The Battle of Isandlwana

“Wet With Yesterday’s Blood” by Ian Knight

Towards the end of the first week of January, 1879, in the sprawling military camp which had recently sprung up on the windy Helpmekaar ridge, overlooking the border between the British colony of Natal, in southern Africa, and the independent Zulu kingdom, the officers of the 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment invited the officers of the 2nd Battalion of the same regiment to lunch. Both were part of a British army which was being assembled to Zululand; the border, the Mzinyathi river (‘the waters of buffalo’), meandered through a broad valley at the foot of the heights.

Battale of IsandlawanaBattale of Isandlawana

It was unusual for two battalions of the same regiment to be serving together in the field, for in the British military system of the 1870s those regiments which were made up of more than one battalion were supposed to rotate their service, so that one battalion remained in the depot at home while the other served overseas. In practice, however, the army was stretched too thin to police Britain's growing empire, and at any given time more troops were posted overseas than the system theoretically allowed. The two battalions of the 24th had come to South Africa separately, and although both had seen action in the closing stages of the 9th Cape Frontier War (‘The War of Ngcayecibi’, 1877/78), against the amaXhosa people, they had not fought side by side before. Now, for the first time in the regiment's history, they would face the coming Zulu campaign together. That little dinner in the mess - which itself was improvised from packing cases, slung across with tarpaulin - was to celebrate the fact. Moreover, the anniversary of one of the 24th’s most significant actions was looming; on 13th January 1849, thirty years before, the regiment had fought a disastrous battle against the Sikh army at Chillianwallah, in India. The 24th had been ordered to charge a Sikh artillery battery at bayonet point, and had been shot to pieces, loosing over 500 officers and men killed and wounded.

The Colours - the focus of regimental pride and symbol of their allegiance to the Queen - were lost on the battlefield. The imminent anniversary was a spur to the officers gathered at Helpmekaar, and they cheerfully drunk a toast to its memory - “To Chillianwallah - and that we may not get into such a mess again this time”. Within a fortnight of that toast, not one of the officers of the 1/24th who drank it was still alive; they lay dead in the whispering grass at the foot of a distinctive rocky outcrop, just a few miles across the border in Zululand, known as Isandlwana. Alongside them lay five officers of the 2/24th, and over 1300 British and allied troops, together with a thousand Zulus, and the carcasses of hundreds of slaughtered oxen, horses, mules and dogs. As one Zulu veteran commented years afterwards, “the green grass was red with the running blood and the veld was slippery, for it was covered with the brains and entrails of the killed”.

The battle of Isandlwana was one of the worst defeats suffered by the British army during the Victorian era; it was also a defining moment in the history of the Zulu kingdom. The part-time soldiers and herdsmen of a little-known African kingdom were suddenly transformed around the world into a powerful and enduring stereotype, alien, savage, and incomprehensible, which colours our understanding of Zulu history and culture, even today. At the same time, Isandlwana ensured the destruction of the Zulu kingdom in its original form, and defeat was born of victory, for the British Empire was hardly inclined to make peace without first restoring its honour on the battlefield.

Like most historical calamities, the British defeat came about not through any single great error of judgement, but rather through a combination of misunderstanding, miscalculation, and sheer bad luck. The Zulu victory, on the other hand, was won by sound tactical judgement, by aggressive spirit, and by raw courage and endurance in the face of an awesome and destructive enemy weapon technology.

The senior British commander in southern Africa, Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford, had decided to invade Zululand with three offensive columns, with two more in support. His political brief, framed by the High Commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, was to break up the Zulu political and military system as quickly as possible. Frere was the spearhead of a new British forward policy in southern Africa; called Confederation, it was designed to bring the region's disparate British possessions, Boer republics and African kingdoms under one central authority - British, of course - to facilitate its political and economic development. Frere had become convinced that the Zulu kingdom was a block on the road to Confederation, and he wanted it removed as part of a broader programme of suppressing African resistance. Seizing on a number of border violations and a long-standing boundary dispute with the Transvaal - which Britain had recently annexed as part of the same programme - Frere had presented the Zulu king, Cetshwayo kaMpande, with an ultimatum in December 1878. The ultimatum demanded that Cetshwayo disband the system by which the king exacted tribute from his young men through military and social service, and that he hand over practical authority to a British resident. It was a demand that no self-respecting independent ruler could accept, which was precisely what Frere intended; on 11th January 1879 the ultimatum expired at Chelmsford’s troops crossed into Zululand.

Invariably, British armies embarked on colonial campaigns with far too few troops for the purpose, and so it was with Chelmsford. His three offensive columns had no more than two battalions of regular infantry apiece - a battalion consisted of 800 men at full strength, which few ever were in the field - a battery of artillery, and a hastily raised force of African auxiliaries, recruited in Natal from groups hostile to the Zulu kingdom. All three also included white Volunteer and Irregular forces, raised from the settler community in Natal, or on the Cape Frontier. Chelmsford himself commanded the Centre Column, which descended the Helpmekaar heights in the first week of January, and crossed unopposed into Zululand at Rorke’s Drift when the ultimatum expired.

Lord Chelmsford was an experienced professional soldier in his 50s, a quiet man with a gentlemanly manner, and certainly no fool. He had recently brought the messy little war on the Cape frontier to a successful conclusion, but in many ways this was to prove his undoing. Although his intelligence department had made a careful assessment of Zulu fighting capabilities, he could not quite bring himself to believe that they were any different from the Xhosa. The Xhosa had waged a guerrilla war, preferring hit-and-run tactics, launched from secure bases in mountainous bush-country, to a direct challenge in open fight. Lord Chelmsford - and most of the men under his command, including the officers of the 24th - suspected that the Zulus would respond in the same way. His whole strategy, that of three separate columns converging on King Cetshwayo’s principle homestead at oNdini (Ulundi), revealed his preoccupation that he would have to “drive the Zulus into a corner, and make them fight”.

The invasion went well enough at first. On 12th January Chelmsford took part of his command and attacked the homesteads of Chief Sihayo kaXongo in the Batshe valley, which lay ahead of his line of advance. Sihayo’s followers had been involved in one of the border incidents cited in the British ultimatum; they fought stubbornly, but were no match for Chelmsford's troops. The incident proved disastrous for the British in two respects, however; firstly because it encouraged a dangerous complacency in the British camp, and secondly because it shaped King Cetshwayo's response to the British invasion.

The king and his councillors had largely been paralysed by the British ultimatum. They had not sought a confrontation with the British, and realised that the British had a hidden agenda which they could not comprehend; yet they could not accede to the most important British demands. The king prevaricated, waiting for the British to move first, and it was not until the attack on Sihayo's homestead that the royal council reached a decision. The amabutho - the age-grade regiments which constituted the nation's army - were called up, and underwent the ceremonies necessary to prepare them for war. Chelmsford’s attack on Sihayo marked him down in Zulu eyes as the most dangerous of the three invading columns, and the majority of the amabutho, a total of perhaps 23,000 men, were sent out from oNdini on 17th January to attack him.

In fact, Chelmsford’s advance was painfully slow in the aftermath of that first skirmish. He was following an old traders’ track which ran from Rorke’s Drift towards oNdini, but it was scarcely adequate for his supply train of over 300 ox-drawn wagons. What's more, the weather was against him; after several seasons of drought, the summer rains had returned with a vengeance. Hot, stifling days ended in fierce thunderstorms in the late afternoon, and alternated with steady down-pours or days of raw, chilling drizzle. The track soon turned to mud; it took days for work-parties to clear the road as far as his next objective. It was not until 20th January that he was able to advance the few miles that separated Rorke's Drift from Isandlwana.

Isandlwana is a brooding and mysterious place, even today. It is a sandstone outcrop rising 300 feet from the plain, cut off by aeons of wind and rain from the iNyoni hills which frame it to the north. Its moods dramatically reflect shifting patterns of light; on hot days it lies still and squat, its face in shadow, its rocky crags suggestive of some ancient and incomprehensible mystery. In the evening, the purple light which warns of a summer storm provides a sinister backdrop to its peak, while the sudden rush of wind ripples through the grass at its foot. In bad weather in hangs, grey and mysterious, amidst the lowering clouds, a dark smudge apparently suspended, somehow, just above the horizon. All in all, it is the perfect place for the terrible human drama played out beneath it.

Chelmsford established his camp on the forward slope of the mountain, a good location which commanded a view of several miles of open country towards oNdini. Already, by the time he arrived there, reports had reached him that the Zulu army was on its way to attack him. Although he felt secure about his left flank and front, he was concerned about a range of hills - Hlazakazi and Malakatha - which shut in his view on the right. Beyond these hills the country fell into row after row of undulating ridges and steep valleys; if a Zulu army moved into them unopposed, Chelmsford feared that it might slip passed him and cross into Natal downstream of Rorke's Drift. The following day - the 21st - he sent most of his African auxiliaries and most of his mounted men out to scour the hills. That night, at the far end of the range, overlooking the spectacular Mangeni falls, they ran into a strong Zulu force. Unable to determine the Zulu strength or intentions in the dusk, they sent word back to Chelmsford.

The message reached him about 2 o’clock on the morning of the 23rd. To Chelmsford, it must have seemed that everything his suspected was coming to pass; here were the Zulus, exactly where he thought they would be, and, like the Xhosa before them, apparently trying to avoid a direct confrontation and fight instead in terrain that the British would find most difficult. Chelmsford decided to deny them the chance; he ordered about half his command - most of the 2/24th and four of his six guns - to make ready to march out of camp immediately. His intention was to move out and surprise the Zulus at dawn, before they could get away; he left the 1/24th to guard the camp, and on the spur of the moment ordered one of the two support columns up from Rorke’s Drift. The camp was left under the command of Lt. Col. Henry Pulleine of the 24th, who was presumably selected for his record as a good administrator, since he was an experienced soldier who had none-the-less never commanded a force in action before. Everyone, from Chelmsford himself down, expected that it would be the General who would be fighting the battle later that day.

The support column arrived at Isandlwana at about 10.30 on the morning of the 22nd. It was commanded by one of the most intriguing personalities of the war, Brevet Colonel Anthony Durnford, a Royal Engineer who had been involved in Natal’s affairs for several years, and who had lost the use of his left arm in a skirmish in 1873. Durnford was anxious to dispel doubts about his judgement which still lingered from that occasion, and he was keen to prove himself now. He was concerned to find that, after Chelmsford's departure, large numbers of Zulus had shown themselves on the iNyoni ridge, to the left of the camp - altogether the opposite direction from where Chelmsford was searching for them. They had retired from view, leaving Pulleine and Durnford to ponder their intentions. In the absence of any firm instructions from Chelmsford, Durnford decided to take his own command out from the camp, and scout the iNyoni heights. His column consisted of about 500 men, almost entirely African auxiliaries, about half of them mounted. Pulleine agreed to support Durnford's actions so long as they did not compromise the defence of the camp.

Durnford rode out of the camp at about 11.30. He divided his force, sending one part, two troops of cavalry under Lieutenants Roberts and Raw, up onto the heights, while he led the remainder around the bottom of the escarpment. The idea was to catch any Zulus in a pincer movement, and drive them away from both the camp and Lord Chelmsford. The undulating surface of the heights was not visible to Durnford, but Raw and Roberts could see small groups of warriors in the distance, all apparently moving rapidly away from them. They gave chase, and Raw's troop in particular almost caught up with a party of herdsmen who were trying to hurry away their cattle. The herdsmen crested a stony rise, known as Mabaso, and dropped out of sight beyond. Raw's men, pursuing them, reined in short; below them the ground dropped away into the open valley of the Ngwebeni stream. Sitting in the bottom of the valley, looking up at them in surprise, was the main Zulu army.

The Zulus had effectively outmaneuvered Lord Chelmsford’s force. They had advanced slowly from oNdini to Isandlwana - it had taken them four days to cover forty or fifty miles - and had masked their approach behind the Siphezi mountain, which marked the limit of British visibility at Isandlwana. This was not far from the spot where Chelmsford's probe had had its encounter on the evening of the 21st; indeed, the British patrols had run into the retainers of local chiefs, who were making their way to join the main army. By that time, however, the main army had already slipped closer to the camp, and while Chelmsford searched for them on his right front, they had effectively outflanked him, and lay concealed five miles away from the camp to its left front. This seems to have been due to luck, and the Zulu army's habitual skill at concealment, rather than a deliberate strategy to divide Chelmsford’s command, for there are suggestions that the Zulu commanders - Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, one of the king's most trusted advisers, and Mavumengwana kaNdlela Ntuli - were unsure how to proceed. King Cetshwayo, hoping to stave off a confrontation until the last minute, had urged them to make one last effort to negotiate with the British before attacking, while in any case the coming night (22/23rd) was the night of the new moon - a time when dark spiritual forces lurked close to the world of the living, and could wreak havoc among the enterprise of men. The army had lain in the Ngwebeni the previous night, resting quietly, and lighting no cooking fires. At one point, on the 22nd, the sound of distant skirmishing from Lord Chelmsford's encounter at Mangeni had brought one of the amabutho out onto the heights and close to the camp; this was the movement spotted by Pulleine. Finding that the battle had not yet begun, however, the regiment returned to the valley. As soon as Raw’s men appeared silhouetted against the skyline on the crest of Mabaso, however, it was immediately apparent to every ordinary warrior that there could be no more waiting. The regiment at the foot of the heights, the uKhandempemvu, rose up and rushed towards Raw's men, and the excitement infected the regiments camped alongside of them. There was no time to undergo the last-minute preparatory rituals necessary to ensure the warriors' success, nor was there time for the commanders to give instructions. The best Ntshingwayo could do was hold back the regiments associated with the royal homestead at oNdini - the uThulwana and its incorporated amabutho - which had been camped furthest from the British incursion, and form them into a reserve.

The army spilled out of the valley in some confusion, with individual regimental commanders seizing the initiative and trying to deploy them properly. Raw and Roberts fell back before them, stopping now and then to fire volleys in a futile attempt to stem the advance. In the time it took the army to cross the three or four miles to the lip of the iNyoni escarpment, the great army shook itself into its traditional “chest and horns” attack formation.

News of the attack was carried to both Pulleine and Durnford by riders galloping down from the heights. Both men reacted sceptically; it seemed unlikely that such a large force could have avoided Chelmsford’s probe, and the escarpment blocked their view of the events unfolding there. Durnford was about four miles out from the camp - and out of sight from it - when he was disillusioned. Suddenly a column of several thousand warriors - the left horn, consisting of the uVe and iNgobamakhosi amabutho - came into view ahead of him. Durnford deployed his men in a long line and began a fighting retreat towards the camp.

Pulleine, meanwhile, had sent one company of the 1/24th up onto the heights at about the time Durnford had ridden out. This, too, could not be seen from the camp, but the sound of firing indicated that it had come into action. Still doubting the full extent of the Zulu threat, Pulleine dispatched another company to support it. Only when the first elements of the Zulu chest - the uKhandempemvu and uMbonambi amabutho - began to appear along the sky-line did he realise that these companies were in danger of being cut off. He sent his artillery - just two light 7pdr guns - out to a low rise which commanded the forward slope of the heights, and deployed his infantry on either side. The companies on the heights were then recalled, together with Raw and Roberts' men, and brought into line. Pulleine's position therefore consisted of a long, straggling line, with the guns in the centre, with the regular 24th companies interspersed by auxiliary units who found themselves included almost be accident. There were, perhaps, 700 redcoats in the line altogether, and they were extended in open order, a yard between each man, kneeling down or crouching behind the boulders for cover. This was a deployment which had worked well enough on the Cape Frontier, and no-one in the British camp believed that the Zulus would have the nerve to withstand its fire. In between the 24th, the auxiliaries fought as best they could, though many were woefully short of firearms. When Durnford's men came into view, retreating across the plain towards Pulleine's right flank and with the left horn in pursuit, Pulleine extended his right and curved it back in an attempt to offer Durnford some support; at the height of the battle, the British line consisted of perhaps 1300 men, covering a distance of nearly two miles against a force which outnumbered them by more than 10:1.

