The film Zulu – released 50 years ago last December– is a film that many regard as the best war movie ever made. It tells the story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879 – which the Victorians considered the British Empire’s finest hour. Against all the odds, 150 British and colonial soldiers (about 40 of them hospital patients) fought for 12 hours to repel a fearsome army of 3,500 Zulu warriors. This heroic defence was rewarded by Queen Victoria’s government with no fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses.
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was, in reality, a cover up for a far more important and humiliating defeat earlier in the day, 11 miles away at Isandlwana. It suited those responsible for the disaster to exaggerate the importance of Rorke’s Drift in the hope of reducing the impact of Isandlwana.
In the same week that Zulu was celebrating its golden anniversary, I took a walk around Melcombe Regis Cemetery (Newstead Road) and huddled under a large conifer stood a row of stone cairn headstones. They belonged to the Younghusband family. One read: “In loving memory of Captain Reginald Younghusband 24th Regiment. Fourth beloved son of Thomas and Pascoa Georgina Barreto Younghusband, killed with the whole of his regiment, fighting bravely at the Battle of Isandlwana 22nd January. Buried with them 26th June 1879. Aged 35.”
My interest piqued, I decided to find out more.
Reginald Younghusband was born in 1844 in Bath. His father Captain Thomas Younghusband had worked for the Honourable East India Company. Whilst in India Thomas met and married Pascoa Georgina Barreto. Their first three children were born in India. On their return to Britain they lived at various location before settling in Weymouth at the fashionable address, of the then recently built, No 12 Victoria Terrace (today 144 The Esplanade – Hotel Mon Ami) where they resided with their three servants.
After finishing his education at Corsham in Wiltshire, Reginald joined the Army and commissioned an Ensign on 20 August 1862, promoted to Lieutenant on 29 August 1866, and Captain on 14 March 1876. A few months later he left Southampton for the Cape, in charge of 80 soldiers for the 24th Regiment. On the 4th January he came home, disembarking in Southampton , and one month later he married Evelyn Davies at Marylebone London.
After spending several months in England he returned to the Cape on the 2nd August 1878, aboard the Tyne.
On 11 January 1879, Younghusband and the 5,000-strong main British column invaded Zululand at Rorke’s Drift. It was commanded by the ambitious Lord Chelmsford, a favourite of Queen Victoria, who had little respect for the fighting qualities of the Zulu. ‘If I am called upon to conduct operations against them,’ he wrote in July 1878, ‘I shall strive to be in a position to show them how hopelessly inferior they are to us in fighting power, although numerically stronger.’
This dangerous mixture of self-confidence and contempt for their foes infected the whole British force. But their misjudgment came to rebound on them badly.
Despite a complete lack of resistance from the Zulus, it hadn’t been easy invading Zululand. (Today, many of us would argue it was an unwarranted act of aggression by the British colonialists). Heavy rains had broken a drought and hundreds of ox wagons required to transport the army’s supplies had been mired in mud. The main invasion column, commanded by Chelmsford himself, had set up their camp on the 20th January. It was on a wide plain under a hill that reminded many of the British soldiers of the sphinx on their regimental badge. The Zulus called it Isandlwana.
But at 4am on 22 January, Chelmsford made the first of a series of blunders by taking two-thirds of his force off to pursue, towards the south-east, what he believed was the main Zulu army.
In fact 20,000 Zulu’s, led by their Commander Ntschingwao, were in the North East, lying in wait just five miles from the exposed and under manned camp at Isandlwana.
At around 8am, there were several dramatic sightings, by British patrols, of Zulus close to the camp. Colonel Pulleine, in command at Isandlwana, wrote a letter to Chelmsford, ‘Report just come in that the Zulus are advancing in force from Left front of Camp.’ Chelmsford read it shortly after 9.30am, and he returned it to his staff officer, without a word, and would not be deflected from his original plan.
It was just before noon on a hellish hot day when a British patrol pursued a herd of cattle. Suddenly arriving at the edge of a ravine they saw, as far as the eye could see, thousands of Zulus squatting in absolute silence on their war-shields. Realising they had been spotted the Zulus rose as one and began their attack, using their traditional tactic of encirclement known as the Horns of the buffalo. The horns would encircle the camp while the head and chest would crush it from the front.
Back at Isandlwana the 1,750 men remaining in the camp were anxiously waiting for news. When Colonel Pulleine was informed that the main Zulu army was less than 10 kilometres away and advancing fast, he wrote an urgent note to Chelmsford requesting reinforcements. He then spread his troops out in a long curved firing line more than a kilometre in front of the camp, in attempt to halt the Zulu’s.
