The Anglo-Zulu War


The Anglo-Zulu War

Max Keen


Report of Meeting 2nd February 2016

Geoff Longmore, as recently appointed Chairman of Amblecote History Society, welcomed an excellent turnout to the meeting on such a cold night, taking the opportunity to introduce himself as someone who had made a significant voluntary contribution to the community through working with the Severn Valley Railway and the Wolverhampton Western Front Association. At the appropriate cue he invited Max Keen to commence his talk.

The rhythmic and evocative beat of the original John Barry soundtrack to the epic 1964 film “Zulu” signalled Max Keen, dressed as a Colour Sergeant of the 24th Regiment of Foot (South Wales Borderers), to stride dramatically into The Lehr Theatre to address the packed ranks of the Amblecote History Society.

Together with Bob Coates, a regimental re-enactment enthusiast of the Zulu War, dressed in full uniform including his Martini Henry rifle, they generated a real buzz in the expectant audience. Max issued orders to the ranks in military style before informing the meeting that his passion for this historical event stemmed from him first seeing the film at The Clifton cinema in Lye as a young boy. Since then he has undertaken in-depth research which included an emotional pilgrimage to the battlefields at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. He also stated that he dedicates all of his war oriented talks to the UK forces who continue to face life threatening adversity to this day.

Max described the background to the Anglo - Zulu War as being a clash of two Empires - The British and the Zulu. The actual arrival on a war footing was very complex and came at a time when the Zulu, an amalgamation of clans formed the Zulu Kingdom under King Shaka in between 1838 and 1879, when there was enormous change in Africa involving politics, power, and land with the involvement of the British, Portuguese, Dutch and Zulu. Shaka was assassinated and after a period of unrest a battle for the succession broke out between two of Mpande's sons, Cetshwayo and Mbuyazi. This culminated in 1856 with the Battle of Ndondakusuka, which left Mbuyazi dead. Cetshwayo then set about usurping his father's authority. When Mpande died of old age in 1872, Cetshwayo took over as ruler. Interestingly, Cetshwayo actually took tea with Queen Victoria and posed for the photograph below:

Photograph of Cetshwayo kaMpande, c.1875

The mood of both the British and Zulu at the time was one of supreme over-confidence and it was only a matter of time before a spark ignited all-out war. Sir Henry Bartle Frere, then High Commissioner, seized upon three incidents which occurred in late July, August and September which were the basis for an ultimatum to which Frere knew Cetshwayo could not comply, giving Frere a pretext to attack the Zulu kingdom. The ultimatum itself sought the handover of the culprits, a fine of 500 cattle and disbandment of the Zulu army.

The first two incidents related to the flight into Natal of two wives of Sihayo kaXonga and their subsequent seizure and execution by his brother and sons and were described thus:

"A wife of the chief Sihayo had left him and escaped into Natal. She was followed [on 28 July 1878] by a party of Zulus, under Mehlokazulu, the chief son of Sihayo, and his brother, seized at the kraal where she had taken refuge, and carried back to Zululand, where she was put to death, in accordance with Zulu law..."

"A week later the same young men, with two other brothers and an uncle, captured in like manner another refugee wife of Sihayo, in the company of the young man with whom she had fled. This woman was also carried back, and is supposed to have been put to death likewise; the young man with her although guilty in Zulu eyes of a most heinous crime, punishable with death, was safe from them on English soil; they did not touch him."

The third incident occurred in September, when two men were detained while on a sand bank of the Thukela River near the Middle Drift. Sir Bartle Frere described this matter in a despatch to Sir Michael Hicks Beach, who had replaced Carnarvon as Secretary of State for the Colonies:

"Mr. Smith, a surveyor in the Colonial Engineer Department, was on duty inspecting the road down to the Tugela, near Fort Buckingham, which had been made a few years ago by order of Sir Garnet Wolseley, and accompanied by Mr. Deighton, a trader, resident at Fort Buckingham, went down to the ford across the Tugela. The stream was very low, and ran under the Zulu bank, but they were on this side of it, and had not crossed when they were surrounded by a body of 15 or 20 armed Zulus, made prisoners, and taken off with their horses, which were on the Natal side of the river, and roughly treated and threatened for some time; though, ultimately, at the instance of a headman who came up, they were released and allowed to depart."  

