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24th July 2005Drummer boys in the Zulu War
By d.c.grant
I'm undertaking a work of fiction regarding the Zulu War and one of the characters is a drummer boy. I've researched Isandlwana and have researched drummer boys in the military but am having difficulty putting my drummer boy in Isandlwana. According to my research the 'boys' in the band were different to the boys in 'the drums'. The former was used to maintain morale and were generally older men, probably civilians perhaps. Drummer boys were younger and were 'apprenticed' to the military to learn the drum and bugle calls that marked off the activities of the day, reveille, mess call, assembly etc. They also blew the battle calls as, of course, there were no radios in those days to pass on the commands. These boys, I understand, were accepted at the age of 14 when their wrists were still supple and were entitled to enlist as privates when they turned 18. Is there anyone out there who can add to this or provide evidence to the contrary. Also, to whom did these boys report? If anyone can help, I would be much obliged. I'd hate to get it wrong!
24th July 2005Michael Boyle

I'm no expert but in my digging around it seems that only some bandmasters were civilians, until the 1880s when they were made Warrant Officers. A site search here for 'drummer boys' will reveal many more details.

Having researched Isandlwana then you know of course that, unless you add a survivor for your novel, the drummers didn't fare well.


24th July 2005Adrian Whiting

As Michael suggests, a search on the discussion forum should bring up some threads. If you search on "boys" you should get a thread from June this year which started out about "bugle boys".

I have copies of the period Queens Regs, so if you require further details, contact me directly.


25th July 2005Sean Sweeney
Hi DC,
My Scottish/Irish family had a number of bandsmen in the Victorian British Army. (seven directly that I am aware of)
Some joined as 'Boys', at different ages, and because of musical aptitude, became buglers/drummers/trumpeters, and eventually Band Sergeants/BandMasters if they survived that long.
My Gt Grandfather attested at age 11yrs(recorded as 14yrs old).
I can't tell you much about Isandhlwana drummers, I'm afraid.
There is a bit of information here in past topics, but it is generally about their age and their fate.
As far as I am aware, 'Boys' under instruction were often initially with the Regiment's Depot Companies.
Feel free to ask anything that I might be of assistance with.
Sean Sweeney
25th July 2005Dawn
Thanks to all you guys. While the battle of Isandlwana and the aftermath are well documented, not much is said about the boys apart from the gory (perhaps not quite true) details of how they were despatched. I welcome all the comments and hopefully I will gather enough facts to put together a reasonable account. Thanks to Keith Smith for his paper. If anyone has anything else to add, it would be most welcome.
25th July 2005Paul Cubbin
Without wanting to seem arrogant or attempt to write your book for you, a fascinating encounter (I think) would be a meeting between a drummer boy and a Zulu 'carrier' boy attached to an Impi. The contrasts and similarities, I should imagine, would make for a great deal of poignancy between two kids who, left to their own devises, would probably much rather go fishing or climb trees.
25th July 2005Coll
Was there not a mention of a drummer boy being posted at one of the 24th ammunition wagons and as far as people know he remained at his post even when the Zulus were entering the camp ?

I'm not sure if it was true, but it did demonstrate the courage and dedication of these young lads matched that of the older soldiers.

Not much help, but it is an account that I just remembered, including the fact he refused the offer to escape along with the mounted men.

