In the ‘blame game’ which followed the Zulu battle of Isandlwana, Anthony Durnford quickly emerged as the principal scapegoat.
A complex figure who arrived on the battlefield trailing a good deal of emotional baggage, Durnford had been born in Ireland in 1830 to a distinguished military family. He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1848 and his career showed early promise, but bouts of ill-health and bad luck kept him from active service in the Crimea or with fellow Engineer Charles Gordon in China.
Instead, Durnford spent more than 20 years in routine peace-time postings. In 1854, he had married, but the relationship had crumpled under the impact of the deaths of two children in infancy. Only with a posting to the Cape garrison at the beginning of 1872 did his prospects improve. Durnford enjoyed both the country and the diverse societies he encountered there, developing a sympathy for African peoples rare among British officials at the time. In 1873, he was finally given a command under active service – but the affair had turned out disastrously.
One of Natal’s African groups, the amaHlubi, had tried to cross out of the colony over the uKhahlamba (Drakensberg) mountains, in order to escape a dispute with the authorities. Durnford was given command of a small detachment of Volunteer troops and ordered, quite literally, to cut them off at the pass. Everything went wrong: the maps were inadequate, movements could not be coordinated, and Durnford’s party got lost on the mountain slopes overnight. A skirmish with the amaHlubi rear-guard at dawn saw Durnford’s Volunteers retreat in disarray, with three dead and the commander himself wounded. News of the debacle caused a furore in settler society.
Although Durnford was cleared of professional misconduct, he remained a social outcast in Natal – and he never regained the use of his arm. The outbreak of the Zulu campaign offered him a chance to address old hurts, and Chelmsford placed considerable confidence in him, commissioning Durnford to raise the Natal Native Contingent, then giving him command of one of the defensive columns on the Zulu border.
When the invasion began Chelmsford ordered Durnford first to Rorke’s Drift, later to Isandlwana, but without, in either case, telling him what he was supposed to do. This allowed Durnford to seize the initiative when confronted with reports of mysterious Zulu movements close to the camp. His detractors argued that, by leaving the camp, he both provoked the Zulu attack and fatally weakened the garrison. More than 130 years after his death, historians are still divided on the question of whether Anthony Durnford was the dashing hero of the hour, or the impetuous villain.