British Fieldworks of the Zulu Campaign of 1879

with Special Reference to Fort Eshowe.


The art of fortification, as taught to officers of the Royal Engineers during the course of their training at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, had, by the 1870s, reached a level of high — if unimaginative — competence. The lessons of the recent American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War had been absorbed, and updated designs and methods of construction were specified for all situations, both military and topographical. Thus the Royal Engineer emerged from Woolwich technically competent to reproduce copybook fortifications whenever called upon to do so during the course of a campaign. This ability was exemplified throughout the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. For, as will be shown, the British works constructed in Zululand(1) during that campaign conformed to a remarkable degree with the standard forms recognized at Woolwich.

In technical language, all the British fortifications in Zululand were fieldworks, 'constructed for purposes of temporary entrenchment only',(2) as a tourist commented on seeing the ruinous state of Fort Crealock only three years after the end of the war. For unlike the stone laagers erected by the colonial government in some of Natal's towns, and by the white settlers themselves in rural areas near the frontiers, they were not intended as permanent fortifications. The Natal laagers were constructed as abiding places of refuge from possible attack — especially by the neighbouring Zulu kingdom — for local settlers, their families, wagons, and servants. They were generally rectangular in shape, their perimeter varying between about 380 m (425 ft) and 230 m (755 ft), with loopholed masonry walls some 3 m high, flanked by two towers at opposite corners and surrounded by a ditch.(3) Many are still in use today — though suitably modified — for purposes ranging from gaols to cattle-laagers. Not so with the British fieldworks the functions of which were purely temporary. Sometimes, as at Col F. Wood's camp at Khambula, or Lord Chelmsford's camp on the banks of the White Mfolozi, they were designed to command the entrenched wagon-laager of an army encamped in the field. More often, they served to protect depots of stores along a British force's line of communication and supply. Sometimes, they would fulfil both these roles in turn, as was the case with Fort Crealock. That fort was built 'within the outer line of the entrenchment of the 1st Division ... in view of the subsequent demolition of the entrenchments and the retention of the fort as a depot station for a garrison not exceeding 300 men'(4).

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Author: J.P.C. Laband

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Keywords: British,fieldworks,South Africa,Fortifications,Eshowe


J.P.C. Laband

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