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|Subject: CAMPAIGN LIFE IN THE BRITISH ARMY DURING THE ZULU WAR Fri Dec 30, 2011 10:49 pm|| |
CAMPAIGN LIFE IN THE BRITISH ARMY DURING THE ZULU WAR
Brian Best The British Army of the 1870’s was absorbing the reforms implemented by
Gladstone’s Secretary for War, Edward Cardwell. Besides such humanitarian
acts as abolishing flogging during peacetime, the main object was to save
money. The Army Enlistment Act of 1870 shortened a soldier’s active service
from twelve to six years with six more on the Reserve. For the first time in it’s
history this gave the Army a large well-trained reserve and, with the short
service, had the potential of attracting a better calibre of recruit.
In practice, the physical standard of the average recruit actually fell. In 1870
the average height for a soldier was 5’8" but by the start of the Zulu War it had
dropped to 5’4". Although the number of recruits increased during the 1870’s,
the Army’s strength by 1879 was only 186,000 (compared with the Prussian
army of 2.2 million!)
The Army was still regarded as the last resort for a desperate man and private
soldiers were still looked upon as social outcasts. Although the bad old days
of giving a convicted criminal the choice of prison or the army had long
passed, the stigma still stuck. The unemployed and the unemployable found
security of a kind in the Army. Bored youngsters dazzled by the stories and
flattery of flamboyant recruiting sergeants, soon found the reality of a home
posting in the Army even more restricting than their previous existence. It was
something of a relief when a regiment was sent abroad to some exotic posting
just to escape the grinding grimness of barrack life.
For the Officer Class, Cardwell’s abolition of the purchase system appeared to
open the door to an unwelcome influx of the non-elite serious career soldier
from a more modest background. In fact the social composition of the officer
class had hardly altered. Low pay, coupled with the high cost of being an
officer, meant those without private means could not afford to become
officers. Also, with the establishment of the Staff College, the quality of
officers from the wealthy class improved and it was not until the Great War
and the decimation of the old officer caste that a commission was open to all
those previously denied.
The average officer came from more or less the same background and
education. Emphasis was placed on fitness, loyalty, team spirit and physical
bravery. Most enjoyed sports, particularly hunting, and relished the prospect
of going to Africa and the chance to hunt game and the native foe. On
campaign there was also the opportunity to do something that would
favourably catch the eye of the High Command and enhance promotion
prospects. These motives prompted many officers from regiments not
involved in the conflict to volunteer for any of the jobs available ranging from
staff, transport and supplies to serving with locally raised units.
The average soldier, on the other hand, had no such motivation. Initiative was
not expected or encouraged; just blind obedience. Those that served in the
Zulu War had little or no idea of any overall plan or as to why they were
fighting. Rumour and hearsay was rife and little or no attempt was made to
keep the men accurately informed. Their needs and ambitions were more
basic; keeping as dry and comfortable as conditions would allow, finding a
supply of liquor, playing cat and mouse with the NCO’s and generally trying to
keep a low profile; a familiar pattern for soldiers throughout history.
For the First Invasion, Lord Chelmsford had at his disposal seven Infantry
Battalions; 2/3rd, 1/13th, 1/24th, 2/24th, 80th, 90th & 99th. Most of them had
experience of campaigning, if not fighting, against the Gaikas in the recent
Frontier War and were well acclimatised and confident for the coming conflict.
Both officers and men were tanned and heavily bearded and their uniforms
showed the rigours of campaigning. The men’s feet were hardened from
marching over rough broken terrain and they were in generally good physical
health. Campaign life also brought men and officers in closer proximity to
each other and the other ranks were quick to spot a caring officer that they
could trust as well as those whose remoteness and indifference made them
Redvers Buller was an example of an officer who was popular and respected
in that he shared all conditions with his men. Trooper George Mossop recalled
that; "If we were lying in the rain, so was Buller. If we were hungry, so was he.
All of the hardships he shared equally with his men."
