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Post Dispatch from Spion Kop, South Africa
Created by John Eipper on 01/17/18 5:25 PM

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Dispatch from Spion Kop, South Africa (Timothy Ashby, Spain, 01/17/18 5:25 pm)

Last Saturday, en route to Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, I visited the eerie site of the Battle of Spion Kop (24th January 1900) in Kwa-Zulu Natal where 243 British soldiers lie buried, the victims of their leaders' sheer bloody incompetence rather than any brilliant strategy or tactics by the 8,000 Boer private volunteers who defeated 20,000 professional British troops.

General Sir Charles Warren, the field commander, was woefully negligent and indecisive. For example, his progress was slowed by the massive baggage train which included Warren's cast iron bathroom and well-equipped kitchen, thus giving the Boers time to observe the British advance and entrench positions on the high ground of Spion Kop. Also, when the British cavalry (the South African Light Horse) found that the route to the besieged city of Ladysmith was open, Warren recalled them to guard the baggage train (presumably afraid of having his bathroom and kitchen captured by the enemy!).

Although Spion Kop is more of a footnote to history, it is notable that three of the 20th century's future great leaders served there. Winston Churchill (then a journalist and a lieutenant in the South African Light Horse) acted as a courier between Spion Kop and British headquarters, and recorded that: "Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded." Mohandas Gandhi, working as a lawyer in South Africa, led a company of medical stretcher-bearers under fire and received a Queen's medal for heroism. Louis Botha, subsequently the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, commanded Boer forces at the battle.

Photos below of the graves of British soldiers killed in the battle, buried in the shallow trench in which they had huddled for protection (see original photo of the corpses prior to burial). Also a monument to the courageous Indian and African stretcher-bearers (led by Gandhi) with original sketch, and a photo of your WAIS correspondent at Spion Kop Lodge where I stayed (which was General Sir Redver Bullers' HQ).

My dispatches from Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift will follow.

JE comments:  A splendid history lesson, Tim!  Even those of us versed in military history know little about the Boer War, other than its grim legacy of the Concentration Camp.  (Didn't the Boers also give us the word "Commando"?)  One lesson the more powerful combatant in asymmetrical warfare never seems to learn:  it's always an advantage to travel light.

Photos below.  Tim, what parallels do you observe between the Boer War and the US Civil War in terms of the nation-building "epic"?  It would seem that the similarities are many.

Tim Ashby at Spion Kop, South Africa

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  • I've Always Wanted to Go to South Africa (Angel Vinas, Belgium 01/18/18 4:54 AM)
    My heartiest congratulations to Tim Ashby (17 January), mixed up with good-natured envy. I´ve always been a keen reader of South African history in the 19th century.

    Unfortunately, I never was able to go there. I´m awaiting with great expectations Tim´s reports about Isandlwana and Rorke´s Drift. I have a small collection of books about both battles.

    I´m sorry I´ve been away from WAIS for too long. I have been extremely busy with finalising my next book, writing the index and preparing for the promotion. It will be available in a week's time. I´m going to Madrid to talk to the media. Inevitably it deals with an obscure but important milestone in the way towards the Civil War in Spain. Many Francoist historians and media people won´t be too happy.

    JE comments: Count on WAIS to help publicize your latest, Ángel! Let us know when the book hits the market. Congrats and best of luck!

    This title of this post is my fault, not Ángel Viñas's.  Despite the awkward wording, the sentiment is spot-on.  Needless to say, I've always wanted to go to South Africa, too.

    Tim Ashby has already reported from Isandlwana, site of the watershed 1879 Zulu victory over the British. I'll post by the end of the day.

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  • Zulu Victory at Isandlwana, 1879 (Timothy Ashby, Spain 01/20/18 5:17 AM)

    I reached my destination in Zululand, Isandlwana, on Saturday, January 13th, where I spent three days exploring the Isandlwana battlefield, site of the famous Zulu victory over the British forces on 22nd January 1879.

    Nearly 1,300 British regulars and colonial forces were massacred by 30,000 Zulu warriors. The Isandlwana defeat was yet another example of how criminal negligence and imperial hubris caused the unnecessary deaths of both brave British soldiers as well as the Zulus who were defending their homeland against a contrived British invasion.

