THE BATTLE OF ISANDLWANA

 

Battle of Isandlwana

THE LAST BRITISH POCKET

 

 

 

In the late 19th century the British Empire was vast, stretching out to all corners of the earth. The British redcoats fought not just to expand the Empire but to force British civilization on the rest of the world.

On the continent of Africa (now present day South Africa) the British had acquired a colony from the Dutch and planned to expand their influence over the region. This would prove no easy task for the area was dominated by Zululand a very proud and fierce people whose large army possessed advanced fighting techniques and military discipline.

SirHenryBartleFrere governor of the British colony of Natal, believed that only force would ensure control over the entire region and set about provoking the Zulu's into war. Frere campaigned that victory would be swift and effortless for the British troops in the invasion force were the very best in the world highly trained and disciplined with a fierce loyalty to the British crown. 

The British forces not only possessed cavalry and artillery, they had also just been equip with the newest and finest infantry weapon in the world, the Martini Henry .45 cal breach loading rifle. Frere was positive the Zulu shield and spear would be no match for the superior weaponry of the British Empire.

Frere then decided to set events in motion and demanded the Zulu King Cetshwayo disband his army and hand over control of Zululand to the British crown. This was a request he knew the great King would not accept. 

Thus on January 11th 1879 a British army comprising 14,000 men (5,000 British and 9,000 native irregulars) under the command of Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford crossed the Natal border into Zululand. Five days after the British invasion King Cetshwayo had finished mobilizing the entire Zulu army numbering 25,000 strong and set out to repel the invaders.

Chelmsford divided his force into five independent commands. Three attack columns would march into the very heart of Zululand and converge on the capital of Ulundi. While the other two formations would remain on the border to defend against Zulu counter attacks into the Natal.

In the center number three column under Colonel Glyn accompanied by Lord Chelmsford himself was to push due east from Rorke's Drift. Protecting the right flank of the invasion force number one column underColonel Pearson was to march northward along the African coastline. The left flank commanded by Colonel Wood comprised number four column and was to advance southward.

Lord Chelmsford crossed the buffalo river east of Rorke's Drift and marched unopposed into hostile Zululand. Puzzled by the lack of resistance to his advance Chelmsford ordered his force to stop and make camp for the night on the open plains surrounding the sandstone mountain of Isandlwana.

Chelmsford then ordered scouting parties forward to reckon the area. One unit encountered a Zulu force of 1,000 warriors blocking their advance, the British commander decided to hold his position while sending for reinforcements.

Upon receiving the urgent requests for assistance Chelmsford wrongly concluded that his advance troops had encountered the main Zulu army, he then made the fateful decision to split his forces leaving 1200 men behind to guard the main camp while Chelmsford and Glyn marched out to engage the Zulu's.

 

Lord Chelmsford

LORD CHELMSFORD

 

 

 

Chelmsford also sent orders to Colonel Durnford's second column in reserve to march to the camp in support of its defense. Chelmsford then placed Major Pulliene in command of the camp which would prove to be a grave mistake. In twenty four years of service Pulliene had no combat experience and never once fought an enemy in open combat.

As Chelmsford marched east to engage the enemy the main Zulu force outflanked his position and began converging on the British camp at Isandlwana. Confident that Chelmsford was between himself and the Zulu army, Major Pulleine did little to fortify the base camp. The defenses consisted of a cavalry screen deployed on a plateau overlooking the area and infantry pickets in a rough semi circle surrounding the camp.

The next morning at 8.00am the camp was suddenly alerted that a large body of Zulu's were approaching from the north east. Major Pulliene immediately ordered his infantry to form defensive positions. At that very moment Colonel Durnford's reserve column had arrived on the scene.

The sound of gunfire in the distance led Durnford to believe that Chelmsford was fighting the entire Zulu army and Major Pulleine's report of Zulu's approaching was nothing more than his inexperience getting the best of him. Durnford decided to ignore Pulliene and marched forward to support his commander. 

Two miles from the campDurnford ran into a large Zulu force bearing down on him at a full run. The Zulu's quickly overran his forward positions forcing him to fall back and take up a defensive posture in a dry river bed one mile from the camp. Durnford then ordered his men to fan out and form their defensive line to connect with that of the main camp thus forming the left flank.

Although the British defensive line was thin it was able to put forth such a rate of fire that the Zulu's were unable to advance. It was now a set of unforeseen circumstances centered around the ammunition supply that would prove to be the British undoing. 

The battle of Isandlwana was the first major encounter in which the British had used the new breach loading rifles and very little was known about their ammunition requirements. The eighty rounds issued each man would prove woefully inadequate for a rifle which could fire twelve rounds a minute. During extensive combat it was also not known that the chambers of these weapons would grow so hot that many cartridges would malfunction. 

