Zulu Dawn (1979)




Director: Douglas Hickox

Starring:  Burt Lancaster (Col. Durnford), Simon Ward (Lt. Vereker), Denholm Elliott (Colonel Pulleine), Peter Vaughn (Q.S.M. Bloomfield), James Faulkner (Lt. Melvill), Christopher Cazenove (Lt. Coghill), Bob Hoskins (C.S.M. Williams), David Bradley (Pte. Williams), Paul Copley (Cpl. Storey), Donald Pickering (Major Russell R.A.), Nicholas Clay (Lt. Raw), Phil Daniels (Boy Pullen),  Ian Ule (Cpl. Fields), Peter J. Elliott (sentry), Peter O'Toole (Lord Chelmsford), Nigel Davenpor (Col. Hamilton-Brown), Michael Jayston (Col. Crealock), Ronald Pickup (Lt. Harford), Ronald Lacey (Norris Newman), John Mills (Sir Henry Bartle Frere), Freddie Jones (Bishop Colenso), Anna Calder-Marshall (Fanny Colenso).

Countries: US-Dutch film


British disastrous defeat by the Zulu warriors in South Africa; a prequel to the movie "Zulu".

The movie is a good one, but it can be a bit confusing unless you read a little about the historical background and the battle of Isandlwana.  The actions of the commanders is hard to understand in the movie without knowing more about the commanders' reasons. 

 The topography of the area did a lot to defeat the British, who discovered a little too late how to respond effectively to such a massive number of Zulu warriors.  Given the number of warriors, the outcome seems somewhat inevitable.  Actually, it seems a lot like the massacre of Custer who also did not know what an overwhelming force he faced until it was too late.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


1878  --  the British presented an ultimatum to Zulu King Cetshwayo.  When the King did not accede, the British declared war.

The British were commanded by Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford. He moved his troops from Pietermaritzburg to a forward camp at Helpmekaar, past Greytown.

1879 (January 9)  --  the troops moved to Rorke's Drift. 

1879 (January 11)  --  the troops crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand.  They camped at Isandlwana.  This was a terrible place to choose because it could not be fortified.  The ground was very hard and the soldiers lacked entrenching tools.  And they could not "circle" the wagons because the force was too large.  They did post pickets but these did not have full fields of view.  To make up for this, they sent out reconnaissance groups, but that was not an effective substitute because there was too much ground to cover. 

After establishing camp, Chelmsford left 1,400 troops at the camp and with the remaining troops started out to find the Zulus.  Those troops left behind were the 1st battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot (later the South Wales Borderers).  The commander was Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine who was an administrator without combat experience.

Around 10:30 Colonel Anthony Durnford and five troops of the Natal Native horse arrived from Rorke's Drift.  He was senior in command to Pulleine, but the latter resisted turning over command to the newcomer.  So Durnford and his men moved out to reconnoiter the area. 

Meanwhile, a large army of Zulu warriors was approaching the encampment.  No one saw the warriors coming until it was too late  -- not the pickets, not the reconnaissance troops, nor the five troops of the Natal Native horse.

When the attack started, Durnford retreated to the right of the British position and fought there till the end. 

The British troops in the encampment had several problems.  In hot weather, their standard rifles would jam after several shots; their defensive line was too spread out (with a few meters between each soldier); and there was some difficulty in unpacking their ammunition fast enough.

The Natal Native Contingent broke and fled to Fugitive's Drift and other units started following.  Two officers, Lieutenants Teignmouth Melvill and Nevill Coghill, re-crossed the Buffalo River.  They got as far as five miles from the camp before they were both killed. 

King Cetshwayo had specifically ordered his men to kill all wearing the red coat. The warriors followed orders, took no prisoners and killed all they came across, including Pulleine and Durnford. 60 British troops got away.  None were wearing their red coats. 

After the battle, in order to set the spirits free, the Zulus tore open the bodies of their own dead, as well as those of the British. 

Chelmsford could hear the firing, but since he did not have a good view of the camp, he was misled by what he saw.  He saw that the tents were still up (the men forgot to loosen the guy ropes, something standard in case of battle) and a mixed force of black and whites, which he took to be the training of the Natal troops. 

On Chelmsford's return, he discovered the massacre.  His troops had to bivouac among the dead soldiers. 

Just as in the case of the massacre of Custer and his troops in Montana, USA, by the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, the Zulu victory was a pyrrhic one.  The defeat forced the British to send out the necessary forces, supplies and equipment to ensure that the natives would be subdued.



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