Few fights involving British troops have invoked such controversy as that which was - for both sides - the disastrous battle fought near the odd-shaped hill called Isandlwana in Zululand in 1879. Immortalised in the film Zulu Dawn, which took some liberties with established fact (as most "historical" films tend to do), the battle seems to have divided historians and commentators into two camps. Quite why there should have been such a division is not certain; after all, the following year another British battalion was virtually wiped out at Maiwand in Afghanistan and there was hardly a ripple of argument beyond a few sharp intakes of professional breath, for disaster seemed to follow British army units with distressing regularity in the nineteenth century. As Kipling put it: "We've salted the earth with our bones."
So what was special about Isandlwana? Personalities, that's what made the difference. A few sycophantic followers of the man who was held to be ultimately responsible versus those of the fellow onto whom the first's supporters tried to shift the blame, who battled on in court, in parliament, in newspapers and in books; and they were both of them the victims of a blame-shifting exercise by Her Majesty's government. Even today, historians argue over which of the two was responsible.
And in so doing seem to entirely miss a few very pertinent points.
The British Foreign Secretary in the 1860s, Lord Caernarvon, had a dream for South Africa. The Boer settlers had long before travelled north out of Cape Colony and established their own territories in (what became) Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Natal province was a sort of cultural no-man's-land between Briton and Boer, although it was governed by the British. The lack of any sort of governmental agreements between the two communities led to some unfortunate incidents and Caernarvon decided that the answer was to form a federal government, very much as in the United States; South Africa wasn't the only place where similar difficulties suggested the same answer. It was applied successfully, too, in Canada and in Australia, but for some reason it didn't work quite so well in South Africa. The problem was Boer intransigence and British arrogance, specifically that of the governor-general.
Added to these difficulties was the constant threat of a black rising against their white rulers and neighbours. There was a series of "Kaffir Wars" which involved the British regular troops with the support of colonial militia units in some messy little battles, during which there was, however, never really any threat to white rule. But across the Buffalo River, which formed part of the northern boundary of Natal, lay the kingdom of the Zulus and they presented a totally different threat.
Half a century before, Shaka had taken a motley collection of downtrodden black tribes and beaten them into a confederation which was able to not only overcome their earlier oppressors but to also defeat a few other tribes so as to gain "elbow room". The name Zulu was adopted to cover this confederation of different tribes. A few kings later, Cetshewayo was on the throne with a huge standing army and a positively enormous reserve in the form of experienced militia. Zulu law had it that a man could not marry without first killing an enemy and as the men were organised into regiments according to age and marital status, there was a great body of black soldiers eager for war so that they could then get married! Both Boer and Briton knew this - and worried.
The Governor of Cape Province was a man by the name of Sir Bartle Frere. Caernarvon's ideas of federation were not going to happen in South Africa unless Frere could persuade the Boers, and they would only be persuaded by British guarantees of security - which, given the small number of troops available, could not be given. Frere determined to take out the Zulus and let the Boers see who was in charge.
It so happened that two eminent Zulus came unwittingly to his aid. Chasing a third man and his lover, who was one of their wives, they caught up with the fugitives and killed them - but did it in Natal, British territory. Frere demanded the two should be returned for trial and execution and set a deadline. Cetshewayo refused to be bullied. But that didn't really matter, anyway, as Frere had already decided that he was going to have Zululand. As the deadline of the ultimatum with its totally unacceptable terms was reached, troops were already crossing the border.
General-officer-commanding all troops in South Africa was Lieutenant-General Frederic Augustus Thesiger, soon (within days) to inherit from his dead father the title of Lord Chelmsford, in his case the Second Baron thereof. (We shall use his abbreviated title of Chelmsford throughout this review.) He was an experienced soldier, popular with his troops, for whom he had a paternal regard. He planned for an invasion of Zululand along four routes, soon changing this to three. The target was Ulundi, Cetshewayo's capital, but the tracks were so terribly bad that he spread out the army so as to move more quickly, part of his force on each of the three main routes.
The British force consisted of a few battalions of regular infantry, red-coated and wearing white pith-helmets (in many cases died with tea or coffee to a light khaki colour to be less conspicuous; some British officers were actually thinking!); a few small colonial troops of cavalry plus some regulars acting as mounted infantry; a small but highly efficient cavalry regiment of black soldiers under white officers; and - through lack of training and equipment, not basic quality - a very suspect force of black infantry, dressed as were the Zulus in nothing very much at all. Chelmsford also had engineers (far too few) and gunners with 7-pounder (3.2 kgs) field-guns, plus a shaky logistic tail.
