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Crossing the Buffalo: The Zulu War of 1879

Greaves, Adrian

Review from The Bulletin of the Military Historical Society
Volume 57 No. 225 August 2005

Adrian Greaves is one of those writers whose books, once begun, are difficult to put down. A welcome paperback at a modest 8.99 comes from Cassell with the title: Crossing the Buffalo. The Zulu War of 1879. Set around the monstrous routing of a highly trained and well-armed British regiment by a poorly-equipped but well-lead and determined band of warriors at Islandlwana, and the remarkable defence of Rorke's Drift; there is much more to the war which resulted from the unnecessary and unauthorised invasion of the nation of our Zulu allies. In this full history of the war, which pivots around the accounts of bravery and heroism, we are presented with the politics and background to the fighting and answers such questions as: Why was Zululand invaded? How was the British force defeated? Including the defeats at Hlobane and Ntombe, what of the Death of the Prince Imperial? Having finally defeated the Zulus, why did Britain abandon the country? The book uses the latest research and archaeology and the author's great detailed knowledge of the battlefields as well of all of the documentary sources. If you can afford space for just one book on the Zulu War of 1879 on your shelves, this must be the one.


Pen and Sword Books, a British publisher of military history with whom readers of the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research will be quite familiar, described Adrian Greaves' last book, Redcoats and Zulus, as containing 'everything one needs to know about the Zulu War.' Now a year later, Greaves presents yet another tale of this struggle entitled, Crossing the Buffalo: The Zulu War of 1879. So was there anything that one still needed to know?

Perhaps not, but Greaves, the editor of The Journal of the Anglo Zulu War Historical Society, is a fine storyteller and breathes new life into the well known battles fought at Rorke's Drift, Isandlwana and Ulundi. His emphasis is decidedly on the British actors, chief among them Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford, the officer in command, whose failure at Isandlwana could only be made worse by his (largely successful) attempt to shift blame onto his fallen comrade, Lieutenant-Colonel A. W. Durnford. Greaves does a nice job in explaining how recently uncovered orders have vindicated Durnford. Greaves also succeeds in clearing up the mystery surrounding the deaths of N. J. A. Coghill and T. Melvill, two junior officers who managed to escape Isandlwana with the colours, only to perish in their flight, drowning in the Buffalo River. The recreation of the story is a nice piece of historical scholarship and detective work.

Readers interested in the Zulu story are best directed to look elsewhere. John Laband's excellent The Rise and the Pall of the Zulu Nation (1997) comes to mind. Although Greaves provides some background into Zulu military strategy and tactics, the pre-war events which shaped nineteenth-century Zulu history are largely overlooked as are the Zulu personalities involved in the conflict. Readers should not expect, for example, to walk away with a better understanding of Cetshwayo, the Zulu King. The aftermath of the story, as well, is mostly untold. It should be remembered that the British not only defeated the Zulu on the battlefield but they erected a destructive political system which effectively prevented the re-emergence of a unified Zulu nation and led to years of violent civil war.

Readers interested in the British army and in tales of heroism and testimonies of ruthlessness, however, will find Crossing the Buffalo: The Zulu War of 1879 much to their liking. The story of Rorke's Drift, complete with its heroes, Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead, and its villain, Major H. Spalding, the man who should have directed British operations, is nicely retold. Greaves is at his best when he describes Chelmsford's attempt to save his reputation and the bravery of the British infantry in the insurmountable square employed at the Battle of Ulundi. However, this is not a book for scholars and careful readers of military history. There are few footnotes, a short bibliography and not much analysis to advance our understanding of the conflict. But general readers of military history and perhaps those who watched the films 'Zulu' and 'Zulu Dawn' and want to learn a little more about the subject will enjoy Crossing the Buffalo. Some nice illustrations and carefully prepared maps make the reading clear, to the point, and great fun.

STEPHEN M. MILLER University of Maine, Orano, Maine