The Battle of Isandlwana - Anglo Zulu War of 1879 South Africa

On 22nd January, Lord Chelmsford left the British camp with about half the men to go to the aid of Major Dartnell, to the east, who believed they had come into contact with the Zulu army. Chelmsford left the camp in charge of Col. Pullein with five companies of the 1/24th and one of the 2/24th, (67 officers and 1,707 men), the remainder of the mounted troops and 4 companies of the NNC and 2 guns. The camp was not entrenched as it was considered to be a temporary base and also not in danger of attack. The wagons were to bring up supplies from Rorkes Drift and were therefore not used to create a laager and to defend the camp.

At about 10:30 a.m. Col. Durnford, who had been ordered forward, arrived from Rorke’s Drift with 5 troops of the Natal Native horse.

The arrival of Durnford put Pullein’s position as commander of the camp in question. Durnford was nine years older, was three years senior and had had considerable experience in S.A. (he had gained a reputation for bravery in the Frontier Wars where he had lost his left arm).

Durnford’s orders from Chelmsford were not explicit but the implication was that he was to act as reinforcement for the camp in the absence of Glynn’s column and by his seniority would assume over-all command. On arrival Durnford did not stay in the camp – he immediately sent troops of the Sikali Horse under Lt. Raw on to the plateau to clear it of scattered parties of Zulus.

The men in the camp then sat down for their midday meal. While having lunch a report of Zulus to the North east moving eastwards was received. Durnford decided to ride out with two troops of the Natal Native Horse to prevent this force moving against Chelmsford.

At about midday Lt. Raw’s troop gave chase to Zulus driving cattle up a slope and on reaching the top looked down into a deep ravine. Sitting in silence was the main Zulu army. Upon being discovered, the entire army rose to feet and started to move forwards. Messengers were immediately sent to warn both Durnford and Pullein of the impending attack. Durnford was some 4 miles from camp when he received the warning and at the same moment, the Zulu left horn advance over the skyline. Durnford opened fire and began to retire back to the camp.

In the camp Pullein set the remaining troops out in a half square – with troops in a line up onto the edge of the Nqutu plateau and then along to the right reaching out to Conical hill to give Durnford some protection. The whole line, 1 and a half miles long, faced north and northeast. The Zulu advance was rapid. The attack of the Zulu centre and left, stalled under the British rifle fire, but resumed at about 1 p.m. The right horn continued its wide flanking movement and the centre began a direct assault on the camp.

Durnford’s force was critically short of ammunition and retired on the camp. The British line was in danger of being outflanked and Pullein ordered the “retire” to be sounded and so the British troops fell back on the camp. The N.N.C. broke ranks and fled and the Natal Native Horse also galloped away – they had fought well but had no more ammunition and could do nothing. However, on the west side of Isandlwana they found themselves barred by the Zulu right horn and consequently fled in a south-westerly direction down a ravine, which led to the Buffalo River.

Just before noon, there was an eclipse of the sun and a Zulu warrior of the uNotenke Regt. Said the “sun turned black in the middle of the battle. Then we got into the camp and there was a great deal of smoke and firing. Afterwards, the sun came out bright again.”

In the camp ammunition gave out and organised resistance was at an end by 2 p.m., although some isolated groups fought on until late afternoon. Probably the last group to die was Younghusband’s company that had held out on the plateau of Isandlwana hill.

Shortly before the end of the battle, Lt. Melvill was ordered to ride to safety with the Queen’s Colours of the 24th Regt. He fled down the route known as Fugitives Trail and was joined by Lt. Coghill. On reaching the Buffalo River, Coghill got across, but Melvill was swept off his horse and Coghill rode back into the river to help him. They managed to reach the Natal bank but were soon caught and killed. The Colour was swept down the river and recovered some weeks later. Messages to Chelmsford eventually reached him and he ordered an immediate march back to camp. They reached the camp after dark and were ordered to spend the night on the battlefield.

As was Zulu tradition the dead bodies had been ripped open to release the spirits. During the plunder of the camp, the stores, liquor and even medicines had been consumed and the men camping on the battlefield did so amongst the dead bodies, cries of dying Zulus from the medicines and poisons consumed and with the sounds of battle carried across from Rorkes Drift.

The consequence was that the British suffered their worst defeat ever in the history of their Colonial warfare: the casualties amounted to 907 white soldiers and 471 of the 800 black soldiers fighting on the side of the British, a total of 1329 men. The victory for the Zulus, no doubt their greatest ever, was not achieved without severe losses: it is estimated that between 1500 and 3000 Zulu's perished during the battle.

Closest towns to the Isandlwana battlesite:

Dundee and Nqutu

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