Isandlwana: Battle of the Black Sun

It’s 09h00 on a warm morning in May. Eight of us carry camping chairs through golden grass, past piles of white-painted stones and up a steep hill. Under the frown of its strangely shaped summit, we place the chairs in a semi-circle and sit looking out over a wide plain. Birds sing in a thorn tree. A breeze blows voices from the village below. It’s peaceful here. Our lecturer, Rob Caskie, takes his place, hefts his stick and clears his throat. A battle is about to begin.

It was 09h00 on Wednesday 22 January 1879 and Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British forces in South Africa, was annoyed. His army had invaded Zululand by crossing the Buffalo River at Rorke’s Drift 10 days before without the knowledge of the British Government. His plan had been to crush King Cetshwayo before a telegram from London could put an end to a war that wasn’t supposed to be happening. But there’d been no sign of the Zulu army and Chelmsford was starting to worry that the Zulus wouldn’t fight.

Despite a complete lack of resistance from the Zulus, it hadn’t been easy invading Zululand. Heavy rains had broken a drought and hundreds of ox wagons required to transport the army’s supplies had been mired in mud. The main invasion column, commanded by Chelmsford himself, had set up their first camp only the day before. It was on a wide plain under a hill that reminded many of the British soldiers of the sphinx on their regimental badge. The Zulus called it Isandlwana.

An elusive enemy

Although Chelmsford himself had issued orders that all camps inside enemy territory had to be entrenched and laagered, he did neither at Isandlwana. Expecting to continue his march towards the king’s kraal at oNdini within a couple of days, he decided it would be a waste of time. Besides, he had the best soldiers in the world at his command, equipped with the best guns in the world at the time: Martini-Henry rifles. He felt he had nothing to fear from a bunch of savages – if they would just stand and fight.

If Chelmsford had known Cetshwayo’s intentions, he would have been delighted. The Zulu king did indeed intend to fight. After an impossible ultimatum was issued by the British governor demanding that the Zulu king disband his army, he had called his impis to oNdini to prepare for war two weeks earlier on 8 January. However, Chelmsford would have been horrified if he had known the actual whereabouts of Cetshwayo’s warriors.

At 01h30 that morning, Chelmsford had received a message from Major John Dartnell, whom he had sent out the day before to make a reconnaissance to the southeast. Dartnell had found a large force of Zulus near Mangeni and wanted reinforcements. Chelmsford jumped at this chance to engage his enemy. As soon as it was light enough, he left with six companies, four guns and all his mounted troops, putting an administrator, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine, in charge at Isandlwana. Chelmsford had broken one of the first rules of war: never split your forces inside enemy territory.

On the Nqutu ridge, overlooking Isandlwana from the northeast, Zulu scouts watched Chelmsford march away with 1,200 men. Concealed in the Ngwebeni Valley behind, 24,000 Zulus sat silently on their shields. The force Dartnell had seen at Mangeni was a decoy. The main Zulu army was waiting to attack Isandlwana.

When Chelmsford arrived at Dartnell’s camp, he found to his disgust that the Zulu force was retreating. Once again, they had refused to fight. At 09h30 he received a message from Pulleine: ‘Report just come in that the Zulus are advancing in force from left front of camp 8.5am’ (08h05). Chelmsford sent an officer to check on the camp at Isandlwana with a telescope. All seemed well, so Chelmsford ignored the message and rode off at 10h30 to find a new campsite. For the next crucial two hours, nobody could find him.

Descent of the whirlwind

It had been an eventful morning at Isandlwana, with several dramatic sightings of Zulus close to the camp. At 08h00 Pulleine had ordered his infantry to fall in, but when the Zulus appeared to retreat, the men were told to stand down. Later, firing was heard from the direction Chelmsford had taken and, when Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Durnford arrived with reinforcements from Rorke’s Drift at 10h30, he decided his duty was to protect Chelmsford’s rear. He dispatched two troops of horsemen, led by Captains Robert Barton and George Shepstone, to the Nqutu heights with orders to drive any Zulus down into the valley, then rode away with 104 men.

It was just before midday when Shepstone’s patrol pursued a small party of Zulus to a precipice above the Ngwebeni Valley. Reining in their horses, they looked down and saw the whole Zulu army spread out below. Shepstone’s men fired once into the great mass before galloping back towards Isandlwana. The Zulu warriors sprang up and started pouring after them.