26th July 2005Dawn
I'm having difficulty establishing chain of command down to the drummer boy and what his role would be in the battle. I've established that, while his rank would be 'drummer', it's more likely he was a bugler. My understanding is that in battle, the drummer proper would stand next to the colours and beat to let everyone know the colours were all right. This same drummer would also receive commands from the commander which he would beat, the buglers would pick this up and sound whatever call was required. Therefore relaying commands from the top to the soldiers in the field. Correct me if I'm wrong.
26th July 2005Mike McCabe
The rank of' Drummer' in line infantry battalions is applied to someone trained in both the drum and bugle. Rifle and light infantry regiments have 'Buglers', and Light Infantry regiments (when still 'red infantry') had a number of drummers in the Regimental/Battalion bands, but buglers were not routinely trained in 'drumming'. By the time that they had deployed forward to Isandlwana, Drummers of either Bn of the 24th would not have routinely carried their Drums, but would certainly have continue to carry bugles - a significant means of conveyng orders, and regulating routines in camp. Had the 24th also taught its Drummers to play the fife, then that they too would probably be retained. The Bn Bands would probably have kept one or more timebeaters in their full complement. However, as a practicality, these might have used the tenor/side drum to beat time rather than attempt to carry the much larger base drum. It is probable that the drums were not used musically as a formed body much further forward than Pietermaritzburg/Greytown. On the occasions when the bands did play on the line of march it is more likely that they played hearty tunes, or even song tunes, to cheer everybody up - it probably being utterly impracticable to march in step except within indvidual companies (if any were not moving tactically), and then as a part of march discipline intended to reduce fatigue and maintain the marching pace, and progress.
Drummers, fulfilling the role of Buglers in the field, would routinely be distributed to the Bn HQ and the (eight) Companies. Each company would have its own 'bugler', as would the CO, and (later) the Adjurtant. The'bugler's' job was to accompany his 'principal' very closely while in action. There he would listen very carefully for any Column, or Battalion calls, and notif
26th July 2005Mike McCabe
and notify the CO/Adjt and Company Commander of any calls heard. If the call was to be repeated within the company, he would then repeat it when ordered to do so, or sound any other field call that might be required.
By strict convention, all ranks remained still and silent during the sounding of bugle calls, so that they might be more carefully heard.
Though mounted troops carried the trumpet, trumpeters were equipped also with the bugle, and all 'field calls' would be sounded with the bugle, not the trumpet. Subject to local orders, routine calls in camp might be sounded on the trumpet - but not those leading to direct urgent action. The trumpet had seven notes, the bugle only five, making it easier to sound field calls on the bugle in urgent circumstances. It also meant that the simpler field calls used for 'fighting' were the same in all units. There were ways of differentiating calls intended for different formations and units. The 1st and 2nd Bns 24th would, for example, have sounded the Bn Call prior to any 'executive' call being sounded - if the circumstances of sounding a call might otherwise lead to confusion in the other unit. That'll do for now.
26th July 2005Dawn
Thanks Mike, that is the most comprehensive information I have ever seen. I have just one further question, while in camp, to whom would the bugler report? I have presumed that as company bugler, he would be under the same command as the rest of the company.
26th July 2005Mike McCabe
For periods of time when the bugle was to be used routinely - in camp, or on the line of march, or when companies were deployed away from the Battalion. The drummers would take up the bugle, and each would work directly for a specific person. The CO's Bugler for him (though usually under the detailed supervision of the Adjutant), and one for each Company Commander if numbers allowed. Company level buglers were usually Drummers in that company. Not every company would have had a trained Drummer/Bugler, but all would have found a way of maintaining a bugler, and recognising bugle calls was an essential skill. In this respect, the bugler was supposed to become expert - though the ultimate responsibility for recognising bugle calls lay with the officers. The CO's bugler had to be the most expert, having many more calls to learn, recognise, and sound. It was also a job requiring steadiness and nerve. The small episode in 'Zulu' - 'Spit Boy, Spit', gives some idea of the tensions and responsibilities - though there is no real evidence of the bugle being used there in that particular tactical situation.
Remember that the bugle was only used when essential. If a message or order could be passed another way, then they did so. Other methods were: voice, whistle, hand signal, visual signals of various kinds (including flags and lamps). That is why we should take quite a lot of the 'bullshit' in the fims Zulu and Zulu Dawn with a huge pinch of salt. Trained professional soldiers, mercifully, do not behave like reenactors, nor feel the slighest inclination to do so.
26th July 2005Dawn
The consensus seems to be that the boys would have been under the command of the quartermaster or wagonmaster while on march or in camp. I think I'm fairly comfortable with this and I hope no one will tar and feather me if I use the quartermaster as my character's CO. I just didn't want to take everything from the Zulu Dawn movie as gospel which is why I started this thread.
26th July 2005Sean Sweeney
Well done Mike.
Certainly makes the picture a lot clearer.
I learnt a lot today !
27th July 2005Dawn
This thread seems to have reached its natual conclusion. Thanks for everyone's input. I've started a new topic on the aftermath of Rorkes Drift if anyone wants to have a look.
27th July 2005Mike McCabe
The immediate aftermath at RD is fairly well documented and you can read of it yourself.
Ithink you're getting confused with the film Zulu Dawn. The Quatermaster Sergeant would have commanded and directed his own small team only, probably (in those days) answering to the Senior Major. Band boys would answer to the Band Sgt. Drummers, to their Companies, or the DRum Sgt if employed at Bn level.
Please do not confuse the 24th's listed 'Drummers' (hence their buglers), with 'Boys' generally. There were, I think (from memory), five 'Boys' formally listed as killed at Isandlwana from both 24th Bns in CJ Atkinson. Most were associated with the Bands. There were other 'Boys', for example one with the Army medical services.
The 'Wagonmasters' (or whatever) were hired civilians, under contract, and would not have been given authority over military personnel.
If you're happy to run with a 'consensus' view - well, off you go then!

