In 'The Red Soldier' my main purpose was to illustrate the first-hand evidence that lies in a specific course of information, namely the private letters written by soldiers who fought in the Anglo-Zulu War.(1) In this paper I wish to take the exercise further by drawing on fresh letters that have come to light since the book was published in 1977. I wish also to assess the strengths and shortcomings of the letters in general as data for studying the Campaign.
We can take for granted, of course, that the British officers had the
ability, if not always the inclination, to write about their war experience. A
classic example is the correspondence of Major Harness, R.A.(2) Most of them
had benefited to some extent from going to one of the English public schools,
so many of which were founded in the 1850s and 1860s as the Victorian middle
classes grew in affluence and bought education for their sons. Now if we look
at the educational record of 60 British officers who had the misfortune to be
killed in action, or who died from other causes during the Zulu Campaign, we
can quantify this point.(3) No fewer than 46 of them went to public schools:
ten were Old Etonians, four went to Rugby, four to Cheltenham, and so on. Of
the other 14, all the Gunners and Engineers had entered the Royal Military
Academy at Woolwich, thereby raising the standard of educational opportunity
enjoyed by this entire group. Noel Coward, you may remember, was not impressed
with the average public school-boy's learning:
'We know how Caesar conquered Gaul,
And how to whack a cricket ball.
Apart from this our education
All we are looking for here, however, is a basic threshold of literacy, and this we can take for granted. Indeed, when I looked into school magazines such as the Eton College Chronicle for 1879 I discovered several letters from young officers fighting in Zululand, who had left school a few years previously.(4) Nor should we forget that ten per cent of our samples of officer casualties had been at university. Four of them were killed on the same day at Isandlwana: Vereker was at Oxford, Melvill at Cambridge. Cavaye (also of the 24th Regiment) was an Edinburgh graduate, and Surgeon-Major Sheperd was trained at Aberdeen University. (Incidentally, he is still remembered there through the Shepherd gold medal for surgery, instituted by his friends; it was won, I am glad to say, by one of my medical advisers in 1952). It is less easy, but by no means impossible, to determine the letter-writing potential of the non-commissioned officers and the rank and file of the British Army at this time. My attention was rightly drawn to this problem by certain reveiwers of my book, one of whom headed his piece with a pun, 'The Well-Read Soldier'.(5) One should try to face the question of how many ordinary men were in fact capable of writing letters to their relatives and friends at home. It is a tantalising calculation. Long before the Anglo-Zulu War there are splendid instances of this facility. For example, we have Private Charles Godward who fought throughout the Sikh Wars with the 16th Lancers.(6) He wrote at length of his part in the battle of Aliwal (28 January 1846), concluding 'I hope sincerely that in the next engagement I may come out as safe as this, without a scratch'. Was Godward somehow exceptional, or were there others like him, and if so, how many?
A.R. Skelley gives some necessary figures about army education 30 years later in his recent book 'The Victorian Army at Home'.(7) Admittedly, these statistics are derived solely from military sources that may have had an axe to grind, but we have to use them. They claim that 42,7 per cent of the rank and file could read and write in 1878. In addition, 48,8 per cent had the kind of educational standard, geared though it was to the modest demands of the fourth-class army certificate, that enabled them to draft a letter. Of those recruits entering the army in 1877, 76 per cent were able to read and write. Serious attempts were being made to improve the educational service within the army. Soldiers had to attend school for five hours each week, although their effectiveness varied from regiment to regiment with the commanding officers' interest in such matters. Promotion to corporal, however, required a third-class certificate of education, and I was impressed with a comment made by Private George Morris, 24th Regiment (killed at Isandlwana) when he wrote to tell his mother about a lance-corporal comrade: 'hope he will get on, but he is a very poor scholar, that is a great drawback to him in the service.'(8).
One commentator has put the proportion of potential letter-writers at about 15,4 per cent.(9) This is much too low. I would argue that at least half of the NCOs and private soldiers serving in Zululand were capable of scribbling some kind of letter from that campaign; 50 per cent of (say) 20 000 gives us a possible total of 10 000 letters. Not all would have bothered to write. Indeed some had no one to whom to write, so let us bring that figure down to 5 000. Not all of those would be preserved for us by being printed in a local newspaper, so we can reduce that figure to 1 000. So far in my use of such sources (soldiers' letters appearing in print in newspapers) I have read about 300, so there is every incentive to continue the search for the remaining 700. But even this figure is probably too conservative. Archibald Forbes, the war correspondent, insisted that he had never seen so much letter-writing done by troops on active service in the field as he saw in Zululand; there was little else for them to do when off duty.(10)
Reviewers of 'The Red Soldier' also questioned the extent to which the editors of local newspapers might have changed the soldiers' letters that came into their hands for publication. It goes without saying that editors invariably reserve the right to tidy up spelling, improve grammar and puncuation, correct or standardize the proper names appearing in their raw copy. To a varying extent, some of the letters handed to them would need such cosmetic treatment. But I wish to suggest that in any case a built-in selection process was at work: only letters that were reasonably well-written and had something worth reading in them would be brought to the editors' attention. Thus we are talking here about the best sample for which the editors had least to do. So far I have been able to compare the original letters with the version that appeared in a newspaper in only one instance. Lieutenant Charles Commeline served in Zululand with 5 Field Company of the Royal Engineers, and wrote long letters to his father at Gloucester, on average once a fortnight. Several of them were handed on for publication to various local newspapers, notably to 'The Citizen', an evening paper in Gloucester. One of them is included in 'The Red Soldier', and comparison shows that the editors kept faith with the original. The main drawback is their omission of the paragraphs from the letters, for reasons of space. In Commeline's case, this was later more regrettable in a very long letter he wrote while besieged in Pretoria, in February 1881, because the editor left out his accounts of sorties in which he had participated.
