Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Durnford, Anthony William

DURNFORD, ANTHONY WILLIAM (1830–1879), colonel royal engineers, eldest son of General E. W. Durnford, colonel commandant of the royal engineers, was born on 24 May 1830 at Manor Hamilton, co. Leitrim, Ireland. Educated in Ireland, and afterwards at Düsseldorf in Germany, he entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1846, and obtained a commission as second lieutenant in the royal engineers on 27 June 1848. Having completed the usual course of instruction at Chatham, he, in 1851, proceeded on foreign service to Ceylon, where he remained for five years, and married (15 Sept. 1854) Frances Catherine, youngest daughter of Lieutenant-colonel Tranchell, late of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment. In 1855 he was appointed assistant commissioner of roads and civil engineer to the colony in addition to his military duties. On the outbreak of the war with Russia Durnford volunteered for active service and was sent to Malta; here he was detained and was employed as adjutant until early in 1858, when he returned to England, and was promoted to the rank of second captain. A keen soldier and a good disciplinarian Durnford was destined for many years to see no active service, and passed his time until 1871 between home and Mediterranean stations.

At the end of 1871 he went to South Africa, and after little more than a year passed at Cape Town, during which he was promoted to the rank of major, he was sent to Natal. Shortly after his arrival in Natal he accompanied the mission appointed by the governor to take part in the coronation of Cetshwayo as king of the Zulus, and an interest in the native races of South Africa was thus aroused, which was strengthened by a strong attachment he had formed for Bishop Colenso and his family. Towards the end of 1873 the differences between the colonial government and Langalibalele, the chief of the Ama Hlubi tribe, came to a head, and, on being summoned to Pietermaritzburg, Langalibalele made preparation to remove his tribe out of the colony by way of the Drakensberg mountains. This the colonial government determined to prevent by securing the passes, and Durnford was sent on with a detachment of Natal volunteer carabiniers and a party of mounted Basutos to occupy the principal outlet—the Bushman's River Pass—where a large native force was to meet him. The strictest instructions were given him that he was on no account to fire the first shot. The route lay up the Drakensberg by a pass known as the ‘Giant's Castle,’ through a wild and broken country of a very difficult description. On the way Durnford's horse fell over a precipice, dragging him with it. Durnford was caught by a tree and was dragged up again, a dislocated shoulder set, and in spite of the bitterly cold night and his intense sufferings he struggled on and gained the rendezvous, but no native force had arrived to meet him. He formed up his little party across the mouth of the pass, but only to find that the Hlubis were already not only in front but on either flank. On the appearance of threatening bodies of the Ama Hlubi tribe the officer of the volunteer carabiniers reported that he could not depend upon his men, and begged to be allowed to retire. Durnford knew well the danger of retreat under such circumstances, but as his orders and entreaties were alike unavailing, he was reluctantly compelled to comply. As he had anticipated, no sooner did the enemy see them retiring than they opened a brisk fire, killing several of the volunteers, and, crying ‘Shoot down the chief,’ bore down upon Durnford, who was bringing up the rear, and had stopped to mount his native interpreter behind him on his own horse. The interpreter was shot through the head, and two of the Hlubis, running in on either side, seized Durnford's bridle, and, raising their assegais, one pierced his already helpless left arm, and the other wounded him in the side. Before they could strike again he had drawn his revolver and shot them both dead, and, putting spurs to his horse and firing right and left, got through the enemy, and with his faithful Basutos followed the flying volunteers, whom he only caught up and succeeded in rallying after a fourteen mile ride. In 1874 Durnford patrolled the country and carried out the demolition of the passes in the Drakensberg mountains, thus restoring confidence among the colonists. For these services he received the formal thanks of the colonial government. The tribe of the Ama Hlubi, after some unnecessary bloodshed, was broken up, as was also another tribe, the Putini. The proceedings in both cases were extremely distasteful to Durnford, who highly disapproved of the whole policy of the colonial government to the natives. Durnford received his promotion to lieutenant-colonel in December 1873, and was for some time after that date, owing to his exposure of the cowardice of the volunteers and his strong advocacy of the rights of the native tribes, the best abused man in the colony, although, on the other hand, he was adored by the natives.

