British Imperial: No. 2 and No. 3 Column, Natal Field Force, consisting of six companies of Imperial regular infantry (roughly 600 troops armed with repeating rifles), 900 irregular troops (the Natal Native Contingent or NNC, a mix of horse and foot armed with rifles), two batteries of artillery (one cannon, one rocket), approximately 80 gunners, and roughly 150-200 casuals, detachments, odds and sods - a total of about 1,500 under COL Anthony Durnford or LTC Henry Pulleine (we'll talk about this issue of command further on, as well).
The British invasion force was divided into three columns (see "The Campaign", below), of which this was the Center Column. To the north (left) was the 1st Column led by COL Wood formed around the 90th Regiment of Foot, to the south the 4th under COL Pearson organized around the 3rd Regiment (the Buffs). All three columns were under the command of MG Thesiger (better known by his title, Lord Chelmsford).
The Campaign: The British Empire is said to have been acquired in a "fit of absence of mind" which is nonsense.
The British, known as they are now for odd fashion, bad food, rock music and soccer, were the most rapacious and greedy of imperialists and by far the most competent and successful. They had established themselves on the Cape of Good Hope during the early years of the world war with revolutionary France. The original Dutch - now "Boer" - colonists were considered to be enemy aliens when the French swarmed over Holland, and a British amphibious operation seized Cape Town in 1795 and began British rule over the Cape Colony.The British had two large pains in the imperial arse; the native Bantu inhabitants of southern Africa - principally the Xhosa (pronounced "cosa") tribes of the southeastern Cape region, and their cousins the Zulus to the northeast - and the habituated Dutch settlers that had displaced them. Scattered groups of the earliest title-holders, the San and Khoi people, remained but had been so hunted and harried first by the Nguni Bantu and then by the Boers that they were politically and militarily meaningless.
But the Nguni tribes and the Boers were different. They were numerous, for one thing, and they were - although they would have hated to admit it - very similar. Both groups were pastoralists and farmers, requiring large expanses of pasturelands for the herds that they prized.
Both were convinced of their own importance, of their own place in destiny. Both were firmly convinced of the principle "What's mine is mine, what's yours is negotiable." And both were militarily aggressive, heavily armed societies whose temper made them instantly ready and often eager for war.Of course, they were dealing with the British, who in this, their imperial heyday, would have made Attila look like a blushing virgin for rapacity and Genghis seem a cooing infant for cunning. In the hundred-year period between the first landings at Cape Town and the showdown across the Buffalo River the British had expanded their control northwards in their usual fashion; negotiating, bribing and cajoling when they could, fighting when they had to.In the process they irked the shit out of the Boers, whose idea of a good time was grabbing several thousand acres of Xhosa land (usually in the form of what they called a "Kaffir War"), using the enslaved war captives and any other black-skinned person they could seize to work their spread, then go to church and pray for more land and more slaves. Even in a hard world, the Boers really were a pretty despicable bunch. Tough, hardy, bold, brave, strong...but not someone you'd want to see trekking into your neighborhood. Really.
By the 1870's the Boers had run or been pushed north and east from the Cape, destroying most of the southeast Xhosa chiefdoms in the process. Meanwhile, starting with Shaka's campaigns in the 1820s the Zulu overran most of the Qwabe lands to the southwest in the process of establishing first a Zulu Kingdom and then a small empire.The combined pressure from Boer expansion north and east, Zulu expansion south and west, slaving, tribal warfare, environmental factors such as overgrazing, and various cattle pests and murrains had the effect of knocking several tribes loose and sending them careering around southern Africa, setting off something called the mfecane, a holocaust of devastation, war, flight and starvation between the 1820s and 1840s. After pantsloads of people had been killed, and not a few of them eaten, the last real forces standing were the two that were the most trouble; the Boers and the Zulus.
The British, meanwhile, just wanted the damn troublemakers to sit down, shut up, and start paying taxes and obeying the law. To that end they tried to quash Boer slaving (irritating the Boers) and Zulu tribal war and judicial murder (puzzling and irking the Zulus). No one was very happy with British meddling, which, as usual, concerned the British not a whit.