In general terms, the range of quality is plainly seen in letters filed at the 24th Regimental Museum, Brecon, such as in those written by two men killed at Isandlwana. It takes a little effort to understand what Sergeant John Lines is saying, and any editor (if he thought it worth publishing at all) would have to put right the indifferent spelling and punctuation. The series of letters from Private George Morris, on the other hand, written from the Transkei as well as Natal, are exemplary. An editor would merely have to omit some personal matters (as where he worries about his girl-friend Maggie Moore and the advances of a Royal Marine on home posting) and to correct a few grammatical lapses. I repeat that letters were printed 'with a minimum of interference between writer and general reader'.(11)
Perhaps the best sequence of British soldiers' letters that I have found recently in a provincial newspaper comes from 'The Sheffield Daily Telegraph'.(12) This paper had a surprisingly full coverage of the war because it had its own 'Official Correspondents' with most of the fighting columns. I suspect they would have been officers who initially had their letters printed and who were then paid for regular contributions. Of the private letters, an informative series appeared from the pen of Corporal George Howe who served in that most literate of all the army corps, the Royal Engineers. 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.
How else can we specify the degree of alarm engendered by news of Isandlwana and the possibility of a massive break-through by the Zulu army? 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 'when 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 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 gives the answer: 'About a hundred yards [90 metres] 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. At night we turned into the trenches ... The eyes were coming out of our heads with 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'.(13)
By 05h00 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. 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.(14) As Corporal Howe described it, 'To guard from 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 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'.(15) 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.(16)
Another merit of the letters is their capacity for fixing the exact chronology of events near to 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.(17) 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 the 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 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 strongpoint 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. 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. Corporal Howe relates the story of what happened next in this dangerous and farcical situation: ' "Good heavens, they are taking us for the enemy. Under cover 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 on to 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. 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'.(18).
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.
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.(19) 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.(20)
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, 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 their 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.(21)' Native levies were regularly employed on this kind of punitive work. As early as 6 June, 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'.(22)
Indeed, it may be claimed for the letters that they 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'.(23) Some of the soldiers who saw those sights, however, did not hesitate to describe them, and there is general agreement as between a number of writers; one hopes their relatives at home were not too squeamish.(24) 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: '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'.(25)
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 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 severly 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. [Editors' Note: This unit should not be confused with the Kaffrarian Rifles, although it is referred to as such in the Official History.] After manning the north-west 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 18h30. His own losses were light, one man killed, another wounded, 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.(26)
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 round 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'.(27) 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' .(28) 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.(29)
An artist's illustration of the battle of Gingindlovu. The ferocity of the cavalry pursuit, which also characterised Kambula, is clearly illustrated. The original sketch was drawn by a senior British officer serving with Chelmsford's forces, Col John North Crealock, who provided a constant supply of sketches to the 'Illustrated London News', in which publication this sketch originally appeared.
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 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, war in all its horrors has been let loose upon South Africa, and still the storm rages'.(30) 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: 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'.(31)
Differences between the functioning arms of the Imperial forces may also show
in the letters; the most expressive would be associated with the skills of the
Engineers, Artillery, Army Service Corps, Medical Service, but the Cavalry and
Infantry certainly do not seem to be far behind. More penetrating differences
might be expected between the professionals of the
British army and the volunteer units that fought so bravely with them. Even
there we should expect variance between the mercenaries of units like the
Frontier Light Horse, and the truly colonial-born soldiers from the Cape or
the Natal Carbineers, for whom the war was a domestic matter and whose
knowledge of the country and their enemy was so much more intimate. Nor should
we forget that civilians, as well as soldiers, could and did write letters
about the war that impinged on all their lives. I shall conclude with
something written by a citizen of Pietermaritzburg, on 13 March; he tells his
sister in England of the fear they had of a Zulu incursion after
'My little homestead in the city, which I recently insured for £2,000 would no doubt have shared the common fate, as the insurance companies will not make good that which is destroyed by the Queen's enemies. And although I have a farm of 50 acres close to the town, no doubt the crops and premises would have all been destroyed. In fact, this has already partly been the case, and I am now suing the Government for the damages done by a contingent of 1 500 natives that have recently encamped not many hundred yards from the place, who have done much damage all round'.(32) It seems that war, as someone said of California, is a state of mind, and private letters reveal it pretty well.
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