Battle of Isandlwana – 22 January 1879 (Anglo-Zulu War)
The Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. Eleven days after the British commenced their invasion of Zululand in South Africa, a Zulu force of some 20,000 warriors attacked a portion of the British main column consisting of about 1,800 British, colonial and native troops and perhaps 400 civilians. The Zulus were equipped mainly with the traditional assegai iron spears and cow-hide shields, but also had a number of muskets and old rifles though they were not formally trained in their use. The British and colonial troops were armed with the state-of-the-art Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle and two 7 pounder artillery pieces as well as a rocket battery. Despite a vast disadvantage in weapons technology, the numerically superior Zulus ultimately overwhelmed the poorly led and badly deployed British, killing over 1,300 troops, including all those out on the forward firing line. The Zulu army suffered around a thousand killed.
The battle was a crushing victory for the Zulus and caused the defeat of the first British invasion of Zululand. The British Army had suffered its worst defeat against a technologically inferior indigenous force. However, Isandlwana resulted in the British taking a much more aggressive approach in the Anglo–Zulu War, leading to a heavily reinforced second invasion and the destruction of King Cetshwayo’s hopes of a negotiated peace.
Following the imperialist scheme by which Lord Carnarvon had successfully brought about federation in Canada, it was thought that a similar plan might succeed in South Africa. In 1874, Sir Henry Bartle Frere was sent to South Africa as high commissioner to instigate the scheme. One of the obstacles to such a plan was the presence of the independent states of the South African Republic and the Kingdom of Zululand.
Sir Bartle Frere, High Commissioner of southern Africa for the British Empire, on his own initiative, without the approval of the British government and with the intent of instigating a war with the Zulu, had presented an ultimatum on 11 December 1878, to the Zulu King Cetshwayo with which the Zulu king could not comply. King Cetshwayo did not comply and Bartle Frere sent Lord Chelmsford to invade Zululand.
Lord Chelmsford, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces during the war, initially planned a five-pronged invasion of Zululand composed of over 15,000 troops in five columns and designed to encircle the Zulu army and force it to fight as he was concerned that the Zulus would avoid battle. Lord Chelmsford settled on three invading columns with the main centre column, now consisting of some 7,800 men comprising the previously called No. 3 Column and Durnford’s No.2 Column, under his direct command. He moved his troops from Pietermaritzburg to a forward camp at Helpmekaar, past Greytown. On 9 January 1879 they moved to Rorke’s Drift, and early on 11 January commenced crossing the Buffalo River into Zululand.
The backbone of the British force under Lord Chelmsford consisted of twelve regular infantry companies: six each of the 1st and 2nd battalions, 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshire Regiment), which were hardened and reliable troops. In addition, there were approximately 2,500 local African auxiliaries of the Natal Native Contingent many of which were exiled or refugee Zulu. They were led by European officers but considered generally of poor quality by the British as they were prohibited from using their traditional fighting technique and inadequately trained in the European method as well as being indifferently armed. Also, there were some irregular colonial cavalry units, and a detachment of artillery consisting of six field guns and several Congreve rockets. on wagon drivers, camp followers and servants, there were more than 4,000 men in the Number 3 Column, not including Durnford’s Number 2 Column. Because of the urgency required to accomplish their scheme, Bartle Frere and Chelmsford began the invasion during the rainy season. This had the consequence of slowing the British advance to a crawl.
The Zulu army, while a product of a warrior culture, was essentially a militia force which could be called out in time of national danger. It had a very limited logistical capacity and could only stay in the field a few weeks before the troops would be obliged to return to their civilian duties. Zulu warriors were armed primarily with assegai thrusting spears, known in Zulu as iklwa, knobkierrie clubs, some throwing spears and shields made of cowhide. The Zulu warrior, his regiment and the army drilled in the personal and tactical use and coordination of this weapons system. Some Zulus also had old muskets and antiquated rifles stockpiled, a relatively few of which were carried by Zulu impi. However, their marksmanship was very poor, quality and supply of powder and shot dreadful, maintenance non-existent and attitude towards firearms summed up in the observation that: “The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms – the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack.” The British had timed the invasion to coincide with the harvest, intending to catch the Zulu warriors dispersed. Fortuitously, the Zulu army had already begun to assemble at Ulundi, as it did every year for the First Fruits ceremony when all warriors were duty-bound to report to their regimental barracks near Ulundi.
Cetshwayo sent the 24,000 strong main Zulu impi from near present-day Ulundi, on 17 January, across the White Umfolozi River with the following command to his warriors:
“March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.”
On the 18th, some 4,000 warriors were detached from the main body to attack Pearson’s column near Eshowe. The remaining 20,000 Zulus camped at the isiPhezi ikhanda. On the 19th the main force arrived and camped near Babanango Mountain, then moved the next day to a camp near Siphezi Mountain. Finally, on the 21st they moved into the Ngwebeni Valley, from where they planned to attack the British on the 23rd, remaining concealed until their discovery by a scouting party on 22 January. Under the command of Ntshigwayo kaMahole the Zulu army had reached its position in easy stages. It marched in two columns within sight of each other but few miles apart to prevent a surprise attack. They were preceded by a screening force of mounted scouts supported by parties of warriors 200–400 strong tasked with preventing the main columns from being sighted. The speed of the Zulu advance compared to the British is marked. The Zulu impi had advanced over 80 km (50 mi) in five days while Chelmsford had only advanced slightly over 16 km (9.9 mi) in 10 days.
