The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 4 No 4 - Zulu War Centenary Issue - January 1979

The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879
Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift

G.A. Chadwick, B.A., B.Com.

Editors' Note: Mr G.A. Chadwick is a member of the Boards of Trustees of the South African National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg and the Voortrekker Museum, Pietermaritzburg and a member of the National Monuments Council.

General introduction
From very early times the area around Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana has played an important role in historical events, mainly as a result of a combination of geographical factors. The name 'Rorke's Drift' implies a natural drift which is formed by a rocky outcrop allowing the Buffalo River to be forded on foot if it is not in spate. Added to this feature is the fact that the river enters a gorge some four kilometres below the drift and downstream from this point no easy crossing is to be found until after its confluence with the Tugela River, when the latter becomes easily fordable near its mouth. The drift offers an easy route from the northern plateau of Natal into the heart of Zululand passing near the Isandlwana and Siphezi mountains, from where several other routes lead to the Makosini and the Ulundi plain. Evidences of the prehistoric importance of the site are to be seen in the rock paintings on the north eastern slopes of the Shiyane hill while many early travellers crossed near or at Rorke's Drift.

The drift was given its modern name when James Rorke acquired the farm in 1849 and established himself as a farmer and trader near the crossing over the Buffalo River which formed the boundary between the Colony of Natal and Zululand. He also became a member of a colonial volunteer unit, the Buffalo Border Guard. Rorke built a house and later a large storeroom about one kilometre from the drift on the northern slopes of the Shiyane hill which dominates the topography in the immediate vicinity. As was their custom, the local Zulus amongst whom he was well known attached his name to the area in which he lived which became known as Kwajimu or 'the place of Jim'. Rorke died in 1875 and the farm was acquired by the Swedish Mission. The area was renamed Oskarberg in honour of the then king of Sweden. The buildings were converted to mission use and at the time of the outbreak of war the Rev. Otto Witt was in charge.

The British plan for the invasion of Zululand (see Map A)

Map A

Map A - The British Plan for the Invasion of Zululand

It is not necessary to discuss the causes of the Anglo-Zulu War but it should be remembered that when relations between Britain and the Zulus became strained during the latter half of 1878, Lord Chelmsford, K.C.B., the Lieut. General commanding the British Forces in South Africa, transferred his headquarters from the Cape Colony to Pietermaritzburg the capital of Natal, while steps were taken to strengthen the British forces there, 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 blacks recruited in Natal, the latter to form what was known as the Natal Native Contingent.

When it appeared that hostilities were a distinct probability, a general plan for the invasion of Zululand was prepared and steps taken to position the troops in order to put it into action. The main objective was to occupy the Zulu royal kraal at Ulundi by advancing on it from three directions, in an operation similar to the Zulu tactic of attacking from three sides by means of the main force or chest in the centre and extended left and right horns on each side. Number I Column commanded by Colonel C.K. Pearson was to cross the lower Tugela river and advance towards Ulundi by way of Eshowe. The main force, Number III Column, advanced from Pietermaritzburg via Greytown to Helpmekaar. From here it was to enter Zululand at Rorke's Drift and move eastwards to the royal kraal. It is the fortunes of this column with which we are concerned. The left or Number IV Column, commanded by Brevet Col Sir H. Evelyn Wood, V.C., C.B. concentrated at Utrecht with the object of reaching Ulundi from the north-west. In addition, two minor forces guarded the borders, Number II Column at Krantzkop, under Brevet Col A.W. Durnford to prevent the Zulus crossing the Tugela drifts and Number V Column at Luneberg to safeguard the Transvaal which had been annexed by the British in 1877.

An ultimatum was issued to the Zulus at the drift over the lower Tugela on 11 December 1878 but, as no reply had been received after twenty days had expired a concession was granted until 11 January 1879, after which a state of war was deemed to exist.

The composition and movements of Number III Column
The Column was commanded by Brevet Col R.T. Glynn, C.B. of the 24th Foot. He was supported by several staff officers, namely, Lieutenant N.J.A. Coghill, orderly officer; Major C.F. Clery, principal staff officer; Captain A.C. Gardner, general duties; Captain E. Essex, transport; Assistant Commissary, W.A. Dunne; Paymaster Elliot and Surgeon Major P. Shepherd.

'N' Battery of the 5th Brigade Royal Artillery was commanded by Brevet Lieut Col A. Harness, while Captain W.P. Jones was in charge of No.5 Coy of the Royal Engineers, but was detached before the column entered Zululand. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 24th Foot, commanded by Brevet Lieut-Col H.B. Pulleine and Brevet Lieut-Col H.J. Degacher respectively formed the core of the column. The mounted troops were composed of No. 1 Squadron Mounted Infantry, commanded by Lieut-Col J.C. Russell, the Natal Mounted Police under Major J.G. Dartnell, the Natal Carbineers led by Captain T. Shepstone and the Newcastle Mounted Rifles commanded by Captain R. Bradstreet, while Captain Smith headed the Buffalo Border Guard. In addition, there was the 3rd Regiment of the Natal Native Contingent commanded by Commandant R. de la T. Lonsdale, with Lieut H.C. Harford as his Staff Officer. The regiment was two battalions strong, the 1st commanded by Commandant G. Hamilton-Browne and the 2nd by Commandant A.W. Cooper. Number I Company of the Natal Native Pioneer Corps was commanded by Captain J. Nolan. The column was accompanied by Lieut-General Lord Chelmsford and his staff, notably the Assistant Military Secretary Brevet Lieut Col N.J. Crealock and his Aides-de-camp, Brevet Major M.E.W. Gosset and Lieut A.B. Milne, R.N. The strength of this column is given in the official records as 20 staff, 132 Royal Artillery (six 7 pounder guns and two rocket troughs), 1 275 infantry, 320 cavalry, 2 566 Natal Native Contingent, i.e., a total of 4 313 potential combatants. In order to transport and supply services to this large force there were 220 wagons, 82 carts, 1 507 oxen, 49 horses (excluding those of the cavalry) and 67 mules controlled by 346 conductors, drivers and voorlopers. In all, 4 659 officers and men. As can be imagined, this diverse body of troops moved very slowly.

