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21st April 2004Culpability for Isandlwana
By David Alan Gardner
I know this subject has come up in the past but I thought I'd just mention my thoughts on it now I've read more,- and after all I think it is the question of the campaign.

Firstly, Chelmsford should have accepted overall responsibility as senior commander-he did not.
He was obviously culpable by his actions on the day.Had he met the main impi at his destination, I think he would have been defeated in any case given the limited ammunition that he had.
Personally I still cannot make my mind up on the question of Harness being removed from the enquiry by being part of it-was this deliberate by Chelmsford?-if so he's worse than I thought!
Having been introduced to the study of the war via Morris before many other publications appeared, I had adopted the sympathetic glow towards Chelmsford that Morris so obviously had used- no doubt for the obvious reason he had obtained so much help from the Thesiger family in writing his book. However given what took place due to the actions of the General, I have changed my mind on this.

Next on the list of blame, Pulleine seems to have been a man not up to the task on hand.In defence, how many commander's would have been?- However at a crucial time in the run up to the battle, Pulleine could not even make a decision on what to do about Chelmford's note about striking camp and had to be prompted by another officer.
He unfortunately was not up to speed on events, and they overtook him rapidly.
Here was an officer who was inflexible, but again, in his defence, did try and stick to the orders for defence that the General had given, and which he had definitely read, given the dispostions adopted,- and a remark later attributed to him about opening fire too soon on the Zulu with artillery reinforces this verbatim adoption of those orders. I would suggest an officer of the calibre of Wilsone Black, Buller,Wood or Pearson may have made the difference.

Overstretched, the question of ammuntion undersupply is surely a red herring since the displacement of troops ensured absolutely there was going to be a problem with supply-in my mind there was no doubt about this, despite the assurances I have read by some that an experienced Battallion like 1/24 would never allowed shortages to occur.I say to those, look at the battlefield, look at the distances involved, and then tell me there was no problem with resupply.
Even Melvill had been quoted as saying that "we should be prepared to fight "shoulder to shoulder"-or words to that effect.So why was Pulleine sending his men out instead of drawing them in-to say he was simply defending the camp,- instead of fighting for mere survival-is no defence of his actions on the day.
Shepstone's warning when he rode down should have been the marker for a change in tactics-instead he was disbelieved, perhaps even laughed at by Pulleine-who by now had missed his last chance.

By the time the cease fire from the bugles sounded at the height of the fight, probably on orders from Pulleine, the battle was long lost.

Which at that point brings me to Col Durnford, who just before had rode in from the Big Donga
Again ,from the influence of Morris, I had my doubts about Durnford.He had after all disobeyed orders from the Gerneral, and was a bit of a lose cannon.He had taken his men out of the camp thus weakened it, and indeed wanted to take imerial troops with him to compound the error.
Hang on a minute though, here was a man of decision.Here was a man of undoubted bravery who given his situation I think did better than most on the day.He quickly recognised the danger of an attack on the generals rear flank-albeit his actions were based on the idea of an totally incorrect number of Zulus that were about to attack the camp,-and not the general, who lay wallowing in ignorance 10 miles to the east.

Like everyone else that day, Durnford believed the impi was to the east, and he was taking the fight to the enemy.Who can fault a commander like that when so many battles were lost on the failure to "ride to the sound of the guns"-indeed, his commnader in chief failed such a test that same day.

When, towards the end he came in from the donga, alas it was already all but over and he knew it, but fought and stayed.
What a brave man he must have been, and a leader of men. How late in the day did he die, was it the time on his timepiece?-we will never know.
I absolutely commend Durnford's actions that day.

All the above are of course my only my own conclusions and many will disagree with some of what I have said,but at the end of the day, one tries to establish a picture in your mind of what went on that day, and this is my tuppence worth for all it worth, but I wanted to post it in any case.
22nd April 2004Mike McCabe
How can we possibly determine culpability, and how could we dare to be so impudent to do so? Let them rest in peace.

23rd April 2004Melvin Hunt
I'm slightly puzzled here. I thought that one of the reasons for this forum was to discuss, amongst a load of other things, the very topics that David, (now having read more on the subject,) has needed to raise.
24th April 2004Keith Smith

Your response seems somewhat intemperate, considering the fact that this issue, with many others of a similar nature, is what makes the study of this war so stimulating.

Surely Lord Chelmsford, as the senior officer in South Africa, and who was also senior officer of the 3rd column, must assume some blame for what took place. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that he was personally responsible for many of the shortcomings in the state of the camp at Isandlwana.

It is hardly impudent to therefore canvass the issue on this forum. If you object so strongly, I suggest you put some counter-argument, rather than merely huffing and puffing.

