Anglo-Zulu War Accounts From Eye Witnesses Who Fought In The War

Graham Charles Lear
17 min readMay 8, 2024

Letters from the front can be quite important especially when in the 1800s there were no media such as what we have today, no films, and not many photos.

They give us a glimpse of what it was like to be a soldier in Queen Victoria's colonial military, the hardships that they went through the danger they faced. and the utter carnage of war where they see friends killed.

Below is a selection of such letters from war correspondents, officers and soldiers writing home to their loved ones and of course to the public in general

Three years have gone by since the disaster at Isandhlwana 1879 and Bertram Mitford a civil servant turned novelist is in an ox cart travelling South Africa he wants to visit the battlefields of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift. He is not far from Isandhlwana. He later writes

From the brow of the hill just before descending, Isandhlwana comes into view, standing out in rugged boldness from the surrounding heights, towering grim and dark in the summer haze like a huge lion. Still, the glimpse is little more than a momentary one and is lost to sight as the road makes a sudden dip. In front, the Buffalo [river] threads along, past Rorke’s Drift and the Bashi valley, and the open plain stretches away beyond the Blood River, far into Transvaal territory. A silent and desert expanse; on the right a semi-gloom, where the frowning cliffs overhanging the Bashi valley cast their shadows; not a sign of life anywhere — a lonely and unprotected border…

I ride over the campground, and although three years have elapsed, there is no lack of traces of the melancholy struggle. Despite a luxuriant growth of herbage the circles where the rows of tents are discernible, while strewn about are tent pegs, cartridge cases, broken glass, bits of rope, meat tins and sardine boxes pierced with assegai stabs, shrivelled-up pieces of shoe-leather, and rubbish of every description; bones of horses and oxen gleam white and ghastly, and here and there in the grass one stumble across a half-buried skeleton…

From his short account, we can see traces of what happened that day.

Then there was Colonel George Hamilton-Browne. nicknamed ‘Maori’ on account of the knowledge of that language he had acquired during his service with the British army in New Zealand. His description of the Zululand campaign — in which he commanded a battalion of black auxiliary infantry (the Natal Native Contingent) appears in the splendidly titled A Lost Legionary in South Africa (London, 1912) from which Hamilton-Browne’s impressions of the build-up to the conflict emerge with startling immediacy:

The morning was very cold, the dense morning fog, for which Zululand is famous, hung close to the ground, and although it was midsummer, the cold bit, causing us to shiver in our thin khaki clothing, whilst the naked natives turned blue, their teeth chattering like stone-breakers at work… Well before daylight in the bitter fog, we came down to the drift. The river was full, rapid and very cold… we hardened our hearts and dashed at it, the natives all linking arms and rushing in en masse. My horse was nearly carried off his feet… I do not know how many of my natives were lost…

Hamilton-Browne goes on to describe the fateful morning of 22nd January, when he and his men arrived at Lord Chelmsford’s camp, which had been set up earlier that day a few miles away from Isandhlwana, to find a scene of surprising tranquillity:

Never shall I forget the sight of that peaceful picnic. Here were the staff quietly breakfasting and the whole command scattered over the country!

He is ordered to return to Isandhlwana and assist commanding officer Pulleine in striking the camp, ‘Maori’ Browne set off across the country:

So I kept on down that valley which presently opened out into a big plain and on the far side of it… was a queer-shaped mountain… With my glasses, I could discern a long white line which I knew to be tents. The name of that mountain was Isandlwana and the time was then 9 am on the 22nd January 1879…

Then there is General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s account

Junior Officer

Horace Smith-Dorrien was just a Lieutenant back then and he was caught up in the fighting, he was lucky he managed to escape the slaughter and later wrote.

