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 The quest for Isandhlwana

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PostSubject: The quest for Isandhlwana   The quest for Isandhlwana EmptyMon Dec 12, 2011 1:59 pm

The quest for Isandhlwana

By Christina Koning.

"If the starting-point for The Dark Tower was a few handwritten pages in a long-dead woman’s diary for 1879, the process of writing the novel brought in many other elements. There was the fact that the story was set at a particular time in history; that it was set in a country I had not at that time visited; and that it was about war. All these facts, I knew, would involve me in a good deal of research, both of the kind that involves sitting in libraries, and the kind that’s about going to see for oneself. It wasn’t the first time I’d done such research – a previous novel Fabulous Time, part of which is set in Shanghai in 1911, had necessitated a visit to China – but it was the most sustained and ambitious work of its kind I’d so far attempted.

At the time, I didn’t think of myself as writing a ‘historical’ novel; just a novel which happened to be set in a more distant bit of the past than I’d previously focused on. All novels are about the past, to some extent – even the most resolutely contemporary. Writers as renowned for their modern world-view as Dickens, George Eliot, and Thackeray, all published works we would now call historical fiction. Certainly one doesn’t think of A Tale of Two Cities, or Middlemarch, or Vanity Fair as belonging to a separate category from the rest of these authors’ works, and yet these are all novels set at least a generation before the time of writing.

The quest for Isandhlwana, which had been inspired by David Rattray’s talks at the Royal Geographical Society, took me first to the British Library. Here was a treasury of source-material about the Zulu wars, much of it first-hand. Setting the tone was civil-servant-turned-novelist Bertram Mitford’s Through the Zulu Country, a wonderfully evocative account of an overland journey by ox-cart in 1882, to visit the battlefields of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift – a journey I would later make myself (albeit by more twenty-first century modes of transport). A brief extract gives the flavour:

From the brow of the hill just before descending, Isandhlwana comes into view, standing out in rugged boldness from the surrounding heights, towering grim and dark in the summer haze like a huge lion, but the glimpse is little more than a momentary one, and is lost to sight as the road makes a sudden dip. In front the Buffalo [river] threads along, past Rorke’s Drift and the Bashi valley, and the open plain stretches away beyond the Blood River, far into Transvaal territory. A silent and desert expanse; on the right a semi-gloom, where the frowning cliffs overhanging the Bashi valley cast their shadows; not a sign of life anywhere – a lonely and unprotected border…

Then there are the harrowing reminders of what took place on the former battlefield:

I ride over the camp ground, and although three years have elapsed, there is no lack of traces of the melancholy struggle. In spite of a luxuriant growth of herbage the circles where stood the rows of tents are plainly discernible, while strewn about are tent pegs, cartridge cases, broken glass, bits of rope, meat tins and sardine boxes pierced with assegai stabs, shrivelled up pieces of shoe-leather, and rubbish of every description; bones of horses and oxen gleam white and ghastly, and here and there in the grass one stumbles across a half-buried skeleton…

As well as his superb travel writing, Mitford published over thirty novels – many of them about his time in South Africa.

No less colourful, with regard to both his life and his prose style, was Colonel George Hamilton-Browne – nicknamed ‘Maori’ on account of the knowledge of that language he had acquired during his service with the British army in New Zealand. His description of the Zululand campaign – in which he commanded a battalion of black auxiliary infantry (the Natal Native Contingent) appears in the splendidly titled A Lost Legionary in South Africa (London, 1912) from which Hamilton-Browne’s impressions of the build-up to the conflict emerge with startling immediacy:

The morning was very cold, the dense morning fog, for which Zululand is famous, hung close to the ground, and although it was midsummer, the cold bit, causing us to shiver in our thin khaki clothing, whilst the naked natives turned blue, their teeth chattering like stone-breakers at work… Well before daylight in the bitter fog, we came down to the drift. The river was full, rapid and very cold… we hardened our hearts and dashed at it, the natives all linking arms and rushing in en masse. My horse was nearly carried off his feet… I do not know how many of my natives were lost…

Hamilton-Browne goes on to describe the fateful morning of 22nd January, when he and his men arrived at Lord Chelmsford’s camp, which had been set up earlier that day a few miles away from Isandhlwana, to find a scene of surprising tranquillity:

Never shall I forget the sight of that peaceful picnic. Here were the staff quietly breakfasting and the whole command scattered over the country!

