The Battle of Isandlwana

On 11 January 1879, a British army under Lord Chelmsford invaded the Zululand after King Cetshwayo refused a humiliating ultimatum from Sir Henry Frere, the High Commissioner of South Africa. Frere was looking for a war because he and Chelmsford assumed the spear and shield wielding warriors were no match for a disciplined modern army equipped with rifles and artillery. Chelmsford attacked, from the recently annexed Boer Republic of Natalia, with three columns of about 16,000 British regulars and troops of the Natal Native Contingent. The Zulus were a warrior culture whose males could not marry until a man “washed his spear (in blood)”, Cetshwayo assembled 24,000 warriors at his main kraal (settlement with a corral for cattle and buffalo) at Ulundi. He launched the Zulu impis (roughly “battlegroups”) at Chelmsford with the guidance, “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.”

The Zulu army was unlike other indigenous force the British had encountered in Africa. For all of its history to that time, Africa had more land than people. People were the resource that enabled the expansion of a kingdom, not land as in the Western mind. As a consequence, warfare between nations was a relatively bloodless affair focused on attacking at range with thrown weapons (because it was safer) and capturing prisoners (for slave labor). In the early 19th Century, Shaka Zulu instituted reforms that changed the nature of Zulu warfare from protecting the force to the destruction of its enemies, which was much more in line with how European armies fought and much more effective (Land was relatively scarce in Europe compared to Africa. In general, European warfare focused on winning the battle at any cost because the loser couldn’t just move somewhere else). Shaka Zulu’s reforms centered on annihilating the enemy army through close quarters combat, with warriors armed with a short stabbing spear and hide shield. The spear, called an “iklwa” for the sound it made when a warrior pulled it from a dead opponents chest, was horrifying and brutally effective against ranged warriors not used to melee combat. The Zulu braves would weather the one or two volleys of thrown weapons to quickly close with and destroy their enemies. The preferred tactic was called “the horns of the beast”. The impi was divided into four groups: the chest, two horns, and loins. The chest, or center of the line, engaged the enemy, while the horns on its left and right would encircle the force occupied by the chest. The loins, or reserve, administered the coup d’grace, chased down routed enemies, or reacted to unexpected developments. Individual warriors used roughly the same tactics: one would fix an enemy to his front while a trusted comrade would kill from the side. Shaka Zulu revolutionized indigenous warfare in southern Africa and quickly carved out a large empire from his stunned neighbors, whose fertile lands the Zulu nation occupied.

On 18 January 1879, Shaka’s half nephew Cetshwayo was determined to attack and destroy Chelmsford’s columns in detail. He dispatched 4000 braves to fix Chelmsford’s southern column and prevent it from reinforcing his main body in the middle. On 20 January, Chelmsford’s 7800 men encamped in the shadow of a large “sphinx shaped” mountain named Isandlwana. No defensive preparations were made because the British arrogantly assumed that rifle and cannon firepower alone could hold the ground against the charging Zulus. On the 21st, the Zulu commander, Prince Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, encamped in Ngwbeni Valley about ten miles away.

All throughout the 21st, the British skirmished with Zulu reconnaissance and screening parties. On the morning of the 22nd Chelmsford dispatched two battalions of the NNC to push through the screen and find Ntshingwayo’s army. Chelmsford was worried that the Zulus would refuse battle and not that he was walking into a trap. Ntshingwayo wanted to rest his warriors and only planned to attack Chelmsford on the 23rd but the two NNC battalions stumbled upon his army and forced his hand. The young Zulu warriors finally had their chance to close with enemy and attacked. Ntshingwayo used the chance encounter to draw Chelmsford away from his camp at Isandlwana, which he would destroy. Once cut off from their supplies, the Zulu army would surround and annihilate the British main body which would then have only the food, water and ammunition they carried with them. Chelmsford took the bait.

Once he received reports of the Zulu army at Ngwbeni, Chelmsofrd divided his force and took over half of his infantry and most of his artillery to reinforce the two advance guard NNC battalions, exactly what Ntshingwayo wanted him to do. Once Chelmsford was committed to Ngwbeni, the Zulu horn and loin formations rapidly moved around the powerful British force and fell upon the British camp at Isandlwana. Chelmsford was outmaneuvered and didn’t even know it.


Brevet Lt-Col Henry Pulliene commanded the defense of the camp which consisted of 3companies of his battalion, the 1st Bn of the 24th Foot, one company of the second battalion, four companies of the NNC, two cannon, and about 100 other Natal carbineers (there’s a great word I don’t get use very often), mounted troops, police, and border guards. Later that morning he was reinforced by Bvt Col Anthony Durnford and five troops Natal Native Horse and two more companies of NNC. All told, there were about 2000 British and Natal troops and civilians at Isandlwana when Ntshingwayo’s 12,000 arrived just after noon on the 22nd.

4000 warriors appeared to the north, and Pulleine and Durnford assumed they were part of a “horn” formation intent on attacking Chelmsford’s rear at Ngwebeni. They were technically right that it was a horn formation but tactically wrong because it was Ntshingwayo’s chest formation to fix the defenders at Isandlwana. The fatal beauty of the Zulu tactics was their simplicity: they were understood by all warriors to the youngest brave who used a form of “the horns of the beast” in their individual combat of fixing an opponent so a comrade could strike the killing blow from the side. Ntshingwayo’s impi formed new horn, chest, and loin formations on the move from Ngwebeni like the instinctive battle drill it was.

Pulleine made the same mistake Chelmsford did by advancing towards the chest of Zulu army and separating his troops from the camp.

Initially, British firepower did prevent the charging Zulus from overwhelming the disciplined Englishmen and Welshmen of the 24th Foot (The 24th Foot was a Warwickshire regiment but had a disproportionate amount of Welsh enlistees and wouldn’t be known as the “South Wales Borderers” until 1881) and the Boer, Basuto and Mponso of the NNC. Equipped with the quick firing Martini-Henry breech loading rifle, the British troops could fire 16-20 rounds a minute if necessary. The ibutho (a Zulu regiment based not on tribe but age) of Ntshingwayo’s chest formations took horrendous casualties until his horn formations made their way around Pulleine’s line. The left horn routed Durnford’s cavalry on the British right which had run low on ammunition and as cavalry couldn’t hold ground as well as infantry. The right horn made its way around the Isandlwana mountain and fell upon the camp from the rear. Pulleine attempted to extend his line to block the flanking attacks but the Zulus just continued father around.

After Durnford’s defeat, Pulleine deliberately withdrew back towards the camp but by then the damage was already done. The maneuver forward expanded the distance that supply runners had to travel to resupply the line with ammunition. Furthermore, myopic supply officers reportedly were under orders to save the ammunition for Chelmsford column and required the runners to sign forms before they could open the crates, which were screwed shut. Despite these self-inflicted difficulties, adequate ammunition made it to most of the line, except Durnford’s men who were the farthest from the camp and had fought the longest.

For a long hour, Pulleine’s soldiers fought the Zulu warriors with volley, rifle butt and bayonet. But when attacked from all sides the line eventually broke as companies formed squares, and individual soldiers fought in small groups and even back to back. The encirclement wasn’t complete and several hundred of Pulleine’s troops and civilians escaped back across the Buffalo River at a ford now known as “Fugitive’s Drift.” But not many escaped and fought to death when ammunition ran out. What remained of the line was 150 man square whose bodies were found the next day. Zulu accounts placed great emphasis on soldiers who defended their flags, including a big Irishman who held Pulleine’s tent where Union Jack flew, and two lieutenants who fled with the battalion colours but were killed at Fugitive’s Drift. The final soldier to die was a young Welshman who held the mouth a cave at the base Isandlwana with his bayonet until he was shot by a musket wielding Zulu.

At 2:30 pm a solar eclipse occurred, and a British officer with Chelmsford’s column reported that firing from Isandlwana ceased after that. Pulleine and Durnford repeatedly informed Chelmsford of the increasingly desperate fighting at Isandlwana, but Chelmsford refused to come to their aid. He assumed he was still engaged with the elusive Zulu main body and even recalled troops that started towards the camp at their own accord. When informed of the Zulu victory, the stunned Chelmsfod muttered, “But I left a thousand men to guard the camp…”

1300 British and Natal troops were killed, including Durnford and Pulleine. The Battle of Isandlwana was worst defeat ever experienced by a colonial army against indigenous forces and coming only 2 ½ Years after Custer’s Last Stand increased the effect. However, the Battle of Isandlwana was pyric victory for the Zulu nation. Ntshingwayo lost almost 3000 warriors killed and another 2000 or so wounded of his original 12,000. And unlike the vast British Empire, there were no more Zulu warriors to recruit, the entire nation was mobilized.

After the battle was finished, the four thousand warriors of Ntshingwayo’s loin formation were upset that they did not get to participate in the battle. Their commander, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, set his sights on the small British Force at “kwaJimu”. “KwaJimu” was the Zulu name for “Jim’s land”, named for the Irish merchant James Rorke who had a small trading post and mission at the ford over the Buffalo River. Rorke’s Drift was twenty miles away and Dabulamanzi meant for his warriors to wash their spears in its defenders.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s