The Battle of Isandlwana was fought during the morning and early afternoon of  22nd January 1879 when a force of over 20,000 Zulus attacked a portion of the main British invasion force. Most people will be aware of the battle via the film Zulu Dawn.

Despite primarily only being armed with assegais and cow hide shields, against an army equipped with modern Martin Henry rifle, the Zulus athletism, discipline and outright bravery won the day.

Over 1,300 British were killed. The Zulu victory came at an appalling price as their casualties ran into several thousands. King Cetshwayo was heard to say “An assegai has been thrust into the belly of the nation”.


An Overview of the Battle of Isandlwana

On a hot, dusty African plain in January 1879, an army of some 30,000 Zulu warriors carrying traditional spears and clubs wiped out almost every last man of a British force of some 1,500 men armed with modern rifles and artillery. An entire battalion was destroyed in the bloody massacre. It was an unprecedented military disaster that shook Britain to the core.

     For 64 dynamic years, Queen Victoria ruled the most powerful empire in the world, an empire on which ‘the sun never set’. Red-coated British soldiers were engaged in 63 campaigns for Queen and country. But it was the defeat of the British Army at the Battle of Isandlwana in the Zulu War in South Africa that really rocked the empire.
     The war began when the British gave the Zulu King Cetshwayo an impossible ultimatum – agree terms in a complex boundary dispute or be invaded. The heavily armed British force, led by Lord Chelmsford, advanced past Rorke’s Drift and into Zululand on January 11, 1879. Before this day, the British Army in South Africa had been invincible. Their tactic was well-aimed volley fire by calm and experienced troops, supported by artillery.
     Their weapon was the Martini-Henry rifle, a real man-stopper. The soft lead slug flattened on impact, causing massive tissue damage. Even if it did not kill, the victim would soon die of appalling trauma. Against the British stood King Cetshwayo’s army, well-trained but inexperienced in actual warfare. They were armed with leather shields, long spears, clubs and the assegai – a short spear used for stabbing.

     By January 21, most of the supremely confident British invaders had arrived at Isandlwana, a small mountain. The location was ideal. There was plenty of water and wood for cooking and the position was easy to defend – elevated and with a steep rock face protecting much of its rear. It looked across the open plain towards the Zulu capital at Ulundi so any approaching Zulu force would be observed for miles before it could attack. The British camp consisted of 750 tents neatly erected according to strict military regulations and, within hours, the area was transformed into a bustling canvas town. Foot patrols were posted to the front of the camp, while mounted patrols were detailed to sweep the surrounding hills. But no defences were prepared at Isandlwana camp itself.
     Just after midnight on January 22, Chelmsford received an urgent message from a patrol at the front of the British camp. A strong Zulu force had been seen and, more importantly, captured Zulus confirmed the imminent arrival of their army. But it was a brilliant decoy. Chelmsford decided to split his invasion force. At 3am he headed towards the Zulu capital with 2,500 men, leaving 1,500 men and two guns behind in camp ‘in case the enemy should have the temerity to attack during my absence’.

    At daybreak, normal camp activities proceeded and the bugle call for breakfast was sounded at 7am. Then things began to go wrong.  The first report came in from a nearby hill that a large Zulu force was advancing towards the camp. The bugler sounded the ‘Stand To’ – the call to prepare for action – breakfast was abandoned and the soldiers collected themselves to meet the foe. But in the still African morning, nothing happened and the soldiers relaxed.

      Then larger groups of Zulus appeared on a nearby hill and the British were again ‘stood to’. A mass of Zulu warriors was seen running towards the rear of Isandlwana, but the British ignored them. The bugle call to prepare for action was sounded for the final time. It was only 10.30am and already a baking 40C.

     To the horror of the soldiers, now spread out in a thin line half a mile long, six feet between each man, the central body of the main Zulu force, consisting of some 15,000 warriors, poured off the nearby hill and charged towards them. The two artillery guns started firing. Several rounds landed amid the advancing Zulus, causing carnage. But the Zulus quickly established the artillery’s firing procedure and, as each gun was fired, threw themselves to the ground. It meant the shells passed over them and exploded harmlessly.
     But the charging Zulu regiments began to suffer heavily from British rifle fire. The officers and NCOs in the British front line calmly controlled their men’s volleys and the main attack was halted. British soldiers reportedly laughed and joked about the drubbing they were giving the Zulus. Captain Edward Essex, one of the five officers to survive, wrote: ‘I was surprised how relaxed the men in the ranks were despite the climactic tension of the battle. ‘Loading as fast as they could and firing into the dense black masses that pressed in on them, the men were laughing and chatting, and obviously thought they were giving the Zulus an awful hammering.’

