The Battle of Isandlwana on the 22nd of January 1879 was one of the most devastating defeats suffered by Britain at the hands of local inhabitants.
The clash between British Troops and Zulu Warriors led to a brutal battle that has been retold numerous times, however much of the tale has proven to have more basis in fiction than facts:
1. ‘Men of Harlech’
According to the enduringly popular 1964 movie Zulu, the 24th Regiment – who comprised much of the garrison at both Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – was composed largely of Welshmen. Although the Regiment had indeed established its depot at Brecon in 1873, its recruits continued to be drawn from across the United Kingdom, and only a small proportion were Welsh by 1879. The association with Wales largely post-dates the Anglo-Zulu War – in 1881, the 24th were re-titled the South Wales Borderers, and it is now part of the Royal Welsh.
2. Ammunition failure
One particularly persistent legend has it that the British were overrun at Isandlwana because of a failure of ammunition supply, either through the parsimony of regimental quartermasters, or because their ammunition boxes could not be opened – an idea which, of course, effectively excuses a number of deeper military errors.
One of the survivors – a lieutenant named Horace Smith-Dorrien, who was destined to become a general in the First World War – recalled the reluctance of Quartermaster Edward Bloomfield of the 2nd Battalion, the 24th, to issue ammunition as the battle began. Yet a close reading of the evidence suggests that this incident was simply indicative of the confusion that inevitably prevailed in the camp; Bloomfield’s reserves were, in fact, earmarked to be sent out to Lord Chelmsford should he need them, and Bloomfield was showing no more than a proper respect for his orders.
In a letter home, Smith-Dorrien admitted to his father that he afterwards secured a supply of ammunition and spent much of the battle distributing it to the front-line companies. Nor were the boxes particularly difficult to open – although reinforced by copper bands all round, access to the rounds was by means of a sliding panel in the lid held in place by a single screw. And if time was pressing, the panel could be smashed out by a sharp blow to the edge with a tent-mallet or rifle butt – over the years, a number of screws bent by such rough treatment have been found on the battlefield.
In 2000, an archaeological survey of the site found the remains of the tin lining of a number of boxes along the British firing positions – sure sign that boxes had been opened there. Last word, however, should go to the Zulus, many of whom mentioned that the British infantry continued to shoot at them until the final stages of the battle.
3. Drummer boys ‘gutted like sheep’
One story that circulated widely in the horrific aftermath of the battle was that Lord Chelmsford’s men, returning to the devastated camp on the night of the 22nd, had seen ‘young drummer boys’ of the 24th Regiment hung up
on a butcher’s scaffold and ‘gutted like sheep’. While it need not be doubted that, in the fury of the attack, the Zulus would have killed boys as well as men – they had taken the Queen’s shilling, after all, and their chances with it – this horror story does not stand up to close scrutiny.
‘Boy’ was a rank in the British Army at the time, applied to lads not yet 18, many of whom were the sons of men serving in the regiment. Drummers were seldom Boys – among their other duties was administering floggings as punishment – and of 12 Drummers killed at Isandlwana, the youngest was 18 and the oldest in his 30s. Five Boys were killed at Isandlwana, most of them in the 24th’s band, and the youngest was 16 – not quite the innocent lads immortalised in sentimental paintings of the time.
Even the contemporary regimental history of the 24th admitted ‘no single case of torture was proved against [the Zulus]’. But, in the fraught atmosphere that prevailed when Lord Chelmsford’s command returned to the camp that night, such horror stories spread like wild fire and were readily believed –although, as one officer pointed out, ‘it was impossible for those who told these yarns to distinguish anything in the night, it being exceptionally dark’.