning hospital)
Assistant Commissary Walter Dunne (to the left holding a biscuit box)

Any British soldier on foot at Isandlwana was doomed. Only those scouts who had managed to keep hold of their horses had any chance of reaching the Tugela River and with little doubt, many of the survivors, with the exception of Lieutenants Coghill, Melvill and Curling, left Isandlwana before the main battle got under way. Based upon information from his spies, Cetshwayo had ordered the Zulu army to concentrate on red-jacketed soldiers in the mistaken belief that only they were the imperial troops. The majority of the survivors were wearing blue jackets, including Coghill and Curling. The 24th’s officers had a choice of regimental jackets to wear in the field so there is no special significance in Coghill and Curling’s jackets being blue, other than the fact that Zulu warriors may have paid them less attention. It may have saved their lives on their desperate ride along the fugitives’ trail from Isandlwana to the safety of Natal.

The surviving disciplined troops still in camp, those under Durnford and some of the 24th Regiment, probably no more than 200 men in all, made a hopeless but gallant stand in the area of Isandlwana wagon park. Durnford and his men were forced into a back-to-back struggle next to Black’s Koppie, the small hillock next to the camp’s wagon park; all died making their final stand. The 24th’s survivors similarly fought against overwhelming odds that increased with every moment. The last few soldiers then tried to effect a fighting retreat following the earlier fugitives. A few individuals managed to get as far as a mile to the rocky ledges overlooking the Manzimyama stream but all were cut down and died in the attempt. An unknown number of other fugitives were killed in the Buffalo River under the hail of Zulu gunfire or spears. Curling later wrote to his mother:

I saw several wounded men during the retreat, all crying out for help, as they knew a terrible fate was in store for them. Smith-Dorrien, a young fellow in the 95th Regiment, I saw dismount and try to help one. His horse was killed in a minute by a shot and he had to run for his life, only escaping by a miracle.

The NNC and auxiliaries who had managed to flee Isandlwana fared no better. Those that reached the riverbank found themselves trapped against the raging torrent of the Buffalo River, now 100 yards across, fast-flowing and dangerously swollen from the torrential rain of the previous week. Several hundred tried to make a stand against the overwhelming Zulus but to no avail as they were no match for them as they caught and systematically killed them. In the midst of this slaughter the last of the escapers, including Coghill, Melvill and Curling, independently reached and swam cross the raging river, though of these three, only Curling would survive to write an illuminating but terrible account of what he had witnessed that day.

At the small Rorke’s Drift garrison, just 5 miles further upstream, and out of sight from the dramas witnessed by Curling, most of the soldiers were lazing in the sun, unaware that a 4,500-strong Zulu force was heading in their direction. To a number of observers on the top of the Oscarsberg behind the camp, a long Zulu column could be seen in the distance, slowly approaching from Isandlwana. They were led by Prince Dabulamanzi, a half-brother of the king, and included the uThulwana, iNdlondlo and uDloko ibutho. They had crossed the river about 3 miles below Rorke’s Drift and, once across, divided into several raiding parties. One group advanced along the Natal bank and moved onto the plateau behind Rorke’s Drift, where they rested and took snuff before closing in on the mission station. At the river crossing point the king’s younger brother, Prince Ndabuko kaMpande, had urged his uMbonambi warriors to join Dabulamanzi’s force crossing into Natal. Because of their casualties, or because they were reluctant to cross into Natal, they declined and returned to plunder Isandlwana.

Whether or not Cetshwayo had ordered his generals to stay out of Natal is open to conjecture. Addressing his assembled army only days earlier, the king had ordered his army to drive the British back, if necessary, to the Drakensberg mountain range well into Natal. It must also be remembered that only three hours earlier, the whole Zulu army had attacked Isandlwana, a defended camp and in direct contravention of the king’s orders. The Zulus’ decision to enter Natal is perfectly understandable as the Zulu reserve had not been called upon to participate in the battle and faced national derision for missing the action. Their potential ignominy would have been offset by them swiftly crossing into Natal, where they could murder a few farmers and their workers and by seizing food, burning farms and plundering cattle. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that the small mission station at Rorke’s Drift was not necessarily an objective; few Zulus even knew of its existence. They would certainly not have been aware that it was defended by a company of British infantry and, had they known, it is unlikely they would have considered it an obstacle after the earlier Zulu victory at Isandlwana. Indeed, once across the river, the Zulus divided into four raiding parties, which suggests that they were free-ranging and unaware of the mission station. It was one of these groups moving several miles into Natal that intercepted Major Spalding’s Relief Column marching from Helpmakaar to strengthen the garrison at Rorke’s Drift. The Zulus’ very presence forced the column to retire back to Helpmakaar, even though they were close enough to hear gunfire and see smoke rising from the mission station. Another group of Zulus went south and then inland, while others followed the river northwards towards Rorke’s Drift, where they came across an abandoned farm belonging to an absent local farmer, Edward Woodroffe, which they burnt to the ground. Still following the course of the river, this column continued towards Rorke’s Drift.