     Then, unbelievably, another 15,000 Zulus appeared over the hill and closed in on the camp. But the Zulus didn’t just charge straight at the enemy. Their tactics,  which they had learned hunting herds of animals, also involved encircling the enemy with two arcing flanks – known as the ‘Horns of the Buffalo’ – closing off all means of escape. As the Zulu masses smashed into the British firing line, the sustained volley fire died away. Chelmsford’s men, now 15 miles distant, were too far away to help.
     Yet, at the height of the main attack, all the British soldiers complied with their orders to stand firm, even as the Zulus overwhelmed them. Firing as fast as they could, everyone desperately listened for the bugle call to retreat. When it finally sounded, it was too late – the Zulus had already broken through their line. The Zulus behind Isandlwana now emerged in force, driving the terrified cattle the British had brought with them through the wagon park and into the undefended rear of the British position.
     In camp, the scene was beyond nightmarish – gunfire, screaming, noise, terror, confusion and wholesale slaughter. The thick black smoke from the rifle fire just added to the pandemonium. The fighting raged for little more than 30 minutes before the sheer force of Zulu numbers overwhelmed the remaining soldiers – who died, as British soldiers do, bravely.

     The Zulus killed the soldiers, their horses, cattle and camp dogs, such was their fury. Only one soldier present when the attack began lived to tell the tale, but various accounts survive from Zulu warriors interviewed in the weeks after the battle. ‘Ah, those red soldiers at Isandlwana, how few they were, and how they fought! They fell like stones – each man in his place,’ said one.

     Another recalled: ‘The soldiers gave a shout and charged down upon us. There was an Induna [officer] in front of the soldiers with a long flashing sword, which he whirled round his head as he ran, they killed themselves by running down. ‘They threw down their guns, when the ammunition was done, and then commenced with their pistols, which they fired as long as their ammunition lasted; and then they formed a line, shoulder to shoulder, and back to back, and fought with their knives. ‘Some covered their faces with their hands, not wishing to see death. Some ran around. Some entered into their tents. Others were indignant; although badly wounded, they died where they stood, at their post.’

     Artillery officer Lieutenant Henry Curling was the only officer to survive from the British front line, having managed to escape on horseback. He wrote a remarkable letter home about his escape and how his fellow artillerymen died as they tried to flee Isandlwana with their guns. ‘The camp was in possession of the enemy who were killing the men as they ran out of their tents. We went right through them and out the other side, losing nearly all our gunners and one or two of the sergeants. ‘The road to Rorke’s Drift that we hoped to retreat by was full of the enemy, so no way being open, we followed a crowd of natives and camp followers who were running down a ravine. The Zulus were all among them, stabbing men as they ran…and finally the guns got stuck and could go no further. In a moment the Zulus closed in and the drivers who now alone remained were pulled off their horses and killed.’ Just two hours after the Zulus first appeared near the British camp, the battle of Isandlwana was over. It was the worst defeat in the colonial history of the British Army.

     Under the sun-baked cliffs of Isandlwana, 30,000 Zulu warriors killed 1,329 officers and men then, calmly and ritually, disembowelled them before devouring their gall bladders. In the African heat a dead body rapidly expands, which the Zulus thought was the victim’s spirit trying to escape. The custom was that a warrior would open his victim’s stomach to set the spirit free. The warriors would then suck on the gall bladder in the belief the bitter liquid contained the bravery and strength of the victim.
     When Chelmsford and his men returned they found an ocean of blood where the camp had been. Around 60 white people escaped, almost all before the battle began. The British lost almost all the men of the 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot (the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment). Fifty-two officers died at Isandlwana, more than were lost during the three main battles of the Waterloo campaign. There were 3,000 Zulus killed and 5,000 injured.

     There was, as the title of one publication records, ‘an awful row at home about this’. Not since the events of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 had such total and humiliating losses been reported to an incredulous British public. The disaster brought down Disraeli’s government and the defeat proved that the British Army was not invincible. The shock was sharper because of its total unexpectedness: for many, it was the first news that Queen Victoria’s regiments were even engaged in South Africa.

     The British reinvaded Zululand three months later. They defeated the army, captured King Cetshwayo and imprisoned him at Cape Town before abandoning the country, now in ruins. In 1882, Cetshwayo was taken to meet Queen Victoria in England, so impressing her that she ordered he be returned to his throne – which resulted in a bloody civil war and his death at the hands of his own people. But at Isandlwana, the first small fractures in the British Empire had appeared.

Isandlwana – Decoy and defeat.

How the Zulus deployed to attack Isandlwana – By Dr Adrian Greaves

Do the staff think we are going to meet an army of schoolgirls? Why in the name of all that is holy do we not laager? Quoted by Captain Duncombe to Commandant Hamilton-Browne in HB’s   ‘A Lost Legionary in South Africa’.

     By the 21st January 1879 the British invading force under Lord Chelmsford was assembled ten miles into Zululand and had established a temporary camp at Isandlwana. In the absence of positive reports of the Zulu army’s location, the 21st January began to develop into one of frustration for Chelmsford at Isandlwana camp. It was made worse by a local Zulu chief, Gamdana, arriving at the camp. Gamdana had considered defecting to the British but was still wavering. As a sop to Chelmsford, Gamdana correctly reported that the Zulu army was approaching the nearby hills of Isipezi but he and his information were dismissed. Rebuffed by Chelmsford, Gamdana was able to assess the strength and layout of the British camp, a point of accusation that would later be levelled against Chelmsford by some of his own staff officers. That afternoon, Dartnell’s report that he could see Zulus approaching reached Chelmsford, Dartnell was sent orders to attack the Zulus with his Natal Native Contingent on the following day and supplies of food were sent out from the camp to sustain the troops.

     Later that afternoon Chelmsford decided to accompany a reconnaissance to the top of the Nqutu Plateau which overlooked the camp. One of the officers leading the patrol, Lt. Milne RN, later wrote that he counted fourteen Zulu horsemen watching at a distance of about four miles; they ultimately disappeared over a slight rise. There were two vedettes at the spot from where the party saw these horsemen; the soldiers reported they had seen these men several times during the day, and had reported the fact.

     Neither Chelmsford nor his accompanying officers realised the significance of so many mounted Zulus; only senior Zulu chiefs rode horses. From their vantage point high on the Nqutu Plateau, these chiefs were reconnoitering the British position around Isandlwana. With the Zulu army were many of Chief Sihayo men who knew every inch of the area around Isandlwana – this was their territory. That night the Zulu army consolidated its position on the Nqutu Plateau and their scouts were sent to observe the British: The Hon.Vereker later confirmed that on one occasion they came so close they conversed with his NNC picquet on Magaga hill, less than two miles from the main camp.

      Later that evening, Chelmsford received a message that indicated Dartnell, commanding the reconnaissance force now bivouacked on and around the Isipezi hills, was still awaiting orders for the following day. In particular, he wanted to know whether or not he could attack the advancing Zulus. Chelmsford replied that Dartnell was to use his discretion and was at liberty to attack. After dark, hundreds of decoy Zulu campfires could be seen in the surrounding hills which alarmed the NNC. Naturally Dartnell presumed he had found, or been found by, the Zulu army.

The Zulu perspective.

     Even before dawn on the 22nd, news from his Zulu scouts was reaching the Zulu army commander Chief Ntshingwayo, that Dartnell’s column was some twelve miles from Isandlwana and still spread out among the hills between Isipezi and Mangeni. Of even greater importance were the Zulu scouts’ reports that, during the night, another large column had departed the British camp and was at that very moment marching to support Dartnell’s scattered force. Chelmsford’s decision to reinforce Dartnell halved the size of the Isandlwana camp defenders; the Zulu decoy had succeeded beyond Ntshingwayo’s expectations.

      One can only imagine Ntshingwayo’s astonishment when, before dawn on the 22nd, he learned that Chelmsford had led five companies of the 2/24th, four guns and most of the remaining mounted men to rendezvous with Dartnell at the base of the bare shoulder of Hlazakazi, some ten miles beyond the camp. The Zulu commanders soon realised that the British camp at Isandlwana was almost entirely deprived of its most formidable weapon, the mounted troops, and half of the infantry and artillery. No wonder that a group of Zulu chiefs was moved to say, after the battle,

You gave us the battle that day … for you dispersed your army in small parties all over the country. (1)

In camp at Isandlwana

     During that night at Isandlwana, Lt. Col. Pulleine in command at Isandlwana and the men of the 1/24th had heard Chelmsford’s column march out of camp. Pulleine then, in compliance with Chelmsford’s orders to defend the camp, dispatched the remaining infantry to form a line extending for almost a mile approximately 1,000 yards to the left front of the camp.  Further positions were taken up at dawn by several companies of the NNC; these covered the base and shoulder of the Nqutu plateau to the north of the camp while a mounted patrol observed the top of the plateau itself.