Ordered to return to Isandhlwana and assist commanding officer Pulleine in striking the camp, ‘Maori’ Browne set off across country:

So I kept on down that valley which presently opened out into a big plain and on the far side of it… was a queer-shaped mountain… With my glasses I could discern a long white line which I knew to be tents. The name of that mountain was Isandlwana and the time was then 9 am on the 22nd January 1879…

An even closer view of the action is to be found in General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s Memories of Forty-Eight Years’ Service (London 1925) which records, amongst other extraordinary moments of the author’s long and distinguished career, the then twenty-one year-old Lieutenant Smith-Dorrien’s experiences of the battle:

We could hear heavy firing (to the north) even then (8 am)… At about 12 am the Zulus, who had apparently fallen back behind the hills, again showed in large numbers, coming down into the plain with great boldness, and our guns and rifles were pretty busy for some time… It was difficult to see exactly what was going on, but firing was heavy. It was evident now that the Zulus were in great force, for they could be seen extending (ie throwing out their horns) away across the plain to the south-east…

Within another hour, the situation becomes increasingly desperate, with the advance of the Zulu army upon the camp:

It was a marvellous sight, line upon line of men in slightly extended order, one behind the other, firing as they came along, for a few of them had firearms, bearing all before them. The rocket battery… was firing, and suddenly it ceased, and presently we saw the remnants of Durnford’s force, mostly mounted Basutos, galloping back to the right of our position… The ground was interspersed with ‘dongas’ and in them Russell and his rocket battery was caught, and none escaped to tell the tale…

A grim account of what followed is given by Captain H H Parr, aide-de-camp to Lord Chelmsford, in his book, A Sketch of the Kafir and Zulu Wars: Guadana to Isandhlwana (London, 1880):

It fell quite dark as we neared the camp, and we could see fires burning near the ridge, where we expected to find the enemy holding it in force. At about two thousand yards the line was halted, while the guns opened and fired two rounds. We advanced to within about twelve hundred yards, and fired two more rounds. Then, with fixed bayonets, we advanced into the camp, and made our way through, men and horses stumbling over tents half-upset, broken wagons, dead bodies of soldiers and of Zulus, dead oxen, dead horse, dead mules, burst sacks of grain, empty ammunition boxes, articles of camp equipment; and on the ridge, amongst the dead bodies of our comrades, formed our bivouac.

Parr’s account is one of several (Bernard Mitford’s retrospective view being another) which includes the Zulu version of what took place. Here is Parr’s:

‘The red soldiers who had been on the left,’ said an officer of the Umcityu, ‘they killed many of us with their bayonets. When they found we were upon them, they turned back to back. They all fought till they died. They were hard to kill; not one tried to escape.’

This is from Mitford’s translation of the words of a warrior of the Umbonambi regiment:

‘My regiment and the Umpunga formed the centre of the impi. When the soldiers in the donga saw that the Kandampemvu were getting behind them, they retreated towards the camp, firing at us all the time. As they retreated we followed them. I saw several white men on horseback galloping towards the ’neck’, which was the only point open; then the Nokenke and Nodwengu regiments, which had formed the right horn of the impi, joined with the Ngobamakosi on the ’neck’. After that there was so much smoke that I could not see whether the white men had got through or not. The tumult and the firing was wonderful; every warrior shouted ‘Usútu!’ as he killed anyone, and the sun got very dark, like night, with the smoke…’

Some powerfully evocative accounts of the battle and its aftermath are also to be found in Frank Emery’s seminal work about the Zulu wars, The Red Soldier (London, 1977), which collects together the hundreds of letters written by officers and private soldiers in the months leading up to the conflict.

This is from a letter written by Richard Stevens, of the 10th Essex Rifle Volunteers:

The order was given to get into camp. We got there, and I went all over the place looking for a gun, but could not get one; my revolver was broken… The Zulus were in the camp ripping our men up with their assegais. They were not content with killing, but were ripping the men up afterwards. Never has such a disaster happened to the English Army. There were no means of sending to the General [ie Lord Chelmsford] who was out of the camp. Well now, about myself. I got out of camp somehow, I don’t know how, and went through awful places to get to the Drift, where… I was as nearly drowned as could be… I have not told you all of it, as I have not time or paper… There were 537 of the 24th Regiment killed in camp… so you can imagine what it was. The Zulus have all our wagons, with stores and ammunition. There will be an awful row at home about this…

Here is Private Henry Moses’s letter:

I take the pleasure of writing these few lines to you, hoping to find you well, as I am, so far. I know what soldiering is now. We have marched 200 miles and haven’t had a night’s sleep this month. We are in fear every night, and have had to fight the Zulus, who came on us and killed 800 of our men. I wish I was back in England again, for I should never leave… It is nothing but mountains here; all biscuits to eat. Dear father, and sisters, and brothers, goodbye. We may never meet again. I repent the day that I took the shilling…

