Cavalry regiments were the pride of 19th-century European armies. They were, however, increasingly anachronistic, with battlefield opportunities for the unleashing of the arme blanche (the sabre) becoming ever more rare in an age of magazine rifles, machine-guns, and quick-firing artillery.
Many cavalrymen trained, exercised, and served through long careers without ever participating in that ultimate experience: the mounted charge to contact. Despite the huge expense of cavalry regiments, despite the bling and braggadocio of the regimental messes, virtually all the serious fighting was a matter of infantry and guns.
Yet, when the opportunity arose, the ‘shock and awe’ of a mounted charge could be shattering and decisive, turning a faltering in the opposing line into full-scale rout.
The 17th Lancers had last charged as part of the famous Light Brigade at Balaklava in the Crimea on 25 October 1854. Of 147 men who charged with the regiment that day, only 38 were present at roll-call the following morning.
It was a quarter of a century before the 17th charged again: a quarter of a century preparing and waiting for ten minutes of thunder, adrenalin, and blood to justify the regiment’s continued existence.
This comprised a bamboo pole, a forged steel triangular point, and a red-and-white pennon. The lance was a fearsome weapon when used at the charge, for the point would be driven forward with the force of a galloping horse. It was equally effective in pursuit, since it could be used to ‘pig-stick’ fugitives, even if they went to ground. The moral effect of lancers was very great.
Though red was almost universal among British infantry between the early 18th and late 19th centuries, many cavalry regiments wore French-style dark blue, in this case a short, tight-fitting, double-breasted coatee with breeches tucked inside knee-high boots. Facings were white.
The traditional ‘lance cap’ – a two-part headdress comprising round leather skull surmounted by square leather top, complete with elaborate plume – had been discarded in favour of the more practical ‘pith helmet’ of cork covered in buff-coloured leather.
This comprised bedroll, haversack, water-bottle, and ammo pouches, some carried on the saddle, some suspended from white leather cross-belts.
Carbine (out of view)
Troopers were armed with cavalry carbines, which were slung in long leather holsters carried on the back of the saddle, on the right-hand side.
All lancers were equipped with cavalry sabres, the steel blade slightly curved, sharp on the outer edge, and pointed at the end. The weapon was essential in any charge to contact, for lances became too unwieldy in a close-quarters melee.
The British authorities in South Africa had provoked the Zulu War by issuing an ultimatum to King Cetshwayo demanding that he disband his army of 50,000 warriors.
The British, based in Cape Colony, had annexed Natal in 1843, and then the Transvaal in 1877. Zululand was a wedge of territory on the east coast of southern Africa, bordering both Natal and Transvaal. The British regarded the independent and heavily militarised black-ruled Zulu state as a threat to the security of the growing numbers of white settlers.
When Cetshwayo rejected the ultimatum, as he was bound to do, Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand. Confident that his infantry – armed with breech-loading Martini-Henry rifles – would easily crush the Zulus on the battlefield, he divided his army into three widely separated columns, which were to converge on the enemy capital at Ulundi.
Chelmsford himself marched with the central column, but, without knowing the location of the enemy, this he further divided, leaving 1,700 men at his base-camp at Isandhlwana. This force was attacked and annihilated on 22 January 1879.
Chelmsford retreated to Natal. London, appalled by the news, appointed Garnet Wolseley, to replace him. But Chelmsford, heavily reinforced and determined to salvage his reputation, launched a second invasion of Zululand on 31 May – before his rival for the command arrived.
The second invasion
Chelmsford again divided his army into three main columns, but each was now twice the strength of its predecessor. The Zulus had suffered heavy casualties in a series of murderous battles during the first invasion – as well as Isandhlwana, there had been major engagements at Nyezane Drift, Rorke’s Drift, Eshowe, Gingindlovu, Hlobane, and Kambula. Consequently, resistance was muted, and the Zulu king sued for peace.
Chelmsford, however, was set on exacting bloody revenge. With Crealock’s central and Wood’s flying columns linked up, he continued his advance towards Ulundi. Reaching the Royal Kraal, which the Zulus were bound to defend, he formed his 5,000 men into a massive square on the morning of 4 July for the final approach.
Donald Morris, in The Washing of the Spears, describes it thus:
Five companies of the 80th Regiment formed a line abreast four ranks deep, with… two Gatling guns in the centre. Eight companies of the 90th Light Infantry and four of the 94th formed a column of twos behind the left end of the 80th, and eight companies of the 13th and four of the 58th formed behind the right. Two companies of the 94th and two of the 21st closed the rear. The lines were carefully dressed, and 12 fieldpieces… studded the corners and sides.
Inside the square marched a company of Royal Engineers, a battalion of Natal Native Contingent, and 50 ox-wagons and mule-carts. Riding ahead and on the flanks were various units of mounted volunteers (Frontier Light Horse, Transvaal Rangers, Natal Light Horse, the Edendale Contingent), a squadron of 17th Lancers, and a troop of the 1st Dragoon Guards.
It is impossible to advance in square at any speed. The formation must move slowly to ensure that it does not come apart, leaving gaps that might be rushed by the enemy, an eventuality liable to result in a catastrophic disaster. As Callwell explains in his classic monograph Small Wars:
How to prevent gaps from occurring in a square is a question which is easily answered in theory. It is simply a matter of careful supervision and of constantly halting the front face to enable the sides and rear to catch up. But in practice these intervals occur in spite of the most strenuous exertions… That it is a matter of supreme importance to prevent the square from being broken stands to reason. Once the enemy penetrates it, it becomes a thoroughly bad formation.
