Durnford, Anthony William (1830–79), colonel of Royal Engineers, was born 24 May 1830 at Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim, eldest son of Capt. (later Gen.) Edward William Durnford, RE, and Elizabeth Rebecca Durnford (née Langley). He was educated in Ireland and Düsseldorf, entering the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1846. Commissioned into the Royal Engineers (27 June 1848), he was posted, after further instruction, to Ceylon in 1851. He married (September 1854) Frances Catherine Tranchell and was appointed as assistant commissioner of roads and civil engineer of Ceylon in the following year. Due to Durnford's heavy gambling, the marriage was soon in difficulties and he requested a posting to the army investing Sevastapol in the Crimea. Sent to Malta, he was delayed there, serving as adjutant until 1858, and saw no service in either the Crimean war or the Indian rebellion. His marriage problems were exacerbated by the death of two of his children, and on his return to England (1858) his wife became involved in a very public affair. He sent his surviving daughter to his parents and actively sought foreign postings to escape his domestic predicament. While en route to the China station in 1865 he suffered a nervous breakdown and was nursed back to health by Lt-col. Charles George (‘Chinese’) Gordon. Postings to England and Ireland followed and in 1871 he arrived at Cape Town and was made major. He immediately took to both the country and its inhabitants and became friendly with the bishop of Natal, John William Colenso, forming a close attachment to his daughter, Frances Ellen (‘Fanny’) Colenso.
In 1873 he was sent with a party of the Natal Carbineers and African troopers to the Bushman's River Pass in an effort to stop Langalibalele, chief of the Hlubi, from taking his people out of the colony. The effort ended in disaster, the men of the Natal Carbineers fleeing when attacked by the Hlubi. Durnford was badly wounded in the left arm during the retreat, losing the use of that hand when the nerve in the elbow was severed by a spear thrust. The colonists of Natal already disliked him for his progressive views on African affairs, and Durnford's comments about the cowardice of the Natal Carbineers increased his unpopularity. He was blamed for the failure of this mission and only Bishop Colenso and the Natal Colonist came to his defence.
Despite this setback he was made a lieutenant-colonel in December 1873 and, after a posting as an engineer officer to Cork barracks, Ireland, was appointed to the boundary commission that had been established in 1878 to investigate the grievances of the Zulus. Despite a settlement that seemed to promise peace, the situation deteriorated into war when the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, refused to accept the terms of an ultimatum of December 1878. Durnford was made a full colonel and given command of No. 2 Column, consisting mainly of native infantry and cavalry units that he had raised himself.
On the morning of 22 January 1879 he received orders from Lord Chelmsford to leave the mission station at Rorke's Drift and take his column to the camp at Isandhlwana. At around 11 a.m. the main Zulu impi of over 20,000 men was sighted and attacked the camp. When Durnford had received a number of reports that the Zulus were retreating, he took his mounted contingent out of the camp. The feigned Zulu retreat was just a ruse, however, and during his own retreat back to the main camp his men put up a spirited defence from a dry watercourse known as the Nyokana Donga. Having delayed the left horn of the Zulu attack, he took his men back to the camp as their ammunition began to run out. He ordered his African troopers to leave the field and made a final stand defending the road to Rorke's Drift with some men of the 24th Foot, the Natal Carbineers, and the Natal Mounted Police, allowing many to escape. Later Zulu reports stated that this group fought on for some time before being overwhelmed. The remaining defenders, including Durnford, were all killed. In May 1879 a patrol found his body and it was given a temporary burial. The body of the Hon. Standish W. P. Vereker, son of Lord Gort, was also found nearby. Durnford's remains were later taken to Pietermaritzburg and reinterred in the military cemetery there.
It is certain that Durnford made a tactical error in taking his force out of the camp in pursuit of a mock Zulu retreat. In the aftermath of the defeat, however, he was made the scapegoat for the whole Isandhlwana disaster. Lord Chelmsford and his staff stated that he had been ordered to ‘take command’ at Isandhlwana and to further fortify the camp. The order sent to Durnford on 22 January disappeared along with other papers found on his body. The copy order book was later found but details of Durnford's orders were not released. It has been shown that the order of 22 January actually read ‘You are to march to this camp at once with all the force you have with you of No. 2 Column.’ Read in conjunction with an order of 19 January, it becomes obvious that Durnford expected further orders to await him in the camp and to operate in a mobile role with the main column. There was no specific order to take command of the camp. War office memos of 1879 effectively exonerated him from blame, but these were not made public. His brother Col. Edward Durnford and Fanny Colenso came to his defence and through a series of books tried unsuccessfully to clear his name. He remains one of the most controversial figures of the Zulu war and successive generations of historians have debated his actions at Isandhlwana.
In the 1979 film Zulu dawn Burt Lancaster took the part of Col. Durnford. The papers recovered from Durnford’s body were later deposited in the Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham.