The Durnford Blame Game

The area of Durnford’s last stand.

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  The Zulu Kingdom 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, (played by Burt Lancaster in the film Zulu Dawn) 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 Frere 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. 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 which Chelmsford formed to invade The Zulu Kingdom.

Once the invasion force was assembled and Chelmsford crossed into The Zulu Kingdom, things went badly for the ambitious Durnford. The first blow to his pride was that 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 in the morning of 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, join Glyn and support the main battle which was at that point was expected to take place some 10 miles south. Or the mention of Glyn 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, in order 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 for 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 and want to split the force and spread it more widely. 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 off 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 ammunition 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 general 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 the correct ammunition type to fit his soldier’s particular 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.