Isandlwana, 1879: Humbling the Great White Queen

‘I can’t understand it!’ That was British commander Lord Chelmsford’s response. Isandlwana was perhaps the greatest defeat inflicted on British redcoats by native warriors in imperial history. Zulu War expert Ian Knight, who has just published a major study, tackles the key question: what went wrong for the British at Isandlwana?


The afternoon of 22 January 1879 was hot, even by the standards of the southern African summer. There were no signs, as the day wore on, of the great white thunder-clouds that often gather on the horizon at that time of year and bring fierce flurries of rain in the evenings. The sky was a burning blue, and the temperature rose steadily above 30°, with no more than a light breeze to ripple the tips of the long grass. The landscape was torpid, and at the foot of a distinctive rocky outcrop known as Isandlwana, a smear of white tents marking the position of a British military camp shimmered in the haze.

To a solitary British officer, Commandant Rupert Lonsdale, riding back towards the camp that afternoon, everything at Isandlwana seemed normal. Lonsdale had left the camp the day before with a reconnaissance party, but he was suffering from heatstroke and had secured permission to return to his tent. A sudden shot close-by failed to jolt him from his drowsiness and he was almost at the tents before it struck him that something was terribly wrong.

In the closing stages of the disaster at Isandlwana, Lieutenants Coghill and Melvill struggled to rescue the colour of the 24th Regiment of Foot, but both perished in the attempt.

The first thing that woke me up and put me on the qui vive was a Zulu coming for me with a stabbing assegai, already red with blood, in his hand. I was awake enough then, and on the alert in a moment. I glanced around me and became instantly fully alive to what had taken place, and that the camp had been captured by the Zulus. I saw in a flash dead bodies of both soldiers and Zulus all over the camp …

Lonsdale’s horse, too, was tired, but he managed to turn her about and kick her into a canter that just outpaced a handful of pursing Zulus. Riding back the way he had come, he had gone a few miles when he suddenly met a group of horsemen coming the other way – the senior British commander, Lord Chelmsford, and his staff. Lonsdale’s blurted report left them all stunned: ‘I can’t understand it,’ someone heard Chelmsford say, ‘I left a thousand men to guard the camp…’

A contemporary photo of the site taken shortly after the battle.
A contemporary sketch drawn by Lieutenant Davis shortly after the battle.

What went wrong?

More than 130 years later, something of Lord Chelmsford’s shock continues to echo down the ages, propelling this obscure campaign on the far-flung fringes of a long-gone Empire into the forefront of popular historical imagination, and investing the invasion of Zululand with a significance in retrospect that few British observers would have expected at the time.

The battlefield of Isandlwana today. The graves of British soldiers in front of the iconic mountain mark the site of one of Britain’s greatest colonial defeats. Photo: © Henry Coleman.

Greater numbers of men were killed on the British side at Isandlwana – 1,300 soldiers and their African allies – than in any other single action of the Victorian era: more than at Maiwand in Afghanistan 18 months later, more than in the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea before, or on the Boer War killing-fields of Majuba, Spion Kop, and Magersfontein after. Only the horror of the week-long ‘Retreat from Kabul’ in 1842 dwarfs it in scale of slaughter. At Isandlwana, however, the British Army had stood up in fair fight to an enemy it had professed to despise – and been squarely beaten.

And the question which transfixed Lord Chelmsford that stifling Wednesday afternoon – what exactly had gone wrong at Isandlwana? – has fascinated historians ever since.

Ntshingwayo kaMahole, the trusted general of the Zulu chieftain, King Cetshwayo.

A curious set of circumstances had brought the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom into conflict. The British had seized the Cape in 1806 in order to secure their sea-route to India during the crisis of the Napoleonic Wars. Ten years later, in 1816, among the native population of southern Africa, an old system of autonomous chiefdoms gave way to a more robust centralised state under the dynamic leadership of Shaka Zulu. As European traders and settlers, in particular Boer descendants of the original Dutch colonists on the Cape, pushed from the coast into the interior, there were sometimes violent clashes. The Zulus retreated northwards. The British took control of Natal in 1843.

By the 1870s, a powerful clique of colonial administrators in Natal were pushing to consolidate the British grip on southern Africa. They viewed the Zulu Kingdom as the principal obstacle and threat. In December 1878, the British High Commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, presented a deliberately provocative ultimatum to the Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande. On 11 January 1879, the Anglo-Zulu War began.

