John Chard VC observations and the importance of his papers. For more do follow @nohillsidefilm

Where the Zulu Army was hiding am 22 January; SJS visit 2015.

On 22 January 1879 at Rorke’s Drift, Lieutenant John Chard cast aside his technical duties as a Royal Engineer and took command of close quarter combat for the first time in his life. In doing so he won the VC, tea with Queen Victoria and was lionised by the British press when he returned to UK. In January 1880, a year after the battle he expanded on an earlier draft and wrote an account of the battle at Rorke’s Drift at the request of Queen Victoria. His account forms a significant part of the historical evidence of what happened. Bandoola Productions is making a documentary about the whole Anglo-Zulu War called No Hillside without a Grave. For more anecdotes and analysis do follow

Lots of reports from victorious survivors are easier to piece together than very few from the defeated. Thus, the history of the defence of Rorke’s Drift is well understood but the complete destruction of the British camp at Isandlwana is not. History is further clouded by a cover up orchestrated by the Army Commander, Lord Chelmsford and his staff, who sought to avoid blame for their various errors. It is hardly central to their cover up but a particular mystery, is what exactly the Zulu Army was doing on the Nyoni Ridge north of the British camp at Isandlwana on the day they attacked the camp, 22 January 1879. Chard was one of the few eye witnesses who can tell us what the British in the camp thought they were seeing. This makes the sale of his papers at Bonham’s on 17 December significant and not just because of his account of events at Rorke’s Drift.

The Events of January 1879

Rorke’s Drift was a crossing over the Buffalo River used by one of the British Army columns which invaded Zululand on 10 January 1879. This central column’s first action was to ‘storm the stronghold’ of Zulu Chief Shiyaho opposite Rorke’s Drift. This was hyperbole on both counts as it had been neither stormed and nor was it a stronghold but it was a skirmish within earshot of Rorke’s Drift. The easy victory greatly encouraged the over confident commander, Lord Chelmsford. There was so much baggage in the column that it took a further ten days for the British force to establish its first camp near Isandlwana just ten miles further on. Late on the 21st January it was thought the main Zulu Army had been discovered further south. This proved to be wrong but the command focus was not just forward of Rorke’s Drift, but forward of the follow up camp at Isandlwana. Thus, by the January 21st Rorkes Drift was very much a rear area post. However, perhaps surprisingly, Major Spalding of the 24th Infantry, the company commander at Rorke’s Drift, decided to go back to Helpmaakar, still further to the rear, to seek out promised reinforcements. The absence of Major Spalding left Lt John Chard a Royal Engineer in command at Rorke’s Drift and this was, according to Chard, clarified by Major Spalding before he left for Helpmakaar.

Meanwhile, as well as chasing the elusive Zulu Army, Lord Chelmsford, had also called up various units to the main camp at Isandlwana. This included Colonel Durnford late RE, now employed as a local militia commander, and also Lt John Chard and his detachment of Royal Engineers. However, it was not clear to Chard whether this meant he should move foward to Isandlwana from Rorke’s Drift with his detachment, or on his own. Thus, at dawn on the fateful day of 22nd January 1879 he rode to Isandlwana to clarify his orders. On arrival there he could not find the officer left in command of the camp, Lieutenant Colonel Pulleine but he did borrow a telescope and observed:

..”.[I] could see the [Zulu] enemy moving on the distant hills, and apparently in great force. Large numbers of them moving to my left, until the lion hill of Isandhlwana, on my left as I looked at them, hid them from my view.”

Most observations from that morning were made by people who then died so their reports are either hearsay or were or later found in notebooks, whereas Chard survived to relate what he saw. The battle picture at that point was very unclear. Those in the camp thought the main Zulu Army was to the south either pursuing or being pursued by Lord Chelmsford with half the available British force. In fact the Zulu Army was hiding undiscovered to the east of the camp (see image above). The debate is whether the Zulu Army had by this time, 9 am on 22 January, already deployed its northern (right horn) to cut off the Isandlwana camp for an attack either that day or the next. In which case Zulu commanders might have already decided to encircle and destroy the camp as contended by some historians. If so then perhaps ‘the apparently great force’ Chard reported may have been the Zulu right horn confirming this theory. Others, contend the Zulu Army was still in its holding area 7 miles away in Ngwheni Valley from which it raced to destroy the camp at Isandlwana, but only did so when discovered at about 11 am. In this case Chard might have seen strong Zulu command and recce parties on the Nyoni ridge which are agreed by Zulu sources to have looked at the camp at about that time. Battlefield guide and consultant to No Hillside without a Grave, Paul Garner highlights the word “apparently” in Chard’s report. It suggests that despite the use of the telescope he did not confirm the size of the force himself but perhaps assumed it from conversation with others; or perhaps deduced its size from the bits he could see. The Zulus were very capable of making a small force look like a large one if that is what they intended. There was plenty of alarm in the camp at that time. Indeed at 8.05am Pulleine, who Chard did not meet, had sent a note south to Lord Chelmsford advising him of the threat to the camp.

