The forgotten battles of the Zulu War
There were eight battles in the Zulu War. So why do we only remember Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana? Saul David argues that the British commander's 'spin' – and Hollywood – are to blame
At ten in the morning of Sunday, 28 March 1879, Colonel Redvers Buller was just about to order his small force off the summit of Hlobane Mountain in northern Zululand when the scouts drew his attention to activity in the valley below: marching in five great columns towards the base of the mountain were 20,000 heavily-armed Zulu warriors.
“We were 30 miles from [Kambula] camp,” recalled Buller. “Our horses had been under saddle since 3am. I saw that we had not a chance of getting back the way we had come.”
Three hours earlier Buller’s small force of 350 horsemen and 300 African auxiliaries had easily captured Hlobane, the mountain stronghold of the abaQulusi tribe of Zulus, and begun rounding up cattle. But the abaQulusi had since regrouped and the sudden arrival of the main Zulu army meant that Buller’s only hope of escape was down the Devil’s Pass, an almost perpendicular descent of rocks and boulders on the far side of the mountain. He gave the necessary orders, but when his hard-pressed men arrived at the head of the pass, closely followed by the abaQulusi, they discovered that the covering force on the plateau below had departed.
Buller later wrote: “We had to get down under a constant and ever increasing fire, but we should have done tolerably and safely I believe had not my stupid rearguard ceased firing, mistaking Zulus for friends. In a moment the Zulus were among us in the rocks”.
Captain Cecil D’Arcy of the Frontier Light Horse was halfway down the terrifying descent when a rock “the size of a small piano” struck his horse on the rear leg, “cutting it right off”. As he struggled to release its saddle he heard a scream. “I looked up,” he recorded, “and saw the Zulus right in among the white men, stabbing horses and men. I made a jump and got down somehow or other”.
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By emphasising the heroism of Rorke’s Drift he hoped to diminish the impact of the more significant defeat at Isandlwana
Others were not so lucky, and the casualties would surely have been greater than the 17 men killed if Buller had not organised a stand at the base of the cliff. Even so, many lost their horses and were overtaken by fleeter-footed Zulus during the long retreat to their camp, bringing the total dead that day to 90 Europeans and over a hundred black auxiliaries.
The survivors got their revenge the following day when they and the remainder of Brigadier Evelyn Wood’s No 4 Column defended the fortified camp at Kambula against waves of Zulu attacks, inflicting upon the previously jubilant Zulu army a morale-sapping defeat that would prove to be the turning point of the war. Yet few remember the battles of Hlobane and Kambula today because of the far greater prominence accorded, then and now, to the earlier actions at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.
The Zulu War in context
The Zulu War, like so many 19th-century imperial conflicts, was not sanctioned by the British government. Instead Disraeli's Tory administration – preoccupied with the Russian threat to Constantinople and Afghanistan – made every effort to avoid a fight. "The fact is," wrote Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the colonial secretary, in November 1878, "that matters in Eastern Europe and India… wear so serious an aspect that we cannot now have a Zulu war in addition to other greater and too possible troubles".
But Sir Bartle Frere, the man to whom this letter was addressed, had other ideas. Frere had been sent out to the Cape Colony as governor and high commissioner the year before with the specific task of welding the hotch-potch of British colonies, Boer Republics and independent black states into a Confederation of South Africa. He quickly came to the conclusion that South Africa could not be unified under British rule until the powerful Zulu kingdom had been suppressed.
So Frere exaggerated the Zulu threat and, when the home government still refused to authorise a war, took matters into his own hands in December 1878 by presenting the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, with an unacceptable ultimatum. It demanded, among other things, the disbandment of the Zulu army and the acceptance of a British resident. Frere knew that Cetshwayo could not comply with such harsh demands and keep his throne. He was bound to resist, which is what Frere wanted him to do.
Cetshwayo asked for more time to discuss the demands with his council, but Frere would not give him any. On 11 January 1879, the day after the expiry of the 30-day ultimatum, Lord Chelmsford's No 3 Column splashed across the Buffalo River at Rorke's Drift and entered Zululand. Frere's war had begun.