Indeed, it was this tail which virtually dictated the routing of the three columns to Chelmsford, who was an experienced logistics specialist. The vast bulk of the supplies was carried in huge, heavy wagons, each pulled by up to eighteen oxen and moving at rather less than walking pace even when the going was good. And the going was atrocious.
Chelmsford decided to accompany the third column, crossing the Buffalo on 11 January 1879 at Rorke's Drift where there was a passable ford and where engineers under a certain Lieutenant John Chard were building a pontoon ferry; Chard was later to become famous, and was the key character in the epic film Zulu. This third column consisted of the 1st and 2nd Battalions 24th Foot (the title South Wales Borderers came later; at this stage they still formed the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment, although heavily recruited from the mid- and eastern parts of Wales); a couple of battalions of the semi-naked black infantry known as the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), with locally-recruited white officers and NCOs of mainly indifferent quality and ability; seven guns; a squadron of Imperial Mounted Infantry (IMI), which was recruited from all regular British units in theatre; the Natal Mounted Police (NMP), a white regular para-military force which was recruited back in Britain; and finally, the part-time colonial volunteer cavalry called the Natal Carbineers.
Chelmsford's presence was an embarrassment to the real column commander, Colonel Glyn, lately commanding 1/24th. As he had no effective way of communicating with the other columns in his command, Chelmsford devoted his energies to commanding, in effect, the third column, by-passing Glyn. Each man had his own staff; Chelmsford's was led by a Colonel Crealock, Glyn's by Major Clery. Neither commander was well-served by these principal staff officers, both of them being small-minded, stubborn and vindictive whenever possible, issuing confusing and incomplete orders and being unable to take notice of other men's counsel. Worse, the whole command structure, including Chelmsford, seemed incapable of taking advice from local men of vast experience and specialist knowledge of the country and the tracks, the Zulus and other black tribes, with both British colonials and Boers being totally ignored.
After a small engagement at a Zulu village on 12 January, Number 3 column moved on eastwards to Isandlwana, taking over a week to move the twelve miles with their wagons, so poor was the track. Having got there, Chelmsford immediately left for a personal recce with Glyn, escorted by fifty IMI troopers, leaving Clery to set up the vast tented camp which would soon house over 2500 men, plus animals, plus wagons.
Against advice from Inspector Phillips who was the very experienced second-in-command of the NMP, Clery selected a place for the camp hard against the eastern side of the hill, where it was overlooked at close range from both the shoulder of Isandlwana itself and Black's Kopje, a small knoll immediately to the south. Clery's opinion was that the bulk of Isandlwana would provide cover from any assault from the west. However, an NNC company was sent as a picquet to Magaga Knoll, a mile or so (about 2 kms) from the camp to the north, mainly to placate Phillips, and Lieutenant Pope's company of 2/24th was stationed to the south near Black's Kopje, while scouting parties of the NMP and Natal Carbineers were sent out to the east.
The following day, 21 January, at 0430, a small recce party of the IMI under Lieutenant Browne, their commanding officer, was sent out to scout the Isipesi Hill area, ten to fifteen miles (16-24 kms) east of the camp. At the same time, Chelmsford sent off a force consisting of the rest of the IMI with sixteen companies of NNC, all under Major Dartnell of the NMP, to recce the area to the south-east of the camp, out ten or twelve miles (16 or 19 kms) from the balance of the force, with the dual object of making contact, if possible, with a Zulu sub-chief in that area who was reported to be sympathetic to the British.
The same day, Chelmsford himself, conducting a personal recce closer to camp, saw from a vantage point on the iThusi heights fourteen mounted Zulus riding on the crest of a feature some way to his north. Dartnell, in an area of very broken ground, kept on getting reports from his own scouts of Zulus here and there in some numbers, eventually observing a mass of them apparently with hostile intent on a hill to his north - more or less in the same general direction as those Chelmsford had seen, but without knowledge of the other sighting.
Dartnell was a former British army officer of considerable experience; his men were devoted to him. He looked at the Zulus, decided there were too many to attack with the force he had with him, concentrated his troops on a hill in a defensive square of sorts for the night, and sent a message to Chelmsford asking for more men so he could attack at first light the next day.
The request reached Chelmsford, back from his own wanderings, at 0130. Three hours later, as dawn began to spread its light over the way, Chelmsford himself led the 2/24th (minus Lieutenant Pope's company still on picquet duty and Bromhead's back at Rorke's Drift) and five of the artillery's guns to the support of Dartnell. And that, effectively, takes Chelmsford and the troops with him right out of the story.
At 0700 Natal Carbineer vedettes east of Conical Hill reported to Lieutenant Scott, the screen commander whose command post was on Conical Hill itself, that they had spotted "thousands" of Zulus near the Ngwebini Valley. His subsequent report to the camp commandant was received at 0730.
Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Burmester Pulleine, in command at the camp, had been a career staff officer for almost all his army life. He had never heard a shot fired in anger and, seeing in the expedition against the Zulus an opportunity for some advancement, had pleaded with Chelmsford for command of a battalion of his regiment, the 24th. As Chelmsford had wanted the existing CO of 1/24th, Glyn, as Number 3 column commander, he had acceded to Pulleine's request. Now, receiving Scott's clear report of a Zulu force only a few miles from camp, Pulleine had the alarm sounded and the troops fallen in, ready for action, in a long line east of the camp, parallel with Isandlwana.
With the camp readied against any Zulu attack, Pulleine then sent off a courier to Chelmsford. The message read: "Report just come in that the Zulus are advancing in force from left front of camp," with the time: 0805 - 35 minutes after he had received the report from Scott. Half an hour later the Natal Carbineers who had spotted the Zulu concentration started a running fight with parties of Zulus east of Conical Hill, reporting the situation to Pulleine via Scott.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Chard had ridden up to the camp from Rorke's Drift to obtain further instructions from Chelmsford regarding the river crossing. Finding Chelmsford absent, of course, and hearing the reports of masses of Zulus in the vicinity, he took the time to ride north to see for himself, as he had been in South Africa only a few weeks and was curious. What he saw, at about 0945, was a huge body of Zulus moving westwards along Nqutu Ridge north of the camp. He immediately turned about, rode back to camp, reported the sighting - which confirmed the Carbineers' reports - and then hurried back to his post at Rorke's Drift. Shortly afterwards, Pope, away to the south of camp but equipped with powerful field glasses, spotted even more Zulus - he estimated another 7000 of them - in the same general area as Chard had seen them; he, too, reported the sighting.
At about 1030 a new factor entered the equation. Into camp rode a man famous throughout Natal, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Durnford, formerly of the Royal Engineers and now leading a mixed force of black cavalry - the Natal Native Horse (NNH) - and infantry (NNC) with, curiously, a Royal Artillery rocket detachment. Durnford, having met Chard on the track and hearing his report of the Zulu masses, had hurried forward with just the mounted elements of his force, leaving the NNC to follow on as quickly as they could.
Durnford was commander of Number 2 Column, originally intended to cross the Buffalo at Middle Drift into Zululand. However, he had crossed a little too early, before the ultimatum had expired - he was an impetuous man - and had been sharply rebuked by Chelmsford. Chelmsford had either wanted more men with Number 3 Column, where at least Zulus had been encountered, or he wanted Durnford where he could keep an eye on him. Whichever, he had ordered Number 2 column to abandon its advance via Middle Drift and, less half its NNC under Major Bengough, who were to cross at Kwa Mahamba Drift further down the river, to come at once to Isandlwana via Rorke's Drift.
Durnford's arrival coincided with Pulleine's order that the troops should be stood down. They had been in ranks, waiting for action which never came, for three hours. Now, at 1100, after Durnford and Pulleine had conferred, they were ordered back into their battle positions. Durnford sent two troops of his NNH to reconnoitre along the Nqutu Ridge where Chard and Pope had spotted the hordes of Zulus.
There followed a discussion between the two men which was typical of its day; which of the two was senior and, hence, in command? Each was a lieutenant-colonel and by virtue of his being an engineer as opposed to a "mere" infantryman, Durnford was theoretically senior. But he had been promoted into a colonial unit, even though he was a regular officer - and "colonials" were not accepted by the regulars as "senior" regardless of their apparent rank. Did one argument cancel out the other? Anyway, what orders had either received?
None, actually. Chelmsford and his staff had not anticipated that Durnford's men, theoretically travelling at walking speed, would arrive quite so soon and had assumed that they themselves would be back in camp before his arrival and could give specific orders then. Pulleine had become camp commander really by default - all officers senior to him had disappeared with Chelmsford at 0430. It became a matter of the two men deciding for themselves what they would do.
Durnford, more experienced - his left arm was paralysed following a severe wound during a previous battle at Bushman's Pass in Natal in an earlier campaign - and thrusting by nature, decided he was going to take his NNH and the rocket troop and would intercept the Zulus. He asked Pulleine for a couple of companies of the 1/24th to reinforce his troops, but Lieutenant Melvill, Pulleine's experienced and loyal adjutant, effectively put the refusal into Pulleine's mouth. Durnford therefore rode off with just his own men, at 1125. He had arrived in camp and arranged for the watering of horses, etc., had despatched his two troops to recce the ridge area, had addressed the seniority question, had assessed the tactical position, had eaten lunch, and had made up his mind what was the correct course of action and left to accomplish it, all in under an hour. His parting words to Pulleine were that he expected the 1/24th to support him if he ran into trouble.
