Explore Your Archive: Documents of the Day

The Wardell Archive: George Vaughan Wardell Letters

by Adam Staunton, Library Assistant, MU Library

The Wardell Archive comprises the personal papers of the Wardell family. The Wardells were a military family serving in the British army. William Henry Wardell (1799-1881) was a Major in several regiments, his son William Henry Junior (1838-1903) was a Major-General, George Vaughan Wardell (1840-1879) a Captain, while his nephew Warren served in the Garhwal Rifles. The collection consists of their letters along with letters by Professor John Wardell (1878-1957) whose father John Charles Wardell was a Captain in the Royal Marines, Frederica Wardell, Eliza Wardell, and Georgiana Wardell.

The Wardell letters show the close bonds that existed within military families, not just of the adults who served but also the families at home including the children who write about pets or their siblings. The collection details military life and traditions but also the daily life of British landed gentry of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This is reflected in the letters by George Vaughan Wardell. George was born in Toronto in 1840 and followed his father Major William Wardell into military service. In May 1858 he joined the British 24th Regiment. By 1861 he became a lieutenant and as detailed in his letters to parents and siblings, served in Mauritius, Rangoon, Madras, Malta, Gibraltar and Brecon. In 1872 he was promoted to captain and posted to South Africa following an increase in native disturbances.

MU/PP/2/75/1 George Vaughan Wardell (1840-1879)

However, George in his letters had now started speaking of his long desire to retire from active military service but remarks he cannot do so on a Captain’s pension with a wife and six children to support. George is often refused leave from service as he states

‘I am so disappointed, after all my waiting, and longing, I suppose I must grin and bear it as well as I can’


George was still needed in Africa as his company had successfully built and defended Fort Warwick against Xhosa attacks for several months and as a result earned praise from British commander in South Africa, General Sir Arthur Cunynghame. Following British victory over the Xhosa in 1879, attention turned to the Zulu Kingdom.

I do not think they could possibly spare any troops at present from this.’


High Commissioner for Southern Africa Sir Henry Bartle Frere, on his own initiative and without the approval of the British government, presented an ultimatum to Zulu king Cetshwayo that the Zulu army be disbanded and the Zulus accept a British resident. Zulu culture which had been reformed under King Shaka in the 1820s could not accept these terms. Shaka transformed the Zulu tribe into a warrior outfit under the ibutho military system, convincing his people that the quickest way to power was to conquer and incorporate smaller tribes into their army. The Zulu army used the chest and horn military tactic, as the chest would commence a frontal attack on the enemy, the horns would surround them and cut off any retreat.

MU/PP/2/64 Wardell to his parents,
18 September 1877

George Wardell knew the Zulu posed a much greater challenge than the Xhosa and predicted a much tougher war,

the Zulus are a far more powerful and better armed than the last’


Despite this, the British military had a clear technological and tactical advantage over the Zulu military. Continuing in his letter George writes,

I don’t want to see any poor devils bowled over but I am curious to see our field battery open fire on them in mass. I think it will open their eyes


George would go on to describe his column as consisting

of one battery field. Royal artillery, about 500 horsemen and a native contingent about 200 strong.


On 10 January 1879, George would write his final letter to his family as the British army crossed into Zululand

I must write a few lines before bidding adieu to Natal, as very early tomorrow morning we commence crossing the Buffalo, into Zululand to bring that great and sable potentate Cetchwayo to his bearings.’


George finished the letter by saying

If all is well I will send you a line again’


The next morning the Zulu army of 20,000 men attacked the British camp at Isandlwana hill. As Wardell’s 24th Regiment fought the chest, the British right flank retreated allowing the Zulu left horn to flank and break British lines. The bodies of the 24th regiment weren’t found and buried until June 1789. Wardell was survived by his wife, Lucy, and six daughters.

MU/PP/2/71 Wardell to his parents, 6 November 1878
MU/PP/2/73 Wardell’s last letter, 10 January 1879

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