Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Isandlwana 1879

22 January 1879

Anglo-Zulu War

British: Lt. Gen. Lord Chelmsford, 1,897 men, 2 guns (at Isandlwana)--4,700 & 6 guns total in the #3 Column within ten miles.
Zulu: amaKhosi Ntshingwayo and Mavumengwana, about 25,000 men in 12 amabutho

Location: Isandlwana, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28.3586° S, 30.6514° E

Weather: Hot and muggy, rained night before.  Visibility: Overcast but clear. 

First Light:  0455  Sunrise:  0520 Sunset:  1858  End of Twilight: 1924
Moonrise: 0505   Moonset: 1903    New Moon

A partial solar eclipse started at about 1330, reaching maximum (75%) at 1429, ending at 1530. It is not known if anyone would have noticed given the overcast.  By its maximum the battle would have been about over anyway and the Zulu, had they noticed, may have thought it was a bad omen (umnyama) for the British.

All times UTC +2 (Bravo zone, Zulu +2)
(calculated from U.S. Naval Observatory from lat/long and date)

The African Little Bighorn

The Battle of Isandlwana, a glorious victory for the Zulu Nation in its fight against the invasion of white imperialists was one of the last ones it would enjoy. In many ways it was the Little Bighorn of South Africa, which itself had been fought just two-and-a-half years prior and saw the last victory of First Peoples of North America (Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho) over white invaders from the United States.

Both Isandlwana and Little Bighorn shared another characteristic: The outcome of both was the result of gross overconfidence and bad tactical judgment on the part of the white commanders (Custer and Chelmsford), chauvinistically underestimating their enemies and extending themselves thinly in the presence of an overwhelming, fearless, competent, and mobile force. Both commanders dismissed conventional military tactical prudence, believing that their enemies were so unsophisticated that normal precautions were unnecessary. Is that too harsh? Read on.

How did this war start?

A little background first. Like so many of Europe's colonial wars in the 19th century, the Anglo-Zulu War was manufactured by a plutocracy in Britain and  its Cape Colony in South Africa. The Union of South Africa, as a political entity, did not yet formally exist in 1878. The region consisted of four principle municipalities or states, the British-run colonies of the Cape and Natal, the Boer state of the South African Republic (Transvaal), and the Zulu Empire. The first three were ruled by Europeans (British and descendants of the original Dutch settlers in South Africa, the Boers), while the Zulu nation, founded some sixty years previously by Shaka Zulu (see my article on Gqokli Hill) was the most powerful indigenous political entity in Sub-Saharan Africa. The latter spanned most of the eastern part of today's South Africa.

The Europeans (both Boers and British) had gotten along fairly harmoniously with the Zulus (with the exception of a few border clashes between the Boers and the Zulu) for most of the century so far. Starting with the founder of the Zulu state, Shaka, the successive Zulu kings had even had British advisors on their advisory councils. And trade between the colonies and the kingdom had been, if not robust, at least steady. But the Zulu kingdom sat on top of land that the British were discovering was rich in mineral wealth, particularly gold, and quite recently, diamonds; wealth that the pastoral Zulu saw no need to exploit. Moreover, the economic vitality and future of the Cape and Natal Colonies depended on securing their geographic position astride the sea-route to India, Britain's true crown jewel. The opening of the Suez Canal provided the quickest route to India, but the nationalistic unrest in Egypt in recent years had revealed to the British that they needed a backup should the canal again be cut by another rebellion. This is where the stability of South Africa came in.

To aid in that effort, the Disraeli Government in London sent the renowned bureaucrat and diplomat Sir Henry Bartle Frere, fresh from his tour as governor of Bombay (now Mumbai) in India, to consolidate things in South Africa. As the telegraph didn't quite reach Cape Town then (dispatches took five to six weeks to reach the Cape from London), and as his mandate from the Home Office was, to say the least, vague,  Frere felt that he had a free hand. He got creative. And, to White Hall's irritation, he greatly exceeded his authority.

Sir Henry Bartle Frere
High Commissioner for Southern Africa

Looking quite regal. One cannot help
thinking he let his gold-lace and sashes
mess with his head.
His big idea was to confederate all of the political entities in the sub-continent (the Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal, Basutoland, the Orange Freestate, and Zululand) into one giant administrative entity, administered from Cape Town. This had been recently done in Canada with some success (1867) and he thought it was a great model for South Africa too. In this he had to convince the administration in Natal, as well as the extremely independent Boers, that it was in their best interests to let Britain handle their border security while they could go on in a semi-autonomous state, running their own internal affairs. The parsimonious Boers, while suspicious (rightly) of ulterior British motives, saw the economic advantage in this. Let the British fend off the Zulu and all the other migrating African clans. The Boers, for their part, were sparse in population and yet claimed vast swaths of territory for themselves, to the cost of local people. So it made sense to them, grudgingly, that the British were willing to take on the task of border security from the "encroaching" blacks. Typical white entitlement.

The Zulu, however, were harder to convince of the logic of this arrangement. They saw only the cost to themselves without any benefit. Their fourth king, Cetshwayo kaMpande who had come to the throne after a bloody coup six years before, ruled a monarchic state which was the largest and most powerful in southern Africa. The king saw no economic or political advantage in joining any kind of white-dominated confederation. Frere recognized that the Zulu, who were used to being the bull elephant (which was Shaka's actual nickname) in southeast Africa the past 60 years, and whose society was based on militaristic expansionism and hegemony, were not going to buy into this without some carrot or stick. Mostly stick. Frere smugly thought he could apply the same coercion to co-opt Cetshwayo and his indunas into the same power-sharing arrangement he had employed in India among the maharajahs. He would be wrong.
Cetshwayo kaMpande
Fourth King of the Zulu

portrait painted by Karl Rudolf Sohn in 1882
during the king's visit to Great Britain after the war.

Frere, as well as the Boers and many of his British colleagues, saw the Zulu as a threat too. Their militarism, their predatory heritage, and what the British saw as a brutal and authoritarian regime, needed to be tamed, if not gelded. To Frere, the populous Zulu people were just more potential low-wage workers ready to exploit for mining minerals like the gold and diamond deposits recently discovered in the Transvaal. As did many British colonialists of this era, Frere saw it as his mission to "civilize" these savages, converting them to a Christian and genteel (if submissive) station. And who knows what further mineral wealth could be discovered under the hills and dongas of Zululand?

But the High Commissioner couldn't just invade Zululand and conquer it. His employers in the Disraeli government had enough colonial wars to deal with as it was, and could not afford another elective one. Even Frere's imperialist attitude needed a moralistic and legal cover; greed was not an acceptable casus-belli--at least to the moralistic readers of the Times. There must be a provocation on the part of the target people to take action.

Traditions cause problems.

Conveniently—and flimsily—the provocation came in the form of a family dispute. Late in 1878 two wives of one of Cetshwayo's chiefs, Sihayo, had fled across the Buffalo River into Natal Colony with their lovers. Sihayo sent two of his sons and a party of warriors into Natal to bring them back. When the women were kidnapped and taken back across the Buffalo into Zululand, they were executed under Zulu law against adultery. Frere was publicly furious . But privately he was delighted at this gift of a provocation.  This cross-border violation was just the kind of threat living so close to a bloodthirsty, lawless, and savage people posed. It demonstrated to the world—or at least to sensitive English gentlefolk—the need to deal with this threat at once. He immediately sent a request to Cetshwayo to extradite the murderers back to Natal to stand trial.

Cetshwayo, who had no desire to antagonize the powerful British who had been the Zulu's friendly neighbors since the days of Shaka, demurred that the adulterous wives of Sihayo (an old political ally of his) were merely being punished according to long-standing Zulu law, which was administered on Zulu soil. It was merely a domestic situation and one on which the Zulu king saw his country's own sovereignty in its rights.

But there were other, biological, forces pressuring Cetshwayo. It was unappreciated by Frere (and he would not listen to British compatriots who knew the Zulu) that Cetshwayo was feeling strong pressure within his country from younger izinduna (plural of induna, "officer" or "head man") and their increasingly horny retainers who had not been allowed to marry because they had not the prerequisite Sula iZembe ("washing of the spears") in a war in years. Zulu tradition required that before a man could marry, he had to have personally killed an enemy in a war, proving his worthiness to head a family and sire offspring. But there hadn't been a war in Zululand for over a generation (homicide in family feuds didn't count as Sula iZembe; that was just a capital crime as it was in every culture). So the tradition was getting in the way of biological need, not to mention population growth. These tens of thousands of young, virgin* men clamored for war with the whites, whom they thought they could easily brush aside, and so earn the right to get their families started.

  • *An aside here. The young Zulu men weren't exactly virgins. Zulu culture, making a big accommodation to enforced celibacy until a war,  allowed young Zulus to fool around, so to speak, under a practice called ama hlay endela (ahem "the fun of the roads," as well as other euphemisms). They weren't Baptists, after all! They were just supposed to be careful not to get pregnant, which worked about as well as you can imagine. The founder of the Zulu Empire, Shaka, in fact, was supposed to have been conceived by an accident during ama hlay endela. Just thought you'd find that interesting.

    But where was I...?

Posing an alternate view, Cetshwayo's older izinduna, who formed the core of his advisory council, cautioned against such a war as potentially catastrophic for the country; they urged the king to offer the British a token of good faith and extradite Sihayo's sons. But the king feared that this would also incite a mutiny among his younger amabutho, his unbloodied and forcibly celibate regiments. It was a clash of young nationalism versus old pragmatism. And not a little bit of testosterone.

Frere was either not aware of this delicate position that Cetshwayo was in or simply ignored it. He haughtily summoned the king to a summit on the Natal-side banks of the Tugela River, the border with Zululand, to be held on 11 December 1878, so the two sides could negotiate a solution to this international misunderstanding. The High Commissioner and his jingoistic advisors thought they needed to at least have a fig leaf of diplomacy before they were going to do what they were going to do anyway.

The "summit" on the Tugela

Predictably, the Zulu sovereign was not about to obey the presumptuous summons of some foreign, colonial bureaucrat. But wishing to appear willing to avoid a confrontation, Cetshwayo did send a delegation of some of his most trusted, older izinduna. Ironically, the Zulu king was not as ignorant a savage as Frere himself and considered that appearing to try diplomatic solutions would strengthen his own case with his allies among the British, of whom he had many. Cetshwayo wanted to appear to be reasonable and no threat to his neighbors.

Frere, for his part, did not deign to attend, either, but sent his racist functionary, John Wesley Shepstone, (younger brother of the venerable and pro-Zulu statesman, Sir Theophilus Shepstone) and four "friendly" (i.e. anti-Zulu) Natal chiefs to the Tugela for the meeting.

The summit turned out to be no negotiating forum at all but a humiliating charade in which Shepstone read to the izinduna a list of arrogant and insulting ultimatums. These demands would effectively turn Cetshwayo into a compliant puppet, just as Frere had treated the maharajahs during his experience in India. The ultimatum laid out that Zululand was to become a British protectorate under British laws and Crown authority. The Zulu army was to be disbanded. Summary executions of Zulus without a proper trial were to stop. Zulus were to no longer need the king's or anyone's permission to marry. The king could issue no directives or orders without the co-approval of a British Resident assigned to Zululand. The issue of extraditing Sihayo's sons was far down the list of non-negotiable demands. Oh, and on this point, the whites threw in a "fine" of 600 cattle to add insult to injury. Cetshwayo had until 11 January (one month) to accept this ultimatum or hostilities would commence. There was no negotiation.

That's how you treat savages, Frere obviously thought.

Non-plussed, the izinduna attending the Tugela meeting claimed, diplomatically, that they themselves had no authority to accede to the ultimatum but would carry the document back to their monarch. When they got back to Cetshwayo's royal kraal at Ulundi, the king was greatly upset not just by the completely unacceptable ultimatum, but by this sudden aggressive attitude on the part of the British, with whom his people had been amicable neighbors for generations.

