More stories from the Anglo Zulu war of 1879.

Graham Charles Lear
12 min readJan 15, 2022


In the greater accounts of battles, the small and personal incidents are often overlooked — but these bring out the human side of what men on the battlefields were experiencing. And bring the account alive.

Account by Surgeon-Major Reynolds

Defence of Rorkes Drift

At 1.30 a large body of natives marched over the slope of Isandhlwana in our direction, their purpose evidently being to examine ravines and ruined kraals for hiding fugitives. These men we took to be our native contingent. Soon afterwards appeared four horsemen on the Natal side of the river galloping in the direction of our post, one of them was a regular soldier, and feeling they might possibly be messengers for additional medical assistance, I hurried down to the hospital as they rode up.

They looked awfully scared, and I was at once startled to find one of them was riding Surgeon-Major Shephard’s pony.

They shouted frantically, “ The camp at Isandhlwana has been taken by the enemy and all our men in it massacred, that no power could stand against the enormous number of the Zulus, and the only chance for us all was in immediate flight.”

Lieutenant Bromhead, Acting-Commissary Dalton, and I, forthwith consulted together, Lieutenant Chard not having as yet joined us from the pontoon, and we quickly decided that with barricades well placed around our present position a stand could best be made where we were. Just at this period, Mr Dalton’s energies were invaluable. Without the smallest delay, he called upon his men to carry the mealie sacks here and there for defences.

Lieutenant Chard (R.E.) arrived as this work was in progress, and gave many useful orders as regards the lines of defence. He approved also of the hospital being taken in, and between the hospital orderlies, convalescent patients (eight or ten) and myself, we loopholed the building and made a continuation of the commissariat defences around it. The hospital, however, occupied a wretched position, having a garden and shrubbery close by, which afterwards proved so favourable to the enemy; but comparing our prospects with that of the Isandhlwana affair, we felt that the mealie barriers might afford us a moderately fair chance.

At about 3.30 the enemy made their first appearance in a large crowd on the hospital side of our post, coming on in skirmishing order at a slow slinging run. We opened fire on them from the hospital at 600 yards, and although the bullets ploughed through their midst and knocked over many, there was no check or alteration made in their approach. As they got nearer they became more scattered, but the bulk of them rushed for the hospital and the garden in front of it.

We found ourselves quickly surrounded by the enemy with their strong force holding the garden and shrubbery. From all sides but especially the latter places, they poured on us a continuous fire,

{frome this account we can see that the Zulus did indeed have rifles }

to which our men replied as quickly as they could reload their rifles.

Again and again, the Zulus pressed forward and retreated, until at last they forced themselves so daringly, and in such numbers, as to climb over the mealie sacks in front of the hospital, and drove the defenders from there behind an entrenchment of biscuit boxes, hastily formed with much judgement and forethought by Lieutenant Chard. Heavy fire from behind it was resumed with renewed confidence, and with little confusion or delay, checking successfully the natives, and permitting a semi flank fire from another part of the laager to play on them destructively. At this time too, the loopholes in the hospital were made great use of.

It was, however, only temporary, as, after a short respite, they came on again with renewed vigour. Some of them gained the hospital verandah and there got hand to hand with our men defending the doors. Once they were driven back from here, but others soon pressed forward in their stead, and having occupied the verandah in larger numbers than before, pushed their way right into the hospital, where confusion on our side naturally followed. Everyone tried to escape as best they could and owing to the rooms not communicating with one another, the difficulties were insurmountable. Private Hook, 2/24th Regiment, who was acting as a hospital cook,

Hook you remember was portrayed as a shirker a drunk, a malingerer. in the film Zulu. He was nothing of the sort he was teetotal and a dedicated soldier and also God-fearing and it's a disgrace that the film portrayed as they did.

Private Hook

and private Connolly, 2/24th Regiment, a patient in a hospital, made their way into the open at the back of the hospital by breaking a hole in the wall. Most of the patients escaped through a small window looking into what may be styled the neutral ground. Those who madly tried to get off by leaving the front of the hospital were all killed with the exception of Gunner Howard.

The only men actually killed in the hospital were three, excluding a Kaffir under treatment for a compound fracture of the femur. The names were Sergeant Maxfield, Private Jenkins, both unable to assist in their escape, being debilitated by fever, and Private Adams, who was well able to move about, but could not be persuaded to leave his temporary refuge in a small room. The engagement continued more or less until about 7 o’clock p.m. and then, when we were beginning to consider our situation as rather hopeless, the fire from our opponents appreciably slackened giving us some time for reflection. Lieutenant Chard here again shined in resource. Anticipating the Zulus making one more united dash for the fort, and possibly gaining entrance, he converted an immense stack of mealie sacks standing in the middle of our enclosure, and originally cone fashioned, into a comparatively safe place for the last retreat. Just as it was completed, smoke from the hospital appeared and shortly burst into flames.

During the whole night following, a desultory fire was carried on by the enemy, and several feigned attacks were made, but nothing of a continued or determined effort was again attempted by them. About 6 o’clock a.m., we found, after careful reconnoitring, that all the Zulus with the exception of a couple of stragglers had left our immediate vicinity, and soon afterwards a large body of men was seen at a distance marching towards us.

I do not think it possible that men could have behaved better than did the 2/24th and the Army Hospital Corps (three), who were particularly forward during the whole attack.

James Henry Reynolds.


The Victoria Cross has been conferred upon

“Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds, Army Medical Department, for the conspicuous bravery during the attack on Rorke’s Drift, on Jan22 and 23, 1879, which he exhibited in his constant attention to the wounded under fire, and by his voluntarily conveying ammunition from the store to the defenders of the hospital, whereby he exposed himself to a crossfire from the enemy both going in and returning”.

Surgeon Reynolds also had by his side the whole time during the battle his fox terrier named Dick. Dick never wavered as shots and spears continued falling around them. He only left his side once to bite a Zulu who came too close.

Dick was specially mentioned in the citation for “his constant attention to the wounded under the fire where they fell.”

For his conduct in the battle, Reynolds was also promoted to Surgeon-Major (promotion dated 23 January 1879).

During the Anglo Zulu War, many soldiers joined the army to escape the squalor and poverty at home.

Many had diseases that they had contracted but showed no signs when they joined the army. They contracted and spread disease wherever they lived in cramped, filthy and unhealthy conditions and these were abundant during the campaign. Soldiers were cramped together in extremely unhygienic conditions.

Disease caused the loss of many more lives of the soldiers than did death from battle.

Soldiers knew very little about protecting their food and water from bacteria-carrying flies.

Their personal hygiene was not very good. Latrines were dug near tents and dead animals were left or buried near water supplies.

Reports from the war reflect that bowel diseases( enteric fever, dysentery and diarrhoea), malaria and tuberculosis were the most serious medical problems.

The medical treatment for snakebite was copious amounts of alcohol. I wonder if it worked or just made the soldier unconscious as the poison took hold!

“March 12th. ‘Medical Losses’.

In addition to Surgeon-Major Peter Shepherd, Medical Department,

Surgeon-Major Peter Shepherd

who was killed at the battle of Isandula, on Jan. 22nd, we regret to record the deaths of Acting-Surgeon Brice, 3rd Natal Native Contingent, to the Colonial forces, all of whom lost their lives on that day.

Lieut. J.W. Hall, with one non-commissioned officer, and ten privates, of the Army Hospital Corps, were also among the victims of the massacre.

The whole of the medical supplies and equipment of the field hospitals of the 2nd column at Isandula and Rorke’s Drift fell into the hands of the enemy, and were burnt or destroyed.”

Surgeon-Major Shepherd had attempted to move a wagon of wounded troops back to Rorke’s Drift. The ambulance never made it out of the area and was overrun. The wagon could be seen for months afterwards. The wounded soldiers were pulled out and killed.

There is no grave marker for Peter Shepherd at Isandlwana. a memorial brass plaque was placed on the wall of the Royal Victoria Hospital Chapel at Netley with the inscription “In memory of Peter Shepherd, M.B., University of Aberdeen, Surgeon-Major Her Majesty’s Army; born at Leochel Cushnie, Aberdeenshire, 25 August 1841; who sacrificed his own life at the battle of Isandlwana, Zululand, 22 January 1879, in the endeavour to save the life of a wounded comrade. Erected by his brother officers and friends.

March 8th. ‘Heroic conduct of Army Medical Officers’.

The following is the history of the sad death of Surgeon-Major Shepherd, as related by an eyewitness.

Mr Muirhead, Natal Carabineers: — “As Kelly and I were riding for our lives, the Zulus pursuing us, my companion — almost a boy, Trooper Kelly — staggered in his saddle, evidently hit. I stopped my horse to see what was the matter and tried to support him, but I couldn’t and had to lift him off onto the ground.

At that moment Dr Shepherd came galloping past. I called out to him, and he dismounted to examine poor Kelly.

After carefully examining him he called out, ‘Ah! Poor fellow; too late, too late.’ I had just mounted my horse, and Dr Shepherd was in the act of putting his foot into the stirrup when some instinct warned me to look round.

