Anyone who is planning on going to see the new King Arthur movie is going to need to stock up on some serious pseudo Historical sunblock. Or treat the burns with some realistic reading post exposure to the washed out and grey epic’s highly stylised version of the King Arthur Legend. So when you leave the cinema, groping for some kind of reference, I have a few suggestions. The first is this history of Celtic Britain. Continue reading “Book Review: Warriors and Kings by Martin Wall.”
The most interesting things that happened (Historically) this week.
Issue 5 includes : Maximinus Thrax proclaimed emperor 20 March (235), Murder of Tsar Paul I 23 March (1801). Catholic Emancipation, 24 March (1829). Robert the Bruce becomes King of Scotland. 25 March (1306). Continue reading “The Week in History Issue 5.”
Between the end of August and mid-October 1799, Britain and Russia fielded a combined force of about 45,000 men in North Holland as part of the Second Continental Coalition against France. The campaign’s intention was to take Amsterdam, push the French out of the Batavian Republic and re-establish the deposed House of Orange, preferably with the help of a popular uprising.
This did not occur, and poor weather delayed the Allied advance. Although a series of battles on 27 August, 19 September, and 2 and 6 October forced the French back, the Allies were low on supplies, riddled with sickness, and unable to rely on local support. They made terms on 18 October and were permitted to evacuate unmolested in exchange for releasing 8000 French prisoners of war from Britain.
The Helder campaign is of particular interest to me because my research subject, the 2nd Earl of Chatham, commanded the 7th Brigade in the British expeditionary force. With a continental campaign in mind, the British army had been hastily bulked up in the spring of 1799 by a militia draft of 10,500 men. Chatham’s brigade of 4000 men was composed of two skeleton regiments that had been built up to full strength from this draft. The 4th Foot (or “King’s Own”) received over 2700 militia recruits and was divided into three battalions; the 31st, which had been decimated in the West Indies, received 955. This “militia brigade” was just as raw as its brigadier. Although Chatham had been in the army since 1774, he only had experience of garrison duty and had resigned his commission for personal reasons in 1785. He had, however, been allowed to retain his seniority (being the prime minister’s brother had its perks) and was now a Major-General.
Chatham’s brigade did not land in Holland until mid- September, and was not directly involved in any fighting until 2 October, when it played a significant role in advancing the British lines, for which Chatham was commended in the dispatches. Four days later, on 6 October, Chatham’s brigade again played a pivotal role. Unlike the battle of 2 October, which was described at great length in the dispatches, no single coherent account of the 6 October battle exists. The Duke of York, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces, merely recorded in his official dispatch: “The enemy on their part advanced their whole force; the action became general along the whole line … and was maintained with great obstinacy on both sides until night, when the enemy retired, leaving us masters of the field of battle.” Several things explain this lack of information. For one thing, the battle was entirely unexpected. York had merely commanded his troops to advance to the villages of Ackersloot, Limmen and Bakkum, in preparation for a future assault on the French and Dutch positions at Beverwijk. The Russians tried to secure their position and over-extended themselves in the direction of Castricum, which turned out to be far better defended than anyone had anticipated.
This triggered a full-scale French retaliation, and General Abercromby’s division, stationed around the village of Egmont-op-Zee (now Egmond-aan-Zee), was called in to reinforce the Russians. Adding to the confusion, the weather was terrible. “The rain poured down in torrents,” recorded one of York’s aides-de-camp. “… The country … was extremely intricate, and the thick rain and the heavy smoke dwelling on the copse-woods, and inclosures of the villages made it impossible to distinguish anything clearly.” According to another source: “The morning loured … a deep mist prevented the view of either friend or enemy”.
Broad, sandy dunes (described by Sir John Fortescue as “a tangle of little hills”) divided the brigades from each other and made it difficult to see far ahead, even without the mist, smoke and rain. The Duke of York, who remained in Alkmaar the whole time, sent one of his aides up St Laurence’s Church tower with a telescope to see what was going on. This did not work, and headquarters were unaware that British troops were heavily engaged with the enemy for some hours.
