General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien is perhaps best know as commander of the BEF’s II corps in the early stages of WW1 but was famously sacked by Field Marshall French in 1915. What is less well known about him was that he is one of only a handful of officers to survive the disaster at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879.
Born in 1858 Smith Dorrien, as the 12th child of 16 he was always destined for the army. Educated at Harrow, he entered Sandhurst in 1876. On passing out he was commissioned as a subaltern in the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment of Foot and in 1878 was sent to South Africa as a transport officer.
On the 10th January 1879, Smith-Dorrien found himself part of number 3 column under the command of Lord Chelmsford preparing for the invasion of Zululand. Number 3 Column was made up of the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 24th Regiment of Foot and a large number of Colonial troops plus a battery each of artillery and rockets. As the column crossed Rorke’s Drift and entered Zulu territory, Smith-Dorrien was busy ensuring the transport for the Royal Artillery was keeping up and was carrying the right equipment.
As the army camped in the shadow of Isandlwana, Smith-Dorrien could feel satisfied that the Batteries had sufficient ammunition and he then set about arranging for stores to be brought up from Rorke’s Drift.
On the morning of the 22nd January 1879 Lord Chelmsford, after hearing reports of large bodies of Zulus moving up towards the camp decided to lead out the 2nd/24th to intercept this threat. Leaving five companies of the 1st/24th, half of artillery and a large number of colonials to guard the camp, Chelmsford set off in pursuit.
With Zulus in the immediate area, all movement from Rorke’s Drift was halted, finding himself at a loose end Smith-Dorrien was sent to find Colonel Dunford with orders for him to bring his troops to the camp. With his mission completed Smith-Dorrien stopped and had breakfast with Lieutenant Bromhead at Rorkes Drift. As he left, he asked Bromhead for some spare revolver cartridges of which Bromhead gave him 11, little did either of them known that they would save his life a few hours later.
Smith-Dorrien then headed back up to the camp but unbeknown to the him, the main Zulu Impi had evaded Chelmsford’s flying column and were about to fall onto the unsuspecting camp. As the Impi attacked, the five companies of 1st/24th were strung out in a line forming a defensive perimeter, Dunford’s colonial troops held the right hand side and the battery of guns provided support.
As the 1st/24th kept up a desperate defense and inflictied horrendous causalities on the Zulus with their accurate and steady fire the Colonial troops on the right fell back in disarray into the camp. This caused a hole in the defensive perimeter which the left hand horn of the Zulu attack poured through. With the 24th having to retreat from the threat the perimeter got ever tighter around the camp.
A lack of leadership during the setting up of the camp on the 20th January had lead to no defensive redoubt being built, despite being in enemy territory. This meant that for the men of the 24th there was nowhere to retreat too and once the Zulus had entered the camp pursuing Dunford’s Colonial troop, the entire camp was doomed.
The 24th were keeping up a remarkable defence of the firing line, even with Zulus rampaging through the camp behind them each company slowly retreated and maintained their discipline despite the desperate nature of the fight.
At some point in the fighting, Smith-Dorrien grabs his horse and joins a growing group of Colonial and native troops who escape the battle and make the desperate flight down what is now known as ‘Fugitives trail’ pursued by ever increasing numbers of Zulu warriors.
Smith-Dorrien’s escape from Isandlwana has always been a little controversial, while he did leave the fight once the lose of the camp was inevitable, as a regular office holding the Queens commission the convention of the time was an officer never abandoned his men while they still fought. While no slight or accusation was ever leveled at him, he was one of only five regular officers to survive the battle. In fact his own memoirs don’t help his case as the 24th fought on.
In his memoirs Smith-Dorrien recalled the steadiness of the 1st/24th:
“Here was a more serious matter for these brave warriors (Zulus) for the regiment opposed to them were no boy recruits but war-torn matured men, mostly with beards, and fresh from a long campaign in the old colony where they had carried everything before them. Possessed of splendid discipline and sure of success they lay on their position making every round tell so that when the Zulu army was some 400 yards off it wavered”
What has never been in doubt is Smith-Dorrien’s conduct during his flight down Fugitives Trail. Coming upon a steep slope above Sothondose’s Drift, Smith-Dorrien found a young mounted private of the 24th who was badly injured and bleeding profusely from an assegai wound. Dismounting to help bind the wound, Smith-Dorrien with the help of another officer who was himself injured tried to get the private back onto his horse. As they did so, a large body of Zulus attacked them, the two injured officers are immediately killed and Smith-Dorrien lost his horse and only escapes with his life by jumping from the cliff and plunging into the river below.
As he dragged his battered and bleeding body from the river he came across a young European called James Hamer who seemed to have been stunned by a fall from his horse. Smith-Dorrien, again without any regard for his own safety managed to grab a loose horse and helped Hamer into the saddle. Hamer then somewhat ungraciously rides off and leaves Smith-Dorrien and make his own way back.
On foot and surrounded by fleeing and panicking men he headed to Helpmekaar. Pursued by a group of Zulu warriors only the careful use of his borrowed cartridges kept them at bay over the three miles he had to walk to safety. At sundown he finally staggered into Helpmekaar having had to walk every step of the way from the Buffalo river.
Back at Isandlwana the last men and officers of the 1st/24th were reduced to fighting with bayonet and even their bare hands as the ammunition ran out. As the sun went down, the final few men were surrounded and slaughtered by the victorious Zulus, thus ending one of the greatest disasters to befall the British army during the Imperial adventure.
For his actions during the escape from Isandlwana Smith-Dorrien was recommend for the Victoria Cross but because of it being sent through the wrong channels it was harshly rejected.
Escaping the defeat at Isandlwana did little harm to Smith-Dorrien’s career, as an officer of the British army during the golden age of Empire, he served across the globe. After the South Africa war he fought in India, Egypt (where he formed a life long friendship with Lord Kitchner), Fought at the Battle of Omdurman and in 1900 found himself back in South Africa during the 2nd Boer War. His handling of his troops during this time means he is one of only a few commanders who actually enhanced their reputation during the war.
At the outbreak of WW1 Smith-Dorrien found himself in command of British Expeditionary force II Corps against the wishes of Field Marshal Sir John French.
Smith-Dorrien’s actions during the retreat from Mons and the stopping action at Le Cateau saved the BEF from destruction. Despite his actions, French had shown no faith in his abilities and believed he had risked the BEF by his stopping action.
During the 2nd battle of Ypres Sir John French’s treatment led to Smith-Dorrien to offer his resignation which French refused but French sacked him a little time later.
Smith-Dorrien sat out the rest of the war and died in 1930 from injuries sustained in a car crash.
From the dusty slopes of Isandlwana, the deserts of Egypt and Sudan and through to the mass slaughter of the battlefields of France, Smith-Dorrien served his country was a true Hero of Empire.
For further reading I suggest:
Smith-Dorrien, Sir Horace, Memories of Forty-Eight Years’ Service, John Murray, 1925. — Sir Horace’s autobiography
How can Men Die Better, The Secrets of Isandlwana, Lt-Colonel Mike Snook 2005
Zulu, Saul David, 2005