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10th March 2005Isandhlwana not the worst?
By Simon Copley
The opening title of Zulu Dawn speaks of this battle as one that changed Colonial history. I don't even think it changed the course of the Zulu War, did it? Just slowed up the Imperial campaign a bit.

Also, it is often spoken of as the worst ever defeat of Colonial troops by a native army. I don't think so. What about Adowa 1896 when Italy lost 289 officers, 2 918 European soldiers and about 2 000 askari?

If we move the goalposts to include defeats of regulars by irregulars there must be some even bigger defeats.
10th March 2005stephen mann

In 1921 the Spanish army lost around 8,000 regulars killed by Rif Moroccan tribesmen at Annual.
We also lost a lot in Afghanistan: huge numbers (though not so many soldiers) in the 1840's retreat from Kabul; plus quite a large force in 1879 at Maiwand.
French at Dien Bien Phu (or however you spell it?)
10th March 2005George Hulmes
Dien Bien Phu (sp?) is a slightly different situation, as the majority of French casualties were the result of atrocious mal-treatment by the Viet Minh after the garrison's surrender. (The experience of the French POW's was akin to that of Americans on the Bataan Death March.)

10th March 2005Julian whybra
I'm not suggesting the public should be guided by film scripts. However I do think Isandhlwana changed the course of British colonial history which is a very different thing to changing the course of the Zulu War.
Again, to beware of being snagged by others' genralizations, Isandhlwana is spoken about as being the worst ever defeat of British troops by a native army, which I believe it is - the number of exclusively British troops killed exceeding those engaged in the Retreat from Kabul, although of course that Retreat was by far the single greatest loss - the army with hangers-on numbering about 16,500.
10th March 2005Paul Cubbin
'Worst' is obviously going to be a purely subjective category for the individual to qualify. I see Isandlwana as the 'worst' because its antagonists, on the one hand, were mostly armed with almost neolithic weaponry and on the other were the finest Imperial Army on the planet. Let's face it, how many of us would raise an eyebrow when hearing of a French or Italian military defeat?
The various Afghanistan disasters were largely due to the enemy holding superior ground and having, in many cases cases, superior marksmanship and longer range rifles; this is always going to spell trouble.
10th March 2005Peter Ewart

May I gently chide you for suggesting - if I'm reading correctly between the lines - that French military history is more associated with defeat than with victory, or perhaps that their martial achievements do not match Britain's. I believe you hinted at this in a recent previous posting too?

I'm guilty myself sometimes of displaying impatience with the French generally, especially where anything concerning the EU is involved, and here in Kent life is often disrupted for many of us by the actions (or lack of it) of French farmers, lorry drivers and maritime employees. Indeed, we're in the middle of a frustrating spell right now.

However, I try not to let that affect my opinion of their history, especially their military history, which in fact (speaking very generally) would stand up against the claims of most other nations over the years.

Here in Britain, for nearly a century, we have been struggling to recover, in more ways than one, from the effects of probably the most cataclysmic and history-changing "event" of modern times, a holocaust which cast a shadow over the whole 20th century - the Great War. The British military (& civilian) effort was supreme, yet for well over half of that conflict we were justifiably and correctly the junior partners to our major allies - the French, whose contribution during that war was far greater than even our total imperial effort and also made our combined imperial losses (over 1m dead) look puny compared with theirs.

However many French defeats one can find throughout their history, including 1940, surely these are all more than counter-balanced by their 1914-18 victory, even though their army was virtually finished by the end of 1917. Finished or not, though, they were still required to furnish the Doughboys with all of their machine guns and much other equipment, as well as teach them how to fire the things, before they were ready finally to enter the fray.

Their 14-18 defeats were largely due to the bungling of politicians & the odd Field Marshal (sound familiar?) as well as a very formidable foe, and rarely because of the humble poilu.

I know we tend to focus on Agincourt, Quebec, Trafalgar & Waterloo but it is hardly the whole picture, and none of these had an effect anything like as long lasting as the little matter at Senlac Hill. More recently it seems they've shown much sounder judgement than others in rejecting the lunatic military adventures in the Middle East & the nonsense being perpetrated to attempt their justification.

As for the Italians - well, I forget his name, but even they had a very accomplished & successful general in East Africa during the last war - he's on the tip of my tongue but it's no good, I'll never get it now!


