Tagged: Victorian

The Pennsylvania Oil Rush

In the 1850s, the Industrial Revolution was moving forward steadily in the United States, but in Europe, which at the time was technologically about 30 years ahead, it was beginning to slow. The Industrial Revolution was tied to coal, and in 1850s Europe, coal was starting to reach the limits of its commercial viability. Mining coal was (and is) a labor intensive process, and the mines couldn’t keep up with the demand. A new and cheaper energy source was needed.


Everyone knew that energy source was oil, but there was no efficient method of extracting it. The only practical way of harvesting oil was whale fat, and tens of thousands of innocent whales were being slaughtered each year. However, while whale oil was good for lamps, it was not economically viable for industrialization. In 1850, there were only a few places on the planet where oil was known to exist in the ground.


One of those places was Baby Jesus’ Chosen Land and America’s Keystone State: The Grand Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In the picturesque glens, moraines, and dales of glacier formed Central and Western PA, there had always existed “oil seeps”. For hundreds of years, its former Amerindian inhabitants, the Iroquois and their subject peoples after them, and the hardy Scots-Irish and German immigrants who followed them, knew of this phenomenon. But, they avoided those areas because the hunting or farming was horrible, and not practical.


Enter entrepreneur Colonel Edwin Drake, and his blacksmith assistant, Billy Smith. They formed the Seneca Oil Company in 1858, and were determined to prove that “rock oil” was profitably extractable. With an old steam engine and a drill used for salt mining, they moved to Pennsylvania in search of commercially viable amounts of Mother Nature’s Sweet Sweet Nectar of Civilization. On 27 August, 1859, just outside the town of Titusville, in beautiful and bountiful Pennsylvania, Drake and Smith struck oil. Their discovery (g)ushered (Ha!) in the world’s first oil boom.


Pennsylvania’s Oil Boom first fueled the continuation of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, and within a few years it pushed America’s own Industrial Revolution into high gear. It supercharged the growth and expansion of the railroad industry, which massively expanded, replacing turnpikes and canals, and connected the West with antebellum East. The boom turned Pittsburgh from the center of America’s glass making industry to America’s Beating Industrial Heart.


One can easily argue that late Modern America started 161 years ago today. Thank you Pennsylvania, in particular your sons Messrs. Drake and Smith, for being a net exporter of energy, and laying the economic foundations necessary to free the slaves, defeat the Confederates, save the whales, advance Western Civilization and human rights, defeat the Nazis and Communists, raise countless billions out of poverty, and like a cherry on top, enjoy Sunday Steelers’ Football.

The Battle of Maiwand

In 1879, the British invaded Afghanistan after the slaughter of their diplomatic mission in Kabul in October. They quickly occupied Kabul, Jalabad, Khost (eastern Afghanistan) and Kandahar (southern Afghanistan). They selected Abdur Rahman Khan as Amir, but in the cutthroat tribal politics of the Victorian era Great Game in Afghanistan, his cousin Ayab Khan rose in revolt.

Ayab Khan was the Governor of Herat (western Afghanistan) and marched on Kandahar, the key to southern Afghanistan, with an army of about 15,000. The British responded by sending an 8,500 strong army to intercept them that included British and Indian troop under British command and Afghan troops under Ayab Khan’s father Sher Ali (Abdur Rahman Khan’s uncle). As Ayab Khan approached, most of Sher Ali’s troops deserted to Ayab Khan and the two armies blundered into each other in the Maiwand Pass, the strategically important connection between the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. The British commander, Brigadier General George Burrows, though now heavily outnumbered, could not retreat because he would face accusations of cowardice, so he attacked.

The 2700 British, Indians and remaining Afghans were more disciplined, better trained, and with certain exceptions, namely artillery, better equipped but were still thoroughly thrashed by Ayab Khan. The attacks quickly turned into desperate defenses against overwhelming odds. The positions were exposed and the British army took a terrible pounding. Ayab Khan’s army was a mix of disciplined Herati and Kabuli regiments, extremely effective modern breech loading artillery, irregular cavalry, and thousands of tribal ghazis armed with swords, spears, and ancient jezails or Afghan muskets. The British were completely outmaneuvered, out fought, and despite their extremely effective Martini-Henry rifles, outgunned. By 1300, the British force was nearly out of ammunition, and their rifles overheated. They broke, and on the 50 mile retreat back to Kandahar, thousands were massacred.

