The real men of Harlech: the story of Rorke's Drift

While the British imperial project is now seen as regrettable, the stories of human courage told in Zulu Rising still make for stirring reading.

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Zulu Rising: The Epic Story of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift
Ian Knight

One cold winter weekend in 1964, I and a dozen other young boys were marched from our prep school in the English county of Kent, not to church as was the weekly custom, but to the local cinema. Such a treat was unprecedented. Then again, Zulu was an unprecedented film: a badly needed Technicolor dream of past glories to illuminate the gloom of a post-Suez, post-great Britain.

That, at least, was how I now imagine our headmaster saw it. A former cavalry major and Dunkirk veteran, seldom seen out of tweed jacket, regimental tie and plus-fours, he sat ram-rod straight throughout the screening, moustache bristling with pride as he sucked, somewhat incongruously, on a carton of orange juice.

At the time we neither knew nor would have cared that the words sung by the valiant Welsh regiment facing the Zulu hordes, "Men of Harlech stop your dreaming/Can't you see their spear points gleaming?", had been written for the film, or that the 24th Regiment of Foot that had immortalised itself at Rorke's Drift in 1879 was not, in fact, a Welsh regiment at all, or that for 10 hours the garrison of 139 men was far too preoccupied with the life-or-death business of close combat to have given much thought to close harmony.

Nevertheless, thanks to that film, and its subsequent annual role in British Christmas television schedules, most Britons of a certain age are familiar with the story of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, one of the quintessential British tales of disaster averted.

No one is more familiar with the story than Ian Knight, who has spent three decades studying it. His string of books (The National Army Museum Book of the Zulu War, Zulu: The Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift and a dozen more) have established him as one of the pre-eminent authorities on the Zulu War. Yet this raises a question: what remains for Knight, or anyone else, to tell us about the subject? The answer is, of course, very little, but the continuing appetite for his books says a great deal about the psychological importance of these events to the British national self-image.

For Knight, of course, there is always another archaeological find, a leg bone here, a brass button there, that demands a fine-tuning of the narrative. Last year, for example, a young British soldier slain at Isandlwana was identified by a tunic button after his remains were unearthed. But while the essential outline of the story remain unaltered, one could not hope to find a better, clearer account of these events, not even among the author's many previous works on the subject. After all, as he writes: "This book has been over 30 years in the making," and it shows.

The basic facts are well rehearsed. In January 1879 an invading army of almost 4,000 men crossed into Zululand from the British colony of Natal and set up camp at the foot of Isandlwana, a "stark, solemn rock" some 15 kilometres into enemy territory. There the commander, Lord Chelmsford, made two basic and deadly mistakes. First, he divided his force, leading more than half off on a fruitless search for the enemy, the job of a squadron of cavalry at most. Second, he failed to ensure that the camp he left behind was properly fortified. Contrary to standard practice, the many supply wagons were not laagered (circled) and entrenchments were not dug.

Survivors recalled that a number of officers expressed their misgivings. The long rows of tents were "very pretty, though rather extended", commented one. "Do the staff think we are going to meet an army of schoolgirls?" asked another. "Why in the name of all that is holy do we not laager?"

Chelmsford had committed the cardinal sin of underestimating his enemy. On January 22, 1879, 727 British soldiers and 471 of their African allies paid for his hubris with their lives. A partial eclipse added "an apocalyptic touch entirely in keeping with the dark grandeur of the Isandlwana story" as the camp was overrun by 20,000 Zulus. Only 100 British soldiers, those with horses, managed to escape.

The killing was not over, but the tide had turned. Some 3,000 Zulu reserves advanced towards Rorke's Drift, where the handful of redcoats, outnumbered 20 to one, held them at bay for 10 hours. The battle, fought mainly in darkness, finally petered out at about 2am, by which time an estimated 600 Zulus lay dead for the loss of just 15 British lives.

This, of course, was the way the day ought to have gone at Isandlwana. As Rorke's Drift proved, the assegais (spears) and wild, courageous rushes of the Zulus were no match for breech-loading Martini-Henry rifles in the hands of well-trained troops behind adequate, if hastily constructed, defences.

But the courage of lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead and their men at Rorke's Drift cannot be overstated. News of the massacre was carried to the post by "exhausted and shocked" survivors from Isandlwana, who rode past on their way back into Natal. They left the men in no doubt that they were next for the chop and that, because it was assumed Chelmsford's column had also been destroyed, they stood no chance of being relieved.

At this point the garrison would have been justified in making a tactical retreat. Yet they knew they were all that stood between the Zulu army and the scattered homesteads of the colony. They stood their ground.

Within that simple narrative framework hangs many a tale of horror and courage. Knight maps out the road to war efficiently, but it is when the talking stops and the action starts that he really comes into his own as a storyteller, drawing his eyewitness accounts from both sides of the conflict. From the moment the British line breaks at Isandlwana ("I realised that a horrible sauve qui peut had commenced", recalled one trooper) the reader is carried along on a surging narrative tide.

We see Simeon Nkambule, a sergeant in the Natal Native Contingent at Isandlwana, as he finds a Boy of the 24th ("Boy" was a rank in the Victorian army, usually held by under-age sons of soldiers) alone on a wagon, where he has been ordered to guard the regiment's ammunition. Nkambule urges him to flee but the boy, "surprised and hurt to think anyone could think he would desert his post", stays to meet his death.

A moment later we are alongside Trooper Wheatland Edwards and another Natal Carbineer, isolated in the melée and fighting back-to-back "like furies with our short rifles and small dagger-like bayonets in a great effort to get back to our companions". They can see them nearby, "selling their lives dearly, using their fists, rifle butts and daggers to terrible purpose", and can hear the high-pitched shouts of the "little piccanin", the black ammunition boy courageously handing out cartridges and crying out 'M'nition baas! M'nition baas!' ... until he was killed with the others".

There are dozens of similar scenes, many witnessed only by the victors, who for generations recalled with respect the ferocious last stands of individuals and small groups. The final order heard, reported The Graphic, a London newspaper, was "fix bayonets and die like British soldiers do".

Isandlwana was, of course, a Pyrrhic victory that would destroy the Zulu kingdom. The British army returned in June and avenged its defeat in a series of battles that killed 10,000 Zulus, cost King Cetshwayo his liberty and lost his people their land and independence.

Knight makes a brief and facile foray into politics. "If the British cause in 1879 seems reprehensible now," he writes, "there are enough contemporary parallels, in Iraq and elsewhere, to suggest that no one, least of all politicians, learns from history." Yet he elsewhere acknowledges that there are "few things more profoundly pointless than attempting to apply contemporary morality to historical events".

For the British, perhaps the continuing resonance of the events at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift owes something to the fact that, as brutal and shocking as they were, they were soon to be overshadowed by the butchery of the First World War, after which they could be looked back upon almost fondly as the last age of "civilised" warfare.

So, at any rate, thought Horace Smith-Dorrien, a young lieutenant at Isandlwana who survived to command the British Second Army during the First Battle of Ypres, which in one month in 1914 cost the British, French and German armies almost a quarter of a million casualties.

At Isandlwana, Smith-Dorrien later wrote, "our enemy appeared to us to be possessed of savagery beyond description. But we had no conception then of how civilisation would produce a refinement of brutality and bestiality alongside which our Zulus would be regarded as comparative angels."

Jonathan Gornall is the News Features Editor at The National.

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