So Chelmsford’s advance was ponderous. And, at first, there was no sign of the Zulu. Some men thought there would be no battle after all.
But as the square ascended a gentle knoll, the waiting Zulu impis stirred into motion, rising out of the grass of the plain, or streaming down the surrounding slopes – a dozen or so regiments, each with its distinctive shield designs, up to 20,000 warriors in all.
As they came on, they merged into a vast semicircle, and the British cavalry and South African mounted volunteers fled before them, racing for the safety of the square.
The square halted. Lines were dressed, guns unlimbered, bayonets fixed, cartridge boxes opened. The infantry were ranked four deep, two kneeling in front, two standing behind.
There was open ground around the square where the advance had flattened the grass, but beyond that the Zulu warriors had cover in the scrub as they gathered themselves for their charges.
But still the distance was too great, and as regiment after regiment hurled itself into the storm of rifle, machine-gun, and artillery fire, men were scythed until the ground was writhing, no Zulu ever getting closer than 30 yards from the British line.
Succeeding waves charged over the contorted bodies that littered the grass, and the shining faces of the warriors, with gleaming eyes and set teeth, bobbed up and down over the rims of their shields. Raw courage had brought them that far, but bravery alone could not force a way through the crescendo of fire, and warriors sank to their knees to crash full-length in the dust or tumble head over heels in mid-stride. (Morris)
The charge of the lancers
It lasted for about half an hour. Then, with hundreds dead or stricken, the attacks petered out. Some wounded were trying to drag themselves away. Other Zulus were shrieking defiance from the long grass. But the spirit of resistance, already weaker than at Isandhlwana before the battle began, was ebbing away.
Chelmsford sensed it was the end. He had already once ordered the cavalry to mount for a charge, misjudging the moment. But this time he was sure. He waved his helmet at the commander of the 17th Lancers and called out ‘Go at them, Lowe!’.
The redcoats made way and, in column of fours, the lancers moved out of the square, followed by the dragoons and the mounted volunteers. Once clear, the 17th Lancers reformed into line, two deep. Then, lowering lances, they broke from a trot into a canter and then a charge, amid cheers from the watching infantry.
It was a riding-school exercise. Hardly breaking formation, the lancers rode down the slope through the retreating Zulus, picking their men from the ruck. The momentum of the horses spitted the warriors on the points, and as they passed, a strong outward flick of the wrist cleared the weapon, which swung back, up, and forward again to point, with stained tip and dyed pennon, at the next victim. (Morris)
Cavalry charges are soon spent. They fast lose momentum as horses become winded, the formation extended, the fighting dissolving into myriad personal encounters. Some of the braver Zulus recovered their nerve and made a stand here and there, grabbing at the lances, jumping out of the grass to stab with assegais, attempting to pull down horses and riders by yanking at their reins.
Others brought firearms to bear. A formed group of 500 or so rose from concealment in the grass and delivered a volley. Some of the horsemen went down, including Captain the Honourable Edmond Verney, shot dead in the saddle.
Even so, with close to a thousand mounted men in action against regiments of spearmen broken by a storm of fire – the square had fired 35,000 rounds, most of them at close range – there was no doubt about the final outcome. With lance and sabre, carbine and revolver, the British and South African horse completed the destruction of the last Zulu army in history.
The battle had been tragically one-sided. Men armed mainly with spears (assegais) and clubs (knobkerries) had been defeated by a quarter of their number armed with modern weapons. More than a thousand Zulus lay on the field, and many more may have crept away unseen: no accurate count was ever made of their army’s losses. What is certain is that Chelmsford had 10 killed and 69 wounded: a paltry number to achieve the destruction of the greatest black kingdom in southern Africa…
The 17th Lancers
The regiment was raised in Hertfordshire by Colonel John Hale, a veteran of Quebec, in 1759, though it was first known as the 18th Regiment of Light Dragoons, only finally becoming the 17th Lancers while serving in India in 1822. Exactly a century later, in 1922, it was merged with the 21st Lancers, becoming part of the 17th/21st Lancers.
The regiment’s battle honours include Bunker Hill (1775) and Cowpens (1781) during the American Revolutionary War, and the Alma (1854), Balaklava (1854), and Inkerman (1854) during the Crimean War.
As well as serving in the Zulu War, other colonial commitments included the Indian Mutiny (1857) and the Boer War (1900-1902). The latter, a protracted guerrilla insurgency of mounted riflemen, afforded ample opportunity for cavalry operations.
Opportunities were fewer in the First World War, though the regiment did serve in a conventional cavalry role at Cambrai (1917) and Amiens (1918) during its long service on the Western Front. Interestingly, it also saw service against the Irish Republican Army in County Cork in 1921.
– The regiment’s most famous commanding officer was Douglas Haig, who later became commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. (Service in prestigious cavalry regiments was, at the time, often a passport to a successful military career. Haig was one of many colonial cavalry officers who become senior officers in the First World War.)
– The motto of the 17th Lancers was ‘Death or Glory’, their cap badge showed a skull-and-crossbones supporting a banner inscribed ‘Or Glory’, and one of their nicknames was ‘the Death and Glory Boys’.
– The 17th/21st Lancers was mechanised in 1938. Following a series of post-war amalgamations, the regiment became part of the Royal Lancers in 2015.