The road from Pietermaritzburg to Greytown was in a fair state of repair but between Greytown and Helpmekaar was little more than a track which needed much attention, while ponts had to be placed on the Mooi and Tugela Rivers at the spots known today as Keate's Drift and Tugela Ferry. Early in January 1879 Lord Chelmsford established his headquarters at Helpmekaar where part of Number III Column was encamped. The rest had already moved forward to a camp on the northern side of the Shiyane (Oskarberg). By the 9th ofJanuary the column had concentrated at Rorke's Drift leaving a garrison commanded by Major H. Spalding at the fortified post at Helpmekaar, while some elements were still advancing along the road from Greytown. On 10th January orders were issued for the troops to cross the river and commence the invasion of Zululand on the following day.

The advance to Isandlwana (see Map B)

Map B

Map B - British and Zulu Movements 10-21 January 1879

The 11th of January dawned a gloomy day with drizzling rain early in the morning but despite this the crossing was commenced at 04h30. The mounted men and Natal Native Contingent crossed by the ford while the infantry were ferried over in the ponts which had been prepared. The crossing was covered by the artillery mounted on a knoll on which Fort Melvill was later erected and a screen of cavalry on the Zululand side, but no opposition was encountered. However, some of the Natal Native Contingent were drowned in the strongly flowing river. By 06h30 all the troops were across the river and the rest of the day was taken up by establishing a camp and moving the wagons, stores and equipment across. Lord Chelmsford rode off in a northerly direction to consult with Col Wood who had crossed the Blood River and camped near Bemba's Kop and when Chelmsford returned he had an interview with Col Durnford who had ridden across from Krantzkop.

Due to the obstacle posed by the wide sandy bed of the Batshe River and the rocky ridges beyond, it was evident that a track would have to be made before the column could advance, but Sihayo's kraal, situated in the Batshe valley threatened the left flank. Although Sihayo and his son Mehlokazulu were at Ulundi his actions had been one of the ostensible causes of the war and Chelmsford decided to attack his kraal. Early on 12 January the attacking force, consisting of cavalry scouting ahead, the Natal Native Contingent with the 1st Battalion in the lead and four companies of the 1st/24th in support, moved across the Batshe to attack a rocky gorge into which Sihayo's men had retreated, driving their cattle before them. The Natal Native Contingent showed reluctance to face the Zulus, some of whom were armed with rifles. Stones were also rolled down on the attackers. After a sharp action the Zulus retreated, having lost 30 dead and 4 wounded while 10 were captured. On the British side, two of the Natal Native Contingent were killed and twelve wounded, while one officer and two N.C.O.s had been wounded. The latter were taken back to the hospital at Rorke's Drift along with two badly wounded Zulus. Lieut Coghill fell from his horse and wrenched his knee in an attempt to catch a fowl but was able to remain with the column.

Two days later four companies of the 2nd/24th, the lst/3rd Natal Native Contingent and the Pioneers moved into the Batshe valley to prepare a road for the advance. On 15 January Lieut-Col Russell undertook a reconnaissance as far as the Ispezi Hill, while on the 17th Chelmsford rode to Isandlwana which he had selected as the site for his next camp. He has often been criticised for this choice, but it should be taken into account that it is the only site in the immediate vicinity offering parking and camping facilities for a large force, while brushwood for fires was fairly easily obtainable. The site commands a good field of fire with a steep hill at the rear and although it is overlooked by hills to the north these are too far away to be significant for the arms used at the time. The troops moved forward on the 20th but despite the efforts of the road builders all the wagons could not get through. However, by the afternoon the camp had been laid out on the eastern side of Isandlwana as shown in Map C. To the south is a lower eminence divided from Isandlwana by a col or neck and which later became known as Black's Koppie. It will be noted from Map B that the camp site faced eastwards over the wide valley of the Nxobongo River bounded on the south by the Malakatha and Hlazakazi mountains, on the east by the Magogo,* Silutshana and Siphezi mountains, while on the north a low plateau, often erroneously referred to as the Nqutu plateau some two kilometres from the camp, obscures the Ngwebeni valley and the true Nqutu ridge behind it. A small conical kop lies about two kilometres to the east of Isandlwana. It is interesting to note that even from the top of Isandlwana no view across this low plateau can be obtained, while from the ridges on which the vedettes were posted the view is unsatisfactory.

[*Note: The reference made in some texts to the Nkandhlas is confusing. Nkandhla is a place, not a range of hills and the heights on which it stands, i.e. the southerly extension of the Tala is separated from the Magogo by the valley of the Nsuzi River and is some 20 kilometres distant.]

To safeguard the camp during the day vedettes were posted at three points along the edge of the plateau to the north, on the conical kop and on a low hill to the south-east, while infantry picquets were posted some 1 500 metres to the front and on the flanks. Each battalion supplied a company for this purpose. At night the vedettes were withdrawn and the outposts drawn in to form a complete circle some 500 metres from the camp. The Natal Native Contingent manned a detached outpost about 1 000 metres to the north where a footpath ran down from the plateau. The 24th Foot manned a permanent guard in the col. Chelmsford had issued field regulations dealing with laagers and entrenchments. No laager was formed although warnings that this was necessary had been received from Paul Kruger and Paul Bester. However, it must be taken into account that many of the wagons were used for transporting goods from Rorke's Drift during the day and it would have needed more than the 110 wagons, the number available, to accommodate the large force. The camp was temporary and the difficulty which would have been experienced in forming and breaking up a laager must not be discounted. No trenches were dug, probably because of the lack of tools and the hardness of the substratum of shale. It would have been possible to build breastworks but a system long enough to protect the camp would have taken several days to complete. In fact, a British force armed with Martin-Henry rifles and supported by artillery needed only to form up in close order to repel a vastly superior force armed, as were the Zulus, mainly with stabbing assegais.

Chelmsford arrived at the new camp at midday and shortly after set off to examine Matyana's stronghold which was thought to lie in the valley of the Mangeni River, some 15 kilometres to the south-east of the camp.

Looking down into the ravine which has a waterfall at its head and very precipitous sides, no Zulu force could be seen, but groups of huts and some women were visible. However, when the general returned to camp at 18h30 he received reports that many Zulus were in the valleys near Matyana's Kraals and he issued orders that a reconnaissance be made in this direction on the following day.

