Monday, May 12, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Zulu War 1879: The Battle of Isandlwana

“I can’t understand it, I left a thousand men here” Lord Chelmsford, returning to Isandlwana following the battle.


The battle of Isandlwana is remembered as a classic example of the consequences of a well-armed European army underestimating its non-European opponents. In 1879, British Imperial forces under Lord Chelmsford crossed the border of the British colony at Natal into Zululand. Chelmsford’s advance did not proceed as quickly as he had hoped. Heavy rain had turned dirt tracks into mud and slowed down the advance of his columns. It was not until the 20th January, that he reached the forward slopes of the rocky outcrop known as Isandlwana. Immediately, patrols were sent out looking for the next viable campground. The British did not intend to stay long in the area and no attempts had been made to fortify any of the British camps. The absence of any serious opposition so far in the campaign encouraged a complacency amongst senior officers and soldiers alike.

By the time Chelmsford reached Isandlwana, he was anticipating a confrontation, but the prospect did not concern him. His greatest fear was that the Zulus would refuse to give battle directly, slip round his flank and attack Natal. Chelmsford therefore decided to seek out the enemy. He sent a strong patrol into the hills towards oNdini on 21st January. Part of the force ran into a group of Zulus, who fell back using the terrain and bush to prevent the British getting a good impression of their strength. Believing this to be the main Zulu army, Chelmsford ordered roughly half his force to march out from Isandlwana before dawn the next day to confront them. He left approximately 1,700 British troops and their African allies to guard the camp. Little did he realise that the force he had encountered were only stragglers. The main Zulu army had already moved across Chelmsford’s front, using the hills to avoid detection. While he spent the morning of 22nd January 12 miles away searching for the enemy, scouts from the Isandlwana camp stumbled across the main Zulu army of 20,000 concealed in a valley only five miles from the British camp. The encounter provoked the Zulus, who rose up and advanced rapidly towards the British position. The battle of Isandlwana had begun.

The Zulu kingdom had been built upon the conquests of their great King Shaka early in the nineteenth century. The army used sophisticated tactics and an advanced command system. Moving barefoot across country without the burden of supplies, Zulu forces were trained to forage for food. Their army was usually preceded by scouts and skirmishers who provided intelligence and masked their movements. Their traditional attack formation consisted of an encircling movement from both flanks, ‘the horns of the bull’. The ‘chest’ directly confronted the enemy centre, and a reserve force was kept in the rear. Warriors advanced towards the enemy at a steady pace, using any cover they could find. Once within range, they would loose their throwing spears or volley from their firearms and then charge the enemy position using their stabbing spears and shields. The Zulus did not take prisoners.




King Cetshwayo of the Zulus. Cetshwayo led his people through the British invasion and ruled from 1873-1879.






It was this highly trained force of Zulu 'impis' that the British encountered on the 22nd January 1879. Once again, misjudging the situation, the British believed they were facing nothing more than a local force and deployed their men in open order some distance from the camp. It was not until the entire Zulu army cam into view, cresting the entire range of the hills overlooking the camp, that the British realised how badly they had underestimated their opponent. Chelmsford had left Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine of the 1/24th in command of the camp. In addition to the 1700 men armed with the new Martini-Henry rifle, the British also had two 7-pound artillery cannons and reserves of one million rounds of rifle ammunition.

At the early stage of the battle the three Zulu regiments making up the main body, suffered from serious losses from the defenders’ sustained rifle fire. The officers and NCOs in the centre of the British front line controlled their men’s volley fire to the extent that the main Zulu attack faltered. However, on the left flank troops and artillery were being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Commanding the left flank, Colonel Dunford realised that his men were running out of ammunition and sent several riders back to the camp with urgent requests for supplies. They were unable to locate their allocated supplies and returned empty handed. As ammunition was not forthcoming, Dunford requested a volunteer to warn Pulleine of the situation. With no volunteers forthcoming, Dunford had not choice but to withdraw back to the main camp. As Dunford ordered his men to retreat, G company’s position was left exposed. The company was swiftly overwhelmed by several thousand Zulus.

