Fearful Hard Times

Fearful Hard Times

  • Author: Ian Castle & Ian Knight
  • Publisher: Greenhill Books
  • Publish Date: 1994
  • ISBN: 1-85367-180-0
  • Price: 19.95

Review By : Elizabeth Hogan

Early on the morning of 22 January 1879, the British Right Flank Column under the command of Colonel Charles Pearson, operating in the Zulu coastal belt, was attacked as it emerged from the Nyezane valley. Pearson met the Zulus according to the tactics laid down by Lord Chelmsford – an extended line anchored upon his artillery – and, after ninety minutes of fierce fighting, during which the Zulus almost succeeded in outflanking him, Pearson drove them away. He continued his advance almost immediately, burying his dead in the shade of some trees beside the road, and the following day he reached his objective, the deserted mission station at Eshowe.

A day or two later, however, his mounted scouts – colonials who spoke Zulu – heard Zulu voices drifting on the wind, shouting from hilltop that they had won a great victory. The news was, of course, about Isandlwana, and once it was known it effectively overshadowed Pearson’s achievement – as it has been in the literature of the war ever since. This book attempts to redress that imbalance, and offers an exhaustive account of the Eshowe campaign. For three months, Pearson’s command was isolated at Eshowe, cut off from the border by an efficient Zulu cordon, the result of King Cetshwayo’s indignation that Pearson had apparently settled himself down in Zululand ‘as if the country were already conquered’. For that command, it is a story of very real hardship, of dwindling supplies and uncomfortable living conditions, 1700 men sleeping at night on the wet ground within the confines of the earthwork hastily thrown up around the mission (the largest fortification, incidentally, built by the British during the war).

 Although Eshowe was never attacked, the danger from the Zulu presence was very real, for picquets were regularly ambushed and work-parties sniped at, and the tension manifested itself in regular false alarms at night. In order to keep the men’s spirits up, Pearson organised occasional forays against neighbouring homesteads, and these expeditions, carried out in the heart of hostile territory, make tense and exciting reading.

At least one skirmish resulted in a recommendation for the Victoria Cross - ignored, apparently, because of the general disinterest in higher circles in the campaign! The book is drawn entirely upon primary sources, notably the diaries of a number of the participants, and as a result the personalities of the siege – Captain Wynne, Pearson’s devout and efficient chief engineer, or Naval Surgeon Norbury, who pondered whether the mounting death toll from disease was due to ‘evil miasmas rising from the ground’, or to the habit of the men of filling their water-bottles from a stream below the slope where the dead were buried - come alive. The book offers interesting insights, too, into the character of John Dunn, the famous ‘White Chief of the Zulus’, in whose territory this aspect of the war was waged.

There are fascinating details about the attempt by Pearson’s men to open communication with the outposts on the Thukela, over thirty miles away; lacking heliograph equipment, Wynne tried paper screens and hot-air balloons before at last improvising a heliostat machine. The siege was, of course, framed by two major battles, Pearson’s encounter at Nyezane and Lord Chelmsford’s victory at Gingindlovu in April which finally raised the siege, and both are described in great detail. The siege was arguably a better use of Zulu resources than the attack on the Centre Column at Isandlwana – it tied up a larger British force for three months for the loss of far less men – and the contribution of the coastal campaign deserves to be better known.

This book is the definitive study.

Saturday 11th of March 2006 08:36:52 AM