The exact intentions of the Zulu to the north of the camp seems to have mattered to guardians of Lord Chelmsford’s tattered reputation. If what Chard saw was the Zulu right horn pre-deploying, then the Zulus had carefully planned the destruction of the camp and thoroughly duped a commanding British general with this and other skilful battlefield deceptions. On the other hand if the Zulus only attacked when discovered, Lord Chelsmford lost an encounter battle. In terms of the impact on Lord Chelmsford’s reputation the difference may be slight, given the salient fact that a Zulu Army of 20,000 which was being searched for, hid itself and should have been discovered. (There is a slightly separate debate about whether the Zulus intended the attack on the 22nd or 23rd.)

Another problem with Lt Chard’s observation is evident from my visit to the battlefield and is usefully demonstrated using Google Earth Pro Viewshed feature which shows what you can see from where (dead ground in the military parlance). No matter exactly where Chard was located when he used the telescope he could not have seen into the high ground above the camp. The Nyoni ridge is immediately above the camp to the north and it creates a few kilometers of terrain to its north that is invisible to anyone in the camp. On 22 Jan 1879 there were British look outs on the Nyoni Ridge above the camp. Thus, it is hard to see where Chard would have seen an ‘apparently great force’ of Zulus where they would not have been seen by many others. Nor is it clear why the Zulus, who were very skilled at hiding their troop movements, would have allowed their right horn deployment to be seen. Some argue they showed themselves to intimidate the camp as a precursor to planned negotiations. This is not an unreasonable theory but I cannot see how the ground allowed it. See Map 1 below for more detail.

Fearful this Zulu movement might cut him off from Rorkes’ Drift, Lt Chard then returned to his ferry some 1/2 mile from the Rorke’s Drift store area. There he had lunch and wrote a letter (sadly not in the sale) and after being warned the Zulus were coming to Rorke’s Drift he moved to take command of the store area where the battle took place. He did so barely 30 mins before the Zulus arrived but made a number of helpful suggestions including building the inner parapet. We should mention the little acknowledged commissary officer Dalton who before Chard arrived had stiffened resolve at Rorke’s Drift and emphasised that only standing and fighting would allow survival. It is further to the credit of all who stood firm at Rorke’s Drift that there was a stream of survivors from Isandlwana who encouraged the defenders at Rorke’s Drift to join their retreat, but of course they did not. The narrative of Rorke’s Drift is well known and Lt Chard more than did his duty alongside men of the 24th and as a result rightly became a romantic and heroic Victorian figure.

The nub of the puzzle is whether Chard’s account to the Queen, delivered nearly a year later, was entirely his own work or whether he was coached on what to say. Chard had produced a shorter version just two days after the battle. It seems a transcript of this later report is in the sale on 17 Dec but by then Chard’s narrative was confined by the fact of his earlier report written a few days after the battle. It seems quite likely Chard was supplied with the means (paper and pen) and inclination to write this report by the staff of Lord Chelmsford. They were very concerned with how the events were reported so it is logical they would have tried to influence the content as well. There was certainly a cover up being constructed on behalf of Lord Chelmsford including falsehoods such as claims Durnford had been told to take command of the camp. Thus, Chard’s papers are not only an eye witness account of events at Rorke’s Drift but maybe the key to one of the puzzles at Isandlwana.

Annex A: Notes on what Lt Chard could see.

Map 1 – Detail of Viewshed View of what Chard could see at 0900.


The image shows Google Earth Pros analysis of what Chard could see (in green) from his position. It is not totally accurate but it is a useful analysis tool.

