history, Modern, wargaming

Zulu War and Isandlwana

The Anglo-Zulu war was fought between the British Empire and the Zulu Nation. The war would effectively end Zulu independence and dominance over native tribes in the region. The Zulu tribe originated from North of Africa and displaced the original inhabitants of the Kalahari Desert. By the 17th century the Zulus were fully settled in the area known as KwaZulu.
The Zulu nation had become a powerful political and military force under the warlord Shaka. By 1870 European colonial expansion within the region was starting to infringe on Zulu territory, and as a result this became a major issue for the colonial powers who governed the South African region. The British governor was Sir Henry Bartle Frere, whose plan was to unite all the native and European settlers under the rule of the Empire. The only problem or obstacle to this was the Zulu Nation, who had no intention of being governed.

The British Government and military back in London were over-stretched elsewhere in small wars throughout the Empire, and they didn’t want nor could afford another war. The problem was that Sir Henry Bartle Frere and soon to be Lord Chelmsford, Lt.General Frederic Thesiger had decided that the only way to achieve their objective was to remove the Zulu power base, with military action. They knew they couldn’t get a war against the Zulus sanctioned by the government back in London. Instead, they decided to use the advantage of distance and the time it took for any communication to travel that distance to their advantage. They set in motion military action that would force the hand of King Cetshwayo.

Frere and Chelmsford used a minor border infraction to summon the Zulu ruling elite to a commission, where they presented an ultimatum which they knew he would refuse. One of the major points was to disband the Zulu army, which would never be accepted, because Zulu society was built upon a warrior culture. When Cetshwayo refused they insisted that he and the Zulu nation presented a danger to European colonists in Natal, and that an invasion by the Zulus was inevitable. Thus they would need to take military action to prevent this.

Chelmsford invaded Zululand with three columns and left two behind to defend Natal and Transvaal. Chelmsford assumed that the Zulu army would fight like all other African nations and would be unwilling to fight a pitched battle. He hoped that by taking a large force into Zulu territory this would force and encourage Cetshwayo to surrender.

Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo river ford at Rorke’s Drift on the 11th January, on the 22nd Chelmsford spilt his forces taking over 3,000 of the 5,000 troops he crossed the river with, chasing what he presumed was the Zulu army. At Isandlwana he left nearly 1,800 troops under the command of Colonel Durnford. Chelmsford would continue pursuing what he perceived to be the main Zulu army, even after reports proved otherwise.

Colonel Durnford was in charge of the camp at Isandlwana, in response to confused reports regarding Zulu troop movements, he sent out mounted troops, who stumbled upon a Zulu impi of 20,000 troops a mere five miles away from the camp at Isandlwana. Reports were sent to Chelmsford of the Zulu impi, but they were ignored.

At 8am Zulu’s were reported on the high ground; messengers’ were dispatched to Chelmsford, but he would not deviate from his original plan of action, convinced the report was over exaggerated and that he was following the main Zulu force.

The Zulu impi attacked the camp at Isandlwana using the encirclement tactic known as Impondo Zenkomo (Buffalo Horns). An hour later, with the camp close to being overrun, Chelmsford received word of the attack, A Colonel Harness, under Chelmsford’s command, acted upon his own initiative and dispatched a small force of infantry and artillery in support of Isandlwana, but before it had moved a mile Chelmsford had ordered it to return to it’s original orders.

The Buffalo Horns were used to trap the British and by 3pm the Zulu’s had captured the camp at Isandlwana. Due to Chelmsford’s incompetence, over 1,350 of the original 1,750 camp members were killed. Once the ammunition within the British camp was exhausted, the Zulus swarmed over the British troops. It was then down to bloody close quarter combat, which was all over very quickly. A bloody short battle that was in the favour of the Zulu warriors, it was down to bayonet versus the spear, once that had happened in was in the favour of the Zulu army. The 20,000 strong Zulu army had decimated a force of British of which only 581 were professional regulars. Though until the troops had run out of ammunition they had inflicted heavy losses on the attacking Zulu’s, but it was all over once the Zulu impi closed with the British.

On the same day Zulu reserves attacked Rorke’s Drift, the men of B company 2nd battalion 24th Foot under the command of Lt. Chard (Royal Engineers) and Lt. Bromhead (24th Foot) held out for 12 hours of continuous rifle fire. 140 men, of whom only 81 were fighting fit, held out against over 3,000 Zulu warriors.

In the aftermath of the battle Chelmsford conducted a cover up with the help of Queen Victoria, as Chelmsford was a favourite of the Queen’s. He desperately tried to bury evidence of his incompetence that proved he was at fault. He also propagated the myth that the troops were short of ammunition at Isandlwana, and placed a great deal of blame on Durnford for the disaster, who died defending the camps centre.

Both the British government and Chelmsford used the defence of Rorke’s Drift to distract the people of Natal and Britain from the disaster at Isandlwana. Its importance was over-exaggerated by the military and politicians, both in London and South Africa.

Several soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions at Rorke’s Drift, in total 11 were presented to surviving soldiers. Most of the lower ranks who were awarded the Victoria Cross died broken and penniless. Chelmsford was promoted to a full General, along with being appointed Lieutenant of the Tower of London, and he eventually died in 1905 aged 78.

When news of Isandlwana reached London there was a public and political outcry, and reinforcements were dispatched to deal with the Zulu crisis. With reinforcements on the way Chelmsford reorganised his forces and planned to re-enter Zululand with the determination of eradicating the Zulu threat. On the 29th March the British repulsed an attack on their camp at the battle of Khambula, the aftermath of the attack showed that the Zulu impi was demoralised and this paved the way for the second invasion of Zululand.

Cetshwayo sought terms after Khambula, but the British wanted unconditional surrender, which Cetshwayo and his people wouldn’t accept. Cetshwayo made a last stand at the battle of Ulundi on the 4th July 1879, but the Zulu nation was defeated. In the aftermath the Zulu lands were broken up into 13 separate kingdoms, all of which were given to pro-British Africans to oversee. Cetshwayo was captured and sent into exile.


5 thoughts on “Zulu War and Isandlwana”

  1. In the event Lord Chelmsford settled on three invading columns with the main center column now consisting of some 7800 men comprising the previously called No. .Lord Chelmsford….The backbone of the British force under Lord Chelmsford consisted of twelve regular six each of the 1st and 2nd 2nd Warwickshire Regiment which were hardened and reliable troops. Because of the urgency required to accomplish their scheme Bartle Frere and Chelmsford began the invasion during the rainy season.

  2. Nope it wasn’t the rainy season ..the Zulus were seen wading up the Buffalo River by Stevenson & his cavalry of Native Natal Contingincy and scarpered , you would never be able to wade up the Buffalo River in the rainy season, serious wadi where Jim Rorke drowned

    Local Natal I live in the area

  3. After exhaustive research yes crocodiles frequented that area of the Buffalo river in the late 1800’s, last one shot in 1907….. so the Zulus never waded up the river as I think pictured in Zulu movie … Rorke never drowned but taken by a Croc … these are facts but blurred by English persuasion ………….

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