The only bright spot in the battle for the British was the withdrawal of the 66th Regiment of Foot. The remaining 400 men withdrew in good order and covered the retreat for two hours, firing and withdrawing. Their disciplined formation soon caught the attention of the victorious Afghans, who stopped pursuing the routed individuals, and swarmed around the recalcitrant 66th. Around 3 pm, the remnants withdrew into the village of Khig.

According to one of Ayab Khan’s captains, about 200 survivors of the 66th withdrew into Khig. At their first stand in its walled gardens, the 66th inflicted hundreds of casualties, but lost 40 men. Of the 160 who fell back to the next walled garden, 84 died. 56 men made a third stand further back in the village. The final stand was made by just eleven men, calmly firing and reloading. Surrounded by thousands of Afghans, the final eleven “charged out of the garden, and died with their faces to the foe, fighting to the death… The conduct of those men was the admiration of all that witnessed it.”

The 66th’s last stand at Khig allowed hundreds to escape and reach Kandahar. Burrows lost over a thousand with another few hundred wounded who managed to stagger back into Kandahar. It seemed a repeat of the disastrous retreat from Kabul 40 years before.

Ayab Khan couldn’t translate his tactical victory into any advantage because it took him eight days to reorganize his army and march the 45 miles to Kandahar. By then, the British were prepared for a siege. A relief force would smash Ayab Khan’s army on 1 September. Nonetheless, the Battle of Maiwand was a shock to Victorian Great Britain, particularly coming so close on the heels of the loss against the Zulus at Isandlwana the year before. The Battle of Maiwand is the equivalent of the America’s Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The Battle of Maiwand was immortalized in the British consciousness most famously by Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose fictitious Dr Watson was wounded in the battle.

The Franco-Prussian War

In the 1860s, the Chancellor of Prussia and master diplomat Otto Von Bismarck provoked short wars with Austria and Denmark in order bind the lesser northern German states to Prussia instead of its rival Austria as the leader of the German people. In July 1870, he engineered a deliberate insult to France, knowing that the proud French would declare war. This war would force the remaining southern German states, such as Bavaria, Hesse, Baden, and Wuertemburg, to honor their treaty obligations and go to war against France under Prussian leadership. A successful conclusion of the war would be the perfect opportunity to unite the German states into an empire under the Prussian King Wilhelm I. On 20 July 1870, Napoleon III, Emperor of France declared War on Prussia, and the German states dutifully declared war on France in turn, just as Bismarck expected.

Bismarck made sure the deck was stacked against the French from the very beginning. Not only did the Germans raise twice as many troops, but they also did it twice as fast due to the efficiency, organization, and planning of Helmuth Von Moltke’s (the Elder) superior General Staff. Von Moltke expanded the concept of mission tactics that placed great faith in junior leaders accomplishing their missions without the pain of micromanagement, and German units consistently out fought and out maneuvered larger French formations. The French relied on a 60 year old Napoleonic reputation for fighting prowess, so inevitably they were outclassed in almost all respects. Over the next seven months the Germans kicked the shit out of the French. They trapped most of the French army in Metz in September, captured Emperor Napoleon III at Sedan in October, and occupied Paris in January. In the jubilation of victory, Bismarck wasted no time and convinced the separate German states to willingly unite with Prussia. King Wilhelm I of Prussia was crowned Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany in the Versailles Palace on 18 January 1871.

The German Empire, or Second Reich (Charlemagne’s was the First Reich) completely upset the balance of power in Europe that had generally kept the peace since Napoleon’s fall in 1815. This led directly to the First World War. (Which of course would lead directly to Hitler’s Third Reich and the Second World War.)

The Siege of the International Legations

In early 1900, the Chinese Boxer Movement, an indigenous, anti-Christian, anti-foreign, semi-mystical peasant crusade, erupted into open “rebellion” against Christians and missionaries, and the Victorian era Great Powers that were slowly carving up China. 3500 Chinese Christians and foreigners sought refuge in the International Legations (embassy) Quarter outside the Chinese Imperial City in Peking (Beijing).

