Battle of Isandlwana: The Humbling of Empire

On 11 January 1879, war broke out between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. This was no unforeseen event the British High Commissioner for Southern Africa Sir Henry Bartle Frere had been seeking a conflict with the Zulu King Cetshwayo, for some time. He was determined to expand British influence in the region and to do this he had to eliminate the only remaining independent threat to British power.

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In December 1878 he found an excuse to heighten tensions when a number of British subjects were murdered in Zulu territory and in direct contravention of the instructions he had received from London to avoid confrontation with the Zulus he issued Cetshwayo with an ultimatum demanding that he hand over those responsible for the murders, cease killing his own people, which was tantamount to disavowing Zulu justice, and disband his Impis, or Regiments, the source of his power. He also issued a deadline by which these demands must be met. Not to do so would be considered a declaration of war.

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Frere knew that Cetshwayo could not possibly comply with these demands and when the deadline passed with no word from the Zulu Chieftain, Frere ordered the British Military Commander in Natal Province, Lord Frederick Chelmsford, to invade Zululand.

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Military preparations had long been underway and Lord Chelmsford had under his command 8,000 men, more than 4,000 of whom were British Regulars ably supported by rockets and artillery. They were also armed with the latest breech loading Martini-Henry rifles. So, even though they were greatly outnumbered by the 24,000 Zulu Warriors Cetshwayo could put in the field, Chelmsford expected little trouble from an enemy armed only with spears and cow-hide shields.

On 11 January 1879, leaving a small force behind in the Mission Station at Rorke’s Drift, Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand.

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Believing that Cetshwayo would refuse to give battle he was determined to force the issue by marching directly on the Royal Kraal at Ulundi with 4,000 men. At the same time a Second Column under Colonel Pearson would circle around Ulundi and cut-off Cetshwayo’s line of retreat while a Third Column under Colonel Pulleine would remain at Isandlwana, so named for the heights that dominated the plain below, to await instructions.

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Colonel Henry Pulleine was primarily a Staff Officer who had never before seen action or commanded men in the field. The more obvious choice for command would have been Colonel Anthony Durnford, a colourful and outspoken Irishman superior in rank to Pulleine and a veteran of numerous skirmishes with the Zulus. He knew their tactics and how they operated and had earlier lost the use of his left arm in a fight with Hlubis tribesmen at Bushman’s Pass. Indeed, he had only saved from certain death by a squadron of the Basuto Mounted Cavalry that he himself had formed and trained.

Durnford was undoubtedly brave and audacious but he was also arrogant and some thought self-serving. It had originally been intended that he would command one of the columns but Lord Chelmsford had come to distrust this mercurial Irishman whom he believed had gone native.

Pulleine was understandably a little nervous at his sudden elevation but still remained confident he had sufficient forces to withstand any Zulu attack, not that he was expecting one. After all, he had under his command 800 British Regulars, 450 men of the Natal Native Contingent, and 200 Mounted Irregulars mostly Natal Police Units and Volunteers. He also had rockets and an artillery train.

Lord Chelmsford had earlier decided against laagering or fortifying the Camp by encircling it with wagons, on the grounds that it was unnecessary and too time consuming. British discipline and firepower would prove more than enough to deal with the reckless and uncoordinated attacks of a bunch of savages. Anyway, he never believed for a moment that the Zulus would attack a British Army and certainly not one as formidable as Pulleine’s.

On the morning of 21 January, he moved his column out of the Camp at Isandlwana.

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At 10.30 am Colonel Durnford arrived at the Camp with his Basutos. He had been ordered to remain on the border of Natal Province and defend it against any possible Zulu incursion but had grown frustrated at the lack of activity.

His arrival posed not only a problem for Pulleine but no little embarrassment for as the Senior Officer in Camp, Durnford should have taken command, but he showed no inclination to do so, and if the truth be known Pulleine was relieved to see him.

