Battle of Isandhlwana, 1879
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Zulu Part 1: Encircled By The Buffalo At Isandlwana

It's one of the British Army's worst military disasters...

Battle of Isandhlwana, 1879

As they were pressed back-to-back, eating through their dwindling ammunition supplies, British Redcoats must have cursed their luck.

Hordes of Zulu warriors had suddenly spilt over a nearby hilltop a few hours before and now had them pinned against an obscure rise called Isandlwana (or iSandlwana), from which there was no escape.

January 22, 1879 would soon go down as the worst defeat the British ever suffered in a single action against an indigenous colonial enemy, and it would spawn an even more famous second battle, lasting until January 23.

And the worst part of all? The British had brought the whole thing upon themselves.

View of the Isandlwana battlefield (image: Bizcallers)
View of the Isandlwana battlefield (image: Bizcallers)

Not that the average foot soldier, nor for that matter junior officer, was really aware of this. Civilising the pesky natives, as part of an alliance that included some local tribes, seemed self-evidently right.

In any case, European expansion into southern Africa had been carried out militarily for a century – this was just the latest stage of it.

In ‘British Infantryman Versus Zulu Warrior’, Ian Knight gives us a window into the thinking of the average British soldier by quoting the diary of Corporal Andrew Guthrie (90th Light Infantry), who said on the eve of the Anglo-Zulu War:

"This is the last day of 1878, and a long year before us. And a Zulu war to finish before we can think of a change for the better, [for other] than hard ground for a bed, sleeping in our clothes every night."

Gutherie did not concern himself with frontier politics, believing he was being sent "to assist in quelling some disturbance". Hard conditions were uppermost in his mind, as they have been for soldiers throughout the ages, though some had actually joined to escape even harsher environments at home.

Victorian Britain
A slum in Glasgow in 1871 - many soldiers joined up to escape poverty like this (image: Thomas Annan)

The working classes at the time did not view the Army as glamorous, and many who joined the ranks did so intoxicated, deliberately targeted by a recruiter lurking in the local pub.

Enlistment, however, meant the security of decent clothing, three square meals a day, regular pay, and a roof over their heads. The only question was whether they met the 5'5½" height requirement, quite a, well, tall order for some undernourished working men. At 5'8", Gutherie was comfortably over the bar.

Service terms lasted 12 years, though the Army Enlistment Act of 1870 reduced them to six. Most of the rankers at Isandlwana were in the 1/24th Regiment of Foot (later 'South Wales Borderers') and were old hands; most in the 2/24th, of which there was one company at Isandlwana, had signed up for only six years' service.

For the officers, many of whom were second or third-born sons unable to inherit family property, the Army steered a respectable course away from the drudgery of clergy life or a trade. It also provided an exciting lifestyle that might impress the ladies. As gentry, many were able to be better informed than their men, but either didn't pay much attention or obligingly kept their mouths shut. One George Hamilton-Browne noted:

"If you wish to know the cause of the war I must refer you to the Blue Books [official Parliamentary records] for the information. It was no business of mine and my opinion was not asked on the question."

Frere and Chelmsford
Sir Henry Frere, High Commissioner for South Africa (left), and Lt Gen Chelmsford (right)

What a peek into government matters might have revealed was that the British wanted to incorporate a recently discovered diamond mine at Kimberley into their territory. They'd tried to simply annex the territory under an "incorporation" policy that had worked out well for them in Canada. But when local resistance flared up, picking a fight with and beating the strongest tribe in order to intimidate the others became the goal of Cape High Commissioner Sir Henry Edward Bartle Frere.

He dispatched the senior southern Africa British commander to march into Zulu territory and goad the Zulu king to fight.

The son of a Tory MP who'd become Solicitor-General and Lord High Chancellor of England, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford was every bit the establishment British commander. His experiences subduing the Xhosa tribe in the years before had convinced him that his main challenge would be getting the Zulus to fight. 

To assist Chelmsford, Frere had made his ultimatum to King Cetshwayo of the Zulus particularly contentious, requiring him to disband his soldiers, the amabutho. These company-sized units also functioned as police and an organised labour force, forming the backbone of Zulu society. Cetshwayo was frightened of a war against the well-armed, well-trained British, but would not allow his kingdom to be torn apart. He instructed his top general, Ntshingwayo kaMohole to attack the white man when he crossed the Anglo-Zulu border, the Tugela (or Thukela) River.

Nthsingwayo kaMahole, King Cetshwayo's commander at Isandlwana
Nthsingwayo kaMahole, King Cetshwayo's commander at Isandlwana

In 'Isandlwana 1879: The Great Zulu Victory', Ian Knight says that although Cetshwayo had 40,000 men within his amabutho, this was not sufficient to police all along the Tugela.

This posed a challenge for Chelmsford, who would need to locate the Zulus in order to fight them. He attacked the problem by forming five columns, consisting of a battalion-sized force supported by locally-raised African and white settler units, and artillery. These would cross into Zulu territory at different points in the hope of engaging the enemy wherever they might be found.