29th July 2005Dawn
I'm tending to shy away from the bugle/drummer boy scenerio and heading towards one of the boys in the quartermaster's team. The bugler boys of the 24th are well documented so difficult to use them as a fictictious character. From memory the drummers in the 24th were privates so could not have been boys. Thanks Mike for following this thread and giving so much of your knowledge. Its really appreciated.
29th July 2005Michael Boyle
Actually I'd be loath to use any historic personage in a fictitious role after the controversey surrounding "Hooky's" protrayal in "Zulu" (although C/Sgt Bourne seems to have made out okay!). It is after all not unheard of to add a fictitious character to a historical drama. (Drummer or Bugler Boys do tend to play well with the public.) Although the thought may be considered heresy here.

(I can almost feel the e-iklwas and e-Boxer Henrys piercing my e-body right now!)
29th July 2005Dawn
Ouch! Micheal, no need to take any hits for me! I'm trying to find out as much about the two boys, Daniel Gordon and Joseph McEwan as I can besides their grisly demise so that I can write their characters as true as I can make it. They're not main characters anyway but if anyone's got any tidbits? All i have from the book "The Noble 24th" is their army records.
29th July 2005Dawn
Sorry, I must add that I know Gordon was with B company but transfered up to G company because they didn't have a bugler.
29th July 2005Mike McCabe
Rather as the Naval Brigade took a Zulu boy prisoner at GinGingdlovu, and recruited him into the Navy, why not let the Zulus capture one at Isandlwana.
In the most imaginitive book structure he could eventually go into hiding with the Zulu King, until his capture, and return to British hands.
Capture could be based on the 'probably apocryphal' story of a young Band boy flinging his short sword at a Zulu. So, and most unusually, captured for his bravery. A 'Christian' Zulu could capture him - although there were remarkably few real cnverts at the time.
However, you'll need to learn much more about the British Military and Zulu ethnic culture or the result will just be laughable.
A sort of 'Carry on up the Buffalo'
29th July 2005Dave Nolan
Or maybe even 'Carry On Across The Buffalo'????
29th July 2005Mike McCabe
Even better!
30th July 2005Dawn
Mike, I tried that scenerio but couldn't come up with a good explanation of why the Zulu's wouldn't kill the boy. I've left it down to one Zulu boy finding the lone boy surviver, who is injured, and not knowing what to do with him as all his mates have done their stuff and gone back over the river. It all comes down to one person's comment on this thread that essentially we have two boys who would probably rather be out catching fish than fighting wars. By the way, I lived in Natal for 20 years and have some understanding of Zulu culture, although I wouldn't regard myself as an expert. It's more their ways and little quirks that I'm familiar with. Dawn.
30th July 2005Keith Smith

Given your above scenario, you might try to locate a work by C. de B. Webb, “A Zulu Boy’s Recollections of the Zulu War”, Natalia, No. 8, December, 1978, p. 6, an annotated re-print of George H. Swinny’s recorded testimony of the same name, published in 1884. This describes the actions of a young Zulu boy named Umsweanto, who visited the battlefield a few days afterwards.
30th July 2005Dawn
Thanks, Keith,I'll give it a go. Although i didn't make it clear that my boy makes it across Fugitives Drift where he's left for dead. It's here that the Zulu boy finds him. I've got the rest figured out but I won't reveal my game plan here. You'll have to buy the book. ;)
30th July 2005Michael Boyle

In that case perhaps you could use the, possibly apocryphal, incident of the lad who refused to leave his post when the officer suggested he vacate and save himself by having the officer not take no for an answer, throwing the lad across his saddle and getting him to the river. (Just a lame idea from a yet another closet novelist!)

I'm in the middle of reading "The Tune That They Play" by William Clive at present (so my judgement may not be up to snuff) and am rather enjoying a novelization of the Zulu War that goes a bit beyond Haggard and Hinty. Very much looking forward to reading another.


30th July 2005Dawn
Got to get it written first! Then lets not talk about publishers who wouldn't know a good book if it sat up and bit them!
30th July 2005Mike McCabe
Looks like an excellent candidate for review on Elizabeth Hogan's new website - supposing Adam Zamoyski is available.
He could save a NNC or NNP Zulu, who then saves him. Fortuitously, the boy is sent off as a runner with a message for a NNC officer - or perhaps the NNP officer working on the roads to the East of Isandlwana. That way, he's never actually in the midst of the 'killer' Zulus, but sees much. Gets away on a runaway artillery mule that he has befriended - mules 'adopt' people that they like - it drops dead?

