Tagged: Victorian

The Battle of Isandlwana

On 11 January 1879, a British army under Lord Chelmsford invaded the Zululand after King Cetshwayo refused a humiliating ultimatum from Sir Henry Frere, the High Commissioner of South Africa. Frere was looking for a war because he and Chelmsford assumed the spear and shield wielding warriors were no match for a disciplined modern army equipped with rifles and artillery. Chelmsford attacked, from the recently annexed Boer Republic of Natalia, with three columns of about 16,000 British regulars and troops of the Natal Native Contingent. The Zulus were a warrior culture whose males could not marry until a man “washed his spear (in blood)”, Cetshwayo assembled 24,000 warriors at his main kraal (settlement with a corral for cattle and buffalo) at Ulundi. He launched the Zulu impis (roughly “battlegroups”) at Chelmsford with the guidance, “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.”

The Zulu army was unlike other indigenous force the British had encountered in Africa. For all of its history to that time, Africa had more land than people. People were the resource that enabled the expansion of a kingdom, not land as in the Western mind. As a consequence, warfare between nations was a relatively bloodless affair focused on attacking at range with thrown weapons (because it was safer) and capturing prisoners (for slave labor). In the early 19th Century, Shaka Zulu instituted reforms that changed the nature of Zulu warfare from protecting the force to the destruction of its enemies, which was much more in line with how European armies fought and much more effective (Land was relatively scarce in Europe compared to Africa. In general, European warfare focused on winning the battle at any cost because the loser couldn’t just move somewhere else). Shaka Zulu’s reforms centered on annihilating the enemy army through close quarters combat, with warriors armed with a short stabbing spear and hide shield. The spear, called an “iklwa” for the sound it made when a warrior pulled it from a dead opponents chest, was horrifying and brutally effective against ranged warriors not used to melee combat. The Zulu braves would weather the one or two volleys of thrown weapons to quickly close with and destroy their enemies. The preferred tactic was called “the horns of the beast”. The impi was divided into four groups: the chest, two horns, and loins. The chest, or center of the line, engaged the enemy, while the horns on its left and right would encircle the force occupied by the chest. The loins, or reserve, administered the coup d’grace, chased down routed enemies, or reacted to unexpected developments. Individual warriors used roughly the same tactics: one would fix an enemy to his front while a trusted comrade would kill from the side. Shaka Zulu revolutionized indigenous warfare in southern Africa and quickly carved out a large empire from his stunned neighbors, whose fertile lands the Zulu nation occupied.

On 18 January 1879, Shaka’s half nephew Cetshwayo was determined to attack and destroy Chelmsford’s columns in detail. He dispatched 4000 braves to fix Chelmsford’s southern column and prevent it from reinforcing his main body in the middle. On 20 January, Chelmsford’s 7800 men encamped in the shadow of a large “sphinx shaped” mountain named Isandlwana. No defensive preparations were made because the British arrogantly assumed that rifle and cannon firepower alone could hold the ground against the charging Zulus. On the 21st, the Zulu commander, Prince Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, encamped in Ngwbeni Valley about ten miles away.

All throughout the 21st, the British skirmished with Zulu reconnaissance and screening parties. On the morning of the 22nd Chelmsford dispatched two battalions of the NNC to push through the screen and find Ntshingwayo’s army. Chelmsford was worried that the Zulus would refuse battle and not that he was walking into a trap. Ntshingwayo wanted to rest his warriors and only planned to attack Chelmsford on the 23rd but the two NNC battalions stumbled upon his army and forced his hand. The young Zulu warriors finally had their chance to close with enemy and attacked. Ntshingwayo used the chance encounter to draw Chelmsford away from his camp at Isandlwana, which he would destroy. Once cut off from their supplies, the Zulu army would surround and annihilate the British main body which would then have only the food, water and ammunition they carried with them. Chelmsford took the bait.

Once he received reports of the Zulu army at Ngwbeni, Chelmsofrd divided his force and took over half of his infantry and most of his artillery to reinforce the two advance guard NNC battalions, exactly what Ntshingwayo wanted him to do. Once Chelmsford was committed to Ngwbeni, the Zulu horn and loin formations rapidly moved around the powerful British force and fell upon the British camp at Isandlwana. Chelmsford was outmaneuvered and didn’t even know it.


Brevet Lt-Col Henry Pulliene commanded the defense of the camp which consisted of 3companies of his battalion, the 1st Bn of the 24th Foot, one company of the second battalion, four companies of the NNC, two cannon, and about 100 other Natal carbineers (there’s a great word I don’t get use very often), mounted troops, police, and border guards. Later that morning he was reinforced by Bvt Col Anthony Durnford and five troops Natal Native Horse and two more companies of NNC. All told, there were about 2000 British and Natal troops and civilians at Isandlwana when Ntshingwayo’s 12,000 arrived just after noon on the 22nd.

