European Wars of Empire (1803–1902)

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European Wars of Empire (1803–1902)

Major Figures

Shah Shuja (1785–1842)

Shah Shuja was an Afhgan ruler during the First Afghan War (1838–1842). The story of Shah Shuja is intertwined with the rising and falling fortunes of the British Empire in Afghanistan in the first half of the nineteenth century. A player who was often at the losing end of the complex and deadly game of politics in the region, Shuja eventually paid for his part with his life.

First Kingship and Flight from Afghanistan

Shuja was born the grandson of Ahmed Shah (founder of the Durrani dynasty) and was raised among Afghan royalty. After serving as governor of Peshawar and Herat for three years, Shuja made a bid for the crown, declaring himself king in 1801. After orchestrating conspiracies to dethrone his two brothers, Mahmud and Taman Shah, Shuja was formally enthroned in 1803. The country he reigned over was less a kingdom than a patchwork collection of loosely associated tribes, whose alliances and loyalties—based on complex clan politics—were fickle and ever shifting.

His reign was to last only six years. Deposed in May 1809 by his brother Mahmud, Shuja fled southwards to the Indian frontier. For three years, starting in 1811, Shuja was imprisoned and held hostage by a series of petty lords, finally winning his freedom by trading the legendary Koh-i-Noor diamond for a guarantee of safe passage.

Following his imprisonment and for the next two decades, Shah Shuja bided his time in India. By 1833, he was marching back to his homeland after forging an alliance with the Sikhs, who were only participating in the war in order to make a grab for the territory of Peshawar. Shuja was defeated in battle in July and forced to return to India; the Sikhs, for their part, successfully occupied and annexed Peshawar.

The Great Game

Meanwhile, global politics were deciding Afghanistan’s fate. The British were growing increasingly, almost irrationally, concerned with the thought of a developing Russian threat against their Indian interests. Despite the fact that the Russian and Indian frontiers were separated by nearly two thousand miles of inhospitable terrain, a series of diplomatic overtures from the new ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad, towards Russia, as well as Russia’s developing connections with Persia, seemed to signal to many British politicians and generals that a Russian invasion was imminent.

This was the beginning of the “Great Game,” the umbrella term for the series of diplomatic and military moves and countermoves that occupied British and Russian attention in Asia for nearly the whole of the nineteenth century. Although he didn’t realize it, Shah Shuja was fated to become one of the first playing pieces of the Great Game.

In India, Lord Auckland had decided that Dost Muhammad was too pro-Russian for his taste, so Auckland supported Shah Shuja in a second attempt to win back the throne. With a pro-British ruler on the throne, Afghanistan would effectively function as a buffer zone between India and Russia. All that was left to do was put Shuja back on the throne, a task regarded almost as an afterthought.

Shuja and the First Afghan War

British forces invaded Afghanistan in 1838, restoring Shah Shuja to the throne by the following year. Despite the ease with which the invasion had been accomplished, the British held a very tenuous position in the country, more so than they even realized. Although there were no intentions for a long-term occupation, the British troops stationed in Kabul were obliged to stay on indefinitely while they tried to stabilize the situation. However, this only strengthened Afghan fears that their country was to be annexed by the British Empire. Huge outlays of cash were paid by Great Britain to restive tribal leaders to keep them from causing trouble.

Shuja’s position as new king was similarly precarious. Dost Muhammad had been a well-regarded ruler thanks to his focus on strengthening the country’s infrastructure. Furthermore, Shuja was perceived as a tool of the potential British occupation—his advisors, such as the brilliant young diplomat Alexander Burnes, were all British, and he was being encouraged to rule along British lines of governance.

Back in England, funding for the British expedition (and the attendant bribes to Afghan leaders), was proving a serious drain on the treasury. The decision was made to reduce the bribes, which were themselves already barely sufficient to maintain order. The predictable result ensued by November 1841, as the country degenerated into chaos and the British garrison at Kabul decided to abandon the city. That fateful decision would end with the death or capture of the entire British expedition, save one soldier who lived to tell the tale.

Meanwhile, back in Kabul, Shah Shuja had been deposed, reduced to cowering behind the walls of the city’s citadel, the Bala Hissar. Despised as a puppet of British ambitions, yet abandoned by those very same forces, Shuja’s tumultuous life came to an end as soon as he left the citadel’s protection in April 1842, murdered at the hands of an angry mob.


Known as much for his cruelty as for his conquests, Shaka (1787–1828), leader of the Zulus, looms large in the history of Africa and Europe’s colonial efforts there. By developing a new, bloodier approach to tribal warfare, Shaka built a great empire over the course of his relatively short reign, bringing his nation to the borders of the European colonies of southern Africa, sowing the seeds of future conflicts, and forever altering the politics, demographics, and even the very way of life of the region.

Early Life

That Shaka would rise to such momentous heights was far from a foregone conclusion at the outset of his life. Although the son of the Zulu chief Senzangakona, he was exiled along with his mother while still an infant, declared illegitimate. Young Shaka grew up under the protection of neighboring tribes, eventually finding a home with Dingiswayo, chief of the Mthethwa.

Growing up in exile, Shaka began to exhibit early on the personality traits that would mark him for the remainder of his life. He was a loner who shunned friends, preferring to keep to his own company. The only person he formed any sort of attachment to was his mother, and to her he was extremely devoted.

As he progressed into adolescence, Shaka quickly developed a reputation as a superb athlete and hunter, with the physique to match. When he came of age at twenty-one, he joined Dingiswayo’s tribal army and began distinguishing himself in battle. The Mthethwa had been experiencing a period of rapid expansion under their chief, who had begun to build up a sort of proto-nation in the form of a wide-ranging confederacy of thirty tribes united by his conquests.

Rise to Power

Shaka quickly became one of Dingiswayo’s favorites, and the Mthethwa chief happily backed Shaka’s bid for leadership of the Zulus when Senzangakona died. After assassinating his half-brother, Shaka was named chief of the Zulus. He wasted no time reforming his army along theories developed by his own experiences and frustrations fighting for Dingiswayo.

The Mthethwa way of making war was the traditional Bantu approach. The two tribal armies would face off about fifty yards apart, deployed in a loose and unorganized mass. Women and children of both tribes would seat themselves off to the side of the battlefield, shouting encouragement and insults as the two sides began exchanging hurled spears. This would go on until one side conceded defeat. Casualties were light, and the whole event had a decidedly ritualistic air about it.

Shaka detested tribal combat and developed a new way of making war that utilized never-before-seen weapons and tactics. He replaced the long assegai spear with a shortened assegai that was soon nicknamed the iKlwa, supposedly for the slurping noise it made when withdrawn from an enemy. It consisted of a long, broad blade and short handle, almost more like a sword than a spear.

He also equipped his men with cowhide shields and deployed them in close order formation, shoulder to shoulder and arranged in what was called the “bull-head” formation. This formation consisted of the “head,” which closed with the bulk of the enemy force; the “horns,” two wings on either side who crashed into the enemy’s flanks once the “head” had pinned them in place; and the “loins,” who acted as a reserve.

The bull-head’s sole objective was to advance quickly against the milling crowd that was the enemy army. Any hurled spears could easily be deflected by the tough, thick shields. As soon as Shaka’s men closed in they would attack furiously, turning what had once been an almost ceremonial act into a bloodbath. Another innovation Shaka brought to the battlefield was to absorb the defeated men of the enemy’s army into his own. Thus his force grew larger, and his opponent was effectively eliminated, a strategy that suited the ruthless Shaka well.

Shaka first put these new tactics into practice after the assassination of Dingiswayo in the late 1810s by the usurper Zwide. Shaka cornered Zwide’s much larger army in a barren valley, let them suffer from the lack of food and water for several days, then fell upon them, winning a total victory. It was the first of many that would follow over the next decade.

With the death of Dingiswayo and the defeat of Zwide, Shaka assumed total control and began a period of relentless conquest and expansion. By 1824 he had expanded Zulu territory to cover hundreds of thousands of square miles and could muster an army that topped 100,000 men.

The Mfecane

This mighty army was held together by an almost inhuman level of discipline. Soldiers were required to pledge their celibacy, not being allowed to marry until their unit had achieved glory in battle. Men who were unable to complete marches or were judged cowards were clubbed to death by their officers. In this environment, ruled by threat of reprisals and encouragement of bloodlust, units had to be kept apart lest they begin fighting each other over who was braver.

Shaka’s unstoppable army, which he led personally, spread a reign of terror across the land. Whole populations fled before his advance; armies surrendered without a fight. The period of his conquests is known as the Mfecane, the “crushing.” Millions were displaced from their homes and untold hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, died from warfare, famine, and disease. Vast stretches of South Africa were virtually depopulated, just in time for the arrival of Boer and Afrikaner settlers moving in from the west.

As the Zulu army was forced to march farther and farther afield just to find opponents to fight, Shaka retired to his capital, where, at his whim, there were almost daily executions. Shaka’s dark, brooding personality weighed heavily over his people and took a great toll. He finally went too far, alienating even his staunchest supporters, in the wake of his mother’s death in 1827.

Devastated and inconsolable, Shaka ordered a year of national mourning. Married couples were ordered to remain celibate during the grieving period, farmers were forbidden from sowing their crops, cattlemen were forbidden from milking their cattle. Executions were ordered for those who Shaka judged were not showing enough grief.

Finally, in 1828, Shaka was murdered by his two half-brothers, Mhlangane and Dingane, as he was preparing to assault the Portuguese fortress at Delagoa Bay. Dingane then assassinated his co-conspirator and assumed control of the Zulu nation, which would survive another fifty years in the face of relentless European expansionism thanks in large part to the strong foundation Shaka had laid down. Whatever his faults and excesses, the nation he built over the course of a decade was strong enough to last well beyond his death.


Cetshwayo (1826–1884) was the fourth king of the Zulu nation, and the last king to rule it as an independent country. Under his leadership, the Zulus fought the British in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, which began with the stunning British defeat at Isandlwana but ended with Cetshwayo in exile, his nation under British domination. That Cetshwayo’s reign ended amidst such unfortunate circumstances should not take away from his earlier accomplishments, for he was one of the Zulu’s ablest rulers, a brilliant leader in both peace and war.

The Power Behind the Throne

Born the nephew of two famous Zulu kings (Shaka and Dingane), Cetshwayo’s father Mpande deposed Dingane in 1839. From an early age Cetshwayo was groomed to inherit the throne, an unusual practice in Zulu society, as rulers generally liked to keep their choice for successor shrouded in doubt as long as possible in order to prevent coups by overanxious young upstarts. Indeed, as he grew older Mpande began to worry that the charismatic Cetshwayo was gathering too much power. He began to instead openly back Mbuyazi, the son of his second wife, as heir-apparent.

Needless to say, this did not sit well with Cetshwayo or his supporters, the powerful Usuthu faction, who were finally pushed to the breaking point when Mbuyazi and his supporters relocated their lands into Usuthu territory. An all-out civil war erupted, a war that quickly drew the attention of the nearby European colonies of Natal and Transvaal, populated by British and Dutch-German settlers, respectively.

Intending to defuse the tense situation, John Dunn, the Natal Border Agent, traveled into Zulu territory with a small force of thirty-five Europeans and one hundred African “hunters.” Upon talking to both camps, he and his team of “negotiators” instead turned mercenary, selling their services to Mbuyazi and fighting at the Battle of Ndondakusuka in 1856.

Despite the edge gained by Dunn’s modern weaponry, Mbuyazi’s force of about seven thousand was vastly outnumbered, perhaps by as much as three to one, and forced to flee. At the Tukela, a small river, thousands of soldiers, women, and children were killed by Cethshwayo’s men. Mbuyazi, and by extension Mpande, had been decisively defeated.

Although Mpande continued to reign in name, Cetshwayo wielded the real power in the kingdom for the remainder of his father’s life. Noted for his charisma and powerful physique, Cetshwayo began reinstituting the largely abandoned military doctrines of Shaka’s time. On the domestic front, he concentrated his efforts on reestablishing power with the central authority of the king. When Cetshwayo assumed the throne formally in 1872 he established a new capital at Ulundi, “the high place.”

Conflict and Defeat

The new king was crowned twice, first in a traditional ceremony on October 22, then shortly thereafter by Natal Secretary for Native Affairs, Theophilus Shepstone. This gesture, which Cetshwayo initiated, was a mark of his new policy of maintaining close and friendly relations with the European colonies. Long before he became king, Cetshwayo had employed John Dunn, who had fought against him at Tukela, as an advisor, arms dealer, and intermediary, making the European a minor chief and rewarding him with land and prestige.

Despite Cetshwayo’s best efforts, conflicts with the neighboring colonies increased dramatically during his reign. Border clashes with the Boers began to intensify in 1875, not ending until Britain annexed the South African Republic in 1877. That same year, a series of incidents on the Natal border began the process that would lead to the Anglo-Zulu War: a raid across the Natal border to bring back two fugitive wives of an important chief, an assault on a British surveying team, and a large Zulu hunt along the Buffalo River all conspired to raise the general level of alarm of British and Boer settlers, greatly inflaming international tensions.

As these events played out, Sir Bartle Frere replaced Theophilus Shepstone with direct orders to do his utmost to bring about the union of the various South African colonies as soon as possible. Thus, when Cetshwayo agreed to participate in a formal inquiry in 1878 to settle several outstanding issues surrounding the exact demarcation of the Natal-Zulu border, Frere ruled against the Zulus despite the fact that the evidence was strongly in favor of their claims—Frere felt that a ruling against the British would damage his cause for unity.

The biased finding was kept quiet as long as possible as Frere began moving troops into the region. In December 1878 he finally presented Cetshwayo with the verdict, along with a set of treaty demands that were purposely insulting and impossible for Cetshwayo to agree to. Fighting broke out shortly thereafter in January 1879.

Despite an early victory at Isandlwana, the Zulus were defeated by July, Ulundi reduced to ashes and Cetshwayo on the run. He was quickly found and captured, then shipped off to imprisonment and held as a prisoner of war from 1879–1882.

A Brief Return to Power

During his incarceration, the once-mighty Zulu nation was divided up into thirteen separate states, each ruled by a chief hand-selected by British authorities. The new system quickly proved unworkable, and by 1883 the British were willing to listen to Cetshwayo’s requests to return to rule his kingdom. He was sent by ship to London—where he quickly became toast of the social scene—for a private audience with Queen Victoria, who granted him his petition.

Although he was able to return to South Africa once again in power, his influence was greatly reduced. He was not allowed to raise an army and ruled directly over just a small portion of the divided country. The Usuthu, still backing Cetshwayo, went to war with the king’s cousin Zibhebhu, who controlled the northern states. Time and again the Usuthu met defeat; their leadership was quickly decimated. By October 1883, Cetshwayo once again found himself on the run.

He died in February 1884 while living under British protection. The official cause of death was listed as a heart attack, but it is likely that he was poisoned by his political enemies—a poisoning attempt was made on the king’s chief advisor. Cetshwayo’s son Dinizulu inherited the throne of a divided and subjugated nation.

Frederic Thesiger, Lord Chelmsford

Frederic Augustus Thesiger, Second Baron Chelmsford (1827–1905), was born the son of the well-known politician and lawyer Frederic Thesiger, one-time Lord Chancellor. The younger Frederic would be best remembered for his role as commander of the British forces in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.

Early Military Career

Prior to the Zulu conflict, Thesiger had moved through the ranks of the British army in the typical fashion. After joining the army in 1844 and serving for one year in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Thesiger purchased an exchange, a common practice at the time, into the Grenadier Guards.

From 1852 to 1854, Thesiger served on the staffs of both the lord lieutenant and commander in chief of Ireland, then shipped out for the Crimean War in 1855. During his time at the front, he was mentioned in dispatches and decorated with the British, Turkish, and Sardinian Crimean Medals.

After the Crimean War, Thesiger was sent to India, where he served during the tail end of the Indian Mutiny and participated in the capture of Magdala. He would go on to serve at posts in India and the East Indies from 1858 to 1874, receiving steady promotions along the way, including an award of the Companion of the Order of the Bath and being named aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria.

By 1877, Thesiger had made it to the rank of major-general. The following year he was appointed to command all the British forces in South Africa. He also inherited his father’s title upon his death, becoming the Second Baron Chelmsford.

South Africa and the Anglo-Zulu War

As 1878 came to a close, Chelmsford was placed in charge of organizing a rapidly-expanding army of British and native ally soldiers in the Natal region. This army, seventeen thousand strong, was preparing to go to war with the Zulu nation and its leader Cetshwayo. Despite the difference in technology—the British were armed with repeating rifles, Gatling guns, and cannons, the Zulus with muskets, spears, and shields—the task that faced Chelmsford was not a foregone conclusion. The Zulu army had a well-deserved reputation as one of the most highly trained, disciplined forces on the continent.

Chelmsford sent several columns into Zulu territory in January 1879. A quick victory was won at Nyezane Drift and Chelmsford chose to divide his forces. It was a choice he would quickly regret, as the 1,600 troops in his central column were wiped out at Isandlwana by half the Zulu army, one of the harshest defeats of the British army in the nineteenth century.

The British army, and Chelmsford, retreated to Natal, the invasion in tatters. Fortunately for Chelmsford, the Zulus had suffered too many casualties to allow an invasion of Natal, so the British were able to catch their breath and prepare for a second try. Chelmsford, for his part in the disaster, was sacked immediately.

The well-known general Lord Wolesley was dispatched from England as a replacement, but Chelmsford stayed on to lead the second invasion until Wolesley arrived. As it turned out, the campaign would end before Chelmsford’s replacement could take over. At Gingindlovu, Chelmsford personally and successfully directed the defense of an outnumbered British force, holed up behind a wagon laager (a sort of ad-hoc fortification made of interlocked supply wagons), and the advance on the Zulu capital continued.

British forces soon reached the Zulu capital of Ulundi, burning it on July 4 and bringing the war to an effective end. Wolesley finally arrived and directed the last mopping-up actions, including the capture of Cetshwayo, while making sure that Chelmsford received due credit for his victory.

The victory at Ulundi went a long way towards expunging the shock of Isandlwana, and Chelmsford received a hero’s welcome when he arrived back in England, along with an award of the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.

Chelmsford continued his military career after the Anglo-Zulu War. He was made lieutenant-general in 1882 and full general in 1888, serving as the lieutenant of the Tower of London from 1884–1889. His legacy and honor secure, he died in 1905 while playing a game of pool, survived by his four sons.

Tu Duc

Emperor Tu Duc (1829–1883) reigned as the last ruler of an independent Vietnam. His policy of isolationism and hostility towards European influences—and Catholicism in particular—only served to motivate European (namely French) intervention, an involvement that was then accelerated by the emperor’s uneven and confused response.

Domestic Policy

By all accounts, Tu Duc was a thoughtful, intelligent, scholarly ruler. His birth name was Hong Nham, and he was born the second son of Prince Tuyen, who would later be crowned as Emperor Thieu Tri. Growing up, Hong received a proper Confucian education, and his writings reveal a cultured, if somewhat pessimistic, intellect.

Although he was second-born, Hong was placed on the throne upon the death of his father in 1847 thanks to the machinations of his mother and certain conservative Confucian court officials, who saw Hong Nham’s older brother, the Crown Prince Hong Bao, as too moderate. Hong Bao led a rebellion against his brother that was quickly suppressed by the newly-crowned Tu Duc.

Over the course of his reign, Tu Duc was to leave his greatest mark in the realm of scholarship. Several important works were written under his patronage, including a compendium of imperial administrative practices, a gazetteer (guide) of the country, and a complete history of Vietnam, annotated by the emperor himself.

International Policy

Unfortunately, Vietnam did not need a scholarly leader, but rather one who would be able to deal with world events that were increasingly tying the country’s fate into that of the Western world. France, anxiously playing “catch up” in the race to establish colonies around the world, had grown increasingly interested in establishing ties with Indochina during the reigns of Tu Duc’s father and grandfather. Both preceding emperors had resisted these overtures, even going so far as to forbid any moves towards modernization, which was seen as a product of Western society. Tu Duc continued these policies with the same zeal.

