The Curling Letters of the Zulu War

The Curling Letters of the Zulu War


  • Author: Adrian Greaves & Brian Best
  • Publisher: Pen & Sword
  • ISBN: 0-85052-849-6
  • Price: 19.95

Review By : Brian Jewell

The shock to the British at home and in Africa was devastating. On officer fatalities alone, it was worse than Waterloo. It was the Battle of Isandlwana, on January 22 1879 – when six companies of the 24th Regiment, with two guns and a small force of Natal volunteers, were massacred in just 20 minutes by a force of Zulus. Of the regular British troops, 26 officers and 600 men had been killed, in addition to 24 officers and many men of the Colonial Volunteers. Only 55 escaped the bloody horror of the battlefield. One of just five officers to survive was Lt Henry Curling RA, commander of one of the guns. Curling was a prolific letter-writer to his parents and, out of the blue, a bundle of them recently came to light.

The editors of this book are two leading members of the Anglo Zulu War Historical Society. Curling’s words from long ago are ably complemented with linking pieces on the campaign as well as on social and military life of the times. The humiliating defeat at Isandlwana followed two years of disputes over land on the Transvaal border between the Zulus and the locally raised colonial force. Eventually one tribal uprising led to the dispatch of military reinforcements from London. Once the uprising was subdued, the presence of an expensive British force had to be justified – inevitably by an invasion of Zululand. The editors compare the situation to 1854, when the British and French armies were sent to Bulgaria to support the Turks against the Russians, only to find that soon after arriving that they were no longer needed. Rather than go home without a fight, the British and French invaded the Crimea – with costly and disastrous results. Curling arrived in South Africa in 1878 and in many of his early letters home he is preoccupied with hopes for promotion and looking forward to war against the Zulus. Any optimism ended, however, at Isandlwana. The events of that fateful day are reported in a hurried, undated note. 'Just a line to say I am alive after a most wonderful escape…our camp was attacked by overwhelming numbers of Zulus. The camp was taken and out of a force of 700 white men only 30 escaped. All my men except me were killed and the guns taken…The whole column has retreated into Natal again and we are expecting hourly to be attacked. Of course everything has been lost, not a blanket left'. The battle had lasted only about 20 minutes but it is evident how dramatically the slaughter had altered his life. His letters reflect the aimless and utter despondency felt throughout the army in South Africa. The bedraggled and exhausted survivors of Isandlwana reached Helpmekaar, from where Henry wrote: 'We were pursued for 7 or 8 miles and didn’t know whether to go to Rorke’s Drift or come here. Fortunately we came here as those who went to Rorke’s Drift were all caught and murdered'. Curling served a further year in South Africa and later in Afghanistan before finally returning home in early 1881, having served abroad without leave for three years. Apart from giving evidence (dismissed as irrelevant) to the Isandlwana court of inquiry, he never spoke again publicly about his Zulu War experiences before his death on New Year’s Day 1910.

With out the efforts of Greaves and Best, nothing would have been recorded of this somewhat obscure subaltern. Perhaps in keeping with Curling’s life, there is a white marble cross in Ramsgate cemetery, which has fallen over, and now lies forgotten in an overgrown bed of weeds.

Thursday 12th of January 2006 08:44:41 PM