Back at Isandlwana, everyone was blissfully unaware of what was happening. Pulleine had just received orders to strike camp when Shepstone arrived with the incredible news that the main Zulu army was less than 10 kilometres away and advancing fast. Pulleine wrote another unimpressive note to Chelmsford and then, instead of drawing in his troops, spread them out in a long curved firing line more than a kilometre in front of the camp. The line was too thin and too far out.

The Zulu army was already in its traditional formation: the head, chest and horns of the buffalo. The horns would encircle the camp while the head and chest would crush it from the front. The left horn drew first blood: Durnford and his troops were only four kilometres from the camp when the iNgobamakhosi and uVe regiments swept down on them, humming like a swarm of killer bees. Durnford’s men made a fighting retreat to a deep donga two kilometres from the camp, firing shot after shot as they tried to hold back a force of 6,000 Zulus.

Meanwhile, the head of the Zulu army was taking a pounding as the concentrated fire of Martini-Henry rifles and seven-pounder guns was brought to bear on them. Swathes of brave warriors fell until it seemed the Zulu advance must be halted. But even as the men in camp cheered, a chilling sight greeted them. Along its entire five-kilometre length, the Nqutu ridge turned black as the main Zulu army stepped into view. Another great mass of Zulus was seen to the west of the camp, astride the road to Rorke’s Drift. It was the right horn of the buffalo. The British camp was surrounded; retreat was impossible. And the men were running out of ammunition.

No prisoners

What happened next has long been regarded as the worst disaster in British imperial history and only recently recognised by British historians as a great Zulu victory. As the firing line fell back, the camp, with over 1#700 men and all the stores and transport for Chelmsford’s main invasion force of 5#000 men, was completely overrun. Despite standing orders to strike tents as soon as an enemy attacked, this was never done at Isandlwana. The white canvas soon ran red with blood as the Zulus took cover behind tents and stabbed at the fleeing shadows of soldiers.

The Zulus gave no mercy and expected none. Each time he killed a man, a warrior shouted ‘uSuthu!‘, then slashed open his victim’s belly to release his spirit. The Zulus slaughtered the oxen too and their bellowing drowned out the cries of the men. In the midst of the stink and the smoke and the screaming, the sky turned black as night. At the height of the battle, the sun hid behind the moon.

Rob stops. Eight of us blink back tears in the sunshine. The heap of stones beside us marks the location of Captain Reginald Younghusband’s last stand. Below, a scattering of cairns is the place where Durnford fell, laughing and joking with his men to the end. Behind us, a little further up the hill, are bullet marks in a tiny cave where the last British soldier died that day, firing down at the Zulus until one of their bullets found him. It must have been a lonely death. But, despite the crowd of 1#300 British soldiers still lying here, Isandlwana is a lonely place.

Principal characters

Invaders

Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British forces in South Africa. A popular and hard-working officer with two fatal flaws: indecision and overconfidence.

Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Durnford of the Royal Engineers, commander of the first regiment of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC). Beloved by his native troops, but shunned by colonists for his good treatment of black people.

Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine, the staff officer left in command of the camp at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879. An excellent administrator, he’d never commanded a force in battle.

The 1st and 2nd battalions of the 24th Regiment (Royal Warwickshire). Contrary to the image of the Tommy as a rooinek, these were tanned, bearded men used to life in the veld.

The Natal Native Contingent (NNC), the 7,000 native troops contemptuously referred to by the regular troops as the ‘untrained untrainables’. The NNC were poorly equipped with one outdated rifle between 10 men and could be distinguished from the Zulus only by red bands worn around their heads.

Defenders

Cetswayo kaMpande, king of the Zulus. Although it was obvious the British would not allow the Zulu nation to retain its power, Cetswayo continued to hope for peace, even as his army prepared for war.

Ntshingwayo kaMahole, chief of the Khoza and senior joint commander of the main Zulu army. A brilliant military strategist and inspiring leader, he’d run all the way from Ulundi with his men, despite being almost 70.

Mkhosana kaMvundlana, chief of the Biyela and nduna of the Mcijo regiment. His brave death as he rallied his hesitating warriors may have changed the course of the battle.

The Zulu army of 24,000 men organised into age regiments. Some were armed with outmoded guns as well as huge shields and the short stabbing spear or iklwa. They could outrun men on horseback and seemed to have no fear of death.

Interested in battlefields stories? You may also enjoy this article about the battle of Spioenkop.
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