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DateOriginal Topic
15th March 2005Cavalry Horses in Zululand.
By Chris Collier
I am keen to find out more information relating to the problems encountered in maintaining horses in the field during the 1879 campaign. I gather that the various mounted colonial units used hardy native breeds such as the Basuto Pony, which were well used to living off the land and coping with the harsh terrain, but my real interest lies in finding out how the more 'refined' British Army Cavalry horses coped. I know that initially the British horses had difficulty adapting to the poor grazing, resulting in the major logistical problem of having to supply large quantities of supplementary feed to them in the field. What I would like to know, is whether these horses did eventually adapt to the climate, or whether they were replaced by native breeds? Also where did the MI obtain their horses, as due to an outbreak of horse sickness in South Africa prior to the War, I understand that horses were in short supply. Any suggestions on possible reading matter relating to horses in the Zulu War would be most welcome.
15th March 2005Martin Everett
Dear Chris,

Many of the problems during AZW occured again - but on a larger scale in the ABW. I have a handbook of the ABW with a chapter on the suggest of Horse, Mules and Oxen written by Major Darrell Hall. I can send you a copy of the chapter if you let me have your postal address. This is a big topic really not suitable for the forum.
16th March 2005Keith Smith

There is considerable material about English imported horses , not just for the cavalry, but for officers in general. This material is scattered throughout the sources and perhaps the most accessible of these is in the PRO at Kew, reference WO 33/34. Look for correspondence from Lord Chelmsford and later for Major General Marshall.
16th March 2005Julian whybra
The MI went on a horse-buying spree in the Orange Free State before the AZW.
16th March 2005Graham Alexander
The Kings Dragoon Guards took their own horses with them when they departed for service in South Africa. It was common for a cavalry regiment to leave their horses behind when departing for another station, and allow an incoming regiment to take them over, as the horses would have acclimatised to the local conditions. At the conclusion of the Zulu war, it was considered safe by Wolseley, to leave the Transvaal without any Imperial cavalry. The Dragoon Guards were shipped out and left their mounts to be disposed of. Ironically, the horses were sold to the Boer population, who proceeded to use them against the British just over a year later !
16th March 2005Peter Ewart
Chris et al.

It would seem that the nature as well as the availability of grass in some parts of Zululand was important as far as travel by horseback was concerned. In the 1860s and 1870s, the missionaries (and presumably the traders, who were generally wider travelled, although many of those moved by ox-cart) considered the grass in the vicinity of kwaNodwengu and the whole of the Valley of the Kings to be poisonous and a complete "no-go area" for horses.

Between 1870 and 1875 Bishop Wilkinson was keen to ride into certain districts in order to get access to locations where travel by ox-cart was problematical. However, in some parts he took his horse no further and continued on foot because of "poisonous grass." In January 1871 his wife writes "... this valley [i.e. emaKhosini] is full of poisonous grass, into which it is impossible to take a horse."

She was not speaking from a great deal of personal experience as she and her husband had only arrived the previous year, but the information almost certainly came from the Rev Robert Robertson & his colleagues, who'd been at kwaMagwaza over a decade by then & had visited both Mpande and Cetshwayo frequently.

I believe other areas were also considered difficult in this way. It is something the Wilkinsons brought up more than once in their correspondence. If this was the case, it would seem to be something which might have caused problems only eight years later for Chelmsford's force at Ulundi or Wolseley's presence for a few weeks in the vicinity of the White Mfolozi.

Are there any references in 1879 to these difficulties?

17th March 2005Michael Boyle

I'm glad you brought up the subject of poison grasses. In my reading on Zulu herbology I've found numerous references to plants that could 'kill a horse' which were/are used for various medicines (one of which is proving promising as an ingredient of Zulu snuff).Though of course native livestock would know what not to eat I wondered what effect the strange flora would have on the many animals imported to South Africa for the war. I suppose they were left to learn the hard way but I have yet to read any contemporary references to the effect.

Most of the poison flora I've come across so far is most dangerous in over-grazed areas, during a drought (hardy little buggers) and after major weather changes. All of which would seem to apply to 1879.

According to current horse web sites in S.A. this is still a problem ,particularly with lantana. There is also the effect of viruses like African Horse Disease which as recently as 2003 killed hundreds of horses in KwaZulu Natal (and seems to be making a comeback this summer). They have gone as far as declaring the Western Cape an AHD free zone with buffer and don't allow horses from KZN to be brought there.

I wonder where one could find veterinary records from the AZW?

(Although AHD is considered incurable a small percentage of afflicted horses survive, but one thread mentioned great success was had using a Zulu herbal remedy.)


21st March 2005Peter Quantrill
The mounts for both the KDG and 17th Lancers were not only from England, but also Ireland. Chelmsford was initially delighted with their condition on arrival, but as the campaign proceeded, so the condition of the imported mounts deteriated. Horse sickness, half rations and heavy work load. all took their toll.They were vitrually skeletal prior to the battle of Ulundi.The weight carried included, apart from the rider; sword, carbine, 100 rounds of ammo, blanket, picket pegs, valise and cloak.
The local Basuto ponies were better equipped for the task at hand, being only 14 hands in height and stockier.Tomasson recorded:
" In the Zulu War and at a later date, when alongside the KDG and 17th Lancers, we congratulated ourselves on not being mounted on English horses, the majority of whom gave way under the hardships of the campaign."
All shortfall of mounts was procured locally, no doubt at vastly inflated prices. Those that overcame horse sickness were known as 'salted,' and commanded a greater premium. Buller's mount was thrice salted!
No question, horse suffered greatly during the campaign.
21st March 2005Paul Cubbin
It seems a strange choice to me to send the Dragoon Guards instead of another 'light' cavalry unit. Surely the weight of the heavier rider and presumably the larger horses were entirely unsuited to the sort of campaign ahead? Or had the various classes of cavalry become very similar by this date?
22nd March 2005Graham Alexander
By the time of the Zulu war, the distinctions were beginning to blur between the various roles of cavalry. For example, in 1878 the Martini-Henry carbine was carried by all the various cavalry regiments.
Following the disaster at Isandlwana, cavalry units were urgently required in South Africa. It was far easier to send out regiments who were currently based in the U.K. and could be quickly deployed. Both the 17th Lancers and Kings Dragoon Guards were available and received orders for embarkation.
As Paul suggests, the heavy horses and larger riders of the Dragoons were not the perfect choice, but the War office had to make quick use of what resources they had.