Spinning the news
The man chiefly responsible for this skewing of history was Baron Chelmsford, the British commander in South Africa. "You have saved Natal," he told Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead during the morning of 23 January 1879 after they and a hundred fit soldiers of the 24th Regiment had successfully defended the supply depot at Rorke's Drift from repeated attacks by 3,000 Zulus. It was a feat immortalised in the 1964 film Zulu and rewarded with 11 Victoria Crosses, the most for a single action.
Natal was never in serious danger because the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, had ordered his warriors not to invade. But Chelmsford had good reason to exaggerate. By emphasising the heroism and importance of the defence of Rorke's Drift, he hoped to diminish the impact of the far more significant defeat at Isandlwana a day earlier – when a surprise attack by the main Zulu army had destroyed his camp and butchered 1,350 soldiers (itself the subject of a bigger-budget but much less memorable film, Zulu Dawn).
The ruse bought Chelmsford enough time to fight and win two subsequent battles at Gingindlovu and Ulundi, in April and July 1879 respectively, before he was finally recalled. Yet neither of these victories was as pivotal as the earlier battles of Hlobane and Kambula, fought by Wood and his deputy Buller. Both officers had impressed Chelmsford during the 1878 war against the Xhosa tribes of the eastern Cape: Wood as an independent column commander; Buller as chief of a newly-raised body of irregular cavalry. And at the outset of the Zulu War, in January 1879, they were assigned to No 4 Column, the most northerly of the four columns due to invade Zululand and converge on the capital of Ulundi. But the destruction of No 3 Column’s camp at Isandlwana on 22 January, just 11 days into the campaign, left Chelmsford’s strategy in tatters.
We must go forward
Wood received news of the disaster in the early hours of 24 January and knew at once the implications: it would take weeks for Chelmsford to reform No 3 Column; meanwhile he was out on a limb and vulnerable to attack. So he withdrew closer to the border and established a new camp at Kambula Hill which, he told Chelmsford, he “anticipated being able to hold against the whole of the Zulu army”.
His new position was a good one, lying as it did on a narrow, open ridge that fell away steeply to the south but more gently to the north where several miles of open veldt provided little or no cover to an attacker. Wood, however, could not relax. “I never slept more than two or three hours at a time,” he remembered, “going round the sentries for the next three months at least twice a night. We shifted camp five times”.
He was eventually coaxed out of his secure position by a letter from Lord Chelmsford who by mid-March, thanks to the arrival of reinforcements, had recovered his confidence and was planning to lead a force to relieve the Southern Column which had been besieged in the mission station of Eshowe since late January. “If you are in a position to make any forward movement about the 27th [March],” wrote Chelmsford to Wood on the 17th, “so that the news of it may reach the neighbourhood of Eshowe about the 29th, I think it might have a good effect”.
This “forward movement” was Buller’s ill-fated assault on Hlobane Mountain, authorised by Wood despite the fact that he knew little about the terrain or the number of defenders (the estimates ranged from 1,000 to 4,000). Spies, moreover, had warned him that the main Zulu army was heading north. But they got the date of its departure wrong by two days, causing Wood to believe that the Hlobane attack could take place without hindrance. He was wrong, and but for Buller’s heroics the defeat would have been greater.
During the chaotic retreat to Kambula camp, Buller personally rescued at least three men by galloping back and taking them up behind him. “Buller is a man of iron nerve and extraordinary courage,” noted Chelmsford, “and is able to lead those under him where others would fail. How he escaped being killed himself I cannot understand, as he was, I believe, the very last man in the retreat and must have had any number of Zulus all around him.” His reward was a Victoria Cross.
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Finding victory in defeat
Hlobane did, however, have one positive outcome for the British: by diverting the main Zulu army from its original line of march, it delayed the attack on Kambula camp by at least a day, giving Wood time to fine-tune his already formidable defences. The keystone to his position was an elongated earthwork fort he had built on a narrow ridge of tableland to the front of the camp. In it were two of his cannon; the other four were in the open between the redoubt and the main wagon laager, which was 20 yards lower and 300 yards to its rear. The lack of a defensive laager – or circle of wagons – was the chief reason the camp at Isandlwana had been taken. This one was a veritable fortress with each wagon pole lashed to the wagon in front, a rampart of earth sealing off the gaps between the wheels, and a mealie-bag wall with firing embrasures along the outside buckrail. The column’s 2,000 cattle were kept in a smaller wagon laager that was situated just below and to the right of the fort. The two were connected by a wooden palisade.