P.S. Back to the subject - the AZW. I'll grant you they (that is, he) didn't do so well in 1879. Did his best repeatedly to get himself killed & managed it in a matter of weeks.
11th March 2005Derek C
Maybe, when it's referred to as the "worst defeat", the implication is that it's a battle that could/should easily have been won by the British, all things considered. Another factor making it one of the "worst" might be that so few (50 odd) managed to escape? I'm guessing they're not referring soley to the numbers.
11th March 2005Simon Copley
Peter, I think his name was Val D'Aosta if I remember rightly.

Thinking about this last night Julian, it occurred to me that Isandhlwana was certainly the worst defeat at THAT time (1879). All the other defeats cited here were subsequent.

Consequently, it's contemporary impact must have been colossal.
11th March 2005Paul Cubbin
Peter - what was the last war the French won?
WW1 - they were defending their own country, it would have been somewhat churlish had they not helped the British to defend it too! The glorious French martial history since Waterloo reminds me of a little boy flicking other boys with a teatowel to annoy them and then running to his big brothers when he gets in a fight.
And don't get me started on the Italians....
11th March 2005Neil Raaff
Just to reinforce Peter's comments try the following (it's worth a laugh).

Go to ...type in "French Military Victories" and click the "I'm feeling lucky" button.


11th March 2005Simon Copley
What about Garibaldi? He took the biscuit and he fought against the Bourbons - I kid you not!
11th March 2005Peter Ewart
Simon - sounds familiar. Duke d'Aosta? Not sure now whether he's the one. Didn't Wingate & his irregulars defeat him? Will have to burrow through a few books.

Neil - Yes, I saw it last year. Created during the ill-informed fit of pique sweeping the US following the decision by a sovereign state not to be bullied into supporting a certain farce against their better - much better? - judgement.

Paul - not many recently, I grant you, but they have been involved in far fewer conflicts since 1945 than their Anglo-Saxon allies. My point was that their contribution to victory in 1914-18 would surely outweigh a large number of defeats before or afterwards.

Much of the Western Front was in France but Britain's main and original objective was not merely the defence of France but the defeat of an aggressive enemy led by a maniac (as well as the defence of Belgium). Both France and GB declared war on Germany before a single soldier had set foot in France. It is hard to deny your point that they could hardly have discontinued the struggle all the time the BEF remained, but the size of their contribution to the necessary defeat of Germany (& the losses they sustained in doing so) is so often overlooked outside France.

13th March 2005 Robert
In response to Pauls Mar.11,05 posting.
Jolly good show old man. In the two most
horendous and inclusive wars ever to be waged on this earth - W W 1 + 11 (air,land and sea) when left to her own defense, France was virtually defeated and the swatstika flew over her capitol .Victory ONLY was assured after her allies valiantly gave their courage, their blood and their lives for her freedom, The very same allies that she now turns her back on. In this regard, France has very little to be proud of. History has an uncanny way of repeating itself and as the graves forget not
so shall not their survivors.


13th March 2005atkins
i agree with derek maybe it means not the worst defeat by number but simply the most humiliating for the british, the height of our reign and beaten by men with spears?
13th March 2005Peter Ewart


You may need to do a little bit of reading on the First World War. The swastika didn't fly anywhere at all - and certainly not over France's capital (or capitol, as you put it). It is true that the German army got very close to Paris, but no German flags flew in her capital because the French threw back the enemy with a supreme backs-to-the-wall effort (the famous taxis transporting her army to the Marne, etc) with assistance from the BEF, but it should be remembered that the BEF was tiny at this stage compared with the French effort.

I agree entirely with your point about the debt France incurred after 1940 to forces from GB, the Commonwealth, US, Poles, Czechs etc etc., not forgetting the Soviet Union, Germany's main enemy in WW2. Without that assistance and those sacrifices there would be no France today and therefore the debt will continue for a long time.

But in liberating France and hoping or even expecting it to support its allies in future, for example in NATO, we certainly can't expect a sovereign state to be happy to allow foreign countries to make its decisions for it. It has a right to disagree with its allies without being presented as perennially ungrateful for past sacrifices, especially in not supporting a succession of increasingly bizarre madcap military adventures for which the reasons remain obscure or deliberately hidden, or both. It is, after all, in a huge majority worldwide on the current global issue with which it finds itself in disagreement with a very small number of its allies.

Of course, if the present period turns out to be a time of dangerous appeasement akin to the late 1930s, then France, Germany, Russia, China, most of GB and almost every other country I can think of will be proved wrong retrospectively - and so will I !

