Isandlwana How the Zulus Humbled the British Empire
By Adrian Greaves
Pen and Sword (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk)
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The South African campaign by the British Army during the late 1870s must be one of their most famous exploits. Probably it is the most famous campaign of the Victorian era. The immensely popular films “Zulu Dawn” and “Zulu” are about this campaign and they are epics in British history. The former film deals with the Battle of Isandlwana which is the subject of this outstanding book. The film “Zulu” considers the action at Rorke’s Drift which occurred slightly after Isandlwana.
Isandlwana is embedded in the national culture as an overwhelming defeat of the British Army by “uncivilised natives”. Indeed a Regiment, the 24th Foot, and their supporting units were totally annihilated at Isandlwana.
The book gives an excellent description of the background to the invasion of Zululand by the British. It illustrates how the British effectively forced an invasion of Zululand by presenting conditions to the Zulu King, Cetshwayo, such that he had to refuse. His refusal which was engineered by the British therefore served as the pre-text for war.
The British advanced into Zululand in columns and one of them rested at Isandlwana. They were attacked and defeated with very few survivors. The text describes how the defeat at Isandlwana was blamed on officers killed during the Battle and how senior figures tried to decline responsibility. There were two Colonels one of which was in charge of the camp at Isandlwana and the other a unit. There is much discussion as to which Colonel was responsible for the camp at Isandlwana and responsibility for the defeat (at least during Victorian times) centred on these two figures.
The book tries to dispel some myths about the Battle such as the one about the ammunition. There were certainly deficiencies in the leadership as noted in the book and the brave 24th Foot paid the price by being obliterated. There were few survivors from the British side after the Battle. The “saving of the colours” is a famous exploit undertaken by two British officers who were both killed and they were awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
The book gives an outstanding treatment of the Battle piece by piece and there is an excellent summary of the post-Isandlwana battles. The eventual defeat of the Zulu nation by the British is eloquently described. After the main text there is a list of the main battlefield participants. These summaries of key personnel are an attractive feature.
There are a number of superb appendices which consider the “Welsh Question” and various reports of the Battle written by the few survivors. The “Welsh Question” is a myth that has developed after the Battle. The 24th Regiment at the time of Isandlwana were not actually a predominantly Welsh regiment. At the time it really was the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment and it retained that name until the reforms of the Army in 1881 when it became the South Wales Borderers.
This volume comes highly recommended. It is written in an easy to follow manner and it gives admirable treatment of the situation prior to the Battle, the Battle itself and post-Isandlwana incidents. The author has done a great service to this topic and no doubt this volume will become a superb addition to any library on this campaign.