Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Ian Knight
Price (RRP): £18.99
The burden of the past, the ‘stain of yesterday’s blood’, is a key theme in Ian Knight’s fine study of the Zulu War of 1879.
In seeking to be fair to both sides, the author leaves us an account that paradoxically has few heroes in the conventional 19th-century sense. Nevertheless, it has many heroes in terms of those who did their duty and fulfilled their sense of identity.
Knight is mindful of the complexities on both sides, not least of the reasons why Africans fought for the British crown against the rival imperialism of the Zulus. There is no attempt to romanticise death. For Isandlwana, once the British ammunition was gone, we are presented with an account of killing at close quarters with sharp weapons that skewered bodies, tore jagged flesh, pierced or caved in skulls – close enough to see the expression in a man’s eyes as he was struck down and to be sprayed by his blood.
One Zulu recalled: “I attacked a soldier whose bayonet pierced my shield and while he was trying to extract it I stabbed him in the shoulder. He dropped his rifle and seized me round the neck and threw me on the ground under him, my eyes felt as if they were bursting and I almost choked when I succeeded in grasping the spear which was still sticking in his shoulder and forced it into his vitals and he rolled over lifeless.”
The 20,000-strong Zulu force had defeated a British force of 1,800, of whom only 581 were regulars. Their British opponents had only two seven-pounder guns and their camp was not entrenched.
The Zulus enveloped the British flanks and benefited from their opponents running out of ammunition, but, thanks to the British Martini-Henry rifles, Zulu casualties were very high. The Zulus, who did not want to use rifles, referred to the British as cowards because they would not fight hand to hand.
Defeat encouraged the British to be remorseless when it was their turn to win. At Gingindlovu, Khambula and Ulundi later in the year, heavy defensive infantry fire from prepared positions, supported by artillery, stopped Zulu attacks before the Zulus could reach the British lines, and British cavalry then inflicted heavy losses as the Zulus retreated.
The British pursued total war, killing wounded warriors, and, while the British did not slaughter civilians, they burned the Zulu kraals (homesteads), thus removing shelter for the young and the old, many of whom perished. The British also deliberately killed Zulu cattle, the key to the economy, forcing thousands of people into starvation.
Knight’s ability to capture the reality of the fighting and his combination of precise detail with the bigger picture helps make this book a gripping read.
Jeremy Black is the author of War: A Short History (Continuum, 2009)