Cetshwayo's elderly advisors cautioned him against provoking this new British commissioner and suggested that they merely agree to the original extradition demand and turn over Sihayo's sons for trial in Natal (humiliating enough) and pay the 600 cattle fine, ignoring all the subsequent demands. This was the same strategy that John Kennedy used 84 years later in the Cuban Missile Crisis to avoid thermonuclear war with the Soviets: Agree to the original offer and ignore the later, escalated one. In this case, however, it wouldn't work.

On 11 January, the day the ultimatum was to expire, Cetshwayo sent word that he was ready to surrender the Sihayo boys and the cattle, but that he needed more time to consider the other demands. Nope, Frere replied. Time's up. And he ordered his military commander, Lt. Gen. Lord Frederick Thesiger Chelmsford, already having massed some 17,000 troops along the border,  to commence the invasion of Zululand.

For its part, the Disraeli government in London had no knowledge of these high-handed, unsanctioned actions on Frere's part. They had not yet authorized the creation of any "confederation" in southern Africa, and had certainly not authorized military action. At that very moment they were in the midst of trying to avoid a war with Russia in Afghanistan (doesn't this sound familiar?). But due to the slowness of communications with the Cape, and the precipitate speed of events, Whitehall didn't get word that their High Commissioner down there had got them into yet another expensive war until after the disaster at Isandlwana (sorry, that was a spoiler). The resulting war, which the Crown had neither wanted nor could afford, as well as the subsequent war later this same year with the Boers over Frere's presumptive annexation of the Transvaal, would cause the Disraeli government to fall. Frere would be fired by Gladstone's succeeding Liberal government early the next year and recalled to London to answer charges of misconduct, not just in South Africa but in his previous blunders in Afghanistan. By then it would be too late. Frere already created a military, political, economic, and human disaster. All by himself.

Once again in the West's long history of taking what belongs to other people,  a European power had moved to conquer and "civilize" an independent, indigenous state. While no Wakanda, the Zulu empire had for generations been one of the most stable, powerful, and self-sufficient states in Africa. It had posed no threat to its British colonial neighbors. Lately there had been a few small skirmish wars with the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, but these had been largely the result of Boer aggression on Zulu territory rather than vice-versa (the Boers, like their white counterparts in North America, tended to think that all land occupied by native peoples was theirs for the taking). But Frere and his expansionist party were made nervous by the large, standing Zulu army. Moreover, they were morally offended by what they perceived as capricious and barbaric justice practiced by the Zulu king and his izinduna. From Cetshwayo's point of view, however, that was entirely his own business and he saw a double-standard on the part of the British. He sent a message to Frere that he didn't seek to impose his laws and his will on British and Boer colonists; why was the white man seeking to do that to his people? Who was the barbarian?

The war machines cough to a start.

Even prior to the egregious ultimatum in December, Frere and his military commander, Chelmsford,  had been making preparations for invasion. Though Chelmsford had requested additional regular regiments from Whitehall, Disraeli's government had denied them, not wanting to get further regular British forces involved in what was, to them, a local police problem. The Government judged that Chelmsford and Frere had started this without their approval, let them figure out how to fight this war with the troops and resources they had on hand.

With the addition of garrison troops from the Cape, Chelmsford had only about 7,000 regular troops available throughout southern Africa. These included the 3rd, 4th, 13th, 24th, 80th, 90th, and 99th regiments of foot, a total of nine battalions. The British regular troops had recently been issued with breech-loading Martini-Henry rifles, which would prove to be highly effective--well, other than at Isandlwana.

 The Martini-Henry .45 cal. breech-loading rifle, principle arm of the British infantry. Though it was sited out to 1,800 yards, the large caliber caused its rounds to lose velocity quickly, reducing its effective range to about 400 yds (367 m). Rate of fire about 12 rpm. Because of the flimsy foil cartridges it was also prone to frequent jamming. It also quickly overheated in combat; veterans would wrap the muzzle in wet cowhide to avoid burning their hands.

The primary source of intelligence at the time was light cavalry, but Chelmsford had no regular cavalry and had to rely on a collection of volunteer mounted contingents, European colonist farmers who could ride and shoot.There were also available some experienced native cavalry, trained and armed by Colonel Anthony Durnford, a brilliant field commander and one of the few British officers who admired and respected the Basuto and other tribal men who rode for him. The result was a regiment of very competent light cavalry, probably the best and most reliable troops in Chelmsford's entire army. But they were only about 250 altogether. In all, Chelmsford could count on only about 1,000 cavalry, which he desperately needed for scouting, screening, and intelligence collection in the terra-incognita of Zululand. He did, however, thanks to quite a few Zulus disaffected with Cetshwayo and the--shall we say--controversial way he came to power, have a number of spies at Ulundi, the royal kraal, who got word to him of the movement and strength of all the regiments of the Zulu army. So he wasn't exactly blind.

Lord Frederic Thesiger Chelmsford
Frere's commander and co-conspirator
To fluff out his force, Chelmsford was also compelled to to rely on about 7,000 native warriors recruited from various tribes in Natal and even Zululand, thrown together into ad hoc battalions, called, collectively, the Natal Native Contingent (NNC). These were officered by white colonial volunteers, only some of whom spoke Bantu, and who, for the most part, had contempt for their native African allies. Some of NNC companies were actually Zulus themselves, led by their own izinduna, who had split with Cetshwayo (whose accession had not been universally acknowledged within Zululand and came with considerable bloodshed). These Zulu units were regarded as steadier and better fighters than the other Bantu companies. One NCC regiment (the 1st) trained by Col. Durnford, who showed respect to them and who treated and led them like professional soldiers, also showed more steadiness. Originally, the NNC were supposed to be armed and trained with breech-loading rifles and clothed in red coats. However, Chelmsford just didn't have the money to do this and so the NNC troops mustered with only their hide shields and spears, and, except for the red cloth wrapped around their heads to distinguish them (theoretically) in battle, looking exactly like their Zulu enemies.

Westley Richards carbine, or "monkey tail", carried by Durnford's cavalry

But the greatest problem facing Chelmsford wasn't fighting men, it was logistics. The biggest cost and bother of mounting a campaign in this undeveloped part of the world, without roads or railroads, was getting provisions to his men. To do this, he had to contract thousands of teams of oxen from local Boers. Oxen were deemed far more efficient than horses because, though far slower, they were more self-sufficient grazers and didn't need to carry their own feed. They could also haul more per beast than a horse. But word got out quickly among the Boer farmers and the price per team (which included the humans driving each one) quickly sky-rocketed. And because of their slowness and the dependency of the European troops on daily supply, it meant that Chelmsford couldn't exactly mount a blitzkrieg type invasion of Zululand.The wagons supplying just the central column of his invasion (at Rorke's Drift across the Buffalo River) numbered 302 alone, pulled by over 1,500 oxen.
H company of the 1st/24th Foot, photographed at the beginning of the campaign.
All would be killed at Isandlwana.

The Zulu Army

On the Zulu side, mobilization wasn't easy either. The Zulu army, totaling perhaps 40,000, while well organized as any European army, was essentially a citizen force; each soldier was also a farmer. Essentially it was a militia. And the timing of Frere's ultimatum, coming as it did in the middle of January, also happened to be just before harvest season for the Zulus (summer in the Southern Hemisphere).  Fortunately, the first part of January had seen heavy rain in southern Africa, which had delayed the harvest. But a mobilized army could not be maintained indefinitely, so once Cetshwayo called for the bulk of his amabutho (regiments) to assemble at his kraal at Ulundi, he had only two or three weeks to deploy them before they'd have to disband to go back and cut grain. Besides the fighting men, too, each ibutho also employed an almost equal number of boys and women (iziNdibi) to accompany it with provisions. Logistics dominated Zulu operations as much as they did the British. The Natal countryside wasn't exactly an Eden for living off the land.

Cetshwayo sent word to his northern and southeastern izinduna (commanding officers, sing. induna) to mass their own amabutho where they were, anticipating attacks from those ends of his kingdom. His strategy was to hit the center British column first, and then move to reinforce each wing in turn "to eat up" the rest of the invaders.
Zulu soldiers photographed during 1879. Actually, while these may have been Zulus, the red cloths tied around their heads (called "puggaree") indicates that they were probably NNC. But aside from that the dress and weapons would have been the same. Note that they carried both the isiJula (light throwing spear) and the longer bladed kKlwa (short stabbing spear). Some have smaller ceremonial shields while others are carrying the large war shields, isiHulanga. Full regimental regalia would have included distinctive feathered head dress and fur ornamentation, but these were only worn for ceremonial occasions. For combat they would have gone more practical, stripped down for action, as in this photograph.
The organization of the Zulu military was as sophisticated as any in the world. Like the British establishment, it was based on the regiment...or the equivalent of a regiment. This system had been intrinsic to Bantu culture for centuries; Shaka Zulu, the founder of the Zulu Empire, had merely refined it in 1819. Each army (or Impi) was composed of a number of regiments (amaButho-- singular iButho) of anywhere from several hundred to several thousand, founded upon generational lines. As each birthyear of boys was initiated into adulthood, it was officially inducted into an ibutho, in which the members served for life. Each ibutho was subsequently composed of companies called amaViyo (singular iViyo), though there was no set number per regiment. Depending on its size, an ibutho could have a handful or several dozen amaviyo.

Arming the Zulu army, though, was not nearly as complicated as for the British. The principle arm of a Zulu soldier was the short stabbing spear, the iKlwa (misnamed an assegai by the British), which, like the Roman gladius, was designed for close combat. After stabbing his opponent to death with his iklwa, he was supposed to shout "Ngadla!" or "I have eaten!" to announce that he was now a man and, presumably, could marry. He was also supposed to disembowel the stabbee to allow the victim's spirit to escape, otherwise it would haunt the killer.
  • Interestingly--and gruesomely--the Zulu name "iklwa" (pronounced with a clicking sound) was onomatopoetic in that it duplicated the sucking sound of a spear being withdrawn from a wound. Gross, huh?
In his other hand the Zulu warrior carried a large, five foot long leather war shield, isiHlangu, which would stop a thrown spear but which was also used as a battering weapon and one with which to parry the thrust of another spear (or bayonet) and expose the enemy's flank to an iklwa thrust. In this way it was used tactically as the ancient Romans had used their scuta shields. Originally, each ibutho had a shield of a particular pattern and color made from the cattle who were sorted and assigned to that ibutho so that the unit had a uniform look in the battle line. However, due to several years of a devastating cattle disease (bovine pleuro-pneumonia), the herds of Zululand had been decimated and regiments were compelled to supplement with whatever shields they could assemble.

Other weapons were a throwing spear, the isiJula, and the iWisu, or war club, used for bashing in the brains of an opponent or finishing off a wounded man.

Some of the Zulu did have firearms. These were mostly in the form of antique smoothbore or rifled muskets. Ammunition was not plentiful and marksmanship was therefore not, shall we say, particularly lethal. The rifle was not considered a manly weapon and it was mostly used for harassment prior to an all-out charge. Often, after a soldier had fired his musket, he would discard it and move in with his iklwa for more manly combat. However, that's not to say that Zulu musketry was entirely innocuous; many of the casualties at Isandlwana came from Zulu firearms. But a Zulu would not get credit for sula izembe (spear washing) if he merely killed an enemy with a gun.

(For more detailed explanation of Zulu fighting techniques, visit my prior article on Shaka Zulu's first battle, Gqokli Hill. But come back!)