We could hear heavy firing (to the north) even then (8 am)… At about midnight the Zulus, who had fallen back behind the hills, again showed in large numbers, coming down into the plain with great boldness, and our guns and rifles were pretty busy for some time… It was difficult to see exactly what was happening, but the firing was heavy. It was evident now that the Zulus were in great force, for they could be seen extending (ie throwing out their horns) away across the plain to the southeast…

An hour later it becomes apparent that the battle is not going how the British want, and he writes this.

It was a marvellous sight, line upon line of men in slightly extended order, one behind the other, firing as they came along, for a few of them had firearms, (he means the Zulus), Zulus bearing all before them. The rocket battery… was firing, and suddenly it ceased, and presently we saw the remnants of Durnford’s force, mostly mounted Basutos, galloping back to the right of our position… The ground was interspersed with ‘dongas’ and in them, Russell and his rocket battery were caught, and none escaped to tell the tale…

Captain H H Parr, the aide-de-camp to Lord Chelmsford, gives his account as Chelmsford collum make their way back to Isandhlwana.

It fell quite dark as we neared the camp, and we could see fires burning near the ridge, where we expected to find the enemy holding it in force. At about two thousand yards the line was halted, while the guns opened and fired two rounds. We advanced to within about twelve hundred yards and fired two more rounds. Then, with fixed bayonets, we advanced into the camp, and made our way through, men and horses stumbling over tents half-upset, broken wagons, dead bodies of soldiers and Zulus, dead oxen, dead horses, dead mules, burst sacks of grain, empty ammunition boxes, articles of camp equipment; and on the ridge, amongst the dead bodies of our comrades, formed our bivouac.

We have Zulu accounts of what happened as well as British

The red soldiers who had been on the left,’ said an officer of the Umcityu, ‘they killed many of us with their bayonets. When they found we were upon them, they turned back to back. They all fought till they died. They were hard to kill; not one tried to escape.’

‘My regiment and the Umpunga formed the centre of the impi. When the soldiers in the donga saw that the Kandampemvu were getting behind them, they retreated towards the camp, firing at us all the time. As they retreated we followed them. I saw several white men on horseback galloping towards the ’neck’, which was the only point open; then the Nokenke and Nodwengu regiments, which had formed the right horn of the impi, joined with the Ngobamakosi on the ’neck’. After that, there was so much smoke that I could not see whether the white men had got through or not. The tumult and the firing were wonderful; every warrior shouted ‘Usútu!’ as he killed anyone, and the sun got very dark, like night, with the smoke…’

This is from a letter written by Richard Stevens, of the 10th Essex Rifle Volunteers:
The order was given to get into camp. We got there, and I went all over the place looking for a gun, but could not get one; my revolver was broken… The Zulus were in the camp ripping our men up with their assegais. They were not content with killing but were ripping the men up afterwards. Never has such a disaster happened to the English Army. There were no means of sending to the General [ie Lord Chelmsford] who was out of the camp. Well now, about myself. I got out of camp somehow, I don’t know how, and went through awful places to get to the Drift, where… I was as nearly drowned as could be… I have not told you all of it, as I have no time or paper… There were 537 of the 24th Regiment killed in camp… so you can imagine what it was. The Zulus have all our wagons, with stores and ammunition. There will be an awful row at home about this…

Here is Private Henry Moses’s letter:
I take the pleasure of writing these few lines to you, hoping to find you well, as I am, so far. I know what soldiering is now. We have marched 200 miles and haven’t had a night’s sleep this month. We are in fear every night and have had to fight the Zulus, who came on us and killed 800 of our men. I wish I was back in England again, for I should never leave… It is nothing but mountains here; all biscuits to eat. Dear father, sisters, and brothers, goodbye. We may never meet again. I repent the day that I took the shilling…

From Patrick Farrell’s letter describing the same events:
I am writing you these few sorrowful lines to let you know that I am still living. Dear brother, on 11 January we crossed into Zululand, and all went well until the 22nd… We slept that night amongst dead bodies… In the morning, to look at the camp, what a state! 1,000 white men and 5,000 black men were killed! Wagons broke! Bullocks killed! The tents are all gone! It was the most horrid sight that was ever seen by a soldier, dear brother…