    The main culprit was Lord Chelmsford, commander of Her Majesty's Imperial Forces, who made several tactical blunders: dividing his forces, not following his own standing orders to fortify the British camp, and leaving an inexperienced regular officer, Colonel Pulleine, in command because of prejudice against Col. Durnford, an experienced Irishman who commanded the colonial volunteers. Pulleine made a fatal tactical error by sending his six companies of the 24th regiment out to meet the Zulu attack in a very extended firing line a distance from the camp and its ammunition supply. I walked from the site of this "thin red line" to the location of the camp: it's a long way and up a slope, especially for soldiers wearing heavy woolen tunics in 85-degree heat facing nearly naked Zulus who could run like modern Olympic sprinters.

    When the troops ran out of ammunition they retreated to the camp, but the Zulus overwhelmed them. The native contingent who fled during the attack were hunted down and killed. The remaining troops of the 24th Regiment, 534 soldiers and 21 officers, were killed where they fought. The Zulus left no one alive, taking no prisoners and leaving no wounded or missing. About 300 Africans and 80 Europeans escaped. Consequently, the invasion of Zululand was delayed while reinforcements arrived from Britain.

    I had the battlefield all to myself early on Monday morning, and I walked it slowly and climbed the slopes of Isandlwana. It is a haunting--perhaps haunted--place, dotted with cairns of white-washed stones marking the graves of the British and colonial African soldiers who died on the spot (the 1,000-1,500 Zulus killed during the battle were taken off the field by their comrades and buried elsewhere). Photos below of the battlefield including a view from Isandlwana showing the grave cairns in the distance marking the British perimeter.

    Next, on to Rorke's Drift, the site of a British victory despite overwhelming odds on the same day as the Isandlwana disaster.

    JE comments:  The first three images, featuring the same butte in the background--is that Isandlwana?--tell a powerful story.  Earth's timeless splendor witnesses human folly.  Islandlwana came just three years after another example of imperialist military hubris:  Custer's Last Stand at Little Bighorn (1876).  White people should have learned their lesson then, but the 20th century proved countless times that they did not.

    Thank you, Tim.  I look forward to Rorke's Drift.

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    • Isandlwana; Freedman's "Future of War" (Istvan Simon, USA 01/21/18 5:21 AM)
      It is sobering to read Tim Ashby's account (20 January) of the horrible massacre of 1300 human beings. One can perhaps understand the merciless fierceness of the Zulus, whose land the British invaders violated, but still such savagery brings chills to my spine, and ultimately neither saved the Zulus from the British Empire, nor produced lasting results. It was murder without any lasting reward.

      I mentioned in a recent post that I bought a bunch of books at Heffer's in the bookstore opposite Trinity College in Cambridge. One of the books I bought at half price and which I am still reading is the very interesting work by respected British war historian Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War, A History.

      In the introduction, Freedman reviews some of the writings of other authors on the subject.  He mentions the work of John Gaddis, who termed the period after the second World War the Long Peace. For while there has been continued bloodshed since the end of World War II, it all occurred in relatively minor localized wars, not involving the great powers directly, and as a result death and destruction on the scale of World War II has been avoided now for a lifetime of 73 years. This long period of relative peace on the global stage is somewhat of an accomplishment for humanity and has led to a certain degree of optimism about humanity's future and the decline of war as a means to resolve conflicts.

      Historian John Keegan, political scientist John Mueller, and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker all have written independently and from different points of view similar optimistic theories about the decline of warfare.  Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, speculated that war is on its way out and brought a number of very interesting statistics in support of this optimistic assessment. Indeed, his data is worthwhile to be reviewed by WAISers. According to Pinker, a horrifying 15% of our early ancestors met their deaths by violence. This has been reduced to 2% by the sixteenth century, and to 0.7% in the last century, even with the horrifying carnage in 2 world wars. He presented further interesting data that supports his thesis, which for brevity's sake I skip. Viewed in this light these statistics seem very convincing of an overall trend of declining violence in humanity's long bloody history.