And let's not forget the activities of the missionaries, whose busy little bodies also got up the wick of the Zulu king, Cetshwayo - the very notion of a God more powerful than the King of the Zulu - really! Hard to take for a man whose merest flick of a cowtail whisk could send you off to get sharpened stakes pounded up your bottom or your brains bashed in with a single strike of a knobkerrie.
Cetshwayo, who became king in 1873, was a hard man; you had to be, to be a successful king in Zululand, where fratricide and patricide were just tools in the box for ruling the joint. In 1877 he met an equally hard adversary, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, British Commissioner for Southern Africa.
Frere's brief was to establish some sort of self-governing confederation for the Cape colony. To do this he had to find a way to sweet-talk in the two independant states in the region, the Boer South African Republic and the kingdom of Zululand. It's a measure of Frere's genius that within five years he had started wars with both.
The Zulu War was the product of Frere's intrigue, a series of demands that Cetshwayo could not acquiesce to (and remain king), culminating in a British ultimatum that required him to disband the Army. Instead, when the ultimatum expired, Frere directed Chelmsford to invade.
The so-called "First Invasion" was a masterpiece of British imperial mismanagement. The British had no intelligence on Zulu dispositions, strengths or movements. The columns were glacially slow, moving as little as a mile a day and dragging mountains of baggage and impedimentia. The imperial columns had no communications faster or more reliable than a man on horseback and were, for tactical purposes, out of supporting distance from each other.
Worse, the British considered their enemies no more than "kaffirs" or "niggers", spear-chucking Stone Age tribesmen who would be difficult to catch at worst.
Meanwhile, the kwaZulu impi was assembled for active service. Outside a handful of royal troops in attendance on the king, the army was based on an active/reserve-like system. Unmarried men were the "active force", living in barracks-kraals and available for service quickly. Older men, married with families, were the "reservists" and could only be called out for short periods - months or more realistically weeks at best. The pastoral Zulu culture produced little imperishable food, a very limited logistical capacity and the troops would be obliged to return to their herds and farms quickly.The 24,000 troopers were doctored for war at the royal kraal near Ulundi and departed on 17 January to cross the White Umfolozi River. The next day a 4,000-man force was detached to deal with Pearson's South Column, while the remaining 20,000 Zulus camped at the kraal of the isiPhezi ikhanda (a subordinate military unit much like a company).On the 19th the force camped near Babanango mountain, the 20th near Siphezi mountain, and arrived in the Ngwebeni valley on the 21st, where the plan was to rest the following day and attack the British Center Column on the 23rd.
This organization had been at the Mission Station at Rorke's Drift (in Natal near the border of Zululand) since January 9th, and had crossed the Buffalo on the 11th. Chelmsford led two roughly half-battalions - six companies each of both the 1st and 2nd battalions, 24th Regiment of Foot as his main element of combat power.
About 2,500 NNC levies (he African troopers were led by European officers considered by the imperials to be very poor quality) and some irregular cavalry units, a detachment of artillery consisting of two field guns and several Congreve rockets. Adding on wagon drivers, camp followers and servants, there were more than 4,000 men in the column.
They reached the Isandlwana hill* on January 20th, where the force made camp.
*(A commonly heard translation of the name of this feature is "little hand". "Lugg prefers eSandlwana and says it means the "second stomach of a cow." Tradition has it that the curious hill was given its name by Chief Sihaye Ngohese or one of his predecessors because its shape reminded him of this organ. Sandlwana is the diminutive form of Isandlu, a small elevated hut used for the storage of grain, and such a structure is known as an esandiwana, or ''second stomach of a cow" which is also used for storage purposes. It has nothing to do with "a small hand," says Lugg - that would be isandlana."[Ref: Stayt, Don. Where on earth? A guide to the place names of Natal and Zululand. Durban: Daily News, 1971.])In violation of their standing orders this camp was neither entrenched nor "laagered", that is, enclosed by a box of wagon bodies, a field-expedient fortification found useful by the trek Boers.