John Price, of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment, wrote to his parents:

We arrived in camp about nine o’clock at night, and all the tents were burned to the ground, and where we had to sleep was a very uncomfortable place among the dead bodies all night… Tell Harry not to enlist for God’s sake, or else he will be sorry for it…

Sergeant W Morley [‘H’ Company] wrote to a comrade at Brecon, bleakly listing the dead from his company:

Our loss is Lt. Dyer, Pope, Austen, Griffiths, Quartermaster Bloomfield, QM-Sergeant Davies, Sergeants Limes, Reeve, Shaw, Watkins, Ross, Carse, Chew, Maxfield, Haigh, McCaffrey, Williams; in all five officers, ten sergeants, nine corporals, two drummers and 159 privates of our company. Sergeant Shaw, Corporal Sims, Privates Byard, Joe King, Nokes, Tamer, MacCracken, Hill, Neagle, Machin, Quelford, Farr, Fitzpatrick, Watson, General’s Staff Bishop.

There were five companies of the 1/24th in camp… and only seven men escaped…

Major Francis Grenfell (60th rifles) expressed the bitterness felt by officers and men alike at the loss of so many comrades:

All my dear old friends of the last four years are dead and gone, and we have not even been able to bury them… Officers and men behaved splendidly — dying back to back — and at the last rallying around the colours, not a man of the regiment attempted to escape till all was lost…

This was a mood quickly seized upon by several journalists sent to cover the story. They, too, left their record of events — much of it filled with powerful detail and wonderfully evocative turns of phrase.

The doyen of war correspondents during this period was Archibald Forbes, a former soldier in the Royal Dragoons during the Franco-Prussian war, who filed stories for the Daily News from Spain and Turkey, Afghanistan and Burma before he was sent to cover the Anglo-Zulu conflict. With his no less extraordinary colleague, Melton Prior, of the Illustrated London News, he visited the battlefields of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift six months after the disaster, and wrote this memorable account:
In the ravine dead men lay thick — mere bones, with toughened, discoloured skin like leather covering them, and clinging tight to them, the flesh all wasted away. Some were almost wholly dismembered, heaps of clammy yellow bones. I forbear to describe the faces, with their blackened features and beards blanched by rain and sun. Every man had been disembowelled. Some were scalped, and others were subject to yet ghastlier mutilation. The clothes had lasted better than the poor bodies they covered and helped to keep the skeletons together.

Up the slope, I traced, by the ghastly tokens of dead men, the fitful line of flight. Most of the men hereabouts were infantry of the 24th. It was like a long string with knots, the string formed of single corpses, the knots of clusters of the dead, where, it seemed, little groups might have gathered to make a hopeless stand and die…

Then we have the letter sent by PTE. EDWARD READ. 2–24 Regt. (South Wales Borders) to his parents

“Dear Father and Mother and dear friends at home,

You will be glad to get this note. I am sure it is a miracle that I escaped being cut to pieces by the Zulu. As it happened the day our camp was attacked we went in search of the enemy, we started very early in the morning and went about four or five hours and then we went to a place where we intended to stop all night, between two large hills but as luck happened one of our dear mates escaped on horse-back and he rode up to the general as unconcerned as though nothing had happened.

He said: “My Lord the camp is taken by the enemy and all our dear white boys are cut up”.

You may guess how we looked at one another, it was an awful affair. The General did not say anything personally to the men until we got within a mile and a half of the camp when we halted and formed up, and he said to us all:

“My dear men we have lost our camp and all ammunition, be careful with what you have, we only carried seventy rounds per man, we must take the camp from the enemy” — LORD CHELSMFORD. So we gave three cheers and advanced towards the camp.

The guns were shelling as we went forward. We got into camp without losing a man, and we stopped there all that night, watching the enemy, they were returning over hills and mountains.

When day broke the sight was a frightful one. We were surrounded by dead bodies and most of them we knew, for about three miles all along the roads. You could see several that had tried to get away but were killed in the attempt.

Even the poor little band boys were butchered and hung up to a wagon. The same as sheep. It is far different fighting here to what it would be with a European country.

If it was only shooting a fellow it would not be so bad they cut you open and take your heart out and eat it. They think that it makes them strong, and if they leave it in they think that you will come to life again.

Well, as I was telling you about stopping there that night, the next morning we proceeded to Rorke’s Drift a place about 12 miles from where this occurred. As we passed the Amayovia mountain we could see the stores in flames and thousands of blacks around.

We hurried towards the house that belonged to a Dutch missionary which was used as a hospital for the sick and wounded. We crossed the Blood River and went to the place where the stores were. There was a company of ours there and they did some good work. They made a fort, corn in bags and sacks, and only lost 14 men.

We were digging holes to bury them for four days because we had to put them in deep for fear of fever. We are stopping still at the same place. It is eighteen days since the officer or man, took his clothing off. We have built a wall all around us and now we fear nothing. Bryand is all right. We have to be on the lookout every other night and one-half sleeps, but all of us are with our rifles in our hands.

Goodbye, dear friends. I live in hope of returning when this is over and then I will tell you a tale. I must say goodbye now. Love to all brothers and sisters

From Your Son,

February 8th, 1879.”

Owen Ellis was a veteran private of the 1/24th who, on the last day of 1878, wrote to his family at Caernarvon, North Wales.

“In this spot, Helpmekaar, the days are as fine as those of summer, but we meet every night with heavy rains, accompanied by thunder and lightning, which continue until six o’clock in the morning. On 12th December there fell a heavy shower of hailstones which were as large as your fists, making it dangerous for anyone to be out at the time. One of them, weighed by the bandmaster, was three ounces in weight. I saw a hen that had been killed by the shower. There is very good cattle pasture here, far better than what is on the other side, viz. Transkei, and this is beneficial to the farmers”.

Three weeks later Ellis was killed at Isandhlwana, as was his regimental comrade George Morris. He too wrote letters (to his mother at Pontypool) from Helpmekaar, while the Third Column assembled to invade Zululand.

“I have never seen such lightning in my life as in this country. I wish I was a civilian here for some time. I could soon save a lot of money as wages are very good here, and provisions not very dear. I suppose by the time or before you receive this we shall be on active operations against the Zulus, and they are very numerous and well armed, but God protect the right. There are lots of wild animals around here, deer, tigers he meant (leopards?), jackals and poisonous snakes; the mosquitoes are a regular nuisance.”

Another victim of the impi at Isandhlwana was Sergeant John Lines of the 2/24th, a long-service soldier whose letter is in a more basic style.

By October 1878 he was at Pietermaritzburg and even then did not relish the prospect ahead:

“The Zulus have about 40 thousand of a standing army, and we have only about 6 thousand Europeans and 9 thousand volunteers (mostly Natal native levies), so I think we shall lose a good many, for they are too strong for us. And these KafIirs are a very barbarous lot; if they catch a man wounded they cut him open and take out his heart and eat it. Africa is a very heathen place, much more so than England.

Among the officers of the 2/24th, Lieutenant Willie Lloyd was out with Chelmsford’s half-column on the day of Isandhlwana. Afterwards, he spent the next few months bottled up “in this cursed hole” at Helpmekaar, whence he wrote on 6th May:

“The difficulties of this country are something enormous. The transport is all oxen, to drive them you must employ Kaffirs, and we have just heard that Wood’s foreloopers and drivers have run away. New ones will have to be got from the old colony (British Kaffraria), as the ones here can’t be trusted, so that’s another delay. The roads are fearful. Food there is none, and the great danger now is the grass which is about 8 or 9 feet high, and in a strong wind the grass burns at the rate of about 6 or 7 miles an hour. . .

I have had a little shooting here, snipe, partridge, dikkop [diekap-otherwise known as the Cape thickknee, buck of all sorts, rock rabbits, pigeons, etc. To give you some idea of the changes that come round in 24 hours, in the middle of the day a thermometer would be 115 or 120 in the sun, and when you turn out at Reveille there is often a thick white frost. The cold has been something fearful here. We are on a high ridge and the wind whistles over it sometimes enough to take the skin off even a Kaffir. I have never been so cold at home but it’s mostly dry, the only dampness is the mists and clouds that come roaring up a high kloof near the camp.

Ralph Busby had joined Chelmsford’s column as a civilian surgeon and also witnessed the carnage at Isandhlwana. He found himself in the fort built at Rorke’s Drift after the fight there, and less than a fortnight later had this to say:

“All the farmers seem to have gone into laager and left their houses. I had a five twenty-mile ride to one Fort Pine (between Rorke’s Drift and Dundee)-a few days back to see some who were sick there; the few farms passed on the road were all deserted and cattle driven off to near the laager. It’s a queer sight inside, cramful of waggons, women, and children. But I got a good square meal, some tender mutton, fresh milk, with my coffee and butter, and had a good sleep in a covered waggon. . . It’s very hot and cooped up in this place (Rorke’s Drift), very much troubled with flies which swarm everywhere; they worry the horses frightful, I have now lost both mine. I expect the expense to the country before this war is over will be enormous; and of all the useless lands I have ever been in, South Africa is the chief.”

Then we have young Subaltern Robert Black Fell

“The buck we have seen since landing are hartebeest near Sundays River and on the Buffalo flats, also reebok, oribi, duiker, and some wildebeest. The hartebeest is a splendid animal, the reebok is the commonest, they utter a bark like a dog. The Reebok were hard to find but had pretty horns. The only herd of wildebeest we saw are curious-looking beggars, on seeing us they went off flourishing their heels and tails and cutting wonderful capers. The buck does give a jump when the rifle bullet comes under. . .Utrecht [where Fell’s march ended] has a laager for the Beers in case of a Zulu war, a few houses and a big store and a courthouse. There is a vlei close by and a stream comes down from the Burghers’ Pass, which is thickly covered with thorn trees. There is an infernal duststorm blowing now, it is an awful place for sand storms and seems to be always blowing a gale. The sandflies are in such swarms that one can hardly see two feet in front of you. . . The Boers say there are still occasional lions on the veldt between here and the Pongola bush. I made friends with a Boer called Uys living at Uys Kop, and he took me out guinea fowl shooting but also shot reebok”.

New Year’s Day 1879 found Fell stationed at Van Rooyen’s farm and getting ready to make war. “An old hunter named Rathbone and the Dutch leader Piet Uys, who has joined us with his clan, told us all about the Zulus. This little farm is in a comfortable position and has a very good orchard, garden, and an avenue of eucalyptus trees. The old Boer owner is a famous hunter, of course, we eat what we want as he has trekked with his family too, gone into laager to avoid the Zulus … We have been having the most terrific thunderstorms lately. At Balters Spruit the other day tents were struck, the lightning running down the tent poles, splitting the rifles, fusing cartridges, destroying pouches and belts, and knocking men over. None of them were killed by it”.

Footnote

Piet Uys and his sons along with servants

Piet Uys hated the British, however, he hated the Zulu even more, so worked with the British to bring down the Zulu Nation. However, he never lived to see the Zulu beaten, 28 March 1879 saw the British beaten once again at the Battle of Hlobane, again underestimating the Zulu. Piet Uys along with his sons were there at the battle of Hlobane and was killed by a Zulu who leapt up onto the back of his horse and plunged a iklwa stabbing spear into his back.

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Graham Charles Lear

What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.