       Pulleine and his officers were totally unaware of their looming predicament; their camp was now highly vulnerable to the unseen massed Zulu army hidden on their flank only five miles distant. The British were now unwittingly spread over a vast area, from Rorke’s Drift to Isipezi and from the Ngwebeni valley to Mangeni and they were in the wrong place covering an unmanageable 200 square miles.

       After dawn, normal camp activities proceeded in a soldierly fashion; the bugle call for breakfast was sounded at 7a.m. just as a number of disquieting events occurred. Unexpectedly, a group of Zulus was observed on the rim of the plateau overlooking the camp about a mile northwards. The Zulu commander, Ntshingwayo,  probably appreciated that the British were in unwitting disarray; his decoys were still confusing both Dartnell and Chelmsford ten miles to the east beyond the camp while, at the same time, the remaining Zulu forces were fast approaching from Isipezi and  would soon join the main Zulu advance on Isandlwana camp.

      At 7.30 a.m.  The Hon.Vereker brought Pulleine the very first report from the plateau confirming that a patrol had observed a large force of Zulus advancing towards the camp. Lieutenant Hillier, an officer of Lonsdale’s NNC wrote;

At half past seven a.m. Lt. Veriker [sic] of the NNC who was on picquet duty with Captain Barry rode into camp and reported to Colonel Pulleine that the Zulus were advancing on the camp in large numbers.  (2)

This early report corroborates a number of eye-witness reports received by Pulleine that, regardless of British scouts and outposts on the plateau, Zulus were already deploying and advancing towards the camp.  Within minutes, a large body of Zulus was seen on the hills to the front left of camp so Pulleine ordered the artillery out onto the front line.

       A mixture of uncertainty and excitement was now spreading throughout the camp at Isandlwana. The bugler sounded the ‘Stand To’, the camp breakfast was abandoned and the troops collected themselves to meet the foe. Within the hour, another patrol reported large bodies of Zulus moving northwest across the plateau; groups of Zulus were again seen on the plateau ridge overlooking the camp. The intermittent sound of distant firing was heard but due to the re-echoing among the hills it was impossible to pinpoint its exact direction. The Zulus watching the camp then disappeared. At this stage, Pulleine had no idea what was happening; he knew the Zulus should not have been on the plateau to the north, they were supposed to be in the east being engaged by Chelmsford’s attacking force. 

      Trooper Barker of the Natal Carbineers, one of the colonials earlier sent out at 4 a.m. to patrol the Nqutu Plateau, later wrote of events that occurred about 7 a.m

Hawkins, my bosom friend, and myself were posted on a hill to the extreme front, quite six miles from the camp, and arrived on the hill about sunrise. After being posted about a quarter of an hour we noticed a lot of mounted men in the distance and on their coming nearer we saw that they were trying to surround us….. we discovered they were Zulus. We retired to Lieut. Scott (at Conical Hill) about two miles nearer the camp and informed him of what we had seen, and he decided to come back with us but before we had gone far we saw Zulus on the hill we had just left and others advancing from the left flank near where two other videttes (sic), Whitelaw and another had been obliged to retire from. Whitelaw reported a large army advancing ‘thousands’ I remember him distinctly saying ….this would be about eight a.m.  He returned with a message to Lieut. Scott that we were to watch the enemy carefully and send back reports of their movements. Shortly afterwards, numbers of Zulus being seen on all the hills to the left and front, Trooper Swift and another were sent back to report. The Zulus then remained on the hills, and about two hundred of them advanced to within three hundred yards of us, but on our advancing they retired out of sight, and a few of us went up this hill where the Zulus had disappeared, and on a farther hill, at about six hundred yards’ distance, we saw a large army sitting down. We returned to Lieut. Scott, who was then about three miles from camp, and reported back what we had seen.  Hawkins and I were then sent back to camp to report a large army to the left front of camp. (3)

       With the message delivered to a camp staff officer (Lt. Coghill), Barker and Hawkins returned to Lt. Scott’s position and saw ‘masses of Zulus on all the hills’. (4) It was just before 7.30 a.m. when Whitelaw galloped back to the camp and reported this same sighting to Lt. Coghill, who sent him back with orders to monitor the advancing Zulus – still unseen from Isandlwana camp. Lt. Ardendorff was also dispatched to try and get a detailed report from the scouts but soon returned in such a state that his report about Zulus, in broken English, was incoherent.

