December 1878 - August 1879
Eight months of blunders and bloodshed
War between the British and the Zulus was inevitable from the moment when on 11 December 1878 the British Government presented an ultimatum demanding that the Zulus abandon their traditional military system, that missionaries be allowed to work in Zululand and that a British resident be appointed to live with the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, to supervise relations between Zulus and Europeans.
The Zulus rejected the ultimatum and on 12 January 1879 the British army launched a three-pronged invasion ofZululand. One British column, known as the right-hand column, crossed the lower Tugela and marched on Eshowe, where they were promptly besieged by a Zulu force. A second column, the left-hand column, invaded the north of Zululand, while the main British force, accompanied by Lord Chelmsford, the British commander-in-chief invaded the centre ofZululand.
Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift - 22 January 1879
This central column crossed the Buffalo/umZinyathi River at Rorke's Drift and on 20 January 1879 camped on a grassy plain dominated by the strangely shaped hill known as Isandlwana. The British were unaware that the main Zulu army of about 22 000 men was already bivouacked some 16km away at Isipesi Hill and were well aware of the British position.
On the 21st Jan. Lord Chelmsford, afraid that the Zulu Army might try to outflank him by moving down the Mgeni Gorge on the other side of the line of hills on his right flank sent out two battalions of the Natal native Contingent under their white officers to search the hills and the gorge. He also sent out a mounted patrol of some 70 men of the Natal Mounted Police under Major Dartnell to search the Magogo hills at the top end of the Gorge. This patrol made contact with a large party of Zulu. Rather than lose contact with this group Dartnell decided to call up the NNC to support him while Major Gossett, a staff officer with the NNC road back to camp and inform the General. During the night Dartnell believed the Zulu Force in front of him was too strong to attack without infantry support and so sent a message to this effect back to the General. On receipt of the note around midnight on the 21st the General promptly called out half his force and marched off across the valley to support Dartnell, leaving a mere 1200 men in the camp. He also sent a note to Col Durnford whose 500 men of the Natal Native Horse were still at Rorke’s Drift to advance to the camp. By the time Durnford arrived at the camp large numbers of Zulus had appeared on the Nqutu ridge to the left of the camp and then gone again. Col. Pulliene the camp commander had had the men stand to and sent a note to the General informing him of the situation but had taken no further action. Durnford was curious to know what was going on sent 2 of his troops up over the ridge and at around 12h00 they clashed with the centre of the Zulu Army who promptly launched an attack on the camp. The British front line was strung out well in front of the camp and was simply too long and too thin to stop the advancing Zulus who quickly broke through their lines and the British had no option but to form squares and fight it out with their bayonets after their ammunition was finished. By 14h30 the camp had been overrun and some 1400 Imperial soldiers, Colonial Volunteers and Native levies lay slaughtered.
Four Zulu Regiments then went on to attack the British Garrison at the Mission Station at Rorke’s Drift that was held by little over 100 men mainly of B Company 2nd Battalion 24th Regt who stoically defended the station in a desperate 12 hour battle earning 11 Victoria Crosses in the process.
On the 23rd Lord Chelmsford withdrew the remnants of his central column to the safety of Natal.
While the right-hand column remained in a state of siege in Eshowe. The left-hand column under Col Evelyn Wood and Col Buller went on the offensive striking at Zulu villages in the area. Opposing them was a Zulu force led by a Swazi renegade prince named Mbilini, whose stronghold was a flat-topped mountain named Hlobane. On the 12th March this forced attacked and wiped out a British Military convoy on the banks of theNtombeRiver at Myer’s Drift.
On 28 March 1879 Colonel Wood, decided to attack this stronghold using his mounted colonial troops under Col Buller and his Native irregulars. Mbelini suspecting the plan left only a token force on the mountain and when the colonials had managed to reach the plateau summit and were busy rounding up cattle he sent up his main force, who by this time were supported by the main Zulu Army. The British were now trapped on the mountain top with their means of escape being down a torturous scree of boulders now known as Devil’s Pass. The British scrambled down the mountain but 111 Colonial Volunteers and an unknown number of Native Irregulars were killed in the retreat. The rest of Colonel Wood's men reached their fortified camp on Kambula Hill.
On 29 March 1879 17 000 Zulus attacked the British fortified camp at Kambula. Five hours later the Zulus retreated with 2 000 warriors killed. The British had lost only 18 soldiers. It was the turning point of the war.
On 29 March 1879 at the head of a force of more than 5 500 men, Lord Chelmsford set out from the Lower Tugela Drift. On 2 April 1879 Dabulamanzi led a Zulu force of 10 000 men against him at Gingindlovu but in the face of withering fire some 700-1200 Zulus were killed against only 13 British losses. The day after this victory, the battle of "Gin gin, I love you", as the British nicknamed the place, Eshowe was relieved.
Chelmsfordthen led a second invasion into centralZululand. Carefully building little forts to guard every few kilometres of his route, he advanced on the Zulu capital of Ondini. There was no serious resistance and Cetshwayo sent a succession of pleas for peace which Chelmsfordbrushed aside.
On 4 July 1879 he marched a force of some 5 000 men onto the Mhlabatini Plain, now Ulundi and then hallowed ground in the centre of the Zulu Military Inkandas, where they formed a massive fighting square 4 riflemen deep with cannons and Gatling guns on the corners. He then sent Col. Buller out with the mounted men to burn the Inkandas. This was more than the Zulu Army could stand and they charged that square en masse. Indeed it was the wrong tactic as they were mown down by the fearful gunfire but their courage in defense of their nation cannot be denied. In a little over 15 minutes it was over and the mounted men including the 17th Lancers rode out and chased the remaining warriors from the field. Cetshwayo fled into the hills of northern Zululand and was only captured on 26 August 1879 and imprisoned in the Castle in Cape Town.
The Anglo-Zulu War was over!
Very few battlefield sites have any form of interpretative information, some are on private property and therefore require permission to visit and some are very difficult to find. Therefore the use of a Guide is highly recommended.