The reason for this was that Chelmsford felt that the laager would take too long to make and break down - and probably because of the contempt of the British for their primitive foe.
An mounted reconnaissance detachment sent out the morning of the 22nd encountered a small force of Zulus demonstrating to the southeast. Chelmsford immediately took half the imperial troops; one company from the 1/24 and the bulk of 2/24, the mounted troops and several NNC units to pursue, leaving the remainder of the force in the Isandlwana camp.Reports of Zulus, from individuals to ikhanda strength (up to several hundred) had been coming in to Pulleine all morning (these were mostly foraging parties for the main army, though the British didn't know that). In response he deployed a company of imperial infantry to the ridge north of the camp and send some mounted troops out to scout the surrounding area.
At about 10am, COL Durnford arrived at the camp with about a battalion's worth - 500 troops, more or less - of mixed irregular horse and infantry of the NNC and Natal Native Horse (NNH) and the RA rocket troop. There appears to have been no real consideration that Durnford would take command; instead, he left Pulleine in charge of the camp defense and deployed his troops to the east in an attempt to determine the nature of the Zulu presence there.
Sometime later - presumably between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. - a patrol of Natal Native Horse chased a Zulu foraging party over a hilltop less than a mile from the camp, where they discovered the main Zulu force, all 20,000 of them, sitting silently in the defilade beyond.
As the panicked British recon patrol fired a volley and turned to run the Zulu force rose at command and advanced at the run, shaking itself out into the traditional attack formation of central mass and emveloping wings.
The Battle of Isandlwana was beginning.
The Sources: From the standpoint of Western histories the best covered side of the battle should be the British; a literate industrial culture that typically produced all the usual documents that we use to assemble historical accounts. But the problem with Isandlwana is that the literate, industrial side was defeated, and not just defeated, destroyed. Not a single soldier from the six Imperial companies survived. And of those Britons who did - irregular officers, individual mounted troopers, casuals, civilians - we get, often, at best a chaotic impression of the day of the sort you'd expect from men hurled out of a shattering slaughter.
Chelmsford's troops reoccupied the battlefield several days after the defeat, so we have the testimony of what those men saw, the location of the dead, artifacts such as shell casings and debris.
Some effort was made to interview the Zulu survivors of the battle, many of whom died in later engagements. Certainly an oral tradition of praise songs and tales of battle deeds recorded acts such as those at Isandlwana, but these were often disregarded by Western historians of the time and, by the time they were considered evidence, had largely been forgotten.
Isandlwana has generated a tremendous volume of written material dating from 1879. There are several worthwhile books in english, starting with D.R. Morris' "The Washing of the Spears". A popular history, Morris has been faulted on several factual issues (including the "ammunition box" controversy we'll talk about later) but still remains one of the most readable versions in print - "goes as thund'rously as though it conjured devils." John Laband's fine "The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation" does well in covering both the battle and the larger political issues surrounding the war and its aftermath.
Ian Knight's "Isandlwana 1879" falls well within the fine Osprey campaign series for readability and clarity.
The Engagement: As far as we know, the situation at the time the Zulu field force emerged from the donga probably sometime not long before noon) was as follows:
Imperial: Two infantry companies had been deployed in open firing skirmish order on the high ground to the north of the camp. At the word that the Zulu attack was unfolding - about 12:15 - the remaining four companies were deployed to the east with the two cannon in support near the hinge in the line. NNC companies were thrown out to the British left (on the slopes and over the north crest of the Isandlwana hill itself) and Durnford's NNC and Native Horse covered the imperial right. The Rocket Troop was caught by the initial Zulu rush with their systems just unlimbered and were overrun, six of the nine gunners dying over their lauchers.
Zulu: One of the beauties of the Zulu system was its simplicity. Every unit knew its place in the formation, and the maneuvers of each element were well-understood. The center (referred to as the "chest" as in the center of mass of a charging bull) would close with the enemy force. The flanking wings (the "horns" of the bull) would then extend beyond the enemy mass and envelop it. The reserve ("loins") would be held to reinforce a critical sector or to exploit a breakthrough.The three left horn ibutho were the uMbonambi “The Evil Omen”, the InGobamakhosi “Bender of Kings”, and the uVe "Flycatchers". All were young men, unmarried, and the uVe had been on strength for less than five years, relatively green troops. They raced out to engage Durnford's NNH and NNC, sliding to their left to outflank the poorly armed Natal Natives.