Pulleine had by now moved Lieutenant Cavaye's company of 1/24th to the Tahelane Ridge which was a westwards extension of the Nqutu feature. Suddenly, only minutes after Durnford's departure from camp, Cavaye's men spotted the NNH soldiers sent up earlier as a recce force riding rapidly towards them, chased by a very large body of Zulus. It looked very much as though the NNH recce had been successful; they had certainly found Zulus! Cavaye's men opened fire - but then noticed that the Zulus were not turning in to attack them, but were streaming past towards the west.
Acquainted of the situation to the north of the camp, Pulleine sent Captain Mostyn's company to reinforce Cavaye. At about the same time, 1145, the rocket troop was overwhelmed by Zulus just north of Conical Hill as they tried a short-cut to catch up with Durnford and rode headlong into a mass of Zulus; they managed to fire only one rocket, which hit nothing. There were six survivors, men who had had the good fortune to be mounted. The rest were killed. They were the first British soldiers to be killed that day; they would not be the last.
It was not yet clear to the British, especially not to Pulleine, that the Zulu attack was, in their own inimical style, developing as a main central thrust from the north-east against the camp - from the general direction of Conical Hill and iThusi - while their right wing moved past Cavaye round to the north of Isandlwana to come in between that feature and Black's Kopje and their left wing approached the camp some two miles (3 kms) south of Conical Hill.
This left wing of the Zulu attack ran into Durnford and his black troopers at about 1200 while their right-centre met Mostyn's company. The NNH men, using fire and movement tactics between the two troops, fell back steadily towards the camp, taking a fearful toll of the Zulus; they were experienced marksmen. The white soldiers, too, exacted a terrible price for the Zulus' advance, their .45" (11.4mm) Martini-Henry rifles blasting away large numbers of the running enemy well before the Zulus were within throwing range for their spears.
It was at this point, with the Zulu assault on the camp well under way, that Captain Gardner of Chelmsford's staff arrived to order Pulleine to move half the camp to Mangeni Falls, where Chelmsford reckoned the whole column should now begin to concentrate ready to continue their advance. Pulleine just looked at the note, looked at the battle beginning to develop and replied that he couldn't do it at present. Gardner, also looking about him and hearing the firing, concurred and took their two messages back to Chelmsford.
Pulleine was not short of reports telling him what was happening - or, rather, because of time and distance problems without heliograph or radio, what had happened. Hardly had Gardner gone than Captain Shepstone of the NNH, Durnford's second in command who had ridden out on the Nqutu recce, rode in to advise him of the Zulus' approach round the back of Isandlwana, their right wing having run past Cavaye's company as previously related. And he could actually see Durnford's men making a fighting withdrawal to the temporary haven of the dry Nyakana donga to the south east.
Pulleine's reaction was to place Pope's company of the 2/24th behind Durnford; these men would act as a block should the NNH have to withdraw further. He then ordered Cavaye and Mostyn to bring their men back to camp and sent Captain Younghusband's company to support this move from the very flank of Isandlwana where an off-shoot of the Zulus' right wing was now pressing hard.
Meanwhile, the two 1/24th companies of Captain Wardell and Lieutenant Porteous were doing great execution to the north of the NNH in their donga. At one stage the Zulu advance came to a faltering halt as man after man threw himself into the cover of some hollow in the broken ground, the better to escape the fire of the Martinis. But the Zulus' left horn was beginning to outflank the NNH just as they were running out of ammunition and, conforming with this movement, Lonsdale's company of NNC which had been slightly in advance of Porteous's men, also retired.
Durnford sent man after man back to camp to request more ammunition. And man after man was refused because the quartermasters, loyal to their calling and creed, insisted that the black soldiers should get ammunition from their own stocks - which, as it happened, were still on the track from Rorke's Drift. Quite why Durnford didn't send one of his own white officers to insist on re-supply is a mystery - this officer was a regular, and therefore, in the hierarchy of the British army, senior to any quartermaster; Durnford surely knew the quartermaster mentality. Whatever, by 1245 the NNH troopers ran out of ammunition and were over-run along with the few troopers of the NMP and Carbineers who had joined them after perilous journeys through the Zulu units from their outpost duties; Durnford himself and those who survived - and they survived because they were still mounted and hence just faster across ground than the Zulus on foot - made for the camp.
Ten minutes later or thereabouts, the first of the Zulu right wing entered the camp round the south end of Isandlwana and hence behind Durnford and Pope. Seeing that things looked a little bleak, Pulleine ordered Melvill to take the precious Queen's Colour and try to escape. He did so, accompanied by Lieutenant Coghill carrying the regimental colour, the two officers fighting their way on horseback through the right-wing Zulus going the other way. And at roughly the same time, the Zulu centre finally closed with the lines of red-coated soldiers.