The two buildings at Rorke’s Drift were originally built by a border agent named Rorke, but had recently been purchased on behalf of the Swedish Church for occupation by a Swedish missionary, the Reverend Otto Witt. Witt’s stone-walled and thatched house, now converted by the soldiers into a temporary hospital, included three rooms. Adjacent was another similar-sized building, once used as a church and meeting house, now being used as a commissariat store. These two buildings were 20 yards apart and not connected. With Lord Chelmsford’s instructions to fortify camps during the British invasion in mind, Commissary Dalton had already fortified and entrenched the site together with its two buildings, the bulk of the work having been completed by 11 January.

The tiny Mission Station was overlooked on its south side, at about 200 yards distance, by a hill, the Oscarsberg, so called in honour of the King of Sweden. The terrain around the buildings was broken with clumps of bush, gulleys, caverns and boulders, giving excellent cover to the advancing Zulus. To the south-west of the hospital stretched thick bush, through which a wagon track and garden had been cleared. This scrub and a taller clump of trees, along with the garden wall, gave shelter to the first Zulus to approach the Mission Station, just as the Oscarsberg and a group of outbuildings did to the south side of the two buildings. With less than an hour’s warning of the pending Zulu attack, Dalton used additional stores to reinforce the previously built protective wall around the two buildings. These stores were ready for moving to Isandlwana and therefore luckily at hand and in some abundance – sacks of mealies (Indian corn), bags of flour and potatoes, biscuit boxes, and such other materials as were readily available.

Enclosing the right-angle of the hospital and running in front of the bush and garden, along the top of a broken ridge that fell steeply for about 6 feet, was a barricade of mealie bags about 3 feet high. This, the first line of defence, was continued from the left of the hospital to the commissariat store, which was fortunately divided by a shallow ravine from the broken ground of the Oscarsberg. Besides these defensive lines, both buildings were loopholed and barricaded. In the hospital a guard of four men was stationed along with all the sick fit enough to stand and use a rifle. Some of the rifles had recently been patched up for service with tacks and strips of hide, rifles that were probably as damaged as their users.

The first Zulu scouts were from the iNdluyengwe, whose main force was working its way along the riverbank towards the drift looking for plundering opportunities. Having detected the Mission Station, the warriors gathered about 500 yards from the two buildings to assess the situation. They then advanced at a slow run, darting behind their shields to confuse the soldiers’ aim. In the midst of the initial attack, one of the two mounted Zulu chiefs, Prince Dabulamanzi’s deputy, was shot from his horse.

The Zulus were skilled at hunting but had received no training for warfare against an enemy armed with accurate rifles. Instead they were indoctrinated with a lifetime of parade-ground rituals, which included imitating giya tactics, and they therefore approached the British position using the only tactic known to them. They made a number of prancing attacks at the slow run, showing they cared nothing for the slaughter awaiting them, and each time they would advance, then halt for a moment, and then advance again quietly, but running quickly, taking advantage of every bit of cover. Local Zulu folklore suggests they attacked in a very deliberate manner, more akin to their traditional dancing, by prancing and high kicking as they attacked. It is Zulu belief that the Zulu chiefs had expected to surprise the camp and that their melodramatic approach would scare the British into fleeing back to Natal. Instead the soldiers opened fire at about 200 yards. Numbers of Zulus fell at once; the battle for Rorke’s Drift had started.

By using this tactic, many Zulus got to within 50 yards of the first barrier until organized volley fire forced the surviving attackers to retreat and take refuge among the many boulders littering the lower slope of the Oscarsberg. The remainder hesitated, broke ranks, and the greater number scattered to their left and occupied the garden and orchard, where there was plenty of cover. As more Zulus arrived, many took refuge behind a long 5-foot high garden wall directly in front of Witt’s house, now being used as a makeshift hospital, and crept to within 20 yards of the British wall of mealie bags. With darkness falling, the Zulus made several attempts to charge the British perimeter but failed to make any headway due to the steep incline capped with a 4-foot high wall of boxes. From British accounts, supported by Zulu folklore, it appears that the first Zulu assaults were initially conducted by single groups of twenty or so warriors who repeatedly attacked the end room of the hospital.