Durnford immediately suggested that Pulleine picket the hills while he would scout for Zulus he feared might be threatening Lord Chelmsford’s rear. Unknown to him however, Lord Chelmsford had not just been out-manoeuvred by a few stray Zulus but by the entire Zulu Army.

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At 8.00 am on 22 January, Lieutenant Raw, scouting far from the Camp gave chase to a small number of Zulus he had spotted in the distance. As he ascended a hill he glanced down to find to his astonishment 20,000 Zulus resting in the valley below. They immediately went on the offensive and Raw beat a hasty retreat, only stopping from time-to-time to fire upon the rapidly closing Zulus. He also sent a courier with an urgent message to warn the Camp.

Pulleine was uncertain how to respond to the news i did they intend to attack or was it merely a feint? Was Lieutenant Raw exaggerating?

At first he only ordered a couple of Battalions to form up as he urgently discussed the matter with Durnford who wanted to take the attack to the Zulus.

They agreed that Durnford should lead his mounted Troopers forward with Pulleine promising to offer him support where possible. In the meantime, he ordered his troops to defend a perimeter line outside the Camp. Once his troops had been lined up he sent a messenger to inform Lord Chelmsford some 12 miles away of the urgency of the situation.

The Zulus had since formed into their famous Horns of the Bull order of battle. The Head of the Bull would advance and engage the centre of the British Line drawing them in whilst the Horns would sweep around and encircle the Camp.

For more than two hours the British rate of fire kept the Zulus pinned down but as exhaustion began to take its toll and the ammunition began to run low the Zulus began to make progress.

Colonel Durnford had also been forced to abort his advance and retreat to a donga (a dried out watercourse creating a hollow in the ground) and take up a defensive position. His withdrawal however had exposed the right-flank of the British Line and the Zulu Commander, Cetshwayo’s half-brother Prince Dabulamanzi KaMpande was quick to exploit the opportunity ordering the Horns of the Bull to close and quickly envelop the Camp.

Meanwhile, the problem of getting ammunition to the troops was mounting. The ammunition wagons were stationed in the centre of the Camp many hundreds of yards from the fighting and no line of supply had been established. There were also delays caused by Lord Chelmsford having ordered the ammunition boxes screwed down. Those troops who had been dispatched to get ammunition, despite their urgent pleas to speed things up, were made to form orderly queues and could only be re-supplied by their designated wagon.

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Still, the British Line held but by now in the stifling heat guns began to jam and the rate of fire decreased even further. Heavily outnumbered, and with their right-flank exposed by Colonel Durnford’s withdrawal their position was becoming untenable and the order was given to retreat towards the Camp. Pulleine had hoped for an orderly withdrawal but he had made a tactical error in positioning his men too far away from the Camp and the distance they now had to travel made it impossible for the formation to remain intact and as the line broken chaos ensued.

Dispersed into small groups large numbers of Redcoats were cut off and isolated from one another and quickly surrounded. Fighting back-to-back and hand-to-hand, bayonet against assegai, impromptu Squares were formed much like at Waterloo sixty years earlier but this time to no avail.

Colonel Durnford had since returned to the camp to discover that there was no sense of order whatsoever and that the battle had descended into a desperate fight for survival. It was suggested to him that all was lost and that he should escape with his men while he still could, he refused. Finding that there was no ammunition for their carbines they fought on with pistols and knives.

At precisely 2.29 pm the battlefield was plunged into darkness by a partial eclipse of the sun, and for a few minutes there was an eerie silence as the fighting ceased. It was only a brief respite and overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers by 3 pm all effective resistance had ceased.

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Colonel Durnford was dead, and the few survivors tried to flee towards Rorke’s Drift but the road had been cut off by the Zulus. Forced into the hills they were hunted down and killed.

Just prior to his own death, Colonel Pulleine had pulled aside Lieutenant Teignmouth Melville and presented him with the Regimental Colours telling him:

“Melville, as Senior Lieutenant, you must save the Colours.”