     Such accounts confirm that, for at least an hour, Zulus had been seen both on the ridge from the camp and by scouts on the plateau, moving deliberately and in considerable numbers towards the camp. The Zulu advance on Isandlwana was clearly well coordinated. Pulleine was obviously confused by the accounts and could not comprehend the possibility that the Zulus were now massing no more than four miles from his position; he sent a second more urgent report to Chelmsford.

8.5 a.m. Staff Officer – report just come in that the Zulus are advancing in force from the left front of the camp. H.B. Pulleine.

     In the midst of the uncertainty, Lt. Chard arrived at the camp from Rorke’s Drift to ascertain his orders and find some breakfast. There being no orders he took breakfast and saw through binoculars the gathering Zulus watching the camp from the plateau ridge. The Zulus began to move towards the western end of the ridge, which made Chard believe they might make for Rorke’s Drift. He then set off to return to his men who were manning the river ponts at Rorke’s Drift. On his way back he met Colonel Durnford and appraised him of the situation. Durnford was making his way from Rorke’s Drift to Isandlwana and on hearing Chard’s account, set off with 500 mounted troops for the camp with orders for his main column to follow at best speed.    

       Curling noted events as they unfurled that morning

About 7.30 a.m… a large body of Zulus being seen on the hills to the left front of the camp, we were ordered to turn out at once, and were formed up in front of the 2nd Battalion 24th Regiment camp, where we remained until 11 o’clock when we returned to camp with orders to remain harnessed and ready to turn out at a minute’s notice. The Zulus did not come up within range and we did not come into action. The infantry also remained in column of coys (companies). Col. Durnford arrived about 10 a.m. with Basutos and the rocket battery; he left about 11 o’clock with these troops, in the direction of the hills where we had seen the enemy. (5)

Out on the plain with Chelmsford

       As dawn spread across the plain Chelmsford and over half the strength of the Centre Column had passed the Hlazakazi hills and was well on its way towards joining up with Dartnell in the region of the Magogo hills. Chelmsford was fully anticipating engaging the main Zulu army. Instead he was to confront an elusive enemy decoy that would repeatedly appear and then disappear among the surrounding hills, drawing Chelmsford’s force into a thankless chase that would fragment and exhaust his weary men as the unbearably hot day wore on. Now ten miles beyond the imperilled camp, Chelmsford was becoming thoroughly irritated by the confusing reports reaching him of Zulus advancing and then retreating. Lt. Milne later wrote two accounts to his superior, Commodore Sullivan RN.

1. We rode on quickly and at 6 a.m. had arrived at the ground taken up by Major Dartnell. The enemy had retired from their former position and was not in sight. No patrols had been sent out by Major Dartnell, so in what direction they had gone was unknown.

2. No doubt the force we were after on Wednesday (22nd Ed.) was a blind as we could never get near them, they kept edging away drawing us further from the camp. (6) 

Lt. Mainwaring wrote post-battle,

The mounted infantry reported the Zulus to be retiring from hill-top to hill-top, and it must have been their plan to draw us away from the camp.  And…

at 8.30 a.m. Chelmsford realised that he was not about to engage the main Zulu army and breakfasted with his staff officers near Magogo hill. He ordered Commandant George Hamilton-Browne of the 3rd Natal Native Contingent to report to him. (7) 

     The order Hamilton-Browne received is recorded in his book published over thirty years later

Commandant Browne, I want you to return at once to camp [with your men] and assist Colonel Pulleine to strike camp and come on here. (8)

  Hamilton-Browne then met with Col. Glyn and he later recalled their interesting conversation

Colonel Glyn rode over to me and drawing me aside said, “In God’s name Maorie, what are you doing here? I answered him with a question, “In God’s name Sir what are you doing here? He shook his head and replied, “I am not in command”. And fine old soldier as he was, I could see he was much disturbed.  (9)

     Hamilton-Browne’s men had ten miles to march back to Isandlwana, which, over rough terrain and in the heat of summer, would take three to four hours.

     The Natal Witness later commented on the Zulu deception;

Although they showed themselves in very considerable form (numbers) along all the hill tops, they kept retiring according to what, as after-events taught us, must have been their conceived plan. The general, however, did not, of course, at this time, imagine that the Zulus were carrying out a concerted scheme, but thought they were probably falling back on their supports


It was the opinion of all those who understand the natives and their method of fighting that this small body of Zulus who paraded themselves so openly had certainly an army behind them which was only awaiting the proper moment to come into action.  (10).  