The Zulu army approached Kambula camp at 1pm on 29 March in its distinctive ‘horns of the buffalo’ formation: the left horn advanced up the valley to the south of the camp; the ‘chest’ climbed the eastern end of the Kambula ridge; and the right horn marched round to the north.
King Cetshwayo later claimed that, having learnt the lesson of Rorke’s Drift, he had ordered his commander, Chief Mnyamana, not to attack a fortified position. And yet the success of the Zulus at Hlobane had “greatly elated” the younger warriors, who “thought if they attacked the camp the next day they would obtain an easy victory”. The warriors of the right horn were the first to charge – goaded into making this premature assault by Buller’s mounted men who rode out and fired into their flank – and Chief Mnyamana ordered the ‘chest’ and left horn to follow.
“On came the Zulus in thousands,” recalled Lieutenant Slade of the Royal Artillery, “and by 3.30pm they had actually driven our infantry out of and occupied the cattle laager which was only 40 yards from my guns. I fired round after round of case [shot] into them, hitting oxen and Zulus alike, and a merry hail of bullets were pouring into us”.
As the battle reached its crisis point, Wood spotted large numbers of Zulus in the ravine to the south of the main laager, with their leaders encouraging them to charge. To pre-empt this he ordered two companies of the 90th Light Infantry to leave the main laager and break up the attack. “At first the advance was successful,” recorded an officer of the 90th, “a large number of men giving way before the two companies and retiring from the crest down the slope. But coming under a heavy and well-directed crossfire from other quarters, the two companies were ordered to retire, having lost two officers and about 25 men killed and wounded”.
Shortly after, Buller broke up a second assault by warriors of the left horn with another bayonet charge from the main laager, this time by a company of the 1/13th. More Zulu attacks came in, including one by the right horn at 4.30pm, but they were uncoordinated and not pressed with any vigour. By 5.30 the cattle laager had been cleared and the Zulus were falling back. It was time to release the horsemen. “We were up and at them,” recalled Buller. “Had it not been dark their loss would have been very heavy, still I cannot think that the killed and wounded in the pursuit was less than 300.”
Our hearts were broken at Kambula. I did not go within shot of you this time
In all the Zulus lost 2,000 dead at Kambula; the British just 18 killed and 65 wounded. Cetshwayo was furious with Chief Mnyamana for disobeying his orders. He now knew that victory was no longer possible, and that even a negotiated peace was probably beyond his grasp. The fighting spirit of his soldiers – so high after Isandlwana – had been sapped by the sickening slaughter of three successive battles. Never again would his warriors show the same dash and disregard for their safety as they had at Isandlwana and Kambula; never again would the British risk a battle in the open without overwhelming firepower.
Of the final one-sided battle of the war at Ulundi on 4 July, Wood wrote: “I was rather disgusted that the Zulus made such a feeble attempt. An Induna [chief]… who was wounded at Kambula and surrendered yesterday, said: ‘Our hearts were broken at Kambula. I did not go within shot of you this time’.”
King Cetshwayo fled his capital but was captured by a British patrol on 28 August and subsequently sent into exile at Cape Town. His kingdom was broken up into 13 independent chiefdoms and, after years of civil war, finally annexed by the British in 1887.
Wood and Buller were among the few Britons to emerge from the war with any credit. Wood was knighted and rose to the rank of field marshal; Buller became a full general and commanded British troops at the start of the Boer War of 1899–1902 (though not with the same brio he had demonstrated in Zululand).
But thanks to the actions of Lord Chelmsford – and two Hollywood feature films – their finest hours during the key battles of the Zulu War have been largely forgotten.
8 battles of the Zulu War in 1879
Isandlwana, 22 January 1879
Catastrophic British defeat as a huge Zulu impi of 20,000 warriors overwhelms the No 3 Column’s unfortified camp at Isandlwana after Lord Chelmsford, the overconfident British commander, had ridden out of camp that morning with the majority of his force.
Fatalities: 950 Europeans and 400 African auxiliaries; 2,000 Zulus.