From Patrick Farrell’s letter, describing the same events:

I write you these few and sorrowful lines to let you know that I am still living. Dear brother, on 11 January we crossed into Zululand, and all went well until 22nd… We slept that night amongst dead bodies… In the morning, to look at the camp, what a state! 1,000 white men, and 5,000 black men killed! Wagons broke! Bullocks killed! Tents all gone! It was the most horrid sight that was ever seen by a soldier, dear brother…

John Price, of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment, wrote to his parents:

We arrived in camp about nine o’clock at night, and all the tents were burned to the ground, and where we had to sleep was a very uncomfortable place among the dead bodies all night… Tell Harry not to enlist for God’s sake, or else he will be sorry for it…

Sergeant W Morley [‘H’ Company] wrote to a comrade at Brecon, bleakly listing the dead from his company:

Our loss is Lt. Dyer, Pope, Austen, Griffiths, Quartermaster Bloomfield, QM-Sergeant Davies, Sergeants Limes, Reeve, Shaw,Watkins, Ross, Carse, Chew, Maxfield, Haigh, McCaffrey, Williams; in all five officers, ten sergeants, nine corporals, two drummers and 159 privates of our company. Sergeant Shaw, Corporal Sims, Privates Byard, Joe King, Nokes, Tamer, MacCracken, Hill, Neagle, Machin, Quelford, Farr, Fitzpatrick, Watson, General’s Staff Bishop. There was five companies of the 1/24th in camp… and only seven escaped…

Major Francis Grenfell (60th rifles) expressed the bitterness felt by officers and men alike at the loss of so many comrades:

All my dear old friends of the last four years dead and gone, and we have not even been able to bury them… Officers and men behaved splendidly – dying back to back – and at the last rallying round the colours, not a man of the regiment attempted to escape till all was lost…

Whilst Grenfell’s account – like those of many of his fellow officers – offers a perhaps more conventionally heroic depiction of the battle than that which emerges from the letters of the private soldiers, it expresses a similar mixture of emotions. Anger at what was widely perceived to have been the incompetence of the commanding officer; sadness at the waste of life; shock – how could it have happened? – are uppermost.

This was a mood quickly seized upon by several of the journalists sent to cover the story. They, too, left their record of events – much of it filled with powerful detail, and wonderfully evocative turns of phrase. The doyen of war correspondents during this period was Archibald Forbes, a former soldier in the Royal Dragoons during the Franco-Prussian war, who filed stories for the Daily News from Spain and Turkey, Afghanistan and Burma, before he was sent to cover the Anglo-Zulu conflict. With his no less extraordinary colleague, Melton Prior, of the Illustrated London News, he visited the battlefields of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift six months after the disaster, and wrote this memorable account:

In the ravine dead men lay thick – mere bones, with toughened, discoloured skin like leather covering them, and clinging tight to them, the flesh all wasted away. Some were almost wholly dismembered, heaps of clammy yellow bones. I forbear to describe the faces, with their blackened features and beards blanched by rain and sun. Every man had been disembowelled. Some were scalped, and other subject to yet ghastlier mutilation. The clothes had lasted better than the poor bodies they covered, and helped to keep the skeletons together.

All the way up the slope, I traced, by the ghastly tokens of dead men, the fitful line of flight. Most of the men hereabouts were infantry of the 24th. It was like a long string with knots in it, the string formed of single corpses, the knots of clusters of the dead, where, it seemed, little groups might have gathered to make a hopeless stand and die…

Men like Forbes and Prior, as well as the equally fearless war artist Charles Fripp, whose painting of the Battle of Isandlwana was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1885, were the inspiration for my own war correspondent hero, Septimus Doyle. Fripp was an especially cool customer, writing thus of the Battle of Ulundi, which he experienced first-hand: “Now and again a bullet sighed overhead, as I watched the beautiful advance of the enemy…” An admirer of the Zulus, he thought they deserved better treatment than they were to receive at the hands of the – eventually – victorious British. “Naked savages as they were, let us honour them,” he wrote, in another of his despatches from South Africa.

With so many fascinating figures – of whom the above are just a few – and so many vivid accounts of the war and its aftermath to inspire me, it is surprising, not that I wanted to write The Dark Tower in the first place, but that I ever managed to finish it. Because for every detail I was able to incorporate, there were a dozen I had to leave out. I was not, I had to remind myself, writing a history book, but a novel – and novels are necessarily restricted to a cast of – at most – four or five main characters, rather than a cast of thousands. I could only hope that my version would at least do justice to those brave men on both sides who left their own unforgettable accounts of Isandhlwana behind."
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