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The Battle of Isandlwana painted by Charles Edwin Fripp, and photographic image of Zulu king, Cetshwayo, 1875

The Battle of Isandlwana and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

'When the attack came, it came quickly.'

A photographic image of King Cetshwayo from 1875 and painting 'The Battle of Isandlwana' by Charles Edwin Fripp

At eleven o’clock in the morning of January the 22nd 1879, a troop of British scouts chased a group of Zulus into the valley of Ngwebeni in Zululand. The scouts stopped dead in their tracks when they saw what the valley contained. Sitting on the ground in total silence were 20,000 Zulu warriors. It was an astonishing sight.

The battle that followed this remarkable discovery was a disaster. It hadn’t meant to be this way. When the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, came up with the flawed idea of annexing the British-friendly kingdom of Zululand into a greater South African Confederation by force of arms, he presumed Zulus armed with spears, clubs and shields would be no match for the mighty British Army.

Without bothering to seek the permission of the British government, Frere issued the order to attack the lands ruled over by King Cetshwayo, a reasonable, thoughtful ruler who had regarded the British as his friends until Frere cynically engineered him into a position of being unable to accept Frere’s unreasonable demands.

The great Battlefield of Isandlwana and the Oskarber, Zululand, northern Kwazulu Natal, South Africa
The great Battlefield of Isandlwana and the Oskarber, Zululand, northern Kwazulu Natal, South Africa | Shutterstock

When Cetshwayo failed to agree to Frere’s ultimatum to disband his army, Frere grasped his chance to invade. Chosen to lead the invasion was Frederic Thesiger, the 2nd Baron Chelmsford. Lord Chelmsford massively underestimated how many men he would need to take into Cetshwayo’s territory. So confident was Chelmsford of an easy victory that he took with him a mere 7,800 troops. His plan was to invade Zululand with three columns of infantry, artillery and native cavalry, with each column heading off through different sections of Zululand to engage Cetshwayo’s army. The ultimate goal was the capture of Ulundi - Cetshwayo’s capital.

The central invasion column was under the direct command of Chelmsford. It headed out from the mission station of Rorke’s Drift in the British-held territory of Natal on the 11th of January, crossing the Buffalo River into Zululand. By the 20th of January, all three columns had progressed into the kingdom unopposed, with Chelmsford’s central column reaching the hill of Isandlwana, where the fateful decision was taken to make camp.

When the attack came, it came quickly.

Against official military policy, Chelmsford did not order the camp to be ‘laagered’ - the practice of circling the column’s support wagons to create a makeshift fort behind which troops could form a defensive position should an attack occur. Instead, on the morning of the 22nd, Chelmsford left just 1,300 troops guarding the camp as he took a sizable number of his men off to attack what he thought was the main Zulu army. In reality, the small numbers of Zulu warriors Chelmsford’s scouts had spotted and reported back to the general were a ruse devised by Cetshwayo’s commanders to draw out Chelmsford and then attack his forces from behind with the bulk of the main Zulu army. The ruse worked, and the overconfident aristocrat marched 2,800 soldiers away from the camp, splitting his forces in two.

While Chelmsford was off chasing an imaginary Zulu army, the real one moved to the valley of Ngwebeni. Back at the British camp, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine was in charge of the camp’s defence. Pulleine was an administrator, not a soldier, and it was his inexperience that contributed to the disaster that was about to unfold.

Pulleine could have been replaced at 10:30 that morning when Colonel Anthony Durnford arrived from Rorke’s Drift with five troops of the Natal Native cavalry and a battery of rockets, bringing the camp’s fighting strength up to 1,700 men. Durnford, a seasoned soldier, was Pulleine’s senior, and tradition in the army dictated that he should have taken command. He chose not to do so, leaving a much less experienced man in charge.

When the attack came, it came quickly. The minute the encampment at Ngwebeni was discovered by British scouts, the entire Zulu army sprang into action. The plan was instantly changed from attacking Chelmsford’s rear to attacking the camp at Isandlwana. Word reached Pulleine that a large Zulu force was approaching fast and in huge numbers. As the warriors began to arrive over the horizon, they started to muster into an ‘impi’ – the traditional Zulu formation of three infantry columns that together represented the chest and horns of a buffalo. The central column of the impi headed directly for the camp, while the two ‘horns’ of the left and right columns fanned out on either side of the camp to encircle the British.

Pulleine sent all six companies of the 24th Foot out to engage the central Zulu column head-on. At first, the extended British firing line held the attack off with considerable ease with help from the two mountain guns of the Royal Artillery. The legendary Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle was more than a match for an attacking force armed with spears and clubs, and with a firing rate of twelve rounds per minute, the experienced soldiers of the 24th Foot were able to hold the central column of the Impi at bay, inflicting heavy casualties on the Zulu side, forcing many to retreat behind Isandlwana hill to shelter from the hail of shells and bullets.

