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22nd March 2005Durnford/Custer
By Tony Ashford
Forgive me if this has been commented on before and on a slightly trivial note, has anyone noticed the resemblance between Colonel Durnford and General Custer, both facially and in attire? The moustache is surely no coicidence! I wonder, very speculative, but did Durnford perhaps model himself, and his approach to military tactics (not to mention the impetuosity) on Custer? Just a thought but I think the resemblances striking. Interested in peoples' thoughts. Tony Ashford.
22nd March 2005Michael Boyle

Personally they all look alike to me, big facial hair seems to have been the norm during most of the Victorian era! (Everywhere) As to attire, at the time of Custer's death in 1876 when he achieved world-wide fame he was most often portrayed in his buckskins and slouch hat but perhaps his cavalry uniformed pictures do bear some resemblance to Col. Durnford's AZW attire.(There is some specualtion that Durnford favoured Colt Peace-Makers too.)

I would be very suprised however if Col. Durnford modelled himself after anyone, especially a U.S. Army Officer who only became widely known three years prior to the AZW. Besides Durnford was born seven years before Custer and had no doubt established his 'look' long before he ever heard him.

I could be wrong of course, I suppose Custer's Civil War record could have made him known in British Army circles but whether anyone there would be moved to emulate him seems remote.

As for impetuosity, it seems to have been a widely held characteristic in many officers of the time (and since) !


22nd March 2005Peter Ewart

Would he even have heard of Custer? Would 90% of even the US population have heard of Custer? Is it likely - or even possible - that he'd seen a single likeness of Custer?

I imagine he had other things on his busy mind during his years in Natal in the 1870s, such as the responsibility of his post, the Bushman's River Pass affair and its aftermath, his support for those peoples persecuted by Shepstone, his collaboration with the Colenso family, the journey to attend Cetshwayo's "coronation", the building of the fort at Estcourt, his work at Rorke's Drift in 1878 which he clearly took very seriously indeed given the final decision of the Commission, which rather "threw" Frere and Shepstone, etc etc.

If one removed the moustache and took away whatever headgear they wore, I wonder if there would be any facial resemblance at all (one thinks of some supposed "dead ringers" who are no such thing!) although I have to admit I don't know when I last saw a picture of Custer, if I ever have, so they could look like twins without my knowing, but I somehow doubt it.

Durnford was an Engineer officer who saw action only twice. In the first, the mountainous terrain & nature of the expedition was hardly worse than the orders under which he laboured, unless it was the unmilitary conduct of his men; and in the second, the lack of detailed orders and the vagueness of those which he had received were sufficient to mess things up. It would be difficult, I suppose, to have much idea what his approach to military tactics was (other than to demonstrate initiative as well any other officer and to put his training and experience into practice) given that both enterprises in which he was involved were halted almost before they began as far as he was concerned.

Being an engineer and of a military family, it is certainly not impossible that he gave thought to the military matters of other powers if he had the opportunity, such as those of Prussia/Germany, France and perhaps the US, but I think it would be stretching it a bit to imagine that even if he had access to detailed reports of American military matters, that he would have bothered or even known about the physical appearance or military reputations of foreign army officers on (almost!) the other side of the world.

I don't know how widely the Battle of Little Big Horn was reported in the press over here (I'll check later today) but some accounts of the engagements in the American Civil War were published, although most comment was on the economics and politics of the situation.

Do you not think it more likely, if a resemblance can be found, that any "modelling" being done was actually the other way round?

22nd March 2005Paul Cubbin
I for one am amazed how much Durnford looks like a famous film star. I saw the film 'Zulu Dawn' and the fella was the spitting image of Burt Lancaster! Uncanny I'd say.

On the same note has anyone noticed how much like Errol Flynn Custer looked. I saw 'They Died with their Boots On' and he was......etc..etc..
22nd March 2005Coll

I don't know about comparisons between these two personalities, but they are very interesting individuals.

However, regarding Col. Durnford, when I bought my first AZW book - 'ZULU: Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift' by Ian Knight, I really was only wanting to find out more about Rorke's Drift, but when I saw the excellent colour plate of Durnford inside this particular title, it made me want to pursue Isandlwana and his role in it, as I found the illustration played quite a significant part in drawing me to this battle and the man himself.

I think it stood out because, being new to the AZW, I was only expecting to see pictures of the 24th in their scarlet tunics and to see a different uniform as the first picture in the colour plate section, certainly got my attention and finding out just what a brilliant subject Isandlwana is to study.

