Lord Chelmsford and the Zulu War, Major the Hon. Gerard French, D.S.O.

Lord Chelmsford and the Zulu War, Major the Hon. Gerard French, D.S.O.

Lord Chelmsford was one of the more controversial commanders of the Victorian period. At the start of the Zulu War he suffered one of the worst defeats ever inflicted on a British army in colonial warfare, when part of his column was wiped out at Isandhlwana. After a lengthy pause to wait for reinforcements and reorganise his columns, he went on to win the decisive battle of Ulundi, which broke Zulu resistance, but by then Sir Garnet Wolseley had been appointed as his superior officer, and soon after the battle Lord Chelmsford resigned. His reputation never entirely recovered from the disaster at Isandhlwana, even though (or because) he was absent from the battle itself.

The book is at its weakest factually during its account of Isandhlwana, the author used a distorted map and doctored reports to shift the blame. Elsewhere we get a detailed account of the war, and the author's pro-Chelmsford bias is so obvious that it is fairly easy to avoid.

The author's attitudes are very much of his time - the book was published in 1939. To modern eyes the British demands before the war look astonishingly arrogant and basically involved the deconstruction of the entire Zulu military and dramatic changes to Zulu society. There are lots of references to savage foes, and he actually uses the phrase 'a severe dose of cold steel'.

It eventually becomes clear why the author was so determined to defend Lord Chelmsford's reputation. There are a few mentions of attacks on 'another Commander-in-Chief', although without saying exactly who is meant. The author was the son of Field Marshal French, commander of the BEF at the start of the First World War. Field Marshal French was undermined by some of his subordinates, and eventually replaced by Douglas Haig, and it is clear that his son still resented those events.

His defence of Lord Chelmsford eventually gets rather ridiculous. By the end the author is directly attacking the motives of anyone who suggests that he wasn't a faultless commander. The press get the worst of his attacks, although Wolseley also comes under fire. Chelmsford's reputation would have benefited more from a balanced book that acknowledges his mistakes as well as his capacity to learn from them. In the aftermath of Isandhlwana and a series of lesser setbacks Lord Chelmsford paused, got reinforcements, and when he was ready conducted a far more skilful, careful advance, but the author's refusal to admit that his hero made mistakes means that he doesn't get the credit for this.

The author's own military judgement doesn't always impress. In the aftermath of the description of a successful cavalry charge he describes the cavalry as 'almost as extinct as the dodo. Yet who knows but that at some future time our legislators may be forced to admit that the cavalry horse is by no means dispensable. Certain it is that no armoured cars or tanks could have the same moral effect on an enemy as the overwhelming fury of a cavalry charge' - this in 1939! It also rather suggests that he hadn’t really followed the course of the fighting in 1917-18.

This is still a useful campaign history of the Zulu War, as long as the reader is aware of the ever-present bias in favour of Lord Chelmsford, and the author's clear intension to defend his hero at all times.

1 - Previous Service
2 - Causes of the Zulu War
3 - Lord Chelmsford's Preparations
4 - Lord Chelmsford's Plan
5 - Opening of Hostilities
6 - Isandhlwana
7 - Defence of Rorke's Drift
8 - Lord Chelmsford Reports the Disaster
9 - The Flank Columns
10 - News of Isandhlwana Reaches England
11 - Preparations for a Resumption of the Advance towards Ulundi
12 - Relief of Ekowe
13 - Action at Hlobane Mountain
14 - Zulu Attack on Kambula Camp
15 - Reorganisation of Lord Chelmsford's Force on Arrival of Reinforcements
16 - Transport and Commissariat Difficulties
17 - General Clifford's Attitude
18 - Death of the Prince Imperial
19 - Peace Proposals
20 - Progress of the Advance
21 - Sir Garnet Wolseley Appointed High Commissioner
22 - Ulundi
23 - Lord Chelmsford Resigns
24 - Lord Chelmsford's Return Home
25 - The Remarkable Case of Captain Shepstone
26 - Lord Chelmsford and his Critics
27 - Omission of Important Documents from Sir Garnet Wolseley's Despatches
28 - Subsequent Service

A - Constitution of the Zulu Army in 1878-9
B - Composition of British Columns and Distribution of Troops of January 11th, 1879
C - State of South African Field Force End of May 1879
D - Distribution of Lord Chelmsford's North Force for the Final Phase of his Advance on Ulundi
E - Action of the Inyezane, January 22nd 1879
F - Isandhlwana, January 22nd 1879
G - Rorke;'s Drift, January 22nd-23rd 1879
H - Intombi River, March 12th 1879
I - Hlobane, March 28th 1879
J - Kambula, March 29th 1879
K - Gingihlovo, April 2nd 1879
L - Ulundi, July 4th 1879
M - Summary of Losses in Action
N - Transport in South Africa, 1879
O - Approximate Cost of the Zulu War

Author: Major the Hon. Gerard French, D.S.O.
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 320
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2014 edition of 1939 original

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