     The ever-prescient newspaper reporter accompanying Chelmsford, Norris-Newman, wrote in his book In Zululand with the British (1880).

The idea did not seem to have occurred to anyone that the enemy were carrying out a pre-constructed plan.

The battle for Isandlwana

      Back at Isandlwana, Pulleine was still contemplating the various reports of Zulus advancing on the camp but little could be heard and nothing could be seen of the Zulus due to the location of Pulleine’s headquarters tent. Furthermore, Pulleine had not realised that, in order to cover the extensive dead ground  before the camp, his front line troops had crept forward out of sight over the lip of the plain, which would shortly leave him ‘battlefield blind’.

      During a formal archaeological survey of the Isandlwana battlefield in the summer of 2000 by Glasgow University and the South African authorities, it was discovered that the British front line was 200 yards further from the camp than had previously been supposed, based on the quantity of spent ammunition cases and ammunition box straps found along the new position. This position confirms that the front line was completely out of sight of both Pulleine and the main camp and was covering the dead ground to its front. No such evidence had been found where the line had previously been thought to be situated.

      Pulleine organised the remaining six NNC companies still in the camp to be ready and await orders.

      At about 10.30 a.m. Col. Durnford arrived at the camp with his 500 mounted men of the No. 2 Column. Durnford was a Royal Engineer officer with many years’ experience in South Africa and his orders from Chelmsford, received early that morning, were ambiguous,

You are to march to this camp at once with all the force you have with you of No.2 Column. Major Bengough’s battalion is to move to Rorke’s Drift as ordered yesterday. 2/24th, Artillery and mounted men with the General and Colonel Glyn move off at once to attack a Zulu force about 10 miles distant.  (11)

      Much comment has been made by historians and writers that Durnford was senior in service to Pulleine. Their presumption was that command of the camp naturally devolved upon Durnford relieving Pulleine of overall responsibility, for which Pulleine would have been grateful. The facts are different; Durnford was never ordered to ‘take command of the camp’, he was the Commander of the second column and no orders were given to merge the two columns. Durnford nevertheless met with Pulleine in his headquarters tent to discuss the sightings of the Zulus and a brief discussion followed after which Durnford detailed patrols of his men to ride to the plateau and ascertain what was happening. One patrol was lead by Captain Shepstone of the Natal Native Horse. Lt. Cochrane, who arrived at Isandlwana with Durnford, wrote that a number of Zulus had been seen since an early hour on the top of the adjacent hills, and that an attack was expected.  Having received a note from another patrol that Zulus were moving east, indeed, according to Lt. Curling’s evidence to the Court of Inquiry, they could now be seen from the camp, Durnford concluded that a large enemy force was deploying along the plateau, possibly to drive a wedge between Chelmsford’s force and Isandlwana camp. Pulleine no doubt accepted Durnford’s calm analysis with some relief and gave the order for his men to ‘Stand Down’ but keeping on their accoutrements; preparations went ahead for the camp move. Durnford took his force to intercept this Zulu threat, departing the camp at, according to Curling, about 11 a.m.

       Out on the firing line, Lieutenant Charlie Pope, 2/24th , somehow managed to scribble a diary line. Pope, by direct personal observation, provided confirmatory evidence that a large Zulu force was sighted. Furthermore, the deployment was taking place prior to Durnford’s arrival. This is a valuable, and completely uncorrupted, collateral source report.   It reads:

Alarm 3  Columns Zulus and mounted men on hill E. Turn Out 7,000 (!!!) more E.N.E., 4000 of whom went around Lion’s Kop. (Isandlwana Hill) Durnford’s Basutos arrive and pursue.  (12)

       Meanwhile, leading his patrols eastwards along the top of the plateau, Shepstone could see scattered Zulu impis, probably the Zulu advance guard. Lt. Charlie Raw was one of Shepstone’s officers; when Raw’s Basuto riders came across the Zulu army the Zulus had already advanced some two miles from their overnight position along the Ngwebeni Valley.

     Historically, Raw has been credited with finding the Zulu army sitting quietly in the Ngwebeni Valley but this is story tellers’ mythology and cannot be correct, unless all the other observations of massing Zulus are untrue. If these other observations are correct, the Zulus had been advancing towards Isandlwana for at least two hours before Raw, commanding two troops of the NNH, even arrived at Isandlwana camp with Durnford.