23rd March 2005Tony
Thank you all for your comments. I detect some resentment at my suggestions although I only really thought it might have occurred to others. I cetainly don't equate Durnford with Custer in any disparaging way but I do still feel there are strong , albeit superficial, likenesses. As to whether Durnford knew of Custer - I think it quite possibe. After all, to the Americans Custer's "Last Stand" was like Rorke's Drift became to us. Surely anybody remotely well-read would have heard of Custer? However, not to labour the point and surely purely coincidentally, the two men's endings were remarkably similar with their last stands! Please look at a picture of Custer and I really do defy anyone to say there is not a strong likeness and not just because of the facial hair. Wouldn't you say Paul? And icidentally Michael, have you seen the picture of Durnford at Cetshwayo's coronation? He certainly didn't have the "Custer look" then. So maybe he acquired it after following the Americn's exploits. As to whether he ever saw a likeness of Custer, well all the newspapers would have had their artist's impression just as they did here over the Zulu incidents and characters.
23rd March 2005Paul Cubbin
I think the mix of over-confident C19th adventurer/soldier vs warlike but underestimated 'native' enemy was a good recipe for the 'last stand'. There are numerous examples of it for various nations and the hapless fellas involved were, for some reason, lionised by their home countries.
As for Durnford being familiar with Custer - well, maybe, maybe not. London press in particular had a fascination with all things 'Western' and no doubt news of Little Bighorn (and associated sensational trivia both true and not) would no doubt have been all the rage a couple of months after the event. However, would this have trickled through to Natal? Certainly, in time. And if so, is it the kind of press that Durnford would have read? Perhaps he would have been introduced to it through Shepstone's daughter or another 'trendy' young thing.
Oh, and Tony, my own previous post was just me being silly. Putting others down isn't my thing, mate. Just having some fun, life's too short not to.
23rd March 2005Tony
Hi everyone,
Thanks for your comments Paul. I have to say that it would be inconceivable to me that military men would not have heard of and discussed the Bighorn campaign; maybe not the general reader but Custer was very high profile anyway - a star in his day and certainly a very successful man, one of America's youngest ever generals and even in defeat (which of course wae his own doing)
an icon.
Is it so unlikely that Durnford, along with many others, found him worthy of copying?
Incidentally Paul, with regard to look-alikes, the make-up people on "Zulu Dawn" tried hard enough to make Lancaster look like Durnford and all they finished up with was Burt Lancaster with a bad accent.
And Peter, busy as Durnford was, did he never read a newspaper or listen to a conversation? In the hectc times we live in we still keep abreast of things or can if we want to.
Having said all that, the two men undoubtedly have one thing very much in common - they were both fascinating in theirways.
23rd March 2005Paul Cubbin
I got curious, so I did a quick internet search for a photograph of Custer (it was very quick and easy) and I've got to say, he really does look an awful lot like Durnford, even ignoring the moustache.
23rd March 2005Peter Ewart

Firsty, like Paul, I certainly didn't intend to indicate resentment at the suggestion Tony raised - far from it - but on re-reading my post there is a definite dismissive tone which comes over, for which I apologise.

As suggested, I've had a look at some pictures of Custer via Google but, apart from a drooping moustache, I can see no facial resemblance at all, and you're surely not going to suggest that a moustache and a hat are evidence of a likeness, let alone of one "copying" the other? (Sorry, getting dismissive again, but it's very hard not to Tony).

You say surely anyone well read would have heard of Custer. Which? American or British? The United States was a huge place - in relative terms far, far bigger than today. How many had access to a newspaper? In GB in 1876 it was a single percentage figure in terms of literary access combined with custom and economic ability - in other words, the newspaper-reading public was tiny, compared with 20 or 30 years later.

Durnford, of course, was an educated man, so no doubt read newspapers in Natal and, when in GB, here as well. As it happens, he was on the high seas at the time of the Little Big Horn and arrived in London at around the same time as news of the battle arrived (July).
If he was particularly interested in military tactics and the development of ideas in foreign armies, it is not impossible he got hold of relevant accounts, although I'd imagine someone at staff college or "a Wolseley" would be the sort of man who'd go that far.

If he had to rely on the ordinary press (which meant The Times, one or two other reliable papers and the illustrated mags) I think he'd have had a very difficult job to find out about military matters in America, let alone come across a chance report of a battle of 25th June 1876 in a far away country of little concern to GB, particularly compared with imperial or European matters.