Rorke’s Drift, 22/23 January 1879
Heroic defence of the No 3 Column’s supply depot on the Buffalo River by a tiny British garrison of 140 men, many of them sick and wounded. They repel repeated attacks by 3,000 Zulu warriors, the reserve of the victorious Isandlwana impi (force).
Fatalities: 17 Europeans; 1,000 Zulus.
Nyezane, 22 January 1879
The 2,000-strong vanguard of Colonel Pearson’s No 1 Column easily defeats an attack by 6,000 Zulus under Chief Godide near the Nyezane River in southern Zululand. British troops use the Gatling-gun in combat for the first time.
Fatalities: 14 Europeans; 400 Zulus.
Ntombe Drift, 12 March 1879
The temporary camp of a company of the 80th Regiment, sent to rescue a supply convoy cut off by flood water near the Boer settlement of Luneberg on the Transvaal-Zululand border, is captured by 1,000 Zulus in a surprise dawn attack.
Fatalities: 64 Europeans and 15 African auxiliaries; 40 Zulus.
Hlobane, 28 March 1879
Badly-timed attack on the abaQulusi tribe’s mountain stronghold in northern Zululand by mounted troops and African auxiliaries of Brigadier Wood’s No 4 Column. The attacking force, led by Colonel Buller, is surprised by the sudden appearance of a huge Zulu impi and many are killed during the chaotic retreat.
Fatalities: 90 Europeans and 100 African auxiliaries; 100 Zulus.
Kambula, 29 March 1879
Brigadier Wood’s No 4 Column gains revenge for Hlobane when, a day later, it fights off an attack by 20,000 Zulu warriors on its fortified camp at Kambula. Their morale sapped by heavy losses in three successive battles, the Zulus never fight again with the same courage and determination.
Fatalities: 29 Europeans; 2,000 Zulus.
Gingindlovu, 2 April 1879
Having learnt the lesson of Isandlwana, Lord Chelmsford’s relief force of 5,500 men easily defeats 12,000 Zulus who fail to get within 30 yards of its heavily fortified wagon laager in southern Zululand. The following day Pearson is relieved in Eshowe after a two-month siege.
Fatalities: 13 Europeans; 1,000 Zulus.
Ulundi, 4 July 1879
The final and most one-sided battle of the war as 20,000 Zulus make a half- hearted attempt to defend their capital by attacking the hollow square
formed by Lord Chelmsford’s 5,000-strong column. The Zulu attack fails and hundreds are cut down during the cavalry pursuit.
Fatalities: 13 Europeans; 1,500 Zulus.
Fact and fiction in the Zulu War
All historical films take a few liberties with the truth and Cy Endfield's stirring 1964 feature Zulu, depicting the heroic defence of Rorke's Drift, is no different.
It gives the impression that the defenders were mostly Welshmen when in fact the majority came from the industrial slums of England and Ireland. It paints the two officers Bromhead and Chard – memorably played by Michael Caine and Stanley Baker – as the heroes of the hour, conveniently ignoring the far greater contribution made by a former NCO called James Dalton who persuaded them not to abandon the post and was a tower of strength thereafter.
And it falsely portrays Private Henry Hook, one of the 11 VC-winners, as an old sweat who liked a drink and was always in trouble – the archetypal likeable rogue. He was, in fact, a 28-year-old teetotaller with a spotless record who had been in the battalion for less than two years. So enraged were Hook’s descendants by this character assassination that they refused to attend the film’s premiere.
Historical novels are no less guilty when it comes to playing fast and loose with the truth – and I discovered why when I wrote my own debut work of fiction, Zulu Hart. As a historian of the period, I began with the intention of making the book as authentic as possible, and most of the main events in Africa prior to and during the war were as I describe.
For the purposes of plot, however, I did take some minor liberties with the historical record by giving real people underhand motives for their actions. My excuse is that I remained true to their characters. All were capable, if not necessarily guilty, of the misdeeds that I attribute to them in the book.
This article was first published in the February 2009 edition of BBC History Magazine
Saul David is a historian, broadcaster and author of several acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction, including SBS Silent Warriors: The Authorised Wartime History (William Collins, 2021)