But those lines were not continuous. Because of their original dispositions and Pulleine's preoccupation with defending the camp, ie. the tents and wagons, as he thought was his main responsibility, the companies were spread out with up to four paces between men in each rank and anything up to 400 yards (360m) between companies; Pope's company of 2/24th was over half a mile (800m) away, by itself. Worse, the NNC troops, who had been placed at the north-east corner of the defences, broke and ran before the Zulus had actually reached them; with only one rifle per ten men - and that with only ten rounds - and led by indifferent white officers and NCOs, their morale was not high. But their withdrawal left a gaping hole in the line.
Their own position being hopeless, the artillery attempted now to leave camp, trying to take their two precious guns with them - the regimental colours of the Royal Artillery are the guns, and it was a point of absolute honour that every effort be made to prevent them falling into the hands of an enemy. Some men made it, some didn't. Again, only those men who were mounted escaped; the gunners who rode on the limbers were pulled off and killed when one of the guns became stuck and the other over-turned. There was now, in effect, a general realisation that the battle was lost and that flight was the only option. Those not engaged in the infantry fight took their chances in flight. But the vast majority of the red-coated soldiers battled on, in companies, in platoons, in small groups, fighting back to back with bullet, butt and bayonet. Finally, at about 1315, they were swamped.
The regular infantry of the 24th were not, however, the only soldiers to make a last stand. Durnford rallied to him a number of his NNH black soldiers and was joined by a remarkable number of white colonial horsemen who, also being mounted, could have escaped. Their last stand was a gallant failure, its effect negligible, a gesture only.
Five minutes later, Captain Younghusband's men fired their last shots and were also overwhelmed. The story goes that one man held out in a small cave for some time until his ammunition was all gone and he became the last of Chelmsford's men to die at Isandlwana.
When Chelmsford's party - white cavalry, black infantry and the bulk of the 2/24th with the five guns - reached the camp at about 1830 on 22 January, after a number of increasingly frantic messages from various sources, they found a scene of horror. It was Zulu custom to split the bellies of dead enemies, both to free the spirit from the body and, more prosaically, to prevent the body from swelling and possibly exploding, and they had done this to virtually everybody in the camp they had killed - and that meant everybody in the camp: there were no prisoners, no wounded. Annihilation.
From the nek between Isandlwana and Black's Kopje to the river near Rorke's Drift, the slope of the land was dotted with red-, blue- or khaki-coated bodies where the Zulus had caught up with fleeing soldiers and commissariat personnel. Some reports, not entirely reliable because of sycophantic tendencies, later commented that more men were killed on the Fugitives' Trail, as it became known, than in the camp battle. One report of this type goes so far as to state that while white colonial officers and men stood and fought (alongside Durnford), the bulk of the regular 24th ran off over the nek. The disposition of bodies exhumed from their stone cairns in relatively recent years tells a different story, however, and reveals the truth; the bodies were covered where they fell and the stone piles covering the dead of the 24th were, with just a few individual exceptions, all in the camp, in clusters.
But the battle had not been as one-sided as so many believe. Of the British force at Isandlwana, about 50 officers and just over 800 white and about 470 black soldiers had been killed, either at the camp itself or as fugitives running for the river, a total of somewhat over 1300. The 1/24th as a battalion had been wiped out completely. But Zulu regiments had been severely mauled too. The uDudu, most of the uNokhenke and part of the uNodwengu, which formed the right wing, largely escaped too much damage. The mCijo and Khandempemvu regiments, which made up the centre, were torn to shreds. The Nkobamakosi, uVe and uMbonambi regiments of the left wing suffered moderately severe casualties. Estimates of Zulu fatalities vary from a low of 2000 to a high of 5000; the reality was probably about 3500 including wounded who died later. The effect of the Martinis in the hands of well-trained and experienced soldiers caused Cetshewayo to comment, in anguish, that his people would never be the same again; he said: ". . . alas, a spear has been thrust into the belly of the nation." Wailing and sobbing was heard in the various Zulu kraals for weeks to come, so great had been the loss of life in the regiments. But Cetshewayo knew that their national pride would force the British to come again, determined to wipe out the Zulus as a nation to expunge the perceived shame of Isandlwana. He was right; when the final battle at his capital, Ulundi, was over and he himself a prisoner, his sub-chiefs were appointed to rule their various provinces of Zululand as quite separate tribal nations. Zulu national power was thereby broken.