During Thieu Tri’s reign, the East-West conflict playing out in Vietnam was personified by Catholic missionaries, mainly French and Spanish in origin, operating in the country. Persecution of the missionaries under Thieu Tri had brought about swift retribution: in 1847, a squadron of French warships had destroyed all of Vietnam’s coastal forts and sunk three junks in a demonstration of force. Vietnam’s military forces were woefully outclassed and unable to effectively respond.

Despite the obvious edge held by the European powers, Tu Duc, buoyed by the outbreak of civil unrest in France and across Europe in 1848, saw no harm in continuing his father’s policies. That year he ordered all practicing Catholics in his country to renounce their faith; failure to do so would result in receiving a brand to the face marking them as heretics, as well as the loss of all legal rights.

These anti-Catholic policies, along with continued repression of European foreigners, finally compelled the French to land a military expedition in August 1858. Despite the efforts of the Catholic diplomat Nguyen Truong To to intermediate between the two sides, there was little diplomatic communication. The French dominated militarily but suffered from the tropical heat and diseases, so their progress inland was slow.

The French cause was helped considerably by the literally hundreds of local uprisings that began to flare up across the country around the same time. Foreign intervention was only one of the causes; the mid-nineteenth century in Vietnam was marked with one natural disaster after another: famine, floods, diseases, and mass infestations of rats and locusts drove peasants to the breaking point. It was all Tu Duc could do to keep the local uprisings from turning into a national rebellion, and while he was putting out fires across the country, the French were taking more and more territory in the south.

Colonial Concessions

The emperor was finally driven to the bargaining table in 1862. Two treaties, one signed that year and another signed in 1874, granted France outright possession of the southern portion of the country, called Cochinchina. The remainder of the country was granted the status of French protectorate. France’s fate was now tied up with Vietnam’s, and the path to the creation of the colony of French Indochina had been paved.

In contrast to his earlier years of resistance, Tu Duc spent the remainder of his reign supporting the new order, actively discouraging and suppressing resistance to French political influence. Shortly after his death the French would go to war with China—which had long considered Vietnam to fall within its sphere of influence—and win, thereby cementing their control over the country.

Tu Duc, rendered sterile by a childhood case of smallpox, left no direct heirs. He was succeeded by a line of puppet emperors notable mainly for their short reigns, cut short by murder or exile.

Queen Victoria

Victoria (1819–1901), Queen of Great Britain and Empress of India upon her death in 1901, gave her name to an entire age, ruling as Britain’s longest-lived and longest-reigning monarch. Her reign marked the high water mark of the British Empire, as India and large portions of the African continent came under direct British control. Often directly involved in affairs of state, her policies strongly influenced the course of British and world history, even as her personal life set the tone for the age.

Early Life

Victoria was born in the wake of a potential succession crisis. King George III had sired fifteen children, only one of whom had produced a legitimate heir, Princess Charlotte, who died in childbirth in 1817. Members of Parliament and British bishops began pressing the other Georgian offspring to produce a suitable heir. Edward, duke of Kent, was the first to answer the call, marrying a German princess who then gave birth to Victoria in 1819. Victoria’s father and her grandfather, the king, were dead within months of her birth, leaving her third in line to the throne.

Growing up, Princess Victoria led a curiously sheltered life. Her mother Victoria, Duchess of Kent, conspired with Sir John Conroy, in charge of the princess’s finances, to raise the child as a puppet ruler, enabling them to run the country from behind the scenes. Under what was dubbed the “Kensington System,” Victoria was under constant supervision, required to keep a diary that was reviewed each night and not allowed to go anywhere without an escort.

In the face of the repressive upbringing, Princess Victoria maintained a remarkable spirit of independence, nurtured by her governess, Baroness Lehzen, and by correspondence with her favorite uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium. During this period she received an education befitting a potential monarch, being taught several languages and a thorough grounding in mathematics, science, and history, her favorite subject. She was also a talented artist and was encouraged to practice drawing and painting in her spare time.

Queen of the British Empire

A month after her eighteenth birthday, Victoria’s uncle King William IV died. Informed of her accession to the throne at 6:00 a.m. while still in her nightgown, Victoria immediately set about taking control of her reign. Although politically inexperienced, she involved herself in her country’s affairs to the best of her abilities, relying strongly on the advice and guidance of the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, to the extent that she was jokingly referred to in some circles as “Mrs. Melbourne.”

By 1839, Lord Melbourne had been forced out of office. His political rival, Sir Robert Peel, was set to assume the office, but was stymied by the so-called “Bedchamber Crisis.” At the time it was customary for the prime minister to appoint palace staff based on political favoritism, but Victoria refused to allow Peel to replace her ladies-in-waiting, whom she considered close friends. Peel felt his authority had been unacceptably compromised and resigned from office, bringing Lord Melbourne back into power.

Victoria was able to finally rise above such partisan maneuvers by her marriage to Albert, Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and also her first cousin. Initially introduced through King Leopold I, Victoria and Albert were married on February 10, 1840, both very much in love with each other, as the Queen chronicled in her journal the morning after their wedding day:

“When day dawned (for we did not sleep much) and I beheld that beautiful angelic face by my side, it was more than I can express!”

Queen Victoria was to enjoy twenty-one years of married life. Albert, who was named Prince Consort in 1857, would function as her close advisor and confidant for most of that time. Over seventeen of those years, the Queen would give birth to nine children who would, in turn, go on to marry such a widespread cross-section of European royalty that Victoria would eventually be called the “Grandmother of Europe.”

With Albert’s encouragement, Victoria presided over a progressive, moderate government policy that funded science and the arts. The Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Crystal Palace were all legacies and monuments to these policies. Victoria supported the move towards increased British expansionism and colonialism, particularly after the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Albert served as political advisor to the queen, perhaps most notably and ably during the Trent Affair of 1861, which threatened to drag Britain into the American Civil War.

It was shortly after helping to defuse the Trent Affair that Albert died from typhoid at the age of forty-two. Devastated, Victoria continued to rule alone for another forty years, wearing black in mourning for the remainder of her life. After Albert’s death, the Queen remained largely withdrawn from public life, hardly leaving her royal residences.

Later Rule and Legacy

Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, marking the sixtieth year of her reign. The Jubilee parade included troops, princes, and subjects from every corner of the globe in an ostentatious display of the British Empire’s might and reach. It was thanks in large part to Queen Victoria’s policies that the Empire had reached such lofty heights, and she would continue to push her imperial agenda until her death, personally reviewing reports on the ongoing Boer War in South Africa. Her opposition to the liberal prime minister, William Gladstone, whose reluctant imperialism clashed with her aggressive preferences, was well-known, and it was through her urgings that Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had her named Empress of India in 1876.

Victoria died in 1901 of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of eighty-one, after a sixty-three-year reign. Her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, was at her side during her last moments. Thirteen years later, Britain and Germany would find themselves at war as family ties were swept aside in the face of escalating militarism and botched diplomacy. The period of European peace that Victoria had presided over, as well as the last major phase of European colonial expansion, would come to an end with the First World War.

Frederick Roberts

Frederick Sleigh Roberts (1832–1914) is widely regarded as the most successful military commander of the Victorian-era British Empire. His long list of accomplishments and victories span the Indian Mutiny to the dawn of the First World War. Over the course of his life, he rose from second lieutenant to field marshal and commander in chief of the entire British Army, winning nearly every major honor that Britain had to offer, becoming first a baron and then an earl in the process.


Roberts was born in Cawnpore, India, to General Sir Abraham Roberts, head of a distinguished Anglo-Irish family with deep roots in the city of Waterford. After being sent back to England for education at Eton, Sandhurst, and the East India Company’s Addiscombe academy, he was commissioned an officer in the Bengal Artillery in 1851.

So it was that young Lieutenant Roberts was present for the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny, fighting at the siege of Delhi and at the relief of Lucknow. He won the Victoria Cross for his valiant actions at Khudaganj in January 1858, where he single-handedly recaptured a fallen standard.

After the events of the Mutiny, except for joining the 1868 expedition to Ethiopia, Roberts spent most of the next two decades involved in the Northwest Frontier, the area roughly corresponding to modern-day Pakistan that bordered Afghanistan and Persia and caused the British much worry for its supposed vulnerability. Roberts himself became a staunch advocate of the “forward policy,” which took a decidedly aggressive stance towards Afghanistan and potential Russian involvement.


By 1876, proponents of the “forward policy,” had won out, and Roberts was marching at the head of one of the columns that invaded Afghanistan that year. British victories came swiftly and Roberts, who had been rising steadily in the ranks, was promoted to major-general and knighted for his actions in the invasion.

Unfortunately, as with the First Afghan War, the early victories of the Second Afghan War did not pacify the countryside; Roberts was soon put in charge of relieving the beleaguered British garrison at Kandahar. His ten-thousand-strong force secured a crushing victory, then went on to capture Kabul and force the Afghan emir, Muhammad Yakub Khan, to abdicate.

Sir Roberts, after lobbying unsuccessfully for the annexation of Kandahar to British India, was appointed commander in chief first of Madras, then, by 1885, of the whole of India. He was to hold that post for eight years, using the time to reorganize troop training and transportation. He was created Baron Roberts of Kandehar and Waterford in 1892, then promoted to field marshal in May 1895, transferring to Ireland as that region’s commander in chief at the same time.

South Africa

The last major military action of his life was the Second Boer War, which broke out in October 1899. During fighting at Colenso, Roberts’ son was killed in action, receiving a posthumous Victoria Cross for his heroics under fire. In December, after a series of defeats, Roberts was appointed to command the beleaguered British forces in South Africa.

Roberts turned the tide of the war by consolidating troop deployments, increasing the presence of mounted elements, and resisting the call to relieve the many small British garrisons that found themselves under siege. Instead, Roberts focused on taking major cities, thereby forcing the Boers to fight in major engagements.

The newly resurgent British quickly set about retaking cities lost to the Boer offensive—Bloemfontein in March 1900, then Johannesburg and Pretoria in quick succession at the end of May and beginning of June, respectively. With the Boer President Paul Kruger sent fleeing to Europe, the war seemed over. Roberts returned to England where, as one of her last official acts, the venerable Queen Victoria created him Earl Roberts of Kandahar, Pretoria, and Waterford.

Command of the South African forces was handed over to Lord Kitchener, who quickly found that the Boer guerrillas were bloodied but unbowed and eventually required another two years of hard fighting to bring the conflict to an end. Meanwhile, Earl Roberts found himself the target of criticism for his war strategy, which, said his critics, had not focused enough on destruction of the enemy armies.

A National Hero

Nevertheless, Earl Roberts’ overall reputation remained untarnished. He was named as commander in chief of the British Army in 1901, and would be the last person to hold the position, as it was abolished three years later. The remainder of his life was spent organizing the National Service League and pressing for national conscription in anticipation of the coming war in Europe, which appeared increasingly inevitable.

When it did break out in 1914, Roberts, at the ripe age of eighty-two, was named commander of all Indian forces in Europe. He did not live to fill the post. On his way to the front lines, he caught pneumonia and died at St. Omer, France, on November 14, 1914.

By the time of his death, Field Marshal The Right Honourable Sir Frederick Roberts, Earl Roberts, as he was formally styled, was holder of the Victoria Cross, the Orders of the Garter, of St. Patrick, of the Bath, of Merit, of the Star of India, and of the Indian Empire, was named Privy Councillor, and was widely considered one of Great Britain’s greatest national heroes.

Charles Gordon

General Charles “Chinese” Gordon (1833–1885) was already a well-known figure in Great Britain when he perished at the Siege of Khartoum, earning him a place in the pantheon of British military heroes. Held up by some in his day as a Christian martyr, General Gordon seemed to exhibit for many years before his death a willingness, perhaps even a wish, to die for his cause.

Early Military Career

Charles Gordon was born in 1833 into a military family, the heir to three consecutive generations of army officers. His father and brother would both eventually attain the rank of lieutenant-general. Growing up, Gordon chafed under the strict discipline of his home life and continued to rebel during his time at the Royal Military Academy, which he began attending at age sixteen.

Thanks in part to his poor disciplinary record at the Academy, Gordon was passed over for his preferred assignment to the Royal Artillery and instead ended up in the Royal Engineers when he graduated in 1852. Finding the social obligations expected of an officer not to his taste, Gordon devoted most of his energies over the next two years to designing and building coastal defense forts along the Welsh coast.

With the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, Gordon saw a chance for adventure. He volunteered for the British expedition that was to join with French, Sardinian, and Turkish allies in an invasion of Russia. For the next two years, Gordon would take part in the siege of the port city of Sevastopol, often lamenting the lack of offensive drive among his allies.

By 1856, the Russians had withdrawn from the city. Gordon and his fellow engineers spent a few months dismantling the city’s port facilities, then Gordon was dispatched to the wild frontiers of Armenia and Bessarabia to assist in firming up the boundaries between the Russian and Ottoman Empires.

After two years of such independent work, Gordon, now promoted to captain, quickly grew tired of domestic affairs when he was posted back to England. By 1860, Gordon had volunteered to join a joint French-British expedition to China. That country was engulfed in the bloody and chaotic Taiping Rebellion, and both France and Great Britain were interested in protecting their economic and colonial interests in the region. The expedition Gordon joined laid siege to the capital city of Peking and succeeded in extracting a promise of special trade rights in seventeen Chinese ports.

“Chinese” Gordon

Gordon, promoted to brevet-major, toured China, studying the Taku Forts and the Great Wall. Gordon’s return to combat duty came in 1863, when he took command of a ragtag Chinese force dubbed “The Ever Victorious Army” with aim of suppressing the Taiping Rebellion. This goal the army accomplished ably, bringing the uprising to an end with the capture of Nanjing after a brilliant campaign orchestrated by Gordon. It was after this accomplishment that Gordon picked up his “Chinese” nickname back in England, where he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and awarded the status of Companion of Bath.

Back from China, Gordon once again found home service confining. During this period, Gordon’s sense of religious charity—already well-developed during his time in China, where he did significant charity work for the poor—became more deeply entrenched; he worked tirelessly towards poverty relief, even hosting orphan children at his home. Already well-known for his military exploits, Gordon’s ceaseless charity work made him something of a minor celebrity in England.

The Sudan

It was during a posting to the Danubian Commission in 1873, a diplomatic task that did not suit Gordon’s brash personality in the slightest, that a chance encounter with the prime minister of Egypt, Nubair Pasha, would bring Gordon to Africa and set him on a path towards Khartoum. The governor of the Equatorial Provinces of Sudan, Sir Samuel Baker, had died, and Pasha had been tasked with finding an Englishman to succeed him and rule on behalf of Egypt. Gordon accepted the post on the condition that his salary be cut by 80 percent. Traveling to Egypt, Gordon established a friendship with the khedive, or ruler, of Egypt, a person named Ismail. Ismail asked Gordon to do his best to suppress the Sudan’s notorious slave trade and to expand Egyptian territory south.

Over the next two years, Gordon tried his best to meet these goals. Despite earnest work against human trafficking in the region, Gordon met with resistance at nearly every turn—from local governors (who made most of their money from the trade) to common citizens, who accepted slavery as part of life and resented the foreigner’s attempts to change things.

Gordon was soon frustrated by his setbacks and tendered his resignation in 1876. He wasn’t gone long—Khedive Ismail lured him back to the region in 1877, naming him governor-general of the Sudan. Gordon soon found himself in charge of a region roughly the size of Western Europe.

Based out of Khartoum, Gordon set about an aggressive reform policy, establishing charity organizations, abolishing torture, and initiating a public works system, all while traveling across the length and breadth of his territory, often entering potentially hostile settlements alone on camelback.

Gordon’s efforts would once again be foiled, however—this time from above, as Khedive Ismail, who had bankrupted the Egyptian treasury, was deposed by French and British interests. The new khedive’s policies did not agree with Gordon, and he once again resigned.

Over the next three years Gordon traveled the world, visiting India, China, Mauritius, and South Africa on a variety of assignments. Meanwhile, the situation in Egypt grew increasingly unstable. In the Sudan a man named Muhammad Ahmed proclaimed himself the Mahdi, or “expected one,” a figure prophesied in the Koran. Raising an army, the Mahdi quickly overran much of Sudan and the Red Sea coast.

As the Mahdist army threatened Khartoum, Egyptian and British officials turned to Gordon, the man they felt was best qualified for the job of leading an organized retreat from the region. They caught Gordon as he was en route to Belgium to take an appointment in the Congo from King Leopold II. Gordon accepted the Khartoum assignment instead and embarked for Egypt and destiny.


The choice of sending Gordon to Khartoum was to prove controversial in the wake of the massacre of Gordon and his Egyptian forces after the Mahdists finally took the city. Gordon clearly had little intention from the outset of retreating, which is hardly surprising considering his past actions. The fact that Gordon held out under siege for ten months before British Prime Minister Gladstone dispatched a rescue expedition led to a popular outcry against the latter’s Liberal government, which fell a year after Khartoum.

The image of Gordon—described by eyewitnesses as meeting the Mahdist army while standing proud on the palace steps, a pistol in one hand, a sword in the other—instantly became an indelible symbol of the European colonialist struggle against the “savage hordes.” Gordon’s death boosted the populist colonial movement back home in England and intensified Britain’s involvement in Egypt. As a military leader and martyr, Gordon’s legacy would loom large over the last phase of European colonial expansion.

Kofi Karikari

As Ashantehene, or king, of the Ashanti (also spelled Asante), Kofi Karikari (c. 1837–1884) led his people in a series of wars that culminated in the burning of his capital and his abdication.

The Ashanti Kingdom

The Ashanti kingdom was situated in the interior of the Gold Coast region in what is now Ghana. Well known for the practice of having its kings preside while seated on a sacred stool made of gold (which was said to embody the literal spirit of the country), over the course of the eighteenth century the Ashanti had grown powerful through trade, largely in gold and slaves, with Europeans situated in fortified trading posts along the coast. When the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, the Ashanti kingdom began to experience a period of decline, losing the control that it had long exerted over the neighboring coastal tribes.

When, after a brief war of succession, Kofi Karikari took the throne in April 1867, he declared that his “business shall be war,” meaning he was determined to reassert Ashanti control of the coastal regions. Of particular interest was the fortress of Elmina, which had recently changed hands from the Dutch—who effectively “leased” the land from the Ashanti—to the British, who seemed keen on claiming the fortress as their own and shutting off the last Ashanti access to the sea.

Kofi’s War

Kofi sent troops against Elmina in 1868 and 1872. Yet the fortress held out, and the process of dispatching a military expedition to the region was begun back in England. Kofi was well aware of the might of the British military and the technological edge it held over his troops. However, he was confident that the disease-ridden jungle would negate these advantages: the foreign troops would be incapacitated by fever, while the claustrophobic environment of the dense jungle growth would foil British attempts to bring the superior firepower of their rifles and cannons to bear, allowing the musket- and spear-armed Ashanti to engage their enemy at close range.

The perceived obstacles offered by the jungle would not prove as insurmountable as Kofi had hoped, however. After the 1873 Ashanti kidnapping of several missionaries and their families, organization of the British expedition was given top priority. Major-General Sir Garnet Wolseley, a promising young officer, arrived in the region in October and began recruiting local forces to fight the Ashanti as his own troops acclimatized. In the meantime, he offered Kofi peace terms but was refused by the overconfident king.

By December, Wolseley had established a forward base on the River Pra (or Prah), within striking distance of the Ashanti capital at Kumasi. Kofi saw his support quickly wane as two battalions of British troops and their local allies marched into the jungle, almost literally hacking tunnels through the dense undergrowth.

Although the British suffered greatly from disease and the toll of constant skirmishing, they managed to reach Kumasi and take it unopposed. After a stay of only three days, Wolseley withdrew, leaving the city in flames. Kofi Karikari, meanwhile, had fled into the bush, still refusing to surrender.

The Treaty of Fomena

The British occupation, although short-lived, gave the lie to Kofi’s strategy of using the jungle as a military barrier. It was clear that the Ashanti could not hope to win a prolonged conflict with Great Britain. The Treaty of Fomena, signed on March 14, 1874, by Kofi’s representatives, finally brought an end to the war and spelled complete defeat for the Ashanti.

