Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Battle of Isandlwana

The battle of Isandlwana was the major opening clash of the Anglo-Zulu War and one of the greatest African victories over European forces in history. Only twice has the scale of the victory at Isandlwana been surpassed on the continent of Africa. It was during the Victorian Era when the British Empire seemed to many to be the most permanent and indestructible force in the world, yet, British forces suffered a stunning if not crushing defeat at the hands of an army of Zulu warriors armed mostly with primitive spears and shields. To this day the battle of Isandlwana ranks as the worst defeat ever suffered by the British army at the hands of a native, indigenous force. The clash had its roots in the efforts of colonial officials to unite, under the banner of the British Empire, the disparate peoples of southern Africa, particularly the Boer Republic of South Africa and the Kingdom of Zululand. However, British agents met their match in the Zulu King Cetshwayo who, since coming to the throne, had expanded his influence at the expense of the Boers, outwitted British negotiators and enlarged and modernized his army, resurrecting the tried and true methods of the great King Shaka while also starting to provide his warriors with firearms. These were few and largely antiquated but were a start.

King Cetshwayo
British and Boer settlers accused the Zulus of encroaching on their land and when British agents demanded that King Cetshwayo disband his army in response to this the King decided on war to expel the British invaders. As in most of these cases there are two sides to the story. According to the British they launched a military expedition to defend their own and Afrikaner territory from Zulu raids while according to the Zulus the British intentionally provoked a conflict in order to conquer their country and they were doing no more than defending themselves against an invasion. In any event, a British army marched against the Zulus led by Lord Frederic Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford. His plan was for a 3-pronged invasion of Zululand with the largest central column under his own command, numbering 7,800 men. On January 11, 1879 they crossed the Buffalo River into Zulu territory. His force was mostly British troops but also included several hundred men (mostly Zulus themselves) of the Natal Native Contingent under European officers. There were some irregular cavalry, a six gun field artillery battery and a battery of Congreve rockets. It was, by any standard, a formidable force.

However, in their haste, the British had set off during the rainy season and this bogged down the columns, slowing their advance and gave the Zulus amble time to react. The British had hoped the Zulus would be dispersed harvesting their crops but the invasion happened to coincide with a routine muster of the army so that it was possible for the Zulus to react immediately to the oncoming threat. King Cetshwayo was alerted to the British presence and dispatched an army of about 24,000 warriors to intercept them. The Zulu warriors, led by Ntshigwayo kaMahole, greatly outpaced the British and undertook careful screening measures to ensure that they were not sighted by their enemy. In no time at all they were within striking distance of the British column under Lord Chelmsford which had pitched camp at Isandlwana on January 20. Greatly overconfident, the British failed to entrench or take any precautions for an attack. Lord Chelmsford was more concerned with the logistical problem of supplying his army in a vast wilderness than he was with defense.

The British then committed one of the most obvious mistakes in dividing their forces in the face of a numerically superior enemy. When troops of the Natal Native Contingent spotted one of the Zulu scouting parties Lord Chelmsford took about half of his British regulars and hundreds of local troops in pursuing this small band which naturally led them away from the main Zulu army. This left the British camp even weaker, exposed in open country with a large army of confident, determined and experienced Zulu warriors within easy striking distance. The British camp was guarded by only about 1,700 men under Lt. Colonel Henry Pulleine, an officer with no combat experience and with the support of only two artillery pieces.

In contrast, the Zulu princes were quick to recognize that they had caught their enemy at an extreme disadvantage and immediately seized the initiative and gave orders for an attack using classic Zulu tactics. On January 22, 1879 the Zulus came forward using about 10,000 to 15,000 men of their total strength of about 20,000. Colonel Pulleine deployed his few troops into a thin semi-circle to meet the on-rushing Zulus. Some British units, such as the rocket battery, were taken by surprise and overrun almost immediately. The Zulus fanned out in their classic “buffalo” formation and their center was held off for a time, taking considerable casualties due to the rapid, disciplined volley-fire of the British regulars with their modern rifles. However, the “left horn” of the Zulu “buffalo” made a determined and tenacious attack and soon had the British right flank crumbling away. Colonel Anthony Durnford and his men on the right flank had been the first to come under attack and finally his men were forced to retreat in the face of the Zulu onslaught. This allowed the African warriors to get around the fire of other nearby units and overwhelm them. Colonel Pulleine finally ordered his men to fall back to their camp, which the regulars at least accomplished in good order.

In early afternoon there was a solar eclipse but the impressive phenomenon seemed to have no effect on the battle. The Zulus swarmed around the camp, forcing the British troops into an ever tighter formation until they were literally fighting back-to-back. When they ran out of ammunition they met spears and shields with bayonets or swung their rifles like clubs. The British were wiped out, the Union flag was captured though at least one regimental flag was saved when an officer grabbed it and fled on horseback. The Zulus had been given orders to spare any civilians and this saved the life of a few officers who were not wearing the red uniform the Zulus identified with British soldiers. For the rest, there was no mercy, which was traditional in Zulu warfare. Of the 1,700 British and supporting forces engaged only about 400 survived. Most of the men of the Natal Native Contingent who were captured were executed afterwards as traitors by the Zulus. Some bodies were mutilated afterwards, which made for shocking news in Britain, but was simply in keeping with the local custom of taking trophies after a victory. Hard numbers are difficult to obtain on the part of the Zulus involved but it is estimated that about a thousand were killed in the battle with probably twice as many being wounded.

Lord Chelmsford and his force, alerted to the battle, returned late in the day but found nothing left and proceeded on to the mission station at Rorke’s Drift. The battle of Isandlwana was a stunning blow to the pride of the British Empire. The invasion of Zululand was totally defeated and had to be given up entirely. The Zulus had won a great victory and successfully defended their homeland. However, being so isolated, the victory gave them no long-term strategic advantage. It would be only a matter of time before the British attacked again, with more men, more caution and a greater determination to have their revenge. For a time though, after news of the epic Zulu victory spread, British positions throughout South Africa fell into near-panic at the fear that the Zulus might follow-up their success with a large-scale invasion south. However, King Cetshwayo was no fool and gave strict orders to his army against crossing the border. He wanted it made clear that they were fighting a defensive war only and would remain on their own territory. He hoped to avoid a full-scale war with Britain but, though the Disraeli government in London fell, that hope was in vain. The British high command feared that if the defeat at Isandlwana did not go unanswered it might encourage native wars and rebellions in other parts of the British Empire.

The war would go on, Britain would win and though the Zulu kingdom would survive (even to this day) it would never again be an independent, sovereign nation. Still, the battle of Isandlwana had an immense impact on the native peoples of southern Africa. The image of British invincibility had been destroyed and the British gained a healthy respect for the abilities of the Zulu warriors and would never underestimate them or be so careless again. Lord Chelmsford blamed his subordinates for the defeat, though the mistakes were his own, but he was saved from potential disgrace by the favor of Queen Victoria who gave him a chance to redeem himself in the following campaign. As would later be done with the battle of Adowa in East Africa, the battle of Isandlwana would be remembered for generations and used by African nationalists as an illustration of the prowess of their people in their campaign against European colonial rule and in favor of independence. In time, many more Africans other than the Zulus would come to regard the battle of Isandlwana as “their” victory.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this very interesting posting. What i take from this sad episode ( sad from a British point of view ) was the inability of our political masters of the day, to understand the true power of Monarchy. That the Zulus were willing to sacrifice their lives for their King, as much as our soldiers were, for ours. Loyalty to a Crown, the personal love for a Sovereign, is one of the strongest emotions in the human psyche, and an emotion which is completely lacking in republican systems.


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