25th April 2004David Alan Gardner
Thanks Mike and Keith, I think you know "where I'm coming from" .Sometimes I notice on the forum that convictions are given by some without necessarily giving any depth of explanation or reasoning behind their their views.Of course, they are not obliged to, -it's just that their opinions may be more easily dismissed as dogma by other contributors.
For me the whole interest of Isandlwana is the reasons, the pictures, and images of the war, and the personalities behind them, the whole military failure and tragedy particularly of Isandlwana, but also of course, of the Zulu people.

My view, which I tried best to elabarate, was the culmination of of what I had read in books, on this forum, and elsewhere.It was a view that had changed over the years with the new information and reading I had done

I think most of us enthusiasists-for that is alas all I can claim to be-, surely must wonder the "what if's" of that day, and in doing so, cannot fail to pass some kind of judgement on the main "movers's and shaker's" involved- the good, the bad,the indifferent.

I think if we start off by saying there are "no go" areas which we musn't venture into, then we stifle debate and make the subject far less interesting.
I cannot possibly guarantee I'm right with any of the opinions I offered-how could I ?-but I offered them here because I'm so interested in the subject, and looked for others views on that day, such a long time ago now and yet somehow, I've no doubt many of us try to cast our imaginations back to that time and wonder.

What I miss is JY'S opinion's on the subject, -I noted in the last Isandlwana thread of interest that he had not contributed, which was a shame because as far as I can see John offers a great deal of informed help on the AZW -and is without a doubt, more informed than most, although noted he makes no claims to being an academic as such.

Finally,as Keith has offered, I'd welcome and appreciate any counter argument if it helps me form a clearer view of the battle.
26th April 2004Omar
David, I think you have to be careful beifore being critical of Pulleine. Pulleine had very little battle experience compared to the other officers of the 24th who had been involved in fighting on the Cape Frontier. Pulleine was regarded as a very good administrator becuase of his work during the frontier war. Chelmsfords over confidence in the safety of the camp at Isandlwana was reflected in his choice of who would be in charge of the camp whilst he was gone i.e the inexperienced pulleine.
26th April 2004Julian whybra
I think I've written elsewhere on the forum that in my opinion it was Chelmsford who should bear the brunt of the blame. No matter WHO was in charge of the camp at whichever stage, Pulleine or Durnford, he was following Chelmsford's battle-plan, and that plan was flawed. Chelmsford himself of course was acting to the best of his ability. Could he have been btter informed or was he destined to learn through exprience? Apparently he was, and he was a fast learner. As for culpability - well, the Zulus were to blame, weren't they? Need there be a British scapegoat? Couldn't it just be that on the day the Zulus were better than we were? Why do we need to have an excuse, a reason, why we didn't win? Guilt?
26th April 2004Mike McCabe
It is the notion of 'culpability' being settled on this website that I very firmly react against and continue to do so. It implicitly requires due and objective criteria assessment against some reasonable sort of criteria, and (starting already, above) usually leads to the apportionment of blame. It's interesting to note the extent to which professional criticism followed (overtly in the public media, and covertly in later accounts, letters and diaries - many possibly lost forever). That hind-sighted individuals, sitting in comfortably in armchairs, not sharing (or perhjaps never having faced) the sort of responsibilities and uncertainties that these men faced, can now take it on themselves to sit in judgement on these men's reputations from the distance of 125 years is a recurring and very disappointing feature of this site.

26th April 2004David Alan Gardner
When I first came across this site , I saw Julian's thought's on Lord Chelmsford, and I disagreed anxiously-but have come to the conclusion he is correct, and I agree almost entirely with everything in his post, summarising exactly what the General's performance became-ie from a diastrous initial campaign to the very successful conclusion it resulted in.

Yes perhaps the Zulus were perhaps too good on the day, winning with sheer bravery and fluidity.

Omar, I too have read on Pulleines admin capabilities, and of course this must be taken into consideration.He was still a combat officer in command of a substantial body of men and at the end of the day, he was a very senior officer-should more have been expected of him?

To say he was put into a very difficult situation by the General would be the understatement of military history.

To the objectivity of making a judgement-should we judge?-are we in a position to?
I would argue, we are indeed. Some may argue hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Notwithstanding this, the fact remains that a substantial force of men - part of a modern army , was defeated uneccessarily by a native army in the most brutal manner.

Simply to argue that blame should should not be apportioned due to certains men reputations being tarnished is a non sequitur.

When we do not ask the questions that need to be asked, when those answers are not forthcoming , we know the word for it surely -purely and simply-a cover up.
Now I'm not saying this is what happened, but for to advocate that no questions be asked in the face of a massacre is a non starter-whether or not the full facts are established

.The idea is to come to a conclusion with as much evidence as possible.It may be right or wrong, but not unnaturally decisions are made and minds are made up.