The treaty’s terms required the Ashanti to withdraw all forces from the coast, pay Britain fifty thousand ounces of gold, renounce all claims on British-held forts including Elmina, and abolish the practice of human sacrifice. Shortly after the signing of the treaty, Kofi Karikari was deposed. His brother Mensa took the Golden Stool and did his best to rule a country so badly weakened by the war that several northern states—namely Brong, Gonja, and Dagomba—had broken away and declared their independence in the aftermath.

Kofi Karikari’s war resulted in total defeat for his country. The aftermath of the conflict destabilized the entire region for decades to follow and set up the eventual British annexation of the Ashanti into the Gold Coast protectorate in 1901.

Menelik II

Menelik II (1844–1913), despite long odds, rose to become one of Ethiopia’s greatest leaders, bringing his country out of its long isolation as well as modernizing its military and economy in the process. He led his forces to the first African victory over a modern European army and maintained Ethiopia’s independence in the face of the European race to colonize the whole of the African continent.

Shewan Royalty

Born on August 19, 1844, in Ankobar, one of the capitals of the independent Abyssinian kingdom of Shewa, Menelik was named for the near-legendary first emperor of Ethiopia, said to be the child of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His own father was the king of Shewa, his mother of common origins.

Menelik II was still a child when Shewan independence came to an end upon the invasion of Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II in 1855. His father having died during the campaign, Menelik found himself living in exile with his mother at the court of Tewodros, where he grew up as something like the protegé of the emperor, who saw to it that Menelik received a proper education and upbringing. As he came of age, Menelik married Tewodros’s daughter.

Thus it was that Menelik was faced with a difficult decision in 1865 when word came that Shewa had declared its independence under the leadership of a pretender to the throne. Menelik could only challenge this usurper by defying Tewodros and returning from exile. He chose to do so and deposed the pretender, becoming King of Shewa that same year.

As Menelik set about ruling his country, most notably instituting a policy of religious tolerance towards non-Christians, Tewodros found himself involved in an international incident with Great Britain. A British military expedition had been dispatched to Ethiopia and Menelik, perhaps unwilling to march against his former patron, maintained his neutrality in the resulting conflict. The decision almost proved to be his downfall.

Rivalry with Yohannes

Tewodros was defeated and killed in battle; the new British-backed emperor, Yohannes IV, now enjoyed the military and technological support of one of Europe’s great powers. Menelik, who also laid claim to the emperor’s throne, could see that his kingdom would not last long against Yohannes’ technologically advanced armies, so he decided to fight fire with fire.

Enlisting French and Italian support, Menelik began modernizing his own army, as well as employing Swiss engineer Alfred Ilg to help with his country’s infrastructure. Ilg would go on to become Menelik’s close advisor and confidant and the practical architect behind much of the country’s soon-to-be-realized improvements, perhaps most notably in the design of weapons factories that would eventually allow Ethiopia to free itself of dependence on European arms sales.

Despite renouncing his claim to the Ethiopian throne and paying homage to Yohannes in March 1878, Menelik continued to run his kingdom as an effectively independent country. He cultivated diplomatic ties with Egypt, Britain, and Italy, and he invited European missionaries to come and work among the tribal Oromo people. Menelik also expanded his national borders southwards, taking over more Oromo lands as well as conquering the Emirate of Harar. This expansionism was driven by a need for increased revenues to pay tribute money to Yohannes, but it also served to refocus Abyssinian culture further south than it had previously been.

The Treaty of Wichale

Of all his new European contacts, Menelik’s dealings with the Italians were to prove to have the greatest consequences. The Shewan king signed a secret deal in May 1889, called the Treaty of Wichale, which promised to support Italian territorial claims against Yohannes in exchange for weapons, money, and Italian recognition of Menelik’s claim to the Ethiopian throne. Before the conspiracy could come to fruition, however, Yohannes was killed fighting against the Mahdist rebels of southern Sudan in 1889.

With the death of his rival, Menelik was finally able to claim the throne of Ethiopia for himself and was crowned emperor on November 3 of the same year. Shortly afterwards, a dispute arose with Italy over the Treaty of Wichale. As it turned out, the bilingual treaty said two different things: the Amharic, or Ethiopian, text merely recognized Menelik’s sovereignty, whereas the Italian text designated Ethiopia as an Italian protectorate.

By 1893, Menelik felt well-established enough to refute the terms of the treaty, an action which brought about the invasion of Ethiopia by an Italian army twenty thousand strong in 1895. Despite a widespread famine, Menelik was able to mobilize his nation for war, raising an army of his own that numbered 120,000 men. The two forces met at Adwa on March, 1896. The Italians were decisively defeated, suffering over two-thirds casualties.

This stunning upset, the first time an African army had successfully stood against a modern European invasion, catapulted Ethiopia onto the international stage. An influx of European diplomats began to arrive at the new capital city of Addis Ababa. Menelik, in turn, played the diplomatic game ably, managing to win a recognition of Ethiopian sovereignty from Italy and territorial concessions from neighboring French and British colonies.

Securing Ethiopia’s Future

Having secured his international boundaries and won peace for his nation, Menelik spent the last active decade of his life improving the country’s infrastructure. Provincial administration was modernized, potentially rebellious provinces pacified. Taxation was regulated, replacing the former system of using the military to strong-arm funds from the populace. A massive construction program was undertaken, with a road and bridge network, a postal system, and a telegraph network all being built in short order. In Addis Ababa, a national mint, hospital, and Western-style school were all built, while a railway was constructed to connect the capital to the French colony of Djibouti on the Red Sea, greatly increasing the country’s trade revenue.

Unfortunately, a series of strokes began to incapacitate Menelik, bringing an end to his active rule and causing a considerable amount of trouble within his court. The emperor named his grandson, Lij Iyasu, as his successor, which in turn caused infighting and ineffectual administration of the country. When, paralyzed and unable to speak, he finally expired on the night of December 12–13, 1913, the advances of the previous two decades were in jeopardy of being undone. It would take the reign of Haile Selassie, starting in 1916, to finish the good work started by Menelik II.

Marshal Lyautey

Marshal Louis-Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey (1854–1934) is best known for his role in shaping and leading the French protectorate of Morocco in the early twentieth century, a process that was regarded even in his own time as a model of European colonial administration. His methods, which were consciously shaped as a reaction against French policy in Algeria, survived the chaos and demands of the First World War and helped set Morocco on a path to modernization, standing as one of the few episodes of beneficial, non-exploitative European colonial involvement.

Lyautey was born in Nancy, France, to a military family. He was commissioned a cavalry officer shortly after France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The war turned Lyautey’s attention, as it did for many officers of his generation, away from Europe and towards the realms of colonial administration.

Early Colonial Experiences

Beginning in 1880, Lyautey served in Algeria for seven years, then at Tonkin in French-Indochina. He went to Madagascar next, where he ended up chief of staff to Joseph Gallieni and was instrumental in pacifying the island and implementing a successful colonial administration. During this time, Lyautey developed an admiration for British colonial methods, which were generally less intrusive and overbearing than the standard French approach of the time.

Lyautey was appointed to command the southern Ain Sefra region of Algeria in 1900, then given command of a division at the colonial capital of Oran three years later. During this time, he was placed in charge of international relations with Morocco and was able to stabilize the border between the two countries. Above all, he developed a firm distaste for the colonial administration of Algeria. As France prepared to extend its colonial influence into Morocco, Lyautey began actively lobbying for a chance to apply his alternate approach.

New Approaches in Morocco

The French government, wary of the fiercely independent Moroccans, gave Lyautey his opportunity, and in April 1912 he arrived in the country, having been declared a protectorate of France and bearing the titles of resident general and high commissioner. Over the next thirteen years, Lyautey would make a name for himself as the model colonial administrator.

His system was straightforward. Firstly, he believed that open conflict should be avoided, using demonstrations of force whenever possible. This was both cheaper for France and less likely to cause long-lasting resentment among the native population. Secondly, native political, social, and economic institutions should be preserved whenever possible and practical. European influence should be light but significant, and be seen mainly in the arenas of medicine, agricultural and administrative improvements, and the development of infrastructure (building new schools, roads, and communication networks, for example).

The outbreak of what would come to be known as the First World War placed severe demands on manpower back in France, and Lyautey’s policies in Morocco might well have suffered from near-sighted wartime policies. Other than serving briefly as Minister of War in France from December 1916 to March 1917, Marshal Lyautey was able to keep his attention focused on Morocco, where, despite massive cuts in money and material, he was able to not only maintain but expand French control and influence in the countryside.

Role in the Rif Uprising and Legacy

Lyautey stayed on in Morocco until 1925. His final years were marked by the so-called Rif War of 1920, an uprising that began in Spanish Morocco in 1921 but soon spread to the French-controlled regions as well. Under World War I hero Marshal Pétain, the insurrection was eventually put down, but not before Lyautey had retired and returned to France in September 1925, a legend in his time.

Lyautey’s legacy in Morocco was generally positive: his new methods had ensured the survival of the Moroccan political system and the continued rule of the sultan; it had set the country, established as a serious player in international affairs, on a path to modernization; and it had seen the successful establishment of a prosperous phosphate mining industry.

The marshal’s last years were to be marked by his outspoken support for ultra right-wing politicians such as Benito Mussolini. He was implicated in the support of an attempted coup by the French fascist organization Croix de Feu in February 1936, but died later that year before any conclusive links could be established, his international reputation still unsullied.

Sir Redvers Buller

Redvers Buller (1839–1908) stands as perhaps the most controversial figure of the Second Boer War. Made to take the fall for Britain’s setbacks during that conflict, he remained highly popular among the general public, especially in his home county, until his dying day and beyond.

A Promising Career

Buller, who entered the army in 1858, was a member of the “Ashanti Ring,” also called the “Wolseley Ring” after the eventual Lord Wolseley, who first made his mark during the Second Ashanti War of 1873–1874. The twenty-seven officers who took part in that campaign went on to dominate British military policy in the colonies for the next twenty-five years. Nine of those officers, including Buller, who served as Wolseley’s intelligence officer in the Ashanti campaign, would eventually reach the rank of general or better.

Wounded during the Ashanti War, Buller would later go on to further distinguish himself in combat, particularly during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for rescuing three soldiers on three separate occasions over the course of the retreat from Hlobane.

Serving everywhere from China to Canada to the Sudan (where he was part of the column that unsuccessfully marched to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum), Buller was promoted to lieutenant-general by 1891. When hostilities broke out in South Africa, he was a natural choice to lead the British effort in the Second Boer War and was appointed commander in chief of the forces in South Africa.

Arriving in Cape Town on October 31, 1899, Buller soon found little but defeat and frustration. After being turned back at Colenso, he seriously discussed the possibility of a British surrender in his correspondence back home. His pessimism and inability to produce a quick victory led to his swift replacement by Lord Roberts. Buller stayed on as second in command and led the effort to relieve Ladysmith, which he finally accomplished by February 1900 after several reversals, including a well-known defeat at Spion Kop.

Disgrace and Dismissal

Despite these setbacks, Buller remained popular among the public—his return from South Africa was met with a triumphal procession—but his reputation had been irreparably damaged among government officials, as well as in the press, which attacked him mercilessly. When, as the Boer conflict turned to a drawn-out war against irregular guerrilla forces, Lord Roberts and St. John Brodrick, the Minister of War, began casting about for a scapegoat, Buller was the natural choice. He played right into their hands by publicly responding to a scathing article published in the London Times directed at his supposed failures as a general.

Called in for breaching military procedure, Buller’s resignation was demanded. When he refused to give it, he was dismissed with half pay, disgraced. Buller’s dismissal was met with an outpouring of public sympathy, particularly in his home county of Devonshire.

Sir Redvers Henry Buller lived out the remainder of his life in quiet retirement, weathering continued attacks on his role in the Second Boer War. He died on June 2, 1908, survived by his wife and daughter.

Robert Baden-Powell

A military hero, Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (1857–1941) is also remembered as the founder of the Scouts in England and a tireless promoter of the movement worldwide.

An Unexceptional Student, An Exceptional Army Officer

Born Robert Powell to the Reverend Baden Powell, a professor of geometry, his last name was changed as a mark of honor when his father died. Growing up, young Robert failed to excel in school, being primarily interested in nature and the theater. His love of nature was encouraged by his mother Henrietta, who would take him on nature hikes. Attending school at the prestigious Charter House school, he would often spend his days in the nearby woods, which were forbidden to students, neglecting his studies.

His poor academic record caught up with him when he tried to get into Oxford, which two of his older brothers had attended. Rejected, he took an aptitude test with the army on a whim and scored exceptionally well. He signed on and was commissioned sub-lieutenant in the Thirteenth Hussars in 1876.

Spying and Scouting

His first post was in India, where he quickly turned his boyhood interest in hikes and camping into an aptitude for military scouting, even writing a book on the subject, Reconnaissance and Scouting. He also spent time in Europe as a spy in Germany, Austria, and Russia, monitoring scientific and technological developments in those countries.

In 1887, Baden-Powell took a post on the staff of his uncle, General Henry Smyth, who was governor and commander in chief of South Africa. While there, he participated in peaceful military missions to the Zulus, then followed his uncle to Malta, where he stayed for three years and did more spy work. He frequently traveled in disguise as a butterfly collector and would copy stolen plans into the patterns of drawings of butterfly specimens.

What Baden-Powell was really craving, however, was combat experience, and he eventually resigned his post with his uncle, rejoining the Hussars in 1895. He was placed in command of an expedition against the Ashanti, but the situation was resolved before hostilities broke out.

The following year he participated in the suppression of the Matabele Rebellion in Rhodesia, which was to become a formative experience. The local forces were lacking scout units, and Baden-Powell personally scouted much of the terrain, refining many practices that would later form a core of his Scouting philosophy. He also began wearing his trademark Stetson and kerchief during the campaign, a look that would later be incorporated into the Scout uniform.

After his time in Africa, Baden-Powell was posted back to India, where he taught scouting and reconnaissance and wrote the book Aids to Scouting in 1899. Although intended as a military manual, it found a large following among the general readership as well.

Later that same year, Baden-Powell was sent to South Africa as one of two dozen special service officers in charge of preparing the defense of towns in the event of war with the Boers, which seemed increasingly likely.

The Defense of Mafeking

Sent to the small town of Mafeking, about 175 miles west of Johannesburg, Baden-Powell soon found himself under siege by seven thousand Boers as the Second Boer War got under way. Over the course of 217 days, he successfully directed a resistance until he was finally relieved. For a public used to news of defeats and setbacks, the Siege of Mafeking was seen as a great victory back in Britain. Baden-Powell was received as a national hero upon his return, where he was promoted to major-general.

Mafeking had brought the combat experience Baden-Powell had long sought, as well as the respect and approval of his military peers. Perhaps more importantly, it was to be the catalyst for his later scouting work. During the siege he had organized the boys of the town into units and put them in charge of taking care of some of the more mundane tasks of maintenance and upkeep to which his soldiers normally might not have been able to attend.

The concept of scouting was gaining increasing support around the turn of the twentieth century, and Baden-Powell got in touch with several of the pioneers of the movement as he began to develop his own ideas. Men such as William Smith of Glasgow, who had organized a 54,000-strong Boys Brigade, and the Americans Ernest Thompson Seton and Dan Beard, all gave him valuable advice and ideas.

The Scouting Movement

Baden-Powell led his first experimental scouting expedition in 1907 on Brownsea Island. The following year he published the landmark Scouting for Boys in six installments over a three month period, from January to March. These publications contained the first versions of the Scout Oath and the Scout Law and laid out Baden-Powell’s vision for the Scout Movement.

His vision proved immediately popular, tapping into an already existing grass-roots movement that had been taking shape for some years. By 1910, at the urging of King Edward VII, Baden-Powell retired from the military to devote his full energies to the Scouts. Ten years later, at the first Scout Jamboree, he was named “chief scout of the world” by his devoted protégées.

Major Battles

Assaye, September 23, 1803

The Battle of Assaye was the first great victory in the storied career of Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington, and an important milestone in the expansion of British power and influence in India.

The Political Situation

The Honourable East India Company (HEIC) was a British government-sanctioned trading monopoly that, beginning with the Battle of Plassey in 1757, had moved into the realm of outright political and military control of large portions of India, either through direct conquest or political alliances.

As the HEIC expanded its influence on the sub-continent, the Maratha Empire, a confederacy of Hindu states that formed the preeminent native national power at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was being torn apart by internal struggles.

The nominal ruler, Baji Rao II, the peshwa of Poona, was defeated by his subordinates (Daulut Rao Scindia of Gwalior and the Rajah of Berar) in October 1802. Scindia and Berar’s army was large and well-disciplined, equipped with generous amounts of artillery and large cavalry formations, and its units were led by professional European mercenary officers.

Baji Rao fled from his defeat to British-controlled territory, where he struck a deal with the East India Company. In exchange for restoring him to power, the peshwa would recognize HEIC authority over him and deal directly with no other states, effectively reducing the Maratha Empire to the status of British protectorate.

Wellesley’s Expedition

Needless to say, when word of this agreement got out, many members of the Maratha confederacy felt betrayed by Baji Rao; they rallied to the flags of Scindia and Berar, swelling their ranks. Against this growing force the British fielded two armies, one of which was led by the younger brother of the Marquess Wellesley, the Governor General of India. Many whispered that major-general Arthur Wellesley, unproven in major battle, owed his position solely to his family ties. Optimism for the success of the expedition was not high.

Wellesley marched at the head of a mixed force of British and Indian troops. He had two British infantry units, the Seventy-Eighth Highlanders and the Seventy-Fourth, both Scottish units. Joining these regular units was the “Hyderabad Contingent,” a unit of sepoys (Bengali soldiers in British service) led by East India Company officers, as well as cavalry made up of the Nineteenth Light Dragoons (mounted infantry) and allied Mysore and Mahratta horsemen.

The march to Poona went smoothly and Baji Rao II was restored to his throne on May 13, 1803. Diplomatic overtures sent to Scindia were rejected and Wellesley continued his march north, taking Scindia’s fortress-capital of Ahmednuggur in July. Encountering little resistance, Wellesley pressed on, seeking the main body of enemy troops.

The Battle

He found them in September, camped at the fork of the Kaitna and Juah rivers near the village of Assaye. The army that faced the British numbered around forty thousand, at least seven times larger than their own. Despite these long odds, and despite the fact that the second British army was within marching distance, Wellesley decided to attack at once. He felt that to delay would only allow the enemy to bring their overwhelming numbers down on top of him, and he further felt that his own army’s morale and discipline were strong enough to take on what he saw as a loosely organized and poorly motivated enemy.

Intending to outflank Scindia, and despite the proclamations of local guides that there was no way across the Kaitna, Wellesley marched his army along the river bank until he found a ford. His crossing was spotted and soon came under concentrated artillery fire and cavalry attacks, causing casualties and disruption but not preventing the river crossing. Meanwhile, the bulk of Scindia’s army, in a fantastic display of discipline and organization, wheeled to face Wellesley’s approach.

Once he was across the river, Wellesley was faced with only one choice: he ordered a frontal assault on the well-prepared enemy positions. As the British advanced, Scindia’s artillery once again opened up, this time with grapeshot—canisters loaded with lead balls, like a giant shotgun shell—and chain shot—which sent lengths of chain whipping out of the cannon barrel—causing horrendous casualties.

The Seventy-Eighth Highlanders, dressed in kilts and tall plumes, broke through alongside the sepoys, but the Seventy-Fourth was badly mauled around Assaye and forced to retire. The Nineteenth Dragoons charged in to plug the gap in the lines as Wellesley shifted the Seventy-Eighth around to continue the advance on that flank.

Gradually, the British advance wore on. After three hours of hard fighting, Scindia’s forces were dislodged and put to flight. The cost of the victory was high: nearly one in three of Wellesley’s men were casualties, 1,600 in all. In return, Scindia’s army was broken for good. The man himself surrendered by the end of the year, and the Second Anglo-Maratha War came to a close.

For the rest of his life, even after his triumphs in Spain and at Waterloo, Wellesley would consider Assaye his greatest, and bloodiest, victory. The implications of the victory were certainly to have wide-reaching effects. With Baji Rao on the throne, the HEIC found itself with significant political control over the largest polity in India. After a brief Third Anglo-Maratha War in 1818, the Maratha Empire was dissolved completely. The East India Company took outright control of the former territories, putting it in control of almost all of India.

Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824ndash;1826, 1852–1857, and 1885)

The Anglo-Burmese Wars consisted of three conflicts fought between Burma and Britain throughout the nineteenth century. Although the motives behind each of the individual wars were as different as they were complex, each ended with the same result: victory for Britain and further loss of Burmese territory and autonomy. By the end of the Third War in 1885, Burma, or “Further India” as it was known to the British, had ceased to exist as an independent country.

The First Burma War

The First Burma War (1824–1826) was actually sparked by Burmese aggression. The Honourable East India Company, which controlled British policy in Asia at the time, wanted little to do with the southeast of that continent, preferring instead to build on its developing power base in India. The East India Company was thus put on the defensive when King Bagyidaw’s Burmese Empire began to expand into east Indian territories immediately adjacent to British possessions. Once Arakan, Assam, Manipur, and Cachar fell to Burma, an escalating series of border clashes and trade disruptions convinced the East India Company to deal seriously with its eastern neighbor.

After stopping further Burmese incursions into India, a British expedition commanded by Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell landed at Rangoon in May 1824 and quickly ran up against difficulties with operating in an unfamiliar, hostile territory. The Burmese army acquitted itself well in combat, but the greatest drain on British manpower was disease.

As the conflict dragged on and the cost of the war in money and lives continued to rise, pressure was increased back home for the annexation of Burmese territory to justify the war. After mounting an expedition up the Irrawaddy River—one of the first to employ steam-powered gunships—the British were able to bring King Bagyidaw to the bargaining table.

The resulting Treaty of Yandabo, signed on February 24, 1826, ceded the territories Burma had conquered in eastern India as well as a strip of coast known as Tenasserim near the border of British-allied Siam. Furthermore, Britain was granted the right to post an ambassador to the court of the emperor.

By 1839 the British had withdrawn their representative amidst an increasingly hostile, anti-British atmosphere in the Burmese capital. Additionally, pressure began mounting from British mercantile and missionary interests in Rangoon, lobbying for a military expedition to expand European influence in the area.

The Second Burma War

An expedition under Commodore George Robert Lambert was dispatched to the region and, despite a number of concessions made by Burma’s King Pagan, war was declared in 1852 under extremely suspect circumstances. The ports of Rangoon and Martaban were blockaded in April and fell soon afterwards.

The Burmese army was forced to retreat north and King Pagan was toppled in a palace coup led by his half-brother Mindon. The new king was able to bring an end to the war without the formal signing of a treaty; instead, the coastal province of Pegu, which covered the Irrawaddy Delta, was ceded to Britain, which renamed the territories under their control Lower Burma.

With Upper Burma landlocked, sandwiched between British India and China, King Mindon had few options open for preserving his country’s independence. Trade treaties were concluded with Britain and a new capital was founded at Mandalay in 1857. His efforts to open alliances with France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, as well as his attempts to import arms for future defense of his country, all met with failure, however.

Worst of all, Mindon died without naming an heir. A vicious cycle of murders and power grabs ended with the young Thibaw being named king by a consortium of palace officials intent on ruling through their puppet. The seventy-odd murders that marked the transition of power stirred up considerable outrage in Britain; the case was made that all of Burma should be annexed to avoid further such acts of barbarity.

The Third Burma War

A moral imperative was not enough to drive Britain to war, but unfortunately for Burma the 1880s were also a period marked by a mad scramble by the great European powers to lay claim to any and all potential colonial possessions. As Africa was being carved up between Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Belgium, so too was Southeast Asia.

France had laid claim first to Cochinchina (southern Vietnam), then all of Anam, Laos, and Cambodia, forming the colony of French Indochina. British fears of French expansion into Upper Burma sparked the Third War in 1885, the main hostilities being concluded in one week. The industrial and military might brought about by the sixty years of Industrial Revolution separating the First and Third Burma Wars was the telling difference: Britain’s experienced colonial troops, backed by great warships, advanced rifles, early machine guns, and powerful artillery, had become irresistible.

The Third War concluded with the complete annexation of Burma. Sporadic resistance against British occupation, fought by either dacoits (robbers—or freedom fighters, depending on which side one asked) continued for the next two years before total pacification was achieved. British India now stretched from Afghanistan to Siam.

Anglo-Ashanti Wars (1823–1826, 1873–1874, 1894, and 1900)

Ashanti is the name for both a people and a state. Both were centered in modern-day southern Ghana, as well as parts of Togo and Côte d’Ivoire. The Ashanti people have long called this region home, but it was not until the late seventeenth century that a distinct state began to take shape.

Under the leadership of the near-legendary Osei Tutu, the Ashanti forged alliances through conquest with the Mampong, Bekwai, Kokofu, Dwaben, and Nsuta tribes, vastly expanding their power and territory.

Around 1700 these alliances were formalized as the Ashanti Union. Osei Tutu was crowned Ashantehene, king of the Ashanti, and he sat on a sacred object called the Golden Stool that represented the very heart and soul of both his country and his people.

Over the next century, the Ashanti kingdom became the dominant power in West Africa. A succession of strong leaders established a centralized authority and efficient, merit-based bureaucracy to administer its vast lands, which extended from the Comoe River in the west to the Togo Mountains in the east. The only thing the kingdom lacked was access to the sea: Kumasi, the capital, was 110 miles from the coast, and access to the ocean was blocked by the hostile Fante and Elima tribes as well as by a string of European trading-forts.

These forts were the key to the Ashanti’s rapid rise to power, for they were the outlet for a lucrative slave trade that the Ashanti participated in and benefited from. The root of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars lies in the slave trade, for when Britain, which had gradually begun to supplant and take over the Dutch and Danish forts at the outset of the nineteenth century, outlawed the slave trade in 1807, it cut significantly into the Ashanti economy, raising tensions with Britain.

The Ashanti adapted, shifting their economic focus to gold. The same year that Britain outlawed the slave trade, the Ashanti under king Osei Bonsu also began moving into the coastal enclaves of the Fante for the first time.

The First War

The First Anglo-Ashanti War broke out in 1823. Economic tensions that had been brewing since the outlawing of the slave trade finally spilled over amidst Ashanti fears that the British were establishing a monopoly to drive down gold prices.

The Ashanti initially met with success, wiping out a British force under Sir Charles McCarthy, whose skull was made into a ceremonial drinking cup for the king. By 1826, however, the British had managed to win a decisive victory at Katamanso. Reluctant to press inland, they made peace with the Ashanti, returning to the prewar status quo.

The Second War

The Second Ashanti War broke out over forty years after the start of the first, and for similar reasons. The issue of sea access, and control over the coastal tribes, had never been satisfactorily resolved as far as the Ashanti were concerned, and beginning in 1863 attempts were made under King Kwaku Dua to assert the kingdom’s power on the coast by dispatching occupying forces into Fante-held territory.

Initial British reaction was muted—conventional wisdom regarded war in equatorial Africa as a quagmire waiting to happen, and the British were reluctant to press the point. Conflict became inevitable, however, when Fort St. Jago at Elmina, the last Dutch fort in the region, changed over to British hands in 1869.

Originally built by the Portuguese in 1471, Elmina marked the final step for the British in establishing the long-desired trading monopoly so feared by the Ashanti. King Kofi Karikari claimed that the land on which Elmina rested was Ashanti territory and as such, the British held no claim over the fortress, which should instead have defaulted to his possession. The British took exception to this interpretation and Kofi Karikari declared war in 1873.

Elmina then came under attack, as did other British outposts. An incident in June in which several European missionaries were taken hostage proved the final motivation for the British to launch an expedition into the interior, and the up-and-coming officer Major-General Garnet Wolseley was tapped to head it.

Defying both British and Ashanti expectations, the expedition was a success. Kumasi was briefly occupied, then burned, and Kofi Karikari was put to flight. The northern states of the Ashanti Union, seeing their opportunity, broke away, and a “Treaty of Protection” was signed by the new Ashantehene, Mensa Bonsu.

Defeat and Annexation

The defeat of the Ashanti had the unintended effect of destabilizing the entire region, and Britain found itself increasingly involved in the political affairs of the West African kingdoms. The Fante tribal lands were annexed the same year of Kofi Karikari’s defeat, and political agents were dispatched to Kumasi to make sure that the new king’s policies would be in accordance with Britain’s. These political agents also actively worked to prevent the Ashanti from regaining their lost northern provinces.

The Third and Fourth Ashanti Wars were fought in quick succession between 1893 and 1896, spurred by accusations that the new Ashantehene, Prempeh, was engaging in acts of barbarity and cruelty. Although the British had long been trying to stamp out human sacrifice in Ashanti society, it is likely that the real reason for their intervention was motivated by a desire to secure the rich gold-producing region in the face of rapid French expansion in the area.

The Ashanti Wars ended with the annexation of the kingdom—which became a British “protectorate,” a colony in all but name—and the exile of Prempeh and thirty other officials. An uprising in 1900 would bring about an official change from “protectorate” to “colony” in 1902.

The uprising occurred when Gold Coast governor Sir Frederick Hodgson paid a visit to Kumasi and demanded to sit on the Golden Stool. As none but the Ashantehene were allowed such an honor, and as Hodgson’s demands were tantamount to blasphemy, a spontaneous rebellion broke out in the capital and soon spread to the countryside.

Hodgson’s expedition was besieged inside the Kumasi stockade, falling victim to disease and under constant harassment, until an ad-hoc relief column marched into the capital. The uprising was quickly put down. The former Ashanti kingdom became the Crown Colony of Gold Coast, and the northern breakaway states were in turn named British protectorates.

The Golden Stool, which had been hidden in the forest when Hodgson arrived in Kumasi, was never found by the British. It was unearthed by two African road workers in 1920. Unfortunately, they stripped the stool of many of its valuable gems and gold embellishments, thus defiling the sacred object. In 1935, the Ashanti Union was symbolically restored with a figurehead Ashantehene as its ruler.

Blood River, December 16, 1838

The Battle of Blood River was a major victory won by Boer Voortrekkers (pioneers) over a much larger Zulu army. Although not completely decisive, it did mark a turning point for Zulu fortunes and allowed the settlement of the future colonies of Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal.

The Great Trek

By the 1830s, the Afrikaans-speaking population of Cape Colony was chafing under British rule. Their language had been banned, and British policy was decidedly oriented against their interests on nearly every front. The “Great Trek” began in 1835 as a response to these policies. Over the next three years, thousands of Voortrekkers would leave Cape Colony for the great open lands to the east.

These lands had once been inhabited by the Xhosa, called “bushmen” by the Europeans, whose population had been nearly wiped out by the disruption, warfare, and especially disease brought by white colonists. However, the lands were not entirely uninhabited—under the guidance of Dingane, heir to the legendary king Shaka, the mighty Zulu nation was expanding from its power base north of Natal.

In February 1838, Voortrekker leader Piet Retief was killed along with his followers by Dingane’s troops immediately after signing an agreement to allow Boer settlement in the Natal. Word was sent back to Cape Colony of the betrayal, along with requests for help and reinforcements.

Andries Pretorius and the Day of the Covenant

As more settlements came under Zulu attack, Boer leader Andries Pretorius set out in a convoy of some five hundred Voortrekkers in sixty-four wagons, which had moved through the future Orange Free State and into Natal by December 1838. The nature of this Trek, or wagon train, was not settlement. Rather, it constituted a punitive commando (military force), whose sole objective was to avenge the death of the Retief party and other settlers. In addition to their stockpile of muskets and rifles (three to each man), the commando also included two small cannons.

With the crossing of the Buffalo River on December 15, Pretorious’ commando entered Zululand. Scouts quickly returned with reports of a large Zulu force massing nearby. Pretorius, who had been contending with insubordinate commanders the whole journey, managed to win out over calls to ride out and engage the enemy. Pretorious called instead to form a laager, an ad-hoc fortress formed by circling the commando’s wagons and securing them with interlocking wooden barriers that could be easily shunted aside to allow cavalry sorties. The tactic had been developed during earlier treks in 1836 and had proven successful in holding off much larger groups of assailants.

Pretorious’ laager was particularly well-situated, with one flank protected by the Ncome River and the rear covered by a long, dry pond bed called a donga. The laager was in the shape of a large “D,” with the flat part up against the donga. All approaches to the site were free of cover—any attack would have to cross hundreds of yards of open ground. As night fell, the Zulu army began to approach, but, waiting for reinforcements and unable to launch a coordinated assault in the misty darkness, held off the attack for the next day.

The day before the battle, the Boers had reaffirmed a public covenant declared by Pretorious during their journey, promising to build a church if God granted them victory. The following day, December 16, would become a holiday known as the Day of Covenant (and, after the end of Apartheid, the Day of Reconciliation) in commemoration of the Boer victory.

The Battle

The first phase of the battle consisted of a series of four Zulu charges against the Boer laager. Most of the massive army, at least ten thousand strong, was still crossing the Ncome when the first assault was launched. The Boers, firing from prepared positions behind their laagers, inflicted devastating casualties on the Zulu, who could not effectively engage at range thanks to their customized assegai spears; these had been modified under Shaka’s reign to work their deadly effectiveness only in close combat, rendering them useless for throwing.

Time and again the Zulu charge was thrown back, but by midday there was still no end in sight for the vastly outnumbered Boers. Pretorius ordered a series of mounted sorties to ride out from the laager; the third was the charm, driving through the entirety of the attacking mass of Zulus. The two cannons were also put to good use—one would fire towards the front of the Zulu lines, the other towards the rear in a successful effort to sow confusion and panic.

After the third Boer cavalry charge, the Zulu force began to break apart. Three hours of pursuit followed, with the mounted Boers riding down the fleeing Zulus with ruthless efficiency. By day’s end, the Ncome was running red with the blood of the defeated Zulus, giving the battle its colorfully gruesome moniker.

Total Zulu losses remain unknown, but the most commonly agreed-upon number is three thousand dead. The Boers’ casualties amounted to two wounded men. The one-sidedness of the victory convinced those present—and many in years to come—that God was clearly on their side. Dingane would be forced from the Zulu throne by years end, and Boer settlement in the region would continue at a steady rate for years to come.

Opium Wars, 1839–1842 and 1856–1860

The so-called Opium Wars consist of two brief but important clashes between Imperial China and European powers, chiefly Britain. Sparked by continuing British trade in opium, the wars ended with the once-powerful Qing dynasty humiliated, forced to make trading, territorial, and diplomatic concessions to European interests.

Britain and the Opium Trade

The conflict was rooted in Britain’s trade deficit with China in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. European demand for high quality Chinese exports such as silk, crafted items, and tea was extremely high; conversely, there was little demand in China for European trade goods. The East India Company, Britain’s trading arm in Asia, was only able to trade with China using silver, which itself had to be acquired from foreign markets in Europe.

To make matters worse, European merchants were forced to do business under a strict set of regulations and restrictions. All transactions were carried out through the port of Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) with government-approved monopolies called cohong. Traders were not allowed to learn to read or speak Chinese, nor were they permitted access to the interior of the country.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, in a simultaneous attempt to offset the trade deficit and bypass Chinese trading restrictions, the British East India Company began covertly importing opium into China from India. The trade and importation of opium had long been banned in the country, but the East India Company was able to build a thriving illicit trade nonetheless. Opium shipments increased steadily; by the 1820s, the East India Company was moving nine hundred tons per year.

The First Opium War

In 1839, after millions of Chinese citizens had succumbed to the ravages of opium addiction, the Imperial court appointed a special commissioner, Lin Zexu, to clean up and suppress the drug trade. “Commissioner Lin” went about his job with relentless efficiency, seizing known opium stockpiles and arresting both traders and users. He even wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, putting the issue of the opium trade in moral terms, pointing out that opium import and use was illegal in the British Isles and questioning the apparent double standard that the British were operating under.

Lin Zexu’s letter was never answered. Instead, after more Chinese raids on British trading warehouses in Canton, a fleet of gunboats was dispatched to the region; the First Opium War had begun. The military superiority of British arms and equipment became quickly evident, as the gunships bombarded shore positions with impunity while British troops seized Canton and pressed on into the interior along the Yangtze River.

After three years of increasingly futile resistance, the Chinese agreed to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. Ratified and supplemented by the Treaty of the Bogue the following year, the agreement granted unprecedented trade rights to the British: four more ports—Jinmen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai—were opened to trade, and the cohong system was abolished and replaced with favorable tariffs. Furthermore, China was held liable for the destruction of the opium stocks it had seized and was forced to pay millions in damages. Lastly, the island of Hong Kong, sparsely settled at the time but already strategically important, was ceded to Britain.

By 1844, France and the United States had signed similar “unequal treaties” with China, signaling the beginning of European dominance and exploitation of the region. Weakened and humiliated, the Qing government was soon beset by the Taiping Rebellion, a massive uprising that would eventually result in the death of over twenty million people after fourteen years of war.

The Second Opium War

Britain had been pressing for a renegotiation of the Nanjing treaty terms, looking to expand its access to and influence over Chinese trade. These overtures had been steadily resisted by the Qing court. When the British-registered, Chinese-crewed junk Arrow was seized and searched by Qing officials on suspicion of smuggling, the British manufactured a legal claim to take up arms against China again in 1856.

Operating this time in concert with France, British troops seized Canton and Tietsin (modern-day Tianjin). Torn apart by the Taiping conflict, China was ill-equipped to respond militarily to these actions. The Treaty of Tietsin was signed in 1858; Britain was granted the expanded rights it was looking for, which included the opening of eleven more ports to trade, permission to allow Christian missionaries to operate in the country, and the posting of European and American delegates in the royal capital of Peking, which had previously been closed to foreigners. Additionally, thanks to some fortuitous diplomatic maneuvering, Russia gained territorial concessions that extended the Russian-Chinese border south, giving Russia a warm-water Pacific port; Vladivostok, which was to become the base for Russia’s Pacific Fleet, was founded two years later.

Hostilities were not concluded by the Tietsin treaty, however. In the course of attempting to enforce the treaty terms by sending delegates to Peking in 1859, the path to the capital was found blocked by a large Chinese force. Two Anglo-French expeditions were dispatched to break the blockade, the second of which consisted of eighteen thousand troops and 173 ships. Despite being outnumbered, the European army prevailed in battle and marched on Peking, the emperor fleeing ahead of their advance.

In retaliation for the arrest and torture of several British delegates during the course of the campaign, the emperor’s Summer Palace was thoroughly looted, then burned to the ground. Comprehensively defeated, the Chinese sued for peace, signing the Convention of Peking on October 18, 1860. The Convention ratified the terms of the Treaty of Tietsin, and granted permanent diplomatic presence to British, French, American, and Russian delegates in Peking. Furthermore, the import of opium was legalized, foreigners were granted legal rights and full access to the country, and Britain acquired control of Kowloon, across from Hong Kong.

Kabul, January 1842

The disastrous retreat from Kabul was the seminal event of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–1842) and a disastrous British military loss of the nineteenth century.

The retreat was ordered due to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, a mostly unexpected development for the British, who had entered the country two years previously and met with rapid and immediate success. The whole invasion had been motivated by British concerns over Russian intentions in Afghanistan and Persia (modern-day Iran) and a desire to secure a friendly buffer zone along the Indian border.

Initial Invasion

An army 21,000 strong (trailed by another 38,000 camp followers) crossed into Afghanistan in April 1839, quickly taking Kandahar and installing former ruler Shah Shuja Durrani as the new ruler. Victory at Ghazni in July and Kabul in August—after which the legitimate ruler, Dost Muhammad, fled north—seemed to confirm the success of the invasion. Shah Shuja entered Kabul on August 8.

Although Shuja initially enjoyed local support, discontent soon began to spread as fears that the new ruler was nothing more than a British puppet grew. The discontent finally turned to violence and on November 2, 1841, when the British garrison at Kabul came under attack.

Withdrawing to the city’s cantonments (fortified barracks), the garrison, increasingly nervous, finally decided the local situation had become too unstable and decided to withdraw ninety miles south to the closest friendly garrison. Of the 16,500 British and Indian soldiers and civilians who marched out of Kabul on January 6, 1842, only one would make it to the destination of Jalalabad.


