Frederic Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford

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The Lord Chelmsford
Frederic Thesiger, c. 1870
Born(1827-05-31)31 May 1827
London, England
Died9 April 1905(1905-04-09) (aged 77)
Westminster, London
AllegianceUnited Kingdom / British Empire
Service/branchBritish Army
Years of service1844–1905
Other work

Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, GCB, GCVO (31 May 1827 – 9 April 1905) was a British imperial general who came to prominence during the Anglo-Zulu War, when an expeditionary force under his command suffered one of the severest defeats in battle against native tribesmen in the history of the British Empire at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879. He went on to defeat the Zulu Kingdom at the subsequent Battle of Ulundi.

Early life[edit]

Frederic Augustus Thesiger was born 31 May 1827, the eldest child of Frederic Thesiger, a lawyer who later became Lord Chancellor and was created Baron Chelmsford. Thesiger was educated at Eton College.[1]

Military career[edit]

He wished to pursue a military career. In 1844, after unsuccessfully trying to obtain a place in the Grenadier Guards, he purchased a commission in the Rifle Brigade. He served in 1845 with the Rifles in Halifax, Nova Scotia before purchasing an exchange in November 1845 into the Grenadiers as an ensign and lieutenant. He was promoted to lieutenant and captain in 1850, and became aide-de-camp in 1852 to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Eglinton, and then to the Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, Sir Edward Blakeney, from 1853 to 1854.[1][2]

Crimean War[edit]

In May 1855, he left for the Crimean War, in which he served firstly with his battalion, then as aide-de-camp from July 1855 to the commander of the 2nd Division, Lieutenant-General Edwin Markham, and finally as deputy assistant quartermaster general from November 1855 on the staff at Headquarters, being promoted to brevet major. He was mentioned in dispatches and received the fifth class of the Turkish Order of the Medjidie and the British, Turkish and Sardinian Crimean medals.[1][2]

Indian Rebellion of 1857[edit]

In 1857, he was promoted to captain and lieutenant colonel, and transferred (1858), as a lieutenant colonel, to the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment of Foot, serving with that regiment at the end of the Indian Rebellion, for which he was again mentioned in dispatches. He served as deputy adjutant general to the forces in Bombay from 1861 to 1862, and was promoted to brevet colonel in 1863. There, he befriended the then governor of Bombay, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, and this relationship would be important later when serving in South Africa. He served, again as deputy adjutant general, in the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia, for which he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath and made an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria in 1868. He was Adjutant-General, India from 1869 to 1874.[1][2]

Thesiger returned to England in 1874 as colonel on the staff, commanding the forces at Shorncliffe Army Camp, and was appointed to command a brigade at Aldershot, with the temporary rank of brigadier general, in 1877. He had however requested a posting overseas in order to benefit from the cheaper cost of living.[1][2]

Anglo-Zulu Wars[edit]

Lord Chelmsford sketched by another officer at the Battle of Ulundi
Defeat at Isandlwana

Thesiger was promoted to major general in March 1877, appointed to command the forces in South Africa with the local rank of lieutenant general in February 1878, and in October succeeded his father as 2nd Baron Chelmsford. He brought the Ninth Cape Frontier War to its completion in July 1878, and was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in November 1878. His experiences fighting against the Xhosa created a low opinion of the fighting capabilities of native African tribesmen, which later led to a disastrous consequence.[1][2]

In January 1879, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, a personal friend of Chelmsford, engineered a war against Cetshwayo, King of the Zulus, who at that time were an allied power by treaty with the British Crown. An expeditionary British imperial military force under Chelmsford's command subsequently entered the Zulu Kingdom uninvited, and was in consequence attacked on 22 January 1879 by a large Zulu army at Isandlwana, during which the Zulus overran and destroyed the central column of Chelmsford's separated forces. The engagement was an unexpected victory for the Zulus and one of the worst defeats of the British Army by native tribesmen in the history of the British Empire.[3][4][5]