The advance and disposition of the Zulu forces (See Maps A and B)
As the arms and military tactics of the Zulus are discussed in another article in this Journal it is not necessary to re-examine these but the encircling movement and the limitation placed on the Zulu warrior by the use of a stabbing assegai should be borne in mind. Cetshwayo had a well-developed espionage system and there is no doubt that he had accurate if verbal knowledge of the advance of the three main columns. The coastal and the central columns posed the main immediate threats and its is noteworthy that in the event the Zulus were forced to fight two major actions on the same day (22 January), Inyezane near Eshowe and Isandlwana with which we are concerned here. The main elements of the army which was to oppose the centre column concentrated on the Ulundi plain and on 17 January was mustered at the Nodwengu military kraal to receive instruction from the king. As he had no details of the British plan these could be of a general nature only. The army was to move slowly to conserve its energies and to attack by daylight, probably because of the difficulty of communication by night. The warriors were warned not to enter Natal and to kill the soldiers who could be recognised by their red coats.

If one goes by the careful contemporary count made by Fynney the army would have totalled 24 500 but many regiments were not up to strength and it is probable that the figure of 22 000 is more accurate. Mnyamana the leading inDuna who was some 60 years old moved with the army but did not exercise supreme tactical control. Tshingwayo, some ten years older, is given by British sources as the commander but it appears that he shared his responsibilities with the younger Mavumengwana. Dubulamanzi, the king's brother, also played a significant role. The impi left Nodwengu late on 17 January and progressed no further than the banks of the White Umfolozi River that night. On the two succeeding days it made comparatively short marches of some 15 kilometres each, bringing itto near the headwaters of the Umhlatuzi River (see map A). A similar move apparently in two lines brought the Zulus to the Siphezi mountain where they spent the night in a hollow slightly to the north of it. To get within striking distance of the British camp they now had the choice of moving south and then eastwards through Matyana's country or almost due west to the plateau north of Isandlwana. Apparently, because of differences of opinion with Matyana and the good tactical position offered by the plateau, the latter alternative was chosen. On the afternoon of 21 January the Zulus established themselves in the valley of the Ngwebeni stream out of sight of the vedettes but only some eight kilometres from the camp. A new moon was due on 22 January and as this was regarded as inauspicious, it would appear that the Zulus intended to attack at dawn on the following day. The line of march had allowed of provisions being obtained up to the 20th but on the 21st the impi had no food and on the next day groups left the valley to obtain grain and cattle. It seems evident that these alarmed the vedettes and lured Lieut Raw to discover the Zulu bivouac.

The British Reconnaissance in strength (see Map B)
In accordance with Chelmsford's instructions of the previous day Lonsdale left camp before dawn with all but two companies of the 3rd Regiment, N.N.C. to work through the Malakatha and turning north to meet up with Dartnell at Mangeni. Dartnell followed later with 150 mounted men drawn from the Natal Mounted Police, the Natal Carbineers, the Newcastle Mounted Rifles and the Buffalo Border Guard. Dartnell's force rode across the plain until it was under the northern slope of the Hlazakazi where it was divided into two. The Carbineers climbed the slopes while Dartnell took a force of about 40 across the Mangeni stream. About 1.5 kilometres to their front they saw a force of several hundred Zulus moving northwards to take up a position on the slopes of the Magogo. Dartnell withdrew to the northern slopes of the Hlazakazi where he found the Carbineers. The N.N.C. climbed the Malakatha by way of the valley of the 'nDweni stream but found no Zulus although a herd of cattle was captured and sent back to Isandlwana escorted by two companies. After some dissension among the officers the N.N.C. moved to Dartnell's position and a bivouac was formed. Maj. Gosset and other staff officers returned to camp with Dartnell's request for blankets and rations as well as for permission to attack on the next day. They met Chelmsford on his way back from Ispezi and the requests were reluctantly granted as Dartnell had exceeded his orders. At about sundown it was noted that the numbers of Zulus on the Magoga had grown to some 1 500. Dartnell sent out a patrol which was almost encircled and had to withdraw. A message was then sent back to camp requesting several companies of infantry to support an attack on the next day. The blankets and rations arrived very late but were insufficient to provide for the N.N.C. who had last eaten on the previous day. The night was cold and false alarms caused two stampedes amongst the N.N.C. and when dawn broke their morale was low.

At 08h30 Lieut E.S. Browne and a small party of the Mounted Infantry was sent from Isandlwana to reconnoitre the vicinity of the Siphezi hill, past which ran the track to Ulundi. Several large parties of Zulus were seen and shots were exchanged with a smaller group but there was no sign of the main impi. This is surprising as it must have been very near and one can only assume that Browne confined his attentions to the south-western slopes. He returned to camp during the early afternoon.

Chelmsford's morning had been occupied by a visit to Sihayo's brother Gamdana who lived at the foot of the Malakatha and who, after the attack on his brother's kraals, had sent messages of submission to the magistrate at Umsinga, H.F. Fynn, as well as to the general. Fynn's acceptance of the surrender incensed Chelmsford who rode out to Gamdana's kraal only to find he had fled. However, he arrived in camp after lunch and promised his submission. Fynn also obeyed a summons to visit the camp and patched up his differences with the general. Later a visit was paid to the vedettes posted on the plateau. From the first position just north of the camp nothing was to be seen but on reaching the Itusi 14 mounted Zulus came into view 1,5 kilometres to the north-east. They turned and disappeared, whereupon Chelmsford returned to camp.

Lord Chelmsford divides his forces (See map C)

Map C

Map C - British and Zulu Movements 22 January 1879

When Dartnell's final note was received at 01h30 on 22 January, Lord Chelmsford gave orders that approximately half the troops available should move out in support. The factors considered by Chelmsford in taking this decision are unknown, but it should be borne in mind that a route used by the Zulus when attacking the Voortrekkers thirty years before had been through the Skala semBomvu (Red Pass) to the south of the Tala mountain. If they had used it on this occasion it would have brought them to the eastern slopes of the Magogo some ten kilometres east of Dartnell's position and near to the territory of the anti-British Matyana. Before leaving camp with this force Lord Chelmsford sent orders to Colonel Durnford who was at Rorke's Drift to move forward to Isandlwana with all the troops of Number II Column which were available.