Zululand and its neighbours at the beginning of 1879. British colonial administrators aimed to consolidate the British grip on southern Africa. They already controlled Natal and Cape Colony. But Zululand remained a powerful independent African-ruled state, while the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were independent Boer republics.


The man tasked with conquering the Zulu was the senior military officer on the spot, Lt. Gen. Lord Chelmsford. Chelmsford was a product of his time and class, an Establishment figure who had cut his military teeth in the Crimea and served in a variety of colonial campaigns. Very much the Victorian gentleman, he was experienced and capable, but somewhat unimaginative and lacking in dash. Having just suppressed the last rising of the Xhosa people, who fought as guerrillas, he had a low opinion of African military potential and assumed that his main problem in Zululand would be bringing the enemy to battle.

Colonel Glyn’s force – the Central Column – moving into position in the Buffalo River valley immediately prior to the invasion of Zululand on 11 January 1879.
The first action: the attack on Chief Sihayo’s cliff-top homestead on 12 January 1879.

Chelmsford was woefully under-resourced – there were just a handful of regular infantry battalions at the Cape – and since Frere had provoked the war on his own initiative, there was little hope of reinforcement from London. Some of the shortage could be made good by applying pressure on Natal to release its tiny Volunteer Corps for service – part-time units maintained by the white settler population for their own defence – and by raising auxiliary units from the African population. Even so, Chelmsford’s original plan for five columns of invasion had to be scaled back to just three.

Chelmsford himself joined the central column, which assembled on the Mzinyathi River – the local boundary – close to a ford known as Rorke’s Drift. On 11 January, the day Frere’s ultimatum expired, Chelmsford crossed into Zululand.

The crossing was unopposed, and Chelmsford had little intelligence regarding the Zulu response. He was keen, however, to provoke a decisive confrontation, relying on his superior firepower to destroy the Zulu impis. Accordingly, he attacked the homestead of a Zulu chieftain on the 12th, defeating the stubborn cliff-top resistance of a number of his followers.

News of the attack decided the Zulu response. King Cetshwayo had been assembling his men since the ultimatum expired, supervising the rituals necessary to prepare them for war, and discussing strategic options with his generals. The British Centre Column appeared to be the most aggressive, so the King directed his main army – some 25,000 men – to march against it, deploying smaller forces to harass the flanking columns.

Plan of the Battle of Isandlwana, 22 January 1879.

The army left oNdini on 17 January under the command of a trusted general, Ntshingwayo kaMahole, moving slowly so as not to tire the men. At the border, wet weather prevented Chelmsford from advancing until the 20th, when he shifted the column seven miles down the road to the foot of a rocky crag called Isandlwana.

Searching for the enemy

Chelmsford’s next move was shaped by the terrain and what it might conceal. Directly to the front lay an undulating plain with an uninterrupted view towards a line of hills about 12 miles away in the direction of oNdini. To his left and close-by was an undulating upland, which, properly scouted, should present no real danger; but further off, about five miles away to the right, there began a high chain of hills and ridges which extended parallel to his projected line of advance, and which entirely blocked the view of some desperately corrugated country beyond. To Chelmsford, it seemed that the Zulu army could slip almost unchecked through this country and outflank him with ease – and he resolved to scout the hills at first light.

Little was seen during most of the 21st. Only in the failing evening light did the reconnaissance force at last sight the enemy. Strength and intentions were hard to determine. The scouts bivouacked for the night, and sent a message back to Chelmsford.

Despite the vagueness, Chelmsford decided to take about half his column forwards to meet the enemy the following morning, leaving the other half to guard the camp. At the last minute, one of his staff reminded him that a support column, commanded by a Bvt. Col. Durnford, was close at hand at Rorke’s Drift, and Chelmsford gave a casual order for Durnford to be ordered forward to Isandlwana.

Chelmsford reached his scouts shortly after first light on the 22nd, only to find that the Zulus glimpsed the night before had disappeared into the hills, and that he faced a frustrating day trying to find where they had gone.

King Cetshwayo Kampande (1872-1879), the last independent Zulu ruler, and successor to Mpande, Dingane, and Shaka. Cetshwayo had no illusions about the power of modern guns and hoped for peace, but he was manoeuvred into war by unscrupulous British colonial administrators. Image: Print: Ward Digital.