A few got up close to the two buildings by hiding behind the nearby field oven and kitchens, which had previously supplied the small garrison. Others came on in a continuous stream, gradually encircling the two houses. Only a handful of the Zulus had Martini-Henry rifles, weapons that had earlier been taken as loot from Isandlwana. These warriors were stationed on the hillside and kept up a continuous but highly inaccurate fire on the garrison just 200 yards distant and below them. This sporadic fire occasionally caught the soldiers in their backs as they were guarding the garden side, and five men were thus shot dead. Had the Zulus been good marksmen the whole garrison’s position would have been untenable. But they were untrained in the use of the weapons and were further hindered by darkness, and so they fired wildly and badly for the most part, as if the noise had as much effect as the bullets.

To Rorke’s Drift II

Lieutenant Chard’s famous drawing of the Rorke’s Drift battle, showing the main thrusts of the Zulu attack.


Under cover of the dark, the bushes and the long grass, the Zulus were now able to get within 25 yards of the hospital without being seen. From this point, in parties of fifteen to twenty, they again attacked the end room of the hospital. Many times, seven or eight at least, they began to be a dangerous nuisance to the defenders. Lieutenant Bromhead, collecting a few men together, had to drive one persistent group off with a bayonet charge. Then the Zulus would retire, and in chorus would shout and strike their shields. The soldiers cheered in answer and kept up a steady rate of fire. Initially, there was plenty of ammunition but it was quickly realized by the officers that too much was being wasted.

The Zulus at last smashed their way into the far end of the hospital but only after some thirty of the patients were rescued by their able-bodied colleagues. Most of the escaping patients were pushed and pulled through a window at the far end, which opened onto the yard next to the main British defensive wall. The Zulus now set fire to the hospital, probably from one of the houses’ many oil lamps used to illuminate the hospital after dark. The roof thatch was still damp from the earlier rain, though it would burn steadily for several hours. By its light the soldiers were enabled to see the Zulus better, and many were shot down before they retreated to better cover. After a pause, encouraged or commanded by a chief who shouted his orders from the hillside, the Zulus repeated their attack. The fighting in places became hand-to-hand over the mealie sacks, with the Zulus using their assegais as stabbing weapons against the soldiers’ bayonets. Directly a soldier showed his head over the parapet to get a shot, he was thrust at. On several occasions the leading Zulus actually seized the bayonets and tried to wrench them off the rifles.

The defenders then fell back on an inner defence consisting of another 4-foot high wall of biscuit boxes stacked upon each other that extended across the yard from the commissariat store, and formed part of a second line of defence, including the store and an open space round it, and extending as far as an adjacent cattle kraal, all of which formed part of the final defence position. This second line of defence was not resorted to until the fire from the Oscarsberg, which took the defenders of the mealie-bag barricade in flank and rear, together with the burning of the hospital, had rendered the first line of defence untenable. This second line of defence was never assaulted by the Zulus at close quarters, unlike the outer barricade of mealie bags. From this small fortified position, about the size of a tennis court, the soldiers would hold their positions until morning.

As the night wore on both sides were aided by the light of the burning hospital. This guided the Zulus’ fire from the Oscarsberg until Chard gave the order to fall back upon the second line of defence. To avoid hand-to-hand fighting, they established themselves behind the outer wall of the cattle kraal within 10 yards of the inner wall still being held by the soldiers. The rifle fire from the mealie-bag redoubt and the biscuit-box rampart was fatal to any Zulu standing still, even for a moment; thanks to the light from the burning hospital they presented the soldiers with an easy target.

After midnight the sporadic but forceful Zulu attacks slackened, but continued intermittently through the small hours until 4.00 am. The last British shot was aimed at a Zulu who was trying to fire the thatch of the store. The Zulus were clearly more exhausted than the British; not only had they run from Isandlwana, they had been without food for two days and had last drunk water when they crossed the river some nine hours earlier. Their attacks had stopped but their marksmen continued to fire into the British position from the safety of the Oscarsberg. The final flickering from the remains of the burning hospital died out at about 5.00 am and thereafter there was nothing to indicate a Zulu presence. Not knowing what the Zulus were doing under the cover of darkness and fearing an attack at any moment, Chard ordered his weary men to remain at their posts. Shortly after 5.15 am, the early dawn lightened the sky and the British realized that the only Zulus in sight were the dead and wounded. The main Zulu force had vanished.

