Monday, January 22, 2007

Zulu: The True Story

Recently ABC TV in Sydney repeated "Zulu: The True Story"
The Battle of Isandlwana and Rorke's drift 1879

This is the BBC summary of the show

First part
"A dangerous mix of self-confidence and contempt for their foes infected many in the British Army during the Zulu War. This misjudgement led to thousands of deaths - and an unsavoury, high-level cover-up - "

I found the show interesting as it showed the places etc in which the battles happened but quite sad in its conclusions about the " high-level cover-up"

Let's look at the opening "thousands of deaths " - a later BBC page says
"The culmination of Chelmsford's incompetence was a blood-soaked field littered with thousands of corpses. Of the original 1,750 defenders - 1,000 British and 750 black auxiliaries - 1,350 had been killed." Now 1350 is not thousands its several hundreds yes but surely "thousands" implies at least 3000. Of course a lot of Zulus died also but that does not seem to be what the program was concerned about.

In the program part of the cover up was said to be the award of the V.C. to Lieutenants Melville and Coghill for their escape with the Queen's Colour of the 24th Foot. These officers were said to be cowards who deserted their men and perhaps so but the program was trying to make a point about spin doctoring in 1879. Let us see - these officers died and their VCs were awarded posthumously but not when the cover up was "needed" back in 1879. They were only awarded the medal in 1907 after the law was changed to allow this high honour to be awarded posthumously. Note: Chelmsford died in 1905 before the award was made which was supposedly done to draw attention from his failure.

Colours were highly important to British regiments - the 24th had lost colours in India and a further loss in Africa would have been bad for prestige - here is a good account of the battle
down the page is a photo of the troop who retrieved the colours from the river - obviously a major event

What was amazing in the TV show was the big jump between the battle and Chelmsford arriving back in London and conspiring with Queen Victoria to stay in his job. Hang about what happened to the rest of the Zulu War leading up to the Battle of Ulundi when the Zulus were defeated outside their capital. Why were these events not covered in some detail. Except that I knew Chelmsford's role in the Zulu War I don't think I would have understood that from this program. see
"The day after the Battle of Ulundi, Lord Chelmsford received indication that Sir Wolseley was taking over command. Chelmsford replied to both the Secretary of State For War and Wolseley that he took his supersession as criticism of his conduct, and since he had now defeated the Zulus he requested permission to return home, which he did.". So what was the cover up - Garnet was sent to take over - did the program mention this. The program was not good history.

Now some other BBC statements on Chelmsford
"Even more significantly, he tried to push blame for the defeat onto Colonel Durnford, now dead, claiming that Durnford had disobeyed orders to defend the camp. 'Many generals blunder in war, but few go to such lengths to avoid responsibility.'The truth is that no orders were ever given to Durnford to take command."

"Colonel Pulleine was left in camp with the 1st Battalion of the 24th Foot. Orders were sent to Colonel Durnford to bring his column up to reinforce the camp." and later "At about 10am Colonel Durnford arrived at Isandlwana with a party of mounted men and a rocket troop.
Durnford promptly left the camp to follow up the reports of the imminence of the Zulus and Pulleine agreed to support him if he found himself in difficulties"

It seems that orders had been given to Durnford but he did not stay in the camp but moved out - perhaps his men and the rocket troop might have made a difference if they had been in the camp when the Battle took place

Wiki sums up the battle
But I don't see a lot of complaints about Chelmsford tactics etc.

In the film "Zulu Dawn" he got a serve but now the TV has forced me to re-think I am more inclined to see Pulleine at error in placing his firing line and Durnford in charging off with his men.

The spin doctoring of Rorke's drift
You could almost infer that Chelmsford organised the defence of the farm to take the heat off his "failure" at Isandlwana.
BBC - "Few, however, remember that it was fought on the same day that the British Army suffered its most humiliating defeat at nearby Isandlwana. Why? Because it suited those responsible for the disaster to exaggerate the importance of Rorke's Drift in the hope of reducing the impact of Isandlwana"

No I don't see that - are they saying the Press did not report the battle and loss of such a large number of men.
And of course the men of Rorke's drift deserve honours - they held the place against a very large force and stopped them advancing into Natal . Of course our modern understanding of the event is influenced by the 1964 film but the film was not organised by Queen Victoria.

"Sir Garnet Wolseley, taking over as Commander-in-Chief from Lord Chelmsford, was unimpressed with the awards made to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, saying “it is monstrous making heroes of those who shut up in buildings at Rorke’s Drift, could not bolt, and fought like rats for their lives which they could not otherwise save"
"The medical consequences of the battle: It seems likely that a number of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift subsequently suffered from what is now classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Corporal Schiess fell “on hard times” and died in 1884 aged 28 years; Pte John Fielding’s hair is said to have turned white shortly after the battle; William Jones in old age suffered from nightmares that the Zulus were about to attack; Robert Jones shot himself in 1896"
so was Wolseley right - I don't think so

The BBC program did not like that Bromhead and Chard were awarded VCs as they were officers and it was an upper crust award - what about the 5 other VCs were they upper crust - NO. The program then went on to say other people should have also got VCs - mainly a sergeant whose grandson was in the show - on one hand it was a cover up that VCs were awarded and then there were not enough.......