On this assumption Chard is placed on the east of Isandlwana mountain (by the w of Isandlwana in this image) in the camp looking for Pulleine. We do not know exactly where he was but this analysis is based on his mostly likely position. If we move him up the East side of the Isandlwana hill he can see more to his north but not enough to solve the problem we are highlighting.

Clearly, the Zulu movment could not have been south of the Nyoni Ridge. It must have been north of it, but that puts it in ground Chard could not have seen. Most likely he saw glimpses of movement which he then wrote about with more certainty than can have been the case.

It is possible that Chard saw glimpses of movement far away on Nqutu hills but that is hard to reconcile with the force disappearing behind Isandlwana hill which is much closer.

Many claim to know the answer. I do not but it is a fascinating puzzle.

The Durnford Blame Game

On 22 January 1879 at Isandlwana about 20,000 Zulus armed with stabbing spears and some old rifles killed 1300 British soldiers armed with the most modern weapons of the time. The military campaign to invade Zululand went temporarily into reverse and Victorian Britain’s confidence was shaken. Power is partly about perception and the fear in London was that defeats like Isandlwana would encourage others and lead to costly efforts to secure the empire.

Colonel Anthony Durnford Royal Engineers, quickly emerged as a promising scapegoat for the defeat. He had an indifferent reputation as a fighting soldier, had acted unwisely on the day of the battle, had no powerful advocates in Natal, but most of all he was dead and unable to challenge the survivors’ narrative. The main accusation was that he had disobeyed a written order to take command of the Isandlwana camp at the point of crisis. This narrative of disobedience was adopted by those around Lord Chelmsford, the force commander, and was used by Sir Bartle Freer to explain the disaster to London. Durnford was also accused of withdrawing in the heat of the battle from the hastily prepared defence perimeter, which was true, and thereby causing the collapse of the camp defences, which was not. Overall, the case against Durnford was mixed and some was fabricated. It is not disputed that Durnford died bravely fighting Zulu warriors to the last.

So what is the truth.

Durnford was a Royal Engineer officer with a moderate record of service. In 1879 his engineering days were well behind him and in its place he had a reputation for efficiently recruiting, training and commanding local militias.

He was not liked in Natal after a military hiatus at Bushman’s Pass a few years earlier when he was in command. Durnford blamed the hiatus on the cowardice of the local Natal Carabineers, a smart regiment containing the sons of influential Natal families. They in turn blamed Durnford for being incompetent and indecisive. The fact an inquiry absolved Durnford probably made him even more unpopular. More broadly Durnford saw himself as a buccaneering, fighting, colonial officer, but he was largely unproven in this regard. For all these reasons on 22 January at Isandlwana he was a man with much to prove and being near retirement, not long to prove it.

Durnford was a natural choice when Lord Chelmsford needed to raise and train a local militia to supplement his invasion force for Zululand. Durnford did this well and the local black soldiers trained hard and appeared happy to be led by him, although their white officers, mostly sons of farmers, were more circumspect. Lord Chelsmford’s staff were sceptical of local militias and saw them as useful in only a limited number of situations which did not include large scale battles of annihilation, as Isandlwana proved to be. Durnford was keen prove otherwise.

Durnford was an acknowledged expert on Zulus and how they fought. He was therefore delighted when he was awarded a brigade level command of one the five columns that Chelmsford formed to invade Zululand.

Once the invasion force was assembled and Chelmsford crossed into Zululand, things went badly for the ambitious Durnford. The first blow to his pride was elements of his force were detached to reinforce other columns. He was then told, with a few caveats, to remain where he was in defence of Natal which meant he was unlikely to see the action he so craved. The last straw was he was told to detach further units from his command which was an order he resisted. Chelmsford was infuriated by his disobedience and threatened to have him removed from command. None of this was material to events at Isandlwana on the 22nd January but in the minds of his accusers it established a pattern of disobedient behaviour. It also gave Durnford even more to prove.

Finally early on 22 Jan Durnford, by then at Rorke’s Drift with the remains of his column was ordered to join the main column at Isandlwana camp.

The orders read.

You are to march to this [Islandlwana]camp with all the force you have with you of No 2 Column. …………..

2/24th, Artillery, and mounted men with Colonel Glyn move off at once to attack a Zulu force about 10 miles distant.

