What was it like to be a soldier fighting in the 1879 Zulu war?

Graham Charles Lear
16 min readAug 31, 2022

Lt John Rouse Merriot Chard, VC, one of the heroes of Rorke’s Drift, together with a group of other officers from the Royal Engineers. Chard is wearing his Decoration.

The Zulu war was one of the most violent wars that the British had fought with no quarter given by the Zulu and after the British defeat at the beginning of the war at Isandlwana, very little quarter was given to the Zulu as well. After Isandlwana, the British and the settlers many of them Boers who fought with the British throughout the campaign knew that if attacked by the Zulu they could expect no mercy if overrun, and indeed if they attacked the Zulu and lost would be slaughtered to a man and boy.

It did not take long for the word of what happened at Isandlwana, to spread throughout the British army in South Africa so they all knew they were up against a worthy foe. The Boers already knew what the Zulu were capable of as in 1838, they had tried to negotiate with the Zulu king Dingane ka Senzangakhona who became the King of the Zulus after assassinating his brother Shaka. Dingane preceded to lure them to a meeting after signing an agreement with the then leader Pieter Mauritz Retief and had them clubbed to death, 100 of the delegation died that day with Pieter Mauritz Retief being the last one to die after having to witness the death of his son. Dingane then directed the attack against the Voortrekker Laagers where they slaughtered 534 men, women and children. So they knew what to expect from the Zulu.

So what did the ordinary British soldier and their officers make of all this, and what did they have to endure while in this war?

It is fortunate that we have letters written by both officers and ranks that describe what was going on

Corporal George Howe the army corps, the Royal Engineers is one such soldier. He shows us the full impact of military events at a personal or small-unit level, something that cannot be readily derived from other sources, especially for those on the sidelines of major engagements. Essential detail, then, is the first gain from these letters, as possible ingredients in the whole psychological picture of the war, and our understanding of it.

The sappers of 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, were still moving up to the front. They marched from Greytown on 21 January and had gone only a few kilometres further on the 22nd.

As Corporal George Howe wrote in one of his letters.

We met a mounted messenger with a note, “Push on for Mooi River; rumours of a reverse”. That was all we could learn. Push on we did, we almost ran. We got to Mooi River at about one. All we could learn there was that the camp had been captured, and every man was cut off.

This party of sappers was only 60-strong and faced an unpleasant dilemma: should they go back to Greytown, which they thought would be attacked, or should they dig in where they were?

Corporal Howe, again gives us the answer

About a hundred yards from the river where we had first crossed stood the house of a settler. We took possession of this. Along one side and down towards the river we drew up the wagons in line. On the other two sides, we threw up a shelter trench. We were hard at work until dusk when we broke our fast. The eyes were coming out of our heads trying to pierce the gloom. About twelve a Dutchman came in and said he had seen the enemy. Hour after hour we stood, but no enemy. The least noise brought the rifle to the ready. We all knew we had to deal with an enemy who did not know what mercy was, and should have to fight to the bitter end. I took one cartridge and put it in my breast, determining if it came to the worst to blow out my own brains rather than fall into their hands. At last, day broke, and never did we welcome it with such joy.

By 0500 Howe and his comrades were marching bravely on; after covering 22 km they were about to pitch camp when a messenger arrived with the news that 30 wagons filled with ammunition stood undefended at Sand Spruit. So on they had to go until 22h00. On 24 January they built a makeshift fort at Sand Spruit where, according to Howe, they had an attack, but it only lasted about twenty minutes. we had one wounded. said How. Four days later they marched to Helpmekaar, and so on to Rorke’s Drift. There they had to help in the construction of another and much stronger fortification, as the entire British army recoiled upon its bases and dug in.

It was the same story the length of the front, from Wood’s emergency laager at Kambula, to the entrenched settlements and supply posts, to Helpmekaar, and to the coastal column, with Pearson’s force bottled up at Eshowe and others on the defensive at Fort Tenedos. The Zulu gibe that the red soldiers had been changed into antbears was well justified. Fear of renewed attack runs through the soldiers’ letters after Isandlwana, succeeded by the extreme caution that their commanding general took so long to throw off.

They also bring into focus the appalling conditions under which the men lived in these congested strong points. February saw Rorke’s Drift turned into a hellish place as hundreds of rain-drenched soldiers, under the shaken command of Colonel Glyn, packed themselves without shelter into the old fortifications, emerging each day to work on the new fort there.

Again Corporal Howe described it.