By 03h30 the troops commenced the march, each man carrying one day's cooked rations and 70 rounds of ammunition. Lord Chelmsford and his staff rode ahead. Col Glynn commanded the troops made up of four guns Royal Artillery, commanded by Lieut Col Harness with about 60 men; six companies and the band of the 2nd/24th Foot, totalling about 500 men; mounted troops numbering some 122, 16 companies of the N.N.C., totalling about 1 660 and some 90 Pioneers. In all, approximately 2 500 officers and men.

Chelmsford arrived at the bivouac area at about 06h00 by which time the Zulus who had encamped on the Magogo had withdrawn. The mounted men were sent out in an encircling movement to the south while the N.N.C. moved directly up its north-western slope. As the sun rose the Zulus reappeared on the crest but retired again before the advance of the N.N.C. As they were crossing the valley of the Nondweni River to gain the heights of the Phindo, Dartnell attacked from the south and killed about thirty of them. The N.N.C. attacked and accounted for another fifty. Matyana fled on horseback with Captain T. Shepstone in pursuit but managed to slip from his horse to find refuge in a krantz.

The column was some way in the rear and Chelmsford sent word for them to move towards the northern slopes of the Magogo. In the very rough going after they left the track, the guns fell far behind and Glynn detached two companies to escort them. Chelmsford now rode across to join the column which was passing between the Silutshana and the Magogo, the main camp being hidden from view by the slopes of the former. Here the general stopped to have breakfast at 09h30 and, having received a report that Zulus had been seen in the distance to the north-east of Isandlwana, sent Lieut B. Milne up to a hill from which the camp was visible. He could detect no Zulus but reported by flag signal that the cattle had been driven in close to the tents. After an hour and a half he rejoined Chelmstbrd who, in the meantime, had ordered Hamilton-Browne of lst/3rd N.N.C. to return to camp by way of the Nxobongo valley, mopping up as he went. At the same time, Harness was ordered to Mangeni and moved awav under the north-western face of the Magogo to reach it. Lieut Colonel Russell moved north-east across the Nondweni valley and scouted the slopes of the Ispezi, returned along the track to Isandlwana and off-saddled on the plain some three kilometres west of the Silutshana. All the other troops were now in the Nondweni valley and were moved round the southern slopes of the Magogo to Mangeni which bad been chosen as the site fbr the new camp. Captain Gardner was sent back at about 10h30 with an order for the tents and equipment to be sent forward. At about 11h45 Chelmsford proceeded over the high ground to the place where the action had taken place and then moved on to Mangeni where he pointed out the new camp site. Unwittingly Chelmsford had made a bad choice. The new camp lay on the track to the Qudeni range and had he occupied it he would have had to cross the Magogo and the Phindo with his ungainly wagon train to regain the track leading to Ulundi, a task which would have posed a major roadmaking problem.

At about noon Col Harness halted in the col between the Hlazakazi and the Magogo and shortly after, it was noticed that the guns at Isandlwana were firing. Soon after this a message was received from Comdt Browne which read, "For God's sake come with all your men; the camp is surrounded and will be taken unless helped". Maj Gosset was present when this was received and when Harness decided to move off to assist, he carried the message to Chelmsford who had already received a report that the Zulus were attacking Isandlwana. He had galloped up the slopes of Mdutshana, a nearby koppie from which Isandlwana is clearly visible, seeing nothing amiss he apparently discounted both reports and sent orders for Harness to return.

At 14h00 the general set off to return to Isandlwana but had not gone far when he met Lieut Col Russell who had also received news of the attack on the camp, moved his men to the Mangeni track and gone in search of Chelmsford. However, no great importance was attached to the message and the return to camp continued. At about 14h30 the party came up with the lst/3rd N.N.C. Shortly after lOhOO this unit had captured a Zulu scout from whom it was ascertained that an attack on the camp was imminent. Comdt Browne had sent back a message and moved forward with the object of reinforcing the defenders. After advancing some five kilometres it was seen that an attack had commenced. A further message was dispatched and as many Zulus were visible the battalion retired to the left rear. An attempt was made to advance but the men would not move. Hamilton-Browne himself rode forward and watched the attack from a distance of some six kilometres. Returning to his men he sent the last desperate message and retreated still further to a low rise. When Chelmsford came within sight a message was sent saying that the camp had been overrun and at first it was not believed. Shortly after this the party met Comdt Lonsdale who had returned to the camp during the morning and had approached near enough to be aware of the awful truth. Orders were immediately sent back for Col Glynn to march for Isandlwana immediately.

The events in camp and the fateful battle (See map D)

Map D

Map D - The Battlefield of Isandlwana 22 January 1879

When Lord Chelmsford marched out of the camp early on 22 January he left Lieut Col Pulleine in charge of his staff (2 officers, an interpreter and 13 men), 2 guns R.A. with 2 officers and 70 men, 3 men Royal Engineers, the H.Q. and 5 companies of the lst/24th Foot (13 officers and about 402 men), one company of the 2nd/24th Foot with 5 officers and 170 men, 6 men of the 90th Foot, 5 officers and 110 mounted men, Army Service and Hospital Corps (1 officer and 18 men), 1st and 2nd/3rd N.N.C. (19 officers, an interpreter and approximately 400 men and the Pioneer Corps (1 officer and 10 men). This gave him approximately 750 white combatant troops and 420 N.N.C.; total 1 170.

Once the general had left the camp settled down to normal routine. The mounted vedettes rode out to their posts, the night picquets were relieved and work was continued on the road. Firing could be heard from the east and at 08h00 while most of the men were at breakfast, a vedette rode in to report a large force of Zulus approaching from the north-east. The troops were called to arms and assembled in front of the tents with the regular infantry in column of companies facing the enemy. The picquet companies of the lst/24th were brought in but the N.N.C. on the escarpment to the north and rear of the Conical Kop remained in position. In the meantime, Pulleine dispatched a message to Chelmsford. Zulus appeared on the skyline about three kilometres to the north-east and vedettes reported several groups on the high ground. As a precaution Pulleine ordered the transport oxen to be collected and tied to the yokes while the working party on the road was called in.