By themselves, these incidents were flimsy grounds upon which to found an invasion of Zululand. Bulwer did not initially hold Cetshwayo responsible for what was clearly not a political act in the seizure and murder of the two women. There was much political maneuvering for a while but Frere wanted to provoke a conflict with the Zulus and in that goal he succeeded. Cetshwayo rejected the demands of 11 December, by not responding by the end of the year. A concession was granted by Bartle Frere until 11 January 1879, after which Bartle Frere deemed a state of war to exist. The British forces intended for the defense of Natal had already been on the march with the intention to attack the Zulu kingdom. On 10 January they were poised on the border. On 11 January, they crossed the border and invaded Zululand. For his part, Cetshwayo strenuously attempted to avoid war with the British and, should it occur, wanted to limit its scope and effects. He ordered his troops to defend their country only if attacked and not to carry the war beyond its borders. He directed them to avoid killing any of the invaders other than the regular British soldiers in their red coats.

Max informed the audience that the Zulu had a corps hierarchy and barracks, similar to the British. There was a cultural demarkation between married and unmarried Zulu in that the warrior needed to be aged above 40 to become one of the elite members of the fighting force. On the battlefield the elite married fighters sported white shields while the others had patterned shields and were generally deployed as the horns in the traditional tactical attack formation. The formation for the attack, described as the “horns of the beast", was said to have been devised by Shaka, the Zulu King who established Zulu hegemony in Southern Africa. The main body of the army delivered a frontal assault, called the “loins", while the “horns" spread out behind each of the enemy’s flanks and delivered the secondary and often fatal attack in the enemy’s rear. Zulu warriors were armed primarily with Assegai (slim hardwood spear or javelin with an iron tip), thrusting spears, clubs, some throwing spears and shields made of cowhide. Some Zulu did have a few Enfield rifles but only had small supplies of ammunition and were not well trained in how to use them effectively. Zulu were mobile and strong, using decoy forces and sending out spies to report back on the enemy. It was a Zulu tradition to slit dead soldiers from the waist to the neck, based on their belief that this was a sign of respect as it released the spirit within them.

Zulu Warrior

At this stage in the talk Max handed over to Bob to describe his impressive red uniform, starting with the hats which were worn ranging from the Glengarry Cap, an undressed officers hat and then the white pith helmets which together with the bright red uniform did not provide any camouflage at all in a parched grass environment. Through experience the white helmets were stained with tea or coffee to provide better cover. Bob then showed the audience the two ammunition pouches which held 70 rounds to arm the standard breach loading Martini Henry rifle. It was a good rifle but was prone to overheat when fired repeatedly and needed to be cooled down with water or bound with fabric or hide to prevent burns to the hands. With a 19 inch bayonet fixed it gave a good reach advantage to injure or kill any attackers, though it was heavy to wield. Bob had a wooden water barrel lined with lead - not perhaps as hygienic or safe as the drinks bottles of today. Finally a “bread bag” provided storage for any personal effects the solder may wish to carry. Next a quite impromptu sparring session began, with Bob armed with bayonet fixed and Max wielding a short stabbing assegai and a Zulu shield, demonstrating what the close quarter fighting may have been like and trying to determine which weaponry was best. An honourable draw was declared without bloodshed!

The British forces were marginally bolstered by a Natal native contingent and some disaffected Zulu who wore bright red headbands to distinguish them from enemy Zulu. Max then went on to describe the events that ensued as the two forces engaged on 22/23rd January 1879 - armies of 15,000 British infantry against 40,000 trained and fit Zulu. The first British invasion consisted of three columns marching into Zululand. The middle column of 7,800 men faced huge logistical problems as they moved towards Isandlwana, as their buffalo drawn wagons needed to cross ravines and valuable time was lost as the Engineers built bridges - it took 9 days to progress just 8 miles such was the difficulty of the terrain. However the initial entry of all three columns was unopposed.