In 1877 came the annexation of the Transvaal and the Kaffir war, and then followed the Zulu boundary dispute, when Durnford was appointed a member of the commission sent to investigate the grievances of the Zulus, and whose award seemed to promise a peaceful settlement; but unhappily other influences were at work, and war with Cetshwayo was shortly declared. Durnford, who had been promoted colonel in the army on 11 Dec. 1878, was appointed to the command of No. 2 column, composed of three native battalions of infantry and native cavalry raised by himself, and a rocket battery of artillery. His great popularity among the natives enabled him to raise this body of native troops with extraordinary celerity, men coming literally hundreds of miles to serve under him. Lord Chelmsford, with the headquarter column, had moved on 20 Jan. 1879, in accordance with his previously expressed intention, to a position near the Isandhlwana hill, where he formed his camp, but no step was taken to make the camp defensible in case of attack. At this time Durnford, who was on his way to Rorke's Drift with his mounted natives, had orders to co-operate with the general. He arrived at Rorke's Drift on the 21st, and on the 22nd received orders to march to the camp, where he expected to find the general and to be of use to him with his mounted men, the only cavalry at the general's disposal. On the morning of the 22nd Lord Chelmsford went out with a column to attack the Zulus, and when Durnford arrived at the Isandhlwana camp, reports having already come in of a movement of Zulus in the neighbourhood, he took his mounted men out to reconnoitre. It was, however, too late. The Zulus appeared in force to the front and left. Durnford then fell back slowly towards the camp, keeping up a steady fire, and disputing every yard of ground until his men's ammunition was expended, when they retired rapidly to the right of the camp to obtain more; then the Zulus swept down in hordes upon the camp, the infantry were broken, and fell back fighting hand to hand towards the right of the camp, where Durnford had rallied the white troopers, and with them and the Basutos still faced the Zulu left, keeping open the road across the ‘Nek,’ where retreat could yet be covered. About thirty of the 24th regiment, fourteen of the Natal volunteer carabiniers, with their officer, Lieutenant Scott, and twenty of the Natal mounted police held on with Durnford to this position when all hope of retrieving the day was gone; dismounted they fought on foot to cover the retreat of their comrades, and died to a man at their post. Four months later, when the general first allowed the battle-field to be visited, Durnford's body was found lying in a patch of long grass, near the right flank of the camp, a central figure of the band of brave men who had fought it out to the bitter end.

An ungenerous attempt was made at the time to throw the blame of the disaster on Durnford, it being alleged that he had received orders to defend the camp; but a copy of the orders he received was afterwards ascertained to have been recovered from the battle-field, and it is now known that no such instruction was given. In the judgment of those most competent to decide, Durnford acted, under the circumstances, for the best, and, as General Sir Lintorn Simmons wrote to the ‘Times,’ ‘fought and died as a brave and true soldier, surrounded by natives, in whom he had inspired such love and devotion that they sold their lives by his side, covering the retreat of those who were flying …’

Durnford's character is well summed up by Sir Henry Bulwer in the following few lines: ‘Colonel Durnford was a soldier of soldiers, with all his heart in his profession, keen, active-minded, indefatigable, unsparing of himself, brave and utterly fearless, honourable, loyal, of great kindness and goodness of heart. I speak of him as I knew him, and as all who knew him will speak of him.’

His brother officers of the corps of royal engineers have testified their admiration of his conduct and his noble death by placing a stained-glass window to his memory in Rochester Cathedral.

[Official Records; Corps Papers; E. Durnford's A Soldier's Life and Work in South Africa, 1882; Wylde's My Chief and I.]

R. H. V.