"Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation."

Norman Mailer
"The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China--why then it will be spring."

"This new history of yours," said McPhee, "is a wee bit lacking in documents."

C.S. Lewis

Synchronicities this week

  • June 24 Midsummer/St. John’s Day
  • June 24, 1947 The first flying saucers are sighted over Mount Rainier by pilot Ken Arnold.
  • June 24, 1542 St. John of the Cross, Spanish Carmelite mystic and poet, is born.
  • June 24, 1938 500 ton meteorite lands near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
  • June 24, 1717 First Free Masons' grand lodge founded in London.
  • June 24, 1374 A sudden outbreak of St. John's Dance causes people in the streets of Aachen, Germany, to experience hallucinations and begin to jump and twitch uncontrollably until they collapse from exhaustion.
  • June 24, 1314 Battle of Bannockburn; Scotland regains independence from England.
  • June 24, 843 Vikings destroy Nantes.
  • June 23 Midsummer’s Eve
  • June 23, 1972 Nixon & Haldeman agree to use CIA to cover up Watergate.
  • June 23, 1942 Germany's latest fighter, a Focke-Wulf FW190 is captured intact when it mistakenly lands at RAF Pembrey in Wales.
  • June 23, 1888 Frederick Douglass is 1st African-American nominated for president.
  • June 23, 1848 Workers’ insurrection in Paris.
  • June 23, 1713 The French residents of Acadia are given one year to declare allegiance to Britain or leave Nova Scotia, Canada. They choose the latter, migrate to Louisiana, and become Cajuns.
  • June 21 Summer Solstice (11:28 a.m.).
  • June 21, 1964 Three civil rights workers-Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James E. Chaney-are kidnapped and murdered by the Klan in Mississippi .
  • June 21, 1948 The 33 1/3 RPM LP record is introduced by Columbia Records.
  • June 21, 1944 Ray Davies of the Kinks born in London.
  • June 21, 1916 Mexican troops beat US expeditionary force under Gen Pershing.
  • June 21, 1877 The Molly Maguires, ten Irish immigrant labor activists, are hanged in Pennsylvania prisons.
  • June 20, 1947 Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, gangster, the “man who invented Las Vegas,” shot dead in Beverly Hills, Cal.
  • June 20, 1909 Errol Flynn, greatest of the swashbucklers, born in Hobart, Tasmania.
  • June 20, 1944 Congress charters Central Intelligence Agency.
  • June 20, 1943 Detroit race riot kills 35.
  • June 20, 1893 - Lizzie Borden acquitted in murder of parents in New Bedford Mass.
  • June 20, 1871 Ku Klux Klan trials began in federal court in Oxford Miss.
  • June 20, 1837 Queen Victoria at 18 ascends British throne ; rules for 63 years ending in 1901.
  • June 20, 1756 146 British soldiers imprisoned in the "Black Hole of Calcutta." Most die.
  • June 20, 1631 The Irish village of Baltimore is attacked by Algerian pirates.
  • June 20, 1214 The University of Oxford receives its charter.
  • June 20, 451 Germans & Romans beat Attila the Hun at Catalarinische Fields.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Last Rolling Stones Record

Exile On Main Street

The Rolling Stones

1. a. A crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point; ..from Greek krinein to decide.

One of the things that make the Rolling Stones album, Exile on Main Street, interesting, and why so many people invest it with significance in the story of the Rolling Stones, is that it is a product of crisis. When the Stones collected themselves to begin assembling their first album of the 1970s, they were faced with a dilemma that everyone who had invested any sort of hope in the recently passed events of the late ‘60s was also facing. Like early Christians in A.D. 100 finally conceding that the Kingdom of Heaven wasn’t arriving any time soon, the vanguard of the cultural revolution had to figure out what to do now that the revolution hadn’t come. Just a couple of years before, rock and roll bands had been hierarchs working their magic to effect the great turning of the age that almost everyone who had anything to do with the “counterculture” was in one form or another anticipating. But Exile was recorded on the world’s great morning after, when everyone awoke and found themselves in the 1970s. The curtains were torn open to let in the glare of daylight, and for the first time you could see how pasty, bloodshot and unwell everyone really looked.