Durnford, meanwhile, had reached Isandlwana at about 10.30am at the head of 500 auxiliaries. The situation in the camp was somewhat ominous. Chelmsford’s intention to scout the heights to the left had not yet been carried out, and earlier that morning a force of 2,000 to 3,000 Zulus had appeared on the skyline a mile from the camp. They had made no move to attack, and had disappeared from sight shortly before Durnford arrived. The camp’s commander, Lt. Col. Pulleine, had too few cavalry to follow them, and it seemed to Durnford that the Zulus might be in a position to cut Chelmsford off from the camp. With Chelmsford’s intentions for him unclear, Durnford seized the initiative: he decided to scout the heights, deploying in a pincer movement, and sending two mounted detachments across the hills while he swept round the base with the rest.

Durnford left the camp at about 11.30am. The sun was now high in the sky, the whereabouts and intentions of the Zulus still unknown, and the Centre Column scattered in isolated pockets across almost 15 miles of country.

It was one of Durnford’s detachments on the heights that discovered the Zulus. They had seen parties of Zulu foragers hurrying away with cattle and had given chase until, about five miles from the camp, they angled up onto some high ground – and saw below them 25,000 men of the main Zulu Army.

Zulu attack

In weighing the balance of triumph and failure at Isandlwana, it was perhaps Ntshingwayo’s greatest triumph that he had brought the Zulu regiments so close to Isandlwana without being detected – and Chelmsford’s greatest failure that he had not intercepted them. In fact, the Zulu army, wary that the British might have already compromised the loyalty of the border communities, had shifted the line of their advance and passed across Chelmsford’s front. The reconnaissance the previous day had seen only the stragglers. The intelligence he received led him to believe that the main Zulu Army was in front of him; in fact, it had outflanked him on his left.

Zulus deploy into line at the beginning of a battle. They not only vastly outsunmbered the British, they also outmanoeuvred them. Image: Print: Ward Digital.

The Zulus had no plans to attack on the 22nd – it was the night of the new moon, an ill-omen – and they were waiting quietly for the day to pass. As soon as the nearest regiment saw the horsemen on the ground above them, however, they rose up and attacked, sucking the rest of the army with them.

The battle had begun without either side actively seeking it, and, crucially, it was the Zulus who recovered from the sudden shock of collision first. Their officers hurried to take control of their men. The army shook out into its traditional encircling ‘chest and horns’ formation, while Dunford’s detachments fell back before it.

At the foot of Isandlwana, Pulleine could see nothing of the extent of the developing attack, and threw his men out in an extended skirmish-line hundreds of yards from the camp to protect the approaches. Even as his forward detachments were driven off the heights, what he could see remained limited to the Zulu centre as it crested the skyline. Ntshingwayo, on the other hand, following behind his men, took up a position on the lip of the escarpment, giving him a much more comprehensive view of the unfolding battle.

Out on the plain, Durnford had ridden about four miles from the camp, and, following the curve of the escarpment, was out of sight from Isandlwana when he ran smack into the Zulu left advancing in the opposite direction. He ordered his men to retire, halting and firing as they did so, until they came across a donga – an erosion gully – deep enough to shelter the horses. Here, Durnford dismounted and his men nestled into the bank, firing at the Zulus pursuing them, causing so many casualties that their attack appeared to stall.

An extended line

Yet the British position was absurdly extended. Durnford was nearly a mile from the camp, and the nearest of Pulleine’s companies, strung out far to his left, was 700 or 800 yards away. The shortcomings were obvious to the Zulu commanders probing for weaknesses along the British front, and the Zulu left began to extend to outflank Durnford downstream.

Their line broken, pockets of men fought back-to-back in the desperate closing stages of the battle.

Even so, the Zulu centre went to ground under the heavy fire of Pulleine’s infantry, and Ntshingwayo was moved to send one of his officers, Mkhosana Biyela, down to urge it on. In a moment which has passed into Zulu folklore, Mkhosana strode in front of his men, oblivious to the British bullets striking about them, calling on them to advance in the name of the King. He fell finally to a bullet through the head. But as he did so, the Zulu centre began to edge forward. Out on the right, Durnford’s position had become untenable. In danger of being outflanked on both sides, he gave the order to retreat to the camp. It was an inevitable decision – but one which left the British right wide open.

