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Spear of destiny; Drift into war; TRAVEL.

Byline: edited by NIGEL THOMPSON

On January 22 and 23, 1879, sweltering summer days in Natal, South Africa - brave men, biscuits and corn on the cob made history.

For the 150 or so troops making up the army garrison at Rorke's Drift mission station and hospital, January 22 had begun unremarkably.

Then news came through that the main column of the army that was invading neighbouring Zululand had been annihilated at nearby Isandlwana (more of that later) and part of an 'impi' (a Zulu army or division) of 4-5,000 warriors was crossing the Buffalo river and coming their way - they were extremely capable, fearless soldiers who did not take prisoners.

On the face of it, the odds were terrible - almost as bad as the chance of getting served at a Wetherspoon's bar on a Saturday night.

I was at Rorke's Drift - a drift is a local word for a ford - on what was certainly not a sweltering summer's day.

My tour group shivered under umbrellas as our enthusiastic guide Doug enthralled us with the story of the battle which would be immortalised on celluloid as the epic 1964 film Zulu, and which launched the career of Michael Caine. A lot of people know that.

Doug explained how the officers in charge at Rorke's Drift, Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead, organised the defences with brilliant improvisation as they constructed walls made from bags of 'mealie' (ground corn on the cob) and boxes of Army 'Biscuits, Brown' which were famously rock hard, nearinedible and practically bullet proof.

It also helped that the troops - mostly seasoned regulars from the 2nd Warwickshire regiment, although based in Brecon and later renamed the South Wales Borderers - were armed with the Martini-Henry rifle. This was the best weapon of its day, offering range, accuracy and a rate of fire far superior to the few old rifles carried by the Zulus.

The Warwickshires really had no choice but to stay and fight in this makeshift fort. In the open, with wagons full of hospital patients, they would be overwhelmed.

If you've seen the film, you'll know it's stirring stuff, though Doug pointed out it's historically not very accurate. Apart from the fact it was filmed many miles from Rorke's Drift, it contains such errors as portraying Private Henry Hook VC as a drunken malingerer.

In fact, he was a teetotal lay preacher who volunteered for a particularly dangerous task in the hospital during the battle.

He saved the lives of many comrades in circumstances you can barely comprehend, as Doug explained how he fought off Zulus at bayonet point so men could be moved to relative safety. You don't get a VC for being a malingerer.

It's a fascinating tour - there's a modest museum to look round too - and as Doug brought the savage fighting to life I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the horror faced by both sides as they fought, often with bayonet and spear hand-to-hand, with the night only illuminated by the burning hospital.

The personalities came to life, too, with Doug telling how 24-year-old Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne - he would end up a colonel - ordered the men to "mark your target, mark your target... don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes''.

To give an idea of intensity of the fighting, the British started the battle with 27,000 bullets and ended with just 660. Only 17 redcoats were killed and 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded. Perhaps a thousand Zulus died before they decided at dawn on January 23 - exactly 137 years ago today - that the losses were too high.

My tour was from the Fugitives' Drift Lodge close by. It's a splendid place to stay, with attentive but never overbearing service, perched on a crest overlooking the Buffalo river and the crest of the 4,213ft hill of Isandlwana itself, which was also on my bucket list-ticking itinerary.

You start But not until I'd enjoyed a splendid dinner in the lodge's atmospheric dining room - with its many souvenirs relating to the battlefields - and a good night's sleep in my well-appointed room, which overlooked the river.

Up early, assisted by a steaming pot of tea delivered to my room, our tour group set off to Isandlwana with the incredibly knowledgeable guide Alastair.

Again, we were heading back to the days of the Great White Queen, as Victoria was known hereabouts in late January 1879.

The background to the battle is complicated but, in a nutshell, Britain wished to create a South African confederation along the lines of its imperial Canadian lands.

Standing in the way was the proud and powerful Zulu kingdom, created by the mighty and mystical ruler Shaka.

Isandlwana itself is a large, rocky hill and at the foot was where the British commander Lord Chelmsford set up camp when he invaded the Zulu lands - without getting government permission - with around 8,000 men to force Zulu king Cetshwayo to join the confederation.