Unfortunately for the Brits, while the Zulus foraged and used inexpensive and light rudimentary weapons (including the odd obsolete musket purchased from European traders), each of Chelmsford's columns was so cumbersome it might require "302 ox-wagons and carts and 1,507 oxen and 116 mules and horses to transport it". As a result, the northern-most column had to be made a mere defensive unit on the British side of the Tugela for lack of supplies, while Brevet Colonel AW Durnford’s No 2 Column had to be folded into Colonel Richard Glyn's No 3 Column. (This would allow his subordinate Lieutenant Colonel HB Pulleine to take command of Glyn's battalion, the 1/24 Regiment of Foot).

Anglo Zulu war start map
A map showing Chelmsford's original five columns (image from 'Isandlwana 1879' by Ian Knight © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
Edit Map_of_Southern_Africa_(T._Fisher_Unwin)
Zululand (shown inside the green circle) on an 1894 map of South Africa

With a small garrison left just on the British side of the river at the Rorke's Drift Mission, Chelmsford was ready to commence his invasion with two fewer columns than originally planned.

Almost as soon as they crossed the river, the British encountered a local contingent of Zulu warriors at Nyezane. In a 1936 interview, Frank Bourne recalls being a young soldier stuck at Rorke's Drift, watching the action from a little hill nearby, and "bitterly disappointed" that he was not participating in it. 

Although the Zulus surprised the British, their force at Nyezane wasn't big enough to overwhelm them. The British rallied quickly, and brought a punishing fire to bear, as recounted by Chief Zimema:

"We were still far away from them when the white men began to throw their bullets at us, but we could not shoot them because our rifles would not shoot so far… When we were near them we opened fire, hitting a number of them… After that they brought out their [artillery and rockets] and we heard what we thought was a long pipe coming toward us."

Rudimentary rockets existed at the time and were used by the British, which is likely what Zimema describes as 'long pipes'.

Despite the fierce British fire, the Zulus bravely pressed forward:

"As we advanced we had our rifles under our arms and our assegais (throwing spears) in our right hands ready to throw them but they were not much good as we never got near enough to use them.

"We never got nearer than 50 paces [roughly 50yd] to the English, and although we tried to climb over our fallen brothers we could not get very far ahead because the white men were firing heavily close to the ground into our front ranks whilst the [artillery] were firing over our heads into the regiments behind us…"

Anglo Zulu War Khabula
The Battle of Khambula, which took place later in Anglo-Zulu War, looked similar to the action at Nyezane (image from 'British Infantryman Versus Zulu Warrior' by Ian Knight © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Jubilant at their first victory, the British soon became complacent as they drove further into Zulu territory and set up camp in front of a hill known as Isandlwana.

Because Chelmsford was so convinced that the main Zulu force was evading him, he split his column to facilitate swifter movement and set off in pursuit. Chelmsford took Col Glyn with him, leaving Lt Col Pulleine in command at Isandlwana. 

Chelmsford hadn't realised that by neglecting to form a proper defensive position at the camp, he'd made those left behind extremely vulnerable.

Of course, those in camp probably didn't feel as if they were in any danger. The core of the force was made up of five companies of experienced veterans in the 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot, and an additional company from the 2nd Battalion.

They were augmented by artillery, and men from the NNC, Natal Native Contingent, an amalgamation of white settlers and black soldiers loyal to the British.

This included infantry and cavalry under Pulleine, as well as Bvt Col Durnford's No 2 Column, with its own infantry, cavalry, and artillery battery, including three nine-pounder rocket troughs (simple tubes filled with gunpowder) – 1,800 men, all told.

Zululand
Isandlwana hill, where the British made camp (image: Rob)

It was Durnford’s men who would first play a role in the coming battle.

At around 11am, isolated knots of Zulus had been spotted north-east of the camp, and horse scouts led by Lieutenants Roberts and Raw rode up towards the their position. According to Knight:

"Roberts and Raw gave chase… They were over four miles from Isandlwana when Raw's men made contact with a party of Zulu foragers, who were trying frantically to drive a small herd of cattle before them. The foragers fled over a rocky rise, known as Mabaso, with Raw's men in pursuit. Suddenly the Zulus disappeared from sight as the ground fell away steeply below them."

The scouts continued to the peak of the hill and must have been astonished, and terrified, by what they saw below:

"Down below them… lay 25,000 men of King Cetshwayo's army."

Durnford's Scouts Isandlwana
Lt Raw's scouts stumble on the Zulu Army (image from 'Isandlwana 1879' by Ian Knight © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Realising they'd disturbed a very large hornets' nest, Raw and Roberts bolted, stopping periodically to fire at the thousands upon thousands of Zulu warriors now pouring over the hill after them.

But down at the camp, Pulleine couldn't see what was happening, and still believed this to be a small local force. He would soon be disavowed of this by the avalanche that was about to confront him.

