On this day … 17 May 1879

The Preston Chronicle carried a letter that a soldier had sent to his father back home in Preston, recounting his experiences fighting the Zulus in South Africa. On one level, it reads like a Boy’s Own adventure, recalling Michael Caine and his fellow soldiers in the film Zulu. But the statistics are staggering and sobering: the letter writer estimated that the Zulu army numbered about 25,000, and of those 6,000 to 8,000 were killed, whereas the British losses were put at about about 25 killed and about 50 wounded.

Modern research supplies the following figures for the Battle of Kambula Hill:
British numbers: 2,086 plus 186 African auxiliaries, and six cannons (29 killed, 54 wounded).
Zulu Kingdom numbers: 20,000 (758-2,000 killed).


Yesterday a letter was received by a Mr. Seed, of this town, from his son, J. Seed, a soldier of the 90th Regiment, D. Company, now forming portion of Colonel S Wood’s column on active service in Zululand. In the course of the letter, which is dated Kambula Camp, April 5, the writer, whose sentences we have slightly altered, says:

I have to inform you that we fought a severe engagement, last Saturday, the 29th March, which resulted in a great victory for us. The enemy was seen hovering about at seven o’clock in the morning; at one o’clock the alarm sounded, and our little camp was at once manned and set out to the best advantage.

At 1.30, the F. L. horse and mounted infantry went out and attacked them, but the enemy came on in such hordes that our horse had to retire. They now came on in dense black masses on all sides of us, and when at one thousand yards’ range the six guns opened fire upon them, laying them down in hundreds.

But still they came on in larger masses than ever, until they were within 800 yards from us, when the whole of our little garrison – about 3,000 blacks and whites, opened a terrible musketry fire upon them, laying them down in line as they advanced. Still they kept coming, shouting and yelling, until in one place they were only about 400 yards from as. Then the big guns fired grape and case shot into them, which layed them down like grass before the mower.

About three in the afternoon some 600 Zulus got possession of some rocks in rear of out camp, and about 500 yards from our wagons, and were doing a great deal of harm. When the 90th had cleared their front my company and G. Company were ordered out to charge the Zulus in the rocks.

Zulu War - Battle of Kambula Hill
The Zulu War, Battle of Kambula Hill, 29 March. Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 24 May 1879. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kambula_1.jpg

Having formed into line, Lieutenant Bright (of Liverpool) drew his sword, and crying, “Come on men, follow me,” he was shot dead, Major Thacket then led us on, and with a loud British cheer we dashed at them and drove them out of the rocks down a steep hill, killing about 200 of them.

We afterwards returned to the waggons, and then I found out how greatly we had suffered. My company lost 16 killed and wounded; G. company 15 killed and wounded; and Major Hacket was shot in the left eye but not killed.

Our desperate charge decided the day, and the Zulus were beaten back on all sides. At 5-30 the enemy began to retire, when the F. L. Horse and mounted infantry rode out and charged them, cutting them up in hundreds. They chased them for nearly fifteen miles, and returned after dark.

So after six hours hard fighting our gallant little band defeated a Zulu army of upwards of 25,000, with a loss to the enemy of from 6,000 to 8,000 killed, and God only knows how many wounded, I don’t. Our loss is about 25, killed and about 50 wounded; but thank God I got out of it all right, though I thought it was “lights out” with me at one a time.

I spent a most awful night after it; I was on out picket that night with all the dead Zulus around me. I can assure you it was an awful night, raining all the time, and to make it worse, about two in the morning, shots were fired and the alarm sounded, and I was nearly shot by our men while running into camp.

I took a walk round the camp next morning, and some of the most awful sights I ever saw I saw there; it was sickening, so I left the scene. It took three days to bury the dead Zulus. heard to-day that 2000 Zulus are coming in to give themselves up, so we shall have to keep a sharp look out against treachery, as we are expecting a night attack. May God speed our reinforcements, so that we can give I them another good thrashing.


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