Neither Pulleine nor Durnford would survive to explain their actions afterwards, but it seems that Pulleine gave the order for his infantry to retire closer to the tents – Zulu veterans recalled hearing bugles sound along the length of the British line before the redcoats abandoned their positions and fell back.

The destruction and rout of a modern European colonial army by Africans armed with spears was completed with the panic-stricken flight of the scattered remnants back across the Buffalo River.

The Zulus rushed after them – and in a matter of minutes, the British position collapsed. Those auxiliary units who had hitherto held their places in the line broke and fled, carrying away many of the non-combatants in the tents, and the infantry companies soon found themselves fighting hand-to-hand. As they passed through the camp, their formations were disrupted still further, and on the shoulder below Isandlwana hill a fresh horror awaited them: the Zulu right had passed unseen behind them. It had already cut the road to Rorke’s Drift, killing men fleeing down the track, and it then swung round to take the infantry in the rear.


The fighting was now a brutal hand-to-hand struggle in which the greater Zulu numbers were bound to prevail. Pulleine was last seen in a clump of men of the 24th Regiment at the foot of Isandlwana, just before they were overwhelmed. Durnford joined a group of Natal Volunteers contesting a passage through the camp until they, too, were all killed. As the larger centres of resistance were destroyed, so smaller groups were driven down into the valley behind Isandlwana, where they, in turn, were overrun.

No European on foot was to get away alive, and those who escaped the battlefield were faced with a harrowing ride across broken country towards the flooded Mzinyathi River; less than 100 of the survivors were Europeans and among them were only a handful of regular officers.

And the day’s toll was not over. Part of the Zulu reserve – which had not taken part in the assault of the camp, but had pursued the fugitives to the river – crossed over into Natal in the hope of ransacking the small supply-depot Lord Chelmsford had left behind at Rorke’s Drift. The battle was destined to range throughout the night until, exhausted and bloody, the Zulus finally retired, defeated.

What, in the final analysis, is the answer to that question: what went wrong at Isandlwana? Poor staff-work, perhaps; failures of scouting and intelligence, certainly; all of which created the framework within which errors of judgement were undeniably made. Yet underlying them all was the most fatal error of them all – that easy self-confidence based on a disastrous underestimation of the capabilities, courage, and determination of the enemy. Where the British had consistently made mistakes, the Zulus had not – Lord Chelmsford, quite simply, had been out-manoeuvred and out-generalled.

The myths of Isandlwana – ‘Men of Harlech’

According to the enduringly popular 1964 movie Zulu, the 24th Regiment – who comprised much of the garrison at both Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – was composed largely of Welshmen. Although the Regiment had indeed established its depot at Brecon in 1873, its recruits continued to be drawn from across the United Kingdom, and only a small proportion were Welsh by 1879. The association with Wales largely post-dates the Anglo-Zulu War – in 1881, the 24th were re-titled the South Wales Borderers, and it is now part of the Royal Welsh.

Ammunition failure

One particularly persistent legend has it that the British were overrun at Isandlwana because of a failure of ammunition supply, either through the parsimony of regimental quartermasters, or because their ammunition boxes could not be opened – an idea which, of course, effectively excuses a number of deeper military errors.

Certainly, one of the survivors – a lieutenant named Horace Smith-Dorrien, who was destined to become a general in the First World War – recalled the reluctance of Quartermaster Edward Bloomfield of the 2nd Battalion, the 24th, to issue ammunition as the battle began. Yet a close reading of the evidence suggests that this incident was simply indicative of the confusion that inevitably prevailed in the camp; Bloomfield’s reserves were, in fact, earmarked to be sent out to Lord Chelmsford should he need them, and Bloomfield was showing no more than a proper respect for his orders. In a letter home, Smith-Dorrien admitted to his father that he afterwards secured a supply of ammunition and spent much of the battle distributing it to the front-line companies.

Nor were the boxes particularly difficult to open – although reinforced by copper bands all round, access to the rounds was by means of a sliding panel in the lid held in place by a single screw. And if time was pressing, the panel could be smashed out by a sharp blow to the edge with a tent-mallet or rifle butt – over the years, a number of screws bent by such rough treatment have been found on the battlefield. In 2000, an archaeological survey of the site found the remains of the tin lining of a number of boxes along the British firing positions – sure sign that boxes had been opened there.