Not waiting to give Cetshwayo the benefit of the doubt in responding to the deadline on the ultimatum, Chelmsford led his forces across the Buffalo River (Mzinyathi) into Zululand at dawn on 11 January. A Saturday. The morning started foggy and drizzly. Though summer, this was the height of the rainy season in South Africa.

His strategic plan was to attack Zululand from three directions, spanning a front of 120 miles from the mouth of the Tugela on the coast, up to its tributary, the Buffalo, to the border with the Transvaal and the Buffalo's tributary, the Blood (Ncome). The central and southern columns were to converge on the capital, Ulundi, while the third column blocked the north, preventing Cetshwayo from escaping or his impis from launching a counter-invasion of Natal. Frere's and Chelmsford's biggest fear was that Cetshwayo would launch a counter-invasion somewhere along the undefended border into Natal or Transvaal. So Chelmsford had to cover all the possible crossing points of the Tugela and Buffalo rivers.

The southernmost British prong was under the command of Col. C.K. Pearson with 4,750 troops (more than half of which were Natal Native Contingent auxiliaries), which was to cross the Lower Tugela at the Lower Drift close to the coast (the site of the unfortunate summit the month before) and make its way up the 91 miles (146 km) to Ulundi via Eshowe (see strategic First Invasion map below)

The center, main thrust was ostensibly under the command of Col. Richard Glyn, commanding officer of the 24th Foot (2nd Warwickshire) with 4,700 people, of which the majority were NNC and volunteer cavalry, and only about 800 Imperial infantry. Since Chelmsford accompanied this force, Glyn's command was moot and he accompanied Chelmsford during the subsequent battle. The plan was for this part of the invasion to proceed across the Buffalo at Rorke's Drift (about 80 miles up river from the Lower Drift) and head 72 miles (116 km) due east toward Ulundi, wary of the main Zulu impi which was expected to pop up anywhere along the route. Chelmsford's intelligence told him that the main impi was already massed at Ulundi but hadn't left yet.

The northern wing of the invasion was under Col. Evelyn Wood, crossing into Zululand from Utrect with about 4,000 men. Wood's mission was to basically guard the northern flank and the disputed border between Zululand and the Transvaal State

Chelmsford also assigned Col. Durnford and his 500 experienced Basuto troops to watch the Middle Drift of the Tugela between Pearson and the central column (see strategic map). However, just prior to the invasion Durnford was ordered to take the bulk of his command north and join Chelmsford in the central force, leaving just two battalions of his NNC infantry to watch the Middle Drift. It took him a little while to do this but he and his men got to Isandlwana by the 22nd .

Another small "picket" force under Col. Rowland was posted north of Wood, near Luneburg to watch the border with Swaziland. The British were worried that the Swazis might throw in an opportunistic blow for the Zulus (but mostly for themselves).

Though Chelmsford had almost 17,000 troops total, much of his force was siphoned off to guard rear depots (like Helpmakaar, Greytown, and Dundee) and man makeshift forts at the crossings (like Rorke's Drift and at the Lower Drift). So his actual striking arm was only about 13,000.

Ntshingwayo kaMahole
inKhosi of the Main Impi
and family.
Photo taken after the war.

Cetshwayo's Strategy

On Zulu side, about the 17th, Cetshwayo, hearing of the crossing of the Tugela and the Buffalo, sent off his main impi of 25,000 men in 12 amabutho under his veteran indunas, Ntshingwayo and Mavumengwana, from Ulundi due west to Isandlwana. He bade them take the journey easy so as not to tire the men (Cetshwayo was a much more humane ruler than his great uncle Shaka had ever been.) His orders to Ntshingwayo were to hide his impi and look for an opportunity to ambush Chelmsford's central corps as it was strung out on the march. But he also was adamant that they only attack in broad daylight, which was the only honorable way for the Zulu to fight.  While he wanted to win, obviously, he was also very conscious of appearing to be honorable in anticipated negotiations. So fighting fair was paramount.

To deal with the southern invasion from Pearson's column, the king sent five more amabutho (6,000 men) under the induna Godide (who went on to found the web building company...just kidding) to intercept the British at the drift near the abandoned kraal at Gingindlovu, laying another ambush.

To the north, he sent word to the induna of the Olusi, Msebe, to just watch the British in that sector and to hold fast until he could send his main force up to assist him in wiping out Wood, if need be.

Cetshwayo's strategy was to inflict on Chelmsford such a blow that the British would wake up to the foolishness of their ultimatums and sit down to talk peace. He had no intention, as Bartle-Frere and Chelmsford feared, of invading Natal himself. In fact, he gave specific instructions that under no circumstances were any Zulus to cross the Buffalo or Tugela rivers into Natal. He wanted to appear as only defending his homeland, much as the Sioux and Chevenne at Little Big Horn wanted to appear as only in defending theirs. So there were to be no provocations or counter-invasions, even though his own country had been invaded itself, with kraals burned and cattle confiscated.

Chelmsford's invasion got underway extremely slowly. At Rorke's Drift, the Buffalo was in spate and the water up to a man's neck. There were only two punts built to ferry the infantry and guns across the water. The cavalry, the wagons, and the native infantry waded. The latter employed the Zulu technique of linking arms and crossing en masse; in this way, if one were to lose his footing, all the others could hold him up. (See my post on Gqokli Hill about this technique.) Unfortunately one of the battalions attempting this broke up midstream and several warriors were carried away and drowned. It took a whole day for the bulk of the force to get on the Zulu bank of the river.

Sihayo, the induna whose sons had provided the provocation for the war in the first place, had his kraal (farm) a couple of miles up from the river. He himself and some of his sons were with the main impi up at Ulundi. But a couple hundred of his men harassed the British from the surrounding hills. Chelmsford decided to give himself an easy first victory by launching at attack on this kraal, which, except for the handful of Zulu skirmishers, was undefended. There were a few dozen Zulu dead and only three slightly wounded British (well, actually, one was a Swiss policeman, who went back to the field hospital at Rorke's Drift and made himself a hero on the 23rd). The kraal was burned, all the women, children, and old people had already fled, and all the cattle were confiscated. A glorious start to this war.

There was another thunderstorm that night, as there had been every night so far since mid-December.

Chelmsford's itinerary was to head eastward from here, making his next camp at the bluff of Isandlwana about eight miles on. He had two months of supplies to get the seventy-some miles to Ulundi. But the terrain between Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana was swampy and, due to the recent rains, in desperate need of a corduroy road to move his heavy wagons over. This his engineers and their NNC laborers worked on for a week, holding up everything. So it wasn't a racing start out of the blocks.

In the meantime, Chelmsford sent what cavalry patrols he had eastward to try and find the main Zulu impi, which his spies informed him was massing at Ulundi. On the 13th he and his staff moved up north toward Wood to meet that commander halfway and share what intelligence they each had from their sectors. They too had nothing. The Zulu weren't exactly defending their border in force.

Hearing of the invasion, and the burning of his friend Sihayo's kraal, Cetshwayo correctly calculated that the center British column at Rorke's Drift was the main threat. On the 17th, after suitable cleansing rituals, he ordered his main impi of 25,000 west to intercept Chelmsford. Its commander-in-chief, Ntshingwayo, was given strict orders to march in a leisurely way so as not to tire his men, to sneak up on the British and catch them strung out, and, as mentioned before, not attack at night. Ntshingwayo was also ordered under no circumstances to cross the Buffalo River to invade Natal. There must be no further provocations of the whites. The king also sent smaller impis to the south and north to stall the other two main British columns for long enough that the center could be destroyed. It was a very shrewd strategy. But the Zulu did not become the most powerful empire in southern Africa by being idiots.

View of the shoe-shaped bluff looking west. The sky, when this particular photo was taken (from Google Earth) would have probably looked very similar on 22 January 1879. It had rained nearly every night that month and the days were mostly overcast.

What a lovely a camp site!

The plain to the east of Isandlwana was considered ideal for a camp.  There were good lookout positions on top of the mountain itself, as well as from the Nqutu escarpment to the north which could give views of miles of open terrain. Any attacking force could be seen for an hour or more and would be exposed for at least half-an-hour to withering fire from the camp. There was water close by in the dongas (sunken streambeds), and scrub wood for fuel, The only real disadvantage was that the ground was too hard and stony to dig trenches easily. And the troops were not issued enough shovels at any rate to dig them.

The shoe-shaped hill, Isandlwana, (pronounced, approximately, ee-SAND-luh-WAH-nah) was a Zulu word describing the way it looked to them, a culture without shoes. Depending on the dictionary, it means either a small hut or the second stomach of a cow. (Did I mention that the Zulu were cattle ranchers?) Several memoires and letters describe the place as a beautiful site for a camp. And if you didn't plan on getting massacred, it would have been a nice place to pitch a tent and spend the weekend.

By the 19th, the roads to Isandlwana from Rorke's Drift were sufficiently prepared to start moving the army to this new campsite.  The tents were laid out on the sloping (and relatively dry) ground on the east side of the mountain. The 300 odd wagons were parked behind (when they weren't being used to shuttle supplies from Rorke's Drift). The Boer adviser attached to Chelmsford's staff strongly advised him to laager his wagons around the camp, that is, to park them, tongue into axle, so as to form a mobile fort surrounding the camp. The Boers, who had been fighting in South Africa for generations, knew that this was the only adequate defense against a Zulu attack. But Chelmsford dismissed this advice on the grounds that it would have taken too long and he had no intention of staying at Isandlwana for more than a night or two at most. With his limited stockpile of supplies he needed to get to Ulundi as soon as possible. He was also confident that the firepower of his Imperial infantry with their quick firing Martini-Henrys would be enough to stop any Zulu charge across the wide open plain.

Lt. Col. Henry Burmester Pulleine
His first and last field command. An excellent
administrator with a long service record, he
had never led troops in combat until Isandlwana.

Chelmsford was already thinking of his next stop, about ten miles further to the east. Before dawn on the 22nd, as his men were just snugging down in their tents next to Isandlwana, he took half his troops up and took them on a reconnaissance-in-force to find the next suitable stopping place and look for the main impi. His spies in Ulundi had informed him that the impi had left the royal kraal five days before (the 17th) and it would have conceivably been lurking nearby by now. Indeed, his volunteer cavalry screen had reported large bands of Zulu in the hills, and had even chased them from hill to gully to hill. But the main impi had yet to be discovered. He took Col. Glyn and five companies of the 2nd/24th with him and left Lt.Col. Henry Pulleine, acting commander of the 1st/24th in command at Isandlwana. He also sent an order to Col. Durnford, with his 500 native cavalry and infantry, to hustle up from Rorke's Drift to reinforce Pulleine.

Meanwhile, by the night of the 21st the main Zulu army had reached the vicinity of Isandlwana and quietly crept into a canyon of the Ngwebini river just three miles (five kilometers) to the northeast of the new British camp, behind the Mabaso hill (see map below). The amabutho were instructed to make no fires to give away their position. Because the 22nd was a new moon, it was inauspicious for the Zulu to attack in the morning, it being considered a time of umnyama, or evil omen. Ntshingwayo wanted his army to rest, eat, make the ritual preparations, and then attack the British camp on the 23rd, when the spiritual signs were better. Though they were not allowed to have any campfires, the men did enjoy some Cannabis sativa (according to Laband), which was something that Zulu warriors had traditionally smoked to calm their nerves just before a battle. As I said, these people weren't Baptists.
One of Cherlmsford's 302 wagons. You can see why it would have been
difficult to laager these. They are as big as trucks

Prior to this, two local izinduna, Matshyana kaMondisa (son of Mondisa) and Matshyana kaSitshakuza, with about 2,000 of their own retainers, had been making a loud and dramatic show of force about ten miles to the east with the object of misleading the British. There is evidence (also cited by Laband) that there had been a meeting between the Matshyanas and Ntshingwayo to devise this plan of misdirection, which the Zulu had been masters of in their generations of warfare. Chelmsford's reconnaissance detachment under Maj. John Dartnell had run up against the Matshyanas and even sustained casualties. To him, it seemed as though he had found the main impi and sent to Chelmsford for reinforcements. Indeed, the Matshyanas had deployed their warriors in the classic buffalo chest and horns formation, the iMpondo Zankomo, and demonstrated aggressively as if they were the main army.  The night of the 21st these izinduna cleverly spread their men out and lit many campfires to simulate a much larger army. This was also an old Zulu strategic trick. The reports apparently convinced Chelmsford that Dartnell had probably found the main Zulu impi, and confirmed his determination to move further east to engage and draw them into a decisive battle. That the Zulu had outwitted him had not crossed his chauvinistic mind.

