What was Anthony Durnford’s real role in the Zulu Wars?

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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.

To read about the Anglo-Zulu War, see the latest issue of Military Times – out now

Map of the Battle of Isandlwana, 22 January 1879
Map of the Battle of Isandlwana, 22 January 1879

1 Comment

  1. Col. A.W. Durnford, R.E, was definitely a hero at Isandhlwana, the only British officer present who understood the Zulus and their capabilities on the battlefield. The Natal Native Horse fought a valiant fighting withdrawal against wings of the Zulus on both the heights and the plain, including holding a donga in the latter under Durnford’s personal command, instilling his own courage in that of his auxiliary troops not meant for frontline action, but scouting and pursuit. Afterwards, in Durnford’s last stand at the camp, a large group of Colonial Volunteers died with him in their midst preventing the Zulus entering the front of the camp. Details emerged both in the aftermath discovered by his loyal defender Edward Durnford (brother) and an investigation by the Royal Engineers too, but the latter evidence was suppressed until uncovered only a few years ago by a descendant of the family proving complicity in authority to hold Durnford to account for the defeat to protect Lord Chelmsford. Alas, even this primary source material is being somewhat ignored en masse by everybody interested in the campaign, apparently not wishing to amend the historical wrong and clear Durnford’s name and reputation. Col Durnford by rights, should be known as much in the U.K. today as Gen Custer is in the U.S., including in military art, but unlike the latter, Durnford, the Colonial Volunteers and the Natal Native Units were very noticeably excluded from art for over a century, only recently appearing in a few paintings, but not as many as should rightfully exist. Rorke’s Drift was highlighted as the more important engagement fought on the same day, yet the defeat at Isandhlwana halted the whole British Invasion. Hopefully, Durnford’s reputation will eventually be fully restored officially and the historical record updated to demonstrate this and prevent further wrongful interpretations of his role at Isandhlwana. I’ve been defending him for 25+ years and will continue to do so. Military history does matter for the studying of by future students without repeating known errors. He is not the villain, but blatantly the scapegoat

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