      Freedman is a very lucid author and he presents some critical counterpoints to Pinker's optimistic outlook. I am still reading Freedman's book, so this is not a book review, but merely of some very interesting facts that I found in his book which seem relevant to a post replying to Tim Ashby's wonderful post on the battlefield in South Africa.

      I also would like to call WAISers' attention to a very interesting book by Martin Hellman and his wife. I promised to send a copy of this book to Harry Papasotiriou for his comments at our recent WAISer mini-summit in Athens.

      I should mention that I know Martin Hellman personally very well, because he is a very accomplished and famous Stanford professor whom I met repeatedly since the 1970s. Hellman worked in the Information Systems Lab, where my PhD advisor John Gill also worked, and so I had the opportunity to meet him many times in Durand, the building where the ISL was located during the 1970s. Hellman received the prestigious ACM Turing award for his extraordinary contributions to modern cryptography.

      I intend to eventually send a review of this very original book on International Relations written by him and his wife. A comment by WAISer David Krieger appears in the cover of the book. Other famous people, like Gorbachev, have also heaped praise on the Hellman's book. What makes the book very original and out of the box thinking on International Relations is the fact that the book is about love and his marriage, which he then generalizes (in my humble opinion somewhat optimistically and naively) to the conflicts between nations. Some further information can be found here:


      Let me write a preliminary report on what I read so far. The book has in my opinion some very worthwhile insights, in that the Hellmans reflect on their love and the conflicts in their marriage and generalize it to International Relations. What I find valuable in this approach is that they learned to deal with their intermarriage disputes by trying to see each other's point of view. This insight undoubtedly has applications to resolve conflicts peacefully rather than through violence between nations. It has lessons, for example, in the current dispute between the United States and North Korea, which under president Trump's childish "my button is bigger than your button" approach could escalate into a nuclear war.

      It was in connection with North Korea that Secretary of State Tillerson has called his boss President Trump, in my opinion accurately, a moron. For Trump did the unprecedented unimaginable and also truly idiotic and self-defeating deed of undercutting his own Secretary of State regarding the usefulness of negotiations with North Korea. Trump is indeed such a moron that he equates negotiation with weakness, and therefore he pontificated that negotiations were a complete waste of time.

      The trouble with this approach, apparently lost on the president, is that if the United States and North Korea do not talk, however fruitlessly, there is nothing left but nuclear or massive conventional war to resolve the dispute. Now, in my opinion it is completely unacceptable for the United States to accept the increasingly threatening posture of Kim Jong Un with his progress towards being able to strike the United States with long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. I understand Trump's frustration with this state of affairs, and I also think that this is intolerable for the United States. But it does not follow that therefore the best approach is to threaten military action and massive destruction.

      The consequences of military action are dire even if no nuclear exchange occurs. The logic of nuclear arms is that they cannot be ever again used. They have turned into unusable weapons, because of the scale of their destructiveness, and due to the fact that both sides now possess such weapons. So we have them, they have them, but neither of us can ever use them. The United States has awesome military power unequaled by anyone on Earth. We surely could reduce North Korea to rubble in a few minutes, kill Kim Jong Un and all his government and much of North Korea's population. But unless we do so with an overwhelming strike literally in just minutes, North Korea could strike back, and kill millions in South Korea with conventional weapons. They need not respond with nuclear weapons, and still could cause unimaginable casualties with conventional artillery at their disposal. The only way to wipe them out in minutes is through a first strike nuclear attack as far as I can imagine. I would welcome our military generals' comments whether I am correct in this or not. And as I have stated above, a first-strike nuclear attack is unimaginable, because of the way other nuclear powers may react.

      So, if my logic is correct, it means that there is no military solution to the dispute between Kim Jong Un's North Korea and the United States. A logical consequence of this is that talks are the only other possible alternative.

      JE comments:  Martin and Dorothie Hellman discuss their book (and love) below.  I only listened to the beginning of the 52-minute talk, but I'm going to return to it when time permits.  Martin's nonchalant "thank you" to Google for the $1 million check is priceless.


