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The Zulu wars

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:23 UK time, Friday, 14 January 2011

There has always been something of a debate about the Anglo-Zulu Wars of 1879, particularly with regard to the numbers of Welsh soldiers involved in the Battle of Isandlwana and at the defense of Rorke's Drift.

Battlefield at Isandlwana

Battlefield at Isandlwana. Photo by Trudy Carradice.

Often legend and romance have taken over from reality. If you have ever watched the film Zulu, for example, you could be excused for thinking that the action at Rorke's Drift was carried out by a Welsh male voice choir led by Stanley Baker, Michael Caine and Ivor Emmanuel!

Arguments have ranged widely across the spectrum - there were few Welsh soldiers present; the British regiments were predominantly Welsh based. And so on.

From looking at the regimental rolls it is clear that a Welsh-based regiment bore the brunt of the fighting, particularly at Rorke's Drift, and from the letters and statements of many of the soldiers themselves it is equally apparent that the events on the African veldt in 1879 would come back to haunt the men for many years to come.

It was a war that should never have been fought. The British government had little stomach for a fight with the Zulu tribes. Britain was already engaged in costly campaigns in Afghanistan and the thought of further expense in South Africa was not one to be taken lightly.

However, administrators out in South Africa, particularly the new British High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere, saw the Zulus as a threat to British control and determined on war in order to create a federation of states rather like the one in Canada.

For their part, the Zulus had no reason to allow their traditional homelands - areas rich in coal and other minerals - to be taken from them.

The Zulu king, Cetshwayo, was presented with a deliberately harsh ultimatum - lay down your arms by 12 January 1879 or face invasion. The concept of "the warrior" was central to Zulu culture and Bartle Frere knew that the ultimatum could only be ignored.

On 12 January, the very day it expired, Lord Chelmsford took his column across the Buffalo River into Zululand. Prominent in the column of marching men was the 24th Regiment of Foot.

At the time of the Anglo-Zulu War, the 24th Regiment was known as the Warwickshires, the area from which they had originated, but by 1879 their home base was at Brecon and within a few years the regiment would change its name to The South Wales Borderers.

About 30% of the regiment was Welsh, the 24th regularly recruiting in Breconshire, Radnorshire and Monmouthshire. Soldiers were even recruited from places like Caernarfon.

Using his native Welsh tongue, Private Owen Ellis wrote to his parents in North Wales on the eve of the campaign:

"The 2nd Battalion of the 24th arrived here about 4 o'clock on Sunday afternoon and the 1st Battalion welcomed them by treating them to bread, tea and meat - - - If Cetshwayo does not come to terms we will demand his lands, kill his people as they cross our path and burn all his kraals or villages."

A few weeks later Owen was to write his last ever letter, on 19 January 1879:

"It is now Sunday afternoon, just after dinner, and I am sitting on a small box to write you these few lines. We are moving off at 6am tomorrow. I only wishes [sic] they would finish this row so that I might go to some town and see something else besides grassland. Dear father, perhaps I shall have to go a long time after this without writing, so don't be worried if you don't hear from me."

Owen Ellis was one of over 1,300 soldiers massacred by the Zulu impi at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January.

There were many reasons for the defeat - Chelmsford had split his force, taking half of them away to search for the Zulu army; nobody knew where the Zulus actually were; no effective defensive line had been created; the front line of soldiers was too extended and too far away from ammunition.

Whatever the reasons it was one of the worst defeats ever suffered by British colonial troops and many of the dead were young Welshmen. And we should never forget, of course, that close on 4,000 Zulus also died in the battle.

When Lord Chelmsford and his half of the invasion force returned to Isandlwana they were met by an horrific sight, as Private William Meredith of Pontypool noted in a letter to his brother:

"I could describe the battlefield to you - the sooner I get it off my mind the better. Over a thousand white men lying on the field, cut to pieces and stripped naked. Even the little boys that we had in the band, they were hung up and opened like sheep. These are the Pontypool boys that got killed in battle: Alf Farr, Dick Treverton and Charley Long."

For some of the men the sight was just too horrible. Some, like Henry Moses, also of Pontypool, began to reflect on their future and on what had brought them to this:

"I know what soldiering is now. We are in fear every night and have had to fight the Zulus. Dear father and sisters and brothers, goodbye. We may never meet again. I repent the day that I took the shilling."
Hospital at Rorke's Drift

Hospital at Rorke's Drift. Photo by Trudy Carradice.

The Zulus next target was the hospital base at Rorke's Drift. The story of the heroic defence is too well known to require re-telling here. The action took place over the night of 22/23 January, approximately 4,000 Zulu warriors attacking the hospital and mission station that was defended by just over 100 men. And it is clear that a large number of these defenders were Welshmen.

It was a desperate struggle that saw nearly 500 Zulu casualties for the loss of just 17 soldiers of the 24th Foot.

As Private Henry Hook was to later write to his mother in Monmouth:

"Every man fought dearly for his life. We were all determined to sell our lives like soldiers and to keep up the credit of our regiment."

The result of the battle was a victory for the 24th and several of the Welsh soldiers, men who survived the action, now lie buried in their native soil.

John Fielding, who won the Victoria Cross for his bravery that night (one of 11 won during the battle), is buried at Llantarnam. He had enlisted under the name John Williams as he was technically under age and his parents did not approve of him taking the Queen's shilling.

John Fielding lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1932, but others, like Robert Jones, another VC winner, suffered from headaches and nightmares for the rest of his life:

"I found a crowd (of Zulus) in front of the hospital and coming into our doorway. We crossed our bayonets and as fast as they came up to the doorway we bayoneted them until the doorway was nearly filled with dead and wounded Zulus. I had three assegi wounds."

Unable to cope with the stresses and strains of life after Rorke's Drift, at the age of 41 Robert Jones gave up the struggle and killed himself.

The Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift are a story of carnage and bravery - on both sides. If you want to hear more about the events listen to Past Master on Sunday 16 January at 5.30pm.


  • Comment number 1.

    I like your first paragraph, Phil, just about sums up the film. One of the things they did seem to replicate fairly accurately however, was the Martini -Henry Rifle, standard British Military issue of the day. In the 19th Century there was a rifle range on Llanreath beach and I remember my grandfather telling me that troops stationed locally trained with these rifles there. To this day you can pick up shards of lead in some parts of the beach from the spent bullets. In the 1950s this material could be gathered by the handful and we would collect it to melt down into fishing weights. Occasionally a complete spent bullet would turn up, which had obviously gone into soft ground and not deformed. I still have some. The size and weight of the .45 calibre bullet is such that it must have done terrible damage to anything it hit, and the cartridge case was necked down to .45. The large powder charge was no doubt one of the reasons why the rifle had a reputation for having a fearsome recoil. Are there spent bullets still lying around on the S. African veldt Phil?

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Rog, I was last out there in September just gone. I must confess to not finding anything - but Rorke's Drift has been so "tidied" that anything like that would have already been picked up. The Isandlwana battle site is altogether a much rougher terrain and I guess if you spent a day searching you'd pick up an awful lot of material. The thing that struck me about the place were the burial cairns, dotted all over the landscape, each one covering a dozen or so soldiers. The Zulu warriors carried away their dead so we'll never know how many died during the battle. It really is an atmospheric place.


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