For their part, the Zulus might have been surprised to find the British so close, but they knew to immediately assume the battle formation known as 'the buffalo'.

This consisted of 'the chest', the main fighting body made up of more experienced warriors, with older men and adolescents in reserve behind them in the 'loins'.

In front, some of the best warriors might spread out and form a deceptive screen, attacking enemies as they encountered them, distracting them from the huge body of men behind, and those who were stealthily flanking them. These 'horns of the buffalo' on either side would be made up of the young men whose job it was to run around the foe and cut off his escape.

Isandlwana battle map
The start of the battle, with the British in red and Zulus in blue (image from 'Isandlwana 1879' by Ian Knight © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

While Raw and Roberts had swung north, then east of the British camp, Durnford had ridden about 2.5 miles due east. As he fled back to camp, the Zulus' left horn started forming behind him. While crossing dongas (small ravines) on their way back, several of his men dismounted and began firing at the Zulus - soon joined by Durnford himself:

"In the donga, Durnford was in his element. It was a situation that suited exactly his need to prove himself heroic; he strode about the gulley, ignoring the Zulu fire, and cheering his men on."

In 1873, Durnford had led a party of Natal (a British colony in south-eastern Africa) volunteers to capture the leader of a rebellion. It had gone wrong, and a number of his volunteers had been killed. Durnford, mocked in the years that followed, wanted desperately to improve his reputation – a desire that would get him killed at Isandlwana.

Despite the heroics, the Zulus were soon outflanking Durnford, and his unit retired. Behind him, the companies of the 24th Regiment formed rallying squares and fired intermittently at their pursuers as they fell back.

Zulu warrior reenactors picture by GovernmentZA_1
Zulu warrior reenactors

This retreat in turn left the artillery unit who'd been in their middle exposed, as the Zulus bore down on them:

"Major Smith gave the order to cease firing and limber the guns, a manoeuvre which the gunners had completed many times, on the parade ground and in the field; at that point the Zulus were estimated to be about 300 yards away in front. In the time it took to limber up, however, the nearest Zulus had rushed in so close that one gunner was actually stabbed as he was mounting the axle-tree seats on the guns. The gunners managed to extricate themselves in the nick of time."

The two sides began to blend into one another, as the Zulus in front overtook and began to run amongst the fleeing battery.

Now the decision not to form defensive positions came back to haunt the British as "the scattered companies… found themselves struggling to keep formation [while] they passed through the camp, beset on all sides by panicking camp personnel, civilian wagon-drivers, horses, mules and transport oxen".

National_Army_Museum_Zulu_War_display by Robert Fleming (talk)
National Army Museum Zulu War display (image: Robert Fleming)

Indeed, by the time the men of the 24th reached the tents, they were, in some cases, fighting hand-to-hand with the Zulus who'd pursued them:

"All the time the 24th still had ammunition to fire, they kept the Zulus back, but any man who was wounded or who became separated was immediately overcome and killed."

Avenging their brothers at Nyezane, the Zulu warriors stabbed at anything that moved as they swept through the camp.

Zululand
The Zulus, shown in blue, overwhelm the British, in red, who flee through camp, indicated by the yellow squares (image from 'Isandlwana 1879' by Ian Knight © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

But even the determined Zulus report in their own accounts that they couldn't advance past organised, concentrated British fire, which they were hit by again when the British reformed at the foot of Isandlwana behind the camp. Because there were so few British survivors from the battle, it's not known for sure why the Redcoats were overwhelmed. It's thought by some historians that when the British had used up all their bullets, that was when they were really doomed. It has also been argued that, despite many cases of forming defensive positions and holding the Zulus back with volleys, the British weren't quite organised enough and were eventually just overrun.

Whatever, the case, just as the Zulus closed in, a solar eclipse took place, turning the sky dark. It had an eerie quality, as the light suddenly vanished right as the British were overwhelmed. 

Battle of Isandhlwana by Charles Edwin Fripp
The final stage of the battle as the Zulus closed in

As the last of the main force was swallowed by the Zulu chest, the two horns cut around Isandlwana and pursued any fleeing men back towards the Tugela River.

The only survivors would be civilians, transport and staff officers, and those from volunteer units who'd bolted once things turned against the British. And any European soldier that did escape only did so on horseback. Those on foot were ruthlessly pursued and cut down. 

King Cetshwayo had told his men not to cross into British held Natal, but roughly 3,500 of his most headstrong warriors continued to pursue the British beyond the river. Ahead of them lay the garrison at Rorke's Drift…

For more on Isandlwana, read 'Isandlwana 1879: The Great Zulu Victory', 'Rorke's Drift 1879: Pinned Like Rats In a Hole', 'British Infantryman Versus Zulu Warrior' by Ian Knight and 'The Zulu War' by Angus McBride. For more on military history, visit Osprey Publishing

Isandlwana
Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill depicted dying to save the Queen's Colour - in reality they were cut down escaping with the flag