In accordance with the orders received from Chelmsford, Durnford moved his force up from Rorke's Drift. He arrived in camp at about 10h00 bringing with him his staff, 3 rocket battery troughs commanded by Brevet Maj F.B. Russell, with 9 men, 5 troops of the Natal Native Horse with Capt W. Barton in charge (about 259 men) and lst/I.N.N.C. numbering some 240 men. This increased the numbers of the N.N.C. in camp to approximately 1 000, including the well-equipped and trained Natal Native Horse. As senior officer, the command of the forces automatically evolved on Durn ford but it would appear that there was no serious difference of opinion with Pulleine over troop dispositions and Durnford assured him that he would not interfere as he would be leaving camp. On learning of the force of Zulus which had been seen on the left front Durnford decided to use his own men to clear the area. Capt G. Barton, Capt George Shepstone with the Natal Native Horse troops led by Lt S.C. Raw and Roberts were sent out to drive the enemy from the plateau above the escarpment. To support them they picked up the N.N.C. picquet which was replaced by Capt C.W. Cavaye's company on the western end of the escarpment. The rest of the troops were dismissed but were to keep their equipment on and get their dinners as quickly as possible. The artillery teams remained in harness and the Natal Native Horse which were now joined by the rocket battery and escort were not to off-saddle. Durnford now joined Pulleine for lunch.

While they were at lunch a picquet which Durnford had posted on top of Isandlwana reported that the Zulus were retiring and some appeared to be moving eastwards.* It might be inferred that this force could turn south and attack Chelmsford in the flank. It was apparently this consideration that caused Durnford to advance eastwards past the Conical Kop with two troops of the N.N.H., the rocket battery and one company of the 1st N.N.C. at approximately 11h30. Although he had requested the support of two companies of infantry this had not been forthcoming. However, a message was sent to Shepstone to engage in an encircling movement.

[*Note the previous remark that from the top of Isandlwana, as well as from the positions of the vedettes on the escarpment, the view of the plateau is very limited.]

Cavaye extended his company along the crest and sent Lt E. Dyson some 500 metres further to the left. Raw's troops moved north-east across the plateau while Roberts at first went almost due north. Raw's men were extended in groups, one of which pursued a herd of cattle several kilometres in front of them, but as they topped a rise they came upon the Zulu army. Having been discovered the Zulu commanders realised that an action was inevitable. The umCijo moved forward first, followed by the uThulwana. Very soon the whole army was moving forward in fighting formation but without the typical preliminary instructions which Mavumengwana and Tshingawayo vainly tried to transmit. The right horn moved along the valley between the plateau and the heights driving back Roberts' and Raw's troops as it went and coming under fire from Cavaye's men on its flank. The centre moved towards the crest of the plateau while the left were streaming towards the declivity which leads down to the Conical Kop.

Shepstone galloped to warn Cavaye and then went into camp to bring the news to Pulleine. As he was speaking, the message from Chelmsford to send the baggage forward arrived. Pulleine wrote a note indicating that he could not move camp and sounded the alarm. The time was about 12h00. Capt W.E. Mostyn's company was sent to support Cavaye who had been joined by Raw and Roberts. In front of them the uNokenke and the uDududu were moving towards the back of Isandlwana while the N.N.C. were wavering. A withdrawal was started and Pulleine sent Capt R. Younghusband's company forward to cover it. The N.N.C. ran down to the camp in disorder but the rest formed up at the foot of the escarpment and inflicted severe losses on the uNokenke as they appeared over the ridge. It would appear that at this stage the main threat was from the north and the other companies under Lt F.P. Porteus, Capt G.V. Wardell and Lt C.D. Pope were extended to face in that direction. As the umCijo came over the crest they suffered considerable losses from fire directed from these positions.

Durnford's movements on the plain are not at all clear. According to some accounts he was six kilometres from camp when he bore to the left and ascended the escarpment but a message was received that the Zulus were close by and shortly afterwards they came into sight. A retreat was ordered and this was carried out in an orderly fashion by alternate troops. The rocket battery had lagged behind in the difficult terrain and had turned to the north on the advice of a Carbineer. As it approached the base of the Itusi the Zulus appeared over the crest. Before more than one rocket could be discharged, it was overrun and all but three of the crew were killed. The company of the N.N.C. which was in the rear of the battery returned to camp. Meanwhile, Durnford had reached the bed of the stream which flows south past the western face of the Conical Kop where he deployed his men in the shelter of the bank to face the inGobamakhosi and the uMbonambi. Here his men gave a very good account of themselves and were reinforced by some of the Newcastle Mounted Rifles. Durnford, with Pope's men to the rear left, had managed to stop the advance of the left horn but ammunition began to run low and horsemen sent back to the 24th Regiment wagons were told to go to their own which they could not find. There was no alternative but to desert the stream bed and withdraw to the saddle. The British right was exposed to the fierce attack of the Zulu left.

As more Zulus and in particular the uVe descended from the escarpment the British would appear to have adjusted their positions to that of a rough "L" with Younghusband's company at the base of Isandlwana with Mostyn and Cavaye facing north on his right. Near Cavaye's position there is a slight rise and a rocky ridge runs down to the south-east. It is evident that Porteus and Wardell were positioned on this which has a good field of fire towards the east while Pope fell back to the lower part of this ridge after Durnford's withdrawal. At this stage the British were in a strong position and the Zulus were suffering heavy losses. Observers made mention of the humming and buzzing of the Zulus like a huge swarm of bees, while Zulu inDunas were doing their best to encourage the men. A sudden turn of fortunes came giving the Zulus the advantage. The reason for this has been hotly debated. The traditional view is that the supply of ammunition dried up, the firing ceased and the N.N.C. fled, allowing the Zulus to break through and surround the various companies. Modern researchers are of the opinion that there was no shortage of ammunition but that the British withdrew to the camp and as they did so the Zulus charged in amongst them. Whether lack of ammunition or the withdrawal of Durnford caused the retreat it was fatal. The Zulus saw their chance and rushed forward. The N.N.C. broke and led the flight to Fugitive's Drift and it is evident that the individual companies fought to the last with their bayonets, surrounded on all sides by the Zulus. Capt T. Shepstone was sent to the west face of the mountain to face the uDududu and the uNokenke but was overrun. Durnford himself rallied a group of about 70 including some of Pope's company in front of the wagon park. Both the inGobamakhasi and the uMbonambi attacked them and Mehlakazulu described how they held out until their ammunition was exhausted and the Zulus even flung their own dead on the bayonets to break the defence. A group also rallied in the left rear of the lst/24th tents and it seems that Pope and Lt F. Godwin-Austin tried to shoot their way out when this was overrun. Some survivors of the companies rallied just on the western side of the neck. Younghusband's company retreated under the shoulder of the mountain and held out on its south-eastern edge until the end.

