Thursday, July 18, 2013

Isandhlwana... The Disasters Keep Coming in the Scramble For Africa

by David William Wilkin

Such times that heroism is made of. Many are familiar with the exploits of the British during the Zulu War for the classic movie ZULU! 

starring Michael Caine. It portrays the defense and victory of Rorke's Drift.

Many, however, do not know that earlier that day, on January 22nd 1879, there was a horrible disaster at Isandhlwana. Another movie, ZULU Dawn starring Peter O'Toole, depicted this tragedy. And here I shall relay the details of it. Those who remember the opening of ZULU!  may recall Richard Burton as the narrator making mention of it.

Southern Africa was considered a gem, perhaps not as lucrative for the empire as India, but one that needed care and attention to become so. Sir Henry Bartle Frere had thought that he would one day reach the height of Colonial service as Governor of India, but that did not happen. In London, after he had been Governor of Bombay, he was convinced that he could turn his posting to Southern Africa into a Governorship of Africa.

So in Africa, expanding the Empire's control was something he was clearly concerned with. When a dispute was created between the European colonists and the Zulus, Bartle and his administration pushed the Zulus into war. He could not fathom how a power with 40,000 soldiers (many of whom could not take a wife and have a family until they had been blooded in war) had no designs on the British holdings.

War thus came. (There were months of positioning but ultimately the British powers pushed for this, neglecting to tell the government back in England that they were angling for war.)

Possibly one of the blunders that occurred and the reason for the disaster was that the commander in chief, Lord Chelmsford, did not respect the enemy, nor was he capable of conducting such a war. He micromanaged his subordinates on campaign to the extent that he acted more as the commander of a company or battalion, rather than a general. He would accompany his units and directly order the troops rather than let their commanders give them those orders. 

The incursion into the lands of the Zulu (the Zulu ensured that in this war they did not leave their lands for those claimed by the British or other territories) showed that Chelmsford had no regard for the capabilities of the natives. He set up camp with out defensive perimeters and this would result in the near total destruction of the British camp at Isandhlwana on the 22nd.

Without proper defenses, scouting, or orders, the main camp was left by Chelmsford and a reinforced patrol larger than the force left to the camp. To his credit he did order up reinforcements for the camp. However, there was a great deal of resentment between his own subordinates, made worse by this disaster, so that now, after the battle, blame has caused their animosity to grow. The two officers (Colonel Crealock and Major Francis Clery) who wrote out the orders for the camp commander, Lieutenant Colonel Pulleine, and the commander of the reinforcing column, Colonel Durnford, did so with a vagueness that caused problems once the Zulus attacked.

The British patrols missed the fact and did not send out pickets to see that there were 20,000 warriors close by.

Even so, once the Zulu attacked, the British still had a chance. They were in good order and their skill with modern weapons kept the Zulus at bay. Gun fire held off the natives with their Assegai. Then the next and most likely fatal foolishness of the British came into play.

The Quartermasters. The conundrum of ordering of the camp had the ammunition supplies for the various regiments very far from the fighting. Then Quartermaster Bloomfield of the 2/24th would not give out his ammunition to those from other battalions. Lieutenant Smith-Dorrien came upon this foolishness and took what he needed for his men, asking the quartermaster when he protested if he wished for a requisition.

Yet even an officer who had some common sense was not enough, for the British, worried that ammunition was too easily pilfered perhaps, had altered the security from a simple clasp to open the chests of bullets, to a more permanent solution. Not nails which could have at least been pried up but screws, and in the midst of the battle, finding a screwdriver was very hard to do.

The bullets that the men at the front a few hundred yards away so desperately needed were encased in boxes that the soldiers had fatal difficulty getting into.

Once the British ran out of ammunition, that was the end. Prior to that moment, the Zulus were even beginning to draw away, but they sensed their chance when the gunshots diminished.

That was all they needed. Soon 1700 of the British troops were dead. The only ones to survive were those who had access to horses or were dressed in anything but the famous red coats.

It was a disaster that could have been avoided for several reasons: better scouting by General Chelmsford, better orders from Chelmsford to Pulleine or Durnford (the orders written by Colonel Crealock were never found), and then the fiasco with the Quartermasters.

Thomas Pakenham The Scramble For Africa, 1991
Bryan Perrett Last Stand!, 1991


Mr. Wilkin writes Regency Historicals and Romances, Ruritanian (A great sub-genre that is fun to explore) and Edwardian Romances, Science Fiction and Fantasy works. He is the author of the very successful Pride & Prejudice continuation; Colonel Fitzwilliam’s Correspondence. He has several other novels set in Regency England including The End of the World and The Shattered Mirror. 

His most recent work is the humorous spoof; Jane Austen and Ghostsa story of what would happen were we to make any of these Monsters and Austen stories into a movie.

And Two Peas in a Pod, a madcap tale of identical twin brothers in Regency London who find they must impersonate each other to pursue their loves.
He is published by Regency Assembly Press

The links for all locations selling Mr. Wilkin's work can be found at the webpage and will point you to your favorite internet bookstore: David’s Books, and at various Internet and realworld bookstores including the iBookstoreAmazonBarnes and NobleSmashwords.

And he maintains his own blog called The Things That Catch My Eye where the entire Regency Lexicon has been hosted these last months as well as the current work in progress of the full Regency Timeline is being presented.

You also may follow Mr. Wilkin on Twitter at @DWWilkin
Mr. Wilkin maintains a Pinterest page with pictures and links to all the Regency Research he uncovers at Pinterest Regency-Era


  1. Not certain I would describe the victory of an indigenous people provoked into a war they did not want by a bunch of empire-building incompetent racists as a "horrible disaster" but an interesting post that high-lights the British at their incompetent best.

  2. So many chance to avert the war. Then to avert the battle, and last to avert the outcome. And so many roads not taken.


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