Getting way off the AZW now, so some justification of the French direction this thread has taken might be needed. The Prince Imperial was a very brave soldier indeed, was he not? However, the same cannot be said for his judgement during the time he was in Zululand.

14th March 2005Paul Cubbin
Peter - what a wonderful hornets nest of Francophobia! What have I started?
Its difficult not to have a ceratin admiration for poor old Louis, but I do think he was immensely self-indulgent (given his upbringing, not too surprising I'd guess). His immature yearning for 'glory' killed him and two others needlessly. Had he survived the encounter, I believe he would have been hounded out of Zululand and sent packing. Considering what this may have done to long term international relations, perhaps his death was not such a disaster after all.
14th March 2005Peter Ewart

Well, things got bad enough as it was, with many among the French royalist faction blaming "perfidious albion" for plotting his death. So poor old GB got the blame anyway.

The phrase "an accident waiting to happen" comes to mind - although calling it an accident seems rather generous to the Prince, who surely would have copped it one way or another before much longer.

He had courage though. Military experience or judgement might have helped him more, perhaps.

15th March 2005Paul Cubbin
At the risk of fuelling another bout of French bashing, the whole reaction to the incident does stink of good old fashioned Gallic ungratefulness. After all, Britain had been housing, clothing and feeding what was left of the French royal family for some time (wasn't it Oscar Wilde who said that guests, like fish, stink after three days?) and Louis only got on the boat because he went crying to mummy, who went crying to Queen Victoria. I'll bet the families of the other men killed by his impetuosity never bought Brie again (which is a shame, cos its lovely with grapes and fresh bread).
As you say, he would probably have found a way to get himself perforated sooner or later. Apparently his mother became a keen motorist in later life; imagine the sort of havoc Napoleon Jnr would have cause behind the wheel of a motor vehicle!
As my own mother has always said, 'There's no defence against stupidity'.
15th March 2005Peter Ewart
Hang on, Paul! "Crying to mummy"? Surely you're not criticising him for pulling every string he possibly could to get to the scene of the action? (Actually, I think part of his efforts were behind his mother's back once she expressed horror at his aims).

What do you think the officers of the British Army were doing at that very moment? Pulling every useful string they could to do exactly the same - to get on the boat! (Ship?) Those whose regiments were ordered to go during Feb and March thanked their lucky stars & rushed around kitting themsleves out, while many of those who weren't yet included dropped a line to whoever they thought could swing things for them, in order not to "miss the boat."

This had always been the way of things and Napoelon was only doing the same. He had contacts in high places but was also at a considerable initial disadvantage because of his anomalous position & also the nervous desire on the part of the WO and government to avoid any embarrassing accident. He very nearly didn't go.

Look at the way some of the special service officers (Smith Dorrien etc) managed to get into the AZW in the first place - by pulling strings and by subterfuge. Look at how Smith-Dorrien managed to avoid being shipped home after Isandlwana - by going AWOL (or at least disappearing) and turning up where he shouldn't have been, thereby presenting the new column with a "fait accompli." And all to get a piece of the action (as if Isandlwana hadn't been enough!)

Look at Churchill. How did he serve in four different theatres of war in far-flung parts by the age of 25? By pulling outrageous strings! He wouldn't have been anywhere near Cuba, the NWF, Sudan or in SA if he hadn't pulled strings, written to contacts, secured newspaper contracts or - wait for it - gone running to mummy! He got into Bindon Blood's force and got his book on it published simply by pulling strings and never, ever, stopped writing home to mummy, pleading with her to push his case with everyone she knew for all she was worth.

He was far more forward and bumptious - very "unclubbable"! - than most young officers but the string-pulling was very much the norm for those who could pull them, and Napoleon was only doing what he knew all his comrades were doing or would do if they could.

I thought, too, that you'd have agreed with the Queen's offer of refuge to the deposed imperial family? The Prince and his mother were certainly eternally grateful.

