The Zulu War of 1879 exercises an enduring appeal. Part of it, no doubt, is thanks to the 1964 film Zulu which, despite taking unwarranted liberties with most of the major characters (Stanley Baker’s Lieutenant John Chard was actually a quiet pipe-smoker, Nigel Green’s bewhiskered Colour-Sergeant Frank Bourne was a diminutive 24-year-old, and James Booth’s malingering Private Henry Hook was a teetotaller and model soldier), remains remarkably popular. Part, too, stems from the fact that the war’s battlefields are quite extraordinarily evocative. I spent a night on the field of Isandlwana, with a drizzly wind tugging the clouds across the ‘queer shaped’ mountain above it, having just listened to that master raconteur, the late David Rattray, talk about ‘the day of the dead moon’, and few places have moved me more. There are other attractions too. Despite the wide cultural gulf that separated them, the adversaries recognised that they were facing formidable fighting men: ‘They fell like stones, each man in his place,’ said a Zulu of the soldiers of the 24th Regiment.
There are heroes on both sides: Inkosi Mkhosana began the decisive advance at Isandlwana by shaming his men to their feet under heavy fire (he was killed seconds later); Leading Signalman Aynsley, the one sailor in