After a long drought during 1877/78, the weather broke just as preparations
were under way for the First Invasion. Regiments were moved from their
posts near the larger towns of Natal and the Eastern Cape and concentrated
along the Zululand border at the three crossing points.
Here they lived under the less than weatherproof canvas of the large Army
bell tent, which held fifteen men arranged around the centre pole like the
segments of a dart board. There were no issue groundsheets and the men
had only a blanket or greatcoat to cover themselves. Often, on the march or
after the disaster at Isandlwana, there were no tents so the men slept in the
open in all weathers. Small wonder so many became victims of chronic
The Zulu War was the penultimate campaign in which the British Infantry wore
traditional red jackets. The exception were the 60th, who’s tunics were "rifle
green". Single breasted and made of a course serge, they were less elaborate
and looser fitting than those worn in earlier campaigns. The collars and cuffs
had a coloured patch in the regimental facing colour; the 24th, 88th and 94th
wore green, the 3rd and 90th wore buff, 57th, 80th, 91st and 99th had yellow,
the 58th wore black, the 4th and 21st wore dark blue, while the 60th had red.
With the exception of the 91st Highlanders, who wore tartan trews, trousers
were of a thick dark blue Oxford material with a thin red stripe down the outer
seam of the leg and were worn either tucked into black leather gaiters or into
the tops of heavy ammunition boots.
The blue Home pattern spiked helmet had given way to a white Foreign
Service version worn without the star-shaped helmet plate or spike. This was
dyed in tea to a dun colour or a foul weather cover was worn in an effort to
make it less conspicuous. The whole ensemble, however, was entirely
unsuitable for daily wear for a hard campaign in Southern Africa. With the
exception of socks, there was no change of clothes, so after a short while "the
Pride of the British Army" looked and smelled like a band of vagrants.
The officers, on the other hand, carried with them enough equipment to make
campaign life quite pleasant. They shared tents with no more than a couple of
fellow officers, slept on camp-beds and relaxed in folding chairs. Their valises
contained changes of clothing and some included cricket bats and pads,
hunting guns and artist’s materials. Dress regulations were relaxed and they
wore a mixture of uniforms. Jackets mostly favoured were the unlined frock,
still heavily laced, or the more practical dark blue patrol jacket with its
elaborate black frogging across the chest. From photographs taken at the
time, officers displayed the Victorians love of headgear by wearing anything
from the tropical helmet, the glengarry, the leather peaked forage cap to
civilian wide-awake felt hats and straw boaters. As officers were mounted, the
usual footwear was the elegant black leather riding boot worn to the knee.
Leather was also sewn to the seat and inside leg to prevent wear in the
Suitable horses were at a premium as many of the replacement officers
discovered. Those that brought their own mounts from England found that the
strange forage was unpalatable and the flies were a torment. An outbreak of
horse sickness affected the highbred animals and many died. Officers were
then forced to purchase locally bred animals, supposedly better conditioned
for the rigors of the African climate. The drawback was that these animals
were not trained for military use as witness the many examples of horses
throwing their riders in the heat of battle with fatal results. Also, it was not
always the good-looking horse who proved the steadiest under fire. In fact,
some of the ugliest proved to be the toughest and most manageable. Redvers
Buller rode a horse named "Punch" which was a "fiddle-headed, brindled, flat-
sided, ewe-necked cob and perhaps the very ugliest horse of his day and
generation in all South Africa..." but which proved in many a fight to be
trustworthy. In contrast, the Prince Imperial, purchased a beautiful looking
grey named "Percy", who’s skittish and temperamental nature was
instrumental in ending the Napoleon dynasty.
Breeders and dealers made the most of a sellers market and charged the
Imperial officers an exhorbitant £40-£50 per animal. In at least one instance,
an officer in the 58th parted with £50 for a horse that was dead within two
weeks from horse sickness. Because of the rough terrain and the long
distances covered, the farriers were kept busy reshoeing not only horses but
also the oxen and mules.