Meanwhile Lord Chelmsford leading the centre column, which had advanced from Rorke's Drift, was encamped near Isandlwana; on the morning of that day he split his forces and moved out to support a reconnoitering party, leaving the camp in charge of Colonel Pulleine. The British were outmanoeuvred by the main Zulu army nearly 20,000 strong led by Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza. Chelmsford was lured eastward with much of his centre column by a Zulu diversionary force while the main Impi attacked his camp. Chelmsford's decision not to set up the British camp defensively, contrary to established doctrine, and ignoring information that the Zulus were close at hand were decisions that the British were soon to regret - he had not dug out ditches nor circled the wagons into a defensive ring formation. Max then described the key moments in the ensuing battle. An 800metre firing line was set, as Max pointed out in a video clip, but this was soon breached by encircling Zulu. The Battle of Isandlwana was the greatest victory that the Zulu kingdom would enjoy during the war. The British centre column was wrecked and its camp annihilated with heavy casualties as well as the loss of all its supplies, ammunition and transport. The defeat left Chelmsford no choice but to hastily retreat out of Zululand.

Battle of Isandlwana

The whole battle had been a total disaster, a few soldiers escaped on horseback but were hemmed in by the swollen river. Cairns, tended by Zulu, mark where the British troops were buried where they fell. Max then told a few true stories base on his learnings from his visit to the battle site which added to the sensations which the captivated audience were feeling.

With the Amblecote History Society now well informed about the strategies of both sides, Max told the history of two local men who distinguished themselves in the bloody battles in which about 12,000 were killed (1727 British servicemen and 10,500 Zulu). Pte Samuel Wassall of Brierley Hill had retreated towards the Buffalo River, in which he saw a comrade struggling, and apparently drowning. He rode to the bank, dismounted, leaving his horse on the Zulu side, rescued the man from the stream, re-mounted his horse, dragging Private Westwood across the river under a heavy shower of bullets. He was award the Victoria Cross. As was Colour Sergeant Anthony Booth, who was in the northern column near the Ntombi river. During an attack by very large numbers of Zulu he rallied a few men on the south bank of the river and covered the retreat of 50 soldiers and others for a distance of three miles. He is buried in St Michael's churchyard, Brierley Hill.

Colour Sergeant Anthony Clarke Booth VC

In the battle's aftermath, a party of some 4,000 Zulu reserves mounted an unauthorised raid on the nearby British army border / supply post of Rorke's Drift and were eventually driven off after 10 hours of ferocious fighting. Max had been to Rorke’s Drift and referred to the actor Michael Caine’s performance as Major Gonville Bromhead. He showed many pictures he had taken of how the site looks today. Bromhead was later was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the defence of Rorke's Drift where the small British garrison of 139 soldiers successfully repulsed an assault by some 4,000 Zulu warriors – “not a lot of people know that !”.

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift

Some make-shift fortifications had been devised around the garrison using sacks of meal grain, biscuit boxes and cattle wagons to bolster the kraal construction and barricades were placed on top of 6 foot ledge walls to make it more difficult for Zulu to break through. Everyone in the room at this point were trying to imagine the desperation of the vastly outnumbered British, some of whom were trapped in burning buildings or individually facing the incessant flow of Zulu foe. The battle itself spanned 12 hours, finishing at 4.00am.

Soon afterwards Lord Chelmsford returned with massive forces and decimated the Zulu. He ultimately received a Knight Grand Cross of Bath, largely because of Ulundi, however, he was severely criticized by a Horse Guards investigation and he would never serve in the field again. Bartle Frere was relegated to a minor post in Cape Town.

Following the conclusion of the Anglo-Zulu War, Bishop Colenso interceded on behalf of Cetshwayo with the British government and succeeded in getting him released from Robben Island and returned to Zululand in 1883.

Throughout the talk Max presented background facts and anecdotes in a way which brought the history to life, including some personal views during his fascinating talk, often interjecting with amusing tales and pointing out contradictions to reality and what was portrayed in the film. He also showed a range of photographs and video clips he had taken on his visit.

Geoff Longmore, the newly appointed Chairman then formally thanked Max for his most interesting and enjoyable talk. The evening concluded with rapturous applause for Max from a packed audience with Max reciprocating by inviting them to take a closer look at some of the items he had brought along. It was a fitting end to a memorable night.

Lance Cartwright, Amblecote History Society, PR Officer


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