But the left horn broke through the British firing line, while the right swept around behind Isandlwana and overrun the camp and occupied the supply depot and ox-wagon train. They separated the British from their ammunition supply and stampeded their oxen, sending about 4,500 animals careering across the veldt.
The Zulus gave no mercy and expected none. Each time he killed a man, a warrior shouted ‘uSuthu!‘, then slashed open his victim’s belly to release his spirit.
As the hard-pressed British defenders fought for their lives, a portion of Chelmsford’s force at Mangeni Falls received word that the camp was in danger of being overrun. On his own initiative a Colonel Harness gave orders for his small force of artillery and infantry to return to camp. But it had only progressed half a mile when a staff officer rode up with express orders from Chelmsford to resume its original march because the message was a false alarm. The last chance to save the camp had been thrown away.
An annular solar eclipse (where the Moon is visually too small to cover the Sun) occurred around 2:30 p.m. at the tail end of the skirmish. The Zulu’s,who are not meant to fight during an eclipse, went quiet for the duration of the darkness.
An officer in advance from Chelmsford’s force gave this eyewitness account of the final stage of the battle at about 3:00pm: “In a few seconds we distinctly saw the guns fired again, one after the other, sharp. This was done several times – a pause, and then a flash – flash! The sun was shining on the camp at the time, and then the camp looked dark, just as if a shadow was passing over it. The guns did not fire after that, and in a few minutes all the tents had disappeared.”
The same moment is described in a Zulu warrior’s account: “The sun turned black in the middle of the battle; we could still see it over us, or should have thought we had been fighting till evening. Then we got into the camp, and there was a great deal of smoke and firing. Afterwards the sun came out bright again.”
It’s here, the final stages of battle, that we hear about Captain Younghusband.
He commanded C Company of the 1st Battalion 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshire).
Younghusband’s men caused heavy casualties amongst the Nokenke (Zulu) regiment as they came charging down the hill. C Coy was at the north end of the mountain and was reputed to have been the last company of the 24th to die. They retired to the lower slopes and held off the Zulus until ammunition ran out. In his book “The Washing of the Spears” Donald Morris recounts –
“Captain Younghusband was one of the last to die. When “C” company’s ammunition was gone, he had shaken hands with all his men and stayed to the end of the fight on the rocky platform over the wagon park. He had finally been forced over the edge with 3 survivors, and the 4 of them found some cartridges, clambered into an empty wagon and turned it into a rifle pit. They were rushed, and the 3 men were killed in the wagon bed, but Younghusband, minus his tunic, got away again and climbed into still another wagon. He was all alone, and the Zulus in his vicinity had stopped fighting, and when he opened fire, they scurried back hastily. He kept firing until all his cartridges were gone, and a few Zulus then tried to close with him. He bayoneted every warrior that laid a hand on the wagon, and he lasted for a long time until a Zulu finally shot him.”
The Zulu’s then carried Younghusband aloft on their war-shields back to the crag on which his men lay dead as they respected his bravery.
By 3pm, despite their own severe losses, the Zulus had captured the camp. The culmination of Chelmsford’s incompetence was a blood-soaked field littered with corpses – 1,359 British soldiers and hundreds of Zulu’s had been killed.
Word of the disaster reached Britain on 11 February 1879. The Victorian public was shocked by the news that ‘spear-wielding savages’ had defeated the well equipped British Army. The hunt was on for a scapegoat, and Chelmsford was the obvious candidate. But he had powerful supporters in the Queen and the Prime minister Disraeli.
Chelmsford urgently buried all the evidence that could be used against him. He propagated the myth that a shortage of ammunition led to defeat at Isandlwana. He ensured that potential witnesses to his errors were unable to speak out. Even more significantly, he tried to push blame for the defeat onto the dead soldiers. But his main defence was Rorke’s Drift. Though undeniably heroic, the importance of the defence of Rorke’s Drift was grossly exaggerated by both the generals and politicians of the period, to diminish the impact of Isandlwana
The Queen showered honours on Chelmsford, promoting him to full general, awarding him the Gold Stick at Court and appointing him Lieutenant of the Tower of London. He died in 1905, at the age of 78, playing billiards at his club.
Today the sweeping plain leading up to the rocky mountain known as Isandlwana, is dotted with 269 white washed stone cairns, underneath lies the bodies of 1,329 British soldiers.
And in Weymouth stands a small, understated, loving memorial to a son that never came home.
David Rattray: A Soldier Artist in Zululand
John Young: They fell Like Stones
Donald Morris: The Washing of Spears