Nevertheless, for a while this was enough to halt the Zulu attack. On the British right, Durnford’s men had reached a watercourse, and, dismounting, were defending it like a trench. The Zulu regiment facing them - the uVe, the youngest in the army - went to ground in the face of their intense fire, until supported by the older iNgobamakhosi. Nevertheless, the Zulu left could only advance by rising up and rushing forward for a few yards before throwing themselves down in the long grass. In the centre, where the uMbonambi and uKhandempemvu were suffering heavily from the artillery and the fire of the “old steady shots” of the 24th, the attack stalled. Above the din of battle, which seemed to reverberate off the face of Isandlwana and echo around the valleys, Zulu speakers in the British camp could hear the Zulu izinduna encouraging their men with references to their regimental honour, and the warriors responded by shouting the war-cries of their amabutho. “Moya!” - “wind!” - they cried derisively when the artillery fired shrapnel into them, and “Nqaka amatshe!” - “catch the hailstones” , treat the bullets with the contempt they deserve. Above it all, there were deep roars of the royalist war-cry - “uSuthu!”.

For twenty minutes, perhaps half an hour, this stalemate continued. In some places the Zulu attack seemed to be about to collapse, and Ntshingwayo sent down izinduna from the heights where he watched the battle to urge the warriors on. Then, over a period of just a few minutes, the British position suddenly collapsed. The trigger was Durnford; out on the right, his men were running low on ammunition, and there were simply too few of them to hold back the left horn, which was trying to outflank them on both sides. Durnford ordered his men to mount up and retire to the camp. One of the survivors met him as he rode in, looking for Pulleine; “he had, I think, already observed the state of affairs, for he was looking very serious”. Indeed, the rest of the British line was now hanging dangerously in the air, with nothing to hold back the left horn. The evidence suggests Durnford met Pulleine and they decided to try to pull back the whole line, to try to take up a tighter position closer to the camp. Zulu witnesses recalled bugles being sounded along the line, and the red-coats abandoning their positions and retiring towards the camp, stopping now and then to deliver a volley as they did so. Unfortunately, this move co-incided with a Zulu advance along the whole length of their line. One of Ntshingwayo’s messengers, Mkhosana kaMvundlana Biyela, an officer of the uKhandempemvu, had reached his men shortly before the British withdrawal, when they were pinned down under fire in a series of dongas at the foot of the escarpment. Dressed in all his ceremonial finery, Mkhosana strode among them, oblivious to the bullets striking around him, berating them for lying on their bellies. Making use of a phrase from King Cetshwayo's praises, he shouted out “The Little Branches of Leaves That Extinguished the Great Fire ... did not order you to do this!”. Shamed, the uKhandempemvu rose up and pressed forward, and as they did so Mkhosana fell, shot through the head. All along the line, the amabutho saw the uKhandempemvu's example, and rose up. Just then the British ceased firing and fell back.

The British position collapsed very quickly, like a wall of sand washed away by waves on the beach. The auxiliary units retired in some confusion and, with no-one to rally them, fell back through the camp, leaving gaps between the red-coat companies. The Zulus, rushing after them, pushed through the gaps, preventing the soldiers from reforming. The 24th were driven back through the camp, and tried to make a stand on the saddle below the peak of Isandlwana. By this point the battle was already raging hand-to-hand, and the Zulus were in among the tents, killing the camp personnel. No further retreat was possible, however, for as the first survivors tried to slip away, they found that the Zulu right horn was already in place in the valley of the Manzimnyama stream, behind the mountain, and had not only cut the road to Rorke’s Drift, but was streaming up to attack the camp in the rear.

