When relations between Britain and the Zulus
became strained during the latter half of 1878, Lord
Chelmsford transferred his headquarters from the
Cape Colony to Pietermaritzburg the capital of
Natal. Steps were taken to strengthen the British
forces, including the transfer of both battalions of
the 24th Regiment from the eastern frontier.
In all, eight battalions of regular British
troops were available, supported by several
batteries of Royal Artillery and supplemented by
mounted colonial volunteers, as well as Africans
recruited in Natal (known as the Natal Native
Lord Chelmsford's political brief, framed by the
High Commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, was to
break up the Zulu political and military system as
quickly as possible, and to bring together the
region's disparate British 'possessions' - Boer
republics and African kingdoms - under a single
central British authority.
An ultimatum was issued to the
army at the drift over the lower Tugela on 11
December 1878. It demanded that
King Cetshwayo disband the
system by which he exacted tribute from his
young men through military and social service, and
that he hand over practical authority to a British
It was a demand that no self-respecting
independent ruler could accept, which was precisely
what Sir Henry Frere had intended.
No reply was received and on 11 January 1879 a
state of war was deemed to exist and Lord
Chelmsford�s troops prepared to cross into Zululand.
A plan for the invasion of Zululand was
prepared, the main objective was to occupy
principle homestead at Ulundi by advancing on it
from three directions.
No. 1 Column commanded by Colonel Pearson was
to cross the lower Tugela river and advance towards
Ulundi by way of Eshowe.
The main force, No. 3 Column, under Lord
Chelmsford himself, advanced from Pietermaritzburg
via Greytown to Helpmekaar. From here it was to
enter Zululand at Rorke's Drift (ford) and move
eastwards to the royal kraal.
No. 4 Column, commanded by Colonel Evelyn
Wood concentrated at Utrecht with the object of
reaching Ulundi from the north-west.
In addition, two minor forces guarded the
borders, No. 2 Column at Krantzkop, under Colonel
Durnford to prevent the Zulus crossing the Tugela
fords (drift) and No. 5 Column at Luneberg to
safeguard the Transvaal which had been annexed by
the British in 1877.
On 9 January the British army moved to
and early on 11 January commenced crossing the
Buffalo (Umzinyathi) River into Zululand.
On 12 January, Lord Chelmsford attacked the
homesteads of Chief Sihayo kaXongo in the Batshe
valley, which lay in his line of advance. This
attack marked Lord Chelmsford down in
King Cetshwayo's eyes
as the most dangerous of the three invading columns,
and the majority of the amabutho army, a total of
perhaps 23,000 men, were sent out from Ulundi on 17 January to attack him.
Lord Chelmsford�s advance was painfully slow in
the aftermath of that first skirmish and it was not
until 20 January that he was able to advance the
few kilometres from
Rorke's Drift and set up camp at the foot of a
distinctive rocky outcrop known as Isandlwana.
Because of the large size of his force and the
difficult terrain, Lord Chelmsford did not fortify
the camp, instead he relied on what he believed was
his superior weapons and organisation. Though the
British posted lookouts, these did not have a full
field of view, so they sent out reconnaissance
parties as well. Although these parties skirmished
with some Zulus, they did not discover the full
magnitude of the Zulu force, which consisted of
numerous impis (regiments).
Once he had established camp at Isandlwana hill, Lord
Chelmsford divided his army and set out to find the
Zulus. He left the 1st battalion of the 24th
Regiment behind to guard the camp, under the command
of Colonel Henry Pulleine.
About mid-morning Colonel Anthony Durnford
arrived from Rorke's
Drift. This put the issue of command to the fore
because Durnford was senior and by tradition would
have assumed command. However, he did not seem to
have over-ruled Pulleine's dispositions and after
lunch he moved off with his mounted troopers to
reconnoitre in front of the British positions
leaving Pulleine in command.