Provided with a horse he made his bid for safety and setting off down Fugitives Drift with the Colours tucked under his arm he was joined by Lieutenant Nevill Coghill and together they cut their way through the Zulus swarming around them.

Riding hell-for-leather they plunged into the fast-flowing Tugela River. Coghill was the first to reach the far bank but looking back he could see that Melville was struggling to stay afloat and was close to drowning. The Colours had already been swept away and so Coghill bravely plunged back into the river to drag his friend out, but the delay was to prove fatal. Once ashore they were surrounded by Zulus, exhausted and armed only with their swords, they were quickly cut down.

At the time of the Battle of Isandlwana there was no provision for the posthumous awarding of the Victoria Cross. In 1906, Lieutenant’s Coghill and Melville were to become the first two Officers to be so honoured.

The Battle of Isandlwana was the first time a European Army armed with modern weapons had been destroyed by Native Tribesmen. In total 1,329 men were lost at Isandlwana (though some put the figure as high as 1,800 due to civilian volunteers who may not have been properly accounted for). Of these 858 were British Regulars and 450 Native Troops. Of the 60 or so men who survived the battle all were mounted volunteers who not being under military discipline fled the battlefield before it was too late. No one on foot or wearing a Red Coat survived.

Isandlwana was a great victory for the Zulu Army and is a tribute to the organisation, discipline and courage of its Commanders and Warriors but it was a victory bought at a fearful cost. More than 3,000 Zulus had been killed and a similar number wounded. The gloss of victory was to be further tarnished by the subsequent events at Rorke’s Drift where 139 British troops successfully repelled repeated attacks by more than 4,000 Zulu Warriors despite the fact that Cetshwayo had specifically ordered that Rorke’s Drift should not be assaulted, but the Zulus blood was up.

The disaster at Isandlwana sent shock-waves through the corridors of power at Westminster and stunned Victorian Britain. Such a thing was unprecedented in the administration of the Empire. The subsequent events at Rorke’s Drift were to restore a semblance of calm but even so the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was moved to remark in the House of Commons:

“Who are these Zulus, who are these remarkable people who defeat our Generals, convert our Bishops, and who on this day have put an end to a great dynasty.”

Lord Chelmsford had been humiliated and replaced as Commander of British Forces in Natal by Sir Garnet Wolseley but because of the distances involved and his other commitments Sir Garnet was unable to be in South Africa before the late summer.

Lord Chelmsford, whose forces in Natal had since been heavily reinforced, took the opportunity offered him by Sir Garnet’s delayed arrival to restore his reputation. In June 1879 he invaded Zululand for the second time with 9,000 British Regulars, and 7,000 Volunteer and Native troops advancing on the Royal Kraal at Ulundi despite specific orders from Sir Garnet not to do so and desperate attempts by Cetshwayo to negotiate an end to the hostilities.

The Battle for Ulundi on 4 July was nothing short of a massacre. The Zulus, exhausted and starving from their failure to bring in the harvest attacked with their usual courage but their spirit to sustain the fight had long since dissipated. Some 1,300 Zulus were killed many when they were already fleeing from the battlefield for the loss of just 18 British soldiers.

Cetshwayo was captured on 28 August and taken to London where he was lauded as a hero, the very epitome of the Noble Savage. He even had an audience with Queen Victoria who bemoaned the fact that he had not worn traditional native costume.

The British later tried to restore Cetshwayo to the Throne of a by now subjugated and truncated Zulu Kingdom but he was never accepted back by his people. Having already survived an assassination attempt he died of a probable heart-attack on 8 February, 1884.

Lord Chelmsford, who had delivered a colourful and largely inaccurate report of the events at Isandlwana to Queen Victoria in which he blamed Colonel Durnford for the defeat was showered with honours. He was promoted to full General and then appointed Lieutenant of the Tower of London. But he was never to command an army in the field again. He died in 1905 whilst playing a game of billiards at his club.

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