4000 warriors appeared to the north, and Pulleine and Durnford assumed they were part of a “horn” formation intent on attacking Chelmsford’s rear at Ngwebeni. They were technically right that it was a horn formation but tactically wrong because it was Ntshingwayo’s chest formation to fix the defenders at Isandlwana. The fatal beauty of the Zulu tactics was their simplicity: they were understood by all warriors to the youngest brave who used a form of “the horns of the beast” in their individual combat of fixing an opponent so a comrade could strike the killing blow from the side. Ntshingwayo’s impi formed new horn, chest, and loin formations on the move from Ngwebeni like the instinctive battle drill it was.

Pulleine made the same mistake Chelmsford did by advancing towards the chest of Zulu army and separating his troops from the camp.

Initially, British firepower did prevent the charging Zulus from overwhelming the disciplined Englishmen and Welshmen of the 24th Foot (The 24th Foot was a Warwickshire regiment but had a disproportionate amount of Welsh enlistees and wouldn’t be known as the “South Wales Borderers” until 1881) and the Boer, Basuto and Mponso of the NNC. Equipped with the quick firing Martini-Henry breech loading rifle, the British troops could fire 16-20 rounds a minute if necessary. The ibutho (a Zulu regiment based not on tribe but age) of Ntshingwayo’s chest formations took horrendous casualties until his horn formations made their way around Pulleine’s line. The left horn routed Durnford’s cavalry on the British right which had run low on ammunition and as cavalry couldn’t hold ground as well as infantry. The right horn made its way around the Isandlwana mountain and fell upon the camp from the rear. Pulleine attempted to extend his line to block the flanking attacks but the Zulus just continued father around.

After Durnford’s defeat, Pulleine deliberately withdrew back towards the camp but by then the damage was already done. The maneuver forward expanded the distance that supply runners had to travel to resupply the line with ammunition. Furthermore, myopic supply officers reportedly were under orders to save the ammunition for Chelmsford column and required the runners to sign forms before they could open the crates, which were screwed shut. Despite these self-inflicted difficulties, adequate ammunition made it to most of the line, except Durnford’s men who were the farthest from the camp and had fought the longest.

For a long hour, Pulleine’s soldiers fought the Zulu warriors with volley, rifle butt and bayonet. But when attacked from all sides the line eventually broke as companies formed squares, and individual soldiers fought in small groups and even back to back. The encirclement wasn’t complete and several hundred of Pulleine’s troops and civilians escaped back across the Buffalo River at a ford now known as “Fugitive’s Drift.” But not many escaped and fought to death when ammunition ran out. What remained of the line was 150 man square whose bodies were found the next day. Zulu accounts placed great emphasis on soldiers who defended their flags, including a big Irishman who held Pulleine’s tent where Union Jack flew, and two lieutenants who fled with the battalion colours but were killed at Fugitive’s Drift. The final soldier to die was a young Welshman who held the mouth a cave at the base Isandlwana with his bayonet until he was shot by a musket wielding Zulu.

At 2:30 pm a solar eclipse occurred, and a British officer with Chelmsford’s column reported that firing from Isandlwana ceased after that. Pulleine and Durnford repeatedly informed Chelmsford of the increasingly desperate fighting at Isandlwana, but Chelmsford refused to come to their aid. He assumed he was still engaged with the elusive Zulu main body and even recalled troops that started towards the camp at their own accord. When informed of the Zulu victory, the stunned Chelmsfod muttered, “But I left a thousand men to guard the camp…”

1300 British and Natal troops were killed, including Durnford and Pulleine. The Battle of Isandlwana was worst defeat ever experienced by a colonial army against indigenous forces and coming only 2 ½ Years after Custer’s Last Stand increased the effect. However, the Battle of Isandlwana was pyric victory for the Zulu nation. Ntshingwayo lost almost 3000 warriors killed and another 2000 or so wounded of his original 12,000. And unlike the vast British Empire, there were no more Zulu warriors to recruit, the entire nation was mobilized.

After the battle was finished, the four thousand warriors of Ntshingwayo’s loin formation were upset that they did not get to participate in the battle. Their commander, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, set his sights on the small British Force at “kwaJimu”. “KwaJimu” was the Zulu name for “Jim’s land”, named for the Irish merchant James Rorke who had a small trading post and mission at the ford over the Buffalo River. Rorke’s Drift was twenty miles away and Dabulamanzi meant for his warriors to wash their spears in its defenders.

