Battle of Isandlwana Tour
On 22nd January 1879 the British and Natal Contingent soldiers at the camp at Isandlwana came face-to-face with the main Zulu Impi. This is their story.

The Battle of Isandlwana

22nd January 1879

Events leading to the Anglo-Zulu War and the initial moves

In 1874 Lord Carnarvon, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, proposed a Federation of the various states of southern Africa along the lines of that adopted in Canada. The problem with this, however, was that a number of the states were independent and would need to be brought under British rule. The most powerful of the Black African states was Zululand. In late 1878 the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle-Frere, issued an ultimatum to King Cetshwayo that he knew the Zulus could not accept and it was under the pretext of this ultimatum that Lord Chelmsford and Colonel Glynn's No 3 Column crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand on 11th January 1879.

The issuing of Sir Henry Bartle-Frere ultimatum

The issuing of Sir Henry Bartle-Frere ultimatum.

Their initial objective was the kraal of Sihayo and on the following day, 12th January 1879, Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford and part of No 3 Column set off up the Bashee Valley to attack Sihayo's Kraal. Close to the kraal they encountered their first Zulus one of who shouted "By whose orders do you come" to which they received the answer "By orders of the Great White Queen"; and so began the Anglo-Zulu War.

Sihayo's kraal was quickly captured and put to the torch and by 20th January 1879 Lord Chelmsford and No 3 Column had arrived and set up camp at the foot of a large Sphinx like mountain, called Isandlwana, about 7 miles inland from the Natal-Zululand border. On 21st January 1879 Lord Chelmsford sent out a reconnaissance in force to locate the main Zulu Army and that night he received reports that the Zulu have been sighted off to the east. He issued orders that half of No 3 Column, including the majority of the 2nd/24th, were to prepare to set off early on the 22nd in pursuit of the enemy.

At 04:30 hrs, just before daybreak on Tuesday, 22nd January 1879, Lord Chelmsford and Colonel Glynn with half of No 3 Column set off to the east chasing what His Lordship believed to be the main Zulu Army. He had split his forces leaving the other half, which included five companies of the 1st/24th and G Company, 2nd/24th, behind at Isandlwana under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Burmester Pulleine of the 1st/24th.

Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift

The 24th Regiment
Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift
by Ian R Gumm

"There have been a number of battlefield guides produced over the last decade along with countless volumes describing the actions on that fateful day in January 1879. However, there have been a distinct lack of publications that combine both in a short, but comprehensive and succinct manner. Ian has done just that with this guide. It is very readable and has taken note of all of the latest publications. I would highly recommend this guide to anyone contemplating visiting the battlefields."

Bill Cainan, former Curator of the Museum of The Royal Welsh

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All was normal at Isandlwana until about 07:00 hrs when the outposts began reporting seeing small parties of Zulus up on the plateau to the north of the camp. The first to see them was Captain Barry's No 5 Company, 2nd/3rd Native Natal Contingent and he sent Lieutenant Standish William Prendergast Vereker, the son of Lord Gort, back to the Isandlwana encamp with the news. On receiving the news Colonel Pulleine stood the camp too and sent Lieutenant James Adendorff and then Lieutenant Walter Higgins to gain more information.

At about 09:00 hrs gunfire was heard off to the east. Up on the plateau the umCityu and uNokhenke amabutho rose up and moved forward without orders. This force of 5,000 or so Zulus was seen by lookouts and a rider was sent to Isandlwana to report their presence to Colonel Pulleine. By the time he reached the camp the umCityu and uNokhenke were lining the ridge. They stood there for a few minutes and then withdrew. Soon thereafter reports began to come into the camp that they were moving off in three columns; two of which were withdrawing whilst the third had disappeared off to the north west.

At around 10:30 hrs Colonel Durnford arrived at the camp and, after consulting with Colonel Pulleine, he set off east in pursuit of the retiring Zulus. Captains Barton and Shepstone with two troops of the Natal Native Horse were sent up onto the plateau to drive any Zulus they found before them. Arriving up on the plateau the two troops pushed forward. At first they saw a few scattered Zulus but these quickly disappeared into the gullies and dongas. Then they saw a party of Zulus driving a large herd of cattle before them. Sensing a prize they set off in pursuit and followed the Zulus over the crest of the plateau. As they crested the small rise, both troops reined in — they had come face-to-face with the main Zulu Army. After issuing quick orders Captain George Shepstone galloped back to Isandlwana to warn Colonel Pulleine.

