Many events have occurred throughout the history of South Africa that can be considered pivotal events; moments that have shaped the path the country has followed. It is my personal opinion, that one of the most important events, fell on the 22nd January 1879 when the Zulu army struck the British army a surprising and devastating blow – this was the Battle of Isandlwana.

Isandlwana – The house on top of the hill

The peculiar hill that looks over the wide sweeping plain towards the east and the coast has a name that has been forgotten. For some, Isandlwana is said to mean “the stomach of a ruminant”; this is what the hill is thought to resemble.

For others, the word Isandlwana translates to the “little house on top of the hill”. No one really worries today about what the word Isandlwana means, much less the British troops and colonial volunteers that camped in the heat of summer on it’s gently sloping flanks.

For the men that survived the upcoming battle, men like Lt Curling, Horrace Smith-Dorrian, Lt Raw and others, the silent sentinel would have had little meaning to them on the morning of the 22nd January. But later, after the men had escaped the terrible carnage, and in the years to come, Isandlwana would translate to terror and horror and would assault their dreams and the screams of the terrible day would continue to echo in the quiet night until their deaths.

Preparations for war

In the lead up to the Anglo Zulu War of 1879, Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British forces chose to invade Zululand with three columns (and have two columns in reserve). There were very good reasons for this, one of which was that Zululand was a big place and the General didn’t have the luxury of time to spend months on end searching for the Zulu army.

Isandlwana and colonial cemetary
Isandlwana and colonial cemetary

Lord Chelmsford then made a decision to accompany the central column, and as such, become the “de facto” commander of that column. This would mean little except that perhaps the actual commander, Col Glyn, may not have felt it his place to make decisions but to defer to the General – though I’m not sure it would have made any difference.

Challenges of waging war in Zululand

Waging war against the Zulu although thought to easy, wasn’t quite as simple as hoped. One of the biggest hurdles was water, or rather a lack of water. For those that have visited our beautiful country, they will have realised that it gets hot, very hot.

They may have also been aware that recently South Africa was in the clutches of a sever drought. Although there was no drought in 1879, the fact is water is really only available for a very short period, from January to maybe around April or May. After this, waterholes dry out as do dongas and vlei’s. So for a few thousand men marching through the rolling hills of Zululand and Natal, water was going to be a major consideration.

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This meant the military campaign was going to be conducted according to a schedule, no dawdling was going to be allowed , it was a case of defeat the Zulu army within a specific timeline, or wait another 8 or 9 months to try again.

 For me, and many others, a part of the fascination of the Anglo Zulu is the amazing and intimidating logistical nightmare that would have been required to move the British army through Zululand. Consider that the central column that was to be attacked at Isandlwana had some 300 wagons, being pulled by a few thousand oxen. All of these wagons and oxen had to be purchased.

The 24th Regiment of Foot and Sphinx

The British forces in South Africa were made up of different regiments and branches of the army; probably the most well known and respected of the period were the 24th Regiment. Fresh from fighting the French in Egypt, they had adopted the Sphinx as part of the regimental badge.

For many of the men of the 24th Regiment that were at Isandlwana, the hill from a certain perspective looked like the Sphinx – this was taken as a bad omen, though I’m sure this was after the fact!

The Day of the Battle of Isandlwana

On the day of the battle, 22 January 1879, the General, Lord Chelmsford, split his fighting force in two. For many years after Isandlwana occurred, the General would be criticized a great deal for this action. On the day though, the General had little option but to split his force. The reasons for this are simple, a patrol led by experienced officers led him to believe they had found the Zulu army to the east and that they needed support.

As it turned out, the patrol had discovered the rear guard of the Zulu army, but not the Zulu army itself that had planted themselves some miles away to the north of the British position.During the course of the morning whilst the General was with his troops in the east, a patrol was sent to scour the hills to the north of the British position to see what they could find. And find something they did.

The patrol led by Lt Raw discovered the main Zulu army, about 25,000 strong, resting in the mouth of a valley out of line of sight to the British. With the unexpected discovery of the Zulu’s the British patrol high tailed it back to the British position but not without offloading their carbines into the mass of Zulu’s.

This was like poking a hornets next with a stick and the result was just as foreseeable. In an instant the 25,000 Zulu raised up to their feet and followed the patrol, descending onto the remainder of the British army at the slopes of Isandlwana.

In the words of a Zulu Induna interviewed after the campaign… “we killed them where they stood and they fell like stones.”

Zulu victory at Isandlwana

The Zulu victory was a gift of thorns. The terrible carnage by the Zulu’s on the British was like a curious child waking a slumbering bear. On the British side, over 1300 men lost their lives. On the Zulu side, estimations are from 1500 to well over 3000.

Cetshwayo, the King of the Zulu people understood this only too well, saying when the news reached him that “a spear has been thrust into the belly of the Zulu nation“.

From this point onwards the British were to seek whatever terrible revenge they could. In battles to come the rallying cry would be “remember Isandlwana boys!”. From hereon in, no quarter would be given to the Zulu’s.

And herein lies the tragedy of Isandlwana. The Zulu’s struck a blow that nicked the British empires artery, but failed to follow up on their sudden advantage which allowed the British army to recover and deliver a clear and definite defeat to the Zulu nation.

Anglo Zulu War and Battle of Isandlwana Tour

The Battle of Isandlwana and the defense of Rorkes Drift still to this day invokes the imagination. For those wishing to visit these distant and lonely battlefields and wanting to learn more about the events that occurred in 1879, we invite you to join one of our tours and experience one of the most pivotal moments in South Africa (and British) history.

Booking a Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift Tour

It’s easy to book one of out Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift battlefield tours. Simply get in touch with us using email of the contact form below and let us know when you wish to travel and how many in your group (we offer group discounts).