On the other hand, British attitudes had not been changed by the defeat at Isandlwana. While in one respect it was a defeat for both sides - physically for the British and both spiritually and physically (in terms of casualty numbers) for the Zulus, here comes a novel view: as the object of battle is to change the other fellow's attitude, and especially when one compares the casualty figures, it can be argued that the British actually won at Isandlwana!
Most reviews seem to concentrate on the share of blame of just two men: Chelmsford and Durnford. Chelmsford because he made what many ignorant of military thinking and logic - and picking up reported nonsense as fact - consider to have been a series of mistakes; Durnford because he was supposed to have been in command at the camp and therefore directly to blame. Unfortunately, issues have been clouded as supporters of each man have introduced elements of opinion - which were designed to smear the reputation of the other man - rather than to report fact. We need therefore to eliminate as much of this obfuscation as possible.
In the first place, regardless of any strategic or tactical errors Chelmsford may or may not have made (and one tends to approve almost all that the man did), he was ten miles (16 kms) away at the time of the battle and had nothing to do with it. His first comment when he got back there after it was all over was a puzzled: "But I left over a thousand men to defend the camp." Clearly, he had earlier considered the need of camp defence and had left a credible garrison. That the garrison had failed was not his fault; our later comments will support that statement. It has even been held against Chelmsford (as though it had anything to do with the action) that his selection of slow ox-drawn wagons to haul the materiel needs of the force was flawed; he should, it is claimed, have used mules as pack animals. Yet Chelmsford had been the logistics chief of the British expedition into Abyssinia to rescue hostages years before; that army of 5000 men never went hungry or thirsty nor lacked ammunition or, indeed, anything else. Chelmsford knew logistics. He didn't make errors in Abyssinia and it is certain that in South Africa he did what was best with what was available. All of which is of academic interest only as it had absolutely nothing to do with the battle itself.
It has been suggested that the sightings of Zulus here and there to the east and south-east of Isandlwana were the result of a ruse by the Zulu army commander, Ntshingwayo kaMahole, to lure Chelmsford in that direction so as to weaken the camp's defences. This Zulu ruse theory, constructed so as to blame Chelmsford for the disaster by implying that kaMahole out-generalled him, has its own built-in problems, for how could kaMahole know what force Chelmsford would take away from the camp? Sorry; it doesn't stand up to logic.
Another criticism made of Chelmsford is that, despite warnings, he did not return to assist the defenders of the camp with his superior numbers. Some reviewers comment that the fact that the tents were standing - and reported to Chelmsford as such by Lieutenant Milne of the Royal Navy, one of Chelmsford's party, who was armed with a powerful telescope - indicated to Chelmsford that all was well when it was anything but well (standing orders were for tents to be dropped when a camp was attacked) for if the tents had been dropped, that would merely have told Chelmsford that Pulleine was obeying the orders he had sent to move half the camp to Mangeni Falls, not necessarily that the camp was under attack. To criticise Pulleine for not dropping the tents is probably fair; to imply that Chelmsford should have been able to second-guess the situation is not.
Although he was a regular officer, Durnford's rank of Lieutenant Colonel was in a colonial force, which did not give him seniority over Pulleine, who was a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel in a regular unit, the brevet indicating that, while he actually held the rank, he was still paid as a major for a probationary period. So Durnford was neither the commander at Isandlwana nor was he the senior officer at the camp. While he may well have acted rashly, in view of the reports already in of massive Zulu numbers, his conduct of a fighting withdrawal to the camp both held up the Zulu left horn and inflicted a large number of casualties. Had he not made his foray with the two NNH troops but kept this force in camp, the final outcome would not have been much different: the NNH would simply have run out of ammunition in a different place. Durnford's request for Pulleine to support him if he ran into trouble was refused, anyway, so that was not the cause of the disaster or even a contributory factor. In short, that the garrison failed to hold the camp was not Durnford's fault either, although the fact that his men ran out of ammunition was actually his fault as he had made no satisfactory re-supply arrangements. Having said which, even with a re-supply the NNH could not have saved the situation, merely delayed defeat.
So whose fault was it? Saying that Chelmsford was in overall command so the responsibility must be his is nonsense; that argument takes us up the chain of command to the commander-in-chief in London, the Duke of Cambridge - and, to prolong this ridiculous argument, to the Queen herself. The fault lay with the man in command at the spot - and that was Lieutenant-Colonel Pulleine.
Let us now look at some of the aspects of the battle which may act as lessons.
Pulleine had been left in sole command of the camp from the time Chelmsford and his staff led out the reinforcements for Dartnell at 0430. Durnford arrived at about 1030. Even if Durnford had been "senior" and had taken command, Pulleine had had six hours to do something about the defences of the camp before Durnford arrived. He did nothing. Field service regulations stipulated that a camp, even for a temporary overnight stop, must be protected by trenches or earthworks or sangars. (Roman Legions and units of the contemporary French Foreign Legion always dug in or built sangars even if halted for only a few hours.) The camp at Isandlwana was not so protected.
