Within the space of one day--January 22, 1879-- the British army, which had taken and held the largest empire in human history, suffered one of its most appalling defeats, and achieved, a few hours later, an astonishing triumph.
At Isandlwana in Zululand, South Africa, the British suffered the worst defeat ever inflicted on a colonial army by a native population. 950 British soldiers and 850 Basuto auxiliaries were wiped out by the army of the Zulu king, Cetsewayo.
A few hours later, and a few miles away at Rorke’s Drift, a temporary supply depot for the army’s invasion of Zululand, a force of about 80 British infantrymen, standing behind a low barrier made of hastily stacked grain-sacks, repelled continuous assaults, over the space of almost 12 hours, from a force of 4000 Zulu warriors. It is one of the freaks of military history—people are still trying to figure out how they did it.
The British had invaded Zululand to break up the Zulu nation, and in particular to destroy its huge (40,000-strong) army, eliminating what they perceived to be a threat to European settlers in Natal Colony, which bordered the Zulu kingdom. The British, looking diligently for a casus belli, had blown a few border incidents out of proportion, and responded with a series of ultimatums to Cetsewayo, with which they knew he would not or could not comply (e.g., disbanding the army, which formed the framework of the Zulu state). When Cetsewayo rejected the ultimatums, the British declared war.
The Zulus had never shown any intention of mounting a general assault on British colonists in Natal. On the other hand, the Zulus had a long established history of ferocious aggression against their tribal neighbors in South Africa, many of whom had been displaced by Zulu expansion and who understandably feared and despised them. It was from these that the British recruited some of the native auxiliaries who accompanied them in their incursion.
So the British invasion force crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand. The force was split into three columns, in order to converge in a pincers movement on the Zulu capital at Ulundi. The central column, under Lord Chelmsford, moved at an agonizing crawl, hampered by its huge supply train of hundreds of oxen-drive wagons which could only make a few miles each day. After several days marching, they made camp under the hill of Isandlwana (the Place of the Lion) a dramatic rocky outcropping with a sphinx-like profile, overlooking a broad plain bordered on the immediate north by the nQutu plateau.
The hill of Isandlwana that anchored the British left, shortly after the battle
On the morning of January 22, Lord Chelmsford divided his force in two and set off with half the central column to hunt for the main Zulu army to the west. He left behind about 950 Europeans, including regular British troops, wagoneers and sutlers, and colonial volunteers; and 850 Africans, mostly of the Basuto tribe, of the Natal Native Contingent.
The half of the column left at Isandlwana made breakfast and sent out scouts. One party of mounted scouts rode up on to the nQutu Plateau. There they saw some Zulu boys herding cattle. The scouts gave chase. They saw the Zulu boys disappear into what they assumed was a minor dip in the terrain. They rode up to the edge.
It wasn’t a dip. It was a long, wide gully. And in it were Zulus. Tens of thousands of them, covering the landscape to the horizon. Squatting on their haunches, tensely awating their orders, taking the stimulant/hallucinogenic snuff they used to prepare for battle. At the sight of the British riders, the Zulu host rose and started to run--the deadly, loping run that characterized all Zulu battlefield movement; the run that always surprised their enemies, as it surprised the British this very day, with how fast a mass of men could cover the South African grasslands; running toward the dumbfounded scouts, and then the British camp.
It was not necessarily criminally stupid of Lord Chelmsford to split his forces in the vicinity of the enemy. The British knew from previous experience, and from the experience of other nations' colonial armies, that a formation of modern European infantry could hold off many times their number of indigenous warriors. This was the result of British infantry drill (at which they were the acknowledged masters in
In this way a relatively small number of disciplined riflemen could kill a remarkable number of native fighters, as long as those natives did not possess good rifles and European training.
The Boers, the Dutch settlers of South Africa, had learned one other vital lesson in their many years of fighting with the Zulus, one theystrongly recommended to the British: Every time a Boer force made camp, they put their wagons into laager—in the argot of the American West, they circled their wagons. This gave them both protection, and more important, some kind of defensible perimeter.
