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23rd December 2004Isandhlwana & Rorkes Drift
By Paul Mercer
Having read a number of books and seen both films on the subject I cannot help but think that Isandhlwana was, besides being a disaster, a show of organisational incompetance on the side of our forces by the comanders and their subordinates. Surely a force of around 1200 men armed with modern breech loading Martini Henry's, cannon, rocket morters and ample ammunition, should have been able to see off an army which although vastly superior in numbers were armed only with spears? All accounts I have read speak of the Zulu army being initially pinned down by the rapid and accurate fire of the defenders. The number of medals handed out for Rorkes Drift was the highest for any battle before or since. and while recognising the heroism of the defenders, the more cynical among us cannot help but think that the amount awarded was more to do with giving the British public something to cheer about and to take their minds off the military incompetance by Lord Chelmsfield that led to the defeat at Isandlhwana - basically saving him from disgrace .
What do readers think?
23rd December 2004Peter Ewart

Well, the War Office appears to have agreed with you. As soon as they were in possession of sufficient details with which to ask Chelmsford a few pertinent questions, they did so. When they got the answers, they weren't satisfied with them and therefore gave him the sack without much further ado, replacing him with a household name who was charged with bringing the war to a successful conclusion at the earliest possible opportunity. And they made sure Chelmsford never again held active command. Coupled with his relentless public censure in parliament and the press for a very long time, it is hard to think of his escaping public disgrace in any way

With regard to the British force and its ability to see off the enemy in the circumstances in which they found themselves; well, that's exactly what Chemsford thought too, as he never failed to remind anyone who asked. In fact, you've almost taken the words out of his mouth and appear to agree with him wholeheartedly.

On the other hand, if sufficient numbers of an enemy armed only with spears and who can obtain victory only after close combat are prepared to rush a position, take inevitably high losses but continue their advance, perhaps cleverly timing it when the British force could least combat it effectively and demonstrating courage and an acceptance of losses which most other enemies wouldn't, then it would seem that other factors might well have come into play and that it wasn't so simple as it perhaps first appears.

You'll find some interesting and very detailed discussions on all these points on the back-postings of this forum (by experts, not me) but do set aside a few weeks to go through them all !!!

I'm not sure that your statement re the medals handed out for Rorke's Drift, although often repeated, is technically correct (in more than one way) but it would be difficult to think of a single one of them who would not have earned the VC or DCM for a similar action in a different engagement in those times. In other words, each and every one seems to have been genuinely earned & justly awarded, despite the apparent "convenience" of the publicity which attended them.