First photo

Isandlwana as seen from the slopes of Black's Koppie looking north across the col. monuments and cairns in the foreground, ridge on which Mostyn and Cavaye were posted to right of mountain.

The entire camp became a scene of confusion. The Zulus, as was their tradition, ripped open the dead bodies, dressed themselves in uniforms and raided the stores including the medicines which were consumed without regard to doctors' prescriptions. The casualties have been assessed as: Whites, 858, N.N.C. 471 (total 1 329) and Zulus almost 3 000.

The flight to Fugitive's Drift (See maps E and F)

Map E

Map E - The Route of the Fugitives and the Zulu Advance to Rorke's Drift

Although little could be done by the Zulu commanders to co-ordinate the attack the Undi Corps and the uDloko regiment had been held back and under the command of Dabulamanzi were ordered to move to the western end of the plateau, go behind Isandlwana and cut off the retreat to Rorke's Drift. Reaching the track they spread across it but took no part in the actual battle.

The bulk of the N.N.C. had fled from the field at an early stage, about 12h45 or 13h00, but by this time the Undi Corps were already across the track to Rorke's Drift so that they were forced to follow a more direct route to the Buffalo River which led under the slopes of Black's Koppie. Observing this, Dabulamanzi sent the inDlu-yengwe to attack them in the flank and although many had already cast away their weapons, headbands or any other signs of allegiance to the British in the hopes of becoming unrecognisable, most were discovered and killed although some managed to escape.

To the fleeing Whites, the route offered many obstacles. The first was the so called rocky torrent, or stony stream bed, which hampered the horses and which brought the guns to grief. The latter had got through the camp but were upset on the bank of the stream bed and the horses suspended by the traces, were killed by the Zulus. The fugitives who negotiated this feature were then confronted by what some accounts called a "chasm", i.e. a donga some four metres deep and apparently only fordable near its junction with the Manzimyama stream. One rider put his horse to jump the chasm but was crushed when it fell to the rocks in the bottom. The Manzimyama has very steep banks and a rocky bed. It was described as a gorge and many were killed trying to cross it. Some respite was given in climbing the slopes of the Mpete ridge which is capped by a marsh where P. Brickhill (interpreter) lost his spectacles but from here the descent into the Buffalo River valley is steep and difficult. On the Zululand side there is a small flat area where the fugitives congregated. However, as the river was running in spate, the crossing was a dangerous operation. At the point where the fugitives reached it, it was flowing turbulantly but in a straight course. About 100 metres downstream there was a rocky island of boulders amongst which the water boiled. Below this was a whirlpool from which several horses were vainly struggling to escape, while further downstream the water roared through a boulder-strewn gorge where man and animal would be battered to death. After the N.N.C. had crossed very few men on foot managed to escape the Zulus and by 13h30 it would seem that the inDlu-yengwe were in control of the route and the inGobamakhasi and uMbonambi had crossed Black's Koppie to close it from the east. The number of the N.N.C. who escaped is unknown but about 74 Whites survived.

Lieut Melvill, Adjutant of the lst/24th Foot was instructed by Col Pulleine, his commanding officer, to rescue the Queen's colour of the Regiment and attempt to escape from the Isandlwana battlefield with it. Not only did he take the colour in its case, but he carried the pole as well. On leaving camp, he fell in with Lieut Coghill who had hurt his knee during the attack on Sihayo's stronghold and was hardly able to walk, but had managed to find a pony on the battlefield. When they reached the Buffalo River Coghill swam his horse safely through to the Natal bank. Melvill's horse slipped on a submerged boulder, threw him into the river and was swept away. While attempting to retain his grip on the colour he was washed into deep water. Coghill, seeing his plight, rode back into the river to assist him but his horse was killed by a bullet fired by the Zulus who had now reached the Zululand bank. After a desperate struggle the two officers, and Lieut W. Higginson who vainly attempted to assist with the colour, reached the Natal bank. Lieut Higginson was able to escape, but it is apparent that Melvill refused to leave Coghill and they were overtaken and killed just below the crest of the ridge. It is evident that Coghill being mounted, could easily have escaped had he left Melvill to his fate, and it would seem that Melvill once on the Natal side, could have reached safety had he left Coghill to struggle on alone.

Just above the crest the Natal Native Horse were holding some spare mounts. Had Melville reached them he would have been safe.

The bodies were found on 1 February 1879 and were buried under a common cairn by the Rev G Smith two days later when a patrol, consisting of Maj W. Black, Lieut H.C. Harford, Lieut Harber and others, was sent to look for the colours. Descending the krantz overlooking the river they erected a sangar to give protection from possible Zulu fire from the opposite bank. An old fortification, probably the remains of this sangar, has been discovered near the river bank. Lieut Harber recovered the colour case which was first spotted by Lieut Harford in the bend of the river, which had fallen two metres since the day of the battle. The pole with the colour still attached was found about fifty metres further upstream on a rocky island and the crown about twenty metres away.

Map F

Map F - Fugitives Drift

Second photo

Fugitive's Drift, looking north. Level area to right, crossing of horsemen in centre, rocky island, whirlpool and gorge in foreground. Shiyane on horison. River comparatively low.

Chelmsford's return to the battlefield
After his meeting with Lonsdale, Chelmsford formed up the N.N.C. and advanced towards the camp. The mounted infantry went forward to reconnoitre and they came back with a report of Zulus swarming amongst the tents. Gosset reached the new camp site at about 16h00 but it was after 18h00 by the time Glynn's forces arrived. The men had been marching all day and were very tired. Forming up the troops with the guns in the centre, the regular infantry on either side, a battalion of N.N.C. on each side and mounted men on the flanks, Chelmsford moved forward to near the Conical Kop. Night had almost fallen and all that could be seen were the silhouettes of the wagons in the saddle and some Zulus disappearing over the escarpment. Four rounds were fired into the wagons but as no response was observed Maj Black led three companies of the 24th to occupy the Koppie which now bears his name.