Food and water on campaign were of dubious quality. Bread and meat was
the staple fare with whatever vegetables that could be obtained locally. Fresh
meat was provided by the slaughter of cattle driven with the column although
on occasion it was less than fresh. One soldier of the 24th recalled eating a
vile stew made from a draught oxen that had died in it’s yoke, and which was
later cut up and fed to the men. For those on the march, the old standby was
hardtack, a toothbreaking titbit, carried in the haversack. An old soldier’s trick
for making it softer to eat was to place it under the armpit when on the march.
Water was carried by individual soldiers in an unsanitary wooden water bottle
known as the "Oliver". This was at a time when the medical profession were
only just beginning to discover water-born diseases so there was little
restriction on where the water was obtained. As a consequence, the incidence
of dysentery and typhoid was high. Some medical officers knew enough to
recommend that the men did not drink water that had been contaminated by
dead animals, but with the coming of the dry season at the time of the Second
Invasion, the men took their water from wherever they could find it.
Hard liquor had been the sole solace for the lower classes for centuries and
the common soldier was no exception. The Army recognised this and officially
issued a daily tot of rum which only whetted the thirst of the serious drinkers.
In South Africa the liquor traders plagued the towns and camps purveying
some very questionable gin which came to be called 'Cape Mist'. One soldier
of the 58th died the first night he arrived in Cape Town, getting drunk and
falling into the dock. Despite being banned by the Army, the soldiers found
ways of obtaining this rough liquor, risking punishment if found drunk; and
punishment on campaign was extremely harsh.
During the duration of the War no less than 545 British soldiers were flogged;
the highest number in one year for many years. The wrongdoer was given
twenty-five lashes for offences ranging from drunkenness and stealing to
insubordination and desertion. A common offence was "dereliction of duty",
which covered those sentries who fell asleep when on guard duty, and
merited fifty lashes. After Isandlwana, the Zulus were taken very seriously and
any lack of vigilance which jeopardised the security of the camp had to be
dealt with severely to "encourage" the other sentries. With the drop in morale,
desertion was another real threat. Until reinforcements arrived and equipment
replaced, the Army were reduced to sleeping in the open in cold and wet
conditions, with only hard biscuits to eat. The soldiers were in no condition to
resist the expected Zulu invasion. The Army perceived that the only way to
keep the troops in line was to publicly flog any wrongdoer. Given the times
and conditions and the fact that the Army did hold together and ultimately
triumph, the harsh punishment could be said to have been justified. Back in
Britain, however, the sudden increase in the number men flogged in such a
short time, especially young recruits, caused an outcry and led this form of
barbaric punishment to be totally banned. Its place was taken by Field
Punishment Number One, a left-over from the flogging ceremony in which the
man was tied spread-eagled to a wagon wheel and left for several hours
under a hot sun.
Editors note; Readers will possibly be surprised at the high incidence of
flogging during this campaign, though already banned in the Royal Navy.
Such strong measures to ensure discipline emanated from Lord Chelmsford
himself who instructed his officers on the 31st December 1878, just days prior
to the invasion, that any soldier, European or native, transgressing orders
"renders himself liable to a flogging". Other senior officers followed his
example, Col. Clarke wrote " Discipline was, in general, very good but it is
necessary that the power of inflicting corporal punishment should be
maintained with an army in the field'. Col. Bray continued, 'the discipline of the
army suffered much from the difficulty of preventing the men from buying
spirits. Flogging can never be done away with in war time in the English army
unless some equally efficient punishment can be discovered'. The above
italicised comments came from an original copy of the 'Precis of Information
concerning Zululand' which formally belonged to Maj. Dartnell of Isandlwana
fame. (With grateful thanks to Ian Knight for the tempoary loan of this
The Infantry relied on its ability to march long distances over rough terrain and
emphasis was placed on care and preparation of the mens' feet. Liniment or
soap was rubbed into the feet, and socks were changed as often as possible
but by the end of the war, both socks and boots were so worn out that many
men resorted to wrapping rags around their feet.