‘To guard against surprise, we fall in and stand to our arms until daybreak. When we can see the coast clear we march out and pile arms, and then go to work. We work till 5 p.m. At six the bugle sounds and we all go into the fort. We are not allowed to take off our things, but lie down in them, our rifles near our sides. We have no tents, we have a rug and take the open air. Sunday we have a church parade at nine, and go to work at ten’.

A sergeant of the 2/24th records their forlorn and verminous plight:

It is not safe to get a drink of water without our rifles at present. We have lost all our tents and cooking utensils, we have only what we stand up in. The Zulus destroyed everything belonging to us. We are literally in rags and will soon be carried about, for we are getting plenty of companions and can’t keep them away. You would laugh to see the regiment, some with no boots, some with their jackets and trousers patched with sheepskins and all kinds of things. By 14 February he had not taken off his clothes or pouches since the day of Isandlwana, three weeks before.

Another merit of the letters is their capacity for fixing the exact chronology of events near the date on which they were written. They have the immediacy of a well-kept journal, such as that of Captain Henry Charles Harford, of the Natal Native Contingent and the 99th Regiment, as the recent edition of his journal plainly shows. however, at a later date, Harford transformed his daily record into a continuous narrative, thereby reducing its particular value. It is difficult to understand otherwise why he should state that Cetewayo, after his capture, was taken to Pietermaritzburg in a mule cart. The fact is he went to Port Durnford and thence on board ship to Cape Town

Where but in the letters can we catch the full flavour of the day-to-day movements of the British army as it resumed its slow advance towards Ulundi? At once all the old fears and caution were revived by the killing of Prince Imperial on 1 June, particularly among the newly-arrived battalions that numbered many young, half-trained soldiers in their ranks. Nerves were stretched to a straining point, as witnessed by a series of panic situations where the troops fired by mistake at their comrades.

First among the victims of this circumstance were our old friends, 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, then attached to Wood’s redoubtable Flying Column. On 5 June Wood’s advance guard ran into Zulu opposition at the Ipoko river and suffered casualties. As he wished to camp there to wait for supplies to come up, he decided to fight. First, he detached the Engineers and sent them back to Newdigate’s column, in laager with hundreds of wagons about 18 km to the rear. The sappers were to build a strong point for defending the store depot, so when they arrived at 18h30 on 6 June they pitched their tents on site and began work, well outside Newdigate’s laager. At about 22h00 they were awakened by shots and dived into the protection of the walls, only,61 cm high, on which they had just begun working. They heard the outlying picquets fire three volleys, saw them retreat, and persuaded them to shelter within the walls. At once they all came under heavy fire from Newdigate’s laager.

Once again Corporal Howe relates the story of what happened next in this dangerous and farcical situation:

Good heavens, they are taking us for the enemy. Undercover at once!”, cried Chard, The hero of Rorke’s Drift. It was not safe to move. The buglers sounded the cease-fire. Our men got over the wall to rush on the laager when they, taking us for a rush of Zulus, poured another volley into us. Back we had to go helter-skelter over the wall. Men jumped onto one another and were lying huddled in hopeless confusion, whilst shot was pouring into us like hail. Before it ceased five Engineers (including a sergeant and two corporals) had been wounded. The next morning we found the stones on the wall covered with lead and bullet marks. The artillery told us they were just going to fire when they heard our bugle sound. If they had, not one of us would have escaped.

Such was the disastrous origin of Fort Newdigate, better known to the troops as Fort Funk. Similar false alarms ruffled the columns as they continued their slow advance, and the artillery did in fact fire in one of the worse incidents just before Ulundi. Among other things, it was to deal with such lapses of soldierly conduct that Chelmsford encouraged the flogging of offenders; over 500 floggings were administered during the campaign at a time when it was otherwise little used as an army punishment, and indeed it was abolished in 1881.

Again, the letters are useful because they were apt to be written consistently throughout the war in all its stages, not simply after the main battles. Long periods of relative inactivity were at least as likely to be punctuated by soldiers writing home. Few wars can have reached their climax after such a long stalemate — not a pitched battle for three long months, between the last shot at Gingindlovu (2 April) and the final encounter near Ulundi on 3–4 July.

Once Chelmsford had emerged from his comatose state with the advance begun on 31 May, the Zulus were subjected to severe destructive action, particularly in the path of Wood’s and Newdigate’s columns. The spotlight of international publicity directed at the Prince Imperial’s death may have diverted attention from what was in effect indirect warfare on a civilian population — the systematic burning of kraals, destruction of crops and stored mealies, and driving away of cattle. The letters, however, are full of it. Among the mounted volunteers serving with Wood was Baker’s Horse, raised in Port Elizabeth and district, from the yellow facing they were known as the ‘Canaries’ and, for other reasons, as ‘Baker’s Boozers’.

