South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 9 April 2009 was Mr Ken Gillings, a member of the Durban Branch of the SA Military History Society and one of the foremost authorities on his topic, the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. His PowerPoint presentation together with his enthusiastic lecturing style gave us a particularly vivid picture of the events leading up to the war and the war itself.

Mr Gillings introduced his talk by briefly describing the establishment of the Zulu kingdom by Shaka and the formation of a standing army of some 40 000 warriors, well-trained and disciplined. This was regarded at the time as a serious threat to the colonies, states and kingdoms of Southern Africa. The British High Commissioner in Southern Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, feared another Indian Mutiny situation in Southern Africa might arise and proposed to counter this threat by establishing a union or confederation here which would be strong enough to resist the threat.

Our speaker described the events which preceded the outbreak of war - the massacre of girls, who had married without permission to do so, the execution of two of the Zulu king's runaway wives in July 1878 and the detention and subsequent release of two English surveyors, Smith and Deighton, who were inspecting drifts on the Tugela River.

Our speaker described the extremely harsh ultimatum to the Zulus, which took Sir Theophilus Shepstone three hours to read to the Zulu indunas under what has become known as the Ultimatum Tree. Although the Zulu claims were largely upheld by the boundary commission, Frere's impossible demands included the disbandment of the Zulu army and military system and the granting of permission to every Zulu to marry on reaching maturity. Thirty days later, the Zulu Kingdom and Great Britain were at war.

The British Commander in Chief at the start of the war was Lieut Gen Lord Chelmsford who decided to invade Zululand with three columns following different routes. This was the first invasion of Zululand. Colonel Anthony Durnford commanded the southern column at Middle Drift where he was ordered to remain to protect Natal from invasion.

The northern column was commanded by Colonel Evelyn Wood who was to approach Ulundi via the Blood River crossing.

The central column was commanded by Colonel Richard Glynn. This crossed the Tugela River at Rorke's Drift and was accompanied by Lord Chelmsford. Lord Chelmford's scouts recommended that a camp be pitched beneath a steep hill named Isandhlwana ('the stomach of an ox' in Zulu).

No attempt was made to dig trenches, as the ground was too hard, or draw up the wagons into a laager or pile bags of mealies and crates of rations into a breastwork. The tents were pitched all over the place. Major Dartnell had taken a force out to scout for the Zulu Army. When he reported that he might have found the main Zulu army, Lord Chelmsford and Col Glynn took some 3 300 men with them and set out to join Dartnell. Col Pulleine was left at Isandhlwana with 1 200 men. Chelmsford had ordered Col Durnford to advance to Isandhlwana to assist in the defence of the camp. When Chelmsford's column was 19km (12 miles) distant, the Zulus attacked. Col Durnford reached Isandhlwana but did not remain there. He advanced to attack the Zulus. Durnford and his men were wiped out by the Zulus who then advanced on Isandhlwana. After a dogged but ill-organised resistance, almost all the troops present were killed by the main Zulu army. One of the reasons was the poor arrangements made for the distribution of ammunition. The troops also were not concentrated in a solid body but were scattered, and further isolated by the ferocious Zulu assault.

The Zulu army then headed for Rorke's Drift. Here there was a small garrison consisting largely of South Wales Borderers, but including some sappers and others, commanded by lieutenants Bromhead RE and Chard. They had fortified their camp by connecting the various buildings with breastworks made with sacks of mealies and boxes of rations. They also ensured that every man had lots of ammunition. The Zulus attacked fiercely and continuously over a period of many hours but were repelled each time by accurate rifle fire and, on occasion, the bayonet. One of the buildings was set on fire and the Zulus broke into the defences there. The wounded who were in the building were rescued and the garrison retreated into a smaller perimeter. In the morning the Zulu army had had enough and retreated. Rorke's Drift was safe and with it the road into Natal. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded - to Lieutenants Bromhead and Chard and nine others, including the only VC ever awarded to a Swiss, one Corporal Schiess who was a member of the Transport Corps of the Natal Militia.

Unaware of the disaster at Isandhlwana, a column commanded by Col Pearson pressed on to the mission station at Eshowe, taking 13 days to get there. The mission station was deserted. His column had successfully beaten off an attack by five Zulu regiments despite being in open order. Col Pearson ordered Captain Wynne of the Royal Engineers to fortify the place. It was surrounded by a moat 6 metres wide and 2 metres deep. Col Pearson now received news of the disaster at Isandhlwana as well as a telegram from Lord Chelmsford advising of an imminent attack by the main Zulu army, as well as an instruction to decide for himself whether to remain at Eshowe or retreat. Col Pearson and his officers initially decided to withdraw but, on hearing that an escorted column under Col Ely was less than 3,5km (two miles) away, they decided to remain.

On the following afternoon, the mounted troops and the 2nd NNC (Natal Native Contingent) left Eshowe and were fortunate not to be attacked on their return to Natal. On the next day, Col Pearson attempted to send back 1 000 head of cattle to Fort Tenedos but an hour later they returned, having been attacked with 900 head of cattle grabbed by the Zulus. Col Pearson and his column found themselves under siege. The 68-day siege claimed the lives of 25 men and left 120 desperately ill. Chelmsford commanded the relief column which was attacked but suffered no loss.