There was nothing about the command of the camp at Isandlwana

The sloppily drafted orders to Durnford were to come to the camp, no more. The additional information about the deployment by Glyn to the south to attack a Zulu force could be taken in different ways. It could imply that Durnford was to move to Isandlwana, in order to, move on to join Glyn and support the main battle which was at that point was expected to take place some 10 miles south. Or it could imply that Durnford was needed to assist in the defence of camp because Glyn had left it. Or the second paragraph could just be general information a staff officer would routinely include in such an order so that the recipient understood the situation.

Durnford chose to believe the order meant he was being called forward, via the camp, to join the main battle to the south. This is certainly what he personally wanted. Furthermore, his mounted troops were more suited to a mobile role as part of the main battle, than the static defence of a camp. If his move had been to facilitate the defence of the camp, Durnford would have reasoned the orders would have made clear his independent command was at an end and he was taking command of the camp from its present commander Lt Col Pulleine, who he out ranked. Since, the orders were silent on this point, it is reasonable Durnford would assume the camp was simply a transit point pending the arrival of more instructions for the main battle elsewhere.

The ambiguous orders to Durnford and Pulleine were the very heart of the matter. They were created in the middle of night by Lord Chelmsford and two staff officers, Lt Col Crealock and Major Clery. Chelmsford had been woken by Clery to be told there was a major Zulu force a few miles to the south of Isandlwana. Chelmsford incorrectly believed he had finally found the Zulu Army which he feared was trying to avoid battle. He therefore gave orders that: Col Glyn and much of the combat power at Isandlwana was to head south for the main fight; the remainder was to remain to guard the camp; and that Durnford was to be summoned to join their column at Isandlwana. Clery got these verbal instructions and went off to tell the officers concerned in person but Pulleine who would remain and command the camp was further away so he wrote a note that started “You will be in command of the camp”. No mention of Durnford. He also instructed Pulleine to pull in the defences and be ready to send ammunition south to support Glyn in what everyone hoped would be the decisive battle of the whole war. Pulleine did little about pulling in the defences.

Crealock, Chelmsford’s personal staff officer, quite properly took the task of telling Durnford away from Clery and wrote the order himself. Glyn, the column commander who might have intervened to resolve the issue of the command of the camp was not present. Thus, the orders went to Pulleine and Durnford via two different people, Crealock and Clery. It did not help that these two staff officers hated each other and so there was no clarifying conversation in the margins about the command of camp. Crealock later claimed to the Board of Inquiry that he ordered Durnford in writing to take command of the camp but this was latter shown to be false. This claim lay at the heart of the effort to blame Durnford after the event. [1]

Another cause of the debacle was the lack of preparation of the camp for defence. Even if Durnford had been told to take command of the camp he could hardly be blamed to its layout. Many officers had remarked that it was too spread out. It was then not adjusted because Chelmsford had indicated there was no time. He had also meddled in the affairs of Glyn the column commander and in doing so undermined commander most likely to have adjusted the camp layout in the days preceding the Isandlwana debacle. Chelmsford’s interference led Glyn, a competent and experienced officer, to become a passive recipient of orders. In any event the camp was too spread out and had none of the standard defensive preparations.

Durnford arrived at the camp at about 1000 on 22 Jan four hours before the camp was over run. He met Lt Col Pulleine who acknowledged Durnford as the senior officer even though he resisted certain of Durnford’s suggestions on the grounds they were not consistent with the instructions recently given by Chelmsford. The full extent of the danger to the camp was at that point unclear. There were Zulus to the north which were being effectively engaged. There were Zulus to the south which were assumed to be threatening either the camp or the rear of Glyn’s column which had just marched south. Dunford had interpreted his orders as meaning he was to join the main battle to the south and he certainly wanted to do that.

But, Durnford was not only senior to Pulleine but he was also an acknowledged expert on the Zulus and their methods of war. The question of blame in the end hinges on how officers lead and command. On the one hand they follow orders but Durnford had no orders which specifically told him what to do at this point. On the other hand, especially in crisis, officers use their judgement and act in support of what commanders intend. Durnford, who was familiar with Zulu war methods was the person most likely to deduce the danger to the camp, but he did not.

During the crucial hour from 1000 to 1100 while Pulleine and Durnford discussed matters, Pulleine gave a detailed brief to Durnford on the observed Zulu deployments.

