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TThe Battle of Isandlwana was the first engagement in the Anglo-Zulu War, on 22 January 1879. It remains the greatest triumph in the Zulu nation’s military history – and an ignominious defeat for the British Empire. It is perhaps the only engagement in history in which the assegai, knobkierie and ox-hide shield annihilated the rifles and cannon of a trained European army.
Underestimating the Zulu impis, British commander Lord Chelmsford did not order the encampment he established on 20 January at Isandlwana to entrench and form defensive positions. Little did he know that 20 000 warriors were advancing on his position.
The Zulu army, under indunas (commanders) Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, Mavumengwana kaNdlela Ntuli and Dabulamanzi kaMpande (the half-brother of King Cetshwayo kaMpande), had outmanoeuvred Chelmsford with the intention of attacking his rear.
When a British scouting party detected their position in the Ngwebeni Valley, Dabulamanzi decided to go on the offensive.
With the Zulu in pursuit, the scouting party sent a messenger to warn Lieutenant-Colonel Pulleine, the officer commanding the camp at Isandlwana, that an attack was imminent. When they reached the camp, the Zulu arranged their force into the traditional ‘horns and chest of the buffalo’ formation to encircle the British.
Pulleine decided to meet the Zulu head-on and sent out 6 companies. Until noon the British appeared to be holding their own, but then matters changed dramatically.
Some have blamed a shortage of ammunition – a newly designed ammunition box for the (then state-of-the-art) Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles required a special key to open, and these keys were allegedly in short supply – but as other historians have pointed out, a soldier facing 20 000 Zulus might be tempted to take a rifle butt to a recalcitrant ammunition case...
It is more likely that Pulleine blundered by spreading his men too thinly along too wide a perimeter.
In the afternoon, when Pulleine realised his force was about to be encircled, he ordered a retreat to the camp. The battle continued for another 3 hours until the Zulu overran the camp and killed most of the British and colonial contingent. The Zulu would eventually lose the war – and their kingdom, which was annexed to the Colony of Natal – but Isandlwana will be remembered forever as their moment of triumph against a rapacious enemy.
The British did manage to pull a victory of sorts from the ashes of this crippling defeat – when some Zulu regiments moved on from Isandlwana to attack the fortified mission station at Rorke’s Drift, the 150 British and colonial troops manning the station managed to hold off an army of 4 000 warriors.
A total of 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded among the defenders of the mission station after the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, a record 7 of them to soldiers of the 2/24th Foot Regiment. None should be called undeserved, but the unusually large number was in part a reaction to the catastrophe at Isandlwana, and the need to restore imperial pride.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal
Tel: +27 (0)34 212 2654
The League of Researchers of South African Battlefields
Tel: +27 (0)34 271 8301
Fugitive’s Drift Lodge
Tel: +27 (0)34 271 8051 / +27 (0)87 285 1172
How to get here
The Isandlwana battlefield is in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The closest town is Dundee, about a 3-hour drive from Durban (take the N3 to Estcourt, then the R74 to Ladysmith, and follow the signs to Dundee via the N11), or 5 hours from Johannesburg (take the N3 to Vrede, then the R34 to Newcastle and the N11 to Dundee).
Best time to visit
All year round, but winter (June to August) is best, as it is cool and dry.
Around the area
Visit a traditional Zulu homestead to learn more about the Zulu culture.
Exploring the battlefield requires a lot of walking and a fair level of fitness.
Length of stay
Give yourself at least a day to fully explore the battlefield – but as you’re in the middle of the KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields Route, you might want to spend a week exploring all the sites commemorating historical conflicts in this area.
What to pack
Strong comfortable shoes or boots, preferably those that cover your ankles. Also pack a hat and sunscreen and some bottled water.
Where to stay
There are numerous lodges around the area – the Isandlwana Lodge overlooking the battlefield is particularly recommended for war-history buffs.
Homemade Zulu arts and crafts for sale at roadside.
- Battlefields Route – KwaZulu-Natal
- The League of Researchers of South African Historical Battlefields
- Isandlwana Lodge