When the Invasion began, the Army’s morale was high with the expectancy of
defeating another primitive tribe. Isandlwana changed all that. Those soldiers
who returned to the camp and witnessed the terrible carnage were shocked to
the core. The dead had not just been killed but ritually disembowelled and
brained. Not a living creature had been spared. Men, little drummer boys,
horses, oxen and even pet dogs; all had been butchered. The effect on the
soldiers was profound and the shock waves spread throughout the Army. The
Zulus became imbued with almost superhuman qualities. They could swiftly
cover large distances and then charge without fear until they overran their
foes, who could expect no mercy. After Isandlwana, the British soldier’s fear
and hatred of the Zulus led them to become ruthless in their pursuit of
defeated warriors and prisoners were rarely taken.
There is little doubt that outrages occurred despite official policy of accepting
surrender of the defeated foe. The more experienced soldiers took delight in
scaring new recruits witless with tales of what would happen if the Zulus
captured a white soldier. They also played on their justifiable fear of snakes,
and there must have been many a young recruit who spent sleepless nights
lying on his blanket wondering which was going to get him first.
When the Centre Column retreated back into Natal after Isandlwana, the
Coastal Column had advanced thirty miles into Zululand to Eshowe. They had
experienced extremely tough conditions on the march. The area was more
humid than inland and the rugged terrain was creased with rivers and dongas,
which made the advance painfully slow. The soldiers spent much of the march
helping to push the huge wagons out of gluey clay and up steep rocky hills.
On the march, the men would have been woken at 4.30a.m to breakfast and
parade before setting off by 6a.m. Mounted infantry would scout well ahead
followed by the pioneers who would have attempted to smooth the way by
cutting slopes into river banks and filling in the deeper holes on the trail. There
would be a halt at midday for three hours before the day’s march was
completed by nightfall. After forming a defensive position by laagering the
wagons, a rough trench was dug around the perimeter. Sometimes broken
beer bottles were scattered about in the hope that the barefooted Zulus would
obligingly step on them and give away their position.
There were several incidents when nervous recruits on night guard, imagining
they saw or heard Zulus, had opened fire causing further panic in the camp.
Private Tuck of the 58th saw the comical side of what was potentially a
disaster. On a moonless night a piquet was returning to the camp lines when
a nervous guard opened fire. In the confusion, the piquet also blazed away,
giving the impression the camp was under attack. The procedure was for the
soldiers to get out of their tents and collapse them to give a clear field of fire.
In the pitch black, some soldiers were slower in evacuating their tents and
were left struggling under the weight of the canvas. When the firing eventually
ceased, it was found that, miraculously, the only casualty was regimental
Another incident involved the newly arrived 60th Rifles who were made up of
ill-trained young recruits. During the march to relieve Eshowe, they mistook
John Dunn’s native scouts for Zulus and killed several. The 60th were also
less than steady in the square during the Battle of Gingindlovu, where their
commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frances Northey, fell mortally
wounded. After a year in the field, however, both the 58th and 60th regiments
had gained enough experience to give a good account of themselves in the
First Anglo-Boer War of 1880.
The number of wagons and animals to pull them was enormous and the
invading columns stretched for miles making them vulnerable to attack. Apart
from the Battle of Nyezane, where the steadiness and discipline of the Buffs
and Naval Brigade repulsed the initial Zulu thrust, the Zulus persisted in
attacking static prepared positions with disastrous results. After a days march
the wagons would be formed in to an oval or sometimes a large square (this
latter formation was difficult and laborious to achieve and the former was
more commonly used). The soldiers would then dig a trench around the
outside of the wagons and the draft animals would be herded inside the circle.
Sleep was made even more difficult by the lowing of the cattle and the braying
of the mules.