       Raw departed Isandlwana camp at about 11 a.m. Once on the plateau Raw and his men came across a herd of cattle which they had followed over rising ground. From here they had seen the Zulu army about a mile off, advancing in line and extending towards its left. Raw’s report is unambiguous in the description of the contact area and distance.  Interestingly, Raw’s report was ignored by the official enquiry.

We left the camp proceeding over the hills, (Nqutu Plateau) Captain George Shepstone going with us. The enemy in small groups retiring before us for some time, drawing us on for four or five miles from the camp where they turned and fell upon us, the whole army showing itself from behind a hill in front of where they had evidently been waiting. (13)

Post-war, it took a professional Victorian historian, Professor Coupland, to deduce what Raw saw. He wrote,

The Basutos (Raw’s mounted men) climbed the plateau and spread out over it. No Zulu were seen at first, only a herd of cattle. The Basutos rode on to round it up. Presently they came to the brink of a valley, and saw, about a mile off, what they had never dreamed of seeing. Thousands of Zulu were gathered there. Most of them were sitting on the ground, taking their ease. One body was moving westwards, probably taking up position to encircle the north flank of the camp at the appointed time.  (14)

      Mr Hamar, the commissariat officer riding with Shepstone later wrote,

After going some little way, we tried to capture some cattle. They disappeared over a ridge and on coming up, we saw the Zulus, like ants in front of us, in perfect order and as quiet as mice, and stretched across in an even line. We estimated those we saw at 12,000. (15)

     Shepstone rode to warn Pulleine and reported that the advancing Zulus had been sighted some three miles away. To experienced officers who had served in the previous Cape skirmishes, large forces of natives were not necessarily considered to be dangerous but the Zulu numbers had alarmed Shepstone. Capt. Gardner arrived moments before Shepstone and delivered a note from Chelmsford ordering the camp to be struck. Pulleine dithered so Shepstone interjected,

I am not alarmist Sir, but the Zulus are in such black masses over there, such long black lines, that you will have to give us all the assistance you can. They are now fast driving our men this way.   (16)

     Pulleine’s dilemma worsened. Should he continue with Chelmsford’s order to strike the camp or call in his distant extended line to form a defensive position? After all, there were sufficient wagons in the camp to form a barricade. The reporter, Norris-Newman, estimated there were some 125 or more wagons available, and the men now busy packing up the camp could be ordered into the firing line. If the Zulu force proved to be only skirmishers, by initiating normal defensive precautions involving dropping the tents to provide the camp defenders with a clear field of fire, it would take many more hours to re-pack the tents in the precise manner required by Army Regulations. Pulleine was fully aware that there were still 350 tents to be struck before the camp could be moved; it was going to be a major task as Army Regulations required one NCO and ten men to stow each tent. Pulleine knew that if he made the wrong decision he would become the laughing stock of the army. Lt. Henry Curling RA survived the battle and his recently discovered letters confirm that many of Pulleine’s men were not deployed on the front line as has previously been believed but were engaged in packing the tents. He wrote,

At 7.30 I got the message to turn out at once and we got ready in about 10 minutes forming up by the 1/24th on their parade ground.  The companies were very weak, no more than 50 in each and there were only 6 of them in all.  We congratulated ourselves on the chance of our being attacked and hoped that our small numbers might induce the Zulus to come on, I suppose that not more than half the men left in the camp took part in its defence as it was not considered necessary and they were left in as cooks etc.

     Pulleine’s blind and loyal obedience to comply with Chelmsford’s last order to ‘break camp’ may have been the reason why so many soldiers continued to pack the camp even as the Zulus approached. To Pulleine, the risk of humiliation, if he was proved wrong, was possibly greater than the risk of defeat. He metaphorically ‘put his head in the sand’ and dithered. He ordered the ‘Fall in’ to be sounded and sent ‘F’ Company 1/24th under Captain Mostyn to support Lt. Cavaye. Not wishing to disobey Chelmsford’s order to pack the camp, he sent a note to Major Clery for Chelmsford:

Heavy firing near to camp. Cannot move camp at present, 

Captain Gardner added the following message.

Heavy firing near left of camp. Shepstone has come in for reinforcements and reports that the Basutos (Shepstone’s men) are falling back. Whole camp turned out and fighting about one mile to left flank.

     At 11.30 a.m. Pulleine sent his final message to Lt. Cavaye whose men Pulleine thought might get cut off from the camp by the rapidly advancing Zulus. It reads;


Zulus are advancing on your right in force. Retire on camp in order. E Coy (company) will support your left. H.N. Pulleine.

11.30 am.