And in that morning the Rolling Stones found themselves, like it or not, living out the question that the Beatles broke up rather than face—what meaning does mere rock and roll have when the energies that made you icons and avatars, that provided your music with half its meaning, have been turned off like a gas flame under a pot? How much of your greatness was your music, and how much was the moment? What is rock and roll supposed to do when it becomes merely music, and not a huge cultural signifier?

Read the rest at The Bluegrass Special.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

This Week in the Secret History: The 4th of July's Pagan Roots

Uncle Sam: Patriotic icon...

Or Gandalf in disguise?

Some of the best-documented examples of the survival of pagan ritual into the modern era are the traditional bonfires on June 23, small-scale descendants from the great Celtic Fire Festival of Midsummer’s Eve, celebrating the summer solstice. The midsummer festival lay exactly opposite the winter solstice in the cycle of the year, and the summer revelry was a mirror image of that in December, perhaps even more riotous in the more temperate weather. The focus of the festival was fire, used to bring the life-giving power of the sun god down to earth. There were huge bonfires on every hilltop. Some communities built a giant wooden wheel, wrapped it in tar-soaked rags, ignited it and set it rolling down the slope of the nearest hill. Men and women with blazing torches would run in huge clockwise circles around farm fields to ensure the health of the crop. After the fire rituals, the people would feast and drink long into the night.

Even after all of Britain was converted to Christianity, these customs survived. In rural communities, bonfires continued to be lit on Midsummer’s Eve. Later generations added fireworks to the festivities. According to historian Ronald Hutton, these customs have “a recorded history of almost two millennia, stretching back into the pagan past.”

Neolithic 4th of July

In 1751, Britain adopted the new Gregorian calendar, the standard modern calendar we still use. By that time, the old Julian calendar had fallen eleven days out of synch with the annual solar cycle, and most European countries were adopting the newer, more accurate calendar. Parliament passed an act in 1751 decreeing that the new calendar would go into effect on September 2 of the next year and that September 2, 1752 would be followed by September 14, with the intervening eleven days omitted. This did some violence to the old calendar customs of Britain: What had been Christmas was now January 6th, with Christmas Eve on January 5th; the new Gregorian Christmas had previously been December 14.

It was a little confusing, and in more isolated districts, it was sometimes simply ignored. In such communities, a residue of magic lingered on the old dates. January 5th was known as Old Christmas Eve, and much of the magical and supernatural folklore associated with the solstice still clung to it.

The 18th century in Britain was also the time of the great emigrations to America. In particular it saw the emigration of Scottish, northern English and northern Irish borderers to what was then the North American back country, settling in the hollows and hills of Appalachia, the great mountain chain that stretches along America’s eastern rim. These were an independent, hard-headed people who believed in doing things their own way, and their own way meant, as often as not, the old way, the way they’d always done things. This was especially the case with matters of the seasons and the calendar. Many of them had arrived in America before the calendar change, and many districts in the mountains clung stubbornly to Old Christmas and to the calendar that, for everyone else in the Western world, was now eleven days late.

Meanwhile, the American colonies fought a war of independence, and when they had won it, they thought it fitting to designate a national day of celebration. They chose the fourth day of July, to commemorate, so they said, the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. But was that the only reason for their choice?

Back up in the hills, Old Christmas still hung on like mist in a hollow. And if Old Christmas lingered, what about its opposite number, the other great feast of pagan Europe, Midsummer’s Eve? Just as we look eleven days past Christmas to find Old Christmas, we would look eleven days past June 23—current Midsummer’s Eve—to find Old Midsummer’s Eve. Is it there, buried beneath the Gregorian calendar? Find a calendar and count for yourself, eleven days past June 23rd. You’ll land neatly and definitively on… the 4th of July.