30th July 2005Dawn
Mike, I should let you write it, might save me a lot of anguish! I think I've got the escape covered. Its what happens before thats the problem. Who's where at what time and how to get him to leave the field without orders? They court martial them for that!
30th July 2005Mike McCabe
You'll quickly say: 'Now why should a mule let anybody ride him?'. Well, the RA 7 Pdr RBL was, on its original gun carriage, designed to be drawn by three mules in tandem, with a Gunner riding and directing the lead mule. By the time of Isandlowana, the 'Kaffrarian' cariage (taken from the 9 Pdr) had been substituted, and was being drawn by horses. The storyline requires the Battery to have kept a particularly characterful mule - perhaps to be ridden by its Farrier Sgt? Of ourse, this mule can appear early in the story - providing some 'animal' interest. Perhaps with a dog as its stable friend.
30th July 2005Mike McCabe
We're out of sequence, but I'll continue.
OK, he borrows the mule, to ride out to pass on the message. At a critical moment, the mule simply bolts to be with other animals known to it, and he has neither the strength to curb it, nor the presence of mind to see it coming and try to ride anywhere else - he is, after all, just a boy. He could, of course, first attempt to ride towards Chelmsford - but find himself being swept in by the Zulu left horn.
In terms of 'getting away with it' he need only tell a story similar in type to those recorded by the members of the mounted infantry and rocket battery - compiled into the Silver Wreath/Noble 24th. The rocket battery were mostly soldiers of the 24th too. Explaining that he had first attempted to break away to warn Chelmsford would provide an original slant - because nobody seems to have done that - and would vindicate his character.
Your boy character also needs to 'orbit' the story in credible way, so that you are not constantly being enmeshed in real events or occurrences that involve real people and their accounts.
Or, he could come from the same part of England as Smith Dorrien (worked for the family), be known to him, and be told by S-D to 'save himself' (and try to follow me?)
30th July 2005Dawn
MIke, you're on a roll. Are you sure you shouldn't be writing something too?
31st July 2005Mike McCabe
No, just a bit bored until I move house next week. Had enough now.
6th August 2005Julian Whybra
Michael Boyle
Just a wee point - the real boy was actually approached by Sergt-Maj Simeon Kambula of the NNHand offered a lift, not an officer.
6th August 2005Michael Boyle
Thanks Julian, quite right of course. Proves again it's still too soon for me to rely on my memory alone! At any rate I think the only way to get the lad off the field credibly would be through brute force by a regular officer (who would have to die in the end if the official officer survivor's list is to remain intact) as I'm unsure if a colonial officer or nco could exert authority over British troops. (Although it would be nice to have one of the Sikali or Edendale troopers being credited with it.) From the above it would seem there's a latent novelist inside many of us!
10th August 2005Dawn
Judging from the replies to this thread, theres a lot of you out there that should be writing. For those that are interested I've finished the battle scene and got my boy out without the assistance of a mule. How did I do it? You'll have to wait for the book, I'm afraid. Now if any of you know a friendly publisher...
10th August 2005Edward Bear
I don't, but perhaps Elizabeth Hogan does?
10th August 2005Coll

A good book to obtain with details of publishers, etc., is the 'Writers and Artists Yearbook', plenty of contact addresses, including magazines, tv companies, etc.

I have last year's copy, simply called 'The Writer's Handbook 2004'. Editor - Barry Turner and from MacMillan publishing.

Hope this helps. Good luck with your book.

11th August 2005Dawn
I'll have to finish it first. Because I'm in New Zealand a book like this would have little appeal to NZ publishers so I'll have to trawl overseas companies. I know the publishers here but not overseas. My library has copies of the Yearbook so I'll get into that when I'm closer to finishing. Thanks for all the help, guys.
11th August 2005Coll

Have you thought up a title for your book ?

I remember writing an article several years ago, with an idea for a documentary which I was going to call 'Place of Shields', the name given to the valley where the Zulus were discovered.

Also, yet another ambitious project, was to draft a new screenplay about the battle at Isandlwana called 'Shields'.

Bet you'll never guess what the screenplay for Rorke's Drift was going to be ?

Yep. That's right. 'Shields 2'.

Pretty creative, eh ?