23rd December 2004Trevor
Hi Paul.
I don't agree with your suggestion that the number of VC's weren't warrrented. If you read the citations for the individual actions. Anyone would give them the VC! The only thing I find suprising, is there weren't more given.
Have to agree with you about Chelmsford. I think the main thing you missed out was his arrogance. It was an arrogance born to him. An arrogance born of class superiority, inherited wealth, and downright predudice. It was probably the predudice that finished him. He probably looked down on the blacks as a race. Discounted them as a credible fighting force. After all. They ran around in loin clothes, didn't speak the queens English, and fought with weapons the English hadn't used for over 500 years!!! What threat could they possibly be???? Boy! DID HE GET IT WRONG.
23rd December 2004Paul Cubbin
My brother was in the Gulf as a middle ranking officer and was first hand witness to some enormous incompetence to rival anything that happened at Isandlwana. It is something the British army has always suffered from - 'Lions led by Donkeys' - and unfortunately troops come to expect it and deal with it on a regular basis. The sad loss of those Military Police in Iraq is a poignant example, placed in an insecure location with insufficient firepower and ammunition. Sound familiar? What is particularly unfortunate (the understatement of the year) about Isandlwana is that so many basic errors happened in the same battle, any one of which would not necessarily have been so tragic. Maybe it was the result of war done 'on the cheap'. A lesson from history for polititians wishing to reduce the number of battalions in the British Army.
As to the number of VC's given at Rorkes Drift being a morale boosting exercise. Well, I think the argument deserves at least some attention, but then what is a medal anyway if not exactly that? I think Chelmsford's point that the men caught inside had no option but to fight smells a little of sour grapes.
He had lost a battle...badly (albeit in his absence) with ten times the number of troops who fought at 'Jim's Place'. By ignoring his own standing orders regarding laagering of wagons and entrenching ANY camp he was at least negligent. He was one of the Imperial Army's most experienced officers in fighting African wars and really was perhaps overconfident in his own abilities. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight most of the greatest errors (apart from the above) were committed by others, but that's not the point. He was the commanding officer in the field and should have led by example and set very clear insructions to his subordinates and should have taken the flak when things went wrong. It was perhaps the manner in which he attempted to place the blame onto dead men that was found to be unpalatable to the public. Yes, he was thrown to the wolves (although he enjoyed unshaken Royal favour from Victoria), but as an Officer should have taken it with a bit more 'stiff upper lip' and a little less wobbly lower one.
Many people have defended his actions and in all honesty do put forward a good argument. He wasn't present in person at the time, the ground was very hard and difficult to entrench, the wagons would have taken a very long time to laager, Pulleine should have known better, Durnford should have done better, the Zulus appeared as if by magic (they didn't even want to attack that day, and only did so because they were accidentally discovered), but after all is said and done, there are a few things which still remain that are criminal negligence in a General. He ignored his own standing orders (already covered above), he ignored repeated warnings from the Irregular Scouts and advisors with the column, he ignored reports of fighting from the camp itself and worst of all (in my opinion) he severely underestimated the fighting spirit and capabilities of his enemy despite continual warnings by Zulu 'experts'. Many people were responsible for the disaster but Chelmsford must be top of the list.
24th December 2004Mike Snook
Paul (Mercer),

Don't fall for the line about political medals, which appears in some recent writing - sadly every field of study has its lunatic fringe.

The VC is not awarded by a GOC in Pietermaritzburg but by the Sovereign in London. Secondly, you will find that 3 of the VCs (Schiess, Dalton and Reynolds) were awarded due to public acclamation of their deeds and through vigorous lobbying by various interest groups - nothing to do with Lord Chelmsford at all. The 24th VCs and Chard (x8)were gazetted in May, (these were the awards originally forwarded by Lord C/Glyn/H. Degacher/Bromhead - the chain of command - for the attention of Horse Guards), Reynolds was gazetted in June, Dalton in November, and Schiess the following year. The war ended on 4 July. So at least 2 of the medals were gazetted long after the war was over - when it was hardly necessary to distract from Isandlwana. A third when it was all over bar the shouting.

So much for the conspiracy theorists eh?

Not getting at you - but at the people who push this sort of twaddle out.

Cynicism can be carried too far I am afraid. It is a great failing of our modern age. As Peter Ewart says above these were all good medals. And as I have shown there was no indecent rush to award them. Incidentally I always call Joseph Willams (KIA) the 12th VC, (would have been recommended 'had he lived'). There is also a reference to an unknown soldier (it can only be one of a handful, but I haven't been able to pin it down definitively to one name), who was shot through the lungs (I think it was) and continued to fight on the barricade for another hour before he fell down dead. Now there's another VC in my view.

No my friend, good medals, fairly awarded, for great bravery. Probably the Zulus deserved a couple of hundred VCs too - it was that sort of fight - up close and personal. And that's precisely what makes it such a remarkable story.



30th December 2004Peter Ewart

I rather suspect your regard for Lord Chelmsford isn't that high (a bit of an understatement perhaps?) However, I wonder if you are getting just a little carried away, as the facts might present a slightly different picture.