Two nights of fiery spectacle and festivity, layered right on top of each other. Is this coincidence? Or were the Founding Fathers a secret order of druids, dedicated to reviving the Old Religion in the New World? Was paganism a way to break free of the Church of England—a pillar of the English state-- just as constitutional democracy was a way to break free of the crown of England? Was Ben Franklin ever observed dancing around a bonfire with antlers on his head and a bellyful of mead? Was J.R.R. Tolkien trying to tell us something when he made Gandalf, the arch-Druid, the master of fireworks? We may never know, at least until the day that some historian unearths a hidden cache of correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and William Blake. But I have one idea. I think Old Midsummer’s Eve snuck into the American calendar via the mountains. Those old Celts up in the hills sent a lot of volunteers off to the Continental Army, and they provided the new nation with several presidents. When the federal government was casting about for suggestions vis a vis a national holiday, the representatives from the back country had just the thing. They knew that there were two great times for festivity in the year. One, Christmas, was already claimed by the church. But the other one was there for the taking. No-one had celebrated Old Midsummer’s Eve for centuries—maybe a millennium. No-one that is, except for the people of the mountains, who just might have slipped a rough shard of prehistoric Europe into the foundation of the republic.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Conspicuous by Their Absence: Do New Live Tapes Confirm the Legend of Moby Grape?

"The national folk-memory of psychedelia today might be less limp, with fewer images of blissed-out ring-dancers and bongos in the dirt, had we been given more full metal meltdowns like 'Omaha'.”

Moby Grape Live
Moby Grape

"The monarchy's mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic," Walter Bagehot wrote in 1867. The same truth may be applied to great records.

As with all tales of unfulfilled promise, a wistful air of what-if clings to Moby Grape, as if there is still a Moby Grape-shaped hole in the ‘60s zeitgeist that they were intended to fill. Here, says the legend, was a band meant to color their era. A lot of people will tell you that their first album, Moby Grape, is the best album to come out of San Francisco, maybe all California, in the ‘60s. And indeed, had the group stayed vital for even a few more albums, they might have leant some snap and crackle to a San Francisco scene that quickly became groggy and burned-out. The national folk-memory of psychedelia today might be less limp, with fewer images of blissed-out ring-dancers and bongos in the dirt, had we been given more full metal meltdowns like “Omaha.”

Read the rest in The Bluegrass Special.

Friday, June 4, 2010

This Week in the Secrety History: Yeats, the Irish Prophet

William Butler Yeats, one of the greatest poets in the English language in the 20th Century, was born June 13, 1865. He was a passionate Irish nationalist, but his version of liberation was just as much about freeing the ancient spirits of the Irish land as with political revolution. Probably he saw the two aims as part of one phenomenon. His poetry shaped the Irish perception of their own country, to the present day.

But let's let the Poetry do the talking...

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I WENT out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Easter 1916 (After the brutal suppression by the English of the Easter Rising in Dublin)

I HAVE met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Any Given Sunday: The Moment of Paul Revere & the Raiders

Hungry for Kicks: Singles & Choice Cuts 1965-69
Paul Revere & the Raiders

(Rev-Ola Import)

Let us not talk falsely now, as the Joker said to the Thief, so here’s a granular bit of truth from the 1960s that you might not get from the Revised Standard Rolling Stone Hall of Fame Canonical History of Rock & Roll. The distinctions that are made, in retrospect, between serious and lightweight music from that era, between high pop and low pop, between history-making art and disposable kitsch, were not nearly so obvious at the time as they seem now. The icons of the era, the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, etc., did not occupy the heights alone. In the interstices between their slots on the charts, lots of other music thrived. And—here’s the important fact—that other music was listened to, and dug, and taken “seriously” by the same people, the same kids, who put the Beatles/Stones/Dylan, etc. on the charts. Which brings us to Paul Revere and the Raiders.

The fact is that there were millions of real rockers who logged just as much time listening to Paul Revere and the Raiders between 1965 and 1967 as they did the Rolling Stones. That the kids who made “Like a Rolling Stone” a hit did the same with “Kicks” and “Good Thing.” That there was one point at which serious young men who might one day be rock critics could want to be both John Lennon and Mark Lindsay, the Raiders’ front man, at one and the same time.

Talking about the Raiders raises the larger topic of garage rock. Which runs the risk of turning the conversation serious, and if there’s one thing you shouldn’t be when talking about the Raiders, it’s serious...

Read the rest at The Bluegrassspecial.com.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

This Week in the Secret History: Terrifying the Tots

This week marks the birthdays of American illustrator Edward Gorey, and of pioneering German linguist and folklorist, Wilhelm Grimm, who, with his older brother Jacob, created the seminal folk and fairy tale collection, Kinder-und Hausmärchen, better known to us as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the source of such tales as "Rumpelstiltskin", "Snow White", "Sleeping Beauty", "Rapunzel", "Cinderella", "Hansel and Gretel", and "The Frog Prince.”