Of course Chelmsford was judged by his peers;of course we should judge.
By what criteria should we judge? -judge by the perfrmance of others in the campagn.

For me at any rate, the AZW is full of accounts of individual bravery and leadership, with men adapting to the sometimes very difficult circumstances they found themselves in.On the 22nd Jan 1879 Henry Pulleine found himself in the worst of those.
However he failed to rise to them.He exacerbated the situation he was in; had the time to sort things out;he had a window of opportunity, but failed to grasp it.
I would say compare Pulleine to others who showed initiative and ended up winning the day, and I mentioned previously other officers who may have fared better

Please note I say this not to the deliberate dertiment of Pulleine or in any way to demean him. As I have tried to explain, I think for many, the mystery and fixation of interest of the question of "what might have been", together with the absolute totality of defeat of the battle, is part of the mystique of Islandwana-when things could not come together on the field for the British force in the camp.

Therefore I do judge Pulleine, but not harshly, and in recognition of the mitigating factors-but I believe it very certainly could have alternative outcomes, avoiding the disaster it became.

Unfortunately I have to write this from my armchair since I cannot make it to Isandlwana at the moment, nor can I travel back in time much as I sometimes wish!

13th May 2004L.J.Knight
i reckon that it was Chelmsfords complacency in the weeks imediatly preceding Isandhlwana, his obsession with his personal staff,which led to the exclusion of the battalion command.,breaking the chain of communication with disasterous consequences.but more inportantly,his behavior in the imediate aftermath was nothing short of cowardice. we all have read of the "quasi" inquiry which was set up by his lordship.what a sickening attempt to cover his own bet he learned after Isandhlwana. but then again he really had to ,did'nt he. I have no particular axe to grind about himself personaly,i think he was pretty much a product of his generation.but come on we have all read accounts.i wander on who's authority Chelmsfords written orders were removed from Durnfords corpse?. every body seems to skirt the issue of Chelmsfords 'culpability', and i cant understand why.ithis is my personal disrespect to his family intended.
20th May 2004steve
its unfortunate,but with chelmsford,the buck
stopped wherever it was easiest to put it,
history i beleive has put it where it belongs.

i dont believe that durnford was a great tactitian either,re bushmans pass,but his
courage has never been doubted,he would have made a great zulu induna.

pulleine acted to the best of his ability,
given his comprehension of the situation,
weighed,in hindsight (an easy thing i know)
he too was found wanting.
yes,he may have had to juggle conflicting orders,but i dont think he grasped the enormity of the situation,untill durnfords retreat.
But didnt the british army suffer this sort of thing for a couple of centuries,elphinstone in
afghanistan,cornwallis at yorktown,percival at
singapore,rank may hath its priveleage but its
the priveleaged whose rank gave us the above.
its the redcoat on the line who never wavered
lions led by donkeys to coin a phrase,and
allthough the zulu did everything their c in c asked of them,to win a stunning tactical victory,strategically it was a catastrophe.
Even in the time just after the conclusion of the war,no animosity was held
by the british against their gallant foe,if
anything the animosity turned inwards against
those that forced a war,then handled it so
20th May 2004Peter Ewart
whatweredurnfordstacticalerrorsandweretheyreallyworsethan thoseofhissuperiorsandsubordinatesbeforeandduringthatventureandwhile consideringbritishdefeatswhenledby privilegedofficerswhataboutthe scoreshundredsperhapsofvictoriesunderleadersofsimilarprivilegeduringthesameperiodwhatdoyoumeanrecoatsneverwaveringneverheardofmajubasteve?wherethecreamofscottishsoldieryranasfastandasfarastheycouldbeforlookinground?lionsledbydonkeysmyarsethatalanclarkhasalottoanswerforbutthankfullyhaigshonouredplaceinhistoryisatlastassureduptherewithmarlboroughwellingtonandslimimenjoyingtheserecentdiscussionsonculpabilityandespeciallytheammodebateontheotherthreadbutpleasecansomeofyoucheckyourtypingbeforeclickingaddreplyandcanwehaveafewlesszulu'sandafewmorezuluspleasecrikeythatwashardworkbutnotsuchhardworkasreadingsomeofthesepostspeter
23rd May 2004steve
took time,but i read it.
durnfords tactical error/s,ensuring ammo supply or lack of,see the other debate,
leaving the camp,etc etc,were tactical,
chelmsfords were those of his class,
i.e.johnny foreigner wont stand mentality.
lions led by donkeys,the kaisers quote not mine,so i would assume that should read ,
"my arsen".
wouldnt class majuba hill as a line ,would you?,and in any case you prove my point,
what ex eton rifle sent em up there in the first place?
"haig "and "honoured place" shouldnt really
be in the same sentance peter,re the somme.

wolsley spotted it so did cardew,hence the
armys long overdue reforms,ie removal of the
purchasing of commissions,creation of trained reserve.
however i would agree i shouldnt generalise,
i mean look at smith dorrien at mons,but then
their are allways a couple of exceptions to the rule.