Mr Gillings also described the death of the French Prince Imperial who had been permitted to serve in the Campaign by Queen Victoria against the advice of her Prime Minister. The Prince was very keen to see action but was ordered to do topographical sketches instead. His escort consisted of Lieut Carey who was in command of the Prince with an experienced corporal and five troopers of Bettingston's Horse, a colonial unit. Carey had been ordered to commandeer six African mounted troops but failed to do so in time.

Carey allowed the Prince to take the men to a recently-vacated Zulu kraal where they unsaddled and brewed coffee without posting sentries or scouting for the enemy. When a lone Zulu was seen, the Prince ordered the men to saddle their horses. They were mounting when they were charged by some 50 Zulus who opened fire on them. The Prince was unable to mount but clung to the holster on his saddle and was dragged along by his horse, until the holster tore loose. He fell and was stabbed to death, along with two members of his escort who came to his rescue. Carey and the others rode off thinking that the Prince was following them. Lord Chelmsford was blamed for this additional disaster, which received more publicity in England than the disaster at Isandhlwana. This was the end of the Napoleonic Dynasty and in France the event was regarded as a deliberate plot and Anglophobia resulted.

Our speaker described the actions fought by the northern column at Hlobane Mountain and Kambula Hill, which took place because Chelmsford was anxious to draw the Zulu army away from besieged Eshowe. Col Wood chose to attack the Zulus on Hlobane Mountain at night using only mounted troops. Col Buller (later Genl Sir Redvers Buller) succeeded in getting his 400 men up in spite of the thick mist, heavy rain and steep terrain, which required his men to dismount and lead the horses. Some of the horses slipped and fell to their death. When they reached the summit at dawn they were spotted by the Zulus who quickly blocked the route by which Col Wood and his men were ascending the mountain.

When he was half-way up the mountain, Wood saw the main impi on the plain below. It had blocked the eastern escape route while at the western end there was a steep drop covered by rifle fire from the Zulus. In the bloody battle that ensued, some 300 men were killed with five VCs being awarded. The Zulu impi rested for a day but were provoked into attacking by Col Buller. In the five-hour battle the Zulus lost over 2 000 men.

Our speaker then described the second invasion of Zululand. This was by means of a single column of some 25 000 men, led by Lord Chelmsford, which marched on Cetshwayo's royal kraal at Ulundi. There he ordered his men to form a hollow square which proved to be most effective against the traditional Zulu attacks. After 45 minutes, lord Chelmsford sent out his cavalry and the Zulu army was routed with over a 1 000 dead left on the battlefield.

Lieut Genl Sir Garnet Wolseley relieved Lord Chelmsford and captured Cetshwayo, who was imprisoned in the Castle of Good Hope in a large upstairs room near to the cells in the Katzenellenbogen Bastion (now part of the Castle Military Museum). He later travelled to England where he met Queen Victoria and was presented by her with a three-handled silver mug! Apparently, if the papers of the time could be believed, he was quite a celebrity with London Society!

The Zulus lost some 8 000 dead during the war, as well as thousands of cattle. The British lost 1 326 men and an equal number of the Natal Native Contingent. The Zulu kingdom was divided into 13 chieftancies and was eventually incorporated into the Colony of Natal.

Finally, Mr Gillings discussed briefly the Bambata Rebellion of 1906 and the unrest in Kwazulu during 1993 -1994.

Mr Derek O'Riley thanked the speaker for a most interesting talk and for giving up time during his holiday to be with us. He presented him with the customary gift.



The Annual General Meeting was held before the lecture and the following were elected to the Committee for the 2009-2010 term of office:



It is our sad duty to announce that two of our longest-standing members have passed away. Mr Woody Nel, a founding member and who is remembered for his vast knowledge of the Anglo-Boer War, passed away just before the April meeting. Our honorary member, Mrs Betty Mitchell, passed away this last week. She was the widow of the late Dr Frank Mitchell who was for many years a member of this Branch. Our deepest sympathies and sincere condolences are extended to the families of both of these members who will be much missed by our Branch members.

Mr Geoff Mangin (93 yrs of age and until recently still our honorary auditor) had a bad fall a couple of weeks back and broke his hip. He is now in a convalescent home recovering from two operations. We wish him a speedy and complete recovery.

We are always looking for more members so, if you know of someone who might have an interest in military history, bring him or her along to the next meeting or otherwise persuade them to join. We in the committee will do our best to provide interesting lectures.

If you have a topic which you would like covered or if you know of a good speaker, please advise us so that we can include these in the lecture programme.



Our speaker will be Mr Ben van den Berg (not a relative of our Chairman) who was born in the Netherlands and joined the Royal Netherlands Navy, serving as a fighter pilot on the Aircraft carrier RNS Karel Doorman. He will give us an account of his experiences during his time of service, which included operations off Korea during the Korean War

Our speaker will be Rear Admiral Chris Bennet, SAN (Rtd). Adm Bennet will speak about the Type 12 President Class Frigates and their service in the SA Navy. These were among the most advanced frigates in service at the time.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279 or 021-531-6781

South African Military History Society /