Part of the revolutionary and romantic spirit of the early 19th Century was the notion that there could be wisdom and delight in the traditions of the rural poor, that such lore would tell you something you might not otherwise understand about your society, a knowledge that had heretofore been hidden from the literate urban elites.

No-one had previously conceived of these tales as being of any value. Now, for the first time, intellectuals sat and listened respectfully to old story-telling peasant women. It was people like the Grimms, in their generation, who began to open urban society’s eyes to the treasurehouse in the imagination of the poor.

Though more than a century separated the Grimm’s from Gorey, their work illustrates a shared insight—that childhood and terror go hand-in-hand.

In the Grimm Brothers stories characters regularly meet grotesquely awful fates. And the evil entities seem to have bubbled up out of some unhealthy Mitteleuropean nightmare, the id of the dank forests and the festering inbred little hamlets. The target of their frequently cannibalistic desires, are almost always children. The Grimms peasant informants knew that in the visionary realm, beauty and horror live close together.

But there’s a golden thread that runs through the darkness. Many of the stories in the Grimms' collection seem to resonate with some primal narrative that we were born knowing. Wilhelm Grimm said that the tales were “fragments of belief, dating back to most ancient times, in which spiritual things are expressed in a figurative manner. The mythic element resembles small pieces of a shattered jewel lying strewn on the ground all overgrown with grass and flowers, and can only be discovered by the most far-seeing eye…Their signification has been lost, but is still felt, and it imparts value to the story.”

And here’s a story you should know about the brothers Grimm:

In 1837, the Brothers Grimm joined five of their colleague professors at the University of Göttingen to protest against the abolition of the liberal constitution of the state of Hanover by the reactionary King Ernest Augustus I. This group came to be known as The Göttingen Seven. The professors were fired from their university posts and three were deported, including Jacob. Jacob settled in Kassel, and Wilhelm joined him there. Their last years were spent in writing a definitive dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the first volume being published in 1854.

Edward Gorey's illustrated (and sometimes wordless) books, with their vaguely ominous air and ostensibly Victorian and Edwardian settings, have long had a cult following. Gorey became particularly well-known through his animated introduction to the PBS series Mystery! in 1980, as well as his designs for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula, for which he won a Tony Award.

Gorey’s imaginative backdrop is woven out of themes from mystery and horror fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras in England. Because of the settings and style of his work, many people have assumed Gorey was British; in fact, this person who made a life’s work out of channeling the elegantly perverse dream life of pre-WWI Britain never actually so much as visited the place. Gorey classified his own work as literary nonsense, the genre made most famous by Englishmen Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

Gorey has become an iconic figure in the Goth subculture. Events themed on his works and decorated in his characteristic style are common in the more Victorian-styled elements of the subculture, notably the Edwardian costume balls held annually in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which include performances based on his works.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This Week in the Secret History: The Strangest Day in Military History?

Within the space of one day--January 22, 1879-- the British army, which had taken and held the largest empire in human history, suffered one of its most appalling defeats, and achieved, a few hours later, an astonishing triumph.

At Isandlwana in Zululand, South Africa, the British suffered the worst defeat ever inflicted on a colonial army by a native population. 950 British soldiers and 850 Basuto auxiliaries were wiped out by the army of the Zulu king, Cetsewayo.

A few hours later, and a few miles away at Rorke’s Drift, a temporary supply depot for the army’s invasion of Zululand, a force of about 80 British infantrymen, standing behind a low barrier made of hastily stacked grain-sacks, repelled continuous assaults, over the space of almost 12 hours, from a force of 4000 Zulu warriors. It is one of the freaks of military history—people are still trying to figure out how they did it.

The British had invaded Zululand to break up the Zulu nation, and in particular to destroy its huge (40,000-strong) army, eliminating what they perceived to be a threat to European settlers in Natal Colony, which bordered the Zulu kingdom. The British, looking diligently for a casus belli, had blown a few border incidents out of proportion, and responded with a series of ultimatums to Cetsewayo, with which they knew he would not or could not comply (e.g., disbanding the army, which formed the framework of the Zulu state). When Cetsewayo rejected the ultimatums, the British declared war.