11th August 2005Coll
Further to the above.

Out of curiosity, the article I wrote I'm sure was published in the Anglo-Zulu War Research Society magazine about 1993-95 and I think the front cover of the issue it was in had a large drawing of Col. Durnford.

I no longer have my copy of this specific issue, can someone refresh my memory of what my article said. I think I signed it C.J.M.


12th August 2005Dawn
Working title is "By the Beat of the Drum". There are no plans for Drum 2.

While my character is fictional, the rest are not and The Noble 24th has become my Bible. (See topic Thomas Williams) I've been enoying giving personilities to the names on paper. I'm amazed at how young some of the officers were. Dyson was only 20.

I may have pointed this out before but the book is aimed at 10-14 age group and, as I said to Martin, the aim is to get them away from the TV/computer long enough to read about a battle where brave men died.

Thank you for your interest. I hope you have a son/brother/nephew/grandson/anyone who can read, for whom you will buy the book when (not if) it is published!
13th August 2005Coll

Although I haven't put pen to paper (yet), since I joined the forum in January of this year, I've asked several 'unusual' questions in an effort to introduce 'new' or 'unique' aspects into an AZW script, but trying to make sure that I had some of these facts confirmed, as you sort of mentioned above, to help create personalities, any additional characters, or assist with battle scenes.

These included the following -

British Improvised weapons
European mercenaries (on the Zulu side)
The availability of shotguns
Company marksmen (snipers)
Victorian unarmed combat
Soldiers secondary weapons (guns, knives,etc.)
The arming of prisoners in a crisis
Rivalry between the various units

Anything to add a new dimension to what is an already brilliant subject.

Strange ideas I know, but it helps give a bit more scope when creating individual characters, the way they appear, weapons they carry, qualities they have, etc. It really is enjoyable building up a profile of them all.

Anyway. Good luck with your book.

However, I'm not so sure about my screenplay.

13th August 2005Dawn
Good ideas all. But let me tell that the research is exhausting and sometimes there are two or three different versions of the same thing! However if the characters are right, I think most people will forgive anything. Or most things anyway.
A screenplay should be fun. I've never written a screenplay. Thought of a title yet?
14th August 2005Coll

I think 'Shields' is still first choice for a title, as the vision in both 'Zulu' and 'Zulu Dawn' of the thousands of warriors along the ridge and pouring down from the plateau, does indeed conjure up the image of all the shields being held in their hands.

Most of the questions I asked were very kindly answered and thankfully just about all of the ideas could be included, in one way or another, into any AZW storyline.

Adding these elements to the ones already known, as in the Zulu attack formation, the main participants, uniforms, weapons, etc., plenty of information and details to form a great idea of what the story should entail and how it will look when completed.

This is where basing a film on real events, such as Isandlwana or Rorke's Drift is so interesting, as you have much of the required knowledge supplied in many, if not all, of the AZW books, as well as this forum, with historians, authors and fellow enthusiasts assisting with any questions you have on any aspect of the campaign, including additional information on subjects connected with it.

I do believe that anyone with the ability to write a book or screenplay couldn't really falter with so much help being available.

The reason I would like to write a screenplay and not a book, although I did consider it, was when I realised just how much minute detail had to be included in a novel to give the reader a clear image of absolutely everything that was going on.

Whereas, a screenplay allows you to focus on character development, dialogue, etc., possibly adding specific details of buildings, landscape, etc. when it is felt necessary.

As with most of my projects, I don't imagine it will get further than my desk, but it really would be a great addition to a fantastic interest.

14th August 2005Dawn
My first title was 'To do or Die' from the Charge of the Light Brigade but seeing as my character neither did nor died, I scrapped it.

Yes, thankfully information is readily available, more so than when I started researching for this 10 years ago. The internet is a wonderful thing.

Good luck with the project. It certainly fills in the quiet hours.

14th August 2005Peter Ewart

You made a wise decision to scrap your original idea for a title, as I'm sure you'd have heard from a great deal of people (awful pedants like me?) saying that you had fallen into the common trap of misquoting Tennyson:

"Theirs but to do AND die."

Good luck with your project.

15th August 2005Dawn
Yeah, I realised that after I posted it but too late to change. Which is terrible when you realise you misquoted one of your favourite poems. Like singing bad karaoke.
15th August 2005Coll
I liked Errol Flynn's comment in 'They Died With Their Boots On', when he was asked where they were going. (The Little Bighorn)

'To Hell or to Glory. It depends on your point of view.'

Hope I got what he said right.