On 11 January 1879, a British Army crossed the Buffalo River, the boundary between the British Natal province and the independent native African kingdom of the Zulus. After the refusal by the Zulu king Cetshwayo of an insulting British ultimatum, a British army prepared to march on the Zulu capital, Ulindi with the goal of defeating and annexing the Zulu kingdom.
The Zulu War of 1879 was not officially sanctioned by the government of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. It was instead the work of an ambitious colonial official, Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, High Commissioner for Southern Africa. In an effort to compel the various states of South Africa into a British confederation (which would be comprised of British-run Cape Colony, Natal, and the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State), Frere had initiated a policy of annexation of local African tribal states. For most of the century the British had battled the Xhosa tribes between their Cape Colony and Zululand. The last of these was subdued in 1878.
Frere now set his sights on the Zulu Kingdom. Ambitions aside, the existence of an independent and highly-warlike Zulu state sharing several hundred miles of open border with British territory was an unstable and ultimately intolerable situation for the colonial government in the Cape.
Founded by the military savant Shaka in the first decades of the 19th century, the Zulus were a people as devoted to and organized for war as were the Romans or the Spartans of old. Every Zulu male belonged to one of the regiments (amabutho) of the 35,000 strong Zulu Army (impi). These were settled across the land in regimental kraals (villages), ready to be called-up as needed. Young Zulu men were forbidden to marry until they had “washed their spears” in the blood of an enemy. Therefore the Zulus were a people ever at war with their neighbors. Such a bellicose nation dwelling on the defenseless border of their Natal and Transvaal territories was in impossible security risk for the British government.
The British army that invaded Zululand consisted of 7,800 men, divided into 3 columns. Colonel (later Field Marshal) Sir Evelyn Wood of the 90th Light Infantry marched one column into the North of Zululand as a diversion. Colonel Sir Charles Pearson of the 3rd Foot (The Buffs) attacked from the southeast, nearest the coast. The main thrust, nearly 4,000 strong, was to be delivered by the “Center Column”, personally led by the British commander-in-chief Sir Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford. This force was comprised of the 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshire Regiment*), a squadron of the Imperial Mounted Infantry and of the Newcastle Mounted Rifles,and units of the Natal Native Infantry, Natal irregular horse and Royal Artillery.
After crossing the Buffalo River at the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, Chelmsford’s column made slow progress. Nine days into the invasion the Center Column had pushed just 10 miles into Zululand; where on the 20th they reached the distinctive mound of Isandlwana (the “Crouching Lion”). There Chelmsford made camp on the gentle slopes. Contrary to his own general instructions to all columns on the eve of the invasion, Chelmsford failed to order even elementary defenses around the camp. Instead, he sent out scouts to look for the Zulu army he suspected must be coming, and waited.
The Zulus were, indeed, coming.
Hearing of the British incursions into his realm, King Cetshwayo had dispatched an army of some 24,000 warriors, commanded by two Zulu royal princes (inDunas). His command to them was simple: “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers. Undetected by Chelmsford’s scouts, the Zulus were closing in on Center Column at Isandlwana.
On the 18th, 4,000 warriors were detached from the main-body to attack Pearson’s column to the southeast. The remaining 20,000 moved closer to Chelmsford’s force.
On January 21, 1879, a British mounted detachment contacted a Zulu force to the east. Thinking this was the main-body of the Zulu army, Lord Chelmsford made the decision to set out at dawn the following day in pursuit, with the intent of finding the Zulus and bringing them to battle. Little did he know that this was the detached force moving east to attack Pearson’s column; and that the main Zulu army was moving on his base camp at Isandlwana.
The battlefield at Isandlwana. It was here, on the gentle slopes below the rock formation called “The Crouching Lion” (center-left in the picture) that the British were camped and fought their desperate battle. The white stones scattered along the slope are memorial markers, denoting places on the field where fell the British defenders.
At dawn on the 22nd of January, Chelmsford left the camp at Isandlwana, taking with him the 2nd Battalion of the 24th, along with the Mounted Rifles and several guns. To defend his camp and his supplies, he left at Isandlwana approximately 1,400 men, including the 1st Battalion of the 24th and a detached company of the 2nd Battalion, along with a battery of field guns and an engineer company, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine.
At 11 AM a troop of Mounted Rifles, led by Lt. Charles Raw, scouting to the north, spotted a few Zulu boys running away. Pursuing, they came to a valley beyond and found, standing to arms, the 20,000 warriors of the Zulu army!
