He began his military career in the Royal Navy, but his ultimate fame would rest upon his land-based exploits against the Zulu warriors of southeast Africa. Less well known was the battle he fought against ill health and general frailty all his life. Against all, he was just about indomitable.
Henry Evelyn Wood was born at Cressing, near Braintree, England, in 1838, the youngest son of a vicar. Unhappy with what he regarded as unfair discipline at school, he left for the Royal Navy shortly after his 14th birthday and within two years had earned the white badge of a midshipman.
In October 1854, the year and the month of the Crimean War’s famous Charge of the Light Brigade, Wood went ashore to serve as a member of the British naval brigade in that same war. For the next nine months he worked and fought, subsisting chiefly on a diet of rotten biscuit, raw salt pork, and rum. When the British mounted their assault against the Russian defensive position known as the Redan in June 1885, Wood had been confined to bed for two weeks with dysentery and fever. It was the first of many illnesses he was to suffer throughout his career, and between genuine bouts of sickness he also had a continual list of imaginary complaints. Nevertheless, he rose from his sickbed to take his place in the assault column.
Wood was so weak that another sailor assisted him during the assault, and when they reached the Russian embankment under heavy fire, Wood and his comrade had to struggle with a scaling ladder meant to be carried by eight fully fit men. The sailor was shot and killed, and Wood was shot through the elbow. Still under fire, he crawled back to camp and argued a surgeon out of amputating his arm before he collapsed. A year later, using a pocket knife and a mirror, he removed eight bone splinters from the same wound, which had not healed properly.
Invalided home, he later was offered a commission in the army. He joined the 13th Light Dragoons, then in Ireland for training. In January 1856, Wood was on his way back to the Crimea. In February, at Scutari, he contracted both typhoid and pneumonia and was hospitalized. His mother arrived to take over his nursing, having been told that he had not long to live. By April 15, 1857, he had recovered sufficiently to return to England.
By the end of the year, despite all his health problems, Wood had rejoined his regiment in Ireland. He longed for action, and finding life in the cavalry much more expensive than he had anticipated, he was considering joining the Foreign Legion in Algeria when news of a mutiny in India reached him. He joined the 17th Lancers as they embarked for India.
Wood spent 1858 with a column charged with mopping up the large bands of mutineers still roaming the Indian countryside. In between forays he was confined to his bed with fever, sunstroke and exhaustion. Always ready for a challenge, he made a bet with a nabob that he could ride a giraffe. All went well at first, but finally Wood was thrown, and the giraffe’s knee hit him in the chest. The animal’s hind foot then caught him in the face. This knocked him insensible, cut a hole in both cheeks and his lip, and mashed his nose. For the next three days, Wood had to accompany his troop in a stretcher.
Still only 20, Wood raised an irregular cavalry regiment with the lancers and then, in an action in which his party was greatly outnumbered, won the Victoria Cross for rescuing a local merchant.
In 1860, after many other actions, Wood returned to England. He hoped to enter the Staff College but found that it was not possible, since an officer of the 17th Lancers was already there, and the regulations of the day permitted only one officer per regiment. But Wood arranged to transfer into the 73rd Perthshire and then was allowed to enter after all. He completed and passed the course at the Staff College and for the next few years held various positions in the army. Meanwhile, he qualified as a barrister, in case he needed something to fall back on. During that time he met his future wife, Pauline Southwell. Before the wedding, Wood made her swear that she would never stand in the way of his taking active service. She never did.
In 1871 Wood joined a new battalion, the 90th Light Infantry, as a junior major in command of three companies at Stirling Castle, Scotland. In January 1873 he was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel, and at the end of that month Sir Garnet Wolseley requested him on’special service’ for the Ashanti campaign in West Africa (Ghana today).
Wood soon had raised a regiment from the local friendly tribes. Between skirmishes he and his men helped to drive a track inland through jungle and swamp. Exhaustion and illness again laid him low, but still he carried on. On January 31, 1874, Wood was at the head of his column helping to clear track when they were attacked. An Ashanti who had been lying under cover nearby shot the head of a nail into Wood’s chest right over his heart. He was taken to a makeshift hospital and examined by the principal medical officer of the expedition, who quickly summoned Wolseley. The doctor told Wolseley to say his farewells to Wood, since he ‘never yet saw a man live with a shot in his pericardium.’