While Lord Chelmsford was in the field seeking
the Zulu army they attacked the British camp. Above
the din of battle, which seemed to reverberate off
the face of Isandlwana and echo around the valleys,
the British camp could hear the Zulu izinduna
encouraging their men with references to their
regimental honour, and the warriors responded by
shouting the war-cries of their amabutho. �Moya!� -
�wind!� - they cried derisively when the artillery
fired shrapnel into them, and �Nqaka amatshe!� -
�catch the hailstones� , treat the bullets with the
contempt they deserve. Above it all, there were deep
roars of the royalist war-cry - �uSuthu!�.
Pulleine's 1,400 soldiers were totally
overwhelmed. The Zulus took no prisoners and killed
any they could, including Pulleine and Durnford.
Approximately 60 British regulars
escaped, none of whom were wearing red coats
had specifically ordered his men to kill
all the men wearing the red coats).
surviving British soldiers were either
officers wearing their dark blue field
uniforms, troopers with the Royal Artillery
(who wore light blue uniforms), or members
of irregular cavalry units such as the Natal
After the battle, the Zulus, as was
their tradition, ripped open the dead bodies
of their own men and those of their enemies
to free the spirits.
Zulu Victory song sung after
the Battle of Isandlwana
Thou great and mighty chief!
Thou who has an army.
The red soldiers came,
We destroyed them.
The mounted soldiers came,
We destroyed them.
The mounted police came,
We destroyed them.
When will they dare
To repeat their attack?
Lord Chelmsford, who was by now about
11km away had two indications that the camp
was being attacked, but due to the hilly
terrain had a poor view of the theatre of
action. Unable to see anything amiss he
apparently discounted both reports.
One of the standard orders for the
British, when attacked in camp, was to
loosen the guy ropes on the tents so that
soldiers would not get tangled up in them.
This was not done and the upright tents were
visible in the field glasses of the young
officers with Lord Chelmsford. Lord
Chelmsford took this to be an indication
that the camp was not under attack and that
the shots which could be heard in the
distance were firing practice.
Even when the Zulu main attack started
it was assumed that the Zulu impi which
could be seen chasing Colonel Durnford's cavalry was
the Natal Native Contingent being drilled.
Lord Chelmsford returned on the night of
22 January. Nearly 1,400 British and allied
troops, together with a 2,000 Zulus, and the
carcasses of hundreds of slaughtered oxen,
horses, mules and dogs were strewn across
the veld. As one Zulu veteran commented
years afterwards, �the green grass was red
with the running blood and the veld was
slippery, for it was covered with the brains
and entrails of the killed.�
Lord Chelmsford's troops were forced to
bivouac amongst the battle dead. That night,
as they rested at the foot of the Isandlwana
rocky outcrop, they could hear the sounds
and see the flames of
Before first light Lord Chelmsford
ordered his men to fall in and the column
marched away from the bloody battlefield
Like most historical calamities, the
British defeat at Isandlwana came about not
through any single great error of judgement,
but rather through a combination of
misunderstanding, miscalculation, and sheer
The Zulu victory, on the other hand, was
won by sound tactical judgement, by
aggressive spirit, and by raw courage and
endurance in the face of an awesome and
destructive enemy weapon technology.
Lord Chelmsford was an experienced
professional soldier in his 50s, a quiet man
with a gentlemanly manner, and certainly no
fool. He had recently brought the messy war
with the Xhosa on the Cape frontier to a
successful conclusion, but in many ways this
was to prove his undoing.
Although his intelligence department had
made a careful assessment of Zulu fighting
capabilities, he could not quite bring
himself to believe that they were any
different from the Xhosa.
The Xhosa had waged a guerrilla war,
preferring hit-and-run tactics, launched
from secure bases in mountainous
bush-country, to a direct challenge in open
fight. Lord Chelmsford - and most of the men
under his command, including the officers of
the 24th - suspected that the Zulus would
respond in the same way.
Almost overnight views of the part-time
soldiers and herdsmen of a hitherto
little-known African kingdom were
transformed around the world into a powerful
and enduring stereotype - alien, savage, and
incomprehensible - which colours our
understanding of Zulu history, culture and
peoples even today.
In January 2004 some 300
Zulu warriors dressed in leopard
and cattle skins and armed with
makeshift spears faced about 35
actors in red coats to re-enact
the Battle of Isandlwana.