Their presence detected, the Zulu’s immediately began a rapid advance on Isandlwana, pursuing Raw’s men. A battalion of Natal Native horse led by Lt.Colonel Anthony William Durnford rode out to aid Raw and harass the advancing Zulus; which Pulleine and he still mistakenly judged to be moving against Chelmsford’s rear, rather than their own position. But Durnford encountered the rapidly advancing left “horn” of the Zulu impi, some 6,000 strong, and his force began a fighting retreat back toward their camp with the Zulus hot on their heels.
The Zulus were known for their ability to advance at a miles-chewing, loping run. Their endurance was such that they could maintain this pace for hours, eventually overtaking horsemen whose mounts could not sustain such a sustained pace. Durnford and his men succeeded in staying ahead of the pursuing Zulus, and arriving on the right of the hastily-forming British line, formed firing line among the other native levies.
TACTICS AND MISCONCEPTIONS
The Zulu attacked the British position at Isandlwana in their traditional “Horns of the Buffalo” formation: a center (the head) to fix the enemy, two wings (the horns) to envelope him, and a reserve (the loins) to reinforce where necessary.
As the diagram above shows, when contact was made with the enemy the head and horns advanced to meet him. In the second phase, the head gave way, luring the enemy forward. Its warriors reinforced the horns and formed the joints between these and the loins; who now engaged the enemy frontally. In the final phase, the horns envelope the enemy, who is now encircled and destroyed. These were very sophisticated tactics for a “tribal” army. By such methods Shaka had created the finest and most lethal native army in Africa.
Scene from 1986’s “Shaka Zulu”; depicting the young Shaka training his first cadre of followers in the new Zulu tactics.
As the Zulu impi neared the British camp, Paulleine saw first the right horn of the Zulu formation coming over a hill to his left. Estimating this force at 4,000 strong, and not yet seeing the rest of the oncoming Zulu’s, he sent word to Chelmsford (received by the general between 9am and 10am) that this force might be attempting to get into his rear. To prevent this, Paulliene sent out all companies of the 24th into extended firing line ahead of the camp; in effort to pin and engage the Zulus at distance with firepower.
The British infantryman in 1879 carried the breach-loading Martini-Henry rifle. An 8lbs, 49 inch weapon, it was a heavy caliber (.450) rifle, capable of delivering deadly and sustained fire out to 1,800 yards. If the enemy came to close quarters, it sported a socket-type spike bayonet, 20.4 inches in length. The Martini-Henry was the first non-muzzle loading weapon of the British army, and a trained soldier could fire off a round every 6 seconds. Recently brought into service, the British military establishment had very high expectations concerning its effectiveness.
“I am inclined to think that the first experience with the Martin-Henry’s will be such a surprise for the Zulus, that they will not be formidable after the first effort.”
The Zulus themselves despised firearms. Long acquainted with the muzzle-loading muskets of the whites, the Zulu were unimpressed with their lack of accuracy and relative slow rate of fire. The ethos of their warrior culture was philosophically at odds with firearms in any case: “The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms – the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack”. A sentiment right out of the pages of Homer; but dangerously out of date in the last quarter of the 19th century. Nevertheless, the Zulus were brave and capable proponents of this ancient military philosophy.
The primary weapon-system of the Zulu warrior was the iklwa (the shorter, heavier Zulu version of the Bantu light thrusting/throwing spear, the assegai) and a large oval shield made of cowhide. The tactics introduced by Shaka called for the Zulus to close with their enemy as rapidly as possible; and using their shield to hook and pull the enemy’s shield out of the way, to then thrust at the now-exposed armpit or left side of their opponent. While the British rifle-and-bayonet put them at a distinct disadvantage; the speed with which they were able to close the distance with the British would come as a shock to Chelmsford’s riflemen; and both sides learned to respect the tactics of the other, and adopted measures to deal with them. For their part, Zulus learned to lay low, and only rush forward where terrain masked the fire of British rifles. The British soon discovered that the best way of dealing with the rapid rush of Zulu impi lay in erecting fortified posts or fighting from behind barriers that slowed or stopped the Zulu advance, giving the riflemen time to mow them down.
But in this first encounter on January 22, 1879, below the looming rock formation of Isandlwana, neither side understood clearly the challenges their opponents offered. The Zulus were rushing headlong into the rapid fire of British riflemen, who could knock a warrior down at a thousand yards. While Paulliene’s red-coated companies moving forward into extended lines in open terrain had no reason to suppose that they could not keep the fast-moving Zulu masses at bay with aimed fire at that distance.
Both sides were in for a shock.