Three days later, Wood received a note lamenting his absence and the fact that his regiment would not now be present at the fall of Kumasi, the Ashanti capital. Despite protests from the doctor, Wood discharged himself from the hospital. After a delay of some five hours he and three others marched through the night — in pouring rain — until they reached the regiment at 4 a.m. the next day. Wood then took command of the lead section of the advanced guard for the action that followed.
After the successful conclusion of the campaign, during which he had been mentioned in dispatches five times, Wood returned to England and again held a succession of administrative posts.
In January 1878 Wood followed his battalion to South Africa, where there was trouble with the so-called Gaika people. The fighting finished on May 29.
Throughout November and December, preparations were being made to disarm the restive Zulus. War obviously was coming. On January 6, 1879, Evelyn Wood led No. 4 Column, consisting of the 13th and 90th Light infantries, four artillery pieces and a varying number of horsemen, across the Blood River into Zululand.
At 9 a.m. on January 11, Wood met with his commander, General Frederic Thesiger, Earl of Chelmsford, on the Nkonjane Hill, some nine miles from Rorke’s Drift. In a three-hour meeting, he warned Chelmsford that his spies had told him the first serious Zulu attack would fall on the column that Chelmsford was leading. On January 24, in the middle of an action against a small Zulu force, Wood received a note telling him of Chelmsford’s disaster at Isandhlwana. On January 22, a Zulu force had overrun the camp of No. 3 Column and left more than 1,000 officers and men of other ranks dead. Wood received a further note some days later from Lord Chelmsford, confirming the news and advising him that he now had a free hand to go anywhere in Zululand, but also warning that he could shortly expect to have the whole Zulu army on his hands. Wood replied on January 31 that he had taken up station on Khambula Hill, a site that he thought he could hold against attack.
Hearing on March 27 that a large force of Zulus was on the nearby Hlobane Mountain, Wood sent out a strong force for an attack of his own on March 28. A violent action was fought on that day on the slopes of the mountain, and in the early stages of the action two of Wood’s friends were killed and his own horse was shot dead under him. As Wood tried to have the bodies of his friends hoisted up onto baggage animals, his party came under heavy fire and most of the ponies were killed. Finally, a bugler, whom Wood described as one of the bravest men in the army, managed to get the bodies onto a pony. Wood recalled that he had a prayer book in the wallets of the saddle under his dead horse. He asked the bugler to retrieve it, though not to take any unnecessary risks in doing so, a feat that the bugler accomplished in an apparently leisurely fashion while still under fire.
They then moved some 300 yards back down the mountain in an attempt to find some open soil, but digging the grave in the hard ground was a laborious task. The British had reached a depth of only four feet when they were alarmed to see a party of 300 Zulus coming to attack. The bodies were quickly lowered into the grave, but to Wood’s consternation the cavity was not long enough. Despite the fact that they were under fire again, he had the bodies removed and the grave lengthened. When the burial was completed to his satisfaction, he read the burial service from the prayer book.
His party was then assisted by Colonel Redvers Buller’s cavalrymen, who had seen Wood’s predicament and directed their fire at the Zulus, checking their approach. With scores of Buller’s men cut off and killed on Hlobane, Wood withdrew his force from the mountain and retired to Khambula Hill to await the real onslaught. On March 29, 1879, some 23,000 warriors assembled for an attack.
Wood called in the troops that had been sent out of the laager to cut wood. He then made sure his men had a hasty dinner, secure in the knowledge that his troops could be in position in the laager within 70 seconds of the ‘alert’ signal.
At 1:30 p.m., Buller led his horsemen out and harried the Zulu right horn (one of two flanking forces in the standard Zulu attack formation), goading the enemy into a premature attack. His action is considered a partial cause of their eventual failure to overrun the camp. Had the three Zulu sections made a concerted attack, the result might well have been different.