But he was right about one thing: There was to be a decisive battle soon.

Situation at Isandlwana about 1130. Discovery of the main Zulu impi.

Hel-lo! Were these the Zulus you were looking for?

As Chelmsford set out with half his force at 0330 on the 22nd, he wasn't completely convinced that the Zulu demonstrations he was chasing were the main impi. But wanted Pulleine to have as much force at the camp as was available just in case. He probably wouldn't need it, though. In his opinion, the camp at Isandlwana was such a strong position that Pulleine, with some 1,400  troops (600 of them Imperial infantry), would easily be able to defend it, even against an attack by the main impi. But, just to give him all the forces he could, he sent for Col. Durnford at Rorke's Drift to come up with his 500 NNC horse and foot. Chelmsford had a hunch that the reports of large numbers of Zulus his detachments had reported, while not the main impi, were nevertheless an sign that it was fairly close. His own foray was not so much a reconnaissance in force as a leap-frogging move to establish a new camp ten miles closer to his ultimate goal of Ulundi. And he wanted to set up an equally defensible position there, bringing up the rest of the column the next day. He thought the main Zulu army would seek him out there for a decisive battle.

Durnford, getting the order about 0530, got his men up, saddled, and headed for Isandlwana, getting there about 1030. He considered that, since he was a full colonel and Pulleine merely a brevet lieutenant colonel, the overall command of the camp devolved upon him--not to pull rank or anything. Pulleine protested that Chelmsford's orders said no such thing, but Durnford was adamant. In fact Chelmsford didn't trust Durnford because of some previous unauthorized initiative on his part, shall we say. He didn't know what to do with him and definitely made it clear to Pulleine that he and not Durnford was in command, in spite of the latter pulling rank. While the two officers were chest-butting, reports came in from the pickets up on the Nqutu escarpment of hundreds of Zulu scouts and foragers sighted to the northeast. From Durnford's own long experience fighting Bantu tribes in the past, he had a hunch that where there were foragers, there was probably an impi nearby.

So at 1100 he solved Pulleine's problem of authority by taking a company of his NNC infantry, his  tiny rocket detachment (ten men) and his Basuto cavalry troops off on his own reconnaissance-in-force eastward to find the impi. He also ordered two his adjutant, Capt. Theophilous Shepstone Jr. (Sir Theophilus' eldest son and nephew to the racist John Shepstone who had started this whole mess) to take two of his Zikali cavalry troops under Lieutenants Raw and Roberts to sweep the plateau above the escarpment to push the Zulu scouts down toward him. He had tried to commandeer two companies of the 1st/24th but Pulleine vetoed this (as they were his own). Durnford, nevertheless, told him to support his own force in its eastward fieldtrip should he get into trouble. Not the most prudent of officers, Durnford.

I have no idea what Durnford expected to do with his tiny force of 400 men should he run up against the main impi, which Chelmsford's pretty accurate intelligence estimated at 25,000. But at about 1130 his three horse troops were over three miles east of the camp, chasing after isolated bands of Zulu boys herding their family cows. His little rocket detachment and a company of NNC trailed about a mile, probably feeling like they were being left behind. The way he split up his force in his wide sweep reminded me of the same way that the equally arrogant and impetuous George Armstrong Custer split up his own tiny force at Little Big Horn over two years before, also thinking that he would simply "round up" thousands of well-armed Indians. What were these guys thinking?

Back at the camp Pulleine had "Assembly" called, with all the troops lining up with their kit (including seventy rounds each) in front of the tents. He sent up a company of 1st/24th (A) to fan out on the top of the plateau north of Isandlwana, relieving E company which had been there since the early morning and came back down to camp to eat something.  He had also posted a couple companies of NNC farther up on the plateau to warn of any Zulu movement from the northeast.

Shepstone, with Lieutenants Raw and Roberts, in the meantime, were trotting with their Zikali horse over the rolling plain above the escarpment after the retreating Zulu scouts. Raw spotted some boys herding cows and galloped after them to the top of a hill called Mabaso. At the top his point man yanked up his reins and began pointing frantically into the gorge below. When Raw and Shepstone caught up to him, the hairs on their necks undoubtedly stood straight up, for as far down the valley as he could see in both directions were tens of thousands of Zulu. They had stumbled upon the main impi.
Still from movie, Zulu Dawn (1979), when the Zikali Horse discover the main Zulu impi in the Ngwebini ravine.

  • I couldn't help but imagine, too, that just before Raw's men crested the Mabaso, they must have also gotten a terrific whiff of 25,000 people smoking pot. Relaxing with cannabis was, aparently, a long tradition among the Zulu, particularly after a long march or to calm their nerves before a battle. Had this been a century later, Chelmsford's scouts might have assumed a rock festival was nearby. Okay, that's an unprofessional digression...

The Zulu down in the gorge saw him too, silhouetted on the brow of the hill. The nearest ibutho, the iKhandempemvu (also known as the umCijo), rose up spontaneously, shouted their war cry in unison, and started pounding up the hill toward them. Raw's men fired a couple of volleys and then turned and galloped back down the hill the way they had come. Shepstone, instead of sending a messenger, took it upon himself to abandon his command and go back and deliver it himself to headquarters. He probably shouted back to Raw, "I'm going for help! You hold 'em back!" Or something to that effect.

The entire Zulu impi started moving like an avalanche. Seeing their neighbors in the iKhandempemvu start to charge, the next nearest amabutho joined close behind and started running toward Isandlwana. Ntshingwayo, furious, could not restrain them. Remember, he wanted to wait until the following day to launch his attack. He was only able to hold in check the more senior regiments of the Undi Corps, the uThulwana, iNdlondlo, uDloko and iNdluyengwe. Eventually, as the entire rest of the impi was swarming south and west, he decided the battle was on and might as well join it, so after some ritual ceremony, he got his Undi Corps lined up to follow after the rest. He must have reasoned that if he had delayed a day, he might have missed the opportunity to ambush the British. New moon omens be damned.

Raw and Roberts conducted a well-ordered withdrawl, stopped their troops periodically to dismount and fire volleys at the oncoming horde to try and slow them down. These Basuto cavalry, remember, were probably some of the best and most disciplined men in the British force; they fought a dogged retreat.  Though there were only about a hundred of them, they at least caused the Zulu to stop and fall to the ground before each volley.  The Zulu weren't suicidal kamikaze; they could tell when they were about to receive a volley and none of them wanted to die. Lieutenant Raw had sent a galloper back to Pulleine to tell him of his awesome discovery and of the avalanche coming toward the camp.

It would only have taken the leading amabutho of the isiFuba ("chest") Corps (uNonkenke, iKhandempemvu, and uMbomambi) about fifty minutes to reach the top of the Nqutu escarpment, two-and-a-half miles away. There they would have had their first sight of the British white tents all arranged neatly below them.  They stopped to catch their breath. As their indunas got them into their battle formations, they began their menacing ingomane (shield banging and rhythmic, baritone singing) to strike fear into the hearts of the redcoats (see also my article on Gqokli Hill for a discussion of this psychological warfare technique, which can also be seen-heard in the movies Zulu and Zulu Dawn. Of course, it is almost a universal human practice, as who hasn't attended a college football game or soccer match that hasn't heard a version of it?).

The Zulus' view from the Nqutu Escarpment toward Isandlwana.

Farther east, the left uPondo ("horn") of the impi, composing the uVe and iNgobamakhosi amabutho, about 9,500 of the youngest warriors in the kingdom, had meanwhile headed south around the low hill called Itusi to sweep around the eastern flank of the camp. In so doing, they ran into Durnford's spread-out cavalry, Lt. Nourse's single NNC infantry company, and Russell's forlorn little rocket troop. These latter, standing on a little hill all alone, managed to get off maybe two erratic rockets before they were overrun and speared (three survived, miraculously, by playing dead). Nourse managed to rally a few of his NNC to make a fighting retreat back to camp. Durnford's two cavalry troops (Hlubi and Edendale) conducted the same kind of fighting retreat Raw and Roberts were making on the plateau and kept back the oncoming uVe regiment, setting up a firing line inside the Nyogane Donga as a natural defensive trench.

To the west, the right Zulu uPondo (uDududu, iMbubi, and iSangqu) had jogged behind Mkwene Hill and the isiFuba Corps on the escarpment, to filter down the western flank of Isandlwana and come at the camp from behind, cutting off escape.

Ntshingwayo had detailed off his reserve, the Undi Corps, (uThulwana, iNdlondlo, uDloko and iNdluyengwe regiments) under its induna Prince Dabulamanzi (Cetshwayo's half-brother) to range far west and south and block any fugitives from trying to cross the Buffalo River at Rorke's Drift. Dabulamanzi was reminded to stay on this side of the river, per Cetshwayo's orders, and not, under any circumstances, to invade Natal. We'll see how that worked out.

Ntshingwayo and Mavumengwana themselves, with their staff of izinduna, took position behind the isiFuba Corps on top of the Nqutu escarpment to try, as best they could, to control the battle from there. Though given the impetuosity of their enthusiastic amabutho, both generals probably felt there was little either could do to control anything other than to direct their broad movements. The warriors were going to end this today and that was that.

This map shows the positions of all troops at the time of the full deployment of the Zulu center and left wings. Once they were deployed, the amabutho would have been in regular lines of 12-20 ranks, each man standing about six feet apart. Their actual footprint is demonstrated here. The British companies would have been in open order, also six feet apart, but in a single line. 

Pulleine sets up his defense.

About 1145, when the breathless Shepstone reached the camp with the news that the main Zulu impi had been found and was now rumbling toward Isandlwana at a run, Pulleine quickly started deploying his command. They jumped up from their breakfasts, grabbed their rifles, slung on their ammunition pouches, and fell in. Inexplicably, in the excitement, Pulleine seems to have failed to recall the isolated A company and Barry's NNC company up on the plateau and before anyone in the camp could see the Zulu hordes, everyone heard firing from up there. (To be fair, since everyone involved was soon killed and there weren't any records of written orders found on the battlefield, Pulleine may well have sent orders to recall the pickets.) Nevertheless, soon A company and the NNC began to fall back down the spur to the Isandlwana mountain, firing at something behind them. And shortly after, the crest of the escarpment began to grow a beard of Zulus.

The main threat to the camp seemed to be from the escarpment to the north, and as Zulus started appearing in great numbers on the crest, Pulleine organized his line from the spur north of Isandlwana following the Big Donga to the right, which acted as a natural trench. On his right he posted G company of 2nd/24th (the only company of that battalion that hadn't marched with Chelmsford that morning) in echelon and facing east, alone with a company of 3rd NNC under Londsdale. Raw's and Roberts' Zikali horse had fallen back from the plateau after their long running battle and took up position in the center, along with a third Zikali troop (Vause's) which had recently arrived having escorted Durnford's baggage from Rorke's Drift.