Chatham’s brigade was one of the most heavily involved in the fighting. The statistics speak for themselves. The King’s Own lost 496 killed, wounded and captured, including three lieutenant-colonels. Of that number, 352 were captured when a portion of the 2nd and 3rd battalions got separated in the dunes, got confused in the rain and smoke and “forced their way within the Enemy Lines, without knowing at all where they were”. The 31st lost 133. Altogether, Chatham’s brigade lost about 630 men at a conservative estimate – a sizeable proportion of the whole brigade, nearly half the 1400 British casualties, and a fifth of the 3200 total allied casualties.
This did not even include one high-profile casualty, Lord Chatham, who received a spent musket-ball to the shoulder. Back home, prime minister Pitt hastened to assure Lady Chatham that her husband was “perfectly safe and well”, and the ball seems to have been “repell’d in a great degree by part of the Epaulet [sic]”. Nevertheless, the incident came as a shock to many, including Chatham himself, who had his coat and waistcoat “forced away” and suffered “a great contusion on his shoulder”.
The possibility that Chatham might have been seriously wounded probably kept the news out of the official gazettes; the prime minister was, after all, Chatham’s heir, and could ill afford to go to the House of Lords. (The secrecy doesn’t seem to have worked: a rumour got out that Chatham had been killed, and at least one worried stockholder sent a suggestion to Henry Dundas, Secretary of State for War, that a law should be introduced “to keep Mr Pitt in the House of Commons”.) What was Chatham doing on 6 October? Whatever it was, the result was devastation for his brigade. Sir John Fortescue tried and failed to discover where Chatham was engaged, although he felt it wasn’t really significant: “Under so incompetent a brigadier they were likely to come to misfortune in any position.” This is rather unfair, particularly given Fortescue’s admission that he could not work out where Chatham was.
Three pieces of evidence, however, give a clue. The first is a letter from Chatham himself. On 4 October, Chatham wrote to his mother from Egmont-op-Zee, telling her that “I moved in the course of yesterday to this place to reinforce Sir Ralph Abercromby … we have marched in this morning”.
The second is a letter from Colonel MacDonald, dated 7 October, recording that he had “had the honor of conversing with [Lord Chatham] about two hours ago at Egmont op Zee” – where Chatham had returned after the action of the 6th. Clearly Chatham‘s Brigade formed part of the reinforcements sent by Abercromby to assist the Russians in the dunes surrounding Castricum. The third clue about Chatham’s deployment is a letter from Christopher Hely-Hutchinson, brother of General John Hutchinson, whose brigade was also heavily damaged during the 6 October battle: “The Russians, with Colonel McDonald’s Brigade, advanced rather too far upon the enemy, who came down upon them in great force. Our Brigade, with that of Lord Chatham’s, & General D’Oyly’s, advanc’d to their support. We advanced along the sand hills, with orders to support General D’Oyly who was on our left. … The enemy were in considerable force on our front”. From this account, it seems clear that Chatham was involved in the thickest fighting. According to the regimental history of the 4th Foot, the regiment “principally sustained the shock of the enemy’s horse”. Most likely what happened was that Chatham’s brigade became caught up in the Russian’s retreat when they were beaten out of Castricum by one of the enemy cavalry charges. Given the restricted visibility and the presence of the routed Russians to the front, the brigade (unseasoned militiamen that they were) probably did not have time to form a square, or botched the manoeuvre and suffered accordingly. Chatham left no account of his experience, perhaps partly because his wound left him temporarily unable to write (all accounts of his safety were conveyed to his family by third parties). One thing is certain: Castricum stopped him being sent abroad again during Pitt’s lifetime. Pitt’s 20th century biographers were flippant about the incident – P.W. Wilson, for example, joked that “Pitt’s career was safeguarded by the fraternal gold lace”, but the reaction of Pitt’s friends to Chatham’s near-miss was one of frank horror. Chatham’s cousin Lord Buckingham wrote to Lord Grenville: Lord Chatham’s escape has, I trust, decided you and others to whom the public have a right to look, not to suffer yourselves to forego for his very proper feelings as a soldier the dearest interests of the public; and that, in one word, his further service on the Continent will be negatived; a sacrifice which, I must say, he owes to the public. Nor was Buckingham alone in his assessment. Henry Dundas told Pitt that all would “concur … in reprobating the idea of Lord Chatham’s going at present upon any foreign Service, and the King will be under the necessity of interposing to prevent it”. It would be ten years before Chatham had the opportunity to serve abroad again, at which point Pitt had been dead for three years. The sphere of engagement was again Holland; the result was even more disastrous than the Helder campaign. But Walcheren is another story.