In late May 1900, 450 soldiers, sailors, and marines of eight countries: the US, Great Britain (Including Indians), Germany, France, Austria, Russia, Italy, and Japan disembarked from the ships off the coast of Tiensten and secured the Legation Quarter. They arrived just before 40,000 Boxers including Imperial Chinese troops after the Qing Empress gave her blessing. Most of the foreign civilians took refuge in the British Legation because it was the most defensible and British Minister Claude MacDonald took charge of the defense of the entire Quarter. 150 civilians volunteered to fight. The Austrians and Italians abandoned their exposed embassies, and withdrew inside, the Austrians with the French and Italians to the Japanese embassy. The small force, with considerable Help from the Chinese Christians, constructed barricades and had protection on two sides by the large walls of the Imperial city. However, they were low on ammunition. Only the contingent of US Marines was sufficiently equipped. Furthermore, they had only three machine guns and two small artillery pieces, one of which, “Betsy”, the Americans constructed from various Chinese pieces they found and patched together.

On 20 June, 1900, the Boxers attacked, mostly armed with spears, swords and the belief that they couldn’t be harmed by bullets. The international defenders continually fought them off, but after ten days of constant hand to hand combat, casualties became a serious issue. On 3 July, the Boxers pushed the Germans off the Tartar Wall, and American Marines fell back with them to organize a counter attack. Pvt Dan Daly volunteered to hold a critical chokepoint at the top of the stairs on the wall to buy time. He fought all night as Minister MacDonald and Marine Captain John Twiggs Meyers organized a counterattack. The next morning they found Pvt Daly calmly smoking a cigarette at his post — his machine gun and rifle out of ammunition, and 200 dead Chinese to his front, including 18 by bayonet. For remaining at his post, Pvt Dan Daly was awarded the first of his two Medals of Honor.

The siege came to a crescendo on 13 July 1900, when the Boxers exploded a mine underneath the French Legation and promptly over ran it. They were only stopped from breaking inside the defense by furious counterattacks by the remaining French and Austrian soldiers, and civilian volunteers. Simultaneously, the Boxers broke through the Fu, held by the Japanese led by the indomitable LtCol Goro Shiba, and only determined counterattacks by the Japanese and British soldiers and civilians (including a group known as “The Fighting Parsons”) prevented the massacre of the Chinese Christians there. Nonetheless, they lost their positions and still had to fall back. Minister MacDonald wrote that 13 July was, “a most harassing day…”

The 13 July attacks were the last chance for the Empress and the Boxers to overrun to Legations Quarter. Though the defenders didn’t know it, a 20,000 strong relief force had landed at Tientsin, and captured the city that day. The full might of the Imperial army and the Boxers were forced to move against the relief column for the rest of the siege. The attacks on the legations slowed considerably as the Boxers concentrated on destroying the relief force. The Boxers were defeated at the Battle of Peking on 20 August and the 55 day siege ended the next day.

The Gurkhas Enter British Service

In 1814, the British East Company invaded the aggressive Gorkha Kingdom of Nepal in order to prevent them from distracting the Company from their expansion into the Kingdom of Marathas. During the hard fought Anglo-Nepalese War, the British recognized that their best irregular troops were the wielders of the distinctive inwardly curved knife, the khukuri, whom were actually deserters from the Gorkha Army.

Impressed by their loyalty, courage, stoicism, resilience, and military efficacy, the British formed the Gorkhas into the First Nusseree Battalion on 24 April 1815. By the end of the war (which was fought to stalemate) there was an entire regiment of Gorkhas and an agreement with the Kingdom of Nepal to continue recruitment in the future. Living up their motto “Kayar Hunu Bhanda Marnu Ramro” (Better to die than live like a coward), the Gorkhas quickly formed the backbone of the East India Company’s, and eventually Great Britain’s, Indian Army.

