In December 1878, following the death of several British citizens at the hands of the Zulus, authorities in the South African province of Natal issued an ultimatum to the Zulu king Cetshwayo demanding that the perpetrators be turned over for trial.
This request was refused and the British began preparations to cross the Tugela River and invade Zululand.
Led by Lord Chelmsford, British forces advanced in three columns with one moving along the coast, another from the north and west, and the Centre Column advancing through Rourke’s Drift towards Cetshwayo’s base at Ulundi.
To counter this invasion, Cetshwayo mustered a massive army of 24,000 warriors.
Armed with spears and old muskets, the army was divided in two with one section sent to intercept the British on the coast and the other to defeat the Centre Column.
Moving slowly, Centre Column reached Isandlwana Hill on January 20, 1879. Making camp in the shadow of the rocky promontory, Chelmsford sent out patrols to locate the Zulus.
The following day, a mounted force under Major Charles Darnell encountered a strong Zulu force. Fighting through the night, Darnell was not able to break off contact until early on the 22nd.
Battle of Isandlwana – The British Move:
After hearing from Dartnell, Chelmsford resolved to move against the Zulus in force. At dawn, Chelmsford led 2,500 men and 4 guns out from Isandlwana to track down the Zulu army. Though badly outnumbered, he was confident that British firepower would adequately compensate for his lack of men.
To guard the camp at Isandlwana, Chelmsford left 1,300 men, centered on the 1st Battalion of the 24th Foot, under Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine.
In addition, he ordered Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Durnford, with his five troops of native cavalry and a rocket battery, to join Pulleine.
On the morning of the 22nd, Chelmsford began vainly searching for the Zulus, unaware that they had slipped around his force and were moving on Isandlwana. Around 10:00 Durnford and his men arrived at the camp.
After receiving reports of Zulus to the east, he departed with his command to investigate.
At approximately 11:00, a patrol led by Lieutenant Charles Raw discovered the main body of the Zulu army in a small valley.
Spotted by the Zulus, Raw’s men began a fighting retreat back to Isandlwana. Warned of the Zulus’ approach by Durnford, Pulleine began forming his men for battle.
Battle of Isandlwana – The British Destroyed:
An administrator, Pulleine had little experience in the field and rather than ordering his men to form a tight defensive perimeter with Isandlwana protecting their rear he ordered them into a standard firing line. Returning to the camp, Durnford’s men took a position on the right of the British line.
As they approached the British, the Zulu attack formed into the traditional horns and chest of the buffalo.
This formation allowed the chest to hold the enemy while the horns worked around the flanks. As the battle opened, Pulleine’s men were able to beat off the Zulu attack with disciplined rifle fire.
On the right, Durnford’s men began run low on ammunition and withdrew to the camp leaving the British flank vulnerable.
This coupled with orders from Pulleine to fall back towards the camp led to a collapse of the British line. Attacking from the flanks the Zulus were able to get between the British and the campsite.
Overrun, British resistance was reduced to a series of desperate last stands as the 1st Battalion and Durnford’s command were effectively wiped out.
Battle of Isandlwana – Aftermath:
The Battle of Isandlwana proved to be the worst defeat ever suffered by British forces against native opposition.
All told, the battle cost the British 858 killed as well as 471 of their African troops for a total of 1,329 dead.
Casualties among the African forces tended to be lower as they filtered away from the battle during its early stages.
Only 55 British soldiers managed to escape the battlefield.
On the Zulu side, casualties were approximately 3,000 killed and 3,000 wounded.
Returning to Isandlwana that night, Chelmsford was stunned to find a bloody battlefield.
In the wake of the defeat and the heroic defense of Rourke’s Drift, Chelmsford set about regrouping British forces in the region.
With the full support of London, which wished to see the defeat avenged, Chelmsford went on to defeat the Zulus at the Battle of Ulundi on July 4 and capture Cetshwayo on August 28.