 L. Cowper, The King’s Own: the story of a regiment, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1939), Vol. 1, p. 302. Piers Mackesy gives slightly different numbers: Statesmen at War: the strategy of overthrow, 1798-9 (London, 1974), p. 239.  Edward Walsh, A narrative of the expedition to Holland in the autumn of the year 1799 (London, 1800), p. 132.  Sir Henry Bunbury, A narrative of the campaign in North Holland, 1799 (London, 1849), pp. 26-7.  Francis Maule, Memoirs of the principal events in the campaigns of North Holland and Egypt … (London, 1816), p. 37.  Sir John Fortescue, A history of the British Army, 13 Vols. (London, 1899-1930), Vol. 4(2), p. 695.  Sun, 16 October 1799.  The numbers are collated from various sources, including Fortescue, History of the British Army, Vol. 4(2), p. 697; Bunbury, A narrative of the campaign in North Holland, p. 27; and Walsh, A narrative of the expedition to Holland, pp. 135-6.  William Pitt to Lady Chatham, 12 October 1799, The National Archives PRO 30/8/101 f. 149; Colonel Donald MacDonald to Henry Dundas, 7 October 1799, National Records of Scotland Melville MSS GD 51/1/710.  Sun, 15 October 1799; Miss Berry to Miss Cholmondeley, 12 November 1799, Lady Theresa Lewis (ed.), Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry, 3 Vols. (London, 1865), Vol. 2, p. 104.  15 October 1799, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, Melville MSS Eng MS 697 Miscellaneous Correspondence.  Fortescue, A History of the British Army, Vol. 4(2), p. 697.  Lord Chatham to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 4 October 1799, Lord Ashbourne, Pitt: some chapters of his life and times (London, 1898), pp. 168-9.  Colonel Donald MacDonald to Henry Dundas, 7 October 1799, National Records of Scotland Melville MSS GD 51/1/710.  Christopher Hely-Hutchinson to Lord Donoughmore, 7 October 1799, PRONI T3459/D/43/3.  Cowper, The King’s Own, Vol. 1, p. 311.  P.W. Wilson, William Pitt, the Younger (London, 1933), p. 278.  Lord Buckingham to Lord Grenville, 15 October 1799, Manuscripts of J.B. Fortescue, Esq. preserved at Dropmore, 9 vols. (London, 1905-10), Vol. 5, p. 473.  Henry Dundas to William Pitt, 3 November 1799, British Library Add Mss 40102.
About the author Jacqueline Reiter has a PhD in late 18th century political history from the University of Cambridge. A professional librarian, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children. She blogs at www.thelatelord.com and you can follow her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/latelordchatham) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/latelordchatham). Her first book, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017.
Issue 3. Monday February 27- Sunday March 5. Including contemporary accounts, histories and newspaper reports of: The execution of Breaker Morant, 27 Feb (1902) . The Execution of Cuauthemoc, 28 Feb (1521). The Battle of Adwa, 1 March (1896). The Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico, 2 March (1836). Emancipation of Serfs in Russia, 3 March (1861). Boston Massacre, 5 March (1771).
For most people the Zulu war begins and ends with its most famous battles, iSandlwana and Rorkes Drift. For the serious Zulu reader it ends 7 months later, after the battle of Ulundi. And for the deep student of African history it ends with the capture of Cetshwayo in August and the division of the Zulu kingdom. These latter qualifications just happen to coincide with the arrival in South Africa of Sir Garnet Wolseley.
He was the government’s colonial troubleshooter, and quite literally the model of a modern Major General. A straightforward professional whose trademark was well planned and orchestrated advances into tough territory and the reduction of the enemy in open battle. A careful and somewhat pompous soldier, it perhaps should have been no surprise that it would fall to to him to clean up the mess caused by Lord Chelmsford’s disastrous first invasion of Zululand. It was not to be so simple however, for by the time Sir Garnet got to Natal the last battle had been fought and won, and glory would prove an evasive prize for Sir Garnet. As such the majority of us see Wolesley as the eager saviour of British honour, racing to catch up with the army, grumbling about everything that had been done wrong along the way.