The defeated Zulus had steadily made their way back to the drift and after quenching their thirst had assembled on the far bank of the Buffalo River. It was at this stage that they first noticed, some 2 miles off, the approaching column led by Lord Chelmsford. The column was retracing the route it had taken a few days earlier and was approaching the drift from the direction of Sihayo’s stronghold. Not wishing to engage the British, either as soldiers or ghosts, the Zulus turned right and followed the riverbank, presumably to avoid further conflict. It is uncertain whether the Zulus knew that Chelmsford and a portion of his force had survived. Zulu folklore explains that the distant column ‘looked like ghosts’ coming through the early morning mist thrown up by the river. The departing Zulus genuinely believed the whole of Chelmsford’s column had died at Isandlwana and many would have thought they were seeing the ghosts of vanquished British soldiers returning to Rorke’s Drift. The theory is credible. In any event, Chelmsford’s direct approach surprised the retreating Zulus; indeed, both groups passed each other at a distance of 400 yards. Chelmsford’s men had but twenty rounds of ammunition each and the Zulus were exhausted, so neither side had any enthusiasm for a fresh fight.

It was not until dawn that the lookouts at Rorke’s Drift could confirm the disappearance of the Zulus from the hill, and it was not for another two hours that Chelmsford’s column could be seen approaching from the drift. The sight was greeted by a ringing round of cheers. Within the outpost, the scene was disturbing. The whole area was awash with pools of congealed and smeared blood, which bore witness to the death throes of both British and Zulu warriors. The area was littered with dead and dying Zulus; empty ammunition boxes were strewn around along with torn cartridge packets and piles of spent ammunition cases. The remnants of discarded red army jackets lay in the dust. They had been torn apart by the soldiers as improvised binding for their red-hot rifle barrels in the desperate attempt to save their hands from burning as they fired. The whole inner area was covered in trampled maize that had poured from the damaged sacks along the walls, walls that had successfully borne the brunt of the Zulu attacks. The heat from the burnt-out hospital gradually abated and, not deterred by the smell of cooked human flesh, the defenders found the charred bodies of the patients who had died within its walls. As there were many more charred bodies than the defenders had expected, they naturally presumed that these were Zulus, killed either by the defenders or by the hospital fire. During that same day, Lieutenant Curling RA returned to Rorke’s Drift, and that night he wrote:

The farmhouse at Rorke’s Drift was a sad sight. There were dead bodies of Zulus all round it, in some places so thick that you could hardly walk without treading on them. The roof had been taken off the house as it was liable to be burnt and the wounded were lying out in the open. A spy was hanging on one of the trees in the garden and the whole place was one mass of men. Nothing will now be done until strong reinforcements arrive and we shall have much bloodshed before it is all over.

The killing of seriously injured Zulus around the mission station then commenced. It was an act reciprocated by the Zulus, who killed any British soldiers left wounded at Isandlwana. Indeed, it was a fate well understood by both sides. Regrettably, the subsequent British action of killing exhausted Zulus or those who had gone into hiding well away from the mission station was to be more disturbing, even in the climate of such total warfare. Comment on the Zulus’ fate was deliberately omitted from official reports to prevent the gruesome details being published in the British press. Such merciless mopping-up operations were, nevertheless, deemed necessary by those present and would be repeated as a matter of military policy by the British after each of the remaining battles of the Zulu War, especially after their victories at Gingindlovu, Kambula and Ulundi. The total number of Zulu dead from Rorke’s Drift will never be known. The most likely figure of immediate Zulu casualties would tally at about 500, with probably another 300 or more being accounted for during the subsequent securing of the surrounding area. By comparison, British casualties were comparatively light, with fifteen men killed and one officer and nine men wounded (two mortally). The subsequent publication of details of indiscriminate and wholesale killing of Zulu survivors in hiding or fleeing from the battlefield was later to cause the military authorities much embarrassment.

The engagement at Rorke’s Drift was initially viewed by the British military in South Africa as nothing more than a skirmish, and, in military terms, they were correct; it was obvious to those present that a single concerted attack by the Zulus would easily have overwhelmed the small garrison. The praise and fame immediately heaped on the defenders increasingly rankled with many who saw the unexpected status of those present elevated to that of popular heroes. Even General Wolseley wrote on the matter:

It is monstrous making heroes of those who saved or attempted to save their lives by bolting or 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.

Major Clery was one of Chelmsford’s staff officers who commented on the action:

Reputations are being made and lost here in almost comical fashion.

The homecoming for the Zulus was no better. It was as a result of their failed action at Rorke’s Drift that Dabulamanzi’s returning warriors were chided and mocked. Zulu folklore holds that it was said that ‘you marched off, you went to dig little bits with your assegais out of the house of Jim, that had never done you any harm.’ Zulu folklore also relates that the surviving warriors who had attacked Rorke’s Drift were seriously dejected by their failure and worse was to come. The retreating warriors were jeered and mocked by the villagers through whose homesteads they passed. The gist of the baiting calls included ‘shocking cowards’ and ‘you’re just women – running away for no reason at all, just like the wind’.