The regulations also said that wagons should be placed in a defensive posture. They were not, as the wagons were simply placed close to the sub-units whose kit they carried. There is some argument that placing the wagons in a defensive laager was too difficult for the inexperienced drivers; possibly - but the inexperience was not so great that the wagons could not have been placed in some kind of defensive position rather than merely acting as neighbourhood convenience stores.
When the battle began, with messages coming in from Scott and others of Zulu appearances, Pulleine's reaction was to send two companies north to Talehane ridge where the Zulus seemed to be in some numbers, but he did not recall the company of NNC on Magaga Knoll where they were right in the path of the Zulu movement. Even as the main assault came in from the north-east, his action was just to recall the two companies while leaving the others - Wardell's and Porteous's - where they had been all morning. Pulleine's placing of his companies left them with serious problems, which even the power of the Martini-Henrys could not overcome.
The main fault in his dispositions was that the infantry were spread out. There were wide gaps between companies and, even within each company, individual soldiers were spaced out up to four paces from each other. (Readers may care to compare this with a similar disposition of troops by Lieutenant Colonel Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn - "Custer's Last Stand" - with a similar outcome.) As a direct result, it was less of a problem for the Zulus to pour through the gaps between the companies and to envelop them while the psychological effect of the soldiers' fire was dramatically reduced. This last comment needs some explanation.
The purpose of battle is to change your opponents' collective attitude. To do this it is often necessary to kill a fair number of them. The best way of changing their attitude is to make that killing very very visible. By spacing out his soldiers, Pulleine ensured that each man fired at and killed a Zulu who was several live and aggressive Zulus from the next one to be killed. Certainly Zulus dropped here and there; what was lost as an attitude-changing opportunity was to mass the fire-power so that - assuming the soldiers were in two ranks and that their total number in each company was about eighty - forty Zulus would be dropped at each volley, in a heap. In this case volley-firing was desirable simply to ensure that very visible and attitude-changing mass destruction. In fact, Zulus of the centre formation were so frightened by the effects of Wardell's and Porteous's companies' scattered firing that they fell to the ground and hid in a hollow for a while until shamed into continuing their advance. But, crucially, there were gaps in the wall of lead. What effect on Zulu morale might have been achieved had they been killed forty at a time in very visible bunches?
When Durnford's troopers came back to the donga, Pulleine placed Lieutenant Pope's company of 2/24th behind them. With no connection to the other redcoat companies, Pope's was doomed. (One is reminded of the similar placing of a bersaglieri company in front of the main line by General Baratieri at Adowa in 1896; they didn't survive either. See the Adowa review.)
Many accounts of the battle concentrate on the failure of the ammunition supply to the companies, usually placing the blame on the lack of suitable screw-drivers to unfasten the boxes. This myth needs to be corrected. The ammunition re-supply to the 24th failed, not because of failure to open the boxes, but because the ammo dumps were too far from the troops in action; it took too long for a soldier to make his way from the company to the quartermaster's ammo point, stand in line while earlier arrivals were served first, then collect his allocation and make his way back to the company and hand out the few extra rounds he had collected. This was a failure by Pulleine as commanding officer of 1/24th, but it affected Pope's 2/24th men as well, and any other troops who needed re-supply. The ammunition re-supply should have started well before the soldiers commenced firing, so that a company dump was placed behind each line, only a few paces from the men in action. On top of that, a regular top-up run should have been in motion to ensure that company dumps were not depleted. It is noticeable that, with many men simply standing around minding officers' horses back in the tented lines, nobody - least of all the quartermasters - grabbed them and the horses to provide a very much quicker way of getting ammunition to the firing lines. The failure of the supply, however, lay with the basic organisation. This was an historical problem in the battalion; Pulleine had simply inherited an inadequate arrangement - or lack of arrangement - and his responsibility for the failure lay simply in not quickly appreciating the situation and making rapid corrections. On the whole, it is unfair to blame Pulleine for this particular operational failure; rather (if at all, for one suspects it was an army-wide problem), any fault could be laid at Glyn's door as the former commanding officer.
The ammunition boxes themselves were designed for long life, not for quick dispensing of their contents. This was a fault attributable to the designers at Woolwich arsenal - but, nevertheless, one can detect the quartermaster mentality at work again. It seems that at Isandlwana there was not a lack of screwdrivers to open the boxes. But even if there had been, the boxes, too strong to have been easily opened by a simple blow from a rifle butt as has often been suggested, could have been opened very quickly by a pistol shot through the screw - and the quartermasters had pistols as their personal weapons. As it happened, though, the quartermasters' assistants did all the screw removal without problems.