And so began the mistakes which would doom the British at Isandlwana.

King Cetshwayo, who admired the British and Queen Victoria, did not wish to fight but was left with no choice after the invasion of his land and despatched his soldiers. That army of around 24,000 men ran (yes, ran) the 60-odd miles to meet the British with their charismatic 71-year-old general, Ntshingwayo, at the head.

Alastair first took us to the top of a neighbouring hill, overlooking the battlefield, to get some perspective. It's a bleak, open place, dotted with many white cairns marking mass graves from the conflict.

Then, via a small museum, we visited the battlefield itself. Here, you start to appreciate the sheer number of cairns and the lack of cover for the British soldiers. And the Zulus too, of course.

Chelmsford had unforgivably underestimated the Zulu warrior, among the bravest and fiercest the British would face in the days of empire, and an early skirmish with an easy victory cemented the complacency. Getting word from a patrol that the Zulus were gathering to the east, he took a column out to find them, leaving 1,837 men at camp. Of these, many were non-combat supply troops or rookies. It was a clever decoy and the British force was now split in enemy territory - and hindered by poor maps.

The main Zulu 'impi' of 20,000 was hidden behind the hill we had ascended earlier and now swept down on the British camp.

A desperate message was sent by horse and rider to Chelmsford telling him he had been outmanoeuvred, an attack was under way, and requesting his return. It never reached him - his complacent staff officers did not think it could possibly be true and neglected to pass it on.

As the attack started, officers failed to strike the tents - Alastair explained that you really don't want to be falling over guy ropes in a battle - and the Zulus mounted their classic threepronged attack. Left horn, right horn and chest of the buffalo.

A detachment of mounted Natal Native troops, led by the heroic Colonel Durnford, held off the Zulu left horn as long as they could, while the thin red line of infantry poured deadly Martini-Henry rifle fire into the attacking masses. But they were overwhelmed by sheer numbers and retreated back to the camp (where, of course, they were tripping over guy ropes).

By now the battle was hand-to-hand with bayonet and stabbing spear, and Alastair passionately explained the sheer horror of the closequarter combat. At one point the Zulus were throwing their comrades' dead bodies on to the British soldiers' deadly and feared bayonets to weigh them down so they could get at them.

Further, in this kind of combat, the British were at a huge disadvantage as they were typically small men from the Welsh valleys living on poor Army food, while the Zulus were taller, more powerful warriors with a good diet.

The battle was over in just an hour and 20 minutes - our mesmerising, thoughtprovoking tour with Alastair would last more than double that, the main part of it conducted sat among the main group of cairns - and as the bloody drama reached its conclusion there was a 70% eclipse of the sun to add near-darkness to the killing field.

Around 1,300 British lay dead. There were no prisoners as the Zulus believed in disembowelling fallen enemies to release their spirit so it could fly to their home.

Nobody really knows how many Zulus were killed. Alastair said some contemporary reports hinted at several thousand, many cut down by the fire of the Martini-Henry - its bullets could pass through three men in line - before their courage and numbers overtook the redcoats. The Queen's Colour was lost as it was carried away from the battlefield to the Buffalo river.

It was a complete disaster for the British. Apart from the fatalities, they lost vast amounts of equipment and ammunition - and the repercussions back in London were huge.

Of course, some honour was restored the next day at Rorke's Drift and a vastly reinforced army later invaded and conquered Zululand. As Alastair said: "See this not just as a terrible British defeat, but a brilliant Zulu victory inspired by the military genius of its general on the day.''

It would be many months later by the time the British returned to Isandlwana to bury the dead under cairns of white-painted rocks. By then the elements and carrion had left just scattered bones - both fallen British and Zulu soldiers now intermingled.

So in those mass graves, brave men from two armies who fought and died by a lonely hill now rest in peace together...

I tried to imagine the horror faced by both sides You start to appreciate the lack of cover for the British

CAPTION(S):

ROLE CALL Caine in 1964 movie Zulu

ROUTED Zulus overwhelm British troops. Right, Nigel begins his battlefield tour

PEACEFUL The chapel at Rorke's Drift

HISTORY Guide Alastair in full flow
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 23, 2016
Words:1663
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