Over the course of seven days, the British, slogging through snow-choked mountain passes, were gradually whittled down by the continuous harassment of Afghan troops. All along the length of the Kabul River Gorge and at the pass of Gandamak, the retreating column came under enemy fire and was subjected to repeated raids. Those who were not killed by snipers or Afghan mountain artillery died of exposure in the harsh winter conditions of the high mountains or were captured during raids and sold into slavery. By the time Jalalabad came in sight, the column had been reduced to a mere forty men, who were conducting a running battle with their Afghan tormentors.

The sole survivor of the retreat, Doctor William Brydon, reached Jalalabad atop a dying horse, himself bleeding from a deep head wound, on January 13. In the days to come some Indian soldiers taken prisoner were released and also made their way south, but it was the image of Dr. Brydon, ragged and weary, the last remnant of a once mighty army, that horrified the British popular imagination.


In retribution for the loss, an expedition was dispatched to Kabul in late 1842. By that point, Shah Shuja, his British backers long gone, had been murdered by an angry mob; British influence in the country was virtually nil. Nevertheless, the punitive force made sure to rescue the few British prisoners remaining in the city and set fire to the Great Bazaar before leaving for good.

The retreat from Kabul sealed the fate of British involvement in Afghanistan for nearly the next half-century. At a cost of eight million pounds sterling for very little return, the British government declared the whole venture a wash and withdrew their troops to India.

Afghanistan, meanwhile, welcomed back the rule of Dost Muhammad and did its best to repair the damage done by the British invasion. Russia, just as the British had feared, began extending its reach into northern Afghanistan, eventually prompting another Anglo-Afghan War forty years after the first.

New Zealand (Maori) Wars, 1840s and 1860–1872

The New Zealand Wars, also called the Maori Wars, were a series of conflicts played out between the indigenous natives of New Zealand—a Polynesian people known as the Maori—and British troops and settlers, called Pakehas by the Maori. The conflicts were mainly sparked by issues of land ownership and settlement rights, and as such are sometimes referred to as the Land Wars.

Waitangi and the Outbreak of Hostilities

In an effort to promote colonization, the New Zealand Company was founded in 1839. By the next year, settlers were arriving in earnest and over the next five years the towns of Nelson, Wellington, and New Plymouth would be founded. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on February 6, 1840, establishing a legal right for British settlement on the islands. The colony’s capital was established at Auckland on May 21 of the same year.

The Waitangi treaty attempted to establish fair rules for the sale and transfer of lands, but it did not adequately address the different concepts of land ownership held by the British and Maori. Furthermore, many newly-arrived settlers were reluctant to go through government channels for their land purchases, as the treaty dictated, and instead tried to force land transfers themselves. The seeds of conflict had been sown.

By 1843, the first confrontations of the New Zealand war began to erupt. The opening clash, at the time referred to as the Wairau Massacre, found a band of fifty Pakehas out of Nelson on the South Island attempting to force a claim on Maori land and losing twenty-two of their number in a brief firefight with the heavily-armed natives.

Although an isolated incident, Wairau hinted at greater events to come. The wars began in earnest in 1845 with the so-called Flagstaff War, a series of raids carried out by Maori chief Hone Heke and his followers at the Bay of Islands. The flagstaff bearing the Union Jack was repeatedly cut down by Hone Heke, who had been informed by American and French traders that the flag represented British domination and enslavement of the Maori, and believed it reduced his mana, or influence and pride. Arrival of British reinforcements in the area eventually pacified the region after a series of engagements.

The Flagstaff War amounted to a local rebellion, lasting less than a year. It did, however, see the first encounter between British troops and Maori fighting from a pa, as well as the emergence of a pattern of battle that would be played out many times over in the coming years.

The Pa

The Maori, who had warred with great frequency among themselves before the coming of the Europeans, had developed a sophisticated approach to defense. By constructing a sort of temporary fortress-village, or pa, which was essentially a wooden palisade surrounded by trenches, often built on top of a hill or similar defensive position, the Maori could hold out against much larger numbers without becoming invested in defending the location to the last. If the fighting grew too fierce, the cheaply-constructed pa could simply be abandoned, another built nearby in its place. The strategic construction of pas was a significant aspect of Maori warfare.

With the advent of firearms, the pa was adapted to accommodate the new weapons. The wooden palisade walls were covered with woven layers of flax—the tough fibers rendered the walls nearly bulletproof. Furthermore, the walls of the palisade were raised a few inches off the ground, enabling defenders to fire muskets from ground level, leaving themselves almost completely concealed.

British commanders in the Flagstaff War, and in subsequent conflicts, sent their men against these fortresses, which were often situated amidst fields of thick brambles, stretches of marshland, or both. As the troops struggled across the difficult terrain, they came under murderous musket fire, both from inside the pa and from Maori hidden in nearby clumps of vegetation—there were often as many defenders outside the pa as within.

In addition to the Flagstaff War, other conflicts flared up in Hutt Valley and Wanganui, in 1846 and 1847, respectively. British successes in these early conflicts with the Maori largely stemmed from the actions of their native allies, for not all Maori were in favor of opposing British settlement and the riches promised by the sale of land and increased trade. By the end of the 1840s, both sides had essentially exhausted themselves; the status quo was restored and things quieted down for the next decade.

Conflict Renewed

War once again broke out under Governor Gore Browne in 1860. The issues that led to the resurgence of violence once again hinged on land issues, specifically the rights of natives to refuse to sell land and the rights of the governor to enforce colonial laws and edicts on tribal lands in the face of the so-called King Movement, an emerging Maori political drive to unite the fractious tribes under a single unified banner. The actual spark of the First Taranaki War was the seizure of Maori land and the governor’s decision to interpret the native protests of this seizure as acts of rebellion. Martial law was declared in February 1860.

Beginning with the First Taranaki War, conflicts would flare up with grim regularity for the next twelve years. The greatest of these was the invasion of Waikato, which began in earnest in October 1863. This war saw the first large-scale deployment of locally-raised colonial troops such as the Waikato Militia, the Forest Rangers, and the Taranaki Military Settlers. Furthermore, it ended, after a year of fighting, in a major British victory.

Lasting from March 31 to April 2, Orakau was the final battle of the Waikato invasion, and is perhaps the most famous engagement of all the wars. For three days a force of three hundred Maori held out, completely surrounded by over two thousand British and colonial troops, before finally being overwhelmed. In the end, only a third of the Maori escaped with their lives.

Defeat of the Maori

The key to British victory was twofold: a new appreciation of the effectiveness of the pa, as well as development of effective countermeasures was complemented by the fact that British troops were professional soldiers who could stay in the field year-round if necessary—Maori fighters, on the other hand, were citizen-soldiers who were still obligated to tend to their fields and farms most of the year. Although both sides had a theoretically equal amount of manpower to call upon, only the British could afford to deploy all their soldiers at once and engage their forces in drawn-out sieges and year-round conflicts.

This disparity eventually led to Maori defeat in subsequent uprisings such as the Second Taranaki War, Te Kooti’s War, and Titokowaru’s War, which were marked with increasingly brutal attacks from Maori followers of the Hauhau sect, a militant branch of the Pai Marire movement that preached violent opposition to all white settlement and Christian evangelism, and which sparked a series of inter-tribal civil wars in and of itself.

The effectiveness of the pa was neutralized once British commanders resigned themselves to slow and steady siege operations rather than the more dramatic (and deadly) frontal assaults they had attempted in earlier battles. By extending saps—essentially offensive trench lines—towards the pa and bringing in heavy guns to bombard the palisades, the British were able to force the Maori to withdraw while suffering significantly fewer casualties themselves.

The New Zealand Wars finally ground to a halt in 1872, as both sides, exhausted by years of fighting, reached an uneasy and unofficial peace. The New Zealand colonists came out the better for the conflicts, having gained large tracts of land—over four million acres—and a sense of colonial unity while simultaneously breaking the power of the Maori tribes.

Sikh Wars, 1840s

The Anglo-Sikh Wars were two conflicts that resulted in the annexation of the Sikh kingdom of Punjab by the British East India Company. The wars, marked by fierce fighting on both sides, left the two combatants with much mutual respect for each other and gave the British Empire a new “martial race” with which to fill its colonial army ranks.

The Sikhs

The Sikh kingdom of Punjab had reached its apex in the early nineteenth century under the reign of Ranjit Singh. By the end of his reign, the borders of his kingdom had run up against the newly expanded territory controlled by the Honourable East India Company, the government-sponsored economic and military representative of Britain in India.

The fortunes of Punjab deteriorated rapidly after Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839. Two of Ranjit Singh’s successors died due to foul play. Another son named Sher Singh became the new king, backed by a faction known as the Dogras, who were intent on ruling the country from behind the throne.

As the political situation in the country became increasingly unstable and corrupt, a second faction arose in opposition to the Dogras. Called the Sindhanwalias, they were concentrated in the army, which itself was beginning to grow beyond the control of the government. The concept of the army as the Khalsa, or heart and spirit of the country and the Sikh religion, took hold, and the army gained many new recruits.

The antipathy between the two factions was acute. One British report described the army as being in a “constant state of mutiny,” and indeed a Khalsa agent managed to assassinate Sher Singh in September 1843.

Despite this development, the Dogras retained control over the capital and placed the child Duleep Singh on the throne. Two men quickly rose to become the new de facto rulers of the country: Lal Singh, who was appointed vizier, and Tej Singh, who was placed in command of the army despite his Dogra connections.

The First Anglo-Sikh War

Meanwhile, an increasingly worried East India Company had been steadily moving troops and artillery into the area, claiming that they were simply defending their frontier against a potentially out-of-control army. The Sikhs, meanwhile, accused the British of planning an invasion, pointing to the nature of the buildup, which included heavy siege guns and cannons, as decidedly offensive.

When British troops were moved to the forward position of Ferozepur, the Khalsa responded by moving troops across the Sutlej River on December 11, 1845. Although they were still within their own borders, the British took this as a prelude to war and launched their own invasion instead. The First Anglo-Sikh War had begun.

The army that crossed into Punjab was commanded by General Sir Hugh Gough, in cooperation with the Governor General of Bengal, Sir Henry Hardinge. Their army consisted mainly of sepoys, Bengali troops serving the East India Company, and included the elite Bengal Horse Artillery. Overall, about one in four of the army’s units were British.

The Sikh Khalsa also included European troops in the form of mercenary units, as well as artillery batteries that were trained and led by experienced European artillery officers. The Sikh army had a slight advantage in numbers and a significant advantage in artillery, being well-supplied with heavy guns, in contrast to the British, who relied on light, horse-drawn artillery.

The first battle of the war was a chaotic encounter at Mudki on December 18. The Khalsa under Lal Singh withdrew, but not without causing significant British casualties despite being locally outnumbered by five to one.

Ferozeshah and Sobraon

The British would march on, next encountering the Sikhs three days later at Ferozeshah, where they were dug into well-defended positions. Gough favored an immediate attack, but Hardinge, who thought Gough too eager to rush into battle, overruled him, waiting for the arrival of another division of troops.

Once the reinforcements arrived an attack was launched late in the afternoon of the shortest day of the year. Over the brief course of fighting the British were badly mauled, but managed to gain footholds among the enemy’s trenches. Although Hardinge feared that the battle might be lost, dawn the next day found the British in a stronger position than they’d anticipated. Reforming their lines, they drove the Sikhs off after several hours of hard fighting.

By noon the British had won the field, but were exhausted and nearly out of ammunition. At that point, a second army under Tej Singh appeared on the horizon. Although contemplating surrender, the British formed up again—only to watch in disbelief as Tej Singh withdrew his forces after a perfunctory bombardment.

The British pressed on, defeating the Khalsa at Aliwal on January 28, 1846, and on February 10 at Sobraon, where the Sikh bridgehead over the Sutlej River was almost totally annihilated after Tej Singh fled early in the battle, blowing up the bridges over the river as he withdrew.

The Sikh army at Sobraon once again fought ferociously and to the last man, and the British won yet another costly victory. Fortunately for General Gough and his men, it would be the last such “victory” needed to win the war; the power of the Khalsa had finally been broken.

The Treaty of Lahore, signed on March 9, awarded the province of Kashmir to the East India Company and allowed the British to place political agents in Punjab.

The Second Anglo-Sikh War

The terms of the treaty and the manner in which the war was won—with many accusing Tej Singh of purposely sabotaging his own troops in an effort to destroy the power of the Khalsa—left many Sikhs chafing under the new British-dominated government. Furthermore, the remnants of the Khalsa were not totally disbanded, as the East India Company was reluctant to send its own troops into Punjab.

Thanks to these two factors, the Second Anglo-Sikh War erupted a mere two years after the signing of the Treaty of Lahore. The flashpoint of the war came at the city of Multan, which was ruled by the Hindu Dewan Mulraj. Having enjoyed a relatively independent existence under Sikh rule, he objected to the British sending a government agent to supervise him—at Mulraj’s instigation, a mob killed the British envoys as they arrived in the city.

A hastily-assembled British army was able to drive Mulraj’s troops back within the walls of Multan, but was too small to properly besiege the city. Throughout the rainy season, more British troops were sent into the area as the Khalsa, now under the leadership of a general named Sher Singh, contemplated its options.

When the monsoon passed, Sher Singh met with Dewan Mulraj at Multan and openly declared the Khalsa’s support for the uprising. The two forces did not ally, however. Mulraj gave Singh some money and equipment to enable the Khalsa to march north and rally further support. Shortly after Singh’s departure, a reinforced British army surrounded Multan and laid siege to the city.

Chilianwala and the End of the War

Pursuing the Khalsa once again was Sir Hugh Gough, who commanded an army of British regulars, sepoys, Sikh loyalists, and Pashtun (Punjab Muslim) troops. After a brief cavalry encounter at Ramnagar on November 22, 1848, battle was joined at Chilianwala on January 13, 1849.

Gough, true to his nature, ordered an immediate frontal assault on well-prepared Sikh positions. Once again, the Khalsa’s heavy artillery took a bloody toll among the British, who were forced to slowly advance through thick scrub bushes. The Sikhs also took heavy casualties once the British reached their lines, and the battle ended in a tactical draw. Both armies faced each other for another three days with no further hostilities; finally, the Khalsa continued its march north, rendering Chilianwala a strategic victory for the British.

The debacle at Chilianwala was enough to cost Gough his job, but his replacement was not due to arrive for some weeks. Gough pressed on, shadowing the progress of Singh’s army. Meanwhile, the siege at Multan had come to an end. The walls had been breached and the city stormed on January 22, and Dewan Mulraj was imprisoned for life. With the siege lifted, the heavy guns used to breach the city’s walls were quickly dispatched to Gough’s army. Reinforced, Gough attacked Singh at Gujrat on February 22.

The battle started with a three-hour, hundred-gun bombardment from the British that largely managed to destroy the hastily constructed Sikh positions and send the army into a general retreat. Over the next four hours, British cavalry rode down the retreating Khalsa, scattering it for good. As word of the Sikh defeat spread, an Afghan army, sent by Dost Muhammad to assist the Sikh cause, reluctantly turned back shortly after entering Punjab territory.

The war formally ended on March 12 with Sher Singh’s surrender. The end result of the Second Anglo-Sikh War was the full annexation of the Punjab. Meanwhile, Sir Hugh Gough was recognized for his victory at Gujrat, although he continued to take criticism for Chilianwala for the remainder of his life.

The Sikhs, for their part, became a vital element of British colonial forces, fighting for Britain in nearly every major war until Indian independence in 1947.

Delhi, 1857

The Siege of Delhi was the central event of the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857–1858. Also called the Sepoy Rebellion or the Indian Rebellion, the conflict centered around an uprising among the sepoys, Indian soldiers in the service of the British East India Company. (By the mid-nineteenth century, this company, a government-sanctioned monopoly, had established effective control over nearly the entire Indian subcontinent.)

The Indian Mutiny

The causes of the rebellion were complex and multifaceted. In the century since the British had started making serious inroads into India, a steady and ever-increasing pressure to “modernize” along Western lines had been mounting in the British-controlled regions. By the mid-nineteenth century, the pace of modernization was increasing rapidly, leaving many Indians with a sense of unease, fearful that their ancient and rich culture was in danger of being forgotten in the rush to Westernize.

Another cause of the uprising was the annexation of the state of Oudh. The British, who had long emphasized the rule of law and justice and imported their strictly codified system of land ownership to India, seemed to many to lose face when the rich polity of Oudh was taken by force, with no legal or military pretext, in August 1856. That the ruler of Oudh was not allowed to plea his case in court merely confirmed that the British were only interested in enriching themselves at the cost of India, regardless of what high-minded ideals they might have otherwise proclaimed.

The real flashpoint for the mutiny came with the introduction of the new Enfield rifle to the sepoy ranks. The gun used a paper cartridge that was greased with the fat of both cows and pigs. Drill with the rifle required the user to rip open the cartridge with their teeth in order to load the gun, an act which would defile both Hindu (who hold cows as sacred animals) and Muslim (who regard the pig as a filthy animal) soldiers alike. The general insensitivity of the British was further confirmed; additionally, rumors of a forced conversion to Christianity for all sepoys began to spread.

The Meerut Uprising and the March to Delhi

Troubling incidents, including possible arson, occurred throughout the first half of 1857. On May 9, 1857, several soldiers at the Meerut garrison refused the order to load their rifles during a routine drill. For their infraction, they were clapped in irons, paraded in front of the rest of the unit, and imprisoned in the garrison brig.

The next day, when the British officers and their families were in church, most of the garrison of three regiments rose up, freeing their imprisoned comrades and killing several of their officers. The officers fell back to the stockade, planning to make a last stand, but were surprised when the mutineers marched out of Meerut later that day.

Their destination was Delhi, which lay thirty miles to the north. Sepoys at this former imperial capital happily let the Meerut rebels through the city gates upon their arrival; the nine British officers of the Delhi garrison fell back to the arsenal, which they desperately defended for five hours before blowing it up. In the ensuing chaos, six of the officers managed to escape along with about half of the city’s European citizens.

The East India Company, caught completely off guard, began organizing a military response even as more sepoy garrisons, inspired by the news from Delhi, rose up around the country, most notably at Cawnpore and Lucknow.

Initial Stages of the Siege

British response at Delhi was initially slow to materialize. Local British assets from the northern hills combined to offer some form of resistance to the sepoys at Delhi. Bolstered by the part of the garrison from Meerut that had remained loyal, this small force was able to drive the rebels back behind the city walls, capturing the enemy barracks outside Delhi in the process. In a rash act motivated by vengeance, these outside barracks were burned to the ground. Unable to coordinate an assault on the city, the British settled in for a siege in early June.

The besieged rebels began steadily receiving reinforcements, eventually gaining an additional ten cavalry and fifteen infantry regiments. Delhi had served as a magnet for sympathizers thanks to the residence of the aged Moghul emperor, Bahadur Shah II, who had been proclaimed nominal leader of the rebellion, whether he liked it or not.

The final reinforcements to arrive were led by the well-known general, Bakht Khan, who was immediately proclaimed Lord Governor General by Bahadur Shah. At this point Shah, perhaps concerned with the amount of troops now clogging his city, forbade any more rebel units from joining the defense of Delhi. In all, the defenders of the city totaled some twelve thousand sepoys, thirty thousand irregular infantry, and about one hundred cannons.

The British were seriously outnumbered and, to make matters worse, had gone through a succession of commanding officers, each one dying in turn of cholera before Major General Archdale Wilson, the commander of the Meerut garrison, finally assumed command for good. As the monsoon season came to a close, units from the Punjab began to arrive to bolster Wilson’s ranks.

British Reinforcements Arrive

The Punjab had been quickly pacified in the wake of the first uprisings—although only a British possession for eight years, most of the soldiers there were Sikh or Pashtun (Muslim) with little sympathy for the Indian cause. After the few local rebellions had been put down, several units moved out with haste to reinforce the besiegers at Delhi.

First to arrive was the Corps of Guides, which marched during the monsoons, despite the fact that its largely-Muslim contingent was in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, during which they were forbidden to eat or drink during daylight. After marching several hundred miles, the Guides went straight to the front lines.

