Very well present. Curling entry informative.
By Ron Lock
"The battlefield of Isandlwana is changing. You buy your entrance ticket at the Orientation Centre and proceed to the battleground through imposing gates, flanked by flag poles flying, on most days, the banners of Great Britain, South Africa and the Royal Regiment of Wales. Around and about the newly fenced battlefield, the settlement of the local community is flourishing with additional dwellings and a modern school much in evidence. And to cap all this progress, a direct road between Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, passing the site of Sihayo's old stronghold and bridging the Batshe River, is now open to traffic and is a pleasure to drive. However, no matter how often one may visit Isandlwana, one thing at this evocative place never changes: it is a sort of presence that is perhaps a mixture of foreboding and secrecy ... and, one asks oneself again, what really happened here on that fateful day almost 120 years ago? Who was to blame for one of the most shambolic defeats ever to befall the British Army and how did it really happen? That there was a massive cover up by the living to the detriment of the dead there can be no doubt.
There was, of course, a court of enquiry at the time, but the evidence of the few who were called to testify was dismissed, whilst others who could have given a telling account were not called. The verdict which should have roared forth a finding to the whole of the British army, and to the satisfaction of the British public, merely squeaked the pathetic opinion that it could draw no conclusions and could offer no opinion as to the cause of the disaster and, of course, apportioned no blame.
Not so Lord Chelmsford, the commander of British forces in Southern Africa and commander of the Isandlwana column. Whilst supporting the court’s findings, he quietly said in private, to those who would repeat it in public, that his dead subordinates were to blame (1).
However, within weeks a closer scrutiny of events by the press and the British Parliament turned the finger of blame more correctly in the direction of Lord Chelmsford himself. But if the blame was appropriately settled, the cause of the tragedy has even now to be fully explained and the subject is, from time to time, hotly debated.
The battle of Isandlwana has been fought over in the pages of many books and journals and the disaster, which we must not forget was also a brilliant Zulu victory, has been attributed to a variety of factors: Chelmsford’s splitting of his force, poor scouting, the over-extended firing line, no entrenchments and, once the battle really got going, the failure of the ammunition supply (to Durnford's men. Ed.) which finally resulted in the collapse of the British firing line.
But there were other underlying causes which were in effect equally potent in the disaster but, because they were intangible, have not been subject to the scrutiny that they deserve : the overwhelming self-confidence of Lord Chelmsford and his staff and, I believe, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine’s fear of ridicule by his peers.
Pursuing this line of thought coupled with new evidence contained in several letters written by Lieutenant Henry Thomas Curling R.A. (2) and the instructions to be found in an army booklet entitled “Notes on Transport Reviewed 1879”, and a new scenario begins to form.
When Lord Chelmsford set out to invade Zululand in January 1879, after bringing about a victorious conclusion to the 9th Frontier War, the Zulus had yet to gain a world wide reputation for ferocity, courage and military skill. Indeed, the Zulu track record at fighting white men at this time was poor. They had been badly beaten by a handful of vastly outnumbered Boers at the Battle of Blood River and their kinsmen, Mzilikazi’s Matabele, had also been equally chastened by the Boers. Although these events had happened forty years earlier, nothing had occurred in the meantime would persuade Chelmsford that he was about to take on an exceptionally brave and skilful foe. As early as July 1878 he had written “...I shall strive to be in a position to show them [the Zulus] how hopelessly inferior they are to us in fighting power... (3)” Indeed, Chelmsford’s greatest concern was that he would be unable to make the Zulu fight or stand so that they could be mown down with the very latest weaponry, the breach-loading .45 Martini Henry rifle, with which his infantry were equipped “...I am inclined to think”, wrote Lord Chelmsford, “that the first experience of the power of the Martini-Henrys will be such a surprise to the Zulus that they will not be formidable after the first effort (4)”; “...we shall oblige him [Cetshwayo, the Zulu King] to attack us which shall save us the trouble of going to find him ... (5)” and again “...we shall create uneasiness in the mind of Cetshwayo and we may possibly induce him to attack us, which will save a great deal of trouble”, and to an officer of the Natal Mounted Police who had suggested to one of Chelmsford’s staff officers that the British camp might be attacked from the rear, “tell the police officer my troops will do all the attacking.” (6) and in another letter “the Zulu in those days [referring to the Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River, 1838] were warriors flushed with repeated victories. I doubt the present Zulu making a more determined fight...”
It was with such confidence in himself, and disdain for the enemy, that Chelmsford, accompanying his Central Column, consisting of over 4,500 men, disobeyed his own orders by failing to entrench or fortify his first major camping ground, situated ten miles into Zululand, below a sphinx-shaped hill called Isandlwana. But to be fair, any attempt at entrenchment of the camp would have been futile labour as it was Chelmsford’s intention, having arrived at Isandlwana on 20 January, to regroup his transport, part of which was still catching up, and to move on to Isipezi Hill, the next staging post, on the 23rd. The hill could just be seen in the hazy distance twelve miles away across the plain. It was a site that had already been reconnoitred four days earlier by Lieutenant-Colonel John Cecil Russell and his Mounted Infantry. The unit had penetrated twenty two miles into Zululand without incident ... and it is at this point that we must consider some seemingly insignificant incidents that would set Chelmsford’s column on a course for disaster.
The Zululand spring and summer of 1878/9 had been an exceptionally wet ones. It had poured with rain, off and on, for weeks and as early as the beginning of December, Chelmsford had realised that in the campaign ahead, shelter from the elements for all his troops would be essential and whatever tents he could not obtain from the Imperial Government he would get locally. On 4 December he had written “...I cannot put my Native Contingent in the Field for want of shelter - tents demanded were refused by the War Department and now South Africa can kindly meet our demands…(7)”
Thus when the Central Column arrived at Isandlwana there was tented accommodation for over 4,500 men plus tents for other functions such as offices, hospitals, messing, etc., and the eastern slopes of the hill became a veritable tent town.
The bell tents each provided cramped accommodation for sixteen private soldiers sleeping in a circle with their feet towards their single centre pole. Sergeants and above fared better, mostly enjoying a private, but smaller, tent of their own. Each tent, including the space around it which accommodated the ropes and pegs occupied 1,440 square feet or thirty tents to the acre, more or less.
The laying out and erection of these tented towns saw the British Army at its ritualistic best:
"The N.C.O.’s in charge of squads will be extended 16 paces from the left by Officers Commanding Companies in prolongation of their arms and turned to the right...The senior Major will dress the N.C.O.’s of the first row of tents, along the front of the column, so that they will stand exactly on the line marked out as the front of the camp and the Captain of each Company will, from them, dress the NCO’s of his squads who whilst being so dressed will stand to attention. After being dressed, No 7 of each squad will drive a peg in-between the heels of his NCO, who will, after turning about, take 18 paces to the front where another peg will be driven in a similar manner..."
There is much more of a similar vein and one can almost hear the bellowed orders as the “old sweats”, grumbling and cursing, strive to align the streets of the “town”, sixty feet wide, to within a hairsbreadth of perfection. "