You maintain he was arrogant, which is a very strong description of someone's personality or nature. Neither you nor I knew him personally, but many of those who did - among them those who stood to gain no benefit at all from saying so - stated categorically that he was a very kind and thoughtful individual with a very personable nature, which hardly describes someone who was arrogant. These descriptions come from officers, ORs and civilians. Bob Head may have called him an "old fool" or whatever, but that's a long way from arrogance, and Bob Head is not likely to have known him personally, if he ever even met him.

Then you say that he was not just born arrogant but also that his arrogance was a direct result of his being born into a particular social class. Also implied, if I understand your remark correctly, is that anyone else born into the same social class was, by definition, just as arrogant. His inherited wealth made him an arrogant individual - along with the others of his class, clearly - and it also made him "prejudiced."

You don't explain his "prejudice", only that he "probably looked down on the blacks as a race" - the same class-induced prejudice, presumably, with which the ORs throughout the 24th regiment also "looked down on the blacks" as a race, even if they did belatedly and grudgingly acknowledge their martial skills and vigour?

If Chelmsford "looked down" on the blacks - Zulu or otherwise - as a race, I doubt if it had anything to do with the social class in which he found himself (through no fault of his own!) His outlook would have been perfectly in keeping with those of ALL classes in European society. Do you not think that Hitch, or Hook, or Schiess, or Adendorff, or Chard, or Bromhead, or Coghill, or Melvill, or the Germans, French, Portguese, Dutch or Belgians also "looked down on the blacks as a race"? If they didn't, they would have been mightily unusual. Hook, Hitch and the rest of the private soldiers may have admired the Zulus' bravery and their military skills but do you think they regarded a black as equal to an Englishman or Welshman in other ways? Again, they'd have been rather unusual if they did. Were they too, then, arrogant? And if so, was this a result of their social class, or their nationality - or what?

I don't suppose Wolseley, a fellow officer and gentleman, was Chelmsford's favourite Englishman around June 1879 - but would that make him arrogant?

Chelmsford spent several months working frantically on preparations for the campaign, with meticulous attention to detail. Without doubt his transport problems were the biggest headache, both in planning and later in practice, and the decisions which addressed these problems also played their parts in his defeats. He couldn't predict the future and some of his decisions, both before and after January, undoubtedly proved to be mistakes.

Some things were overlooked - by him or his Staff - and he certainly ignored warnings from leading Boers. Perhaps he thought his transport problems outweighed everything else and perhaps he gave the military prowess of the Zulu insufficient consideration. Was this because of his 9th Frontier war experience, do you think - or because of his inborn arrogance? Perhaps he was even the worst general the army ever put into the field, even if he did put many things right afterwards. He certainly muddled his Staff at times and changed his mind a fair bit.

As an aristocrat, and therefore arrogant because of his birthright, do you not think he would have "looked down" on his ORs, even affectionately or patronisingly? But perhaps not so much as he looked down on the blacks?

Not up to it at the crucial moment, perhaps. Even over-confident in his attention to this particular enemy - with hindsight, anyway. But I don't think this makes him arrogant, and certainly not because of his social class, especially when a great deal of evidence points to the very opposite.

31st December 2004Michael Boyle
First impressions being so formative I wonder how many of us have based our opinions of Lord Chelmsford on Peter O'Toole's portrayal in 'Zulu Dawn'?


4th January 2005Paul Mercer
Many thanks to everyone who has taken the time to reply to my comments. I was not in any way decrying the bravery of the defenders at Rorkes Drift, but I'm sure there has been many actions since then where extreme courage shown by a group of men has remained unrewarded by such a large number of VC's which is why I was a bit sceptical. As regards Isandhlwana, although Chelmsford must bear the ultimate blame, the commander on the spot (Pulline?) must share some responsibility. I believe that a TV documentry shown last year appeared to show that the defenders were spread out too far from their ammunition supplies and they were overrun as soon as their fire slackened. I know hindsight and armchair stategy is wonderful, but I still feel that the camp could have been held with the forces and equipment available had it been properly organised.