British Fortifications in Zululand

British Fortifications in Zululand


  • Author: Ian Knight
  • Publisher: Osprey
  • Publish Date: 30/09/2005
  • ISBN: 1-84176-829-4
  • Price: 11.50

Review By : Elizabeth Hogan

At first glance, the Anglo-Zulu War does not appear to be a war of fortification. The image it conjures up is of long, lumbering columns of struggling ox-wagons and marching redcoats moving laboriously through the veldt, until they confront their more-mobile enemy in pitched battles in the open, like Isandlwana or Ulundi. Yet, as this highly-illustrated paperback points out, that is an essentially misleading impression. The British learned early in the war – at Rorke’s Drift, in fact – that the mobility and superior numbers of the Zulus, fighting on their home ground, gave them a distinct tactical advantage which could best be countered by the use of fortifications. Improvised though it was, the mission station at Rorke’s Drift was in essence a fort, and despite heroic efforts – and indeed partial success – the Zulu proved in the end incapable of over-running it. From that point, the British came to rely increasingly on fortifications in Zululand.

 At Eshowe, the abandoned Norwegian mission was occupied by Col. Pearson, and turned by his chief Engineer, Captain Wynne, into the most impressive earthwork built by the British during the course of the war. For three months it provided shelter for 1700 men, and, although cramped and insanitary, its fortifications were so impressive that the Zulu never dared to attack it. During the second invasion, from June 1879, almost every British halt was protected in some way, often by small stone or entrenched redoubts. Wood’s camp at Khambula was heavily fortified, and resisted attack on 29 March by the main Zulu army across four or five hours of fighting. Often, these fortifications were comparatively unsophisticated by contemporary standards, simply because, since the Zulu had no artillery, the basic requirement was simply to make them proof against infantry attack. Nonetheless, their contribution to the British victory was ultimately decisive.

In his text, Ian Knight considers the types of fortifications built during the war, form the stone laagers built on the borders to protect the white civilian population to the temporary marching forts and the major works like Eshowe. The book follows the tradition of Laband and Thompson’s famous ‘Field Guide’ but offers a different emphasis, concerned not so much with mapping surviving remains as exploring the engineering aspects and strategic significance of the forts, and what it was like to occupy them. As usual with Osprey publications, there are plenty of pictures, including a number of little-known contemporary studies.

Special mention should go to Adam Hook for his crisp, clean recreations of the forts as they stood at the time; Rorke’s Drift is here, of course, and so is Khambula, and the Fort Tenedos/Pearson complex on the Thukela mouth. There is also a nice study of a marching fort – based on Fort Newdigate – showing how supply wagons were used to link small well-placed redoubts together. There is also a splendid double-page recreation of the fort at Eshowe, with insets detailing the methods of construction, which serves to remind the reader just how impressive the complex was.

All in all, this book is a valuable addition of the literature of the war, looking as it does at an aspect so often overlooked in the tales of  more dramatic events.

Friday 20th of January 2006 03:10:15 PM