I had a look at The Guardian yesterday, a national paper (no connection with today's of the same name) which was chock full of international, political and - when it occurred - military news and comment. Not surprisingly, the big topic of the summer of 1876 was "The War" - i.e., the conflict and the atrocities in the Balkans. Turkey, Bulgaria, Rumania, Bosnia, Herzogovina and Serbia were headline news (if there had been such things a headlines).

The huge space allocated to other foreign news regularly featured France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Greece and other nations under the "Foreign & Colonial" heading, but although the paper had its own correspondent stationed in New York, reports were infrequent and, when received, were invariably filled with politics (in a Presidential election year) and, to a lesser extent, the topical big exhibition in NY and the unprecented heatwave being suffered on the eastern seaboard. As a change, the 4th July celebrations (centennial that year, so very big) were well covered, by which date the news of the disaster had still not reached the east coast. The visit of the Emperor of Brazil merited a mention but as the month went on the heat and the politics was the sole topic appearing, as the NY temperature hovered around 102 and 103 degrees.

Eventually, tucked away in a report from NY was news of a reverse by the "small army of this country" with a brief explanation of the battle, an even briefer mention of a gallant General Custer who was pointedly criticised for his military mistake resulting from an attempt to take credit for an assumed victory (in the view of the reporter). The whole topic was contained in a very small proportion of a single despatch, which made clear that the 4th July celebrations occurred well before news arrived of the the military reverse.

Over the next few weeks? Nothing. That was it. Of course, eventually there may have been something interesting in the other London journals and even a woodcut of Custer may have appeared somewhere - but newspapers had no illustrations of any sort in 1879, so Durnford would have had a merry dance chasing around for a picture of someone who, to anyone over here, would have been a highly obscure figure.

Quite apart from the fact that the US might just have well been on the other side of the moon for all GB, Europe or the Empire was concerned, what I find strange is the idea that a British officer, who spent a large part of his career serving the most powerful and largest empire in the world, would have entertained the idea of "copying" the mode of dress of a foreign soldier whom he might just have heard of between 1876 and 1879, as if Custer had been some sort of Victorian pop star.

Again, with great respect Tony & without wanting to appear dismissive in tone, I believe the idea is too ridiculous for words.


24th March 2005Michael Boyle
Tony and Peter,

Reports of the Little Big Horn first reached New York on 4 Jul 1876, appearing in the New York Times the following day and expanded upon on the 6th amid the weeks long Centennial Celebration.

I haven't found when they first appeared in British papers but I'd bet at least one of the 'Illustrated' papers there would have picked up on it shortly there after. I imagine it would have taken a great deal more time for them to come up with a likeness of Custer (if they ever did).

At the time of his death Custer's name was known in the U.S. but he was by no means 'famous' yet ,certainly not in the U.K. He was one of the youngest Generals among the hundreds of Generals in the U.S.Civil War. It was the grand spectacle value of the "Last Stand" which made his name a household word in the U.S. and fueled the many 'penny dreadfuls' and 'dime novels' to mythologize him.

The Little Big Horn disaster was of course every bit as shattering to "civilians at their breakfasts" in the U.S. as Isandhlwana was to become to the British less than three years later. However, I doubt that the British paid any more attention to it than the Americans did to Isandhlwana (or Rorke's Drift).

I believe Custer's world wide (Western civ. anyway) fame didn't begin until American "Wild West" shows toured overseas decades later. (Cody's was famous for it's tableau and he and others staged mini-reenactments.) Of course the 'literary' accounts may well have preceded and Hollywood of course later reinforced.

I would be curious to find out if any of the British military journals of the time featured the battle of the LBH and how much coverage they gave to the U.S. Civil War battles previously. Only if Durnford was known to be a student of foreign cavalry tactics would I suspect he even knew of Custer and quite possibly,as Peter suspects, never knew of the LBH.

For a very unusual picture of both Custer and Sitting Bull see:

(Sorry, I couldn't resist!)

For me, a better comparison would be between Custer and J.E.B.Stuart and whether Custer perhaps modelled himself on the famous Confederate cavalryman. (That of course being for a different forum!)

As far as the similar looks (different noses and chins though) I feel the look was more a manifestation of the traditional cavalryman's flamboyance embodied in many horse soldiers of the day. (I know Durnford was R.E. but he took to cavalry life with apparent gusto!)



25th March 2005Tony
Many thanks Michael and Peter for your interest and comments and to Paul for that encouraging comment. I guess there's little point in persuing the idea as we could never establish any connection, in the unlikely event that there is one. However, it has been interesting, worth a thought or two.
Happy Easter all.