During the battle re supply of the British front line would prove painfully slow as the distance to the ammunition depot was a half mile. In addition the supply quartermasters were under strict orders not to supply ammunition to anyone not from their own battalion, especially the native troops. As a result the British rate of fire on the enemy weakened and the Zulu's slowly began to advance.

MajorPulliene now ordered the British line to fall back to the camp. At that very moment a partial eclipse of the sun occurred and darkened the battlefield. The Zulu commander believing this to be a sign which favored the Zulu nation ordered all his warriors forward in an all out attack.

The massive Zulu charge quickly broke the thin British line in many sectors and penetrated into the main camp itself. Cut off from one another the British were easily herded into small pockets. Taking no prisoners the Zulu's cut down and slaughtered every British soldier to a man.

 The Zulu victory was now complete but at a very high cost, the Zulu's had suffered 3,000 casualties against 600 British and an equal number of native troops. Five miles away 4,000 Zulu reservists eager to share in the glory of their countrymen, broke King Cetshwayo's direct orders to never attack an entrenched British force. 

These proud warriors would lay siege to the tiny garrison at Rorke's Drift and it would be against these British troops that the legend and fury of the Zulu nation would be broken forever.    

 

THE SIEGE OF RORKE'S DRIFT

 

ZULU WARRIOR

 

 

 

Shortly after the British defeat at Isandlwana fleeing survivors began to arrive at the small British posting of Rorke's Drift, with them they carried the grim news of the complete annihilation of the British forces. Adding to this tragedy was the warning that only two hours separated the garrison from an advancing Zulu force bearing down on their position.

News of the defeat and the impending Zulu attack prompted the 300 native troops stationed with the post to abandon their British allies and flee. This would leave 109 British troops to defend the post of which 30 were hospitalized.

Commanding the garrison were Lieutenant's Chard and Bromhead of which Chard was the senior officer. Believing that if they too abandoned their position the sick and wounded would slow their escape and the Zulu's would surely overtake them in open country.

Both Chard andBromhead concluded their position at least offered them a chance to improvise fortifications plus they also had plentiful supplies of ammunition and food, the decision was therefore made to stand and fight.

The Rorke's Drift station consisted of two buildings roughly thirty yards apart with a hospital and a store connected to a cattle pen. The garrison frantically began to prepare its defenses stacking mealie bags and biscuit boxes four feet high creating a perimeter around the buildings with a second interior line of defense which cut across the make shift fort and was intended as a fall back position if the outer walls were penetrated.

When completed the makeshift fort was reasonably secure and had some advantages. The Zulu's had no artillery to fire upon the outer walls and they also could not maneuver and execute their patented horns of the bull fighting technique (because the fort had no flanks to envelope). Lastly the defensive perimeter covered a very small area so the Zulu's could not bring the full weight of their great numerical superiority to bear on any one part of the fort at one time.

Between 4:00 and 4:30pm the Zulu force numbering 4,000 warriors began to arrive and began taking up positions around the fort. The Zulu commander Prince Dabulamanzi decided to first attack the garrisons southern barricades ordering six hundred of his youngest fastest warriors to form up and charge. 

When all was ready the Prince lowered his spear and sent in the first wave. With great speed and ferocity the assault raced forward. As the Zulu's grew closer the ground itself beneath the defenders began to shake but the British remained motionless and silent.

 

Zulu Warriors

ZULU FIRST WAVE

 

At four hundred yards the British opened fire exacting a murderous toll on their attackers. The British rifles poured volley after volley into the now depleting Zulu ranks. At about fifty yards from the garrison the Zulu attack began to falter and withier away.

The Prince quickly discovered that the open ground surrounding this section of the British perimeter made it impossible for another assault, he then began diverting his attention to the hospital where the brush and tall grass in the area would provided his warriors with excellent cover.

PrinceDabulamanzi would now concentrate the bulk of his forces against this one sector of the British defenses. The Zulu's now launched repeated attacks to take the hospital and penetrate the enemy defenses.

After many failed attempts the Zulu's fanatical bravery finally carried their warriors through the hail of British fire against the hospital and surrounding perimeter wall. With insufficient time to reload the British now found themselves forced into desperate hand to hand combat with only the bayonet.

Although the British defenders did continue to hold their positions against overwhelming odds some groups of Zulu warriors did leap the barricades and cause considerable havoc within the camp, but their numbers were not strong enough to effectively initiate a breakthrough and they too were shot down.

With another Zulu assault just barely thrown back Lieutenant Chard concluded it was doubtful another strong attack against that section of the fort would hold. Chard then ordered another smaller wall be constructed within the perimeter of the defenses to the rear of the hospital. Although this did shorten the length of front to defend, it did however completely isolate the patients and defenders within the hospital from the main garrison.