FOR WANT OF A SCREWDRIVER
As the morning drew on, the “head” and right “horn” of the Zulu army engaged the British defenders beneath the “Crouching Lion”. The fire from the red-coated British soldiers was so hot that for the first two hours the Zulus were indeed pinned down, their warriors forced to lie flat on their stomachs beneath the fusillade of hot lead. But the left horn of the Zulu formation was working its way around the British right, forcing Paulliene to pull his line back closer to the camp. Here, the 2 guns left in the camp joined the fire. Morale amongst the British remained high, as the Zulu advance seemed halted.
However, “Murphy” intervened at this crucial moment; for it is an immutable law that whatever can go wrong will, and at the worst possible moment. In this case, it was the lack of a screwdriver (and an overly-officious, bureaucratic officer) that doomed the defenders of Isandlwana.
As ammunition supplies on the firing line began to run low (each soldier carried only 60 rounds in his ammunition pouch), runners were sent back from the platoons on the firing line; to the supply wagons further up the slope, at the back of the camp.
There, they found utter confusion.
Thousands of extra rounds of rifle ammunition were contained in heavy wooden boxes stored on the supply wagons. These had been sealed for transport with strong iron screws, rather than simple nails. Somehow, incredible as it seems in retrospect, the Quartermaster’s Corp had failed to bring the screwdrivers necessary to open these crates and issue the desperately needed ammunition.
Modern reenactors at Isandlwana: here a British rifle squad of the 24th Regiment of Foot fire Martini-Henry rifles. Firing lines such as this, drawn up in extended line across the slopes, succeeded for a time in pinning down the masses of the Zulu impi
When the runners came for ammunition resupply, they found frantic Quartermaster’s assistants desperately trying to break open these boxes. The situation was made worse by the bureaucratic fussiness of the Battalion Quartermaster, who demanded that the runners return to their companies on the line and obtain written authorization from their commanding officers for any ammunition distribution from his stores! The boxes were eventually broken open with rifle butts, but this along with the distance from the supply wagons in the camp to the firing line further down the slopes, delayed the troops getting vitally needed replenishment.
While this theater-of-the-absurd played out at the supply wagons, the companies on the firing line began to run low on ammunition. As they perceived a lessening in the intensity of the fire the Zulu warriors rose and surged forward. While the “head” kept the British line occupied before the camp, the left and right horns rushed to either side, sweeping against the British flanks.
Paulliene had entrusted the flanks to Native Natal irregulars, Africans trained-and-organized in European fashion. These were recruited mostly from men of the Xhosa tribe, whose fathers and grandfathers had been victims of Zulu aggression before becoming subjects of the British Cape Colony. They had grown-up on tales of Zulu battle prowess, and their fear of the Zulu went to the morrow of their bones. As the Zulu impi now bore down upon them most broke and ran, deserting their positions in panicked flight. Durnford, fighting among his command, was cut down, his body later found lying near a wagon, surrounded by the bodies of his men.
With his flanks collapsing and his main line low on ammunition, Paulliene’s position rapidly deteriorated. With the Zulus swarming around their flanks and into their rear, the men of the 24th hastily formed squad, platoon and company squares wherever they could. The fighting was desperate and ferocious, bayonet against raw-hide shield and iklwa stabbing spear. The men of the 24th were brave and well trained. They stood firmly, giving as good as they got. But numbers soon told, as islands of red-coated soldiers were swarmed over by the Zulu wave.
Images of the desperate last minutes at Isandlwana. The bottom from “Zulu Dawn” (1979)
As his died around him, the unfortunate Pulleine gave orders to 36 year old Lieutenant Teignmouth Melville to flee with the Queen’s Colors (the country’s national flag trimmed with gold fabric, and with the regiment’s insignia placed in the center), to prevent its capture. Retiring to his tent, Pulleine sat down to compose a letter, possibly to his family, or perhaps to sketch a report of the defeat for Chelmsford. Before he could finish, a Zulu warrior broke into the tent. Pulleine lifted his service revolver, and firing wounded the warrior in the neck but was himself fatally stabbed. He died having done little wrong by the conventions of the day. But he fell victim (as did his command) to a chain of misjudgments and the mistakes of others. It is worth noting that in battle what often leads to disaster is not what you don’t know: it is what you think you know, but which proves incorrect.
Melvill with the Queen’s Colors and another Lieutenant, Nevill Coghill, did temporarily escape the slaughter on horseback. Riding hard for the river, they were closely pursued by Zulus. There they were caught while attempting to cross, and both were killed. The Colors washed down river, to be retrieved ten days later.