The Zulus had never shown any intention of mounting a general assault on British colonists in Natal. On the other hand, the Zulus had a long established history of ferocious aggression against their tribal neighbors in South Africa, many of whom had been displaced by Zulu expansion and who understandably feared and despised them. It was from these that the British recruited some of the native auxiliaries who accompanied them in their incursion.

So the British invasion force crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand. The force was split into three columns, in order to converge in a pincers movement on the Zulu capital at Ulundi. The central column, under Lord Chelmsford, moved at an agonizing crawl, hampered by its huge supply train of hundreds of oxen-drive wagons which could only make a few miles each day. After several days marching, they made camp under the hill of Isandlwana (the Place of the Lion) a dramatic rocky outcropping with a sphinx-like profile, overlooking a broad plain bordered on the immediate north by the nQutu plateau.

The hill of Isandlwana that anchored the British left, shortly after the battle

On the morning of January 22, Lord Chelmsford divided his force in two and set off with half the central column to hunt for the main Zulu army to the west. He left behind about 950 Europeans, including regular British troops, wagoneers and sutlers, and colonial volunteers; and 850 Africans, mostly of the Basuto tribe, of the Natal Native Contingent.

The half of the column left at Isandlwana made breakfast and sent out scouts. One party of mounted scouts rode up on to the nQutu Plateau. There they saw some Zulu boys herding cattle. The scouts gave chase. They saw the Zulu boys disappear into what they assumed was a minor dip in the terrain. They rode up to the edge.

It wasn’t a dip. It was a long, wide gully. And in it were Zulus. Tens of thousands of them, covering the landscape to the horizon. Squatting on their haunches, tensely awating their orders, taking the stimulant/hallucinogenic snuff they used to prepare for battle. At the sight of the British riders, the Zulu host rose and started to run--the deadly, loping run that characterized all Zulu battlefield movement; the run that always surprised their enemies, as it surprised the British this very day, with how fast a mass of men could cover the South African grasslands; running toward the dumbfounded scouts, and then the British camp.

It was not necessarily criminally stupid of Lord Chelmsford to split his forces in the vicinity of the enemy. The British knew from previous experience, and from the experience of other nations' colonial armies, that a formation of modern European infantry could hold off many times their number of indigenous warriors. This was the result of British infantry drill (at which they were the acknowledged masters in Europe)--specifically the discipline of volley fire; and most lethal of all, volley fire by rank. If you have seen the movie Zulu, volley fire by rank is how the outnumbered British soldiers repel the final Zulu attack. It means that you have multiple lines of soldiers—two, three, four—one lined up closely behind the other, who fire in sequence, starting with the front rank. As the other ranks take their turn, the front rank reloads and prepares to fire again. So on through the succeeding ranks. In this way, fire is continuous and massive, an unbroken sheet of lead, and the effect hideously, astonishingly lethal. The Gatling Gun, and later the machine gun, were attempts to mechanically reproduce the effect of volley fire by rank.

In this way a relatively small number of disciplined riflemen could kill a remarkable number of native fighters, as long as those natives did not possess good rifles and European training.

The Boers, the Dutch settlers of South Africa, had learned one other vital lesson in their many years of fighting with the Zulus, one theystrongly recommended to the British: Every time a Boer force made camp, they put their wagons into laager—in the argot of the American West, they circled their wagons. This gave them both protection, and more important, some kind of defensible perimeter.

These things did not happen at Isandlwana. The British force encamped there was wiped out, almost to the man. Why? What happened to volley fire? The answer lies, for the most part, with the behavior of Lieutenant Colonels Athony Durnford and Henry Pulleine, who Chelmsford had left in command of the camp. Durnford had gone with a troop of local volunteer horse, on a reckless sorty out across the plain and toward the Zulus. Pulleine, who had never commanded a force of this size and never been in combat, inexplicably ordered about 600 British regulars, the core of his force, to take up position in an arc about a mile long, well in front of the camp where their supplies and ammunition lay stacked. The individual soldiers were in one thin rank, not multiple ranks, and they were yards apart from each other. Meanwhile, Durford’s excursion had left the right end of the British line dangling in the air, just waiting for the Zulu left horn to race around it.