To the east of Isandlwana, Colonel Durnford's men had begun to swing north towards the plateau when they heard the firing upon the higher ground. As they looked up the iNgobamakhosi and uVe came surging over the skyline towards them. Major Russell's rocket section, which by that time were lagging behind, was near the conical hill when a rider from the Natal Carbineers came galloping up and told him what was happening. At that moment they saw Zulus on the ridge and Major Russell shouted "Action Front!" They managed to launch one rocket, which exploded harmlessly against ridge, before they were overrun.

George Shepstone galloped into the camp about the same time that Captain Alan Gardener arrived with orders from Lord Chelmsford that the tents of the units now east of Isandlwana were to be struck and sent on immediately. They both reported to Colonel Pulleine at the same time. Colonel Pulleine at first hesitated about carrying out Lord Chelmsford's order, but eventually decided that, the with enemy on the hill to his left in large numbers, it was impossible to do so.

The men of the 24th and the Native Natal Contingent were all fallen in and Lieutenant Henry Curling's Artillery detachment deployed. Colonel Pulleine sent two companies of the Native Natal Contingent to support Colonel Durnford and the remaining companies were formed into a defensive line to the east and north of Isandlwana hill. Lieutenant Curling's guns were soon brought into action against the attacking Zulus.

More and more Zulus began to appear heading towards Isandlwana from the northeast and northwest around the rear of Isandlwana Hill; the classic Zulu 'Horns of the Buffalo' attack was now in full swing. They came on at a pace and despite the weight of fire from Lieutenant Curling's Artillery and rifles of the defending British and Native infantrymen they just kept on coming.

Soon the battle broke down into small actions as each unit fought its own desperate struggle. Colonel Pulleine realising that all was lost entrusted the Queen's Colour of the 1st/24th to his Adjutant Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill and ordered him to get the colour to a place of safety. Lieutenant Melvill made a mad dash along Fugitives Drift, but got caught by the current of the Buffalo River; and the colour was lost. He was rescued from the rock to which he was clinging by Lieutenant Nevill Coghill, but they were subsequently caught by Zulus and assegaied to death on the Natal bank of the river.

Saving the Colours

Saving the Colours.

Lieutenant Cavaye's E Company and Captain Mostyn's F Company 1st/24th had barely time to fix their bayonets before the Zulus were amongst them. They fought hand to hand and tried to remain organised as they withdraw, but the Zulus simply rolled them up from the right.

H Company 1st/24th under Captain Wardell with Lieutenant Henry Dyer, the Adjutant of the 2nd/24th, fought further out from the camp in another cluster. They too were overrun when their ammunition ran out and died where they had so valiantly fought.

The Zulus attack at Isandlwana

The Zulus attack at Isandlwana. [The True Story Book]

Lieutenant Pope's G Company 2nd/24th were soon surrounded, they formed a ring and back to back they fought as long as their ammunition lasted until they too were overcome.

In the camp a group of around sixty men of the 1st/24th formed up around the tent of the Officer's Mess and fought until they were killed. Another group of twenty or so had fought alongside Colour Sergeant Fred Wolf and were found laying together in a heap.

The tales of what happened next come from the Zulus.

A warrior of the uMbonambi later recalled how the British fought in the closing stages of the battle: "My regiment and the uMpunga formed the centre of the impi. When the soldiers in the donga saw that the umCityu were getting behind them, they retreated upon the camp, firing at us all the time. As they retreated we followed them. I saw several white men on horseback galloping towards the "neck," which was the only point open; then the Nokenke and Nodwengu regiments, which had formed the right horn of the impi joined with the Ngobamakosi on the "neck." After that there was so much smoke that I could not see whether the white men had got through or not. The tumult and the firing was wonderful; every warrior shouted "Usiitu!" as he killed anyone, and the sun got very dark, like night, with the smoke. The English fought long and hard; there were so many of our people in front of me that I did not get into the thick of the fight until the end. The warriors called out that all the white men had been killed, and then we began to plunder the camp."

