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The Battle of iSandlwana 22 January 1879


On January 11 1879 - the day the British ultimatum to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, expired - Lt. Gen. Lord Chelmsford crossed into Zululand at Rorke’s Drift at the head of his Centre Column of nearly 5000 British troops and African auxiliaries. On the Zulu bank, immediately ahead of him, lay the territory of the amaQungebeni chieftain, Sihayo kaXongo. The amaQungebeni had been appointed guardians of the border by the Zulu kings, Sihayo himself was a royal favourite, and his son Mehlokazulu had been named in the British ultimatum, so on all counts Chelmsford felt compelled to make a demonstration against them. On the 12th he marched out at dawn, attacked and dispersed the men Sihayo had left to guard amaQungebeni homes and crops, and destroyed Sihayo’s homestead; an insignificant skirmish in itself, Chelmsford noted that the Zulu had put up stiff resistance - but had nonetheless been no match for his own troops.

  Heavy summer rains delayed Chelmsford’s forward advance until the 20th, when he moved the column forward to the foot of a distinctive rocky crag known as iSandlwana. Even as he arrived there, and his men began unpacking his transport wagons and setting up their tents, Chelmsford rode forward with his staff to reconnoitre the land ahead. He had, by this stage, heard rumours that King Cetshwayo had assembled his army - perhaps 25,000 men - and sent it against his column, and Chelmsford was worried by a line hills on his immediate right which might screen the Zulu advance on that side. Returning to camp that afternoon, he ordered most of his mounted and auxiliary troops to make ready to sweep through those hills the following morning. They set off before dawn on the 21st, and spent a long, hot day marching through a rugged and apparently deserted landscape until, late in the evening, and at the very furthest point of their march from iSandlwana, they ran into a Zulu force moving through the hills ahead of them. The commander, Major Dartnell, decided not to risk returning to camp in the dark with an enemy force close by and instead bivouacked on the hills, sending a report back to Lord Chelmsford.

This message reached Chelmsford in his tent at the foot of iSandlwana at about 2 AM on the morning of the 22nd, and it seemed to confirm his view of the unfolding campaign. Worried that he might lose contact with the Zulu force, and determined not to be hampered by his slow-moving baggage wagons, Chelmsford decided to split his command. He would march out of the camp with a mobile column, roughly half his men, leaving the rest behind to guard his baggage. By 3.30 AM he was gone - and everyone, both those who went with him and those who stayed behind, were convinced he would be fighting a battle that day.

He left behind a strong force under a Lt.Col. Pulleine and, as an afterthought, he ordered up from Rorke’s Drift a mobile column of mounted auxiliary troops under a Bvt. Col. Durnford. He did not, however, specify what Durnford was to do when he arrived there.

Durnford arrived at iSandlwana some time after 10 AM on the 22nd. There were now about 1700 black and white troops at iSandlwana. But Durnford found that the situation had changed since Chelmsford’s departure; Pulleine reported that a large number of Zulus had appeared after dawn on the skyline of a ridge to the north of the camp, much closer to iSandlwana, on the British left. They had retired from sight, and Pulleine had lacked the mounted troops to investigate further.

In the absence of any orders to the contrary, Durnford decided to follow up these movements. He split his own command into two and - leaving Pulleine in the camp - rode off about 11.30 AM onto the northern heights. One of his detachments spotted Zulu foragers in the distance and gave chase; cresting a ridge they suddenly found themselves looking down into the entire Zulu army camped beyond.

Chelmsford’s assessment of the situation had not been entirely wrong, but instead of moving to the British right the Zulu commander, Ntshingwayo kaMahole, had led his men through a line of hills across the British front and into a sheltered valley to the British left. Political and religious factors had decided Ntshingwayo to delay his attack until the 23rd but the sudden discovery made that impossible - without waiting for orders, his amabutho began to press forward towards iSandlwana, driving Durnford’s men back and deploying across a wide area in the traditional ‘chest and horns’ formation.

When news of the Zulu presence first reached Pulleine he could not, from his position at the foot of iSandlwana, see their approach and he pushed out his men in a thin screen which guarded the approaches to the camp without being fully aware of the extent of the Zulu attack. As the flanking Zulu ‘horns’ drove back Durnford’s men on both sides, the central ‘chest’ began to spill over the ridge-line and descend towards Pulleine. Pulleine pulled his men back fifty meters to higher ground and for a while the Zulu attack stalled in front of the musketry of the men of the 24th Regiment. Durnford, too, made a stand in a watercourse, the iNyogane, way out on the British right. But the British position was far too extended and the Zulu attack too concentrated; Durnford, in danger of being outflanked, pulled back from the iNyogane. With his own flank now exposed Pulleine attempted to withdraw his line towards the tents, but it was too late - encouraged by their commanders the Zulu amabutho rose up and charged, preventing Pulleine’s men from forming a new line and pushing individual red-coat companies through the tents. As the 24th tried to make a stand on the nek below iSandlwana hill, the right horn - which had passed down the Manzimnyama valley unseen behind them - emerged to attack them in the rear.

Many of the soldiers were killed on the nek - their anonymous graves are marked by the clusters of white-washed cairns that stand there today. Pulleine was among them, while Durnford died surrounded by a group of Natal Volunteer troops who had tried to block the track that ran through the camp. Some groups of men were forced, still fighting, down into the valley of the Manzimnyama, and it was not until they were pinned against its steep banks that they were finally over-run.

Of the 1700 men in the camp at the start of the battle over 1300 were killed. Most of those who got away were auxiliaries - only about 100 white men survived. The battle of iSandlwana was the most serious single defeat inflicted on the British Army during the Victorian era. Yet it was a costly victory for the Zulus too - at least a thousand of them were killed outright, and perhaps as many again mortally wounded; once the fighting was over, the Zulus looted the camp, and by evening had retired to their bivouac of the night before, carrying with them their spoils - and their wounded.

  And Lord Chelmsford? He had not found the Zulu army his scouts had spotted the night before and, after a fruitless day looking for them, he returned at last to iSandlwana to find the men he had left there strewn dead among the ruins of the camp.

And there was worse in store; looking back down the road to Rorke’s Drift that night, he could see flames rising from the border depot at Rorke’s Drift. The Zulus, it seems, had got behind him, and into the unprotected colony of Natal.