During the action, Wood shot three leaders of the iNgobamakhosi Zulu Regiment with five rounds, then coolly advised the soldier from whom he had borrowed the rifle that the sights were set some 60 yards high. The Zulus pressed home their attack and at one stage held covered ground in a small ravine near the British laager, from which point their rifle fire was causing serious casualties among Wood’s command. A bayonet charge led by Major Robert Hackett and Lieutenant Arthur Bright cleared out the Zulus, but both British officers were fatally wounded in the action.
For four hours Zulus armed with assegais and cowhide shields mounted attack after attack against murderous fire from the British laager. At 5:30 p.m., with the vigor of the Zulu attacks lessening, two further bayonet charges (one led by Wood) started a Zulu withdrawal. At that point Wood released his cavalry, and from then until dark, Buller and his horsemen pursued and killed the natives. Some 800 Zulus died within 300 yards of the laager.
Khambula Hill was perhaps the highlight of Wood’s fighting career, a textbook demonstration of the correct way to laager and fight in an enemy territory. At night in Africa, incidentally, Wood used to make the rounds of the outposts alone. Walking through high grass, he would get soaking wet, and because the men had to sleep in their clothes, he tried to spare his subordinate officers the discomfort — and the health hazard — that attended this duty. However, he was often secretly followed by his own men. The officers were worried that Wood, who was losing his hearing, might not hear a challenge from one of their own sentries and might be shot.
In the final invasion of Zululand, Wood had command again of No. 4 Column, now named the Flying Column. He led the advance on the Zulu royal kraal at Ulundi and held the right side of the square in Lord Chelmsford’s eventual victory there. The volley fire of the British square was augmented by artillery pieces and Gatling guns — there could be only one outcome. The initial action lasted approximately 30 minutes before the British cavalry was let loose to pursue and rout.
Chelmsford wrote of Wood that ‘although suffering at times severely in bodily heath [he] has never spared himself but has laboured incessantly night and day to overcome the innumerable difficulties.’
Wood now returned to England, where he was feted as a hero and assigned to further administrative duties. He briefly returned to Africa in 1880 in charge of a visit being made by Her Imperial Majesty the Empress Eugènie, who desired to see the place where her son the Prince Imperial Louis (Napoleon III was his father) had fallen during the Zulu War.
He returned again in 1881 as second-in-command to Maj. Gen. Sir George Colley for the ill-fated Transvaal war (First Boer War). Colley was killed at the Battle of Majuba Hill, and Wood was left with the ignominious task of negotiating peace with the victorious Boers. His return to England this time was not a happy one, since a vituperative press wanted him for a scapegoat. The media campaign proved ineffective, however, and he survived with his reputation intact.
The year 1882 found him in Egypt commanding the 4th Brigade of Wolseley’s expeditionary force against the insurgents of Arabi Pasha. At the successful conclusion of that campaign, Wood was appointed to create a new Egyptian army, to which end he devoted the next 2 1/4 years. In 1884, he was put in charge of the lines of communication for the expedition to relieve Khartoum and rescue Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon, but too late — following the fall of Khartoum and the death of Gordon, he was appointed to act as army chief of staff in place of Redvers Buller.
The time abroad again told on his health, and back in England he took more than a year to fully recover. Nonetheless, he still rose steadily, commanding at Colchester and then Aldershot, where he placed a great deal of emphasis on the training methods employed. He became quartermaster general, then adjutant general, and finally general commanding II Army Corps, Southern Command. In 1903 he was awarded the baton of field marshal.
Evelyn Wood ended his army life as colonel of the Blues, a prestigious post he held from 1907 until his death in 1919 at the age of 81, a man certainly cast in the mold of the archetypical officer of the Victorian era. Not everybody liked him, since he could be somewhat less than modest — even Wolseley thought him self-seeking and vain (like many other officers of that time). No one, though, could ever deny his courage, his stoicism under physical suffering, his concern for those who served under him, or his acumen and steadfastness as a commander under fire.
This article was written by Martin J. Hadwen and originally appeared in the April 1994 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!