THE “LITTLE DRUMMER BOYS” AT ISANDLWANA by Pat Rundgren

“Hopeless battalions, destined to die,
Broken by the Benders of Kings”.

Contemporary South African folk song.
Johnny Clegg and Savuka.

There are a number of eye witness accounts by men who had been part of Lord Chelmsford’s reconnaissance and who returned to the camp just after the battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, or who had returned later with the various burial and salvage details. One of the most gruesome tales told by these people and perpetuated in book after book on the subject concerns the fate of the so-called “little drummer boys”, who were said to have been slaughtered, tortured and ritually mutilated by the Zulus in the aftermath of the battle. These stories sent shivers of revulsion, despair and apprehension down the collective spine of Victorian society and have been hotly debated ever since.

Although this issue has been covered ad nauseum in discussion web sites such as www.1879zuluwar.com and www.rorkesdriftvc.com and by authorities such as Norman Holme, Glen Wade, Ian Knight and James Bancroft, some background material is necessary in order to set the scene for this paper.

  • Samuel Jones of the Newcastle Mounted Rifles has described his reaction to the battlefield the morning after the battle as follows – (however, bear in mind this was told to a newspaper reporter in 1929, 50 years later)
    “One sight, a most gruesome one, I shall never forget. Two lads, presumably two little drummer boys of the 24th Regiment, had been hung up by butcher’s hooks which had been jabbed under their chins, then they were disembowelled. All the circumstances pointed to the fact that they had been subjected to that inhuman treatment while still alive”.
  • www.1879zuluwar.com states that “they had been hung on butcher’s hooks and disembowelled and sexually assaulted before death”.
  • James Bancroft is quoted as saying that “the Zulus had seized five band boys and either tied them to wagons by their feet or hung them on butcher’s hooks by their chins, sliced them up and then cut their privates off and put them in their mouths”.
  • T.H. Makin (1st Dragoon Guards) in his journal says that he saw “large wooden structures like a double scaffold, where two other boys had been hung up by their hands to the hooks and, as they had decomposed, their bodies had fallen to the ground”.
  • Drummer W. Sweeney 2/24th said he noticed on 29 April 1879 – “Two drummer boys, Anderson and Holmes, and five little boys of the band about 14 years of age. They were butchered most awfully indeed. One little chap named McEvery they hung up by the chin to a hook”.
  • Philip Gon in his “The Road to Isandlwana” perpetuates the legend. “Two drummer boys hung from butcher’s hooks that had been jabbed under their chins”.
  • The Reverend Owen Watkins, quoting Simeon Kambule of the Natal Native Horse, was told that a little drummer boy sitting on an ammunition wagon refused to hand over any supplies to them on the grounds that it belonged to the 24th. Kambule urged him to leave with them but he refused to desert his post.
  • Fripp’s immortal painting of “The Last Stand of the 24th” clearly shows a grizzled old Sergeant attempting to encourage the little drummer boy next to him as the Zulu hordes swept in for the kill.

So, then, an unutterably macabre picture of Zulu atrocities and torture emerges from these primary sources.

Just to confuse the issue, though, there is another gruesome story of “poor little MacDowel. He was sent by the General to tell them to strike the tents and was urging on the ammunition to the front and encouraging the bandsmen to carry it, when a Zulu shot him”.

Colonel Black 24th Regiment, after his visit to the field for the purpose of interring the dead, wrote:
“We found and buried a body with R.E. Officer’s blue coat and trousers, unrecognizable otherwise … I believe that this was the mortal remains of that good young fellow MacDowel”.

So, then, this particular MacDowel was not a drummer boy at all but indeed Lieutenant Francis Hartwell MacDowel Royal Engineers. He may have met his end that way (see Pat Rundgren’s “The Royal Engineers at Isandlwana”), but the description “little” possibly refers to his stature and not his age. Similarly, “good young fellow” is not necessarily indicative of a tender age.

On the other hand, Lieutenant Maxwell 2/3 NNC, providentially out with Lord Chelmsford that day, refutes the above. On the following morning, he says “we were all out of camp on the road to Rorke’s Drift before objects could be distinctly seen. I hear some terrible stories about mutilated bodies. These were invented for the occasion, as it was impossible for those who told the yarns to have distinguished anything in the night, it being exceptionally dark”.

Captain Penn Symons of the 24th (later to die at Talana) is quoted by Ian Knight that “no single case of torture was proved against the Zulus. The wild stories current at the time, and repeated in the English papers, were quite untrue”.

Having detected an element of doubt, then, what really happened to them?

There is no doubt that the Zulus practised ritual mutilation after a battle, and the packs of young dibi boys roaming the area after the battle must have had a field day looting and despatching the wounded. But there is little evidence to show that the Zulus restricted their attentions particularly to the youngsters or that, indeed, there were very many of them there in the first place.