     Durnford had not long departed when heavy firing was heard coming from the spur leading from the camp to the plateau; two companies of the 24th commanded by Lts. Cavaye and Mostyn and a company of the NNC had been positioned there earlier that morning. The two companies were firing at a large body of Zulus moving off the plateau out of sight of the camp behind Isandlwana. The Zulus were about 800 yards from the troops and due to the ineffectiveness of their fire, the Zulus ignored the British. This large body of Zulus constituted the right horn whose intention was to seal the only route of escape from Isandlwana back to Rorke’s Drift.

     Lt. Dyson had been sent to the furthest point on the spur some 500 yards beyond his nearest support. Although isolated, his men had a good view across the valley to the Nqutu Plateau. Once the Zulus appeared in force, he and his men must have realised that their exposed position was in dire peril; although trapped, they continued to pour fire into the approaching mass of warriors. History records that they were over run. As recently as 1995, several cairns were visible at this point and belt buckles and buttons could be seen lying exposed by heavy rain. (17)  

     In camp the ‘Fall In’ call was sounded for the third time. The remaining three companies of the 24th were extended 800 yards to the left and front of the camp facing both the plateau and the plain. The soldiers were positioned some three yards apart in a double line.  Men of the NNC also formed a section of the line with the two 7-pound guns of the Royal Artillery between them.  Curling wrote,

When we turned out again about 12, the Zulus were only showing on the left of our camp. All the time we were idle in the camp, the Zulus were surrounding us with a huge circle several miles in circumference and hidden by hills from our sight. We none of us felt the least anxious as to the result for, although they came on in immense numbers, we felt it was impossible they could force a way through us. (18)

The camp’s earlier apprehension gave way to excitement; the Zulus were about to attack them and they, not Chelmsford’s force, would, or so they thought, have all the glory. No one at Isandlwana had any idea what was about to happen.

     The purpose of this article is to show how the Zulu army deployed during the night and early hours of the 22nd January. In my humble opinion, the theory of Lt. Raw finding the Zulu army six miles away in the Ngwebeni Valley at 11a.m., with all the warriors sitting on their shields, doesn’t tally in any way with any of the above quoted reports which indicate that by 11a.m. on the 22nd January 1879 the Zulu army was under way to attack the British camp at Isandlwana.  I believe the Zulu attack was too perfect to have been undertaken by chance; it was no mean feat to advance 25,000 warriors, with no battle experience, along a ten mile front with hills and valleys in between. My research indicates their attack was a well planned and highly coordinated attack against a confused and unprepared British position. I have based my theory on written accounts of British and European survivors: there are no written accounts from the Zulus who took part because their language was oral and not written. The few Zulu accounts ever committed to paper were from Zulus frightened for their safety or from the handful of Zulus who became pro-British. Their accounts were recorded by the British. I rest my case.


(1)  Alan F. Hattersley, (ed.), The Later Annals of Natal, London, 1958, p. 161.
(2)  Hillier’s letter to his father published 28 February 1879 in the Telegraph and Eastern Standard courtesy private correspondence Lock &Quantrill. This report may well be the same as that of Captain Edward Essex 75th (Stirlingshire) Regiment, Director of Transport for No 3 Column. 

“……about eight A.M…..a report arrived from a picquet stationed at a point about 1,500 yards distant, on a hill, to the north of the camp, that a body of enemy’s troops could be seen approaching from northeast.”   WO 33/34, No 69, Chelmsford to Secretary of War, Court of Enquiry.
(3)  The Natal Carbineers 1855-1911  Stalker, Rev. J.  1912
(4)   Ibid.
(5)   Curling letters from the Zulu War  Greaves & Best  Pen & Sword   
(6)   PRO ADM 16486 S6333. 
(7)   Archives 24th Regimental Museum, Brecon. 
(8)  A Lost Legionary in Zululand. Hamilton-Browne
(9)   Ibid.
(10) The Red Book referring to The Natal Witness report.
(11)  AZWHS  Journal  3 1998
(12)  Pope’s diary– later found on the battlefield.
(13) Lt. Charles Raw’s personal account. Running the Gauntlet   Mossop, George     Nelson  1937
(14)  Sir Reginald Coupland, Isandhlwana: Zulu Battle Piece, London, 1948.
(15)  Zulu Victory  Lock & Quantrill Greenhill 2002. 
(16) Brickhill – Court of Enquiry.
(17)  In 1990 the author was taken to the site by the Isandlwana battlefield curator, George Chadwick.
The cairns were repaired and the exposed artefacts replaced. 
(18)  Curling letters AZWHS  

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