15th March 2005Paul Cubbin
Peter - all true, of course (you always seem to be!), but all slightly off my point. Of course everyone squirmed, cajoled and generally stamped their feet (it was the done thing) whilst using all their influence to get the desired posting, but not everyone did it is a foreign subject serving as an honorary British Officer as a member of a Royal Family (albeit in absentia). He really appears to have fathomed nothing of the word 'responsibility', preferring instead the word 'priviledge'. Louis was a little too old to be playing the excited schoolboy routine and should have concentrated on the fact that he was the last descendant of arguably Europe's most influential bloodline.
As for gratitude, Eugenie was said to have been decided cool about the whole thing, but then, that's royal blood of the era, I suppose and anyway, pure hearsay. My real point was the fact that the French authorities in Paris hounded the Napoleon's to exile and then whined when the prodigal son (who had been largely raised on British soil) wheedled his way onto a reluctant British military commander and managed to get himself killed (never mind the others he got killed too). There's so much hypocrisy its difficult to know where to start.
16th March 2005Peter Ewart

The Prince appears to have had but two aims in his short life - millitary glory and and the resumption of his father's throne. The two went hand in hand and partly depended on each other. There was nothing unusual or unseemly in a young officer seeking military glory - quite the opposite. Their careers often depended on a certain amount of it.

However, there was a way of doing things (in this country!) and I agree that Louis more than once overstepped the mark. An officer but not a gentleman , perhaps, in the way he drew attention to himself or lacked discretion now & again. Un-British, shall we say?

He wouldn't have been the first or last to put himself into danger unwisely. Churchill (again!) did it in India & the Sudan and explained to his mother in his letters exactly why he was doing it. Like the Prince, he considered it essential for his future plans. He was calculating, however, whereas the Prince was out of control during the escapades in which he nearly got others killed in the days before his own death. "Excited schoolboy routine" is just about right! (The story of Elwes at Laingsnek comes to mind).

As for Eugenie, just to split a few hairs, I'm not sure she had any royal blood in her (as opposed to marrying into royalty) and modern research suggests (if I remember correctly) that her father may have been English, making the Prince at least 25% British!

If you haven't read "With his Face to the Foe" you'll enjoy it. Ian Knight's best book by far, I think.

16th March 2005Paul Cubbin
Peter - thanks, I'll keep an eye out for it. My wife has a general rule (and very sensible it is too) that she won't allow me to have more than 3 books unread in a 'queue' keeps me from filling our small house with literature. I've only got a couple of Canadian North West Mounted Police histories to get through and I'm free again!
17th March 2005Yank
I wouldn't knock the French too much.

It's their upper echelon leadership that is always lacking.

The average Frenchman can and will fight.

They fought countless colonial wars like the British. I think most people tend to forget that the French held half the Somme front in 1916. There were certainly no cowards at Verdun.

I know this is off topic but are most of the people here British?
17th March 2005Michael Boyle

As a matter of fact most of the people here are British and Commonwealth though there are a few of us, like yourself, who hail from the land of "American" fries, the "American" kiss and "American" pastry. (We do however,to the best of our varying abilities, try not to make nationality an issue.)

I agree that the French (as well as the rest of the ' Western' civilizations) have often found their upper echelon leadership lacking and have in fact proved they can fight.

Let us not forget the French also had their own Alamo/Rorke's Drift in Camerone (1863 Mexico) where a reduced company of the Foreign Legion held off 2,000 Mexican soldiers for ten hours and in spite of the Mexicans sounding the 'degueno' (no quarter) and having expended all their ammunition, the surviving officer with his last five men led a bayonet charge right into the midst of the foe. Rather like Mr. Younghusband's action at Isandhlwana sixteen years later with the difference being that the surviving three Legionaire's lives were spared (with what was left of the wounded).

The names of the three company officers and "Camerone" were subsequently inscribed on the walls of the Invalides and to this day the Mexican Army conducts formal military ceremonies at the Camerone memorial to honour "...these French soldiers."

The previous comments here have, I think, more to do with the "what have you done for me lately" school of thought!

(By the way ,unlike most forums on the web those of us who contribute here feel free to eschew 'handles' and are quite comfortable using our names though of course it doesn't really matter.)


17th March 2005Derek C
Er... I live in Canada (not an igloo!)
Would Quebec/seperatists be worth mentioning? Bill 101 maybe ?

17th March 2005Michael Boyle
Is 'Commonwealth' still a valid reference or do I yet again find myself behind the times?

Derek - it looks like an igloo on the map, being all white on top and all ! (I thought that's why your beer tastes so much better!)
17th March 2005Paul Cubbin
it was my first visit to the blessed land of rooftop hot-tubs, beef ribs and poutine last month - if you could only get Welsh rugby TV coverage I would have emigrated!