The British under Chelmsford pitched camp at Isandlwana on 20 January, but did not follow standing orders to entrench. No laager (circling of the wagons) was formed. Chelmsford did not see the need for the laager, stating, “It would take a week to make.” But the chief reason for the failure to take defensive precautions appears to have been that the British command severely underestimated the Zulu capabilities. The experience of numerous colonial wars fought in Africa was that the massed firepower of relatively small bodies of professional European troops armed with modern firearms and artillery, and supplemented by local allies and levies, would march out to meet the natives whose ragged, badly equipped armies would put up a brave struggle, but in the end would succumb. Chelmsford believed that a force of over 4,000, including 1,000 British infantry armed with Martini-Henry rifles, as well as artillery, had more than sufficient firepower to overwhelm any attack by Zulus armed only with spears, cowhide shields and a few firearms such as Brown Bess muskets. Indeed, with a British force of this size, it was the logistical arrangements which occupied Chelmsford’s thoughts. Rather than any fear that the camp might be attacked, his main concern was managing the huge number of wagons and oxen required to support his forward advance.
Once he had established the camp at Isandlwana, Chelmsford sent out two battalions of the Natal Native Contingent to scout ahead. They skirmished with elements of a Zulu force which Chelmsford believed to be the vanguard of the main enemy army. Such was the overconfidence in British military training and firepower that he divided his force, taking about 2,500 men, including half of the British infantry contingent, and set out to find the main Zulu force with the intention of bringing them to battle, so as to achieve a decisive victory. It never occurred to Chelmsford that the Zulus he saw were diverting him from their main force.
Chelmsford left behind five companies, around 70–80 fighting men in each, of the 1st battalion and one stronger company of around 150 men from the 2nd battalion of the 24th to guard the camp, under the command of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine. Pulleine’s orders were to defend the camp and wait for further instructions to support the general as and when called upon. Pulleine also had around 500 men of the Natal Native Contingent and approximately 200 local mounted irregulars. He also had two artillery pieces, with around 70 men of the Royal Artillery. In total, some 1,300 men and two guns were left to defend the camp.
Pulleine, left in command of a rear position, was an administrator with no experience of front-line command on a campaign. Nevertheless, he commanded a strong force, particularly the six veteran regular infantry companies, which were experienced at colonial warfare. The mounted vedettes, cavalry scouts, patrolling some 11 km (6.8 mi) from camp reported at 7:00am that groups of Zulus, numbering around 4,000 men, could be seen. Further reports arrived to Pulleine during the early morning, each reporting movements, both large and small, of Zulus. There was speculation among the officers as to whether these troops were intending to march against Chelmsford’s rear or towards the camp itself.
Around 10:30am, Colonel Anthony Durnford arrived from Rorke’s Drift with five troops of the Natal Native horse and a rocket battery. This put the issue of command to the fore because Durnford was senior and by tradition would have assumed command. However, he did not over-rule Pulleine’s dispositions and after lunch he quickly decided to take to the initiative and move forward to engage a Zulu force which Pulleine and Durnford judged to be moving against Chelmsford’s rear. Durnford asked for a company of the 24th, but Pulleine was reluctant to agree since his orders had been specifically to defend the camp.
Chelmsford had underestimated the disciplined, well-led, well-motivated and confident Zulu. The failure to secure an effective defensive position, the poor intelligence on the location of the main Zulu army, Chelmsford’s decision to split his force in half, and the Zulus’ tactical exploitation of the terrain and the weaknesses in the British formation, all combined to prove catastrophic for the troops at Isandlwana. In contrast, the Zulus responded to the unexpected discovery of their camp with an immediate and spontaneous advance. Even though the indunas would lose control over the advance, the training instilled in the warriors allowed the Zulu troops to form their standard attack formation on the run, their battle line deployed in reverse of its intended order.
The Zulu Army was commanded by inDunas (Princes) Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khozalo and Mavumengwana kaNdlela Ntuli. The inDuna Dabulamanzi kaMpande, half brother of Cetshwayo, would command the Undi Corps after kaMapitha, the regular inkhosi, or commander, was wounded.
While Chelmsford was in the field seeking them, the entire Zulu army had outmanoeuvred him, moving behind his force with the intention of attacking the British Army on the 23rd. They were discovered at around 8:00am by men of Lt. Charles Raw’s troop of scouts who chased a number of Zulus into a valley, only then seeing some 20,000 men of the main enemy force sitting in total quiet. Having been discovered the Zulu force leapt to the offensive. Raw’s men began a fighting retreat back to the camp and a messenger was sent to warn Pulleine. Pulleine observed Zulus on the hills to his left front and sent word to Chelmsford, which was received by the General between 9:00am and 10:00am.