Right across the British line the defenders were beginning to run low on ammunition. Each infantryman at the start of the battle had been equipped with four packets of ten bullets each and a further thirty rounds loose in their canvas expense bags. Although supply commissars had been attempting to maintain sufficient supplies, after half an hour many soldiers began to yell for more ammunition. The ammunition boxes had a sliding lid that was secured by a single two inch screw. As screw-drivers were in short supply, lids were smashed open with rifle butt and rocks. However, this trickle of ammunition was not sufficient to meet the ever increasing demands that were now flooding in from all sections of the British line.

Meanwhile the Zulu attack in front of the camp had faltered. The Zulu commanders dispatched Chief Mkosona of the Ukhandempemuu regiment. His intervention got the attack moving again before he too was shot dead. Encouraged by his example, the entire Zulu centre suddenly rushed the thin line of British infantry. Even sustained volley fire could not stop such numbers of charging men. The Zulu left and right horns now joined up behind the British causing the column’s terrified cattle to rush through the wagon park and into the rear of the camp. British survivors from the centre fought their way back through to the wagon camp where they tried to form a defensive square. Very quickly, the camp transformed itself from a scene of peaceful activity to one of noise, gunfire, terror and confusion. The chaos was made worse by the lack of visibility. Isandlwana sits in a wide bowl surrounded by hills. Volley-fire would have created a thick hanging smokescreen between the British and the advancing Zulus.

Several groups of red-coated British soldiers fought their way out of the camp, but were soon caught and overwhelmed. Lieutenants Coghill and Melville of 1/24th are credited with the attempt to save the regimental colours. Both tried to cross the river at the same point, but Melville was thrown off his horse. Coghill went back to help him. They were then caught and killed by Zulus. Both men were honoured with posthumous VCs 28 years later in 1907.

In less than one hour, the battle of Isandlwana was over. The number of Zulu killed are unknown, but probably in the region of 3000. The Zulu plan had been brilliantly executed through rugged and harsh terrain. The British had seriously underestimated the Zulu ability to plan and coordinate a major attack. As a result they were annihilated. Beneath Isandlwana lay 52 officers, 810 white troops and 500 black troops of the British column. Less than 60 white troops escaped the slaughter. The failure to prepare adequate defences and overstretched and inadequate supply lines had all contributed to the British defeat. Although the British army was able to redeem itself shortly afterwards at Rorke’s Drift, the final invasion of Zululand was delayed for several months.


Saul David, Zulu: the Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 (London, 2004)

David Rattray’s Guidebook to the Anglo-Zulu War Battlefields, ed. Dr. Adrian Greaves (Barnsley, 2003)

Ian Knight, Rorke’s Drift 1879 (Oxford, 1996)

Adrian Greaves, Crossing the Buffalo: the Zulu war of 1879 (London, 2005)

Adrian Greaves, Rorke’s Drift (London 2002)

2 comments:

Gary Smailes said...

This is a great summary of an iconic battle, though I think I could add a bit to the picture.
Firstly, the issue of the ammunition boxes is largely a myth. The work of Ian Knight has proved that opening the boxes was a simple matter of brute force and the lack of screwdrivers is irrelevant. Perhaps more important is the reluctance of the officer in charge of the ammunition to release it to the army without the proper procedure. He tried to make sure the ammunition of evenly spread and therefore it failed to make its way on the battlefield as quickly as it could have.
However, the most important point is that of formation. The British troops were distributed in a pattern that was far to open for the situation. There is a strong historical argument that had the British been formed up in a tight square at the base of the hill, then the defeat would have been avoided.

Alex said...

Many thanks, I've now had a look at Ian Knight's 'Go to your God like a soldier' and I agree with you.

I'd also like to have a look at the documents produced in England at the enquiry after the defeat. It would be interesting to see what the Victorians thought of the ammunition/supply situation at Isandlwana