The classic Zulu attack, created by the great King Shaka who had founded the Zulu nation, took it’s symbolic shape from the charging bull buffalo. The center of the Zulu force was the chest of the buffalo—they made an al-out massed frontal rush trying to come to grips with the enemy center. With the enemy center engaged and distracted, the two horns of the buffalo, left and right, raced around the flanks of the enemy to attack the position from behind. The loins of the buffalo were the reserves behind the chest, who were thrown in to support the chest once it had become fully engaged, to add the final pressure that would overwhelm the enemy.

The Zulu "horns" envelop the British position at Isandlwana

Even thin as it was, the British firing line apparently held off the Zulu chest for about an hour. Then something happened to slow their rate of fire. The majority opinion among historians is that the flow of ammunition from the camp to the front line slowed. The slackening of the rate of fire was just enough to let the bravest of the Zulu warriors finally cross the killing ground and come to grips with the soldiers. In colonial warfare, this was the nightmare, the situation to be avoided at all costs. When tribal warriors actually closed with European troops, when it got to hand-to-hand, the end was near. As the individual soldiers struggled with the attackers,, the rest of the men of the chest swarmed between the wide gaps in the line, turned and attacked the line from behind.

That was that.

To put a cosmic seal on the mayhem below, the sun was eclipsed that afternoon over Isandlwana.

At that point, one wing of the huge Zulu impi, about 4000 to 4500 strong, who had been held in reserve and did not see any fighting, got a wild hair. With their honor at stake, because they had not gotten to “wash their spears” in the blood of the enemy, they decided to go after the next closest group of British soldiers, even though King Cetsewayo had expressly forbidden to army to cross the river into Natal Colony. Nevertheless, there the British were, at the supply dump for the invasion force, using a commandeered two-building mission station called Rorke’s Drift.

Terrified refugees had brought news of the disaster at Isnadlwana to the force at Rorke’s Drift throughout the afternoon. The soldiers at the depot, B Company of the 24th Foot consisted of about 140 men. Of these, 35 were in the hospital. Excluding cooks, orderlies and teamsters, there were about 80 actual riflemen fit for duty. But they had been reinforced by about 200 colonial horsemen, and around 100 of the Natal Native Contingent. Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, an officer of the Royal Engineers with very limited combat experience, had been left in charge by the camp’s commanding officer that morning. Chard had only recently arrived at the post to build a pontoon bridge acriss the Buffalo River.

Chard ordered that a defensive perimeter be built linking the storehouse and the hospital with piles of hundred pound grain sacks and biscuit boxes. He judged that with about 450 rifles lined up behind even a token bit of shelter, they stood a chance.

The Defence of Rorke's Drift
by Alphonse de Neuville

That was until the sentries Chard had placed on the surrounding hills came racing down to report the imminent arrival of the Zulus. At that point, with the enemy on top of them, both the colonial horse and the native levies broke, and disappeared down the road into Natal. One the of 24th shot and killed one of the native’s European officers as he ran with his troops.

At the last possible moment, the defending force had been reduced from around 450 to about 80 men. Quickly Chard ordered that another biscuit box wall be built, cutting their perimeter in roughly half. Then the Zulus appeared.

For the next eight to ten hours, the fighting went on without a significant pause. But Chard had done three things that the commanders at Isandlwana had not. He created a fortified, albeit haphazard perimeter to protect his men. When the colonial volunteers and the native troops left him, he made provisions for shrinking the perimeter and concentrating his fire; and he made sure that the men had a steady and adequate flow of ammunition.

The sun of January 23, 1879 rose on a scene of terrible carnage. There were fifteen dead Englishmen, and hundreds of dead Zulus, piled everywhere around Rorke’s Drift. Around 7 am, a huge line of Zulus appeared on the hills around Rorke’s Drift. The defenders braced for the end. But the Zulus has been marching and fighting for days without rest or food. And they knew they were going to face the wrath of their king for disobeying his orders. The Zulus disappeared. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was over, an event without real parallel in military history. The Western way of war had suffered one of its great rebukes, and one of it’s most astonishing affirmations, in one terrible day under the African sky.

The most readable narrative of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, its causes and its aftermath, remains Donald Morris' classic, The Washing of the Spears. Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture incorporates the most recent research into his chapter on Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift as part of his larger analysis of war and culture.