A trooper of this unit took part in a sortie against three military kraals, late in June. All the mounted troops of both Wood’s and Newdigate’s commands were involved, 600 strong, but the Zulu impi opposing them was scared off by the big guns, no doubt remembering their costly lesson at Kambula, and did not fight. Instead (to quote the trooper) ‘the expedition returned having succeeded in destroying three kraals, and over 3 000 huts must have been consumed that day, with large quantities of grain stored in the different kraals.

Native levies were regularly employed on this kind of punitive work. As early as 6 June, again Corporal Howe of the Engineers said ‘We are burning all the kraals we come to. Just after Ulundi, he was complaining of the winter cold, adding ‘How the Zulus will manage I don’t know, we burnt about 20 000 huts. I feel for the poor women and children.

You can almost sense the men's feelings about this war. It's a fact that many on both sides were perplexed at what was going on. Before 1879 both sides got on well with each other. Our old friend Dunford who died at Isandlwana was a great friend of the Zulu, a well-respected officer who used to go to the kraals to find time to teach the Zulu people English. His mounted command was made up of Natives who themselves were Zulu people. It must have pained him a great deal to find he and his men now had to fight them, and fight them they all did. after the battle at Isandlwana, he was found covered by a Zulu shield fully clothed and with no mutilation and nothing pillaged from his body. This tells me that the Zulus who had killed him knew him personally. War is brutal friends become enemies and kill each other.

It may be claimed for the letters are able to shed light on otherwise unknown or obscure incidents and situations within the whole campaign. Two examples from Isandlwana present themselves, at the time, men who returned with Chelmsford to the devastated camp late on 22 January were reluctant to publicize the various ways in which the British dead were mutilated.

It became a highly emotive question. Captain Penn Symons, 24th Regiment, in his detailed reconstruction of the battle, steers clear of it. He does say that many bodies were found tied by the hands and feet with strips of rawhide, and he acknowledged the Zulu practice of disembowelment. But he stopped there; ‘further details he says, ‘would be too sickening’. Some of the soldiers who saw those sights, however, did not hesitate to describe them, and there is general agreement among a number of writers, that one hopes their relatives at home were not too squeamish.

Again, one particular batch of letters could be usefully informative, namely those from men who returned to Isandlwana in May, as the first burial party. Their findings would reveal something of the closing moments of that struggle. So far I have found only one, from a man in the 17th Lancers. He says ‘I enclose you a card of four of diamonds which lay close to the colonel of the 24th (i.e., Lt Col Pulleine). They had evidently been playing cards, for a whole pack was kicked about, lots of music, too, I picked up.

The best instance of revelation by letter comes from the battle of Kambula. There, instead of Chelmsford and Dumford, we have Wood and Buller fighting deliberately on the ground of their own choice, with four field guns and two line battalions of veteran soldiers. On the Zulu side once again an impi of 24 000 warriors came on the attack, full of confidence after a string of successes, armed with the Martini-Henry rifles they had captured at Isandlwana and the Intombi Drift. The morale of the British could not have been lower, not only because of the reverses they had suffered since January but also because of the disastrous failure on the previous day. On 28 March a carefully-planned attempt to storm the Zulu fastness of the Hlobane Mountain came amiss and Wood’s volunteer horsemen were severely mauled at the Devil’s Pass and on the lower slopes. So when the Zulu horns began to extend early on the afternoon of 29 March, the Imperial lion was in poor shape.

Four hours later, after inspiring leadership by Wood, desperate firing by all defenders of the two laagers and fort, with more than one tense moment when the Zulus were about to burst in, the enemy broke. It made Kambula the turning point of the whole campaign.

The soldiers felt it at the time; they were glad to have saved their skins, proud at vanquishing a recklessly brave enemy and thirsty for revenge. Only the letters of men who took part in the grim success of the British pursuit can convey something of the carnage that took place.

One was written the next day by Friedrich Schermbruecker, the elderly commander of a corps of German volunteers and their sons, known as the Kaffrarian Vanguard. This unit should not be confused with the Kaffrarian Rifles, although it is referred to as such in the Official History. After manning the northwest face of the laager during the battle, these Cape volunteers (whose horses were already saddled and tied to the picket rope) raced out after the retreating Zulus.