In front of the camp the four regiments included two unmarried regular outfits (umHlanga “Reeds” and umCijo “the Sharp Points”) and two regiments of married reservists (the IsAngqu “White Tails” or “Orange River” and the umKhulutshane “Straight Lines” which had been formed in 1833 and would have been in all probability a very small unit of fifty- to sixty-year-olds) ran straight into the fire of the four companies Pulleine had deployed facing east.The Zulu commanders sent the three regular regiments of the right horn; the iMbube “Lions”, uDududu, and the uNokhenke “Skirmishers”, looping wide to the Zulu right to sweep around the Isandlwana massif.The Zulu tactic was successful on their right - Pulleine never really "saw" the Zulu attack unfolding on his left - but the center and left ran into the imperial firing line just as the British commanders had expected. Privates of imperial infantry standing and kneeling in skirmish order (several yards apart, with the two ranks 3 to 5 yards interval) could load and fire six aimed shots a minute.The .577 Martini-Henry bullet was a real man-killer, large and heavy enough to knock a big man off his feet even when striking a limb, and produced horrific wounds, shattering bones and shredding flesh.
This fire tore into the Zulu left and center. The charging amabutho were hammered flat, seeking cover where it existed and lying under their shields where it didn't. By 1 p.m. the attack of the Zulu center and left had stalled.The stalemate was broken by the uMbonambi, sweeping around Durnford's right while driving a small herd of terrified cattle before them to absorb the irregulars' fire. With the uVe this unit turned the imperial right and began to tear into the cantonment, spearing and clubbing the casuals and support troops in the rear.
About the same time the Zulu right hooked in behind the imperial left; the uNokhenke fell on the flank of the A/1/24 and the two NNC companies (4 Co. 2/3 and E 1/1 NNC) at the left end of the imperial line.
As the ends of the imperial firing-line were overrun Pulleine tried to pull his companies back into a close-order defense around the camp. The accounts state that this was done as a movement - that the imperial infantry ceased fire to move rather than moving back by covered bounds - and that the Zulu commanders saw this chance to put in their attack.A man named Ndlaka, a commander of the umCijo, raced down to his troops roaring "The little branch of leaves that puts out the fire (one of King Cetshwayo's "praise names") didn't order you to do this." - i.e. you don't get paid to sit on your fucking ass just because some honky's shooting at you! As the umCijo rose and went in at a steady walk, their regimental rivals the iNgobamamakhosi were challenged by their commander not to let their rivals get all the glory. The center put down their muskets and old rifles, took up their iKlwa - the broad-bladed stabbing assegai - and shields and waded into the British line.
One of the persistent myths about Isandlwana is the "ammo box" tale. In this story the British veterans are overrun because of the rigidity and peacetime prissiness of their supply officers. Unwilling to open the heavy wooden ammo boxes (since an open box would have to be accounted for by the individual round) until required, the quartermasters are supposed to have found themselves in action desperately trying to open the boxes - secured with large screws and metal bands - as the dusky hordes pour in. They fail, and the imperial infantry are overwhelmed as they run out of ammunition.Morris draws this dramatic scene for us in Washing of the Spears:
"Despite the trickle of ammunition, the fire was slackening everywhere, and the warriors still stretched in grass around the camp noted the change. Then a great voice cried out in Zulu from the thick of the umCijo regiment. Cetshwayo had many praise names, and making use of a well known one...an unknown warrior shouted "The little branch of leaves that extinguished the fire gave no such order as this!" Thousands of Zulus heard him and took fresh heart. They leapt to their feet and charged forward.A well-limned scene and properly terrifying...but not particularly true.