Last word, however, should go to the Zulus, many of whom mentioned that the British infantry continued to shoot at them until the final stages of the battle.

Drummer boys ‘gutted like sheep’

One story that circulated widely in the horrific aftermath of the battle was that Lord Chelmsford’s men, returning to the devastated camp on the night of the 22nd, had seen ‘young drummer boys’ of the 24th Regiment hung up on a butcher’s scaffold and ‘gutted like sheep’.

While it need not be doubted that, in the fury of the attack, the Zulus would have killed boys as well as men – they had taken the Queen’s shilling, after all, and their chances with it – this horror story does not stand up to close scrutiny. ‘Boy’ was a rank in the British Army at the time, applied to lads not yet 18, many of whom were the sons of men serving in the regiment. Drummers were seldom Boys – among their other duties was administering floggings as punishment – and of 12 Drummers killed at Isandlwana, the youngest was 18 and the oldest in his 30s.

Five Boys were killed at Isandlwana, most of them in the 24th’s band, and the youngest was 16 – not quite the innocent lads immortalised in sentimental paintings of the time. Even the contemporary regimental history of the 24th admitted ‘no single case of torture was proved against [the Zulus]’. But, in the fraught atmosphere that prevailed when Lord Chelmsford’s command returned to the camp that night, such horror stories spread like wildfire and were readily believed – although, as one officer pointed out, ‘it was impossible for those who told these yarns to distinguish anything in the night, it being exceptionally dark’.

Anthony Durnford

In the ‘blame game’ which followed Isandlwana, Anthony Durnford quickly emerged as the principal scapegoat. A complex figure who arrived on the battlefield trailing a good deal of emotional baggage, Durnford had been born in Ireland in 1830 to a distinguished military family. He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1848 and his career showed early promise, but bouts of ill-health and bad luck kept him from active service in the Crimea or with fellow Engineer Charles Gordon in China. Instead, Durnford spent more than 20 years in routine peace-time postings. In 1854, he had married, but the relationship had crumpled under the impact of the deaths of two children in infancy. Only with a posting to the Cape garrison at the beginning of 1872 did his prospects improve.

Durnford enjoyed both the country and the diverse societies he encountered there, developing a sympathy for African peoples rare among British officials at the time. In 1873, he was finally given a command under active service – but the affair had turned out disastrously. One of Natal’s African groups, the amaHlubi, had tried to cross out of the colony over the uKhahlamba (Drakensberg) mountains, in order to escape a dispute with the authorities. Durnford was given command of a small detachment of Volunteer troops and ordered, quite literally, to cut them off at the pass.

The destruction and rout of a modern European colonial army by Africans armed with spears was completed with the panic-stricken flight of the scattered remnants back across the Buffalo River. Photo: © Ian Knight.

Everything went wrong: the maps were inadequate, movements could not be co-ordinated, and Durnford’s party got lost on the mountain slopes overnight. A skirmish with the amaHlubi rear-guard at dawn saw Durnford’s Volunteers retreat in disarray, with three dead and the commander himself wounded.

News of the debacle caused a furore in settler society. Although Durnford was cleared of professional misconduct, he remained a social outcast in Natal – and he never regained the use of his arm. The outbreak of the Zulu campaign offered him a chance to address old hurts, and Chelmsford placed considerable confidence in him, commissioning Durnford to raise the Natal Native Contingent, then giving him command of one of the defensive columns on the Zulu border.

When the invasion began Chelmsford ordered Durnford first to Rorke’s Drift, later to Isandlwana, but without, in either case, telling him what he was supposed to do. This allowed Durnford to seize the initiative when confronted with reports of mysterious Zulu movements close to the camp. His detractors argued that, by leaving the camp, he both provoked the Zulu attack and fatally weakened the garrison. More than 130 years after his death, historians are still divided on the question of whether Anthony Durnford was the dashing hero of the hour, or the impetuous villain.

Further reading
Ian Knight’s new book, Zulu Rising: the epic story of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, has just been published by Sidgwick & Jackson, price £20.
 Photos: © courtesy of Ward Images and Alamy Images.