Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Zulu War and Dilhorne

This year sees the 50th anniversary of the opening of the film “Zulu” which describes the heroic defence of a mission station at Rorke’s Drift in Natal province by the 24th Foot in January 1879 during the Zulu War. Only 150 British soldiers defended the outpost against 4,000 Zulus who only the day previously had wiped out 1300 soldiers at Isandlwana inflicting on the British Army one of its worst defeats against a native people. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift led to 11 VCs being given to soldiers who took part in the defence, the highest number given to a single action. Only 15 British were killed during the all day engagement and around 500 Zulus, many of the wounded were shot out of hand and some thrown alive into mass graves. It was not as an upright affair as I had been led to believe.

The film released in 1964 starred Michael Caine and Stanley Baker as the British commanders Bromhead and Chard. It is a cinematic tale of courage and honour between two great warrior nations. I was 9 when I saw it at the very new ABC Cinema in Hanley and it was a very popular with queues around the cinema. The scenery, the music, the spectacle and the action all impressed themselves on me.  It has been seen many times on television and still has the power to impress, even more so if you are a boy interested in history. However it does contain major inaccuracies. The 24th Foot were a Warwickshire Regiment comprising of Brummies and men from surrounding counties. There was no singing of “Men of Harlech”. There was no battlefield singing contest between the British and the Zulus and the Africans did not sing a song a departing song saluting their opponents... Some of the personal stories are wrong also. Private Hook portrayed as a drunken malingerer was a model soldier who was teetotal. His elderly daughters walked out of the film’s London premiere.

Interest in the Zulu war after seeing the film half a century ago all inspired Lev Wood of the Blythe Bridge History Society who has made a long study of the conflict and has uncovered a local connection Ernest Buller of the Rifle Brigade of Dilhorne Hall who served as ADC to Lord Chelmsford the commanding officer who was responsible for the disaster at Isandlwala. Lev maintains that poor communication and a fatal misreading of the movement of the Zulu forces prior to the battle doomed the troops. Lord Chelmsford sought to put the blame of the lack of preparation of the defences on the senior officers at Isandlwala, all of whom had been killed in the engagement while exonerating his own staff.  Buller was present at the Battle of Ulindi when overwhelming British military force finally crushed the Zulus. He became a Lieutenant Colonel of the Rifle Brigade before being accidentally killed in a railway accident at Woolwich. Lev hinted darkly the day after the last Jack the Ripper murder.