William Wright’s, A British Lion in Zululand sets out to flesh out Wolesley’s part in the war, and as an added bonus extends the focus of the book to his entire service in South Africa, including the little known Bapedi War. Although the idea of calling the foxy whiskered gentleman, Sir Garnet, a lion brought a smile to my face, and a fear that this would be a syrupy, admiring ode to Britain’s most proficient imperial General, this turned out to be an engaging, well argued and well written account of end of the Zulu War and its aftermath.
It is undoubtedly pro Sir Garnet. I mention this because his failure to relieve Khartoum (which again was a mess made by others to which he was called late) left an indelible stain on an otherwise gleaming record. Up until know his actions in South Africa have also been viewed with a critical eye, and that is saying something when you consider the man he was superseding. Wright does his best to defend and contextualise Sir Garnet’s actions, giving him the benefit of the doubt where possible. Chelmsford’s petulant race to keep ahead of Sir Garnet and win a decisive battle is condemned for its short sightedness. As well it might. Wolsey is therefore shown as vindicated in his assertions that Chelmsford only wanted to steal the wind from his sails and blot out the stain of iSandlwana. In this he was partially successful, however he would never command again.
Sir Garnet was happiest by the side of a river, much preferring this mode of transport to road travel for his supplies. As he tried to catch up with the main column he complained about everything, and would probably have preferred to pull back once more and invade a third time rather than try and wrestle some sense out of Chelmsford’s slap dash car wreck. As it was, Wolesley was left with the tough task of “settling Zululand”, and capturing or killing the Zulu King, Cetshwayo. In the first he failed utterly, but in the second was successful. The author mounts no defence for his curious decision to split the country into segments, although he does indicate the architect of the scheme was Shepstone, rather than Wolsley.
The book feels like a part of a biography, beginning with Wolesy’s appointment as Governor of Cyprus, which offers a very interesting glimpse of British affairs in the Mediterranean at the time. Throughout the author maintains a biographical focus on its main protagonist, always attempting to explain the actions of Sir Garnet. Diversions occur when it is necessary to explain what is happening in depth, and very vivid accounts of the decisive battles are provided, not to mention the fine descriptions of all operations overseen by Wolesley himself.
Amongst the most interesting things we find along the way is how the British tried to blame the Zulu War on John Dunn, who for his part Wolesly felt would be an excellent ally in the settling of Zululand. Yet many thought he had armed the Zulus with guns and this had lead to war. Rather than the conniving machinations of Sir Bartle Frere. It stresses that the British government did not want a Zulu war. Not yet anyway! For while the invasion was roundly condemned, it was done so (outside of those actually in sympathy with the Zulus) from the standpoint that a Zulu war was inevitable sometime in the future but not then. Wolesley thought so, and in terms of morality was only sorry that Chelmsford had been such a thick-head in underestimating the enemy.
Truthfully the beginning may not offer much new to the seasoned Zulu campaigner, except some insight in the form of Wolesley’s correspondence, which serves as bedrock for this work, and better detail regarding what is usually an afterthought. What makes the book shine is the chapters about the settling of Zululand and the Bapedi War, a conflict which is practically unknown (even on the internet, I checked.) Yet it is highly interesting in terms of a colonial campaign. Here the author is digging into fresh ground, and walking a trail less trod. This small but savage conflict, which exploited tribal rivalries between the Bapedi and the Swazi and ironically removed a great check to Boer supremacy, is usually completely overshadowed by the Zulu War. Wether or not, as some of the participants claimed, it made it’s more famous predecessor look silly is a matter of debate, but no one reading the chapter on the “Fighting Kopje” will deny that it was an supremely tough campaign and a singularly dirty affair.
Filled with fine word picture studies, and told with a feeling and sympathy for the time and subject, the author has included excerpts from letters and journals with an unnerring eye for atmosphere. Will there ever be a better description of a bagpipe in action than when hailed as the very “breath of battle?”, and the singular nature of fighting in the Lulu mountains will astound readers when they read of magnetised rocks dancing along behind the wagon wheels of the invading force. A British Lion in Zululand is a excellent and welcome addition to our knowledge of, British military and South African history, and a very enjoyable read.