The Zulu attack then developed in the traditional horns and chest of the buffalo, with the aim of encircling the British position. From Pulleine’s vantage point in the camp, at first only the right horn and then the chest (centre) of the attack seemed to be developing. Pulleine sent out first one, then all six companies of the 24th Foot into an extended firing line, with the aim of meeting the Zulu attack head-on and checking it with firepower. Durnford’s men, upon meeting elements of the Zulu centre, had retreated to a donga, a dried-out watercourse, on the British right flank where they formed a defensive line. The Rocket Battery under Durnford’s command, which was not mounted and dropped behind the rest of the force, was isolated and overrun very early in the engagement. The two battalions of native troops were in Durnford’s line; while all the officers and NCOs carried rifles, only one in 10 in the ranks was armed with a muzzle-loading musket with limited ammunition and many of them started to leave the battlefield at this point.
Pulleine only made one change to the original disposition after about 20 minutes of firing, bringing in the companies in the firing line slightly closer to the camp. For a few hours noon, the disciplined British volleys pinned down the Zulu centre, inflicting some casualties and causing the advance to stall. Indeed, morale remained high within the British line. The Martini-Henry rifle was a powerful weapon and the men were experienced. Additionally, the cannon fire of the Royal Artillery forced some Zulu regiments to take cover behind the reverse slope of a hill. Nevertheless, the left horn of the Zulu advance was moving to outflank and envelop the British right.
Durnford’s men, who had been fighting longest, began to withdraw and their rate of fire diminished. Durnford’s withdrawal exposed the right flank of the British regulars, which, with the general threat of the Zulu encirclement, caused Pulleine to order a withdrawal back to the camp. The regulars’ retreat was performed with order and discipline and the men of the 24th conducted a fighting withdrawal into the camp. Durnford’s retreat, however, exposed the flank of G Company, 2nd/24th, which was overrun relatively quickly.
An officer in advance from Chelmsford’s force gave this eyewitness account of the final stage of the battle at about 3:00pm.
“In a few seconds we distinctly saw the guns fired again, one after the other, sharp. This was done several times -a pause, and then a flash – flash! The sun was shining on the camp at the time, and then the camp looked dark, just as if a shadow was passing over it. The guns did not fire after that, and in a few minutes all the tents had disappeared.”
Nearly the same moment is described in a Zulu warrior’s account.
“The sun turned black in the middle of the battle; we could still see it over us, or should have thought we had been fighting till evening. Then we got into the camp, and there was a great deal of smoke and firing. Afterwards the sun came out bright again.”
The time of the solar eclipse on that day is calculated as 2:29pm.
The presence of large numbers of bodies grouped together suggests the resistance was more protracted than originally thought and a number of desperate last stands were made. Evidence shows that many of the bodies, today marked by cairns, were found in several large groups around the camp — including one stand of around 150 men. A Zulu account describes a group of the 24th forming a square on the neck of Isandlwana. Colonial cavalry, the NMP and the carabiniers, who could easily have fled as they had horses, died around Durnford in his last stand while nearby their horses were found dead on their picket rope. What is clear is that the slaughter was complete in the area around the camp and back to Natal along the Fugitive’s Drift. The fighting had been hand-to-hand combat and no quarter given to the British regulars. The Zulus had been commanded to ignore the civilians in black coats and this meant that some officers, whose patrol dress was dark blue and black at the time, were spared and escaped.
The British fought back-to-backwith bayonet and rifle butt when their ammunition had finally been expended. A Zulu account relates the single-handed fight by the guard of Chelmsford’s tent, a big Irishman of the 24th who kept the Zulus back with his bayonet until he was assegaied and the general’s Union flag captured. Both the colours of the 2/24th were lost, while the Queen’s colour of the 1/24th was carried off the field by Lieutenant Melvill on horseback with help from Lieutenant Coghill but lost when they crossed the drift. Both Melvill and Coghill were to receive posthumous Victoria Crosses in 1907 as the legend of their gallantry grew. Garnet Wolseley, who would replace Chelmsford, felt otherwise at the time and stated, “I don’t like the idea of officers escaping on horseback when their men on foot are being killed.”
Of the 1,700-plus force of British troops and African auxiliaries, about 1,300 were killed, most of them Europeans, including field commanders Pulleine and Durnford. Only five Imperial officers survived. Amongst those killed was Surgeon Major Peter Shepherd, a first-aid pioneer. The Natal Native Contingent lost some 400 men, and there were 240 lost from the group of 249 amaChunu African auxiliaries. Perhaps the last to die was Gabangaye, the portly chief of the amaChunu Natal Native Contingent, who was given over to be killed by the udibi boys. The captured Natal Native Contingent soldiers were regarded as traitors by the Zulu and executed.
Some 1,000 Martini-Henry rifles, two cannons, 400,000 rounds of ammunition, three colours, most of the 2,000 draft animals and 130 wagons, impedimenta such as tinned food, biscuits, beer, overcoats, tents and other supplies were taken by the Zulu or left abandoned on the field. Of the survivors, most were from the auxiliaries. The Zulus had lost around 1,000 killed, with various unconfirmed estimates for their wounded.