When relations between Britain and the Zulus became strained during the latter half of 1878, Lord Chelmsford transferred his headquarters from the Cape Colony to Pietermaritzburg the capital of Natal. Steps were taken to strengthen the British forces, including the transfer of both battalions of the 24th Regiment from the eastern frontier.
In all, eight battalions of regular British troops were available, supported by several batteries of Royal Artillery and supplemented by mounted colonial volunteers, as well as Africans recruited in Natal (known as the Natal Native Contingent).
Lord Chelmsford’s 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, and to bring together the region’s disparate British ‘possessions’ – Boer republics and African kingdoms – under a single central British authority.
An ultimatum was issued to the Zulu army at the drift over the lower Tugela on 11 December 1878. It demanded that King Cetshwayo disband the system by which he 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 Sir Henry Frere had intended.
No reply was received and on 11 January 1879 a state of war was deemed to exist and Lord Chelmsford’s troops prepared to cross into Zululand.
A plan for the invasion of Zululand was prepared, the main objective was to occupy King Cetshwayo’s principle homestead at Ulundi by advancing on it from three directions.
No. 1 Column commanded by Colonel Pearson was to cross the lower Tugela river and advance towards Ulundi by way of Eshowe.
The main force, No. 3 Column, under Lord Chelmsford himself, advanced from Pietermaritzburg via Greytown to Helpmekaar. From here it was to enter Zululand at Rorke’s Drift (ford) and move eastwards to the royal kraal.
No. 4 Column, commanded by Colonel Evelyn Wood concentrated at Utrecht with the object of reaching Ulundi from the north-west.
In addition, two minor forces guarded the borders, No. 2 Column at Krantzkop, under Colonel Durnford to prevent the Zulus crossing the Tugela fords (drift) and No. 5 Column at Luneberg to safeguard the Transvaal which had been annexed by the British in 1877.
On 9 January the British army moved to Rorke’s Drift, and early on 11 January commenced crossing the Buffalo (Umzinyathi) River into Zululand.
On 12 January, Lord Chelmsford attacked the homesteads of Chief Sihayo kaXongo in the Batshe valley, which lay in his line of advance. This attack marked Lord Chelmsford down in King Cetshwayo’s eyes as the most dangerous of the three invading columns, and the majority of the amabutho army, a total of perhaps 23,000 men, were sent out from Ulundi on 17 January to attack him.
Lord Chelmsford’s advance was painfully slow in the aftermath of that first skirmish and it was not until 20 January that he was able to advance the few kilometres from Rorke’s Drift and set up camp at the foot of a distinctive rocky outcrop known as Isandlwana.
Because of the large size of his force and the difficult terrain, Lord Chelmsford did not fortify the camp, instead he relied on what he believed was his superior weapons and organisation. Though the British posted lookouts, these did not have a full field of view, so they sent out reconnaissance parties as well. Although these parties skirmished with some Zulus, they did not discover the full magnitude of the Zulu force, which consisted of numerous impis (regiments).
Once he had established camp at Isandlwana hill, Lord Chelmsford divided his army and set out to find the Zulus. He left the 1st battalion of the 24th Regiment behind to guard the camp, under the command of Colonel Henry Pulleine.
About mid-morning Colonel Anthony Durnford arrived from Rorke’s Drift. This put the issue of command to the fore because Durnford was senior and by tradition would have assumed command. However, he did not seem to have over-ruled Pulleine’s dispositions and after lunch he moved off with his mounted troopers to reconnoitre in front of the British positions leaving Pulleine in command.
While Lord Chelmsford was in the field seeking the Zulu army they attacked the British camp. Above the din of battle, which seemed to reverberate off the face of Isandlwana and echo around the valleys, 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!”.
Lekker Links
Rorke’s Drift VC
SAHistory online
BBC News: 125th anniversary
Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society
British Battles
Ian Knight’s Zulu battles website
Fugitives’ Drift Lodge
South African Military History Society Anglo-Zulu War 1879 overview
Battle of Rorke’s Drift 1879
Battle of Ulundi 1879
David Rattray, Anglo-Zulu War expert
King Cetshwayo
Pulleine’s 1,400 soldiers were totally overwhelmed. The Zulus took no prisoners and killed any they could, including Pulleine and Durnford.
Approximately 60 British regulars escaped, none of whom were wearing red coats (King Cetshwayo had specifically ordered his men to kill all the men wearing the red coats).
The surviving British soldiers were either officers wearing their dark blue field uniforms, troopers with the Royal Artillery (who wore light blue uniforms), or members of irregular cavalry units such as the Natal Mounted Police.
After the battle, the Zulus, as was their tradition, ripped open the dead bodies of their own men and those of their enemies to free the spirits.
Zulu Victory song sung after the Battle of Isandlwana
Thou great and mighty chief!
Thou who has an army.
The red soldiers came,
We destroyed them.
The mounted soldiers came,
We destroyed them.
The mounted police came,
We destroyed them.
When will they dare
To repeat their attack?
Lord Chelmsford, who was by now about 11km away had two indications that the camp was being attacked, but due to the hilly terrain had a poor view of the theatre of action. Unable to see anything amiss he apparently discounted both reports.
One of the standard orders for the British, when attacked in camp, was to loosen the guy ropes on the tents so that soldiers would not get tangled up in them. This was not done and the upright tents were visible in the field glasses of the young officers with Lord Chelmsford. Lord Chelmsford took this to be an indication that the camp was not under attack and that the shots which could be heard in the distance were firing practice.
Even when the Zulu main attack started it was assumed that the Zulu impi which could be seen chasing Colonel Durnford’s cavalry was the Natal Native Contingent being drilled.
Lord Chelmsford returned on the night of 22 January. Nearly 1,400 British and allied troops, together with a 2,000 Zulus, and the carcasses of hundreds of slaughtered oxen, horses, mules and dogs were strewn across the veld. 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.”
Lord Chelmsford’s troops were forced to bivouac amongst the battle dead. That night, as they rested at the foot of the Isandlwana rocky outcrop, they could hear the sounds and see the flames of battle at Rorke’s Drift.
Before first light Lord Chelmsford ordered his men to fall in and the column marched away from the bloody battlefield towards Rorke’s Drift.
Like most historical calamities, the British defeat at Isandlwana 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.
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 war with the Xhosa 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.
Almost overnight views of the part-time soldiers and herdsmen of a hitherto little-known African kingdom were transformed around the world into a powerful and enduring stereotype – alien, savage, and incomprehensible – which colours our understanding of Zulu history, culture and peoples even today.
Mutual respect
In January 2004 some 300 Zulu warriors dressed in leopard and cattle skins and armed with makeshift spears faced about 35 actors in red coats to re-enact the Battle of Isandlwana.
Click here to see a 12 second video

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