The sight and the sound were too much for the quivering Natal Kaffirs at the knuckle. They were isolated ahead of the lines and the fear of the sharp assegais brandished by the advancing warriors was bred into their bones. The umCijo were upon them and to stay was death."
While the NNC and NNH may very well have had ammo supply problems - Durnford apparently wasn't the sharpest pencil in the box and it's very likely that he either didn't know or failed to tell his troopers where their ammo point was located. But the testimony of those at the scene is fairly clear that the Zulu attack turned both flanks and broke into the British rear while the imperial infantry was still suppressing the Zulu center. The failure of the flank and rear security made Pulleine attempt to withdraw his troops under pressure without conducting a proper fire-and-maneuver and the Zulu center then moved in to, as the North Vietnamese and Vietcong would do 90 years later, "hug the belt" with the British regulars.The "ammo box myth" is just that.
The Zulu just flat-out outfought the British column.
In a hand-to-hand fight British infantryman and Zulu trooper were fairly evenly matched. The tough cowhide shield was an effective battering weapon and the Zulu were masters of the spear. But the bayoneted Martini-Henry was a deadly implement in the hands of a good soldier, and Zulu survivors reported that even after closing with the imperials the warriors preferred to break up the British formations with thrown spears before closing.
And, of course, quantity has a quality all its own. While a British rifleman might win a man-to-man fight, as the imperial line disintegrated it became 1-to-3 and 2-to-5, with the outcome never much in doubt.
From forensic evidence gathered after the end of the battle it appears that several of the imperial companies managed to form square or otherwise fight back-to-back down towards the river that lay to the west. There the imperial soldiers were finally overwhelmed.Cetshwayo had warned his soldiers that civilians dressed in dark clothes would be with the imperials and they were not to be harmed; as a result a handful of officers wearing dark blue or black "patrol jackets" escaped along with a scattering of mounted irregulars and some of the NNC.
The six imperial infantry companies - 52 officers, 727 other ranks - died to the man. More than 450 Xhosa, Gricqa and Zulu levies also died on the slopes of the sphinx-shaped hill where the luck of the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment ran out.
The Outcome: Tactical Zulu victory with strategic implications...but not the way you might think.
The Impact: In general the British preferred to rule much of their empire with local proxies, buffers and clients at the perimeter. Cetshwayo was a smart, ruthless ruler and had he been more pliant and less dependent on his army might have made a good client king. Certainly when Frere and Chelmsford planned the invasion of January 1879 the possibility that it would lead to a quick massacre of the "kaffirs" and the retention of a disarmed Cetswayo as a puppet wasn't out of the question.But after the massacre at the Hill of the Cow's Second Stomach, there was no possibility of any agreement with the old Zulu order. The filty savages had butchered civilized white men (the deaths of the African irregulars were of no consequence to the Briton starting up from his kippers and marmalade at the reports in the newspaper of the worst colonial defeat since the Afghan War in 1844). The brutes had to be exterminated.
Worse followed. Pearson's column was cut off and besieged in Eshowe from 24 January to 4 April, 1879. While two-thirds of the invading force was immobilized or destroyed the invaders lost a bloody little skirmish at iNtombe and rather larger fight at Hlobane in March. Victories - that bled the Zulu army badly - at Eshowe, Kambula and Gingindlovu merely got Chelsmford back to where he'd started in January.
The British public and Her Imperial and Royal Majesty's Government had had enough. Sir Garnet Wolsely was assigned to relieve Chelmsford, and was dispatched to South Africa.
Chelmsford wanted no part of going down as the loser in a battle with the Bronze Age; he reorganized his forces, invaded again in June - this time ensureing that his camps were securely fortified and his troops concentrated - and destroyed the remaining amabutho at Ulundi in July. Cetswayo was captured in August and held in exile for three years.
A British attempt to reintroduce him as a client failed disasterously and the Zulu kingdom collapsed; division in 13 mini-kingdoms devolved into a predictably bloody chaos until absorption into the Natal province of the colony of South Africa.
