The anniversary of two of the most famous and dramatic battles in British military history has just passed. One hundred and thirty years ago on January 11 1879 British troops crossed into the independent Zulu kingdom in southern Africa. Just eleven days later, they suffered one of the worst defeats of the Victorian era at Isandlwana, when the Zulus over-ran a British camp and killed 1300 of the defenders. Just a few hours later part of the Zulu reserve from Isandlwana went on to attack the mission station of Rorke\'s Drift, but were repulsed after ten hours of fierce fighting, much of it at hand-to-hand.

The two battles have received their fair share of attention over the years, the interest heightened by an unusually high crop of gallantry awards - a total of fourteen Victoria Crosses for the two actions, including some of the first posthumous awards - and by the more recent efforts of Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Burt Lancaster and Peter O\'Toole. Yet there is more to the story than the technicolour adventures of cinematic red-coats, and Isandlwana in particular is increasingly seen as a defining moment in the struggles of African peoples in general against nineteenth-century British colonialism. Not surprisingly, therefore, the battles were commemorated at events in both South Africa and the UK.

In SA, an academic conference was held in the town of Dundee, near the battlefields. The conference was opened by Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi - leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party and a former Minister of the Interior in the South African government - who gave a thoughtful speech outlining the need to preserve memories of the conflict while at the same time reflecting on the unequal consequences of the struggle. Speakers included the leading academic historian of the war, Professor John Laband, and Drs. Stephen Badsey and Damien O\'Conner, both from the UK, both of whom considered aspects of British global strategy and its impact on the war. Ian Knight - who has written extensively about the war for Osprey - was also present.

Commemorations took place at both Isandlwana and Rorke\'s Drift on the 22nd. Wreaths were laid by representatives of 2 Royal Welsh - the old 24th Regiment - and the 24th memorial, while a detachment of the UK re-enactment group, the Die-Hards, formed up on parade. While the military contingent then moved across to Rorke\'s Drift, the present Zulu king, HM Goodwill Zwelithini, and Dr Buthelezi addressed a large rally - estimated at over 10,000 - at the Zulu memorial. The following Saturday the annual half-marathon took place between Isandlwana and Rorke\'s Drift, commemorating the flight of the British survivors.

In the UK, the Royal Logistical Corps Museum in Deepcut opened a special anniversary exhibition with a talk by Ian Knight - straight off the plane from SA! - looking at their participation in the campaign. The exhibition includes a selection of rare artefacts and medals loaned by private collectors of the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society. The exhibition will run until July - the anniversary of the end of the war - when Ian will be giving another talk.

A rather more poignant event took place in the grounds of the Regimental Museum in Brecon in Wales on the 26th when a plaque was unveiled on the second anniversary of his death to the memory of David Rattray, the famous Zulu battlefield tour-guide and raconteur.

Altogether, the events suggest that interest in the war is showing no signs of waning, and more books - fact and fiction - and TV documentaries are currently in production. It will be interesting to see the extent to which they will be influenced by the emerging Zulu voice.
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Ian Knight, Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Prof John Laband, Dundee Conference 19/1/09

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