These things did not happen at Isandlwana. The British force encamped there was wiped out, almost to the man. Why? What happened to volley fire? The answer lies, for the most part, with the behavior of Lieutenant Colonels Athony Durnford and Henry Pulleine, who
The classic Zulu attack, created by the great King Shaka who had founded the Zulu nation, took it’s symbolic shape from the charging bull buffalo. The center of the Zulu force was the chest of the buffalo—they made an al-out massed frontal rush trying to come to grips with the enemy center. With the enemy center engaged and distracted, the two horns of the buffalo, left and right, raced around the flanks of the enemy to attack the position from behind. The loins of the buffalo were the reserves behind the chest, who were thrown in to support the chest once it had become fully engaged, to add the final pressure that would overwhelm the enemy.
Even thin as it was, the British firing line apparently held off the Zulu chest for about an hour. Then something happened to slow their rate of fire. The majority opinion among historians is that the flow of ammunition from the camp to the front line slowed. The slackening of the rate of fire was just enough to let the bravest of the Zulu warriors finally cross the killing ground and come to grips with the soldiers. In colonial warfare, this was the nightmare, the situation to be avoided at all costs. When tribal warriors actually closed with European troops, when it got to hand-to-hand, the end was near. As the individual soldiers struggled with the attackers,, the rest of the men of the chest swarmed between the wide gaps in the line, turned and attacked the line from behind.
That was that.
To put a cosmic seal on the mayhem below, the sun was eclipsed that afternoon over Isandlwana.
At that point, one wing of the huge Zulu impi, about 4000 to 4500 strong, who had been held in reserve and did not see any fighting, got a wild hair. With their honor at stake, because they had not gotten to “wash their spears” in the blood of the enemy, they decided to go after the next closest group of British soldiers, even though King Cetsewayo had expressly forbidden to army to cross the river into Natal Colony. Nevertheless, there the British were, at the supply dump for the invasion force, using a commandeered two-building mission station called Rorke’s Drift.
Terrified refugees had brought news of the disaster at Isnadlwana to the force at Rorke’s Drift throughout the afternoon. The soldiers at the depot, B Company of the 24th Foot consisted of about 140 men. Of these, 35 were in the hospital. Excluding cooks, orderlies and teamsters, there were about 80 actual riflemen fit for duty. But they had been reinforced by about 200 colonial horsemen, and around 100 of the Natal Native Contingent. Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, an officer of the Royal Engineers with very limited combat experience, had been left in charge by the camp’s commanding officer that morning. Chard had only recently arrived at the post to build a pontoon bridge acriss the
Chard ordered that a defensive perimeter be built linking the storehouse and the hospital with piles of hundred pound grain sacks and biscuit boxes. He judged that with about 450 rifles lined up behind even a token bit of shelter, they stood a chance.
That was until the sentries Chard had placed on the surrounding hills came racing down to report the imminent arrival of the Zulus. At that point, with the enemy on top of them, both the colonial horse and the native levies broke, and disappeared down the road into Natal. One the of 24th shot and killed one of the native’s European officers as he ran with his troops.
At the last possible moment, the defending force had been reduced from around 450 to about 80 men. Quickly Chard ordered that another biscuit box wall be built, cutting their perimeter in roughly half. Then the Zulus appeared.
For the next eight to ten hours, the fighting went on without a significant pause. But Chard had done three things that the commanders at Isandlwana had not. He created a fortified, albeit haphazard perimeter to protect his men. When the colonial volunteers and the native troops left him, he made provisions for shrinking the perimeter and concentrating his fire; and he made sure that the men had a steady and adequate flow of ammunition.
The sun of January 23, 1879 rose on a scene of terrible carnage. There were fifteen dead Englishmen, and hundreds of dead Zulus, piled everywhere around Rorke’s Drift. Around 7 am, a huge line of Zulus appeared on the hills around Rorke’s Drift. The defenders braced for the end. But the Zulus has been marching and fighting for days without rest or food. And they knew they were going to face the wrath of their king for disobeying his orders. The Zulus disappeared. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was over, an event without real parallel in military history. The Western way of war had suffered one of its great rebukes, and one of it’s most astonishing affirmations, in one terrible day under the African sky.
The most readable narrative of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, its causes and its aftermath, remains Donald Morris' classic, The Washing of the Spears. Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture incorporates the most recent research into his chapter on Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift as part of his larger analysis of war and culture.