The Isandlwana Battle

The British Armies' Defeat

Eleven days before the historic Isandlwana battle, during which the British army was to suffer its biggest defeat ever at the hands of a native military foe, British High Commissioner in South Africa at the time, Sir Bartle Frere, had launched an invasion of Zululand after the expiry of his impossible ultimatum to the Zulu King Cetshwayo had expired. Frere was trying to establish a confederation of white-led states in southern Africa, but the Zulus stood firmly in the path of his ambitions.

Under the command of Major General Lord Chelmsford, three columns were sent to converge on the Zulu Royal ikhanda – or military camp – at Ulundi. The coastal column was commanded by Colonel Charles Pearson, the central column by Colonel Richard Glyn, and the third – highly mobile – column by Colonel Evelyn Wood. In addition, Brevet Colonel Anthony Durnford and Colonel Hugh Rowlands each commanded an additional reserve force.


General Chelmsford accompanied the central column, thereby effectively over-riding the command of Colonel Glyn. This column crossed the Mzinyathi – or Buffalo – River at Rorke's Drift on Sunday the 11th of January 1879. Their first action took place the following day when they attacked the settlement of Chief Sihayo, after which they advanced to the site below the sphinx-shaped hill known as Isandlwana, where they established a camp. As they considered it a temporary camp, unlikely to suffer an attack, they undertook no entrenchments. The column totalled some 4,907 men and included 302 wagons and carts, 1,507 oxen and 116 horses and mules.

At dawn on the 21st of January Major John Dartnell led a party of about 150 men on a reconnaissance mission, some 16km to the south-east in the area of the Hlazakazi Hill. Commandant Rupert Lonsdalesimultaneously led 1,600 men of the Natal Native Contingent in the direction of the Malakatha Mountain. During these movements some Zulus were observed on the Magogo Heights. After several skirmishes, Dartnell sent two men back to Isandlwana to report to Chelmsford, and inform him that his party would spend the night on the slopes of Hlakazi.
The following morning Chelmsford and Colonel Glyn rode out in the direction of Hlakazi and met up with Dartnell, leaving the camp under the command of Lt. Colonel Henry Pulleine, who at this point had a total of 1,768 men in the camp, it having also been reinforced by Durnford’s reserves. 

On the 22nd of January, a scouting party of mounted troops, led by Lt. Charles Raw, observed some Zulus and set off in pursuit. As they approached the edge of the Mabazo overlooking the Ngwebeni Valley, they spotted the 24,000-strong Zulu main force camped below.Meanwhile, on the 17th of January, the 28,000-strong Zulu army, under command of Cetshwayo's Prime Minister Mnyamana Buthelezi, had left kwaNodwengo – near present-day Ulundi – and proceeded across the White Umfolozi River. On the 18th 4,000 warriors under Godide kaNdlela set off from the main body to attack Pearson at Nyazane, near Eshowe. The remaining 24,000 Zulus camped at the isiPhezi ikhanda, their trail behind them leaving the grass flat for five months! On the 19th they split into two parallel columns and camped near Babanango mountain. On the 20th they moved a further 18km and camped near Siphezi mountain, and on the 21st they moved in small groups into the Ngwebeni valley where they remained hidden until their discovery by Raw and his men on the 22nd.The Zulus had intended attacking the following day, but Raw's men fired into their ranks and they began to stream towards Isandlwana. Raw reached the camp around 12h15 to warn of the approaching enemy.

A defensive line was established between the rump of the hill, across the rocky plan to the Nyokane donga. Durnford's men who had already commenced their advance withdrew to the donga when the rocket battery was overrun.The main Zulu attack began at 12h30 with 20,000 men, 4,000 being held in reserve. At first the British line, comprised mainly of the 1st and 24th regiments, held firm with the two guns keeping a steady fire. However, as many as a third of the Zulus were armed with some type of firearm, which eventually began to take its toll and the warriors advanced to within 800 metres of the somewhat extended British line, due to a shortage of men who had also begun to run short of ammunition.


A simultaneous partial eclipse of the sun during the fighting added an eerie quality to the battle.Realising that the initial attack had failed, the Zulu commanders sent Ndlaka and an induna forward to encourage the warriors. At this point Durnford’s position on the right collapsed and his men fell back towards the saddle, through which the warriors surged across the British line. As their line fell back from the Zulu advance, the right horn of the Zulu force had made its way behind the hill to cut off any British retreat back towards Rorke’s Drift.By about 3pm the British position had been overrun, and those who tried to escape the slaughter attempted to flee via the saddle between Isandlwana and Black’s koppie. Most of these fugitives were stopped by the Zulu’s right horn, and only a few on horseback got away.


Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill bravely attempted to save the battalion’s Queen’s Colour but were killed in the attempt, the colours being washed downstream and recovered on the 4th of February.Chelmsford, who had been operating in the hills to the south-east, was informed of the disaster at 3pm and the remnants of the central column cautiously returned to Isandlwana as evening fell.


The reality of the situation together with the reports of the ongoing battle raging at Rorke’s Drift made him resume his march before dawn, reaching the Mzinyathi River shortly after the Zulus had returned to Zululand.Both sides lost heavily in the battle of Isandlwana. Estimates of British losses were 1,357, and approximately 3,000 Zulu warriors were also killed. At this news, King Cetshwayo said ..'alas, a spear has been thrust into the belly of the nation'.