There then followed the first of Durnford’s failings. He acted as if the Zulus being reported were patrols that could be ‘cleared’ away. Some historians, (most notably Mike Snooks) argue the thousands of Zulus reported by Lt Chard were the Zulu right horn moving into position a day ahead of their chosen day for the battle on the 23rd. Our analysis suggests Lt Chard could not have seen what he claimed from where he was and indeed Zulu sources confirm the movement on the Nyoni ridge above the camp were indeed reconnaissance and command parties. No matter which explanation for the Zulus to the north of the ridge is true, Durnford was incurious about them. He did not ask the obvious question of why the Zulus were doing so much reconnaissance in considerable strength very near to the camp. The answer was they had a whole Army hidden a few miles away. Had Durnford taken a more inquisitive view of Zulu activity it might have led him to take command of the camp and stay. He did not because he was over eager to do his fighting further away under the eye of Lord Chelmsford and thereby restore his reputation.

What Durnford did next was unwise and one of a number of lost chances to save the camp. The threat to camp, fully understood or not, should have led to a concentration of forces on favourable ground near to ammunition. Instead Durnford proposed the opposite. He compounded the error by trying to take two infantry companies with him but Pulleine, or more accurately his adjutant Melville, resisted this and it did not happen.

In 1879, British Army’s doctrine if attacked by a strong force was still to form an infantry square defendable from all sides. Durnford’s wish to further scatter infantry companies which would make up those squares was certainly an error of judgement. It was also contrary to the doctrine of the time, whatever the uncertainties of the moment.

Durnford then got his mounted troops into battle with the Zulus doing what he had trained them to do. They fought an efficient fighting withdraw and ended up on a river bed (donga) holding of the Zulus in the south for as long as they had ammunition. Things might have been different if Durnford had sent officers back to get supply at the start of the engagement and not when it was too late, but he was not alone in that error. He was also reported to be clearing the jammed rifles of individual soldiers suggesting the one man who could have stood back and made sense of the chaos, did not.

Thus, what had started at 1130 as an effort to clear some Zulus from the eastern flank pending Durnford’s onward movement to join Chelsmford; became Durnford’s force holding the south eastern portion of the somewhat dispirit defensive ring. Unknown to Durnford, the northern part of the ring was holding well enough, at least initially. But crucially from the point of view of Durnford’s reputation, the defensive line in the north was later overwhelmed by Zulus coming from the north and north east and not via ground Durnford was, or had been, holding. In short, Durnford’s withdraw was part of the collapse of the defensive perimeter but did not cause it, as some later claimed.

Nevertheless, as Durnford ran out of ammunition he withdrew initially in good order but latterly less so. This collapse of the southern defended area allowed Zulu warriors into the rear area of the camp and this was one of a number of events in those few minutes that lead to the complete disaster.

The arrangement of bodies after the battle shows that Durnford made a last stand. He might have not created this rallying point but probably joined Quartermaster Pullen’s last stand. Durnford nobly encouraged others to escape but he stayed to fight even though he had a horse and therefore the means to save himself.

An Analysis.

A fair summary of the case for and against Durnford divides into those events before he left the camp, probably at about noon on the 22nd, and those after. Prior to his move he had made a number of very avoidable errors. Many of these sprung from an over eagerness to please Lord Chelsmford and to re-establish his own military reputation. Durnford, missed a number of chances to read the situation and take actions which would have changed the course of events.

However, from the point Durnford left camp he is hard to fault. His largely untested troops fought as he had trained them to. He had to withdraw due to lack of ammunition to fit his soldier’s particualar carbine, and did so in good order. He fought bravely with them and to the end.

The Cover up.

It was after the battle that events took a disgraceful turn. Others, most notably Clery, Crealock, Offy Shepstone and even Lord Chelmsford ladled blame onto Durnford that should have been more evenly spread. In some cases, they made things up which were later shown to be untrue. Foremost among these fabrications was that Durnford was given written orders to defend the camp. The scape-goating of Durnford offended his family, the Colensos, Bishop of Natal and friends of Durnford, and to some extent the Royal Engineers. They each then conducted a decades long, even centuries long, campaign to clear his name.

Lt Gen Mark Mans, the current chief Royal Engineer is rightly careful with his words… He said “Durnford died bravely at the head of his men”. This is entirely true but he wisely avoids a judgement of his questionable actions which led to his heroic death. Durnford is certainly due a share of the blame for Isandlwana but the nearly all the root causes lay in mistakes made by Lord Chelmsford.

[1] Snook p 87 to 91

[2] Snook pg155

[3] Snook 156.