The whole force now moved up to the col where it arrived at 21h00. It was obviously impossible to pitch camp and the men had to sleep on the ground wherever a space could be found. Many encountered the bodies of their comrades when groping for a place to lie down. To make matters worse firing could be heard and the glow of flames above Rorke's Drift could be seen. Before dawn the force marched away from the bloody field but as they approached the Batshe River the Zulus who had attacked Rorke's Drift emerged from a valley to their left barely 400 metres away. No action was taken as the Zulus were probably even more exhausted than Chelmsford's men, while the latter did not have sufficient ammunition to become involved in further hostilities.

The burial of the dead and the preservation of the cairns
The battlefield was not revisited until 17 May but the burial party of the Dragoon Guards spent four days there from 21 to 24 May, exactly four months after the battle. Some bodies which had been disemboweled dried up but others had decomposed. Vultures, crows, hyenas and jackals had also attacked many of the bodies, large numbers of which were unrecognisable. In many cases the tunics had been removed by the Zulus making identification even more difficult. In some areas, British and Zulu dead were lying together and could not he identified separately. Because of the lack of time and tools, as well as the hardness of the ground, no graves were dug, but the bodies pulled together in heaps and stones piled over them. This gave the characteristic appearance of the battlefield covered by cairns instead of graves with headstones. It is not known if the cairns were whitewashed at this time but it appears very unlikely. It is known that attention was paid to the battlefield after the annexation of Zululand and the cairns were probablv whitewashed during the early 1900's. Later several regimental monuments were erected.

During 1928 just before the 50th anniversary, that part of the battlefield where most of the cairns were situated was fenced off and cairns outside this were not regularly cared for. As a result those on the remoter parts of the battlefield became indistinguishable from ordinary heaps of stones. During 1958 a graves curator, in ignorance, flattened many cairns to make them look like ordinary graves. This exposed some remains. The writer was requested to rebuild the cairns, and after studying all available old photographs and relying on his own memory, work was commenced. However, many of the grave-like structures made by the curator were simply covered with stones and are clearly recognisable as incompletely restored cairns. The opportunity was taken to search for neglected cairns. Some forty of these were found, carefully examined for remains, fully documented, photographed, and marked on a plan and rebuilt. These cairns include those out on the ridge where the British companies were stationed and along the route of the fugitives. In view of recent statements that very few British were killed at the advanced positions, it is interesting to note that buttons, boot protectors and bones were found when the neglected cairns were dismantled and documented. This is, of course, not evidence that the casualties at these positions were very heavy.

Third photo

Where Melvill and Coghill fell. Grave in foreground and inscribed cross on boulder. Plaque bears replica of wording on cross.Note level area behind cross.

Rorke's Drift (See maps F and G)

Map G

Map G - The Defence of Rorke's Drift

After the main British force had moved off to Isandlwana the garrison at Rorke's Drift busied itself with the improvement of the roads, the maintenance of the pont and the handling of the supplies. There were two important buildings on the site - the house and the store. Rorke's house had been converted into a hospital. It had eleven rooms and a verandah but like many colonial houses of the period, some of the rooms had no interior communication with the rest of the house, the doors being on the outside. Not all had windows, but those that did exist were small and shuttered. The outside walls were of round stones and homemade bricks, but the interior ones were of mud bricks. The roof was thatched, and was thus high and steep. The store built by Rorke, and converted to a chapel by the Swedish Missionaries, was built of stone, and had a very high roof, making it appear almost double storeyed. It was used as a commissariat store. There was a toilet west of the house, a cookhouse and ovens south of the store, two kraals to the east and a wall one metre high in the garden, which lay below the 1,5 metre high rocky outcrop on which the buildings stood. The tents of the garrison were below the garden, to the north.

Fourth photo

Rorke's Drift house (on right) and store as it appeared before the battle. Note Shiyane in background and trees and garden in foreground.

On the morning of 22 January, Maj H. Spalding from Helpmekaar, was at the drift making arrangements to move troops forward and he gave Lieut J.R.M. Chard, R.E., permission to ride to Isandiwana with Lieut H.L. Smith-Dorrien. On hearing that there were Zulus to the north of the camp, Chard returned to Rorke's Drift as he feared that the road might be threatened. He arrived at 12h00 and shortly after, distant firing could be heard and a black mass moved across the col, but as no messages were received, Maj Spalding returned to Helpmekaar, leaving Chard in charge. While he was busy at the pont Lieuts J. Vane and Adendorff arrived on horseback bringing news of the disaster at Isandlwana. Vane had been amongst the fugitives, became separated from them and rode north along the river for eight kilometres before meeting Adendorff who had 'escaped by the road' although how this was possible has never been explained. These two carried the message to Lieut G. Bromhead at the station and rode off.

Chard rode up to the station to find that Bromhead, who had received a note telling of the disaster from Capt E. Essex, had struck the tents, unloaded and manhandled two wagons to near the hospital with the intention of evacuating the sick to Helpmekaar. After consultation with Quartermaster (Acting Commissariat Officer) J.L. Dalton it was decided that any evacuation would be overtaken by the Zulus, that an attempt to hold the ponts would be futile and the only hope was to fortify the station for which no defensive measures had been taken. A start was made on a mealie bag wall along the rocky ledge between the kraal and the house, while on the south side the corner of the commissariat store was connected to the house by a similar wall incorporating the two wagons. In the process, heaps of mealie bags (approximately 100 kilograms in weight) and biscuit boxes (approximately 50 kilograms in weight) were made in front of the store. The walls of the buildings were loopholed and outside doors and windows barricaded. However, it was felt that the perimeter was too long to be defended by the men available, that is, one company of the 2nd/24th Foot and one company of the N.N.C. As a result, the arrival of a company of Durnford's Horse was welcomed. They were posted at the drift, told to hold it as long as possible if attacked and fall back if necessary. Some other survivors rode by but none stayed. By 16h30 the Zulus were seen from the top of Oskarberg and at that stage the company of Durnford's Horse rode off, followed by the N.N.C. and their officer. This reduced the strength of the defenders drastically and placed them in a precarious position. Chard now commenced dividing the defences into two by means of a wall of biscuit boxes but it was only partly completed when the attack came. At this stage the strength of the garrison was: Royal Engineers, Lieut Chard and one man; 24th Foot, Lieut Bromhead and 109 other ranks, of whom 22 were ill; other units, 27 of whom 13 were sick, giving a total of 139 of whom 35 were sick, but of the latter 15 were walking patients and could help, that is, 120 to man the post. In the barricaded rooms in the house there were six able-bodied men, four walking patients and twenty bed patients.