As I did so I saw an assegai coming straight towards me.

I turned to the left in the saddle: at the same moment it passed close to my head, and, unfortunately, struck

Dr.Shepherd in the side. He immediately fell, and I put spurs to my horse, and galloped off as hard as the horse could go.”

In 2 weeks time, it will be the 143rd anniversary of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift.

So often the same stories are told over and again and lesser-known incidents are not recounted and tend to disappear.

The Anglo Zulu War of 1879 caused many British soldiers and Zulu warriors terrible wounds, and disease was rife.

Hospital care was in its infancy, especially in the British army, and so it is remarkable that in the midst of this terrible war a nineteen-year-old English nurse, Sister Janet Wells, was sent from London to take charge of the isolated and overcrowded British army hospital at Utrecht in South Africa.

Already a decorated veteran of the 1878 Balkan War, she was highly experienced in treating war wounds.

In her first two months at Utrecht, she treated over 3,200 patients, both British soldiers and Zulus, many from the battles of Hlobane, Khambula and Ulundi.

She performed numerous operations, tended the sick and wounded, and brought an air of discipline, tempered by her charm and femininity, into a chaotic and desperate situation.

Towards the end of the war, she was sent to Rorke’s Drift where she administered to the remaining garrison.

She walked the battlefields of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana where she collected flowers for her scrapbooks — already containing many sketches and photographs, which survive to this day.

After the war, she returned to her home and family in London, just in time for her twentieth birthday.

Recognition by Queen Victoria followed, who decorated her with the Royal Red Cross, which was then the nursing equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

Florence Nightingale was the first recipient of this medal, for her work in the Crimea War at Scutari Hospital where she attended to injured and ill soldiers and officers.

The second recipient was Sister Janet Wells who was only 18 years old when she was posted to Zululand to command a medical post. She earned the nickname “Angel of Mercy”.

Hers is an astonishing story, of bravery and determination.

The Royal Red Cross was introduced to Military Nursing by Queen Victoria on 27 April 1883.

The decoration is awarded to army nurses for exceptional services, devotion to duty and professional competence in British military nursing.

Queen Victoria wanted a special award for the distinguished service by women nursing sisters in South Africa.

It was regarded as the equivalent of the Victoria Cross for nurses.

The Royal Warrant said that the Royal Red Cross medal be given:

upon any ladies, whether subjects or foreign persons, who may be recommended by Our Secretary of state for War for special exertions in providing for the nursing of sick and wounded soldiers and sailors of Our army and Navy.

Have you ever wondered what both sides ate and drink? while out in the field

What did the armies eat?

Where did the food come from?

Zulu Army

The Zulu army set off from the numerous locations throughout Zululand and in the initial stages were accompanied by “izindubi” boys. They carried sleeping mats, headrests, weapons and tobacco and initial supplies of food. They were also responsible for herding cattle, which supplied the army with rations.

Some “izinduna” were accompanied by girls who carried beer, corn and milk for 2–3 days. When they were exhausted the girls as well as younger “izindubi” boys returned home.

Each warrior carried his own rations, usually maize grains and a cooked cows’ liver. When these had been eaten the men were compelled to forage and live off the land. The further from their home base and the longer the campaign the more hardship the men suffered.

British army

Each infantry battalion needed to carry all its own supplies — ammunition, tents, entrenching tools, signalling and medical equipment and rations.

On average this amounted to 17 wagon loads per battalion, without the beer, rum and officers’ personal effects.

Water was obtained from rivers and dams. Water was carried in an unsanitary wooden water bottle known as the “Oliver”. Water-borne diseases were high, with many men suffering from dysentery and typhoid. By the end of the dry season and very limited water men collected water wherever they could.

Bread and meat was the staple fare and whatever vegetables could be obtained locally.

Fresh meat was provided by slaughtering cattle driven with the column. Animals that died along the way — oxen pulling wagons — were also fed to the men.

The soldier's standby was hardtack, a very hard biscuit. The soldiers trick to make it softer was to place it under their armpit while on the march.

The army also issued each soldier with a daily tot of rum.

A comment about the quality of bread with Gen Wood’s Column. He was concerned about the well being and set up a bakery to provide fresh daily bread, although the product was not always well received is described as “Indian corn and sand”.

First Royal Artillery Gatling battery; the Royal Navy had deployed a Gatling earlier in the war, at Nyezane, on 22 January 1879.

Notice the open ammunition box, centre, with the centre panel out and displayed. Major Owen, who commanded the battery, standing in front of the gun left, Lt. Rundle is the tall officer just to the right of the right gun.



Graham Charles Lear

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