Saturday, 31 July 2010
Zulu by Saul David
I have always found this particular war interesting; In 1879 the British empire, at the height of its power, used a mixture of political skill and deception coupled with military power to challenge and eventually overcome one of the most powerful and warlike African tribes on the continent. On the battlefields the rifles and bayonets of the famed British redcoats were put up against the cow hide shields, razor sharp assegais and daring courage of the Zulu warriors defending their homeland.
Many people have heard of the Anglo-Zulu War thanks to the movie 'Zulu' from 1964 starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker which depicts perhaps the most famous battle of the entire war; the Battle of Rorke's Drift during which 139 British soldiers successfully defended a small outpost against 4000 Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won that day.
The book is packed full of fascinating anecdotes, thrilling battles, stories of heroism and cowardice and political scandal all obtained from documentation and witness accounts from the time. I thought I knew a lot about this war before I read the book and quickly realised I didn't! I was ignorant about the less-than-honourable reasons for the beginning of the war and the terrible nightmare of the battles fought. One would imagine the Zulus stood no chance and yet they managed to win some victories against the superior fighting power of the British, the most devastating being the victory at the Battle of Isandlwana during which 1300 British soldiers were slaughtered.
Despite the somewhat dishonourable reasons for the war beginning there were some incredible tales of courage such as British Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill who escaped the slaughter of Isandlwana on horseback to try and save their regiment's colours (each regiment in the British army has its own banner, it was considered a terrible disgrace if the banner was captured by the enemy) unfortunately both men were caught by the Zulus and killed, dropping the colours into a nearby river. The colours were left at the bottom of the river (the Zulus didn't understand its importance) and were recovered some time later by the British. Melvill and Coghill were awarded Victoria Crosses posthumously for their efforts.
One of the most interesting stories in the book was that of the Prince Imperial; a relative of the famous French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The 23 year old was exiled from France to Britain early in his life. He joined the British army and was desperate to experience battle for himself. He begged Queen Victoria to be allowed to go to Africa who eventually relented but only on the condition he did not expose himself to unnecessary risk. Once in Africa the Prince was assigned an escort and forbidden to get involved in fighting. The Prince however had other plans and his impatient, reckless nature led him to ride directly into a Zulu ambush during which he fell from his horse and was speared eighteen times. Two of his escort were also killed and the rest fled. The Zulus left the princes body to rot in the desert and it was not recovered until some time later. The princes death caused considerable international scandal and even led to Queen Victoria being accused (wrongly) of setting the whole thing up to be rid of the prince.
Overall an excellent book well worth a read, I will definitely be picking it up again soon.