The continuousattacks against the north wall was putting considerable strain on the British effort to hold the entire line that it was now close to the breaking point. The Zulu charges were now slowly beginning to penetrate the garrison defenses only to be repulsed by valiant bayonet charges with the reserve guard under Lieutenant Bromhead.

It was now 6:30pm and although successfully repulsed, the last Zulu attack had forced its way into the hospital setting fire to it. Chard and Bromhead therefore had the decision forced upon them to constrict the British defenses once again by constructing yet another defensive line thus completely isolating the inhabitants of the hospital from the protection of the garrison.

Again and again the Zulu's repeatedly attacked the area surrounding the burning hospital and north wall, only to be repulsed by disciplined British fire and desperate bayonet charges within the fort itself.

At 7:30pmPrince Dabulamanzi decided to change the Zulu tactics. He ordered to continue the ferocious assaults on the north wall while simultaneously attacking the area around the cattle pen. This new maneuver put extra pressure on the alreadyhard pressed British troops who were fighting desperately to hold the perimeter from collapse.

 

ZULU ASSAULT ON THE NORTH WALL
 
 
As the British garrison fought for its very survival, the fight for the hospital became a bloody siege within a siege. The cramped conditions inside the burning structure forced both attacker and defender into murderous hand to hand combat. The fighting each room was at such close quarters that only one Zulu warrior could attempt to force each door at any one time.  

As the Zulu's forced there way room by room, the British devised a tactic by which one lone soldier would hold the Zulu's back with the bullet and the bayonet as his comrades knocked an escape hole in the mud brick wall to gain access to the next room.This process would be repeated many times over as the defenders attempted to burrow their way to the eastern section of the hospital in the hopes they could escape.

Against incredible odds the trapped survivors slowly made good their escape to the east window only to find themselves in a deadly no mans land with their British country men to their front and the Zulu warriors to their rear.

British troops quickly opened fire to support their comrades as they ran the thirty yard gauntlet of Zulu spears. the British covering fire was so accurate that all the hospital survivors reached the safety of the British lines suffering no casualties.

It was now 8:00pm and as darkness began to fall the flames from the blazing hospital proved to be the British defenders saving grace, for without the light to reveal their Zulu attackers the tiny garrison would surely have been overrun.

 

THE EVACUATION OF THE HOSPITAL

 

Having driven the British from the hospital Prince Dabulamanzi now launched a series of intense attacks against the area surrounding the cattle pens. The streams of lead from the Martini Henry's however decimated the Zulu ranks repeatedly driving the assaults back only to see the Zulu's regroup and hurl themselves at the British line once again. These actions truly gave testament to the bravery and sheer guts of the individual Zulu warrior. 

With fanatical will and determination the Zulu attacks finally broke the British line and drove the defenders from their positions capturing the cattle pens. With the loss of this section of the fort, the beleaguered garrison was now reduced to the storehouse and a few square yards surrounding it.

It was now 10:00pm and the Zulu's began forming ranks for one final all out assault to take the British storehouse and finally wipe the garrison out. The Zulu's began shouting "UsuthuUsuthu" over and over again as their warriors built themselves into a frenzy for the upcoming attack. Then suddenly the chanting was replaced by battle cries as the Zulu attack charged forward.

The Zulu's struggled valiantly ever forward through the British waves of lead and over the bodies of their fallen countrymen. Those warriors which did make the British lines were too few in number to effect a break through and were easily repulsed with the bayonet. Like many gallant charges before, the Zulu attack was thrown back with heavy losses. 

The Zulu's never again attacked with such force and their assaults gradually became less intensive as the night wore on. By 4:00amPrince Dabulamanzi was forced to concede defeat and ordered his exhausted warriors to withdrawal from the battle field.At 8:00am the remnants of Lord Chelmsford's shattered command some 1,000 men, arrived at the Rorke's Drift station effectively relieving the battered garrison.

Zulu losses atRorke's Drift numbered 350 men with an equal number succumbing to their wounds, the British lost 17 men killed. Eleven VictoriaCrosse's, the most ever awarded in the history of the British military would be awarded to the survivors of the Rorke's Drift station along with five Distinguished Conduct Medals. The Zulu's however would return home only to face ridicule and shame for their defeat.

For the Zulu's this marked the beginning of the end of their proud warrior nation. The British would inflict a series of humiliating defeats on their forces culminating at Ulundi were 2000 Zulu warriors fell to British lancers in less than thirty minutes. One month later King Cetshwayo himself was captured signaling the total collapse of the Zulu nation.

 

 

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