Next came the “flying column” of Brigadier John Nicholson, who marched at the head of 4,200 troops and arrived on August 14. Following behind at a slower pace was a mighty siege train, against which the Delhi rebels launched an unsuccessful cavalry raid.

With the arrival of the siege train on September 6, Wilson could boast sixty heavy guns and mortars supplied by over six hundred ammunition carts. Nicholson urged Wilson to go through with plans to breach the city walls and launch an assault as early as possible.

Wilson consented and, over the following week, established three artillery batteries, the closest of which was a mere two hundred yards from the walls. By September 14, the newly emplaced British guns had managed to breach the city’s defenses at several points.

Taking the City

The assault on Delhi was scheduled for three o’clock in the morning that day but had to be delayed several hours in order to knock down barricades the rebels had hastily erected at the breaches. When the British finally launched their attack, they sent in nearly every man they could muster, around ten thousand in all, divided up into five attack columns.

The first three columns were to get into the city and open the gates from within, permitting the fourth column entry. The fifth column, as well as the cavalry, was to wait in reserve. The battle was extremely hard-fought by both sides. The reserve column was put to flight by a rebel sortie, and disaster was only averted by a charge of the reserve cavalry. Meanwhile, Brigadier Nicholson was seriously wounded as he personally led a charge against a rebel emplacement outside the walls.

With casualties running high, Wilson was on the verge of calling off the attack. Nicholson, dying of his wounds, threatened to shoot Wilson if he gave such an order. The attack continued, and the British gained a foothold in the city at the cost of 1,170 casualties.

Bit by bit, the rebels were driven back into the city. The arsenal was retaken on September 16, the imperial palace on September 19 (one day after Bahadur Shah had fled). The city was declared taken two days later. Brigadier Nicholson died of his wounds on September 22.


As Delhi was being taken, and immediately afterwards, it was subjected to much random looting and destruction. It is not known how many citizens died in the fighting, but several hundred rebel leaders were summarily executed. Much of the civilian population of Delhi was expelled from the city in order to make pacification easier.

Delhi marked the first major British victory of the uprising. Cawnpore was to fall in November and Lucknow in March 1858. By the end of that year, the last rebels had been defeated and the rebellion was over.

The repercussions would be significant. The military in the region was overhauled: the ratio of British to native troops was increased and the assignment of native troops to units was kept as random as possible, freely mixing ethnicities, castes, and religions in an effort to prevent the formation of cohesive groups.

The East India Company’s power in India was revoked and the territory came under the direct control of the Crown, which appointed a viceroy to rule the country. In 1876, Queen Victoria was formally appointed Empress of India.

As for the Indians, it would be another ninety years after what many call the First War of Independence before they finally gained freedom from colonial rule.

Cochinchina (1859–1867)

The conquest of Cochinchina (also spelled Cochin China, so-called in order to distinguish the region from Cochin, India) by France over an eight-year period marked the start of that country’s colonial rule in Southeast Asia, and it heralded the beginning of the end for an independent Vietnam and the Nguyen Dynasty.

France and Southeast Asia

French involvement in Vietnam, particularly in the form of missionaries, had been growing steadily throughout the 1840s when the new emperor Tu Duc was crowned in 1848. Although the presence of Catholic proselytizers and converts had long been officially discouraged, Tu Duc, who feared the very real potential of an uprising of his Christian subjects, began an especially severe period of crackdowns and persecutions that eventually drew the attention of the French government.

France, finally recovered from the tumult of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, was feeling anxious about its position on the world stage; it feared being left behind by the rapidly expanding British colonial empire. The issue of intervention on behalf of the missionaries took on higher political importance as it was felt by many in Paris that not intervening would signal weakness and perhaps allow Britain a chance to dominate the region instead.

The Military Intervenes

Emperor Napoleon III gave his approval for military intervention in Vietnam (known to the French as Annam) in 1857. The China Seas Naval Division, a military fleet permanently based in the region, was given orders to take and hold Tourane (modern-day Da Nang) in a joint operation with Spanish troops. This mission was accomplished by September 1858.

Having taken Tourane, the Franco-Spanish occupiers found it difficult to make inroads beyond the city. Short of food and suffering from disease, a second expedition was launched from Tourane south to Saigon (modern-day Ho Chi Minh City, known then as Gia Dinh). What is today a teeming metropolis was at the time a small town and trading post situated on the northern edge of the mighty Mekong River Delta.

Saigon and Chochinchina

The six provinces of Cochinchina, which Saigon anchored, were largely underpopulated, known mainly for their rice exports. The rice is what attracted the French expedition, which was in desperate need of food. On February 16, 1859, a Franco-Spanish detachment of two companies of marines took the Gia Dinh Citadel outside Saigon under the cover of cannon fire from their fleet of ships. Saigon was in French hands but, as in Tourane, the interior of the countryside remained hostile.

The French garrison at Tourane, meanwhile, continued to languish, disease slowly whittling away its numbers. Any hope of reinforcement in the region was dashed by the French declaration of war on Austria in May 1859; Tourane was abandoned in March 1860.

Breakout from Saigon

The one-thousand-man garrison at Saigon continued to hold out against Vietnamese counterattacks. By January 1861, with wars in Austria and China concluded, France was ready to renew its offensive in Cochinchina. Vice Admiral Léonard Charner was put in charge of the operation, and he brought with him 3,500 reinforcements as well as howitzers and field guns.

The Vietnamese, commanded by Governor Nguyen Tri Phuong, mustered an army of twenty to thirty thousand men that had spent the previous year of attritional warfare carefully preparing defenses around Saigon, intending to prevent a French breakout.

The path of the French breakout was correctly anticipated to be the Ky Hoa Plain, a broad, flat expanse to the west of Saigon. Defense of the plain was anchored by a large, complex network of earthworks and stone walls comprising a fortress of sorts. Covering an area of about a half-mile by a mile, the fortress was the key to the success or failure of the French mission.

The mission was made more difficult by the fact that Nguyen Tri Phuong had added to the formidable defenses of the fortress considerably. A network of trenches had been dug extending out from the complex, supplemented by fortified outposts and physical obstacles. The walls of the complex itself had been strengthened and heightened, as had the wooden watchtowers that dotted the length of earthworks.

Nguyen Tri Phuong’s superiority in numbers and excellent defensive disposition was offset, however, by his troops’ inferior equipment. The Nguyen emperors had long resisted importing technology from the Western world, and the troops manning the Ky Hoa defenses were woefully outclassed by their French opponents when it came to armament. The French went into battle with the latest in rifles and artillery; their Vietnamese opponents were forced to rely on flintlock muskets, lances, pikes, polearms, and outdated cannons.

Assault on the Ky Hoa Fortress

The French developed a simple plan to breach the Ky Hoa fortress: an assault across the open plain would have been suicidal, so a flanking maneuver along the French left was planned, using a series of four fortified Buddhist pagodas as leap-frog points. The axis of advance would take the French straight to a fortified extension of the Ky Hoa complex known as “the Redoubt” (ironically a seventy-year-old French-built fortification) which, once breached, would provide a staging ground for an assault on the rest of the fortress.

It was not a perfect plan—for one thing, the French had no idea of what defenses they could expect to encounter within the fortress walls—but it seemed to promise the best chance of success. The assault began on February 23, 1861.

By advancing artillery batteries in alternating “leaps,” the French were able to bring their guns to within five hundred yards of the redoubt. Three attack columns were then sent in, and they set about storming the fortress walls with bamboo ladders and grappling hooks. The redoubt fell after two hours’ hard fighting. Despite the appearance of a sortie of Vietnamese war elephants later that afternoon, the fighting had ended for the day.

The next day brought the assault on the Ky Hoa fortress itself, and it was a similar story to the fight for the redoubt. The outer walls were breached after a half-hour’s fighting, but the interior of the fort proved to be just as well-protected.

The Vietnamese defenders withdrew in good order to another line of defenses the French dubbed “the Mandarin Fort.” A “furious hurricane” of gunfire then poured into the French attackers, who had had to call in nearly all their reserves to continue the fight. Finally the walls were scaled, the gates breached, and the defenders of the Mandarin Fort were killed to a man. French casualties stood at 225 while the Vietnamese lost no less than three hundred.

Tu Duc’s hold over Cochinchina crumbled with the fall of the Ky Hoa defenses. The six provinces of the region quickly came under French control in the ensuing months. Tu Duc signed the Treaty of Saigon in June 1862. This treaty, along with another signed in June 1867, gave the French total control of Cochinchina, which became a French colony. Protectorate status was soon extended to Cambodia, then to the whole of Vietnam shortly after Tu Duc’s death.

Rorke’s Drift, January 22–23, 1879

A brave stand at Rorke’s Drift by a vastly outnumbered British force showed that smaller numbers could prevail against larger Zulu forces, and the minor victory helped British morale after a crushing defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana.

The Anglo-Zulu War

War with the Zulus had broken out in January 1879, manufactured primarily by the British High Commissioner of South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, who was committed to unifying the colonies of South Africa.

Three British troop columns crossed into Zululand on January 11 under Lieutenant-General Frederic Thesiger, Second Baron Chelmsford, who personally led the central, and largest, column. The missionary station at Rorke’s Drift, situated on the Buffalo River—the boundary between Zululand and Natal—was chosen as a staging point.

The “drift,” or river ford, had been chosen by Jim Rorke in the 1840s as an ideal site for a trading post. He had built two stone buildings with thatched roofs and a stone kraal, or corral. When Rorke died, the station was taken over by Reverend Otto Witt, who turned the site into a mission. The British in turn converted the two stone buildings into a field hospital and storehouse, but did not otherwise fortify the site.


Chelmsford’s column struck out from Rorke’s Drift, leaving Major Henry Spalding in charge of the station. Shortly thereafter, on January 22, 1879, half of Chelmsford’s column was attacked and wiped out at the Battle of Isandlwana. Overwhelmed by twenty thousand Zulus, losses totaled 1,700 men, marking it as a disastrous defeat for the British at the hands of a native army. Only sixty Europeans and four hundred of their African allies escaped from the battle. Many of those survivors started trickling back towards Rorke’s Drift.

A wing of the Zulu force that had not had a chance to get into combat at Isandlwana also started making for the Drift, anxious to gain glory in battle. Led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, they were actually disobeying their leader Cetshwayo, who had forbidden his troops to cross the Buffalo River.

Back at the station, the fate of Chelmsford’s column remained unknown. Major Spalding had departed earlier in the morning to check on the status of reinforcements from Natal that were several days overdue. He left Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers in charge of the station.

Although the sounds of battle from Isandlwana had drifted back towards the station, there was little feeling of alarm until the first survivors started showing up around 3:00 in the afternoon. Only one, Lieutenant James Adendorff, stayed to relate the tale of slaughter to Lieutenant Chard’s shock and disbelief.

Organizing a Defense

As the jeopardy that faced Rorke’s Drift became clear, Chard coordinated with his fellow officers, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead and Commissary James Dalton, to throw together a last-minute defense of the station. Although retreating was discussed, it was soon realized that, burdened with wagons and wounded from the hospital, the Zulus would easily overtake them in the open, where they were sure to be slaughtered.

Resolved to make a stand, improvised walls were constructed from one-hundred-pound biscuit boxes and “mealie bags,” two-hundred-pound sacks of grain. The entire perimeter of the station was walled off. Furthermore, the buildings were fortified: doors were blocked with boxes and mealie bags; loopholes were knocked in the walls, providing a vantage point from which to shoot out of the sturdy stone buildings. Even so, the buildings were not ideal strongpoints: their thatched roofs were vulnerable to fire, and they were strangely constructed such that the interior rooms did not link up on the inside—each room could only be accessed via an outside door, effectively rendering each room a separate cell.

The core of the British forces set to defend Rorke’s Drift was B Company, Second Battalion, Twenty-Fourth Regiment of Foot (Second Warwickshires), a largely, though not exclusively, Welsh company. Commanded by Lieutenant Bromhead, the company of ninety-five soldiers was further supplemented by roughly two hundred men from the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), a unit of African soldiers hostile to the Zulus that were commanded by white officers.

Around 3:30 p.m. , a cavalry company of the Natal Native Horse (NNH), survivors of Isandlwana, showed up and offered their services. Chard posted them further out from the station to act as a skirmish screen in the face of the Zulu advance. By 4:00 p.m. , Reverend Witt, who had been up on a nearby hilltop acting as an informal observer, came racing down: he had seen a Zulu force numbering around five thousand, and they were about five minutes away.

The Zulu who were marching towards Rorke’s Drift were quite different from the professional British soldiers they were soon to fight. Made up of citizen-soldiers, they were ill-equipped for long campaigns but fought with a determined ferocity in battle, using their assegai spears to deadly effect. Furthermore, about two-thirds of the force was equipped with firearms, although they were obsolete models compared to the British Martini-Henry repeating rifles.

Battle Is Joined

As the Zulu closed in, things threatened to fall apart quickly. The NNH company came galloping back through the station, routed off the battlefield in fright. At the sight of their comrades running, the entire NNC company also routed, leaping the barricades and fleeing south. In one fell swoop, Chard had lost two-thirds of his defenders. He was left with no more than a scant 150 men, and that included the wounded in the hospital who had been given guns.

Left with more wall than he could cover, Chard ordered the hurried construction of another box-and-bag wall to bisect the station and provide a fallback position. As the wall was being literally thrown together, a cry went up from one of the soldiers; the Zulus had arrived.

Chanting their war cry of “Usuthu! Usuthu!”, the Zulu attacked around 4:30 p.m. The British opened fire at five hundred yards and immediately began taking their toll. The first wave of Zulus diverted towards better cover, leaving a trail of dead in their wake that perfectly told the path of their advance.

Some attacking elements reached the wall, while others took up sniping positions on the British flank. Firing muzzle-loading muskets, their accuracy and rate-of-fire were both poor, but the British casualties began to mount nonetheless—almost all the casualties sustained in the defense of Rorke’s Drift were due to gunshots.

British soldiers were drilled extensively in bayonet combat, and could wield their rifles to deadly effect in hand-to-hand encounters. The Zulus had learned this the hard way and were reluctant to close to within bayonet range—instead, they gathered at the foot of the wall and tried to grab at the rifles as they stuck out over the biscuit boxes or through loopholes. Commissary Dalton was seriously wounded when he tried to lean over the wall to shoot at the Zulus clustered there.

The Hospital

The sheer numbers of Zulu attackers soon began to tell against the beleaguered defenders, and a retreat back to the middle wall was sounded. This left half the hospital in enemy-controlled territory, and the thatch roof was soon set on fire. Seeing the roof smoldering and smoking, the defenders outside the hospital gave up those inside for lost.

That was not the case, however. In what quickly turned into a “battle within a battle,” the defenders of the hospital began falling back from room to room, knocking holes in the connecting walls to get through and dragging the wounded with them. Finally reaching the rear room, the defenders wormed out one by one through a high window, landing in “no man’s land.” The shocked British defenders laid down covering fire and sent men out to drag the wounded back to safety as the roof of the hospital finally went up in flames.


The stone kraal was abandoned around 10:00 p.m. , leaving the British to defend the storehouse—an area roughly the size of a baseball diamond. A makeshift field hospital was established while under gunfire on the storehouse’s veranda as the British, assisted by the light from the burning hospital, held off a steady stream of attacks.

The Zulus finally began to relent around midnight, although a steady stream of harassing fire continued to pour in until two in the morning, accompanied by more cries of “Usuthu!”. By 4:00 a.m. , all was finally still.

At dawn the British were stunned to find themselves in command of the field. They had lost seventeen dead and ten seriously wounded, with a total casualty rate of about 30 percent. Furthermore, nearly every soldier was wounded in some way, if only from the constant firing of rifles that left shoulders badly bruised from the gun’s recoil and fingers blistered from the hot barrels. A count of Zulu bodies in a five-hundred-foot perimeter of the station turned up five hundred–six hundred dead.

A tactical victory for the British, Rorke’s Drift served no greater strategic purpose. It did not, as was suspected at the time, prevent an invasion of Natal—that was never Cetshwayo’s intention. But it did help assuage the sting of Isandlwana and prove that a well-organized defense could hold out against vastly greater numbers. The twin battles of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana committed the British government to seeing the war all the way through; eventual victory over Cetshwayo would come at Ulundi on July 4, 1879.

Kandahar, August 1879

The Siege of Kandahar marked an unexpectedly dramatic and decisive chapter in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1879–1880). Although defeat had initially threatened the British, but thanks to the great Victorian general, Frederick Roberts, disaster was averted and the British forces in the country were able to withdraw in good order.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War

Despite suffering tremendous losses in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–1842), the British felt compelled to once again intervene in the fortunes of Afghanistan in 1879. The latest moves of the “Great Game,” a diplomatic and military struggle between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia in the nineteenth century, motivated the renewed hostilities.

Russia, pressing hard to increase its influence in the region, had sent an uninvited envoy to Kabul to meet with Afghan ruler Amir Sher Ali Khan. Although Khan would have preferred to keep the envoy out of his court, there was little he could do once he arrived. He did determine, however, to keep out the envoy the British were soon insisting they send in reaction to the Russian mission. Ali Khan made sure the new envoy was turned back at the Khyber Pass; Britain responded by invading the country with forty thousand troops in September 1878. Ali Khan died shortly thereafter.

With such a large army inside his country, Ali Khan’s son was forced to the bargaining table, where he consented to all of Britain’s demands—including allowing British envoys to be posted at his court in Kabul in order to help guide Afghan foreign policy decisions—in the Treaty of Gandamak, signed in May 1879.

The treaty’s terms sparked immediate Afghan resistance. On September 3, the British embassy in Kabul was burned down, the envoy killed in the flames. In retaliation, Major-General Sir Frederick Roberts occupied Kabul in October, from whence he directed further military operations around the city and in the vicinity of Kandahar, Dakar, and Jalalabad. A jihad, or holy war, was called against the British in December, but things seemed to be going well for the British for the most part.


In June, Ayub Khan (the younger son of the deceased Ali Khan) led twenty thousand men out of the city of Herat, making for Kandahar. A force of 2,700 British and Indian troops led by Brigadier George Burrows was sent to stop Khan’s army; they met at the Battle of Maiwand on July 27.

The battle was to prove the costliest British defeat of the war, one of the costliest in Britain’s colonial wars in Asia. Suffering nearly 50 percent casualties, Burrows’ bloodied force withdrew towards Kandahar. In the course of winning the battle, and thanks in large part to the heroic sacrifice of the Sixty-Sixth Regiment (Foot), which was almost completely wiped out, Khan’s army had also taken significant casualties, with at least 5,500 dead and 1,500 wounded.

The long retreat to Kandahar would prove as bloody as the battle itself for Burrows and his men. Lacking organization or order, the ragtag British force trudged over forty-five sun-baked miles. Many of the wounded from the battle had to be given up along the way. Many others, wounded and non-wounded alike, died of thirst or from enemy raids. By the time they reached Kandahar on July 28, one-third of Burrows’ expedition had died. Only 161 of the wounded of Maiwand had made it to the city.

The Siege of Kandahar and Roberts’ Relief Column

After joining forces with the city’s garrison, the defenders of Kandahar numbered 4,300. The civilian population was expelled, both for their own protection and in anticipation of the drain they would put on the resources of the city. As they waited for Khan’s army to arrive, the garrison set about strengthening the city’s defenses, stockpiling food, and laying barbed wire outside the walls. Ali Khan and his troops marched into sight on August 8 and immediately laid siege to the city, setting up artillery batteries to knock down the walls.

A raid on the battery of Deh Koja was militarily unsuccessful, but it did convince Ali Khan to withdraw his cannon emplacements further away from the city to limit future raids, simultaneously reducing the effectiveness of his own cannon fire. This reduced effectiveness would buy the garrison inside Kandahar precious time as they held out for relief.

The relief was to come in the form of Major-General Roberts, who organized a column ten-thousand-strong in Kabul. Comprised of one-third European units and two-thirds colonial troops, the men were ordered to pack light, with no more than twenty to thirty pounds in their backpacks—speed was of the essence. Roberts also ordered that no wheeled artillery be brought along, only “mountain” guns that could be disassembled and carried on the backs of donkeys, a decision many of his compatriots felt sure would lead to military disaster.

Roberts set out on the same day that Ali Khan began his siege at Kandahar. Throughout the march there was no way to tell if the garrison still held out, so Roberts set as fast a pace as he could. Despite marching in the blazing heat of high summer, when temperatures would routinely top 105° Fahrenheit by midday, Roberts’ column managed around fifteen miles a day, fast even for marching in ideal conditions. The quick pace was achieved by marching in the early morning hours up through the early afternoon, resting during the hottest times, and taking frequent short rests during the march itself.

The route of the march was not the most direct, but it traced its way through fertile farming valleys that were able to support the column’s food and water requirements—Roberts instructed his men to pay for any provisions they requisitioned from civilians—and avoided the more volatile areas of the region. The march of 320 miles was covered in twenty days.

At word of Roberts’ approach, Ali Khan lifted the siege and retired to the nearby village of Mazra, where battle was joined on September 1. Despite advancing against well-prepared defensive positions, Roberts’ men, led by vanguards of Highlanders and Gurkas, swept the Afghans from the field. Fighting was over by one o’clock—the garrison of Kandahar had been relieved. Roberts made sure the dead of Maiwand were buried before returning to England a national hero.

Roberts’ action had saved another military disaster along the lines of the retreat from Kabul in the First Anglo-Afghan War. A newly-elected British government, considering their forces in Afghanistan lucky and the whole adventure too costly, recalled the troops to India shortly thereafter. For their efforts the British gained some slight territorial concessions and a measure of influence over Afghanistan, but perhaps most importantly they had ventured into the “graveyard of foreign armies” and emerged more or less intact.

Khartoum, 1884–1885

The siege and attempted relief of Khartoum stands as one of the near-mythological events of British colonialism in the nineteenth century. It made a martyr of the already famous General Charles Gordon and would eventually lead to the extension of British control over Sudan.

How General Gordon came to find himself in Khartoum in 1884 was the result of the complex web of international politics that governed the Sudan’s fate. The region was effectively a colony of Egypt, which was itself both a British protectorate and a nominal part of the Ottoman Empire.

Rise of the Mahdi

Events were set in motion when a certain Sudanese man by the name of Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abdallah declared himself the “expected Mahdi,” a messianic figure prophesied in the Koran to be sent by God at the end of the world to unite Islam in a realm of peace and justice. The Mahdi, as he came to be called, began gathering followers and railing against the “corrupt” Turkish-Egyptian brand of Islam.

Egypt sent increasingly large expeditions against the Mahdi and his Ansar (“Followers”) in 1881, 1882, and 1883. Each expedition was defeated in turn, and with each Mahdist victory, the ranks of the Ansar grew larger and larger. By the end of 1883, the Mahdi controlled large portions of Sudan, including Darfur and Kordofan.

Up to that point, the British had been hoping the Egyptians would be able to deal with what was seen as an internal dispute, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the region was in danger of falling under Mahdist control completely. The government of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, reluctant to get caught up in a costly foreign adventure, decided to evacuate Sudan of all British and Egyptian elements still in the country.

General Gordon, as a former governor of Sudan, was tapped to lead the evacuation effort. This decision would come to be widely criticized, for Gordon had been quite public about his views regarding the Sudan: he believed, as did his fellow imperialists, that the region should be fought for and not so easily abandoned.

Gordon in Khartoum

Nevertheless, Gladstone sent Gordon to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, which he entered on February 18, 1884, amidst much rejoicing. If Gordon ever had any intentions of carrying out the evacuation, he quickly abandoned them in favor of preparing for a fight.

Khartoum was situated in as fine a defensive position as Gordon could have asked for. Built at the confluence of the White Nile and Blue Nile, the city’s landward side was protected by a strong wall and ditch. Gordon would go on to strengthen these defenses by adding minefields, barbed wire, and entrenchments outside the walls. He also positioned ad-hoc gunships—converted tramp river steamers armed with cannons and steel-plate armor—on the banks of the two Niles.

As it became increasingly clear that Gordon wasn’t going anywhere, his relationship with Gladstone quickly soured. General Gordon sent several requests for reinforcements, first in the form of Turkish troops, then Indian Muslims, and finally two hundred British soldiers. All of his requests were denied, prompting Gordon to call Gladstone’s refusals “the height of meanness.” The British public was apt to agree.

Mahdist forces had been pressing in on Khartoum since Gordon’s arrival, and in May they finally succeeded in surrounding the city. Gordon could no longer communicate with the outside world by river or telegraph, although it was still possible to send runners sneaking through the Mahdi’s lines when necessary. Gordon estimated that he had six months’ worth of food.

The Ansar by this point were 100,000 strong, and half that army now laid siege to the city itself. What’s more, they were equipped with a selection of cannons and guns to match the capabilities of Gordon’s garrison, which was outnumbered at least seven to one.

The Relief Column

Back home, public pressure—and even Queen Victoria herself—was in favor of sending a relief force to Gordon’s rescue. Gladstone finally relented, and in August an expedition of seven thousand troops under Sir Garnet Wolseley was commissioned.

It took a month just to reach Cairo, and several more months to secure the logistics of a long overland expedition. Wolseley’s force did not cross into Sudan until January 1885. During that time, Gordon had made attempts to break the siege himself. After a series of encouraging victories, his best units were wiped out in an engagement in August 1884, and an attempt to send a steamer up the river to link up with Wolseley met with a similar fate when the ship ran aground.

As Wolseley marched south, the situation in Khartoum was growing increasingly desperate by the day. Civilians and soldiers were slowly starving to death and many residents of the city were simply leaving, deserting to the Mahdi. In November and December of 1884 alone, the city population dropped from 34,000 down to 14,000. Morale among Gordon’s Egyptian garrison was at an all-time low.

Sensing the desperate nature of the situation, Wolseley dispatched a “flying column” of 1,400 mounted troops on January 17, 1885, in an attempt to reach Khartoum as soon as possible. The column ran into the Ansar at Abu Klea and although the British won the battle, they were sufficiently mauled that they were obliged to move more slowly and cautiously from that point on.

The Fall of Khartoum

Knowing that Wolseley’s men were fast approaching, the Mahdi decided to launch a full assault on January 26. Conditions were ideal, as the Nile River was at a seasonal low point, enabling troops to wade across it. Furthermore, recent flooding had damaged a portion of the wall, causing it to collapse where it met the river’s edge.

Forty thousand Ansar charged the city’s five-mile defensive perimeter. The collapsed wall proved to be the city’s Achilles heel, and soon the Mahdists were pouring into Khartoum itself. Some of the Egyptian defenders were routed immediately, while other units fought to the last man. In the end, the entire garrison, along with four thousand civilians, were massacred.

As for General Gordon, his death quickly passed into legend. There are conflicting stories: one account has him shot down in the street as he attempted to make for the safety of the Austrian embassy. Another, much more popular account has him meeting the Mahdist charge in full dress uniform, standing on the steps of the governor’s palace, a pistol in one hand, a sword in the other, quiet and contemptuous. Some accounts further embellish this with Gordon going down fighting, leaping to protect his Islamic bodyguard and being speared and shot to death.

Whatever the manner of his demise, it was against the Mahdi’s orders, as he had wanted Gordon captured alive. When Gordon’s head, mounted on a pike, was presented to the Mahdi, such was the rage expressed that none came forward to claim responsibility for killing him.

Two days after Gordon’s death, advance units of the relief column finally appeared only to find Khartoum a smoking ruin. The siege had lasted 317 days. Wolseley turned back. Sudan was evacuated of all Egyptian and British elements, save for the Red Sea enclave at Suakin, and the Mahdi was free to establish a free Islamic state.

General Gordon, meanwhile, was hailed as a Christian martyr and model British officer. His family bible was displayed by Queen Victoria on a satin pillow at Windsor Castle, and illustrations of his heroic last stand were plentiful. Gordon College in Khartoum would eventually be founded in his honor.

The Mahdi died of a sudden illness six months after Gordon. The state he left behind quickly became a military dictatorship governed by a strict interpretation of Muslim law (sharia). The region would not come back under British and Egyptian control until Lord Kitchener’s expedition of 1898 and its subsequent victory at the Battle of Omdurman.

Adwa, March 1, 1896

The Battle of Adwa (also spelled Adowa) marked one of the most dramatic reversals of European fortunes in Africa in the nineteenth century. King Menelik’s Ethiopian army inflicted a crushing defeat on an invading Italian army that regarded their enemy as little more than savage barbarians.

Italy’s Designs on Ethiopia

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, nearly all of Africa was under Europe’s colonial domination. Only Liberia in the west and the ancient Christian nation of Ethiopia in the east could still claim sovereign control of their fortunes.

Meanwhile, newly unified Italy, whose sole African possessions consisted of the backwater territories of Eritrea and Somalia, was looking to play catch-up in the colonial game. Ethiopia, which had been plunged into chaos after a British expedition in 1868 led to the suicide of Tewodros II (“Mad King Theodore”), seemed to offer a choice opportunity for the young European power on the make.

When the Italian-backed King Menelik II came to the throne in 1889, the path to colonial control of the country appeared wide open. However, a falling out over a deceptively-worded treaty led to a rapid cooling of relations between the two countries. As it became increasingly clear that Menelik had never intended to be Italy’s puppet, talk on both sides turned to war.


The Italians, responding to Menelik’s repudiation of their treaty (or their version of it, at least), crossed the Mareb River into Ethiopia in October 1895 with about 25,000 troops. Adigrat, Adwa, and Makalle were quickly occupied as the Italian commander, General Oreste Baratieri, vowed to bring Menelik back to Rome in a cage.

Menelik, for his part, had inherited an appreciation for modern firepower from his mentor Tewodros, and had set about equipping his army with the latest in rifles and artillery. The army he modernized was massive, at least eighty thousand strong and possibly nearly double that. Nevertheless, it was still essentially a medieval force based on feudal levies of peasant-soldiers who could not afford to stay in the field indefinitely.

Baratieri appreciated this weakness of the Ethiopian army and, as the disparity in numbers between the two armies became evident to him, decided to assume a defensive posture, confident he could hold off any assaults until Menelik’s army disintegrated.

This strategy very nearly succeeded. Although both sides were running low on supplies by late February 1896, it was Menelik who was planning to retreat. He set March 3 as the day he would withdraw, so it came as quite a shock when, as he was praying for guidance on the morning of March 1, he received reports of an Italian advance towards his positions.

The motivation behind Baratieri’s sudden shift in strategy had come from Rome: the government, increasingly fervent in its backing of the war, was anxious for a decisive battle and had exerted pressure on their general in the field to act. Despite his reservations, Baratieri, encouraged by his staff officers, had ordered an attack.

The Battle

Baratieri’s force consisted of four brigades; three were sent into battle. One of the brigades was made up of askari, African troops serving under European officers. The other two were native Italian units of decidedly mixed quality. Some, like the elite alpini and bersaglieri companies, were capable veterans, but the majority were inexperienced conscript regiments, poorly trained and motivated.

The Italian plan involved sending the brigades forward in three separate columns to occupy three hilltops overlooking the Ethiopian positions. Troops began moving out around two o’clock in the morning. Confusion quickly set in as the columns struggled through misty darkness over incredibly rugged terrain consisting of jagged hills, rift valleys, and treacherous pathways. The torturous progress was made even worse by the officers’ woefully inadequate maps, which sent units off in the wrong direction, some colliding and others veering away from the main body, opening up wide gaps in the lines.

At six in the morning, as it stumbled towards its objective, the askari brigade under General Albertone was the first to make contact with the Ethiopians. The ensuing battle lasted two hours as the askari were surrounded by swarming hordes of Ethiopians, who, armed with a mixture of swords, spears, shields, and rifles, fought in loosely dispersed formations reminiscent of ancient armies. Ethiopian artillery positioned on a nearby hill did its best to add to the carnage, hampered by its inexperienced crews.

The askari finally broke after Albertone was captured in battle, and it fled back towards the Italian brigade of General Arimondi. The Italians held their fire as the askari poured through their ranks until they realized that Ethiopian enemies were mixed in among their fleeing allies.

Savage hand-to-hand fighting erupted as Arimondi’s troops fought with the ferocity of cornered animals. Menelik, commanding from the rear, considered withdrawing, but was convinced by his wife, the Empress Taitu, to send in his reserve of 25,000 Royal Guards. The reinforcements tipped the balance, and the Italian center collapsed by noon.

Meanwhile, the third column under General Dabormida, having become separated from the rest of the army during the early morning’s confused maneuvers, was fighting its own desperate battle in the valley of Mariam Shavitu. For four hours, starting at ten in the morning, Dabormida’s troops first fought off waves of Ethiopian assaults, then began conducting a fighting withdrawal when the general realized the nature of his position. The Italians were finally overwhelmed by hundreds of Oromo horsemen, who swept through the valley yelling their chilling battle-cry, “Reap! Reap!” Dabormida’s remains were never found, although an old woman in a nearby village later recounted how she gave water to an injured Italian officer “with stars on his shoulders.”


Adwa was a disaster unparalleled in the history of Europe in Africa. The Italian army had over three thousand European soldiers and two thousand askari killed, nearly 1,500 wounded, and 2,500 captured. Of the captured, about eight hundred were Ethiopian askari, who were regarded as traitors by the Menelik’s army. They received the traditional punishment for treason: amputation of the right hand and left foot. The European prisoners, by contrast, were treated as well as possible and were eventually returned home in exchange for a large payment in “reparations.” In addition, the Ethiopians captured eleven thousand rifles and all fifty-six of the Italian expedition’s field guns.

The victory did not come cheaply: Menelik’s army lost an estimated seven thousand men killed and upwards of ten thousand wounded. Nevertheless, the nature of the victory sent shock waves across the world. Never had an African army inflicted such a crushing victory on a European army; the battle would stand as a symbol of African resistance to future anti-colonialist movements on the continent. The Italian government of Prime Minister Francisco Crispi fell, and diplomats from around the world rushed to the court of Menelik at Addis Ababa. In one fell swoop, Ethiopia had gone from a backwater country to a world-recognized power.

Mafeking, 1899–1900

The Siege of Mafeking is perhaps the most well-known engagement, and certainly the most famous British victory, of the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). Fought over 217 days, the desperate defense of a town of little strategic importance made a national hero of Robert Baden-Powell, who would later go on to even greater fame as the founder of the Scout movement in England.

South Africa and the First Boer War

The causes of the Second Anglo-Boer War stretched back nearly a century and were the result of a complex interplay between the two foreign powers controlling South Africa in the nineteenth century: the Boer Republics and the British Empire.

European settlement of South Africa had begun early on in the “Age of Discovery” with the establishment of provisioning posts, first by Portugal in the fifteenth century, then, on a much larger scale, by Dutch sailors beginning in 1652. The region became a destination for settlers and outcasts from Europe throughout the eighteenth century, attracting independently-minded Dutch and Germans as well as persecuted minorities such as the French Huguenots.

By the nineteenth century, the various elements had merged to form a unique culture with its own language—Afrikaans—and strongly held views on independence and self-determination. These Boers (“farmers”) were to find themselves with new leaders with the advent of the Napoleonic Wars and the bankruptcy of the Dutch East India Company: by 1806, Britain had seized the Cape Colony, as it was known, and began encouraging British immigration to the region.

Decidedly anti-Boer policies led many Afrikaaners to leave the Cape Colony for points further inland, hoping to return to a system of self-rule they had known before the coming of the British. The 1833 British abolition of slavery, upon which many Boers based their livelihood, was the final straw, and the “Great Trek” began shortly thereafter.

The great movement of Boers into the South African interior resulted in the formation of three new Boer republics. One, the Natal Republic, situated on the vital east coast, was quickly occupied by Britain. The inland republics—the Orange Free State and the Transvaal—were left alone for the time being.

The situation changed around the time of the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 and the discovery of gold in the Transvaal, known by that point as the South African Republic, two years later. The annexation of the bankrupt South African Republic in 1877 and subsequent influx of British uitlanders, as the Boers called them, into the boomtown of Johannesburg led to increased tensions between the British Crown and the Boers.

The result of these escalating tensions was the First Anglo-Boer War (December 1880 to March 1881). Britain was caught completely unprepared for the resistance shown during the Boer uprising, and the innovative Boer tactics, years ahead of their time with their emphasis on battlefield mobility and the accurate fire of breech-loading rifles from concealed positions. Hostilities concluded after the disastrous British defeat at Majuba Hill on February 27, in which the British suffered nearly three hundred casualties at a total cost to the Boers of one dead and five wounded.

Britain formally recognized Boer independence in 1884 but never really gave up designs on uniting all of South Africa under its flag. In 1895, Cape Premier Cecil Rhodes, having grown rich on the Boer gold and diamond mining industries, hatched a plan to foment rebellion in the Republics. The plan fell through for the most part, but a four day raid by a party from British Natal into the Transvaal, the “Jameson Raid,” at the end of that year pushed both sides into preparing for war.

Rumors that Germany was planning to move troops into South Africa to protect the Boer Republics caused alarm in London, and troops began moving into Natal by 1899. Paul Krugur, President of the South African Republic, decided to launch a pre-emptive strike in October.

The resulting Second Boer War saw several early lopsided Boer victories before Britain could bring the full might of its Empire, as well as the command of the legendary Lord Roberts, to bear. By the end of 1900, conventional fighting had ended with Britain in control of both Republics’ capitals. A brutal, two-year period of guerrilla warfare then ensued, with Britain resorting to the use of concentration camps to subjugate soldiers and their families—thousands would die in the unsanitary conditions of the camps.

Faced with an unwinnable and costly struggle, the last Boer resisters finally surrendered in May 1902, after the deaths of over 45,000 soldiers and civilians. The impact of the Boer Wars was wide-ranging, causing massive restructuring of British military organization and tactics as well as a serious rethinking of colonial policy.

Plans for Defense

Baden-Powell had already made something of a name for himself in the British Army as a master scout and expert in small-scale warfare. It was due to this reputation that Baden-Powell was dispatched to the South African colony of Natal in advance of an anticipated conflict with the Boer states.

His orders were simple: raise two regiments in the region near the Transvaal-Rhodesian border. These regiments were, in the event of hostilities with the Boers, to pin down invading forces long enough to allow British reinforcements to arrive from overseas. Having raised the regiments, Baden-Powell decided on a battle plan. He realized that his best chance of success lay in defending a fixed location and he settled on the town of Mafeking, which was close to the Transvaal border and sat atop a railway junction, as a good location.

Under Baden-Powell’s directions, Mafeking underwent preparations for a siege. A line of defense was established in a six-mile perimeter around the town. The system of interlocking trenches and gun emplacements covered much more ground than would have been necessary to simply cordon off the settlement because it took advantage of local terrain features, a specialty of Baden-Powell’s.

Manning this perimeter was a defensive force of about two thousand troops, one of the two regiments Baden-Powell had raised. He sent the other regiment under Colonel Herbert Plumer to defend the nearby town of Tuli. Baden-Powell also created a cadet corps of boys aged 11–15 to handle menial tasks such as running messages or acting as orderlies, thus freeing up every available soldier to man the defenses. This cadet corps, which served with distinction throughout the siege, would later become a model for the Scouts.

The Siege Begins

The town came under siege one day after the Boer declaration of war on October 12, 1899. Mafeking was surrounded by a Boer force of about five thousand men under General Piet Cronje, who began shelling on October 16 after Baden-Powell rejected his overtures for surrender.

The shelling would continue six days a week—Sundays were mutually agreed to as a “truce day”—for the remainder of the war. After a month, Cronje departed with two-thirds of his force, leaving Commandant J.P. Snyman in charge of continuing the siege. Cronje had seen, too late, the true purpose of Mafeking—his men, rather than assisting with a general push into Natal, had been held up for four weeks. The siege was to continue to prove a damaging drain on Boer manpower and resources.

Within the besieged town, meanwhile, Baden-Powell did his best to maintain morale, leading by example and maintaining an optimistic attitude. He was assisted in this by Lady Sarah Wilson, aunt to future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose bomb bunker became the social focus of the town. Lady Wilson also spearheaded efforts to provide relief and comfort to the large population of African refugees sheltering within the town.