The uThulwana, about 1 500 strong and the uDlobo, numbering some 2 000 had turned aside from the col at Isandlwana to make their way to the bend of the Buffalo River where they crossed by means of forming a chain of linked arms and moved towards Rorke's Drift on the Natal side. The inDlu-yengwe which had been led by Usibebu had followed the fugitives, crossed in their wake, killed Melvill and Coghill and turned north, burning kraals as they went. Usibebu was wounded and had turned back. The two groups met on a small knoll and advanced against Rorke's Drift under the command of Dubulamanzi. The Rev G. Smith, O. Witt and Pte Wall who were posted on Oskarberg fled down the slope to warn the post. Witt did not wait to see the outcome but abandoned his property and left. The inDlu-yengwe appeared round the western flank of the Oskarberg deployed under the rocky terrace and attacked the rear of the post suffering heavily from the concentrated fire. They were followed by the uThulwana and the uDloke who attacked the western end. Losses were heavy and they withdrew to mass behind the trees in the garden, from where a second furious attack was launched on the south side of the post. Here the fight reached a climax, the Zulus storming over their own dead to breast the ledge and the mealie bag wall. While this was happening some Zulus took position on the terrace of the Oskarberg and fired down into the post causing some casualties to the British holding the south wall. Those British soldiers in front of the hospital were especially hard pushed and Chard pulled them in, closing the gap between the front wall and the building with a short wall. The Zulus poured into the space which had been evacuated and threatened the house which had empty rooms in front but no loopholes.

During the first attacks many Zulus had taken position against the walls and were attempting to batter down the doors and grab the rifles protruding from the loopholes. The first door to give was that to the middle room on the west face but Pte John Williams cut a hole through the wall while Pte Joseph Williams and Pte William Harrigan (walking sick) held the Zulus at bay. They evacuated two patients but two patients, as well as Joseph Williams and Harrigan were killed. In the room on the south-west corner, Pte Thomas Cole suffered from claustrophobia. He charged out of the front of the house and was killed, leaving Pte Henry Hook alone with the Zulu wounded at the attack on Sihayo stronghold. As the Zulus battered at the door Hook went into the next room alone where he found William and the two patients coming through the other door. There were now two soldiers and eleven patients in the room. Hook held the doors against attacks while Williams dug a hole into the next room where the only occupant was Pte John Waters, a walking patient. Again Williams did the digging and Hook the defence until all were in the next room except Waters who hid in a cupboard and eventually escaped. In the last rooms Pte RobertJones had already helped four patients to escape through the window and when Hook and William brought the other patients in, all got through the window except Sgt Robert Maxfield who was delirious and could not be moved and was killed by the Zulus. Gnr Arthur Howard and Adams were in the north-west corner room, the door of which opened on to the space occupied by the Zulus. Howard charged out through the Zulus and hid but Adams was killed. While the evacuation was taking place the thatch on the house was fired and the flames lit up the surrounding area giving the defenders some advantage.

Although the evacuation shortened the perimeter to be defended, it released many Zulus from the attack on the house to circle round to the eastern side. The British lost a few lives getting the wounded across the open space to behind the biscuit box wall but they built up a redoubt of mealie bags in which the sick could be accommodated while it afforded a vantage point for the riflemen. The Zulus concentrated on the eastern side of the defences and were eventually able to occupy both kraals but despite heroic efforts were unable to break into the last defensive system. At ahout midnight Chard led an attack to drag the water cart near the biscuit box wall to slake his men's thirst. After this, Zulu attack slackened and by ahout 04h00 on 23 January they withdrew. At 05h00 Chard sent out patrols but at 07h00 the Zulus reappeared at the western end of the Oskarberg, sat down and took snuff. Chard's men took up their posts again. After a while the Zulus skirted wide round the post and withdrew by way of the drift. They had fought a most exhausting action and exceeded the king's orders by entering Natal. With this in mind, can one agree that the defence of Rorke's Drift really saved Natal, heroic deed though it was?

The British lost 17 dead, who were buried just south of the post, and the Zulus some 400 or 500. Recent research has revealed three Zulu mass graves which have now been suitably marked. When Chelmsford's force arrived, the house was broken down and the material used to build a loopholed fortification some three metres high which incorporated the commissariat store. Shortly after, a start was made on the building of Fort Melvill an extensive system of fortifications overlooking the drift and the pont moorings. It was occupied until the end of the war. When the Swedish missionaries returned to the site they demolished the fort near the store room and built a house very similar to the original, but it is not known if it stands on the same spot. In 1882 a church was built next to the commissariat store which disappeared. With the development of gardens and mission buildings all signs of the battle became lost.


The road to Isandlwana which lies in KwaZulu is in good repair and should you wish to visit the view site, which includes a diorama and the monuments it is not necessary to obtain permission. If you intend visiting other parts of the battlefield where the important sites are indicated by markers, it is necessary to obtain a permit from the Magistrate at Nqutu. The KwaZulu Government Service has recently constructed a good road from Isandlwana past Mangeni to the Phindo. With the necessary permit you can drive under the shoulder of Hlazakazi through the neck where the artillery was parked, past the Mdutshana from which Chelmsford viewed Isandiwana, over the new camp site at Mangeni and up the Magogo where Dartnell was almost surrounded. If you wish you can also visit the Mangeni falls and look down into Matyana's fastness. If you turn north on top of the Phindo you pass the Siphezi to rejoin the Nqutu-Babanongo road.

Rorke's Drift which is on the Natal bank is the property of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Africa and visitors are welcome between 08h00 and 1 7h00. The defences have been partially reconstruaed and there is a model of the site to orientate visitors. The road to Fugitive's Drift is also in good repair.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /