Colonel A W Durnford RE


Anthony William Durnford was born in County Leitrim, Ireland on 24th May 1830 but spent his formative years in Dusseldorf, Germany. In 1848 after cadet training at Woolwich he entered the Corps of Royal Military Artificers (in 1856 they became the Corps of Royal Engineers). He served in Ceylon from 1851 to 1856 building the harbour at Trincomalee and later saving it from burning. He was then in Malta, returning to England in 1858. From 1861 to 1864 he was in Gibraltar then spent 6 years in England and Ireland, with the rank of captain, before going to South Africa.

During his time in Cape Colony he found that he had a healthy respect for black people, and they seemed to like him. Up until that time he had not seen active service but he was part of the pursuit of Langalibalele at Bushman's River Pass during which he was wounded by assegais. The wounds healed but a nerve had been severed and he permanently lost the use of his left hand. In a report on him, a superior officer wrote that he had 'a commanding presence, untiring energy and undoubted powers of leadership'.

But Lord Chelmsford regarded him as headstrong. When the British and colonial army was sent into Zululand for the first invasion it was divided into 5 columns and Brevet Colonel Durnford was placed in command of no.2 Column with the intention of starting from the Middle Drift. This column was made up 6 Troops of Natal Native Horse, 3 battalions of the 1st Natal Native Contingent and a Rocket Battery. In the event Chelmsford combined Columns 2 and 3 to proceed towards Isandhlwana.

At the fateful battle of Isandhlwana on 22nd Jan 1879, Durnford was technically in command of the camp while Chelmsford took half the force 10 miles forward. But he and his mounted troops were 4 miles to the east of the camp when the Zulus began to attack. Although some of the 24th Regiment were deployed eastwards to help Durnford they had to be pulled into the camp area. Durnford's men were dismounted and firing to hold off the left horn of the Zulu impi, however, they ran out of ammunition and when Davies and Henderson were sent to get more from the QM of the 24th, they were refused. Durnford's men had no option but to mount up and ride to the camp. This allowed the encirclement of the camp to continue and contributed to the final tragic outcome. Most of the native troops escaped towards the Natal border, including Durnford's mounted men. Durnford himself was part of a last stand near the nek at the southern end of Isandhlwana mountain, where he was killed. In the film 'Zulu Dawn' he was played by Burt Lancaster.


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by Stephen Luscombe