Unfortunately for the soldiers holding the line against the Zulu central column, the horns of the impi began to make headway against less experienced opposition. Durnford, defending the British right flank, had already lost his rocket battery and was now haemorrhaging troops. Unlike the regular soldiers of the 24th Foot, Durnford’s forces consisted of African troops who were not fully armed with Martini-Henry rifles. Only one in ten of Durnford’s rank and file troops bore firearms, and even then they were armed with inferior muzzle-loading rifles. Faced with certain death or escape, Durnford’s men began to leave the battlefield before they could be fully encircled and cut off by the impi.

A solar eclipse occurred at 2:29 that day, turning the skies black for several minutes

With Durnford’s troop numbers diminishing fast, so their rate of fire began to drop. This drop in fire meant more Zulus were able to press against Durnford’s defensive line, pushing it back towards the 24th Foot who were still holding the central column of the impi at bay. As Durnford’s men retreated back against the left horn of the impi, the 24th Foot’s right flank, which up until this time had been protected by Durnford, was now dangerously exposed. Realising he could no longer hold the line against the central and left-hand columns of the impi, Pulleine ordered a fighting retreat back to camp. This was done in an orderly fashion by the stout regulars of the 24th. Unfortunately, Durnford’s retreat was anything but orderly, completely exposing the flank of the 24th’s G Company, which was quickly overrun and butchered by Zulu warriors.

As the remaining troops fell back to the camp, the skies above them darkened. A solar eclipse occurred at 2:29 that day, turning the skies black for several minutes. When the sun returned, not one tent was left standing in the camp and the area was now a killing round.

The final stand was a brutal affair. British soldiers stood back-to-back, furiously stabbing away with their bayonets as wave upon wave of Zulu warriors thrust at them with their spears and battered them with clubs. Screams rang out across the camp as soldiers were stabbed and clubbed to death where they stood.

Zulu memorial to the warriors of isandlwana in South Africa
Zulu memorial to the warriors of isandlwana in South Africa

Durnford and a valiant band of native infantrymen and regulars of the 24th Foot had managed to keep the two horns of the impi from joining up by defending a wagon park on the edge of the camp. They could only hold on so long, however, and as their ammunition ran out, they resorted to hand-to-hand combat until they were overwhelmed. Durnford’s body was later found surrounded by his men, all stabbed and beaten to death.

Pulleine fared no better than Durnford. His body was never formally identified, and he is said to have either died early on in the fighting after the retreat to the camp, or in one of the desperate last stands that took place before the end of the battle where the remaining soldiers fought on until they were overwhelmed and killed.

Isandlwana was a humiliating defeat for a British government that hadn’t even ordered the attack on Zululand in the first place

As the remnants of the camp began to flee, no quarter was given to the remaining British and native soldiers. Those attempting to flee were cut down as they ran, while those lying wounded on the ground were stabbed and clubbed to death. The trail of butchered British soldiers reached right back to the Buffalo River – the very same river where Chelmsford’s men had so confidently crossed into Zululand a mere eleven days before.

As the enemy melted away, taking rifles, ammunition, artillery and supplies with them, the extent of the massacre became clear. Of the 1,700 men tasked with defending the camp, 52 British officers, 806 rank and file soldiers and 471 African troops had been killed. On the Zulu side, an estimated 2,000 lay dead. The Battle of Isandlwana was - and remains to this day - the worst defeat ever inflicted by a native force on the British Army.

As the Zulus left the battlefield in triumph, 4,000 of them split from the main army and headed for the mission station at Rorke’s Drift. There, 150 British and colonial troops fought off wave after wave of attacks for ten grueling hours before the Zulus finally retreated. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded following the station’s remarkable survival.
Isandlwana was a humiliating defeat for a British government that hadn’t even ordered the attack on Zululand in the first place. When news reached home both of the massacre and the valiant defence of Rorke’s Drift, the British public was baying for blood. The government duly obliged their vengeful subjects and in just under six months, an enlarged invasion force had conquered Zululand. The kingdom would remain a British protectorate for the next eighteen years until it was annexed and absorbed into Natal in 1897.

And what of Cetshwayo, the courageous king who stood up to the might of the British Empire and won the day? He was captured following the Battle of Ulundi on the 4th of July 1879. He was exiled first to Cape Town, and then to London. His gentle nature charmed many in that city, and his treatment by Bartle Frere and Lord Chelmsford started to be roundly condemned by many in polite society. If this is how we treat our friends, many of them wondered, what does that say about us?

Cetshwayo returned to Zululand in 1883. He died on the 4th of February 1884 and is buried in a field near the Nkunzane River in what is today modern South Africa. He was the last king of an independent Zululand; a friend and unwilling foe of the empire on which the sun never set.