I’m reading another book at the moment about Winston Churchill, and the author writes at one point that after 1945 Churchill was harking for the long peace that he knew during the latter years of the Victorian era, in the early years of his life. Which is rather strange, as Churchill himself charged at Omdurman and was a war correspondent in the Boer War.
The ‘golden’ age of the British Empire was hallmarked by a lengthy peace between the European powers (save the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War), which is a very British way of seeing things, pulling up the draw bridge an’ all that. But at the same time, the British Empire brought about a plethora of small wars on virtually every continent. I’m always amazed by the huge range of wars that redcoats and native contingents found themselves fighting, particularly on the North West Frontier and in Africa.
Perhaps the most famous of these ‘little wars’ was that fought with the Zulu Empire in South Africa 1879. Here W.B. Bartlett has given this well-known but oft-misunderstood war a measured and scholarly treatment. Firstly, perceptions of the war have inevitably been tinted by the battle fought at Rorkes Drift, as immortalised in the 1946 film Zulu. The Zulu Impi descended on Rorkes Drift after inflicting a humiliting defeat on a British column at Isandlwana, another battle that is well known. But these two battles overshadow the rest of the war to the extent that the final outcome is little known.
The war seems to have begun in a typically British manner – no-one could point out precisely why the British wanted to advance into Zululand. In hindsight, it seems to have been a classic case of what I think of as ‘Empire creep’ – once one realm was captured, eyes instantly turned to that next door, even if there was nothing to capture and it was only a case of securing the frontier of land already held. There was no specific reason for the British to fight the Zulus, making the war somewhat un-necessary in any case.
The British commander was General John Thesiger, who during the campaign inherited the title of Lord Chelmsford. A controversial character, his legacy has been shaped by the humiliation at Isandlwana. The war began with several British columns advancing into Zululand, and in hindsight it appears that they were woefully underprepared and underestimated the Zulus. There was no intelligence to speak of, and the Natal Native Contingent were unreliable. This is a typically British military trait – starting a war with as little resources as possible, unprepared, and trying to get away with using as few British troops as possible. After the debacle at Isandlwana the Army was shaken out of its comfort zone, and eventually defeated the Zulus and captured King Cetshwayo.
The battle at Rorkes Drift is a curious incident in British military history. Undoubtedly a very brave action fought against overwhelming odds, it is important to remember that the South Wales Borderers were armed with Martini-Henry Rifles and were behind improvised but strong fortifications. Whilst it was a brave action, did it warrant such a large number of Victoria Crosses? It has to be said, that Rorkes Drift was probably used as a publicity coup to deflect attention from the terrible news of Isandlwana. Which as a shame, as it was still a brave fight none the less.
Another interesting story to come from the Zulu War is that of the death of the French Prince Imperial. A great-nephew of Napoleon and son of the Exiled French Emperor Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial begged to be allowed to go to South Africa to take part in the war in some capacity. That it was not his war in the first place and that he had no conceivable use was of no consequence, somehow he managed to pull enough strings to be allowed to go to a war that was not his. He was killed in the process. Although his death became something of a cause celebre, modern historians mostly agree that he should not have been there in the first place.
This is a balanced and refreshing take on what is a well-known but oft-understood war, two traits that often go hand in hand. By not concentrating overly on Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift, Bartlett reminds us that the war was much wider than we might realise, thanks to Hollywood.