Supporting his line Pulleine had the two 7 pounder guns that Chelmsford had left him unlimbered to commence firing on the plateau. These were largely ineffective against the Zulu at this range, who were still in open order. Whenever the warriors saw a puff of smoke from the guns they had at least three seconds to hit the deck before the round arrived (muzzle velocity of the 7 pdr mountain gun was a languorous 295 m/s and the range to the escarpment was over 1,000 meters, about 3 seconds away) someone would see the puff, shout "uMoya! (the Wind!") and people would duck. It was all mad fun.

View northeast from British line toward Nqutu escarpment.

At 1215 Pulleine dictated a message to Chelmsford:
"Heavy firing to left of our camp. Cannot move camp at present. Shepstone has come in for reinforcements and reports the Basutos [Raw and Roberts horse] are falling back. The whole force at camp turned out and fighting about a mile to left flank."
The part about not being able to move the camp was in reference to an order just arrived from Chelmsford to pack up and join him at once. The Commander-in-Chief would not get Pulleine's reply until about 1445, and, when he read it, it did not seem to him that the tone indicated a dire situation. It would be the last message Pulleine would send.

Though he had only six Imperial infantry companies, in the standard tactic of the time when fighting "savages", Pulleine had them deploy in open order (about six feet between men) to maximize their frontage. Chelmsford, in fact, had stipulated this standard deployment while in Zululand before he left. The rate of fire (about 10 rpm) of the Martini-Henry rifle was such that a firing line, even so extended, could lay down an almost impenetrable weight of fire so that nothing moving within about 400 yards could live. Each man had seventy rounds on him, and the regimental ammunition wagons were brought up close behind, so as long as the men kept their cool and picked their targets carefully they could theoretically stop anything coming at them over the open ground. Some of the companies also got into the donga in front of the camp, which acted as a natural defensive trench and helped steady their aim.

A company of the Natal Native Contingent.
At this stage of the war these troops were armed almost identically to the Zulu. In fact, many of them were anti-Cetshwayo Zulu. Their only distinguishing feature was a red cloth ("puggree") tied around their heads. During the second invasion later in the year, they would receive red coats and actual rifles.
Unfortunately, some of the troops, namely the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), were not so armed. Many were disaffected Zulus themselves, armed identically to their foes (iklwa and shield). Though rifles were supposed to be distributed to these units, by this time few had any, and they had almost no training in marksmanship other than what they might have had as farmers or hunters themselves. To make things worse, except for the 1st NNC companies under Durnford (under Captains Nourse and Stafford) the white officers recently assigned to the rest did not know their men and few spoke Zulu. These NNC companies were stationed in reserve, behind the line of redcoats, and were expected, when the Zulus broke under the hurricane of Imperial fire, to run out and chase down the retreating enemy to finish him off.

While he was preparing to defend the camp, Pulleine had no idea where the newly arrived Durnford had run off to. Right after he had claimed he was in command (because of seniority), Durnford left Pulleine without any instructions and galloped off like a dog chasing a squirrel. So Pulleine just went on as if his conversation with Durnford had never happened. Whatever was going on with him was masked by the conical amaTutshane hill to the east. Gunfire could be heard from that direction but for all Pulleine knew, it was a distant fight between Chelmsford and the rest of the impi. An enterprising staff officer took it upon himself to send the little cavalry left to Pulleine (Bradstreet's volunteer troops and mounted police) east to take up a defensive position in the Nyonga Donga to cover Durnford's retreat should he come galloping back. But as of 1230, the threat from the massive left "horn" of the Zulu army  (uVe and Ngobamakhosi amabutho) had not yet revealed itself.  Nor had the large movement of Zulu to the northwest of Isandlwana been detected. As far as Pulleine could see, the main impi was to his front, on the Nqutu heights.

This was no mad, movie charge.

The battle took some time to develop. Though they outnumbered the British and NNC forces by over 13:1, the Zulu had enough respect for British firepower and discipline to be cautious. The various amabutho may have precipitately swarmed in the direction of the British camp that morning, but once they reached the edge of the Nqutu escarpment and saw the camp, their izinduna and their innate training and discipline led them to carefully set themselves up and move tactically but carefully toward their target. With their huge numbers and stamina they could have committed one suicidal charge across the open plain to roll over the redcoats like a tide. But this tide was made up of brave but prudent individuals and they weren't going to let themselves be shot down hundreds of yards from their quarry. Like the Indians fighting Custer at Little Big Horn, the Zulu now took advantage of every covered approach in the dongas and folds in the ground to creep up on the British, take potshots at them, and make a series of dash-and-duck advances. It must have been exasperating for the British shooting at them.
  • By way of contrast, the attack of the Khalifa's ansar on Kitchener at Omdurman two decades later was made by a series of long, running charges over open ground in the face of overwhelming firepower (see my post on Omdurman 1898). The Zulu, like the Sioux and Cheyenne at Little Big Horn, were much more careful in their approach. Both the Zulu and Plains Indians of North America were master light infantry.
The British infantry and dismounted cavalry (Zikali Horse and Bradstreet's volunteers) did not fire in controlled volleys, which would have allowed the NCOs to control ammunition expenditure. Instead the troops were allowed to fire individually on their own, taking their time to pick targets and aim carefully. This made the weight of fire more or less continuous along the front, so it was that much more dangerous for the attacking force. But it also relied on the individual soldiers to control their own ammunition expenditure.

There has been a theory that the ultimate fault of the collapse of the British line (oops, spoiler!) was running out of ammunition due to the mismanagement by quartermasters dolling it out from the wagons to the rear of the companies. This was dramatized in the movie Zulu Dawn in which, as men were running out and runners had been sent back for resupply, the officious bureaucrat in charge of doling out the ammunition was making them queue up and wait their turn while he recorded each requisition (in triplicate presumably). Another theory was that the ammunition boxes had been impossible to open because nobody had a screwdriver to undo all the screws sealing them. But recent battlefield archaeology has dismissed both these theories. And the few eyewitnesses to survive, as well as some on the Zulu side, attested that the British infantry, at least, were still firing as they were overrun.

Instead of a wild charge down the hill and across the 700 yard plain, the amabutho of the Zulu center (the isiFuba corps) filed down the various dongas coming off of the escarpment and made a series of short dashes from gully to gully toward the British positions. They did take casualties because the redcoat fire was dense and accurate. But for a time the 24th and Zikali troops, even in open order, seemed to hold them at bay. With seventy rounds per man and with their own ammunition wagons close in their rear, the regular British companies were not in danger of running out.

By the time Durnford's troopers had made it back to the Nyogane Donga to set up a firing line, the left uPondo had also taken refuge in gullies to avoid the deadly fire. Pulleine had dispatched his remaining cavalry, Bradstreet's volunteers, to support Durnford on his right. Everything seemed to have been stabilized for the time being.

Some of the uVe started to make their way south to try and envelop Durnford's men. Noticing this, he ordered another tactical retreat to the Big Donga in front of the camp. His men, though, were themselves running out of rounds and he sent back his subaltern, Capt. Barton, and some NCOs, to find ammunition.These dashed up to the carts of the nearest 24th regiment and were told to piss off and go find their own ammunition.

This is perhaps where Durnford's impetuosity and fundamental incompetence of command made itself felt. He had left the supervision of his supply wagons to Capt Vause that morning (who was currently fighting alongside the 1st/24th with his 3rd Zikalis on the north end of the line) and Barton didn't know where his regiment's own wagons were. So the hapless officer galloped all over looking for it or for some less stingy supply sergeant to give his men some cartridges. To no avail. This may have been where the myth of the whole British line running out of ammunition came from. Some of the only survivors (and therefore witnesses) of the battle were from Durnford's troopers (since they had horses) and they probably vented their spleen about running out of ammunition and of bastard quartermasters who wouldn't give them any. So this story was evidently seized on by the press to apply to Pulleine's whole command. Anyway, that's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

In all likelihood, though, as Durnford fell back a final time, the whole left uPondo rose up and chased after them. Some detachments of the uVe regiment also extended around the south approaches to the camp. At the same time, the right uPondo (uDududu, iMbubi, and iSangqu) had swept around the eastern slope of Isandlwana to envelop the British from the southwest. Pulleine, seeing this immediate threat of double envelopment, ordered his  bugler to sound withdrawl to the tents. His evident intent was not to initiate a retreat but to have his command form a tight square, but by this time everything was in pandemonium. The Zulus were among the men and the tents already.

As the British infantry started to fall back, the uKhandempemvu spontaneously ibutho rose up from the ground and charged. The next ibutho's induna Sikizane of the iNgobamakhosi, got up and shamed his regiment for cowering in the gullies, "What was it you said to the uKhandempemvu?" he shouted at his prone warriors about their rival ibutho, "There they are going into the tents! Stop firing! Go in hand-to-hand!" The Zulu center now all rose up and ran like hell the remaining 100 or so yards to beat the British to their tents. In the retreat, the 24th's companies (already in open order) became disordered and many were stabbed by charging warriors running past them. One report held that even a herd of cattle were stampeded by the uMbonambe into the British ranks to disrupt them and mask warriors running among the cows.

Everything fell apart here. The British hadn't run out of ammunition; they were surrounded and overrun.

Charles Edwin Fripp's famous and lurid painting of The Last Stand of the 24th at Isandlwana (1885). One poignant detail
is the little drummer boy being shielded by the sergeants. Though the readers of the Times were enraged by the atrocity
committed by the Zulu on children at the battle, was anyone particularly outraged by the idea of taking children into battle
in the first place? Again, who were the barbarians?

One inaccuracy in this painting is the presence of the Regimental Colour at the center of the British square. That flag wasn't
with the 24th at Isandlwana, but had been left safely back at Helpmakaar in Natal. And more research on my part has revealed that
the youngest drummer enrolled in the 24th was 18, while the oldest was 36. Hmm.
But I'm being picky.

While narratives are rich with individual instances of small groups forming squares, or taking refuge in the rocks up on Isandlwana, mostly what followed was a classic rout and massacre. The Zulu went berserk, killing everything that moved; soldiers, native levies (any NNC who hadn't already run away), cooks, clerks, bottle washers, drummer boys, teamsters, mules, oxen. When the Zulu killed, they also ritualistically disemboweled each victim with their iklwa, the point being to release the soul of the murdered man so it wouldn't haunt the killer. (Hey, everybody's entitled to their belief system, okay?)

When the returning troops and the London Times reporter Charles Norris returned with Chelmsford about sunset that evening and saw the grizzly butchery, the blood and entrails splattered all over, these lurid details were used to inflame the indignation of the army as well as the constituencies at home. One horrific sight, the body of a small drummer boy of about ten, hung upside down from a wagon wheel and cut open, particularly enraged the soft-hearted British public--but this may have been the result of some yellow journalism. Further research on my part has found that the youngest drummer in the 24th at the time was 18. But there may have been children among the Boer teamsters who would not have been in the roster. Or it may have been, like we experience from the tabloid press today, and from spurious conspiracy theory sites, just made up lies to inflame the base.

There were reports of decapitations and scalpings as well, more emblems of uncivilized savagery. But these atrocities were to be expected after any brutal hand-to-hand battle, and not exclusive to so-called savages. The British themselves had a long history of individual atrocities committed in combat during their own savage past. But to the self-described gentle, Victorian, registered voters, these reports, exaggerated or not, were sufficient to galvanize popular support for what had been an unauthorized foreign war. More on this later.

Coghill and Melville trying to make their escape
with the rolled up flag.
The killing and looting went on for a couple of hours after the amabutho swarmed into the camp about 1330. Ntshingwayo had sent the right uPondo down to the Sothondose Drift on the Buffalo (just over a mile away) to pick off any fugitives trying to make it across that flooded river. The other amabutho besieged some of the British who had holed up on the rocks and crevices of Isandlwana until they finally did run out of ammunition, then finished them off in hails of spears; the Zulu were loathe to come close to those long bayonets.