23rd May 2004steve
whoops....should read
"wont stand mentally"
24th May 2004Peter Ewart

Glad you were able to read it! It was a light-hearted attempt to draw attention to some of the almost unintelligible efforts among the postings in the ammunition debate on the other thread. Dispensing with even the most rudimentary punctuation or allowing one's thoughts to race ahead of one's fingers and then failing to give it even a last cursory look before sending, simply creates confusion. I'm sure some of the arguments are originally well thought out by contributors who are well versed on their particular aspect but some of the recent postings are almost impossible to follow; some sentences, even after several readings, just don't make sense. I suspect none of us are brilliant typists, which is all the more reason to look at what we've typed before sending. And, of course, there have always been more "zulu's" than zulus or Zulus on this site!

My remark about Durnford didn't refer to Isandlwana. I was following up your mention of his tactics at Bushman's River. I'd be more inclined to blame Pine for that fiasco.

Chelmsford's tactics or mistakes were not at all those of his class - they were simply his. Do you overlook his correct decisions? Or the many other officers of his class who were successful and who deservedly enjoyed brilliant careers? The 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are chock full of them. Chelmsford under estimated the Zulu danger generally (but was very wary in many apsects of his invasion preparations) and made one or more fatal mistakes before Isandlwana - but what's that got to do with dimissing "Johnny Foreigner"? (I'm assuming that's what you mean but your correction of your original remark makes it even less comprehensible than it was in the first posting. In fact, I thought I'd understood it the first time but "wont stand mentally" baffles me.

The "Lions led by Donkeys" idea was picked up by Clark in his 1960 book "The Donkeys", not highly regarded these days as a work of scholarship, unlike his superb "Barbarossa" (or his recent posthumous diaries!!!) The Donkeys idea seems to have run its time and many modern scholars - although I acknowledge by no means all - appear to recognise Haig's achievements.

The Somme was a British victory, Steve - a very long, very costly attritional victory, but a victory. And a much more costly battle for the enemy. Haig's nine major victories of 1918 - that's nine major battles against the main enemy's main army in the only theatre which counted - won the war.

I mentioned Majuba because you implied that the thin red line never wavered, unlike their officers. Well, it just isn't so, is it? (Even though the British infantryman's reputation for steadiness is certainly very well earned).

Cardew? You mean old "Cardew the Cad"? Remember him? Or Cardwell?

Not exceptions to the rule at all, Steve. They were products of their time, not of ours, and of the social and military system of the time. There were plenty of duffers and chinless wonders among them but to generalise in that way is inaccurate in my opinion.

26th May 2004steve
the light hearted typing format,cost me my sight,for a couple of minutes,but i know what
you mean.
the quote from the kaiser clearly shows a
measure of respect,i have no doubt they
earned with every yard they died for.The
passage of time and revisionist history
does not "in my view" detract from the power of the sentiment he(the kaiser)expressed.
Indeed 20 yrs later,hitler touched on the
subject again,stating that the british soldier
was much as we knew him from before,
stubborn in defence but woefull in attack.

originally oliver cromwells new model army
sowed the seeds of glory yet to come,yet
with his death,and the reinstatement of king
over parliament,meant that cromwells aims,
like his head on traitors gate,were up in the air for some time,and it was buisness as usual for the gentleman soldier.

yes the somme was a victory,but it was only
pyrhic,and if sixty thousand dead is a victory,
remind me not to join your army.
1918 i agree was haigs best year,hard really
to be anything else,with americans in france,
the german population starving,and german soldiers having to steal food from the british dead just to survive,by this time of course
lloyd george had lost faith in haig,and on
more than one occasion had refused him
any more reinforcements.
i reckon he had it right the chap who wrote,
"hes a cheery old card,said harry to jack,
as they trudged up to arras,with rifle and pack
but he did for them both,with his plan of attack"
black humour from tommys who knew him.

my appologies,it was cardwell,and my comment still stands,without serious reply.

my generalisation was intended to show that
british soldiers have allways willingly gone
oer the hill and faraway,even up untill dunkirk
its only then ,1940-1941/2 that merit appears
as an addition to class.
happily since that time,the british army is the
superb organisation,wolseley,cardwell,and
cromwell envisaged.

I will concede that my genralisation was too
all encompassing,and in particular the 19th
century is littered with gentleman soldiers
of extreme ability and courage.