Daily reports on the goings-on inside Mafeking were filed by reporters from the London Times, Morning Post, Daily Chronicle, and Pall Mall Gazette, all of whom had been trapped inside the town when war broke out. Their dispatches were followed eagerly back in England, where good news of British progress in the war was hard to come by.

Defense of Mafeking

Baden-Powell, in addition to his morale-boosting, also masterfully directed the defense of the town. The forces arrayed against the Boers were made to seem more formidable than they really were—fake minefields were laid in full sight of Boer observers, and troops were shifted around constantly to make their numbers seem greater. Regular raids on Boer positions were mounted, some meeting with success; others, such as the raid on Game Tree Fort on December 26, which resulted in the death of twenty-six of the raiders, failing miserably.

Failed raids weren’t the defenders’ only worries. By January 1900, food stockpiles were running low. Both the military garrison and the town’s civilians were put on tight rations. Hardest hit were the seven thousand African residents of the town, who had little to fall back on. Meanwhile, soldiers such as William Robertson Fuller, a private in the front lines, noticed the lengths that were being taken to stretch the food supply, as he recorded in his diary:

“February 26: We are now eating horse flesh. Have had doubts about meat for some days. Always thought it wasn’t beef. Not bad, but tough. General complaint, not enough of it. We eat anything in these times.”

“February 27: Soup kitchens opened to feed Natives. Dogs not licensed are to be destroyed. Looks suspicious.”

Despite being reduced to eating horse, dog, and, later, donkey meat, defense of the town went on. Lacking artillery, two cannons were improvised. One, dubbed “Wolf,” was constructed from a steel tube. The other, named “Nelson,” was actually a reclaimed naval cannon that had been found serving as a fence post. Shells and powder for both guns were manufactured on site, and they both served their purpose admirably.

Relief Efforts

After a failed attempt by Plumer’s regiment to break through on March 31, the next word of possible relief came in May, as a “flying column” of 1,100 cavalrymen under Colonel B.T. Mahon was dispatched to raise the siege.

With the approach of Mahon’s forces, the Boers, whose numbers were about equal to the defenders by that point, decided to try and take the town by force on May 12. Sarel Eloff, the grandson of Boer President Paul Kruger, was picked to lead the assault. He boasted that he would be dining in Mafeking by the morning.

The assault did manage to break through the defensive line and enter the town proper. Several buildings were set on fire, but the Boers were eventually put to flight or captured. Eloff, who had shot several of his men on the spot as they tried to run away, was one of those taken prisoner. Baden-Powell graciously treated Eloff to breakfast the next morning so that he could say his boast still held true.

Mahon’s column broke through the Boer encirclement on May 16, the advance units entering the town that evening only to be greeted with typical dry British wit as a Mafeking resident remarked upon seeing one of the first cavalry officers riding down the main street: “Ah yes, I heard you were knocking about.”

The lifting of the siege was the first bit of genuinely good news for Britain in a war that had been marked by blunder and disaster. Back in England the news of Mafeking’s relief caused a sensation out of all proportion to its actual importance. The streets of London were clogged with cheering crowds while towns throughout the rest of the country blew their factory whistles and called out brass bands to mark the occasion. Such wild, ultra-patriotic celebrations would for a short time even be referred to as “mafficking.”

Paardeberg, February 1900

The Second Boer War (1899–1902) was characterized by a series of British blunders and disastrous defeats. Paardeberg marked the first major British victory of the war, a battle in which the Boers out-blundered the British.

British Field Marshal Frederick Roberts had been brought in to replace Redvers Buller after a string of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Boer (the Dutch word for “farmer”) army. Descendents of Dutch and German colonists, and violently independent, the Boers had risen up and started the Second Boer War in the face of British attempts to unify South Africa’s colonies. Their irregular army, equipped with Mauser rifles, had so far outfought and outshot the regular, trained British at every turn, isolating British garrisons at Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking.

Relief of Kimberley

Roberts, recognizing public pressure to relieve the besieged garrison, developed a plan. Pinning down the Boers led by Piet Cronje at Magersfontein, Roberts would send his cavalry under Major-General John French in a wide flanking maneuver. In theory, this would liberate Kimberley, cut off Cronje’s troops, and open up the road to the Boer capital of Bloemfontein, all in one fell swoop. Marching quickly under blazing hot sun, the cavalry was able to accomplish this goal, although it spent nearly all its horses in the process. After a four day march, Kimberley was relieved on February 15, 1900.

Cronje soon realized he was in danger of being cut off and began to retreat from Magersfontein. He managed to slip away undetected, but his progress was slowed by the presence of women and children in his column, as well as by his ox-drawn supply wagons. Nevertheless, he was not expecting to come under attack, and began a careful crossing of the Modder River at Paardeberg.

It was at this point that the remaining active elements of French’s cavalry fell upon Cronje’s column, pouring fire down from a nearby hill. French’s cavalry had executed yet another forced march and achieved complete surprise. Cronje reacted by forming a laager and digging in on the banks of the river. The forces of Boer commander Christiaan De Wet were thirty miles away.

Bloody Sunday

The remainder of the British force soon surrounded Cronje’s position. Roberts, ill with fever, had appointed Lord Kitchener, the hero of Khartoum, as his representative in the field. Although the British enjoyed a massive artillery superiority (fifty guns to Cronje’s four), Kitchener did not want to bombard the laager into submission. Instead, on February 18 he ordered a full assault, despite the fact that time and again the Boers had demonstrated their excellence and deadliness when defending fixed positions. Events would prove no different that day, which would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Despite the foolhardiness of Kitchener’s orders, the assault might well have succeeded if it had been carried out all at once. Instead, a series of uncoordinated attacks went on throughout the day, enabling Cronje’s men to deal with each unit in turn. By the end of the day, the British had lost 320 dead, 942 wounded, making it the worst single day loss of the war. To make matters worse, De Wet was able to move five hundred troops into an abandoned British position, tantalizingly close to Cronje.

Despite De Wet’s urgent pleas, however, Cronje refused to try and break out. Roberts, rising from his sick bed, returned to the field the next day, and—at the urging of his staff officers, and over Kitchener’s urgings to launch more assaults—decided on a strategy of bombardment.

Cronje Under Siege

Opening up with everything they had, which included a complement of medium howitzers as well as quick-firing two-pounder “pom pom” cannons, the British inflicted terrible losses on the Boers. Wagons, many holding the worldly possessions of the soldiers and their families, were blown apart. Nearly every pack animal and horse in the camp was killed, and the river soon became choked with rotting animal carcasses and fly-blown human corpses. The stench was awful and a small outbreak of typhus erupted among the British, so unsanitary were the conditions.

De Wet, his troops uncomfortably close to the British, finally withdrew. Cronje was completely isolated. On the night of February 26, the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, part of Canada’s first-ever overseas troop deployment, was sent forward on a night assault. By midnight, the Canadians had gotten within one hundred yards of the Boers, where they proceeded to dig trenches. With the dawn, Cronje found himself directly under the Canadian rifles and realized his position had become untenable. He raised a white flag in surrender.

The British captured four thousand men and fifty women, nearly 10 percent of the Boer army. During the battle, the Boers had also lost one hundred killed and 250 wounded. The price of British victory was high: not counting Bloody Sunday, they lost 258 killed, 1,211 wounded. Nevertheless, it was the first kernel of good news in a war that had so far been marked with military fiascoes.

The surrender at Paardeberg came on the anniversary of the British defeat at Majuba during the First Boer War, and news of the defeat had a jarring impact on the Boer troops in the field. The tactic of forming laagers was abandoned, and tactics quickly shifted to hit-and-run, mobile attacks. The Second Boer War would soon become a guerrilla war.

British morale was emboldened by the victory. Ladysmith was relieved on February 28 by Buller, and the tactical lessons learned at Paardeberg were soon disseminated to the rest of the army.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Guerrilla Warfare

The term guerrilla warfare was originally coined during the Napoleonic Wars, but it describes a style of waging war that is as old as organized conflict. The concept of guerrilla warfare covers a wide range of applications, from large-scale military operations down to individual acts of terrorism and sabotage. The common threads running through all these possible activities are an emphasis on hit-and-run tactics, mobility, and unconventional methods of waging war.

The Nature of Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla, meaning “little war,” first entered the English language during the Peninsular War (1808–1814), part of the Napoleonic Wars in which France fought in Spain against British troops and their Spanish and Portuguese allies. In French-occupied territories, Spanish freedom fighters employed guerrilla tactics to devastating effect, sapping French resources and significantly contributing to eventual British victory.

The tactics employed in Spain in the early nineteenth century were the same as those applied in the North American colonies, both for and against Britain, in the previous century. During the American Revolution, irregular units of riflemen caused much consternation among Redcoats and Loyalists alike, particularly in the Carolinas under the leadership of “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion.

Marion’s activities paint the classic picture of the essentials of guerrilla warfare: a band of soldiers who would be unable to win against an organized army, under the leadership of a charismatic individual, turning to quick, brutal raids targeting enemy rear areas and other vulnerable points, then retiring to their hideout—situated in forbidding, inhospitable terrain—until their next attack.

Advantages of Guerrilla War

The advantage gained by guerrilla fighters appearing and disappearing quickly, seemingly at will, and to striking at nearly any point of enemy-occupied territory, sometimes even hundreds of miles from the front lines, is twofold. First, it obliges the enemy army to try and guard everything, which in turn requires a much larger force in the field than would otherwise be necessary. For example, German operations in World War II were severely hampered by guerrilla activity, most famously in occupied France, Russia, and especially Yugoslavia. Supply trains were armored and garrisoned with whole companies of troops, and entire divisions were committed to policing rear areas rather than fighting on the front lines.

This drain on resources is compounded by the psychological effect that guerrilla tactics have on enemy troops. Knowing that a strike could come at any time, that there are no “safe zones,” and that it is unwise to travel in small groups, all takes its toll on the already war-weary psyche of the frontline soldier. The psychological impact of guerrilla warfare can even reverberate back to the home front, swaying public opinion against the ongoing war—as happened in America during the Vietnam and Iraq Wars—and giving hope to those in whose name the guerrillas fight, as in the case of Mao Tse-tung’s Chinese People’s Liberation Army, especially since guerrilla tactics tend to lead to violent reprisals, further alienating the local populace.

U.S. Wars with Native Americans

As the nineteenth century dawned in the Americas, the intense conflict between the many sovereign indigenous nations of North America and Euro-American settlers was reaching critical mass. Colonization had been the tool used to establish dominance in order to stake the claim on the natural resources, land, and people of North America by the United States government, and the nineteenth century saw a full flowering and institutionalization of colonialism under the euphemistic philosophy of “Manifest Destiny,” which imagined it was the white man’s duty to spread American civilization to all corners of the continent.

While there are some accounts of Native Americans and Euro-Americans fighting together against other Native American groups, there was never a perception of equality extended from the United States toward the dwindling Native American nations; rather, the Indian Wars of the nineteenth century were the final attempts to exterminate Native American populations in order to claim more land and resources for the burgeoning U.S. population.

The Indian Wars did not begin in earnest until after the Civil War, when white settlers began moving west in greater numbers, following the expanding network of railroads west of the Mississippi. The Indian Wars is a blanket term used to describe a large number of conflicts and massacres fought for a variety of reasons, from disputes over treaty violations to petty land grabs.

The wars were effectively guerrilla-style conflicts, with large, mobile groups of Native Americans increasingly forced to stay on the move ahead of pursuing U.S. forces. There were very few large-scale battles; widespread atrocities, a hallmark of guerrilla warfare, occurred on both sides of the conflict.

The Sand Creek Massacre (1864), the Wounded Knee Massacre (December 29, 1890), the Black Hills War (1876–1877, during which the Battle of Little Bighorn was fought), the Nez Perce War (1877), the Apache Wars (1864-1886), and innumerable smaller skirmishes eventually led to the displacement and resettlement of the last free Native American tribes in the Great Plains and Southwest into what were effectively prisoner of war camps, the reservations.

With the last gasp of the Ghost Dance War, an uprising among reservation-based Lakota Sioux in 1890–1891, the Indian Wars came to an official end. The impact of the wars, and of the reservation system they created, reverberates to this day.


For all their benefits, guerrilla tactics carry significant drawbacks as well. First, guerrilla warfare is usually born of desperation, and for good reason. In contrast to the romanticized depiction of “freedom fighters” that is seen in wartime propaganda and peacetime fiction, the life of a guerrilla is rough, tough, and brutal. Discipline is at least as harsh as in the regular army, and punishments for infractions can be severe. Secondly, in order to wage effective guerrilla war, troops must operate under extremely harsh conditions. Bases are invariably located in inaccessible locales in the middle of unsettled wilderness and are by necessity temporary, makeshift affairs that can be broken down and moved at a moment’s notice. The life of a guerrilla fighter is a life of constant movement and activity with very little “down time.”

The twentieth century saw the full flowering of guerrilla warfare into a recognized, legitimate form of warfare. From the Philippine resistance to Spanish and U.S. occupation at the turn of the century, through the Riff War in Morocco in the 1920s, and on into French Indochina and Ho Chi Minh’s long war of attrition, guerrilla movements reached new heights of deadly effectiveness as indigenous populations fought against their colonialist overlords.

It is worth noting, however, that of the three examples just cited, only in one case—Vietnam—did guerrilla resistance actually achieve its ultimate goals, and even then only after decades of struggle, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and significant foreign aid. As effective as guerrilla warfare can be, it is at best only a component of a winning strategy; conventional wars still require conventional armies to secure final victory. An unsupported guerrilla force can operate for years on its own, but it cannot hope to achieve its objectives without outside help.

The Mauser Rifle

The development of the rifle and its widespread integration into military doctrine was fully realized with the use of the Mauser rifle in the Spanish-American and Boer Wars. Although both wars saw the Mauser employed by the losing side, the gun and its tactical employment made such an impression on the United States and Britain, respectively, as to redefine how the role of the rifle on the modern battlefield was viewed.

Development of the Rifle

Beginning in the fifteenth century, gunsmiths in Europe had developed a process called “rifling” aimed at improving the accuracy of the muskets then in use. Because of their designs, traditional smoothbore guns were wildly inaccurate—the tactic of massed ranks of soldiers firing at a short range developed from a need to counterbalance the inability of the musket to hit anything with any degree of accuracy beyond one hundred yards.

Rifling changed the interior design of the gun’s barrel by carving a spiral groove from the breech to the muzzle. This groove acted like a long screw that would give the round spin as it left the gun, as well as providing a tighter seal between the bullet and the barrel; these two effects provided increased accuracy and range.

The major drawback to the rifle was the difficulty in loading it. Because of limitations in gun casting and metallurgy, reliable breech-loading guns were not developed until the nineteenth century. Prior to such innovations, the prospective rifle owner had two choices in a rifle: he could use a muzzle-loading model, which, thanks to the very grooves that made the rifle so effective, took even longer to load than a standard smoothbore, or he could use a breech-loader, which was subject to fouling and jams.

As such, the rifle became the weapon of the sharpshooter and the hunter, neither of whom needed to worry about how fast they could reload their guns and who instead put a primacy on accuracy. The North American frontier and the forests of Germany, in particular, became major centers of rifle manufacturing and use.

By the nineteenth century, technological developments had led to widespread adoption of the rifle. First came the Minie round, a specially-developed bullet that was smaller than the bore of the rifle, allowing it to be loaded with the speed of a smoothbore but fired with the accuracy and range of a rifle. Around the same time, advancements in breech-loading technology led to the first true modern rifles, the Henry and Springfield, and later the famous Winchester.

Although the rifle quickly replaced the musket among European-style armies, tactics failed to keep pace with the new weapon. The importance of massed drill was still emphasized and individual marksmanship was not emphasized.

The Boers of South Africa, rugged frontiersmen who lived and died by their rifles, were by contrast raised to be expert marksmen. The accuracy of their fire played a major role in their victory during the First Boer War (1880–1881), but with the arrival of tens of thousands of Mauser rifles from Germany the true potential of the Boer soldier was realized.

The Model 93/95 Mauser rifle was superior in accuracy and ruggedness to every other rifle at the time, and fired bullets using cartridges loaded with the newly developed “smokeless powder.” In contrast to “black powder,” which produced great puffs of white smoke, smokeless powder was true to its name: its lack of telltale gunsmoke allowed a shooter in a concealed position to remain undetected.

The Spanish army, which also employed the Mauser, caused considerable consternation to the attacking American troops in Cuba, as related by Teddy Roosevelt:

“… as we advanced we were, of course, exposed, … But they themselves were entirely invisible. The jungle covered everything, and not the faintest trace of smoke was to be seen in any direction to indicate from whence the bullets came.”

The accuracy of the Mauser inflicted horrendous casualties on the British fighting in the Second Boer War—every Boer soldier effectively became a sniper, and officers were a favorite target. The early lopsided Boer victories can largely be attributed to their proficiency with the Mauser and knowledge of how best to employ it.

After their respective wars against Spain and the Boer Republics, both America and Britain undertook projects to introduce copies of the Mauser. The result in America would be the legendary M1903 Springfield rifle, which would equip U.S. troops until the Second World War, and would remain a favorite of snipers for a further thirty years beyond that. The British Pattern 1913 rifle was never fully implemented due to the constraints of the First World War, much to the consternation of British troops who once again found themselves facing the dreaded Mauser, this time in the hands of the Germans, who would continue to use a version of the rifle all the way through World War II.

Impact of the European Wars of Empire

As might be expected, the impact of nineteenth century colonialism and imperialism—which witnessed the exportation of European civilization on a global scale and the widespread exploitation of non-European cultures—continues to loom large to this day. The fact that the two world wars of the twentieth century were true global conflicts was largely the result of European powers dragging their far-flung colonial holdings into the fight. The modern-day Third World primarily consists of former colonial possessions left economically and politically crippled by decades of economic exploitation.

Imperialistic colonialism was not entirely profit-motivated, however. Christian, mostly Protestant, missionaries brought the word of their God to “heathen” countries, and their persecution often brought in official military interest from their homelands. The beginning of the worldwide dissemination of European and American culture, as well as the basis for English as today’s most commonly accepted language of international relations, lies in the colonial period.

The view of non-Europeans as Godless savages evolved over time into a codified, institutionalized racism that cast colonial subjects as “half devil, half child,” simultaneously in need of “civilizing” and posing an unprecedented threat to white culture. In other words, European colonialists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century saw their interaction with foreign cultures as a one-way street, in which there was to be no exchange of ideas, but rather an export of their own culture to completely replace native cultures.

International politics are still shaped today by the colonial wars. China’s deep distrust of the Western world dates back to the Opium Wars and Britain’s heavy-handed “gunboat diplomacy.” Today’s unstable situation in the Middle East, and the region’s own distrust of America and her allies, is a direct result of British and French colonial policies in the first half of the twentieth century and attempts, largely American or American-backed, after World War II to “stabilize” the newly independent states, attempts that generally only led to more instability. The ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan—a state that was created in the wake of the British exit from their former colonial “crown jewel”—is similarly directly traceable to the legacy of colonialism.

Europe, too, ultimately suffered for its colonial empires. The cost of maintaining global dominance sapped treasuries and damaged prestige. Perhaps the most well-known example is Vietnam, which defeated two great nations, France and the United States. Britain, upon whose Empire the sun once never set, gradually lost most of its overseas possessions in the wake of the Second World War as it turned towards repairing its shattered domestic economy, and its dominions asserted their independence.

The mark of old European administrations can still be easily discerned in the old colonies: former British dominions tend to have legal systems modeled on British code; former French territories emulate the Code Napoleon. Cultural remnants remain as well: for example, cricket is still wildly popular in India and other former British possessions, former French colonies favor French as a second language, and so forth.

The long-term legacy of the century or more of European global dominance is still yet to be fully appreciated: many former colonies have enjoyed independence for only one or two generations. How well, or even whether, these once-exploited territories will be able to successfully rise above their legacies of oppression remains to be seen.

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Rough Riders. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923.

Kiping, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden.” <(accessed August 21, 2007).

U.S. Scouting Service Project. “The Siege of Mafeking: A Diary Kept by Trooper William Robertson Fuller, Protectorate Regiment, Frontier Force, Mafeking.” <(accessed August 3, 2007).

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European Wars of Empire (1803–1902)

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