Earlier, when the awful truth of collapse had struck him, Pulleine handed the Queen's Colour of the regiment (the Union Jack version, not the green Regimental Colour depicted erroneously in Charles Edwin Fripp's famous painting, which was back at Helpmakaar) to two trusted officers, Lieutenants Melville and Coghill, to carry it safely back to Natal. The two mounted up and tried to do just that, running a gauntlet of Zulu warriors until they reached the Buffalo at the Sothondose Drift (later memorialized as Fugitive's Drift). Here they were ambushed and killed by more Zulus waiting on the supposedly safe Natal bank. The flag, which had been wrapped up in its oilcloth case the whole time, fell into the river and was discovered some months later downstream.
The actual flag of the 24th, later
found in the river.

The stories of carnage at the Buffalo River were also a source of righteous anger on the part of the home audience. By the time the right uPondo Corps had rounded the slopes of Isandlwana, its men saw that their chance of "washing their spears" among the tents was gone since their rival amabutho had got there first. If they were going to get credit for killing an enemy in battle, they needed to get in another queue. So they continued south to the river bank to catch any fugitives fleeing from the massacre in the camp. Running alongside fleeing horsemen and running redcoats, they slashed and stabbed. At the river they stabbed men struggling in the water. Some of the  Zulu swam across upstream (where the current was slower) and ran back down to the lower drift to catch fugitives staggering out of the river to skewer them on the bank. It was just not fair. And, since they had violated Cetshwayo's explicit orders not to enter Natal, they had technically invaded British territory; another Times headline outrage!

Fugitives, mostly cavalry and NNC trying to make
it across the Sothonose Drift.
However, another story started circulating soon after this. It was going around that the fugitives who had made it to the presumed safety of the Natal side of the river were hunted down and slaughtered by retainers of Sothonose, a disaffected Zulu induna under the protection of the Natal government who had long before fled Zululand under Cetshwayo's predecessor, Mpande, and was graciously granted sanctuary. When Sothonose saw that the Zulu were clearly the victors of this battle, he evidently (according to the accusation) led his men to join the winning side and curry favor with Cetshwayo. Apparently he assumed that there would next be an invasion of Natal and he wanted to show where his loyalties lay.  Or so the rumors circulated.

Spear washing cycle done.

By about 1430 the killing was dying down at the camp. Those under Pulleine's command who were going to get away, mostly by horse, had safely reached the south side of the Buffalo River and were not slowing down on their way to Helpmakaar. Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead at Rorke's Drift vainly tried to get the retreating 3rd Zikali under Vause to stay and help them defend the mission station, but these kept on, urging them to flee for their lives themselves. They didn't.

The Zulu started to loot the camp for guns, ammunition, and things useful in their agrarian society, like wagons, cloth, tools, watches, money (not shoes, paper, photographs, or canned food). The oxen that had not been slain were led off as booty (remember, cows were money in Zululand.) Like the Minute Men of Lexington and Concord after that battle (a shameless plug for another article in my own blog), the Zulu had beaten the supposed superior redcoats and headed back to their own kraals to tend to their farming. They would, of course, be called up again to muster for the next invasion in three months, but for now, they had cattle to tend to and a harvest to supervise (though, I'm sure the women were perfectly capable of managing it without supervision).

They also needed to cleanse their spirits. Though they had killed in combat, killing was still considered murder in Zulu culture and a warrior had to not only literally as well as figuratively wash his spear, he had to perform a series of absolving rituals to remove the stigma of murder; this before he went home to his family. One of these involved the wearing of an item of the slain victim during the ceremonies, which was why so many witnesses had been appalled at seeing Zulu warriors wearing the red coats and white pith helmets of the dead British. What had been taken as callous insult was actually an important part of Zulu religion, not just souvenir taking. When I consider some of the battlefield souvenirs picked up by my own family during both World Wars, I think how barbaric that might be considered, too. And they didn't do it to show respect for a courageous enemy.

This was also why there was so much mutilation of the bodies by the Zulu--mostly disemboweling--they did this to release the spirit of the dead so they wouldn't linger and haunt the one who killed them. I know this sounds like rationalization, but it was a factor. Doesn't mean it wasn't horrifying to Western eyes.

Many Zulu lingered in the area for a few hours. Some got drunk from alcohol found in the tents and were captured by Chelmsford's returning column. Some stayed to help wounded comrades, or help them limp home. Others stayed to bury their own respectfully.

The immediate toll of the battle was severe, on both sides. The British had lost 52 officers, 727 European ORs, and 471 NNC; 1,250 people. This was 66% of those engaged, technically a massacre. There were hardly any wounded; the Zulus didn't take prisoners or leave anyone alive if they could help it (you don't get "wash your spear" credit for merely wounding). Those that did escape either played dead and crawled away after the Zulus had passed on (like the three that survived Russell's rocket detachment), or made it to the Natal bank on horseback without being found.

For the Zulu, who didn't leave a lot of their dead and wounded on the battlefield before Chelmsford got back, the toll was also severe but less precise.  They obviously didn't keep rosters. Estimates were that they lost as few as 1,000 (Laband's estimate) and as many as 2,000 (Morris). Many limped or were dragged back to their homesteads by friends and family, only to die of their wounds later. The state of Zulu medicine could cope with simple stab or cut wounds, but wounds from rifle bullets, which shattered bone and exploded organs, were beyond their traditional healing powers. Cetshwayo, even though his army had triumphed, was dismayed by the toll, which had included some of his own family and lifelong friends. "An assegai had been thrust into the belly of the nation," he said, "There are not enough tears to mourn for the dead."

Chelmsford's men hauling away the remaining wagons from the battlefield the evening of the 22nd.
Some of the Zulu stayed in the vicinity of the battlefield for as long as three days, hiding up on the plateau, tending to their wounded friends, or staying with them while they died so they could be buried decently. This description in Morris really touched me. It's not just U.S. Marines who don't leave a man behind. In contrast, when Chelmsford led his remaining troops back to the camp late that afternoon and discovered the disaster, they didn't stay but the one night, which, admittedly, had to be pretty awful, lying amid the carnage. And though they looked for and rescued the few wounded, they left their own dead where they lay to be collected and buried in a mass grave four months later (having been picked to bones by hyenas and vultures). Any of the wounded Zulus they found, they bayonetted, mirroring the same mercy the Zulu had bestowed on their enemy's wounded. Not knowing if the victorious impi was still close or what its intention was, Chelmsford thought it safer to retreat as quickly as possible back into Natal. The bodies of Pulleine and Durnford were never found, if they were seriously even looked for.

Early next morning Chelmsford ordered what was left of his column to march directly back to Rorke's Drift, recovering what wagons were left. The night before they had seen the sky above the Oskarburg, the mountain between them and the Drift, red with fire. Musketry echoed off of the hills from that direction. On their march back, the British column passed within shouting distance of the retiring impi of the Undi Corps marching in the opposite direction from its fruitless and costly attack on the single British company holding the mission station. Apparently the passing forces just eyed each other warily. Neither force had the will or energy to fight any more.

Though it is probably the subject of another post, the siege of Rorke's Drift on the afternoon and night after Islandlwana served as an important coda, not just for the story of heroism on the part of the single, isolated companyof the 2nd/24th who held off nearly 6,000 Zulus, but for its morale boost to the entire British nation.

Prince Dabulamanzi kaMapande
Photo taken after the war and his ill-conceived "invasion" of Natal and
disastrous attack on the mission station at Rorke's Drift.
Prince Dabulamanzi, who had been ordered by Ntshingwayo to take his Undi Corps around to the south of Isandlwana to cut off the retreat of the army, went way beyond his mission. Hungering for more spear washing (which his men had been deprived of) he took his command (uThulwana, uDloko, uNdondlo, and uNdluyengwe amabutho) clear across the Buffalo to lay siege to the mission station held by B Company, 2nd/24th, defying both Cetshwayo's and Ntshingwayo's express injunctions against violating Natal territory,

He evidently thought it would be a walkover.  Wasn't.

Anything but, in fact. Rorke's Drift turned out to be an exploding cigar for Cetshwayo. Not only did it escalate the perceived threat from the Zulu to Natal and British interests in South Africa, but it also demonstrated that the Zulu victory at Isandlwana had been a fluke. At the mission station at the drift,  a single company of determined, disciplined redcoats held off and inflicted severe punishment to 30-40 times their number, vindicating the heroism of British arms (and earning eleven Victoria Crosses). The Undi Corps lost nearly another 1,000 casualties to the British' 32 (17 killed). Dabulamanzi was an idiot. And he did his half-brother king and his country no favors.

The battle over, but not the war.

All Isandlwana did for the Zulu nation was delay its fate by about four months. It had been, as Rorke's Drift and the subsequent battles of Khambula, Eshowe, Gingingdlovu, and Ulundi all soon demonstrated, a fluke. The psychological effect on the British public and their government was exactly the opposite of its intent to demoralize the British into suing for a settlement. The news of the humiliation to British arms, spiced by the horror of the grizzly atrocities committed by the Zulus after the battle, turned what had been an ill-conceived, unpopular adventure on the part of  Frere into a Kiplingesque cause celebre. Disraeli's government raised money to fund an even larger expedition to atone for its lack of support for Frere's unauthorized war. And the Second Invasion, begun in June, was conducted much more carefully (also by Chelmsford, who was about to be replaced by Garnet Wolseley). For one thing, his standing orders were to laager and fortify every camp on the advance to Ulundi, and not fight in extended skirmish order. No longer would the British hold contempt for what they had assumed were ill-disciplined savages. And there was much more professional cavalry to reconnoiter this time. And Gatling guns.

A debonnaire Cetshwayo on his publicity tour
in Britain after the war. Apparently, the British
public fell in love with him for his charm and
Shaka's heretofore invincible army was defeated  and disbanded. The royal kraal at Ulundi was burned to the ground. Cetshwayo was captured and shipped off to London to meet Queen Victoria, where, on a public relations campaign, he became quite popular with the Queen and the British public for his innate charm, grace, and intelligence. He was sent back to Zululand (now a British protectorate) to resume his now honorary duties as constitutional monarch and died at Eshowe of a heart attack at the age of 60 in 1884,. He was succeeded by his son, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, who would be the last recognized king of the Zulu.

Disraeli's Tory Government fell in the next election, partly due to Frere's skullduggery in getting the country involved in another expensive foreign war, and for Chelmsford's incompetent handling of that war, as well as the subsequent First Boer War later that year. The Liberal Party under Gladstone replaced it. One of its first acts was to recall Bartle Frere, who had started this whole mess, and put him under investigation for his misconduct both in Southern Africa and previously in India. He died less than four months after his nemesis, Cetshwayo, in 1884, defending himself against the charges. It is sad that the Zulu king couldn't have witnessed that, at least.

Armchair Generaling

There are a few obvious lessons to be gleaned from Isandlwana. The first is don't underestimate your enemy. This is probably on the top of every moronic mistake made throughout the history of warfare. Chelmsford took Cetshwayo and the Zulu army as dumb savages. Though he had loads of expert, first-hand intelligence and advice about the professionalism, shrewdness, and sophistication of his enemy, he apparently didn't take it seriously. Instead, he believed it was safe to split up his force into tiny detachments, tramp off blindly into unknown territory, and leave his camp as open as a Boy Scout Jamboree. Fortunately for him, he only lost half his central column. He also didn't make the same mistakes in the next invasion in June. Also, fortunately for him, he was ably seconded by the commanders of #1 and #4 columns on either end of his front (Pearson and Wood), who proceeded more carefully, did have the sense to laager their camps, and managed to defeat the impis that attacked them.