Another Zulu warrior recalled: "While the umCityu were driving back the horsemen over the hill north of the camp, we worked round behind Isandlwana under cover of the long grass and dongas, intending to join with the Ngobamakosi on the "neck" and sweep in upon the camp. Then we saw white men beginning to run away along the road to "kwa Jim" [Rorke's Drift]; many of these were cut off and killed, down in the stream which flows through the bottom of the valley. More and more came over, some mounted and some on foot. When they saw that the valley was full of our warriors, they turned to the left and ran off along the side of the hill towards Umzinyati [the Buffalo River]; those who had not got horses were soon overtaken. The Nodwengu pursued the mounted men, numbers of whom were killed among the thorns and dongas, but I heard that some escaped. Our regiment went over into the camp. The ground is high and full of dongas and stones, and the soldiers did not see us till we were right upon them. They fought well — a lot of them got up on the steep slope under the cliff behind the camp, and the Zulus could not get at them at all; they were shot or bayoneted as fast as they came up. At last the soldiers gave a shout and charged down upon us. There was an induna in front of them with a long flashing sword, which he whirled round his head as he ran — it must have been made of fire."

The induna with the long flashing sword was Captain Reginald Younghusband; his C Company 1st/24th had conducted an organised fighting withdrawal as they were pushed back against the northern end of Isandlwana Hill. They then continued along the eastern face of Isandlwana before realising that their retreat was blocked. On a small flat area towards the southern end of Isandlwana they fought with their backs to the wall until they ran out of ammunition. Zulu accounts of the battle tell how, with their ammunition gone, the Zulu commander held off the attack whilst Captain Younghusband shook hands with those of his men still alive; this done, he then led the final charge, sword in hand, into the waiting amabutho.

At 14:29 hrs on 22nd January 1879 the day turned to night as the moon passed before the sun, it was the 'Day of the Dead Moon' a full solar eclipse. The Battle of Isandlwana was over.

According to Zulu folklore the last British soldier to die was the lone private that took refuge in a cave quite high up on Isandlwana's eastern face. From there he held off the Zulu for hours before he was eventually killed by the enemy firing volley after volley into the cave's entrance.

Fifty-five British and Colonial officers were killed. In total 1,353 officers and other ranks, black and white perished. The numbers of Zulus killed is not recorded, but estimates place this around 2,000 to 2,500.

Only five Imperial Officers who were at Isandlwana when the Zulus attacked that morning would survive the flight along fugitives drift: Captain Edward Essex (75th Regiment), Captain Alan Gardner (14th Hussars), Lieutenant William Francis Dundonald Cochrane (32nd Light Infantry), Lieutenant Henry Curling (5 Brigade RA) and Lieutenant Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien (95th Regiment).

There were three VCs awarded as a result of actions at Isandlwana.

Private Samuel Wassell, 80th Regiment

Samuel Wassel VC

Private Samuel Wassell rescuing Private Westwood.

"For his gallant conduct in having, at the imminent risk of his own life, saved that of Private Westwood, of the same regiment.

On the 22nd January, 1879, when the Camp at Isandhlwana was taken by the enemy, Private Wassail retreated towards the Buffalo River, in which he saw a comrade struggling, and apparently drowning. He rode to the bank, dismounted, leaving his horse on the Zulu side, rescued the man from the stream, and again mounted his horse, dragging Private Westwood across the river under a heavy shower of bullets."

Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill and Lieutenant Nevill Josiah Aylmer Coghill, both 24th Regiment

"Lieutenant Melvill, of the 1st Battalion 24th Foot, on account of the gallant efforts made by him to save the Queen's Colour of his Regiment after the disaster at Isandlwanha, and also Lieutenant Coghill, 1st Battalion 24th Foot, on account of his heroic conduct in endeavouring to save his brother officer's life, would have been recommended to Her Majesty for the Victoria Cross had they survived."

The death of Lieutenant Melvill and Lieutenant Coghill

The death of Lieutenant Melvill and Lieutenant Coghill.

Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift

The 24th Regiment
Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift
by Ian R Gumm

"There have been a number of battlefield guides produced over the last decade along with countless volumes describing the actions on that fateful day in January 1879. However, there have been a distinct lack of publications that combine both in a short, but comprehensive and succinct manner. Ian has done just that with this guide. It is very readable and has taken note of all of the latest publications. I would highly recommend this guide to anyone contemplating visiting the battlefields."

Bill Cainan, former Curator of the Museum of The Royal Welsh

      BUY NOW      

Page last updated: 18th April 2018