‘I took the extreme right, he says, ‘Colonel Buller led the centre, and Colonel Russell with mounted infantry took the left. For fully seven miles I chased two columns of the enemy. They fairly ran like bucks, but I was after them like the whirlwind and shooting incessantly into the thick column, which could have not been less than 5 000 strong. They became exhausted and shooting them down would have taken too much time; so we took the assegais from the dead men, and rushed among the living ones, stabbing them right and left with fearful revenge for the misfortunes of the 28th (i.e., at Hlobane). No quarter was given.

About 50 of his men kept up with their fiery Commandant, who claims they killed fully 300 Zulus before dusk and a heavy mist fell at 1830h. His own losses were light, one man killed, another wounded, and 14 horses killed; the white horse he was riding ‘got a bullet across his right ear and nearly threw him. Buller, he saw ‘like a tiger drunk with blood and, no doubt, the vivid recollection of the cruel manner in which the Zulus destroyed part of his forces on the 28th increased his war fury’. Schermbruecker believed that Kambula ‘finished the Zulu war, and I am proud of the part my men have taken in it.’ Given that he was unaware of the further defeat of the Zulus at Gingindlovu and the subsequent relief of Eshowe, it was a shrewd judgement.

Writing on the same day, an officer of Wood’s Swazi Irregulars adds further proof of the vulnerability of the Zulus in retreat after a lost fight. ‘Towards the end of the pursuit’, he says, ‘they were so tired and exhausted that they couldn’t move out of a walk, some scarcely looked round and seemed to wish to die without seeing the shot fired. Some turned around and walked to meet their death without offering resistance, some threw themselves down on their faces and waited for their despatch by assegai or bullet, some got into antbear holes, reeds or long grass and tried to evade detection, but very few succeeded in this.

It was indeed a slaughter. The infantrymen saw nothing of all this, but they were jubilant at the crushing effect of their shot and shell. As one of the defenders told his sister, the Zulus ‘did me out of my dinner, but we did a good many of them out of their tea’ It is a shame no war artist was there to witness Kambula and record it. Other merciless pursuits, though not as bloody as that on 29 March, were to follow the Zulu defeats at Gingindlovu and Ulundi. They bring into the open the utmost savagery with which total war was being waged by the British and Zulu armies alike.

These, then, are the gains from using soldiers’ letters — they reveal the pressures and predicaments of war as experienced by individuals and small units; the conditions under which they lived, worked, and fought; they have an immediacy and a determinable time-context; they come from all phases of the war, active and passive; they illuminate little-known episodes and tell us of unsuspected ones. There is also the pleasure of appreciating the style in which they were written, sometimes terse and matter-of-fact, sometimes remarkably eloquent and vigorous pieces of composition. Consider this opening by a soldier of the 80th Regiment, written on 6 April: ‘Dear Sister and Brother, death has been very busy gathering his harvest in this country, counting his victims by tens of thousands, without respect of race or colour. With the advent of the New Year, the war in all its horrors has been let loose upon South Africa, and still the storm rages. A little flowery for some tastes, perhaps, but a far cry from the picture of Tommy Atkins so often drawn by Kipling.

Naturally, the letters cannot always be accepted at face value. Soldiers then, as later, were tempted to inflate the number of the enemy facing them, and the numbers killed by them in battle. They exaggerated the dangers and discomforts of active service to impress their loved ones at home. I have found at least one letter from a soldier who claimed he had fought at Rorke’s Drift, whereas (despite the question marks that still exist on that muster roll) the probability is that he was many kilometres away when the fight took place. Even so, we have various independent sources against which the letters can be checked, and the letters are so numerous that they can be cross-checked with each other. Here, indeed, is their inherent strength, in the degree of variance they have because of the range of perceptions exhibited by their authors. Thus the misleading or suspect letters simply take their place beyond the margin of the spectrum.

The chief determinant of variance lay in the military status of the letter-writers. Differences of rank tend to show that officers write longer letters and in more general terms than other ranks, although the gulf does not seem to have been as deep as it was in the First World War. One of them, Major Alfred Walker of the 99th, even wrote a charmingly-phrased letter to his young daughter, telling her about the battle at Gingindlovu: afterwards, ‘The long grass outside was full of dead Zulus. I was very glad to turn round and go back to the laager. I thought how glad my little darling would be to know that I was quite safe and unhurt. Tell mamma that on the day of the battle the General promoted me on the field’.

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Graham Charles Lear

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