At around 2:29 that afternoon, a solar eclipse occurred, appropriately darkening the stricken field. Isandlwana was over, and 1,300 British and native soldiers lay slain on the field. The 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot had ceased to exist. The Zulus, as was their custome, slit open the bellies of all the fallen; to allow the souls of the dead, which they believed dwelt within a man’s belly, to be freed to go on to the after-world rather than to remain and haunt the battlefield.
This was the grisly site that greeted Chelmsford when in the late afternoon he returned to Isandlwana: his camp looted and destroyed, the disemboweled bodies of the men he’d left there scattered about the slopes. Their corpses lay in platoon and company sized clusters, where they had fallen, fighting to the end. At the supply wagons, bodies were found of soldiers stabbed in the back, killed while trying to open the desperately needed ammunition crates.
It was the worst defeat suffered by the British Army at the hands of native warriors since Elphinstone’s disastrous retreat from Kabul during the First Afghan War, more than thirty years before.
Opening from the excellent “Zulu” (1964)
REDEMTION AT RORKE’S DRIFT
Before crossing the Buffalo River into Zululand, Chelmsford had established a supply depot at the mission station at Rorke’s Drift. This depot was guarded by some 140 men of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th, including men left there at the makeshift hospital who were too sick to continue the march with the main column. They were commanded by two Lieutenants: John Chard, an Engineer officer there to build a bridge across the river, and Gonville Bromhead, an aristocratic professional who was at the time nearly deaf! These two untried officers with a scratch force of red-coated soldiers would soon be engaged in one of Britain’s most celebrated battles.
By 3 pm word reached Rorke’s Drift of the unfolding disaster at Isandlwana, and that Zulu forces were likely on their way to finish off the garrison. Chard, the senior of the two officers, assumed command and quickly set about fortifying the otherwise defenseless position. Working quickly, a defensive perimeter and interior redoubts were constructed out of mealie bags, supply crates, and overturned wagons. This perimeter incorporated the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone kraal. The buildings were made defensible as well, with loopholes (firing holes) knocked through the external walls and the external doors barricaded with furniture.
The approaching Zulu force of between 3,000-4,000 warriors was comprised of married men in their 30s and 40s, along with an ibutho of young unmarried men. None had engaged during the fighting at Isandlwana: having been assigned to the “loins” or reserve of the Zulu formation at Isandlwana, they were ordered to sweep around the British left flank. The Zulus reached Rorke’s Drift at 4:30 pm, having fast-marched some 20 miles from the morning encampment they had left around 8 am. For the next 11 hours they would engage the British in relentless assaults; in all a testament to the determination, stamina, and physical endurance of the Zulu warriors.
All the rest of that afternoon of January 22nd the Zulus launched probes and assaults against various points in the British position, supported by rifle fire from the heights above by warriors armed Martini-Henrys taken from off of the dead at Isandlwana. Most of their attacks were directed against the northern side of the defenses, while rifle fire was directed against the defenders of the south wall.
Each assault was beaten back. Several penetrated into the perimeter, only to be met with flying squads from the reserve, meeting them with rifle fire and bayonet. With no place to run the British defenders fought with desperate courage and iron determination. Chard and Bromhead provided exemplary leadership, as did the cadre of regimental NCOs. (Both officers were subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for valor.)
The nature of the defenses was such that the Zulus were never able to use their numbers to good effect, and swarm the defenders as they had at Isandlwana. And unlike the earlier, larger battle, here the British had a fortified position and more than sufficient ammunition readily available.
The Zulus broke into the burning hospital building at-or-around 6 pm; where a fierce fight developed beneath the blazing thatch roof. Those patients able to stand kept the Zulus at bay, while others broke holes through interior walls to allow evacuation. The heroic actions of two privates, Henry Hook and John Williams during this most desperate portion of the battle earned both of these soldiers the Victoria Cross.
The battle raged throughout the night, coming to an end around 2 am. For the next two hours, until 4 am, the British were subject to rifle fire from the Zulus in the hills above their position; using the light from the burning hospital building to illuminate their targets.
As dawn brightened the eastern sky, the defenders at Rorke’s Drift found that the Zulus had withdrawn. Parties were sent out to scout, collect weapons, and (when found) “finish off” the Zulu wounded. These activities were interrupted, and British given a great scare, when around 7 am the Zulus suddenly reappeared in force on the crest of the hills above. The exhausted British rushed to man their positions once again, expecting another assault.
Riflemen defending an interior redoubt against Zulu assault.
But no attack materialized. After a brief time, the Zulus left; this time for good.
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was over.
The British lost a mere 17 dead; though virtually every man in the command had some kind of wound. All were exhausted, having fought for the better part of ten hours, and were running low on ammunition: of 20,000 rounds in reserve at the mission, only 900 remained; the riflemen expending an astonishing 19,000 rounds in their successful effort to repel the Zulu attackers.