If an enemy fought well, Zulus believed that they could imbue themselves with the fighting spirit of the deceased by cutting out their livers and gall bladders to make muthi or intelezi. In Zulu custom, then, the better one’s enemy fought the more they mutilated the body. This practice was, in a way, a rather left-handed compliment. The Zulu word for “courage” is “isibindi” – literally “liver”. The British word for courage is “guts”. And if one fights particularly badly or is a coward then one is referred to as being “lily-livered”. So the British and Zulus were not too far apart from each other in understanding the value of courage.

In the four hours after the battle, before Lord Chelmsford returned to camp from his reconnaissance mission to the Mangeni, the Zulus had ample time to inflict their post-battle rituals on the living and the dead, but I doubt whether they were discerning nor necessarily seeking revenge through torture.

If one adds to this the likelihood of soldiers being stabbed multiple times by multiple foes, then most bodies would have been in a terrible state.

“Boys” were attested into the British Army between the ages of 14 – 16 and were posted to the adult establishment at the age of 17. This is not unusual: after all, soldiering is a young man’s game. I myself went into the Rhodesian Army having just turned 19, which is relatively old for a recruit.

In the din and tumult of a major battle, orders would be transmitted by bugle, not drums. Were those bandsmen there even drummers at all, or were they buglers instead?

See D.R. Forsyth’s “Zulu War Medal Roll” and “The Silver Wreath” by Norman Holme. According to these publications, both agree that the following bandsmen/ drummers/ “boys” were killed in action at Isandlwana –

2003 Drummer William Adams. Aged 19.
267 Drummer Charles Andrews. Aged 23. (Forsyth gives his regimental number as 268).
1786 Drummer George Dibden. Aged 22.
1226 Drummer Charles Osmond. Aged 31.
2 Drummer John Frederick Orlopp. Aged 19.
1/24 – 1 Drummer Thomas Perkins. Aged 36.
501 Drummer Timothy Reardon. Aged 18. (Norman Holme gives his number as 318).
114 Drummer Michael Stansfield. Aged 22.
1787 Drummer John Thompson. Aged 21 .
2004 Drummer Alfred Wolfendale. Aged 19.
1399 Drummer James Wolfendale. Aged 26.

Norman Holme in his “The Noble 24th” adds another two names –

1387 Boy Joseph McEwan. Aged 16.
1491 Boy Damiel Gordon. Aged 15.

D.R. Forsyth adds another three names –

1237 Drummer Daniel Trottman. 2/24. Aged 39.
2161 Drummer John Anderson. 2/24. Aged 23.
2153 Drummer John Holmes. 2/24. Aged 26.

And finally “The Silver Wreath” has one more entry –
Thomas Harrington. Aged 26.
Robert Richards. Age unknown.
James Gurney. Aged 16.

In summary, then, only 19 soldiers who might have been classified as bandsmen or boys of the 24th Regiment were killed in action.

Of the 19,
3 were aged between 15 – 17.
4 were aged between 18 – 20
8 were aged between 21 – 30
3 were aged over 30
1 of unrecorded age.

The conclusion, then, if one accepts these figures, is that if the 24th Regiment lost a total of 22 officers and 590 men at Isandlwana, the percentage of bandsmen and boys was negligible – only 3%. Of those 3%, only 3 might be classified as “little drummer boys” i.e. aged 15 – 17. The remainder were grown men.

If one returns to the eye-witness accounts of the battle and its aftermath, then –

  • Samuel Jones and T.H. Makin might just conceivably be correct, but most unlikely.
  • Watkin’s story of the drummer guarding his company’s ammunition could well be true as bandsmen were seconded as stretcher bearers and ammunition carriers in battle.
  • Fripp’s painting could be half correct, but that one of only three youthful lads would have made it that far is debatable.
  • www.1897zuluwar.com has probably got it wrong.
  • James Bancroft’s source ditto.
  • Drummer Sweeney is way out. Anderson and Holmes were in their mid 20’s. Hardly “boys”. “The five little boys of the band, about 14 years of age” must have been a figment of his imagination as there weren’t that many there. The McEvery he refers to could conceivably be 1387 Boy Joseph McEwan. Visiting the site three months later, what with the heat, humidity and scavengers, most bodies would have totally decomposed by then and would be unrecognisable. Plus a corpse’s height would not be a good yardstick to conclude it was the body of a “boy” – people were much shorter in those days.
  • Philip Gon is probably just repeating what had by then become a well-established legend.
  • Lieutenant Maxwell and Captain Penn Symons can be taken at face value. However, it is most unlikely that they managed to see the whole battlefield and were probably only talking about the corpses found in the saddle where the fighting had been the fiercest.

In closing, then –

  • Most, if not all bodies, were probably mutilated in typical Zulu style.
  • Drummer boys would not have escaped such a fate, but their numbers were a minute fraction of the overall total of k.i.a.’s.
  • So it’s probably not fair to single “bandsmen” out considering their paucity of numbers overall.

Ian Knight in his “Zulu Rising” concurs. After the horrors of the day the eye witnesses, wandering around in the dark that night might not have even been too sure of what they had seen. And visitors some months afterwards would definitely been unable to identify decayed corpses as belonging specifically to bandsmen.

Pat Rundgren.
22 January 2019.
140th Anniversary of the battle of Isandlwana.

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