      Istvan Simon describes the Trump understanding of International Relations as negotiation=weakness.  This strikes me as a fair appraisal of his bullying persona.  Is anyone in WAISworld in disagreement?

      WAISer David Krieger just sent me a copy of his latest book of poetry, Portraits.  A WAIS post will follow.

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    • Dixon's "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence" (John Heelan, UK 01/21/18 6:27 AM)

      More on military hubris. An interesting book is On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman F Dixon (1976, 1994 and 2016), which analyzes the reasons for the outcomes of military misfortunes such as the Crimea, the Boer War, the Somme, Tobruk, Pearl Harbor, and the Bay of Pigs.

      And it goes back far further. The Roman general in Nero's reign, Petronius Arbiter, is reputed to have complained "We trained hard--but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."

      This is a feeling that many businessmen, politicians and academics will recognise.

      JE comments:  "Team-building and reorganization":  Plus ça change!  At least the world's HR departments no longer practices decimation--not in the literal sense, anyway.

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    • Isandlwana from the Zulu Perspective (Jose Manuel de Prada, Spain 01/22/18 3:45 AM)
      Since the battle of Isandlwana has been discussed lately, the following narrative could be of interest to WAISers as a testimony of how the resounding native victory was perceived by other southern African groups that suffered colonial oppression, in this case the AmaFengu, who live south of the Zulu.

      The text was published in the original IsiXhosa and English by Lucy C. Lloyd in the short-lived Folk-Lore Journal she herself founded and edited (vol. 1, part IV, 1879, pp. 80-83). As explained by Lloyd herself in the note that introduces the text, it was a British missionary, a Mr. Stanford, who recorded the story and sent it to her. I have published an Spanish version (from the English translation) in my book Cuentos populares de África (Madrid: Siruela, 2012, pp. 165-166). I have always found it very remarkable that Lloyd chose to publish this narrative in her journal only a few months after the humiliating British defeat.

      Lucy Lloyd (1834-1914) is better known as the creator, with her brother-in-law Wilhelm Bleek (1827-1875), of the ethnographic archive of /Xam Bushman texts known as the Bleek and Lloyd Collection. It is kept in the Jagger Library of the University of Cape Town, but a large part of it is available on-line:


      The punctuation and spelling are as in the original.

      [Note by Lucy Lloyd:] The legend here given is believed to refer to the event which took place on the 22nd January, 1879, in Zululand, a few miles from Rorke's Drift. In a letter dated Engeobo, Tembuland, 29th April, 1879, Mr. Stanford writes regarding it as follows:  "The other day I heard a Native relating the enclosed story of the 'Sandhlwana' tragedy. There was so much of the supernatural introduced into the account that I thought it worth preserving, especially as it may become traditional in time." In a subsequent letter, dated Engeobo, 21st May, 1879, Mr. Stanford kindly supplies us with the following information regarding the narrator: "The name of the man who related the story I sent you is 'Jamujamn.' He belongs to the Zizi clan of Fingoes and is living at this place, serving as a policeman. He is about forty years of age, uncivilized. He had been sent on duty to a place some forty miles from here (Slang River). He heard the story related there amongst the Natives, and on his return I heard him give the account of it to some of his companions. I then took it down from him, translated it, and forwarded a copy to you."

      News from Zululand

      At one of the camps of the white people in Zululand, as the white men were lying comfortably about, there came a decrepit old man, a Zulu. He was unarmed, and appeared broken down with age.

      He said he had come to ask the white people for food and employment. They replied, "Where is your family?" The old man said, "I have left them behind." Then they said, "Go and fetch it, and we will receive you."

      The old man then went off. When he was out of the camp, the white men saw that the old man was playing (dancing), having his shield and stabbing assegai. He now lost the decrepitude of old age, and danced with the vigour of youth, making feints towards the camp, singing the praises of his Chief Cetywayo.

      The Englishmen began to fire at him hotly; and the reports of the guns and whistling of the bullets were all that was heard at that place. Mother! The old man played with them! And not a bullet touched him!