For the next two hundred years, the Gurkhas served faithfully in every conflict involving the Indian or British Army. They were one of the few indigenous units to remain loyal during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. 200,000 served in the First World War, including in the trenches on the Western Front and in the landing at Gallipoli in 1915. At the height of the Second World War, the Gurkhas contributed 250,000 men from their home villages in the Himalayan foothills, which were neither a part of the British Empire nor a protectorate of Great Britain. In 1947, the Gurkha regiments were split between the newly independent Indian Army and the British Army.

Currently 3500 Gurkhas serve in the British Army in the Brigade of Gurkhas. Tens of thousands of young Gurkha men apply during recruitment events in Nepal for the few hundred training slots. They also serve in the armies of India, Brunei and Singapore.

One of my favorite Gurkha stories. From the Second Battle of Monte Cassino:

On the night of 12 February 1944, one of the Gurkha battalions sent out a reconnaissance patrol to identify German positions around the town of Cassino. The small patrol came across six German infantrymen in a house: two awake and alert, and four asleep. The Gurkhas snuck up on the German sentries and slit their throats without waking the others. They then decapitated two of the sleeping soldiers and let the others to slumber so they can find their comrades in the morning.

A friend of mine said of the Gurkhas he worked with in Afghanistan, “They react to contact (with the Taliban) the way my kids react to Christmas morning.”

Jaya Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali! (Glory to the Great Kali! Gorkhas Approach!) –Gurkha war cry, then and now.

The Man in the Arena

After spending a year hunting in Africa, Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit toured Europe in 1910. On 23 April, they arrived in Paris and the former president was asked to speak to a crowd of about two thousand at the University of Sorbonne. He spoke on history, family, war, human rights, property rights, cynics, and most prominently, the responsibilities of being a citizen. The speech was officially titled “Citizenship in a Republic” but is now more commonly known as “The Man in the Arena” speech because of this passage,

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Other great passages:

“Self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution—these are the qualities which mark a masterful people.”

“Indeed, it is a sign of marked political weakness in any commonwealth if the people tend to be carried away by mere oratory, if they tend to value words in and for themselves, as divorced from the deeds for which they are supposed to stand.”

“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not of superiority but of weakness.”

“But with you and with us the case is different. With you here, and with us in my own home, in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional crises which call for the heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average can not be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”

“Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into a fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of the great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and the valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who “but for the vile guns would have been a soldier.”

The Battle of Abu Klea

In 1881, the Sudan was a protectorate of Egypt, which was an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire. Citing oppression by “their Turkish overlords”, the Muslim imam Mohammad Ahmad declared himself the “Mahdi” or “Guided One” (The Mahdi is the Islamic term for the messianic herald or redeemer. In Christian terms, he would be John the Baptist. Today, Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq considers himself the Mahdi) and declares Jihad against the Egyptian-Turkish administration of the country. Ahmad’s Mahdism, was a very strict, literal, and fanatical version of Islam that had fallen out of favor in Islamic lands since the height of the Ottoman Empire and the failure to capture Vienna two hundred years before.

As the Mahdists grew in strength, they defeated every army sent by the Egyptians to put down the revolt. With no support from Istanbul, the Egyptians increasingly fell under British influence. Exasperated, the Egyptians decided to let the Mahdists have the Sudan and asked for British assistance extracting their garrisons. The British government sent the popular, competent and aggressive General Charles “Chinese” Gordan (he made a name for himself in the Opium Wars in China). Gordan captured Khartoum in March 1884, but he recognized the danger of Ahmad’s radical version of Islam and determined to force the Mahdists to battle.

Ahmad immediately surrounded Gordan’s 8000 British and Egyptian troops, and besieged Khartoum. Gordan planned to use the relief column as the hammer to his anvil to destroy the Mahdists. However, the British government refused for six months to send a relief column and only did so at Queen Victoria’s insistence. In January of 1885, Sir Herbert Stewart’s Desert Column of mostly camel bound troops, entered the Sudan.

The Mahdi sent his own column to intercept and on 16 January 1885 they met at the oasis at Abu Klea. Stewart’s 1400 soldiers, eight cannon and one machine gun formed a square, and the Ahmad’s 13,000 warriors attacked. With the development of the rifle and horse artillery, most Western armies had abandoned the square formation, but Britain continued to use it because of its effectiveness against indigenous armies. (Six years before, the Zulus, easily the best indigenous army in Africa, accomplished the rare feat of breaking a British square at Isandlwana, but they had 4000 killed in the process, and did so only after the British ran out of ammunition.)

