Tourism, Accommodation and Historical Attractions in Natal, South Africa

The Natal Battlefields

The 1879 AngloZulu War - Defeat at Isandlwana

One of the greatest British military defeats - more officers were lost here than at Waterloo.

The Anglo Zulu War of 1879 -The Battle of Isandlwana

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25,000 Zulu warriors in the classic bull & horns formation overrun the British camp leaving 1400 dead.

Chelmsford's Central Column Advances

The following month, British redcoats, volunteers and African auxiliaries under Lord Chelmsford crossed Rorke's Drift into Zululand. Chelmsford was an experienced soldier but expected the hit and run tactics he had encountered elsewhere in Africa. The British were divided into three columns - North (to the Vryheid area), South to Eshowe and the largest, the Central column.

After an easy skirmish with a local chief the British encamped at Isandlwana - a forbidding and brooding outcrop and a name forever etched into British military history - taking eight days to cover the ten miles from Rorke's Drift as a result of dreadful wet weather.

The Lull into Complacency

The word - Isandlwana - comes from the mountain's resemblance to the second stomach of an ox. It also resembles a sphinx - the regimental symbol of the South Wales Borderers then camped beneath it.

With no real experience of Zulu tactics and against advice, Chelmsford did not form a laager and instead the camp, including its vital ammunition wagons was strung out along the slopes of the hill.

The easy defeat of the local chief had two consequences - one, that an attitude of complacency was created amongst the British and two, that the Zulu king Cetshwayo was spurred into action and 23,000 Zulu warriors were despatched.

A Force Divided

Forward elements of these were discovered on January 21st and on January 23rd Chelmsford divided the force at Isandlwana and moved out to attack the Zulu impi (army).

After Chelmsford had left however, the British saw large numbers of Zulus on ridges in entirely the opposite direction from that in which they were being sought by Chelmsford and sent a force of 500 cavalry from Isandlwana to trap them in a pincer movement.

However, when chasing some herdsmen, the patrol surprised the entire Zulu army, who, equally surprised, were sitting immediately below them in a small depression in the process of trying to decide who of them would mediate with the British and whether to attack during the wrong phase of the moon.

The Battle is Joined

Shots were fired and at approximately 10.30am more than twenty thousand Zulus attacked, overwhelming the British, stretched - a yard between a man - over a distance of two miles, allowing only a handful of the 1300 soldiers and their African retainers to escape.

To add to the ferocity of the fighting, a partial eclipse of the sun caused an eery dusk to settle over the battlefield.

By 3.30 pm it was all over, the Zulus having killed every living thing including cattle, horses and even dogs, all of which lay among the human dead. The story that the British lost the battle because they could not open the ammunition boxes is not true. The boxes were opened easily but the ammunition wagons were too far away and the troops too stretched to resupply them when their 70 rounds each were expended. The Zulus disembowelled the dead and then took anything of value and departed with their wounded.

In addition to the British dead (858 white soldiers and 458 black soldiers), more than 1,000 Zulu warriors lay dead. The disembowelling of the dead was required to allow their spirits to leave. In addition, the warriors were required to wear something of their victims. On leaving the battlefield, the zulu warriors were expected to undergo a cleansing ritual.

Chelmsford Ignores the Reports

Chelmsford, 12 miles away on a fruitless search for the Zulu army received garbled reports that something was wrong at Isandlwana, but from his position it looked peaceful enough in the distance. By the time he returned in the afternoon, he could just see the last of the Zulu soldiers retiring over the ridge as his men stumbled over the packed bodies.

To make matters worse, he could see an eery glow in the direction of Natal - Rorke's Drift was clearly under attack.

His force camped on the battlefield, his soldiers waking to find that they had been sleeping on and amongst their dead comrades. Fearing another attack, the force moved off at first light.

The Consequences of the Defeat

Isandlwana was one of the biggest defeats ever suffered in the history the British army which lost more officers than at Waterloo.

The defeat guaranteed two things - the perception of the Zulus as herdsman/part time soldiers was transformed into one of disciplined, controlled savagery and secondly, the defeat ensured the eventual destruction of the Zulu kingdom.

The majority of the British Army was destroyed, together with most of their supplies. It would take months for both the supplies and reinforcements to arrive. To make matters worse, the Southern column became bottled up in Eshowe.


It should also be mentioned that tremendous courage and tenacity was shown by both combatants - in particular the Zulu warriors who in every encounter with the white man, armed only with shield and assegai, had to face musket ball, revolver, machine gun, artillery and cannon.

Next: Fugitive's Drift

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