Another obvious lesson was on the more strategic, socio-political scale. The British lost the Battle of  Isandlwana but ended up winning the war because the defeat actually won the public relations war back home. The insubordinate "counterinvasion" of Natal by Dabulamanzi by attacking Rorke's Drift had the predictable effect that Cetshwayo feared (and why he specifically warned his izinduna against it): Mass hysteria back in Britain and support for a larger, more determined war effort by the Disraeli Government. This single "outrage", like the bogus attack by the North Vietnamese on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, flipped the whole situation from an obscure, unpopular little police action into a full scale war of conquest. It is debatable, but I think likely, that if Dabulamanzi had obeyed his king and stayed on his side of the Buffalo, Cetshwayo might have credibly swayed the British into a diplomatic settlement. Disraeli's and the Home Office's support for Frere's and Chelmsford's activities in South Africa were tepid at best, and after the clumsy disaster of Isandlwana, had the Zulus not crossed into Natal, Chelmsford and Frere most likely would have been recalled and Wolsey would have been sent down to negotiate with Cetshwayo. But after Rorke's Drift, and after the reports of the butchering of the "little drummer boys", jingoistic fever gripped Parliament and the British public. It was all over for the Zulu nation after that.

At least, that's my obscure take on it. Of course, the conquest of Zululand might have happened anyway. Gold and diamond fever were high.

Other lessons learned were tactical. The British infantry did not operate in loose formations in their colonial wars after this. The rest of the Zulu war they used heavy cavalry screens to warn of Zulu movements, and whenever they faced an attack, they closed ranks, got behind wagons, and concentrated their artillery and Gatling guns. The tight formations used by them at Omdurman nineteen years later had their origins at Isandlwana.

The Zulu themselves showed themselves to be masters of tactical and strategic warfare, even given their relatively primitive technology. They used the Matshyanas izinduna to create convincing misdirection, pretending to be the main impi and drawing off half of Cherlmsford's column on a wild goose chase. They moved cross country stealthily and swiftly (barefoot, I might add). They were able to conceal their largest formations, even in deceptively open country. They showed enviable tactical discipline in the deployment of their amabutho and amaviyo in the actual battle. And their commanders exercised tight control over their men. They even used cattle as diversions, churning up dust and masking actual troop movements. These were some of the most formidable and professional foes the British had fought in their long history of colonial conquest.

Wargame Considerations

Isandlwana, as well as the Zulu War in general, has long been a popular subject for wargaming. In studying the battle, here are some what-if suggestions that come to my mind for anyone wanting to game it.

British Formations
Though the movie version (Zulu Dawn) shows the British infantry in a conventional, two rank, closed firing line, as we have seen, they actually fought in extended skirmish order (four yards per file in a double staggered line of men), providing for a 120-180 yard frontage for each company. Pulleine apparently did this to throw his defensive line out far enough to cover Durnford, should he come back (which sounds suspicious to me). With his six companies he didn't have enough men to cover that area and protect his flanks. And he not unreasonably felt that, even in extended formation, British troops with their quick-firing, long range rifles could lay down an impenetrable fire out to 400 yards in front of them. Indeed, this seemed to work until the line became outflanked.

A testable alternative would be to bring the six companies in closer to the camp (having torn down the tents to clear the line of fire), and set them up in a classic, tight square, with the ammunition wagons in the center and artillery on the corners.  Chelmsford himself, in issuing his standing tactical orders for the second invasion, told his commanders to form square as though the Zulu were cavalry. This formation proved to work effectively in the Sudan during the following decades.

Zulu Formations
The Zulu did not charge helter-skelter like the Mahdi's fanatics in the Sudan, or even like barbarians (including Britons) during the Roman wars. They maneuvered and came on in a series of ordered lines (the amaviyo), supporting each other and skillfully handled by their izinduna. In a wargame one should probably treat them as one would Roman centuries and cohorts. Their formation depths ranged from 12-20 lines, depending on the target and the ground. And they generally allowed six feet between files to allow for shield and spear work without getting in each other's way.

Keep Durnford in the Camp
Another thing to test in a game would be to keep Durnford in the camp with Pulleine. It was the former's adventurism which supposedly compelled Pulleine to overextend his command in support. If Durnford had stayed where Chelmsford told him to, the defense of the camp might have been handled differently. His cavalry and better disciplined native infantry, as well as Russell's rockets, might have made a difference.

Natal Native Contingent troops
These should only be used for scouting or held in the rear for pursuit of a retreating enemy. Since they were armed like the Zulu and had almost no firearms, they would not have been much use in a firing line.

Campaign Game
In a campaign game, one might experiment with keeping the Central Column intact and letting Chelmsford's cavalry do its job. The side playing the Zulu could also pick any number of avenues of concealed approach, lying in ambush for the column to pass (ala the Germanic tribes against the Romans in Teutoburg Forest, 9 BCE), or popping up between them and Rorke's Drift.

Such a game would also cry for concealed movement rules (I'm thinking of a land version of AH Midway). I'm a huge fan of concealed movement campaign games, which I cut my game playing chops on at the Armed Forces Intelligence School. Oh yeah!

Orders of Battle

The following is derived mostly from Ian Knight's OOB in his Isandlwana 1879 (Osprey #111). Under weapons, the principle firearm of the British troops was the breechloading Martini-Henry rifle. The mounted NNC troops were issued mostly with the Westly-Richards "monkey tail" carbine. The Natal Native Contingent troops went into battle wearing their traditional Zulu panoply and were armed principally with the short stabbing spear of the Zulus, the iKlwa. About a tenth of these NNC had older, muzzle-loading Enfield rifles but were only allotted five rounds each. The Zulus were armed with their amaKlwa short stabbing spears (misnamed assegais by the British) and many also had older muskets. Cetshwayo's father, Mpande, had made a point of modernizing his army as much as possible with firearms.

As with my other OOBs in my blog, the first column is color-coded in the principle coat color of the regiment and the second column in the facing color. The British infantry, as of this year, had not yet switched over to khaki. As for the Zulu and NNC, who went into battle pretty naked, this is obviously moot.

Where known, the authorized shield pattern of each ibutho in the Zulu impi is represented. However, it has been noted by several historians (notably Ian Knight himself) that by 1879 the uniformity of shield patterns among the amabutho established by Shaka, the founder of the Zulu state, had disappeared. A years-long epidemic of bovine pleuropneumonia (lung disease) which had decimated cattle in southwestern Africa, made it increasingly difficult to enforce uniform hides. By 1879 each regiment now carried a hodge-podge of different shield patterns. Shaka would have rolled heads.


Balthorpe, Michael, The Zulu War, 1980, Blandford Press, Dorset, UK, ISBN 0-7137-1469-7

Knight, Ian, Zulu 1816-1906, 1995, Osprey Publishing, Warrior Series #14, ISBN 978-1-85532-474-9

Knight, Ian and Adam Hook, Isandlwana 1879: The great Zulu victory, 2002, Osprey Publishing, Campaign Series #111, ISBN 978-1-86176-511-2

Knight, Ian (editor), There Will be an Awful Row at Home About This: The Zulu War, 1987, Zulu Study Group of th Victorian Military Society,

Laband, John, The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation, Arms & Armor Press, ISBN 978-1 85409-421-6

Morris, Donald R., The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation, 1965, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-671-63108-X

Roberts, Brian, The Zulu Kings: A Major Reassessment of  Zulu History, 1974, Charles Scribner, ISBN 684-14042-4

Online References

Bryant, Alfred T., A Zulu-English Dictionary and  A Concise History of the Zulu People, 1905

Divis, Craig, Little Big Horn and Isandlwana, An Interesting Comparison, 2014

For a demonstration of how the Zulus actually looked and fought, I can recommend the two famous films by Cy Enfield, Zulu (1964) and Zulu Dawn (1979), which, using hundreds of Zulu historical re-enactors and Zulu technical advisors, show how the Zulus probably looked, fought, marched, danced, and even  sounded in the 19th century.  The first movie also has a marvelous demonstration of Zulu call-and-response war chants and the ingomane, or shield rattling, which the impis used to boost their own morale and intimidate the enemy.


  1. Absolutely magnificent, so much work and effort goes into these. Immensity inspirational. Thanks Jeff.

    1. You are so kind, Dave. Though these bring immense gratification for me, even had I no audience, that people actually read and enjoy them amplifies that.

  2. I second Dave's comment. The post was a well-written, thoroughly enjoyable, great read! Thank-you for writing and sharing it!

    Going to read some of your previous posts now!

    1. Thank you, sir. Hope you enjoy the others. I love doing them. They take me awhile, but so should anything that brings joy.

  3. Yet another terrific read, Jeff. Thank you very much for these gifts!

    1. Thanks for reading it. They are fun for me to work on, but it's nice that I have an actual audience who gets pleasure out of them.

  4. Excellent again Jeff. Having lived in South Africa for 20 years before returning to the UK I have walked the battlefield several times and your description fits the terrain perfectly.

  5. I think this is one of your best Jeff, a thoroughly enjoyable read. Looking forward to that Rorke's Drift post at some point in the future. ;)


  6. This is a wonderful page and blog. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Totally wonderful and educational! I have enjoyed all your posts. Thank you and God bless.

  8. Thanks, Jeff. Great account of an iconic (for Brits anyway) battle.

    Out of interest, have you read Can A Man Die Better by Mike Snook, for a revisionist account of the battle?

    Cheers, Dave

    1. Sorry, that should be How Can Man Die Better :-)

    2. Thanks, Dave. I'll look that up.
      And thanks for reading my article.
      Cheers back, Jeff

  9. Excellent well done. Your Armchair General point was spot on. Out of interest the book "Empire How Britain Made The Modern world by Niall Ferguson does demonstrate how the empire was run and the problems between the centre London, and the Colonies.

  10. Can't top what's been said,canolny echo. Very enjoyable and loved the maps.

  11. After my reading of this post, I can say only two things:

    1) Your research and writing was comprehensive.

    2) Howard Hillegas was right :

    The wholesale slander and misrepresentation with which the Boers of South Africa have been pursued can not be outlived by them in a hundred years. It originated when the British forces took possession of the Cape of Good Hope,and it has continued with unabated vigour ever since. Recently the chief writers of fiction have been prominent Englishmen, who, on hunting expeditions or rapid tours through the country, saw the object of their venom from car windows or in the less favourable environments of a trackless veldt.

    The above was written by Hillegas on the eve of the Anglo Boer War in 1899. (Chapter IV page xlii) He was an American journalist who accompanied the Boers on their campaigns against the British.

    I hope you will shed some light on the battle of Majuba Hill as well.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind compliment about my research and writing. Though I did not mean to bring in the imperialism of the British with respect to the Boers, my reading while researching this battle did indicate that Bartle-Frere treated them with equal disdain as the Zulu and other people in South Africa. I was just as aghast at the illegal annexation of the Boer's states the same year (1879).

  12. I am late to this party, but wanted to say well done. I read this with bated breath even though I knew the outcome of the battle. All in all the tale was retold masterfully and with a good bit more clarity than anything I have read previously. Now off to read your Omdurman post.

    1. Thank you mightily, Chris. So glad you enjoyed it. As I said in the introduction, I know it's not "obscure" to a lot of people, but when I named the blog, I did it without thinking about the criterion that all the battles should necessarily be obscure. Then I back-rationalized it that it was my idiomatic takes on the battles that were obscure.

      I am put in mind of Douglas Adams' subsequent subtitles to his Hitchhikers' series "The Increasingly Misnamed Hitchhiker's Trilogy."

  13. An excellent account and I do love your maps. But on the subject of "young drummer boys", in reality there were none younger than 16 in the British army in Zululand at that time. There's a very good discussion (amongst others on the 'Net on this toopic) at: https://www.talana.co.za/images/2019/ISANDLWANADRUMMERBOYS.pdf

    Victorian artists always knew how to wind up their public in this way!