A genuine problem related to the ammunition itself. The Martini-Henry became very hot after repeated firing and the brass of the cartridge, not properly formulated to resist the heat, expanded to form an immovable fit in the breech; in addition, the rim was too soft to allow the case to be firmly pulled out. The result was that many rifles became jammed, having what is called a "hard extraction" - which would be better called "non-extraction" - with the case solid in the breech, the extractor having torn through the rim. Many soldiers carried folding pen-knives to dig the recalcitrant metal from the rifles. Needless to say, this problem reduced the effective fire-power of each company after several volleys as soldier after soldier stopped firing to dig out a cartridge case. Having made that comment, it would be wrong to imply as some reviewers have done that whole companies ceased fire to deal with the problem; it was restricted to individual men here and there. It did not have the effect of allowing the Zulus to get up close; that was caused by the dispositions of the companies.
Amongst the many puzzles and unanswered questions about the Isandlwana battle is the relationship between Pulleine and his experienced adjutant, Melvill. The latter was, despite his rank as a lieutenant, not afraid to speak his mind to a colonel, as witness his remarks to Durnford saying that Colonel Pulleine would be quite wrong to let him (Durnford) have a 24th company as they were needed to guard the camp. Quite correct. So where was the experienced Melvill's advice when Pulleine was making such elementary mistakes in the deployment of his troops? Experienced Melvill may have been; but the general standard of thinking amongst Chelmsford's officers left a lot to be desired. A number of surviving officers later confessed, without apparent shame, that they had "forgotten" to load their pistols or carbines - and this with Zulus all around! Could it have been that Melvill wasn't as good a soldier as reports make out, just jealously protective of his battalion's integrity?
It is pleasing to see how much of a difference training and enthusiastic leadership made. The NNH, Durnford's particular favourites, were properly trained even in the few weeks before the expedition crossed the Buffalo, unlike the unfortunate NNC. They could ride well, shoot accurately and were practised in minor unit tactics so that fire and movement were well within their capabilities. Many of them were also experienced, having participated in some of the earlier Kaffir Wars. Every man had a hardy Basuto pony and a modern rifle with a full supply of ammunition. Their officers, in almost every case, could talk to them in their own tongue and most of the troopers could speak English anyway; that made a huge difference. They did very well indeed, quite as well in action as any white unit and better than some.
It is interesting to note that the experienced NMP were used so extensively as vedettes and scouts rather than the IMI. In their black uniforms and white helmets they presented a very smart appearance, and every man was well armed and a good shot. As their original NMP contract restricted their service to work in Natal, every man who crossed the Buffalo River did so as a volunteer and, as a volunteer, had the right to comment about who should lead them. The Natal Carbineers and other colonials had similar views, but then they were all volunteers from the start. Major Dartnell was their common favourite and, when he was replaced by an Imperial (regular) officer, they all effectively went on strike until Dartnell was restored by Chelmsford.
Very very good were those mounted couriers who braved Zulu-infested country to take messages backwards and forwards (often at night) with no tracks and no maps. They were mainly colonial soldiers but there were also a few cases of regulars attached as servants or specifically as couriers who performed this hazardous duty. All praise to them; they, at least, never faltered.
The day following the Isandlwana battle about 3500 Zulus - reports and estimates vary - crossed the Buffalo and attacked the Rorke's Drift base. In temporary command due to his seniority (while the actual garrison commander was away arranging more men for the garrison), was Lieutenant John Chard RE. Under Chard's command, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead had his B Company 2/24th, plus a few men of other units performing particular duties at the base and those as patients in the primitive hospital, a total of about 130 men, as the NNC company stationed there as part of the garrison ran off as soon as the first survivors of Isandlwana came past with lurid tales of the defeat. Chard's men fought off attack after attack, losing seventeen of their number but killing about 350 Zulus. When Chelmsford's party arrived, the garrison then finished off Zulu wounded, making their fatal casualty total over 800. The statistics give some credibility to the concept, suggested above, of massing available fire-power; the Zulus at Rorke's Drift were killed in heaps, not ones and twos, because the defenders were not spread out.
Although the action at Rorke's Drift was really no greater a feat of arms than that performed in many places around the world by British soldiers, notably in the North West Frontier area of India and in Afghanistan, eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded, even to some men whose part in the action had not been fraught with immediate danger. But the spectre of Isandlwana hung over the military hierarchy in London and they and their political masters needed to divert public attention from what had been one of the worst disasters to befall the British army during the tenure of the current parliament. Typically, they entirely ignored what the battle did to the Zulus.