For a while, the 24th put up a stubborn resistance on the saddle, and their firing was so fierce that the Zulus hung back. Gradually, however, their ammunition was exhausted, and there was no hope of obtaining fresh supplies. Still maintaining some semblance of company formation, the 24th stood back to back, holding the Zulus at bay with a bristling hedge of bayonets. At least one company was pushed over the saddle, and retired fighting down the Manzimnyama valley, only to be brought up short on the banks of the stream itself, nearly a mile from the camp. Another, Captain Younghusband’s company, tried to defend a shoulder of Isandlwana itself, until lack of ammunition forced them to try and join the others on the saddle below. Here, the Zulus gradually broke up the British formations, throwing spears at them until gaps appeared, then rushing in with their stabbing spears. In the last moment of the battle, the killing achieved levels of primeval savagery, as soldiers, unable to escape, fought on with clubbed rifles, fists, knives, and even stones. “Those red soldiers”, recalled one warrior, “how few they were, and how they fought; they fell like stones, each man in his place”. Amidst the noise, smoke and confusion, nature added an apocalyptic touch of her own; there was a partial eclipse of the sun, and an eerie half-light passed over the battlefield.

Little is known of the fate of individual British officers. Durnford made a stand with a group of Natal Volunteers, trying to hold back the Zulu left; after the battle, his body was spotted among a clump of corpses there. There are several stories concerning the death of Pulleine; the most likely is that he died in the middle of a strong stand of the 24th which was overwhelmed on the saddle, where the 24th memorial stands today. Of the rest, including those who had drunk the toast to the memory of Chillianwallah a few days before, only odd glimpses remain, and they died in anonymity, like their men.

There had been 1700 men in the camp on the British side when the battle began; over 1300 were killed. To the Zulu, the shedding of so much blood demanded a gruesome purification ritual, and they disembowelled the enemy dead to allow their spirits safe passage to the after-life. Every warrior who had killed a man was required to remove some clothing from the body, and wear it until he had undergone the necessary cleansing ceremonies. Perhaps a thousand Zulus were killed in the immediate confines of the camp, and hundreds more would die a lingering death over the following months from horrific injuries caused by shell-fire or heavy calibre bullets. In the adrenaline rush of combat, the Zulus killed everything they came across, and the bodies of hundreds of transport oxen, horses, mules and even dogs were mixed up with the human corpses. Isandlwana had become a charnel house.

The majority of the last stands were over by about 3.30, though here and there isolated knots or individuals held out until much later. Once the focus of the fight had shifted to the Manzimnyama valley and the pursuit of the fugitives, the Zulus who had fought in the camp turned their attention to the great prize they had won. They carried away anything of military value they could find, smashing open boxes and ripping sacks in their search for ammunition and supplies. They looted the camp of the many fascinating artefacts the British had carried with them, and pulled down the tents, cutting up the canvas into easy strips to take away. By late afternoon, the great army had begun to retire back towards the Ngwebeni valley, where they had started the day, carrying their loot and their wounded with them. Friends and relatives of the dead dragged many of the corpses into the dongas which flow below the present site of the St. Vincent’s mission, and covered them over. Other corpses were simply left with their shields covering their faces in token burial. It would be months before the British returned to bury their dead, covering the bones with piles of stones, the origins of the cairns which are a conspicuous feature of the site today.

And Lord Chelmsford? He had arrived at Mangeni shortly after dawn that morning to find that the Zulu force which he sought had evaporated. He spent an exasperating day skirmishing with small pockets of warriors in the hills towards Siphezi mountain. Curious reports reached him throughout the day that something was happening at Isandlwana, but the camp had looked peaceful, shimmering in the mid-day haze, twelve miles away, and some trick of acoustics had prevented the sound of battle from reaching his command.

It was not until early afternoon that he became convinced that something had gone seriously wrong; by the time he had collected his command and marched back to Isandlwana, it was dusk. The battle was long over, and the last Zulus could just be seen retiring over the iNyoni heights. Chelmsford’s men reoccupied the camp in the darkness, stumbling over bodies in the devastation. There was worse to come; from the saddle, Lord Chelmsford looked back into Natal, to see the hill above Rorke's Drift - from where he had started the invasion just eleven days before - silhouetted with flame. The Zulus had indeed got behind him, and the post he had left to guard the crossing at Rorke's Drift was under attack.