The mustachioed lieutenant colonel stands surrounded by a ring of soldiers. Warriors are coming at them from all sides, but volley after volley keeps them back until ammunition dwindles. Free of the brutal volleys that beset them, the warriors close in and the lieutenant colonel and his men die to the last man in desperate hand-to-hand combat
No, this is not a scene from a Hollywood production about Custer’s Last Stand but a scene from actual history. The scene in question occurred during the closing stages of a battle took place in South Africa in January of the year 1879 which involved the British Empire and the Zulu kingdom. A battle fought near a sphinx-shaped mountain in Zululand named Isandlwana. However, the mustachioed British commander –Anthony Durnford- shared the same rank as Custer and the same sense of duty and courage.
They also share the distinction of having blame heaped upon them after they were dead.
Most of the blame heaped upon Colonel Durnford charged him with having been in command of the British camp at Isandlwana after he had arrived there at the head of a column of mostly mounted native troops (with the exception of a British Army rocket battery) on the fateful 22nd of January, 1879. The charge has not stuck to him down through the ages due to no orders appointing him to command having been found. In a book by Ron Lock and Peter Quantrill entitled Zulu Victory, Durnford is both exonerated of this charge but, unfortunately, saddled with another: that his death and the deaths of his men were pointless, since they all could easily have escaped the doomed camp on horseback. Instead, Durnford –driven by a personal death wish- had ordered them to stay and pointlessly fight and die. 1
This argument came as some surprise to me when I first read the book. Historians such as S. Borquin have stated that Durnford’s last stand was done to hold open an escape route out of the doomed camp. 2
Lock and Quantrill argue that the men of two of the units who rallied around Durnfornd for his last stand –the Natal Mounted Police and Natal Carbineers- did so because they knew him. The former because he was their commandant in 1873, the latter because of an incident that same year at Bushman’s River Pass during the so-called “Langalibalele Rebellion” took place in Natal when Chief Langalibalele of the Hlubi tribe led the bulk of his people out of the colony due to a dispute with colonial officials regarding unregistered firearms the tribe possessed. At the pass, they encountered a force under Durnford’s command which consisted of pro-British natives of the Basuto tribe and the Natal Carbineers. In a short, furious skirmish Durnford’s command was driven back. The Basutos stood by Durnford even after the death of their interpreter, but only a few Carbineers stood by him as the rest of their comrades fled in haste. It was thus out of loyalty the NMP troopers rallied to Durnford and shame that drove the men of the Carbineers to stand by him, argues Lock and Quantrill.
Curiously, Lock and Quantrill credit Durnford’s body as being surrounded by a mix of nineteen Natal Carbineers and over twenty Natal Mounted Police when his body was discovered after the battle. 3 This sharply contrasts with the tally given by Bourquin in his article that 14 Natal Carbineers, 26 Natal Mounted Police, and 30 men of the 24th Foot, the British infantry regiment present at the battle, were found around Durnford after the battle. For some reason, Lock and Quantrill failed to mention the redcoats who fell with the NMP and Carbineers who had rallied to Durnford’s side.
The presence of these men from the 24th throws Lock and Quantrill’s argument that Durnford’s men rallied to him out of a sense of loyalty or shame. Durnford, a Royal Engineer, had nothing to do with the 24th, so these Tommies certainly did not join him out of a sense of personal loyalty to Durnford or shame over their unit having abandoned him years before. Durnford was a commanding presence on the field of Isandlwana, however, so a group of 24th soldiers cut off from their own officers doubtless were seeking a commander to give them orders and bravely fell in with Durford’s group.
Another fact that calls into question their argument that Durnford died needlessly comes from an eye witness account contained in their own book. Simeon Kambule, one of Durnford’s native soldiers, recalled that before he left the field he looked back, saw Durnford standing ‘ … in the center of his square with his long moustaches, and one good arm in the air. [Durnford lost the use of his left arm in both an accident on the way to Bushman’s River Pass and from a wound suffered during the skirmish] He was shouting and laughing, “Come round me, come round me. There is no point in running from these people, I know them too well.”’ 4 This is presumably the “order” Lock and Quantrill refer to. They also quote an NMP trooper as hearing Durnford exhort his troops with the cry “Now, my men, let me see what you can do!”
The reason Colonel Durnford said “I know them [the Zulus] too well …” was because by 1879 he was on his second tour of duty in Natal and had gotten to know the various native tribes well. He knew how fleet of foot a Zulu warrior was, and with the Zulu army closing in on the camp from all sides, he could see the folly of attempting to flee. In my opinion, the words Kambule heard him speak are those of a man who knew and respected his foe. He also knew the Zulus were fond of encircling their enemies, but could see that, since his group was in between the pincers of the advancing Zulu army, he was in a position to hold them back long enough to allow some men to escape. Durnford had already ordered Kambule and his other native troopers to retire from the field, so he doubtless had their welfare and those of other escapees in mind when he formed his ad hoc unit which proceeded to act out in fact the fate hundreds of Americans –influenced by fanciful works of art- had daydreamed Custer and the men under his command had died at the Little Big Horn. Thanks to their sacrifice, Khambule and dozens of other escapee ultimately owed their lives to the gallant Durnford.
I disagree with Lock and Quantrill that Durnford needlessly sacrificed his life and those who rallied to him on the bloody field of Isandlwana.
- Ron Lock and Peter Quantrill, Zulu Victory: The Epic Of Isandlwana And The Cover-Up (Greenhill Books, 2002), 218-219.
- Bourquin, “Col A W Durnford,” The South African Military History Society Military History Journal, 6 (1985). Accessed February 13, 2013, http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol065sb.html (No page number for print edition available.)
- Lock and Quantrill, Zulu Victory, 219
- Lock and Quantrill, Zulu Victory, 218