The Spring of Nations: The Revolutions of 1848

The Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon undid any social and political reforms in Europe brought about by the American, Polish and French Revolutions, and even Napoleon’s reforms such as the Napoleonic Code. The Council of Vienna cemented political and social control in the absolutist regimes of Europe in the name of stability and “Balance of Power”. It was as if the revolutions of the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Eras had never happened.

But no matter how hard someone tries, you can’t kill an idea with centralized power. The autocracies of the Hapsburgs in Austria, the Hohenzollerns of Prussia, the Bourbons of France, and the Romanovs of Russia held iron grips on their people. But the shining examples of America which was founded on Enlightenment principles and Britain whose constitutional monarchy enacted sweeping political and social reforms caused by its early embrace of the Industrial Revolution could not be kept from increasingly literate populations of the Ancien Regimes. The world shrank with rapidly expanding communications technologies such as steam power and the telegraph. Thirty years after the Congress of Vienna, Liberalism and Nationalism, with a heavy dash of Romanticism, swept Europe.

Romanticism was a direct reaction to the Industrial Revolution, as romantics pined for long lost good old days, the glories of the past, its upswelling of emotion, and the beauty of nature’s perfect moment. Romanticism’s devotion to the emotions of the individual dovetailed nicely with the Liberalism of the Enlightenment, part of those supposedly long lost good old days. Liberalism in the 19th Century has nothing to do with contemporary or postmodern Liberalism. “Big L” Liberalism of today focuses on collectivism and Greater Good at any cost, whereas Liberalism of the 19th Century, known as “Classical Liberalism” today, concerns the expansion of individual rights and protections from the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, the concept of Nationalism evolved, though not to such an extreme as the term Liberalism. Unlike today, Enlightenment Nationalism has little to do with shared race and ethnicity, and everything to do with shared culture, though on occasion they were one and the same. Like Bushido in Japan, the word “Nationalism” in the 20th century was perverted by National Socialist Germany and Fascist Italy, and today is used to invoke Godwin’s Law without actually saying “Hitler”. But in the early and mid-19th century (and to most academics today), Nationalism was, and is, a concept linked to shared culture, history, and geography. For example in 19th cent France, Normans, Bretons, Gascons, and Burgundians were ethnically different, but culturally “French”, same as “British” with the Welsh, English and Scots of the British Isles. America was founded on that very principle: taking the best of each ethnicity and subsuming it in American culture, we just know it today as “the Melting Pot”. As nationalist feelings swept Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, it was no surprise that the first revolutions of 1848 began in Italy, then under the domination of the Austrian Hapsburgs.

But no Roman shopkeeper, Venetian sailor, Neapolitan factory worker or Sicilian farmer just woke up and said, “I am going to revolt against my Hapsburg or Bourbon overseers because of Liberalism, Nationalism, and Romanticism”. Catalysts were needed, and 1848 saw the culmination of several. In 1845, a series of catastrophic famines began across Europe, the Great Irish Potato Famine being the most famous. Also, across Europe the effects of the Industrial Revolution exacerbated the political and social issues of absolutism and autocracy. The blights and mechanization in the fields pushed the peasants to the cities to find work in the factories which replaced the guilded artisans. Populations grew, urbanization increased (Berlin’s population tripled in 30 years) and unemployment skyrocketed as societal systems attempted, and failed, to adapt to the pressures. The poor were hungry, the middle class unemployed, and the upper classes disenfranchised with the ruling elite. The nobles of the conquered territories were first to look at their situations and determine that they could do a better job than their foreign overlords, especially those that had states prior to Congress of Vienna in 1815.

The first revolution based on these ideals and conditions actually occurred in Prussian occupied Greater Poland in 1846 where the Polish population opposed the Germanification of their lands. The revolt was swiftly crushed and the trial for the ringleaders ended in December of 1847 with eight sentenced to death and over a hundred to prison. The news spread across Europe and inflamed the passions of many who saw themselves in the same predicament as the stateless Poles. The winter was cold in most of Europe, which made revolutionizing not particularly attractive, but not in the temperate Mediterranean clime of Sicily. The first actual Revolution in 1848 occurred in Palermo, then in the Bourbon controlled Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

With winter foodstocks nearly depleted and the harvest a long ways off, on 12 January 1848 the people of Palermo overthrew the Bourbons, revived the Constitution of 1812 and established the Republic of Sicily, conquering the entire island except the town of Messina. Revolution quickly spread throughout Italy, most notably to Milan, Rome and Venice, and the news electrified the continent. And as the weather warmed, the Italian revolutions against the Hapsburgs and Bourbons spread to the center of the 19th century European universe – Paris.