The number of Zulu dead is disputed. The official count was 351 men. But other witnesses put the dead (including those wounded Zulu “put out of their misery”) at as high as 600. The discrepancy in casualties between the British and their Zulu attackers is dramatic.
The heroism of the defenders resulted in the award of 11 Victoria Crosses for valor; the most ever received by one regiment in a single action. Another four Distinguished Conduct Medals were also awarded. Oddly, Lord Chelmsford was critical of the number of awards given to veterans of the Rorke’s Drift defense. “It is monstrous making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke’s Drift, could not bolt and so fought like rats for their lives, which they could not otherwise save”. A sour reflection from a commander whose decisions had led to one Britain’s greatest defeats at the hands of native warriors, commenting upon men who had given their country its only reason to celebrate Chelmsford’s otherwise disastrous invasion of Zululand.
The war would go on. Though forced to a temporary retreat out of Zululand, the British would be resupplied and reinforced by May of that year, and return to ultimately defeat the Zulus and annex their kingdom. For his part in initiating the Zulu War and later laying the ground-work for the First Boer War, Sir Henry Bartle Frere was recalled and cashiered the following year (1880).
In May 1879 Chelmsford’s reinforced army returned to Isandlwana and buried the skeletal remains of the fallen.
But on January 22, 1879, the British suffered both a humiliating and costly defeat; and a heroic and redeeming victory.
As with any battle and campaign, there are lessons to be learned.
At Isandlwana, Chelmsford made the fatal error of dividing his forces in the face of the enemy. Without proper reconnaissance and unaware of the enemy’s dispositions or precise intentions, he took half of his command on “wild goose chase” away from his camp on the morning of the 22nd. He left a camp well-garrisoned. But contrary to his own orders given at the start of the invasion, he utterly failed to erect any kind of field works or other defenses for his camp. All of these mistakes can be accounted for by the utter hubris of both Chelmsford and the British authorities in general who underestimated their opponent and overestimated their own capabilities.
It is striking that this disaster at the hands of native forces came just 3 years on the heels of a similar defeat and for many of the same reasons in North America: Custer’s defeat and death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The Zulus, by contrast, knew exactly where their enemies lay, and kept their forces concentrated. Using terrain and rapid movement to their advantage, they achieved strategic surprise by arriving within strike distance of the British camp undetected. When discovered by a British mounted detachment, they immediately went over to a well-coordinated and rapid assault, achieving tactical surprise as well.
All of these mistakes by the British and achievements by the Zulus might still have been negated by the superior firepower of the British riflemen, had not the incomprehensibly stupid lack of proper tools by the commissariat and the British drawing up their battle line so far down-slope from the their supply wagons, deprived the British soldiers of available ammunition resupply during the crises of the battle.
At Rorke’s Drift different lessons can be gleaned.
The first, one that the British would learn from and employ in their successful advance into Zululand later that year, was that Zulu mobility and mass was best met from behind a fortified position or good defensive terrain. That facing an enemy who could maneuver nearly as rapidly as cavalry in open ground was dicey at best.
The second was that given proper supply of ammunition, the steady fire of British riflemen armed with the Martini-Henry breach-loading rifle could deliver sufficient fire to devastate massed enemy warriors. If given time to do so.
For posterity, Rorke’s Drift has given a lesson in the force-multiplier effect of desperation. Having no way of retreating or surrendering, the British were forced to fight with a much greater determination and courage than is normally found in even the best of fighting men facing hopeless odds. With a secure position, a plenitude of supplies, and confidence in both themselves and their officers, the men of the 24th forever secured their place in the annals of British arms.
Scene from the terrific 1964 film, “Zulu”; depicting (erroneously) the final Zulu attack at dawn the 23rd. A great scene, and typical of what happened throughout the day; in truth the fighting ended at 2am the 23rd with the Zulu withdrawing.
* The regiment would be designated as “The South Wales Borderers” in 1881.
- Bourquin, S. Military History Journal, V.4, No.4, The Zulu Military Organization, South African Military History Society, Dec. 1978.
- Both were awarded the Victoria Cross for this doomed attempt to save the colors. However, their action in leaving the battle did not go uncriticized. The premiere soldier of the day, General Sir Garnet Wolseley, commented: “I don’t like the idea of officers escaping on horseback when their men on foot are being killed.” In this Wolseley was, in my opinion, entirely correct.
- In the 1964 film “Zulu”, the Zulus return to salute the British for their bravery. But this is mere speculation on the part of the filmmaker.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.