Other quotes from the show re the " Zulu" film - "they are using rifles captured at Isandlwana to shoot at us" - quote this could not be as the Zulu's were a reserve force who had not been at main battle - certainly the Zulu used such rifles in other battles
and I think it is underestimating theZulu to say they would not have taken rifles to Rorke's drift
There was a complaint about the Zulu film regarding the Welsh bias - however to me in the film the men in the film seemed to be a mixture of Welsh and English as it also shown by lists of those taking part.
again from
The Zulu War was one of the last campaigns fought by the old numbered infantry regiments of the British Army. In 1882 the Cardwell Reforms brought in the system of two battalion regiments, by combining the single battalion regiments in pairs and assigning formal regional titles. The regiments up to the 25th Foot already had two battalions and simply took the new titles. The 24th Foot, which had both its battalions in the Zulu War, fighting at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, from being the South Warwickshire Regiment became the South Wales Borderers; the shift in focus from the English West Midlands to Wales being a nod to the Welsh origins of the soldiers of B Company of the 2nd Battalion who had held Rorke’s Drift.

I am glad to get this off my chest - I was not happy with Zulu the True Story


  1. a late comment considering this was reviewed in 2007,but can i just say well done everything has to be a "conspiracy" nowa-days and people seem to hate upper class people for some reason.Im not upper class im a warehouse person so far from it!

    In summary the prat who wrote the "true story" should hang his head in shame for possibly doubting people who COULD have deserved those medals.

  2. Thanks Anonymous I agree about the conspiracy trend and I am not upper crust either and in the past I have worked with warehouse persons.

  3. What purported to be a documentary was rather less accurate than the film! The (false) suggestions that undeserving officers got all the medals, and that the defence was really led by Commissary Dalton rather than the officers, suggests a strong Marxist/class warfare undercurrent. Such biased revisionism has no more place in historiography than does holocaust denial.

  4. Nah Dalton was the man, he got his VC after it was campaigned for. Does anyone think a guy with 20 plus years service would nothing to offer?, than the poor character depicted in the film?

    As for the Drifts defenders being Welsh, the majority of the soldiers were English that day.

    Fact is Chelmsford was originally at Islandlwana and should have supervized its defence. An unnecessary invasion and loss of life all round.

    Chelmsford had received word he was being replaced and done his darnest to make sure he delayed the order until his victory. The mobile square at Ulundi I must say was a masterstroke. Chard was there you know :)

    Islandlwana was tragic, an undefended camp, an inexperienced commander sending his battle lines to far forward of munitions, to far dispersed for effective fire. Also not understanding the encircling manouvre of the Zulu. I read an account by Horace Smith-Dorian, who was at both battles that day. He said some time after the battle some Zulus told him they were losing a lot of men and thinking of giving up, then the rifles became quieter and silent. Hrace took this to mean the ammo run out, as has been suggested.

    A lot of battles have their cover up and conspiracy theories...never to be resolved.

  5. the story of isandlwana and rorkes drift has always captivated me ever since i first saw the movie as a young lad, i have also read much about the supposed true story from various books etc,
    isandlwana here and now, is one i highly recomend, great book,
    there are many theories of course and always will be, but i feel this book gives a very likely outcome of what happened, please look for it,
    but ultimately the only people that really knew were those who stood to see those many thousands of warriors coming at them,
    imagine the fear that went through their heads possibly just before a spear did, how terrifying it must of been,a hopelessly desparate possition to be in, im no coward myself having served in the marines 5yrs and a 2nd degree black belt, but to face those overwhelming odds knowing and they did, they were going to be cut to pieces, we should have nothing but respect for them, it was a sad waste,

  6. Dear Sir,
    I am 14 years old and have researched with grate extent the battle of Isandlwana. During your review you state that orders had been given to Durnford but he did not stay in the camp. This is not true because when Durnfords body was buried Captain Shepstone in charge of the Natal carabineers removed his orders in secret from the body and gave them to Chelmsford’s second in command Colonel Crealock. When the papers where found in the 1960s they stated "You are to march to this camp at once with all the force you have with you of No. 2 Column. 2/24th, artillery and mounted men with the General and Colonel Glyn move off at once to attack a Zulu force about 10 miles distant. He thought his command was Independent to that of Pulline. He did not then disobey orders. Later in the battle he gathered 70 men and fought to the last to keep the escape route open for anyone who had the chance to escape. In my opinion he was the hero and deserved a VC and not the Blame.

    Yours faithfully Sam.

  7. Colonel Durnford's orders where vague, there was no mention of Reinforcing the camp. He was the comander of No.2 Column and Pulline was the commander of No.3 Column left at Isandlwana. He left to protect lord C rear from being attacked.

    Lord C issued new orders in December of 1878 as how to best fight the Zulus. After Isandlwana all copies of these where destroyed to incrinate Pulline. Durnfords copy was taken from the battle filed and finaly came to light in 1989. These prove that Pulliene followed his orders.

    Lord C was mostly to blame, no Fortifiactions, bad planning, bad scouting, underestimating the emany.

    There was no ammo shortage at isandlwana, its a myth


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  14. Hi I thought that you might be interested to learn more information about Isandlhwana, including the finding of the orders from Crealock. They were found in 1954, but it appears very few people know the story, as the finders were historian who wrote academic papers. However, I am Col Anthony Durnfords 2nd cousin*3, and have finished his life story, as part of our family history since 1066. For 136 years our own family though he was responsible for the death of so many in 1879. However that was not the case. He did in fact follow exactly the orders. As a Family historian, my approach was different to those who focus just on military history, and as a result I ask "why" and then look for a connection or an answer, you would be amazed what then gets discovered. The link is Anthony's story covers 27 chapters.


I usually delete comments from Anonymous