      After a time, the old man went away, and entered a forest, near by. A little time elapsed, not long, and a blue-buck was seen coming out of the same bush, and running in the direction of the camp.

      The blue-buck ran into the camp amongst the white people. They shouted, "Game! Game!" and tried to kill it. It could not be done.

      Some fired at it, some threw stones at it, and there were others who at last threw dishes at it, but no one hit it. In the confusion they suddenly saw [that] the blue-buck had become a young man, a Zulu, with a shield and stabbing assegai. This young man attacked them with his assegai, and stabbed them. While he was killing them, they not being able to do any thing to him, Cetywayo's army came in sight. The white people did not know it; but this army was close by.

      The white people begin to be on the alert; the army is amongst them, it killed them all! Not one escaped!

      That is the news from Zululand.

      I must tell you [that] the Zulus have medicines!*

      * i.e. charms. [this note is in the original]

      JE comments:  It is surprising that a British journal would publish this account so soon after the Isandlwana defeat.  At the same time, note how the narrator is described as "uncivilized."  This is British colonial chauvinism in its purest form, although the missionary may have meant only that the informant was unconverted to Christianity.

      It turns out that today (January 22nd) is the anniversary of both Islandlwana and Rorke's Drift.  On the latter, Tim Ashby sends a dispatch with photos.  Tim's report is next.

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      • The Zulus after Islandlwana, Rorke's Drift (Timothy Ashby, Spain 01/22/18 11:49 AM)
        I greatly enjoyed José Manuel de Prada's excerpt from the Folk-Lore Journal (22 January). The Zulus were, and remain, a very spiritual (and to be candid, superstitious) tribe.

        The Zulus living near Isandlwana believe that the battlefield (and especially the mountain) is haunted. My friend Lindizwe Ngobese told me that when Lord Chelmsford's column was retreating from Isandlwana on the morning of January 23rd 1879 (having spent the previous night sleeping amidst the horribly mutilated bodies of their comrades), they passed within visual distance of the beaten Zulu impi retreating from Rorke's Drift.

        He said that the reason that the Zulus did not attack the demoralised British was because they thought the redcoats were the ghosts of the men their comrades had massacred the previous day.

        JE comments:  Or the Zulus were simply worn out from the battle, and came up with the more poetic interpretation at a later time.  Either way, it's a fascinating story.

        Warfare is particularly fertile terrain for superstitions.  WAISers coul,d assemble quite a list.  For starters, how about the Angels of Mons?


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    • Historical Accuracy of 1964 Film "Zulu" (Patrick Mears, Germany 01/22/18 4:48 AM)
      I read with great interest and enjoyment Tim Ashby's report from Isandlwana and his stunning photographs of the battlefield (January 20th). It brought me back to my (as yet unexplained) childhood interest in the Zulu War and this battle in particular. I remember well traveling to the local public library to search for books on the subject and was pleased as punch to discover that the film, Zulu, would soon be arriving at a nearby Flint theatre. I was probably the first one in line on opening day to watch it.

      The following is an entry from the recent online issue of History Ireland, describing the battle from an Irish viewpoint. I thought that perhaps Tim and other readers might enjoy reading it.

      1879 (Jan.21-23)  The Battle of Isandlwana/Rorke's Drift. For many, the six-month Zulu War, prompted by the invasion of King Cetshwayo's independent kingdom by British colonial forces under Lord Chelmsford, is viewed through the prism of the 1964 movie Zulu, which portrayed, with considerable artistic licence, the epic defence of a mission station--named after Irishman James Rorke, who had a trading store there--by c. 100 British troops (including a dozen or so Irishmen) against c. 3,000 Zulus. Thanks to Chelmsford, this strategically insignificant engagement was widely publicised. The bravery and self-sacrifice of the plucky Brits was applauded--no mention was made, of course, of their execution of c. 500 Zulu prisoners--and no less than eleven VCs were awarded (in contrast with one VC each for the 1944 D-Day landings and the entire Battle of Britain). All of this was designed by Chelmsford to distract British public attention from what had preceded it: the crushing defeat of his army at Isandlwana, with the loss of over 1,300 of his men, including many Irishmen, by the main c. 20,000-strong Zulu army, armed with spears and shields. While British gallantry was duly extolled (such as the heroic last stand of County Leitrim's Col. Anthony Durnford and the valiant but fatal effort by Dubliner Lt. Nevill Coghill to retrieve his regiment's colours), her historians are still trying to explain the defeat. Causes include the lack of screwdrivers to loosen the screws on the ammunition boxes. From a Zulu perspective, Isandlwana was a glorious victory--but a pyrrhic one. Cetshwayo knew that the British would regroup and re-invade, which they did. Superior numbers and technology prevailed, and by July, after six more battles, Zululand was entirely subjugated.