Personal cleanliness was impossible to maintain on the march and lice often
infested the dirty, unshaven soldiers. In an age when pungent smells were
commonplace, an army on the move in a hot climate must have been
particularly repugnant. As the hot season arrived, the troops would have been
prey to heat-stroke in their unsuitable clothing. Headaches from squinting in
the bright light would have been the norm as well as insect bites, sores, thorn
scratches, dust, ticks, flies and mosquitoes, blisters and chaffing. All in all, the
men would have felt uncomfortable at best and downright tormented at worst.
When on the march, the haversacks were stowed on the wagons but the men
still carried ammunition and bayonet on their belts and shouldered the nine
pound Martini-Henry rifle. The officers were armed with privately purchased
0.45 calibre revolvers carried on either the white sword belt or the leather
Sam Browne. They also carried swords, which were used effectively by the
mounted arm when pursuing fleeing warriors. This was about the last
campaign that this weapon was used in anger before it became purely a
Off duty time was used to write letters and journals by both officers and other
ranks. The troops were issued with one bottle of ink between three tents but if
none was available, a mixture of gunpowder and water was used. As there
was no censorship by the officers, many of the letters posted home were frank
and reflected the disillusionment the soldiers felt about campaign life.
One of the subjects taught at Staff College was sketching, which was used in
reconnaissance in the way that photography was later used. Many of the
officers were accomplished artists and drew life on campaign. Some, like
Lieutenant W.W.Lloyd of the 24th Regiment, were thought good enough to
have their efforts published by the Illustrated London News and Lloyd had a
book of his paintings published after the war.
When in camp, sporting events such as running, cricket and tug-of-war were
organised. It was during the latter event held at the camp at Kambula on 20th
March that Major Knox-Leet of the 1/13th badly wrenched his knee. Despite
his injury, he was helped into his saddle and was in the thick of battle on the
Devil’s Pass at Hlobane on the 26th, where he won the Victoria Cross.
After Isandlwana, camp life became tedious and uncomfortable. Morale
slumped to a low ebb exacerbated by the cold and wet conditions together
with a poor and monotonous diet. Men of the 2/24th, including B Company,
who had defended Rorke’s Drift, found themselves confined in a fortified
camp in the ruins of the mission. Their commanding officer, Colonel Glyn,
traumatised by the losses to his regiment, was close to a nervous breakdown.
This conveyed itself to his subordinates, who could do little to raise their
Letters sent home reflect the miserable conditions the men endured there:
"We have plenty of livestock on some of us." and "we are not allowed to take
our things off to get a wash." The soldiers grumbled that they did not receive
any pay although there was nothing to spend it on. The list of sick steadily
grew and included Lieutenant John Chard, who went down with fever. As
most of the medicines and equipment had been destroyed in the fire in the
hospital during the fighting, treatment was rationed by what the medical
officers carried in their own equipment. Henry Hook became disillusioned
enough from this period of his service to use the £10 annuity awarded with his
Victoria Cross to help buy his way out of the army. Many men were
discharged after the War as being medically unfit for further service.
The additional setbacks at Eshowe, Intombi River and Hlobane further
dampened enthusiasm for the campaign. On the coast, Number 1 Column
under the command of Colonel Pearson had penetrated into Zululand as far
as the mission at Eshowe. They had taken five days to struggle some thirty
miles from the border to their objective, fought a stiff action at Nyezane, only
to become besieged for seventy-two days. It took this time to assemble
reinforcements, replenish lost stores and equipment before Chelmsford was
capable of leading a relief column. In the meantime, the men in the
cantonment at Eshowe endured mud, filth, poor diet and sickness. Even such
simple comforts as tobacco ran out and the men were reduced to smoking dry
leaves, herbs and even dried tealeaves. Confined in such an overcrowded
area sickness was bound to take it’s toll and when Pearson’s command
marched away once relieved, they left twenty-eight crosses in the cemetery.
