History

Today In History: The Battle of Isandlwana – 22 January 1879

Cetshwayo-c1875-871x1024

Zulu King Cetshwayo – c1875

The Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. Eleven days after the British commenced their invasion of Zululand in South Africa, a Zulu force of some 20,000 warriors attacked a portion of the British main column consisting of about 1,800 British, colonial and native troops and perhaps 400 civilians. The Zulus were equipped mainly with the traditional assegai iron spears and cow-hide shields, but also had a number of muskets and old rifles though they were not formally trained in their use. The British and colonial troops were armed with the state-of-the-art Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle and two 7 pounder artillery pieces as well as a rocket battery. Despite a vast disadvantage in weapons technology, the numerically superior Zulus ultimately overwhelmed the poorly led and badly deployed British, killing over 1,300 troops, including all those out on the forward firing line. The Zulu army suffered around a thousand killed.

The battle was a crushing victory for the Zulus and caused the defeat of the first British invasion of Zululand. The British Army had suffered its worst defeat against a technologically inferior indigenous force. However, Isandlwana resulted in the British taking a much more aggressive approach in the Anglo–Zulu War, leading to a heavily reinforced second invasion and the destruction of King Cetshwayo’s hopes of a negotiated peace.

Background

Following the imperialist scheme by which Lord Carnarvon had successfully brought about federation in Canada, it was thought that a similar plan might succeed in South Africa. In 1874, Sir Henry Bartle Frere was sent to South Africa as high commissioner to instigate the scheme. One of the obstacles to such a plan was the presence of the independent states of the South African Republic and the Kingdom of Zululand.

Sir Bartle Frere, High Commissioner of southern Africa for the British Empire, on his own initiative, without the approval of the British government and with the intent of instigating a war with the Zulu, had presented an ultimatum on 11 December 1878, to the Zulu King Cetshwayo with which the Zulu king could not comply. King Cetshwayo did not comply and Bartle Frere sent Lord Chelmsford to invade Zululand.

Prelude

Lord Chelmsford, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces during the war, initially planned a five-pronged invasion of Zululand composed of over 15,000 troops in five columns and designed to encircle the Zulu army and force it to fight as he was concerned that the Zulus would avoid battle. Lord Chelmsford settled on three invading columns with the main centre column, now consisting of some 7,800 men comprising the previously called No. 3 Column and Durnford’s No.2 Column, under his direct command. He moved his troops from Pietermaritzburg to a forward camp at Helpmekaar, past Greytown. On 9 January 1879 they moved to Rorke’s Drift, and early on 11 January commenced crossing the Buffalo River into Zululand.

The backbone of the British force under Lord Chelmsford consisted of twelve regular infantry companies: six each of the 1st and 2nd battalions, 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshire Regiment), which were hardened and reliable troops. In addition, there were approximately 2,500 local African auxiliaries of the Natal Native Contingent many of which were exiled or refugee Zulu. They were led by European officers but considered generally of poor quality by the British as they were prohibited from using their traditional fighting technique and inadequately trained in the European method as well as being indifferently armed. Also, there were some irregular colonial cavalry units, and a detachment of artillery consisting of six field guns and several Congreve rockets. on wagon drivers, camp followers and servants, there were more than 4,000 men in the Number 3 Column, not including Durnford’s Number 2 Column. Because of the urgency required to accomplish their scheme, Bartle Frere and Chelmsford began the invasion during the rainy season. This had the consequence of slowing the British advance to a crawl.

The Zulu army, while a product of a warrior culture, was essentially a militia force which could be called out in time of national danger. It had a very limited logistical capacity and could only stay in the field a few weeks before the troops would be obliged to return to their civilian duties. Zulu warriors were armed primarily with assegai thrusting spears, known in Zulu as iklwa, knobkierrie clubs, some throwing spears and shields made of cowhide. The Zulu warrior, his regiment and the army drilled in the personal and tactical use and coordination of this weapons system. Some Zulus also had old muskets and antiquated rifles stockpiled, a relatively few of which were carried by Zulu impi. However, their marksmanship was very poor, quality and supply of powder and shot dreadful, maintenance non-existent and attitude towards firearms summed up in the observation that: “The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms – the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack.” The British had timed the invasion to coincide with the harvest, intending to catch the Zulu warriors dispersed. Fortuitously, the Zulu army had already begun to assemble at Ulundi, as it did every year for the First Fruits ceremony when all warriors were duty-bound to report to their regimental barracks near Ulundi.

Cetshwayo sent the 24,000 strong main Zulu impi from near present-day Ulundi, on 17 January, across the White Umfolozi River with the following command to his warriors:

“March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.”

On the 18th, some 4,000 warriors were detached from the main body to attack Pearson’s column near Eshowe. The remaining 20,000 Zulus camped at the isiPhezi ikhanda. On the 19th the main force arrived and camped near Babanango Mountain, then moved the next day to a camp near Siphezi Mountain. Finally, on the 21st they moved into the Ngwebeni Valley, from where they planned to attack the British on the 23rd, remaining concealed until their discovery by a scouting party on 22 January. Under the command of Ntshigwayo kaMahole the Zulu army had reached its position in easy stages. It marched in two columns within sight of each other but few miles apart to prevent a surprise attack. They were preceded by a screening force of mounted scouts supported by parties of warriors 200–400 strong tasked with preventing the main columns from being sighted. The speed of the Zulu advance compared to the British is marked. The Zulu impi had advanced over 80 km (50 mi) in five days while Chelmsford had only advanced slightly over 16 km (9.9 mi) in 10 days.

Source: http://zuluculture.co.za/history/battle-of-isandlwana-22-january-1879-anglo-zulu-war/

More related reading: https://www.military-history.org/soldier-profiles/the-zulu-warriors.htm

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