France’s King Louis Phillipe outlawed the right to peacefully assemble, so as usual the people of Paris just figured out another way. In this case, the Parisians held “banquets” when they wanted to discuss politics. These banquets were just hours’ long assemblies where food was served, many involving hundreds of people. Speeches were given during the meal, and if you were important, between courses. On 22 February 1848, the banquets were outlawed. The barricades went up the next day. French soldiers accidentally, then intentionally, fired on protesters and revolution quickly spread throughout France. King Louis Phillipe abdicated on the 24th and France’s reformers created the Second French Republic.

Austria’s chancellor, Prince Klemens von Metternich, once said, “When France sneezes, all of Europe gets a cold.” Metternich was Europe’s arch diplomat, the architect of the Council of Vienna and the personification of the neo-Ancien Regimes of the early 19th century. And so it was with the Revolutions of 1848, soon to be known as the “Spring of Nations”. News of France and Italy’s revolutions spread like wildfire along Europe’s roads, rails, and telegraph lines. By March, Belgium, the Netherlands, the German states, Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Serbia, Sweden, Poland, Switzerland, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Ireland were all in the midst of their own revolutions. Only Britain, whose previous reforms hamstrung support for revolution, and Russia which had no middle class to speak of, were spared.

However, by the end of the year, every revolution had failed.

The Springtime of Nations was not meant to be in 1848. One of the many rights people in 1848 were fighting for was the right to bear arms and form citizen militias to oppose the national armies of the ruling elite. The ruling authorities of each country had a monopoly on force and used their armies and police to bloodily put down each revolt. Furthermore, the regimes controlled the press, and the ability to assemble. Thus the revolts were neither organized nor coordinated, even among themselves. The revolutionaries were fighting for different things and they soon descended into class warfare. No faction could unite with another and the regimes took advantage. They soon divided the lower classes from the middle classes, the workers from the peasants, and isolated and suppressed each in turn. Millions fled the violence and famine, particularly to the Americas. By early next year, the Spring of Nations was over.

But like I mentioned before, it’s easy to kill a person, it is much harder to kill an idea. The people of Europe got a taste of freedom and they could no longer be ignored. The rulers of Europe noted that they couldn’t effectively govern without some consent of the people. The public and private spheres were inextricably linked. Many reforms were put into place in 1848 that would lead to great changes in the coming years. Austria and Prussia banned feudalism. Serfdom and slavery were banned across Europe, leaving Russia and the United States as the only countries with official systems of slavery. In many cases, absolute monarchy was replaced with constitutional monarchy. The petty states of central and southern Europe would gain a new national consciousness of shared sacrifice, and would lack only a unifying leader. Just a decade or so later Italy would get its leader in Giuseppe Garibaldi, and in Germany Otto von Bismarck.

In France, the Second French Republic elected Louis Napoleon the first President of France in December of 1848. Louis Napoleon was the nephew of Emperor Napoleon I, and dreamt of following in his namesake’s grandiose footsteps. In 1851, Louis Napoleon castigated the new constitution and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. His ascension to the throne of the Second French Empire would lead directly to the Crimean War, the reunification of Italy, the reunification of Germany, and the First World War.

“A cold” indeed.

Blood and Iron

In the mid nineteenth century, Germany was still fractured in a loose confederation of almost 40 states, with Bavaria, Austria, and Prussia vying for leadership. In the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, Germany attempted to unite under Austria. However, “The Greater or Lesser Germany Question”, that is whether Austria would enter the union with Hungary and its empire, was very divisive. Most German states wanted a union with Austria, but not its multicultural empire in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. And Austria refused anything less than complete integration. Neither side could come to a compromise and the Frankfurt Parliament dissolved.

A decade later, Otto von Bismarck determined that the only way Germany would unite was by force of arms. However, in the summer of 1862, the Prussian parliament balked at Kaiser Wilhelm’s request for a significant spending increase for the Prussian Army. On 20 September, 1862, Bismarck, the newly appointed Prussian chancellor, spoke before the parliament. He concluded with,

“Germany is not looking to Prussia’s liberalism, but to its power; Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden may indulge liberalism, and for that reason no one will assign them Prussia’s role; Prussia has to coalesce and concentrate its power for the opportune moment, which has already been missed several times; Prussia’s borders according to the Vienna Treaties [of 1814-15] are not favorable for a healthy, vital state; it is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided – that was the big mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.”

The parliament passed the Kaiser’s budget, and over the next eight years, Bismarck, now known as “The Iron Chancellor”, united Germany.