      JE comments:  How could the British justify executing prisoners?  See our comments on "civilization" from earlier today (José Manuel de Prada, 22 January).  In 1964 we did not, but now we know that "civilization" is a relative term.  A question for Tim Ashby:  how are the post-battle killings described in the Rorke's Drift museum?

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      • Historiography of Zulu War, Islandlwana (Angel Vinas, Belgium 01/23/18 4:14 AM)
        Obviously, I´ve read with great interest the posts on the Zulu war. I thank Tim Ashby for his photographs.

        If colleagues are interested, I´will take time after my return to Spain and inform of the new findings about the battle of Isandlwana. These findings were obtained by the use of new techniques of battlefield archeology and the reinterpretation of Zulu oral traditions. They were, I think, broadcast by an English TV chain and are available in DVD format at the National Archives in Kew.

        I must remind colleagues that many years ago an American historian, Donald Morris, published his groundbreaking work The Washing of the Spears. Subsequently, other historians (I remember Saul David) have contributed to a better understanding of the battle and the campaign. Even a Spanish journalist has written a book expounding many of the inaccuracies of the film Zulu, which I have watched many times. There is another film, with Jim O´Toole as Lord Chelmsford, dealing with Isandlwana. I think its title is Zulu Dawn.

        JE comments:  Both films are available on good ol' YouTube.  Zulu (1964) is below.  Zulu Dawn appeared in 1979.


        Not long after Britain's Zulu debacle, there was the siege and slaughter at Khartoum (1884-'85).  Sudan is not a popular tourist destination of late, but I wonder if anyone in WAISworld has visited the battlefield(s).

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      • British Execute Zulu Prisoners after Rorke's Drift (Timothy Ashby, Spain 01/23/18 4:30 AM)

        Thanks to Patrick Mears (22 January) for sharing the entry from History Ireland regarding the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift.

        To answer John's question regarding the execution of hundreds of wounded Zulus left behind by the retreating Undi Corps of the Zulu army: there is no mention of this in the museum. There is, however, no doubt that it took place, as several British soldiers recorded the killings, including Isandlwana survivor Lieutenant Horace Smith-Dorrien, a member of Lord Chelmsford's staff, who wrote that the day after the battle an improvised gallows was used "for hanging Zulus who were supposed to have behaved treacherously." (Smith-Dorrien became a general and served in World War I.)

        As Chelmsford's relief force had camped the previous night amongst their the body parts and viscera of dismembered comrades who were literally butchered at Isandlwana, the troops had no mercy for any captured or wounded Zulus they came across. Also, several Rorke's Drift defenders and invalids were similarly butchered by the Zulus. Trooper William James Clarke of the Natal Mounted Police, a member of the relief force, described in his diary that "altogether we buried 375 Zulus and some wounded were thrown into the grave. Seeing the manner in which our wounded had been mutilated after being dragged from the hospital ... we were very bitter and did not spare wounded Zulus."

        Voltaire put it aptly: "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets."

        JE comments:  Note Smith-Dorrien's deft syntax:  "were supposed to have behaved treacherously."  S-D was barely 21 at Islandlwana, and was one of only five British officers to survive.  Afterwards, he seems not to have missed a single British military enterprise through WWI--Sudan, Boer War, and (finally) the hellhole of Ypres.  Wikipedia describes him as "urbane and kind-hearted" towards his troops.  He was a close ally of Lord Kitchener, the stern finger-pointing fellow who urges WAISers to donate.

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