Afterwards, the British Government, anxious to avoid the Zulus threatening Natal, issued orders for the hasty relief of Chelmsford of his command and for him to be replaced with Sir Garnet Wolseley.[6] However, this order could not be implemented until the arrival of Wolseley, and in the meantime Chelmsford ignored diplomatic peace overtures from King Cetshwayo[7] and planned an attack upon the Zulus at Ulundi, aimed at defeating them decisively and salvaging his reputation before Wolseley's arrival.[a] The Battle of Ulundi took place on 4 July 1879, being the last major battle of the Anglo-Zulu War. After a half-hour bombardment by the Royal Artillery, Chelmsford attacked a Zulu army massed at Ulundi, making full use of concentrated small arms fire from Gatling guns and rifles, leading to the destruction of the Zulu force. The British Army's casualties after the sharp but brief engagement was ten killed and eighty-seven wounded, in exchange for nearly sixty times that number of Zulu dead. Hall 1978 quotes the London Standard reporting 473 counted dead and another 1000 or more wounded. Chelmsford ordered the Royal Kraal of Ulundi, the Zulu Kingdom's capital, to be destroyed with fire. Chelmsford handed over command to Wolseley on 15 July at the fort at St. Paul's and left South Africa by ship for England two days later. The defeat of the Zulus at Ulundi allowed Chelmsford to partially recover his military prestige after the disaster at Isandlwana, and he was honoured as a Knight Grand Cross of Bath.[8] However, he was severely criticised by a subsequent enquiry launched by the British Army into the events that had led to the Isandlwana debacle,[9] and did not serve in the field again.[10]

Later career[edit]

Lord Chelmsford became lieutenant general in 1882, Lieutenant of the Tower of London (1884 until 1889), colonel of the 4th (West London) Rifle Volunteer Corps (1887), full general (1888), and colonel of the Derbyshire Regiment (1889). He exchanged the colonelcy of the Derbyshires for that of the 2nd Life Guards (1900), and as such was Gold Stick in Waiting during ceremonial events at Court. King Edward VII appointed him Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO) in the November 1902 Birthday Honours list.[11][12] He was the inaugural Governor and Commandant of the Church Lads' Brigade, a post he retained until his death.[1]

Funerary monument, Brompton Cemetery, London

Personal life[edit]

His sister, Julia (1833–1904) was married to Sir John Eardley Wilmot Inglis (1814–1862)[13] who commanded the British forces during the Siege of Lucknow in 1857. She later wrote of her experiences during the siege including extracts from her diary.[14]

He left four sons, the eldest of whom succeeded as 3rd Baron Chelmsford and later became Viceroy of India and first Viscount Chelmsford. Another son was Lieutenant Colonel Eric Thesiger who served in the First World War and was also a Page of Honour for Queen Victoria. The diplomat Wilfred Gilbert Thesiger, who served in Addis Ababa in 1916, was another son, and father of the author and explorer Wilfred Thesiger.[1] He was the uncle of the actor Ernest Thesiger.


Chelmsford had a seizure and expired whilst playing billiards at the United Service Club in London on 9 April 1905 in his 78th year. His body was buried in Brompton Cemetery in London.[2]

In popular culture[edit]

Peter O'Toole portrayed Chelmsford in the film Zulu Dawn (1979), which depicted the events at the Battle of Isandlwana.


  1. ^ "... everyone understood that he would try and end the war before he was superseded ... that 'poor Lord Chelmsford' might get a chance, win a battle ...". [6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Laband, J. P. C. "Thesiger, Frederic Augustus, second Baron Chelmsford (1827–1905)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36464. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b c d e f Greaves 2011, pp. 161–163.
  3. ^ Thompson 2006, p. 75,"Thus ended the first British invasion of Zululand."
  4. ^ Knight 2003, p. 27, Map titled: "First invasion of Zululand".
  5. ^ Pollard 2002, p. 117.
  6. ^ a b Colenso 1880, p. 455.
  7. ^ Colenso 1880, p. 456.
  8. ^ Lock & Quantrill 2015, p. 283.
  9. ^ Lock & Quantrill 2015, Ch 9.
  10. ^ Gump 1996, p. 99.
  11. ^ "Birthday Honours". The Times (36921). London. 10 November 1902. p. 10.
  12. ^ "No. 27493". The London Gazette (Supplement). 7 November 1902. pp. 7161–7163.
  13. ^ "Hon. Julia Selina Thesiger". 13 February 2011. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
  14. ^ Inglis 1892.


External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Henry Longden
Adjutant-General, India
Succeeded by
Edwin Johnson
Preceded by
Sir Daniel Lysons
Colonel of the Sherwood Foresters
Succeeded by
Sir Mark Walker
Preceded by
The Earl Howe
Colonel of the 2nd Regiment of Life Guards
Succeeded by
The Lord Grenfell
Peerage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Frederic Thesiger
Baron Chelmsford
Succeeded by
Frederic Thesiger