Only from the north came good news. In late March, the Left Flank Column,
commanded by Colonel Evelyn Wood, had inflicted a severe defeat on the
Zulus at Kambula. This was tempered by the news of the debacle on Hlobane
Mountain, where many of his mounted troops were killed. Wood was the
ablest of Chelmsford’s commanders and the Kambula victory lifted his men’s
spirits. He was also concerned with their well-being and set up a bakery to
provide fresh daily bread, although the product was not always well received
being described as 'Indian corn and sand'. In Redvers Buller he had an
energetic and fearless commander of mounted troops, who were constantly
patrolling and scouting deep into Zulu territory. Here, at least, the soldiers did
not feel they were just rotting away.
There now followed two months of inactivity while reinforcements arrived,
including two regiments of cavalry, the Kings Dragoon Guards and the 17th
Lancers. The warm weather arrived, rations improved and the men were
drilled in preparation for the expected Second Invasion. When it came at the
beginning of June, there was no dividing into diverging columns that had
proved such a disastrous tactic in January, but just one large Second Division,
augmented by Wood’s Flying Column. There was a column led by Colonel
Crealock that advanced along the coast, but at such a snail’s pace as to be
quite ineffective and contributed little to the outcome of the war.
Soon after the cautious advance began, Chelmsford was dealt another blow.
He had reluctantly bowed to pressure from the Duke of Cambridge to add the
young Louis Napoleon to his staff to act purely as a passive observer. In his
desire to see some action, the young prince had fallen victim to a Zulu
ambush and so created a public outcry even greater than Isandlwana.
When his body was recovered and began it’s long journey to the coast for
transportation to England, the High Command felt compelled to issue a
Special Order to the troops. Fearing that the British soldiers would be less
than respectful to a Frenchman, not to say the grandson of Napoleon
Bonaparte, the black bordered Special Order laid out how the troops were to
behave and not to display any untoward disrespect or anti-French behaviour.
Meanwhile and as the military juggernaut carefully approached the Zulu
capital at Ulundi, so the morale of the soldiers lifted. They were part of an
enormous column of field artillery, Gatling guns, cavalry and thousands of
men which was on it’s way to wreak revenge on a Zulu Army already
expecting to be defeated. Predictably, the overwhelming firepower broke the
Zulus before they could get anywhere near the huge British square and, within
half an hour, the mounted troops were released from the square to ride down
and kill the fleeing natives.
The Zulu War was over and most of the regiments embarked for the long
voyage home. Their campaign experiences had not enamoured many to
military life and most soldiers took the first opportunity to leave the army. They
had been thrown into a conflict with an enemy who were unjustifiably
provoked into a war they did not want to fight. Instead of a swift and glorious
campaign, the soldiers endured months of trauma, privation, sickness and low
morale which the Ulundi victory did little to erase. The Zulu War was one of a
series of military reverses at this period. These included the First Anglo-Boer
War in 1880, defeats in Egypt and a drubbing at Maiwand.
Despite these setbacks, the public perception of the Army and it’s soldiers
was changing thanks to the unprecedented reporting allowed. Magazines like
the Illustrated London News used dramatic and heroic engravings to show the
British public just how exciting and noble was the life of a soldier. Queen
Victoria took a great interest in the War, commissioning photographs of it’s
heroes and paintings of it’s battles. Medals and decorations aplenty were
bestowed on it’s participants. Music hall songs were full of praise for the "Boys
in Red". For the ordinary Zulu veteran, however, the image projected for the
public was rather different from the reality.
Consultants in South Africa: David Rattray FRGS, Maureen Richards, Ron
United Kingdom: Lt.Col. Mike Martin, Lt.Col Alan Spicer RAMC, Brian Best,
Ian Knight FRGS
Journal Editor: Dr. Adrian Greaves FRGS
The Secretary, Woodbury House, Woodchurch Road, Tenterden, Kent, TN30
7AE, Great Britain. Tel; 0158O 764189 Fax; 01580 766648
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