    1. Yes. A recent forum I tapped into about this subject revealed that the drummers enrolled in the 24th Foot ranged in ages from 18-36. Not little boys. But someone else in the forum noted that there might have been youngsters among the Boer teamsters, who wouldn't have been in the 24th's roster of dead. And their bodies may have been discovered by the returning column.

      Nevertheless, it was an example of how yellow journalism was at work even 140 years ago. The press's reaction to Little Big Horn a couple of years before, where the U.S. 7th Cavalry was wiped out by the "savage" Indians (actually, only half the 7th, whose own mission was to wipe out the Sioux and Cheyenne, families included), was to inflame the public in a war of genocidal revenge. Just like the yellow press used Isandlwana to whip up British public opinion to yet another colonial war.

      Also, as I noted, the Zulu's practice of disemboweling their victims was religious in origin. It was to release the souls of their victims so they would not haunt the killers. In a way, it was an act of mercy.

      Of course, we more civilized people know that the soul resides in the hippocampus, not the bowels. Silly people.

  14. Delighted to come across your blog! I'm in the midst of novelizing Isandlwana from a Zulu POV, but the pieces just weren't coming together, because so much of the online information largely perpetuates the jingoistic, yellow journalism of the day. You have taken me several layers deeper, and my own work will be the better for it. Thank you.

    1. That tickles me that you found my article useful. I hope you've also read my article on Gqokli Hill as well, which expands on Shaka Zulu's method of warfare.

      I know your frustration with researching online. Some subjects, though historic, are still colored by cultural and editorial biases. I heartily recommend the books in my References sections on this and the Gqokli Hill battle for further understanding of the Zulu's POV. One of the things that struck me was that, like European medieval knights, after a battle, Zulu warriors who had killed were still considered murderers by themselves and in their culture and had to undergo a lengthy ablution and redemption for that sin. How many cultures, even today, have that civilizing nature?

  15. Thanks again, Jeff. The Gqokli Hill article was most illuminating. Along with your observations about the 'washing of the spears' and ablution and redemption, it will enrich my portrayal of the victorious Zulus at Isandlwana.

  16. As s a ‘Zulu War’ addict I have lost count of the number of reports of Isandlwana I have read over the years, but this has to be up with the best of them.

    An over extended skirmish firing line proved to be the undoing of the remnants of the Central Column, and although you made no mention of the ‘possible’ overheating and consequent jamming that the Martini Henry’s were notorious for, I agree with you that a lack of available ammunition was almost certainly not a major cause of the British defeat.

    The Zulu had almost the speed of cavalry twinned with the terrane covering dexterity of light infantrymen and in such numbers as to swamp any unprepared foe. Only dense shoulder to shoulder firepower in prepared square ‘Ulundi’ could do that.

    The ‘Yellow Press’ as you call it has blighted the Western world for years and today it is no different. But I feel obliged to point out that this was a war that the British Government of the day did not want nor instigate, and although the British publics outrage following Isandlwana and then the boost of Rorkes Drift is understandable, it did not extend to a hatred of the Zulu as was proved by King Cetshwayos’ popularity on his later visit to London. Strange to say that there was more animosity for the Boer than there ever was for the Zulu, and the feeling was and is more than reciprocal.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your ‘Battles’. Thank you.

    1. Some very good points, Kenneth. I didn't mention the tendency of the Martini-Henry (or any quick firing rifle) to overheat, but you are right. My own ancestor who fought at Chickamauga mentioned this in his memoirs. And I was talking to the dad of a friend of mine who fought in Korea and he talked about how they used to piss on their M-1s during combat to cool them off; otherwise, he said, you couldn't hold them.

      Thank you for you compliments about this post. It raises my spirits to hear when my work (well, more hobby than work) is appreciated.

  17. I quite enjoy your accounts of 'Obscure Battles' and find your take on history refreshing. Thank you.
    I started reading the Isandlwana and notice your comment - I quote: "Europeans (both Boers and British) had gotten along fairly harmoniously with the Zulus (with the exception of a few border clashes between the Boers and the Zulu) for most of the century so far."
    Surely you are aware of the Battle of Blood River (1838) where 400 Boers defeated 15,000 Zulus under king Dingane? In my book this battle cannot really be defined as just a clash since the subsequent action destroyed the Zulu capital and chased the Zulu king into Swaziland. This battle was recorded in detail in the diary of the Boer Leader, Andries Pretorius, and of course in the verbal tales of the Zulu nation. Oh, and this battle was not unprovoked - it was a punitive expedition and followed the massacre of hundreds of defenseless woman and children by Zulu impi along the Bloukrans river while the Boer leaders were having negotiations with Dingane on purchasing of land.

    1. Okay, okay. So for the previous four decades, after Mpande came to power.

      The historians I've read on Zulu history (Labande, Roberts, Morris) for this and my article on Gqokli Hill describe Dingane as a homicidal idiot, hated by his own people, and certainly by members of his own family. Some think that the scale of the Trekker's victory at Blood River was exaggerated for political propaganda purposes, inflated by Pretorius himself (much like William Henry Harrison's claim about his "great victory" over Tecumseh at Tippecanoe in 1811 to pump up his his U.S. presidential campaign, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!"). The idea that not quite 500 Europeans armed with smoothbore muskets could mow down 3,000 fully armed, charging Zulus was not credible, especially when you consider that forty-one years later, almost 2,000 British troops armed with breechloading Martini-Henry rifles killed only 1-2,000 Zulus (and were still overrun).

      Moreover, I would stand by my statement that, for most of the preceding decades, relations between the British in Natal and the Zulu had been fairly cordial, even while those with the Boers were prickly (as were the relations between the British and the Boers). Even the bloodthirsty Shaka (smarter than his brother Dingane) had not sought to provoke the British, but had even attempted to establish trade with them.

      Finally, Pretorius's commando, when they got to Dingane's royal kraal, found it already abandoned and burned. There was a civil war going on in Zululand between Dingane and followers of his other brother Mpande. So it is likely that it was evidence of that.

      Before I go, though, I want to thank you so much for your kind and encouraging comment about my blog. It's moral support like that that makes it worthwhile. And it is fun to debate history, isn't it?

  18. Nice read. Enjoyed it. As as student of the 1879 Anglo Zulu War I have to say that Knight and Snook are the absolute must reads, particularly Snook, when it comes to Isandlwana specifically.

    Now, as to my main comment. While Im no fan of Chelmsford and in all honesty he shouldn't have forced the invasion in the first place, I do feel it is often swept under the carpet just why he split his force at Isandlwana. The fact is, he had little choice in the matter. The large recon party got themselves into a major pickle the day before by tangling with the Zulus too late in the day, which meant they were forced to spend the night in the hills. That was not Chelmsfords doing. There was a veritable panic stricken night spent in their hill bivouac position, so much so that as you noted, a serious request for assistance was asked for, fearing they might be attacked by the main Zulu impi the next morning.

    I don't see what alternatives Chelmsford had. Ignore their request for help, thus leaving them to their fate, possible annihilation? Send out a token force of just one or two companies, which itself might get cut off and annihilated?

    Looking at it logically and without hindsight, what Chelmsford did was probably the best decision. He sent a strong force out and kept a strong force back, to be reinforced by Durnford and his men. Had Durnford arrived, reinforced the camp and followed Chelmsfords orders to Pulleine which were to act on the defensive then Isandlwana may have held out long enough until relieved by Chelmsfords returning force, sandwiching the Zulus.

    The 3rd Column force wasn't split in the conventional sense, with both prongs going into attack blindly looking for Zulus. One remained in camp on the defence while the other headed out to the exact place all previous intel and scouting said the Zulus were.

    No defence of Chelmsford regarding the blame shifting afterwards though.

    Best wishes.

    1. Thanks, Unknown, for you thoughtful comments on my Monday-morning-quarterbacking of Chelmsford's tactical decision to split his force. I think his main mistake in this first campaign was in underestimating the Zulus. Pulleine and Durnford were also grossly negligent in ignoring the laagering advice from their Boer allies and spreading out the defensive perimeter, a lesson that subsequent campaigns heeded.

      I was aware of the fraught night that the recon parties experienced, but chose not to include it in the narrative around this battle.

      Normally, I hesitate to post comments from anonymous sources, but yours was so good that I thought it worth publishing.

  19. Working my way slowly through your backlog. Excellent work. Are you aware of Little War TV's wargame of Isandlwana (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAh-Xz7oyqA) but more importantly a separate interview with tour guide Douglas Rattray and Mphiwa Ntanzi (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJRKaTm6570)?

  20. Thanks this was such a good and informative read. Just a quick point, a documentary in the field by Ian Knight broadcast in the early noughties (the name of which escapes me) explored the roll of the Zulu medicine man with the analysis of two samples of traditional Zulu muthi said to be used by warriors before battle. Tentative evidence suggests at least some of the Zulus may have been high on more than just cannabis. The analysis showed one sample was indeed cannabis but that the level of THC the compound that chills you out and relaxes you was very low The second proved to be from a species of fly agaric mushroom containing muscimol a compound which is both hallucinogenic and dissociative and increases aggression. While not definative by any means its not impossible that the Zulu impi was significantly chemically enhanced.

  21. A beautifully crafted piece with gripping detail, maps and photos that present the facts and capture the visceral spirit of the battle. One can visualise standing-to on the battlefield and facing the sheer volume of advancing chanting Zulus, cascading down over Nyoni Ridge from left to right and, unseen, coming up behind the Isandlwana hill.
    I lived in Dundee as a 9 year old and went to my first Isandlwana memorial service in January 1956 when a friend and I found a buried seam of battlefield debris in a eroded gully in the middle of the camp site. This comprised dozens of strips of twisted copper ammunition strapping with screws, charred pieces of wood, broken jars (“dentifrice paste” I recall) and bottles, brass tent fittings (some with shreds of canvas attached), handfuls of cartridge cases, now in various local museums.
    I last stood on this iconic battlefield in May this year, doing a detailed drone shoot covering the entire battlefield to, after editing, give viewers a better feel of the topography, landmarks and distances involved.
    Having spent many tens of hours fossicking over every meter of the battlefield over the years on numerous visits since my childhood and from extensive reading and studying of literature, my opinion ranks the causes of the defeat as follows:
    The Zulu perspective:
    • British empirical arrogance distorted/diluted their acceptance that the war-honed Zulus were masters of the rough terrain and non-firearm warfare
    • as proven by their successful forward placing of their many regiments of thousands on gently sloping seemingly almost flat grass covered ground and their decoy tactics to the east of the battlefield that led Chelmsford to fatally split his force
    • the Zulu battle formation of “the horns of the bull” was perfectly executed over this wide battlefield area (± 15 sqr kilometres) with their left and right horns finally closing around the entire camp.
    The British perspective:
    • Inadequate scouting cloaked the imminent danger to the camp.
    • With the heavy firing rate at the huge number of warriors, the stretched distances (± 300 meters and more) from the forward placed firing lines back to the ample ammunition supply in camp, created shortages.
    • Sheer numbers of mentally doctored (and hence “bullet-proofed”) Zulu warriors eventually overwhelmed the camp.

    I would gladly share my knowledge and up-to-date experiences with any interested people.

    P.S. My eldest son is named Rorke for obvious reasons!

    1. Thank you so much, Beeza. High praise indeed from one with such intimate, boots-on-the-ground knowledge of the Isandlwana battlefield. Your perspective is invaluable.

      When I went all over the Little Big Horn battlefield with my dad in 1999, I also understood much better how that battle unfolded and how Custer, cursed by his own arrogance, met his end to the tactically superior Oglala and Cheyenne. There is nothing like walking the ground yourself.

      Have you also been over the Gqokli Hill battlefield? Shaka's first victory in 1819?