The Zulu arose as a fighting people. The malignant genius behind the Zulu impi that won at Isandlwana was a man so ruthless that when he changed the uniform regulations for his army - he demanded that the soldiers throw away their sandals and toughen their feet - that when the first regiment protested he paraded them in a kraal filled with thorns, commanded them to perform a stamping war-dance and had his personal guard kill any man not perfectly intent on the steps!
As a fighting people they fell; they ran head-on into another people just as ruthless and simply better armed.
Shed no tears for the young regiments who went down like rye before the reaper at Isandlwana, at Kambula, Eshowe and Ulundi.
They fought for their king and country, for their old way of life, for their regiments, and would have died no other way.
But the legacy this killing left behind...that has rent and is rending the country that became South Africa to this day, reminding us that tribal hatreds and wars are thin soil for peaceful prosperity and the blessings of civil society.
Touchline Tattles: The British needed a tonic after the bitter draught of Isandlwana. They found it in a tiny engagement fought as an afterthought to the events of January 22. The "loins" reserve of the army that fought that day - unable to get stuck into the slaughter of the imperial column - kept on moving west, crossed the Buffalo River and found 96 men of B Company, 2/24th forted up in the mission station near the ford (or "drift"). A company of the NNC, terrified by the news from across the river, fled along with a group of mounted fugitives from Isandlwana.Prince Dabulamanzi was already in deep shit. His half-brother the King had ordered that no Zulu maneuver unit would cross into Natal - the political reality was that the Zulu engagements had to be purely defensive to prevent the "to-arms-the-kaffirs-are-coming" reaction a Zulu invasion would provoke. But the the uDloko, uThulwana, inDlondo, and the inDlu-yengwe - more than 4,000 troopers - were angry that they had not washed their spears and threw themselves into the attack immediately off the march.The British company defended the mission station all night, losing fifteen or so. But here was the mirror image of Isandlwana; instead of being in scattered skirmish order trying to shoot down an elusive leaping, bounding enemy the imperials could pack themselved in tightly behind hard cover and use their massed firepower to butcher the Zulu fighters who couldn't use their speed or their overwhelming numbers. In other words, what the column across the river could have done behind a wagon laager.
Makes you want to dig up Pulleine and kill him all over again.
Nothing makes an Englishman as happy - or used to - as a hearty tale of jingo heroism. Back in the Sixties, when the imperial sunset was still a lingering glow in the sky, Cy Enfield made a stolid little movie about Rorke's Drift that gives you a hint of an idea of how inequal the engagement SHOULD have been:Now you should know straight up - this little clip is full of the most delightful bullshit.
The 2nd Warwickshire was NOT the "South Wales Borderers" in 1879 - more than 2/3rd of the imperials were British or Irish, and, no, they didn't sing "Men of Harlech waiting for the final Zulu attack.
There WAS no final climactic assault at dawn, either; Dabulmanzi's men got a bellyful the preceding afternoon and that night. By dawn they were exhausted, and probably worried that their king would tear a strip off their backsides for disobeying his orders. They slipped away as Chelmsford's men returned that morning.
And Gonville Bromhead wasn't Michael Caine, he was a stocky little middle-aged man with a beard like a quickset hedge, and hard of hearing, too.
But any Zulu warrior or imperial soldier could tell you; there's colonial war as it happens and colonial war as the great power tells it to you.
But my favorite little story about this strangely indecisive decisive battle is that you can now bump down the rutted dirt tracks - probably not that much better than what it took Chelmsford's men to trudge down 131 years ago - to the "Fugivites Drift Lodge", where you can sip your rum and tonic by the pool and gaze out at the massif of Isandlwana on the skyline and the "beautiful, shady, well established garden, home to innumerable birds, and the most spectacular large swimming pool situated on a secluded spur on the lip of the Buffalo River gorge". And "...enjoy superb cuisine, a unique fusion of home and modern flavours, in the splendid atmosphere of a veritable museum of Zulu War memorabilia."When you do - spill a mouthful of the rich liquor to the dusty shades of those bearded imperials and the headringed amabutho, who died so that a portly Boer could stand in the well established garden and the most spectacular large swimming pool and tell you stories of war and death and the fall of kings.