The “dervishes” as the British mistakenly called them, couldn’t withstand the massed firepower of the square, even after the machine gun jammed due to sand. The Mahdists took over a thousand killed and wounded, and the Battle of Abu Klea was over in fifteen minutes. Stewart had less than 200 casualties.

Unfortunately, Stewart was too late to relieve Khartoum. On 25 January, the Mahdists stormed the city, and Gordan’s troops, weakened by disease and starvation were overrun. Gordan and all 8000 of his British and Egyptian soldiers were massacred, along with 4000 residents of the city. Many thousands more were sold into slavery. Stewart’s Desert Column arrived just two days later on 27 January, and seeing that the city fell, quickly returned to Egypt.

Ahmad ruled Sudan as a fundamentalist Islamic state for the next 13 years. Although the Mahdists only ruled Sudan for a short time, it proved an incubator for radical Islam, particularly the aggressive and expansionist Wahhabist sect. The Mahdists would provide inspiration to a young Wahhabi, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1902.

Napier and Sati

In 1850, General Charles Napier was the British Commander in Chief of India. On 17 February 1850, Napier met with several influential Hindu priests who complained about the British prohibition of Sati, or the Hindu tradition of burning a widow alive on the pyre of the dead husband. The Hindu priests said the custom was an integral part of their culture.

Napier replied, “Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

The practice of Sati all but disappeared on the Indian subcontinent.

The Battle of Balaclava

In the early part of the Victorian Age, and about six years before the American Civil War, Great Britain and France fought the Crimean War against Russia. In October of 1854, they were besieging the Crimean city of Sebastopol. On the 25th, the Russians reinforcements arrived and attacked the Allies’ main port of supply, Balaclava. Although the battle lasted until sundown, it didn’t affect the outcome of the Crimean War in any way. The Battle of Balaclava is mostly remembered for three separate engagements.

In the South Valley, Russian Prince Ryhozv’s cavalry advanced in two columns. The first column, 3000 strong, came over the Great Causeway and surprised the British. The nearest British unit was General James Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade of cavalry. The 900 troopers of the Heavy Brigade charged the Russian column, and in four minutes routed them thoroughly. The Charge of the Heavy Brigade was an outstanding success.

Ryhozv’s other cavalry column, a thousand strong, came upon the 93rd Regiment of Highlanders. With only the Black Sea and the supply depot behind them, the Highlanders could not retreat. The 93rd, with their red jackets, green kilts and tall bearskin hats, formed up only two deep to extend their line so they could not outflanked. The “Thin Red Line Tipped in Steel” held strong and defeated the Russian charges. The newspapers back in Britain eventually shortened it to “The Thin Red Line” for consumption back home.

Finally in the North Valley, the commander of the British, Lord Raglan, ordered the Light Brigade to secure some guns about to be overrun by the Russians. When the Light Brigade’s commander, Lord Cardigan (he invented the cardigan sweater: it was cold in the Crimea) received the order, he couldn’t see the guns that he needed to secure. But he did see Russian cannon a mile away at the other end of the valley. He mistakenly thought that was what he needed to secure. He was about to question the order but decided not to: no one was going to call him a coward. So

“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”

First at a walk, then a trot, then a gallop, and finally at a charge, the Light Brigade, with Lord Cardigan in the van, attacked down the valley with Russian cannon firing at them from three sides. The rest of the Allied army watched in horror. Against all odds, they seized and spiked the Russian guns, routed the defenders, and fought off several Russian counterattacks before Cardigan ordered a retreat once it was clear no one was coming in support. 2/3rds of the Light Brigade was killed or wounded, and Lord Cardigan, a martinet of such stature that only Victorian High Society could produce, rode straight from the charge back to his private luxury yacht, so he wasn’t late for his champagne dinner.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was the subject of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem of the same name and became the embodiment of foolhardy courage for no reason.

A French officer who witnessed the charge, Gen Pierre Bosquet, said “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie.”

“It is magnificent, but it is not war: it is madness”.

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.