How Did the Battle of Isandlwana Unfold? | History Hit

How Did the Battle of Isandlwana Unfold?

On the early morning of 22 January, General Chelmsford and most of the main Column departed the British base at Isandlwana. Colonel Henry Pulleine remained at the camp, commanding a small conglomeration of soldiers. He had express orders to defend the encampment, though no-one believed the garrison faced any threat of a Zulu attack.

They were wrong.

Enemy sightings

Not long after Chelmsford departed, Pulleine deployed videttes (mounted scouts) on high vantage points surrounding the camp. They soon discovered some disturbing movements.

Just before 8.00 am, 19 year old trooper Walywyn Barker spotted a significant Zulu force advancing from the east. Quickly the report was relayed back to the camp, where other videttes reported similar sightings. They claimed the enemy host numbered in the thousands.

The message was soon relayed to Colonel Pulleine, who hastily sent a courier to Chelmsford:

Zulus are advancing in force from the left front of the camp.

Though Pulleine still expected this to be enough for Chelmsford to return to the camp with force, the message lacked detail – something which ultimately proved decisive. It convinced Chelmsford that the camp was not in any serious danger.

Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford.

Making ready…sort of

Pulleine remained reassured that the Zulus would not attack the camp, but he nevertheless ordered his men to make ready. In total, the Colonel had 1,241 troops at his disposal, a mix of European and African troops.

Later that morning, a more alarming report reached the camp. Trooper Arthur Adams reported seeing an enemy army numbering 25-30,000 men in the vicinity.

Despite the growing warnings, Pulleine still refused to believe the enemy force intended to launch an attack on the camp. Just as Chelmsford had before him, he refused to erect any defensive fortifications, such as creating a defensive laager.

The arrival of Durnford

Colonel Anthony William Durnford. He was a veteran of the preceding Xhosa Wars, during which he had suffered an injury that paralysed his left arm.

Relief arrived at the camp at just past 10am. Colonel Durnford, an Irish career British Army officer, had arrived with 526 mounted reinforcements, including his famous Natal Native Zikhali Horse. Upon his arrival Durnford swiftly took command of the force and took action.

He had a portion of his Zikhali Horse sent up to reconnoitre the Nqutu Plateau to the north of the camp, commanded by William Barton.

As for Durnford himself, he would lead another segment of his soldiers east, to pursue some ‘retreating’ Zulus that he believed were heading for Chelmsford’s army. By this time it was around 11.30 am.


Having reached the Plateau, Barton and his men rode east towards the Ngwebeni Valley. It was then that Lieutenant Charles Raw spotted a small herd of cattle near the ridge of the Valley and attempted to capture the livestock.

It was then, as they crossed the ridge of the hill, that they were met with a terrifying spectacle.

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Thousands of Zulus had stationed themselves within the Valley, waiting patiently. Raw and his men had stumbled upon the enemy.

Quickly Raw lined up his mounted riflemen to release a volley on the Zulus. The Zulus responded, standing up and charging their foe. Raw soon re-joined with Barton and together they commenced a fighting retreat towards the camp, along the Plateau.

The Zulus had started their attack, with one of their first targets being Durnford’s ill-fated rocket battery. When they heard the gunfire from Raw’s soldiers, this small unit had stationed themselves far to the east of the camp, completely exposed. They managed to launch one rocket on their enemy, before they were swiftly overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, back at the camp the soldiers were still not expecting to fight. That was however, until they heard the sounds of gunfire. The grave news reached them soon after as messengers from Barton’s squadron confirmed the worst: they had found the main Zulu army. And it was coming their way.

Zulu warriors carrying their iconic ox-hide shields and firearms.

Battle stations

Pulleine was now faced with the battle no-one saw coming. Hastily he sent a further letter to Chelmsford, informing him of the situation, before sending out his infantry companies to form a defensive line on a wide perimeter to the east of the camp.

The British left flank was situated at the top of the Tahelane Ridge on the Nqutu Plateau, commanded by George Shepstone. It was not long before they were confronted by the opposing right wing of the Zulu formation: the right horn. This horn was intending to outflank and encircle the camp.

Shepstone’s force resisted for a time, but it was not long before they were ordered to abandon the ridge and form up the left flank’s defence closer to the camp. There, they were to hold back the Zulu right horn for a considerable length of time.

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Meanwhile in the centre, things were going better for Durnford and Pulleine’s force. The 2 pounder cannons at their disposal were wrecking havoc on the Zulu chest, the central thrust of their formation. Combined with the rifle fire, the Zulu centre suffered heavily.

Further to the right, Durnford’s men (who by then had dismounted and entrenched themselves in a dry gully on the right side of the defence) were similarly holding back the Zulu ‘left horn’ opposing them. The defence was holding.

This defence could not last indefinitely however. As the fighting continued, the ammunition of the defenders began to run low. Soldiers started to use up their standard 70 bullets and urgent requests for resupplies became widespread throughout the front line.

1879 sketch of the Battle of Isandlwana. The Ngwebeni Valley is situated to the north-east.

The ammunition supply

This proved a problem. Pulleine’s decision to go to Durnford’s aid and form up the British defensive line on a wide perimeter, far from the camp, meant ammo resupplies took time to arrive; the heavy ammo boxes were also sealed by screw-tightened lids that proved difficult to remove. Furthermore, some of the quartermasters infamously refused to distribute ammo to soldiers who were not from their regiments.

The result was disaster.  As soon as his men had exhausted their ammo supplies, Durnford sounded the retreat. Instantly, the Zulus pounced and started to outflank.

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In the centre, as the barrage began to subside, Zulu warriors leapt up and inspired their comrades to resume the assault. They attacked with renewed vigour. In the face of this revived charge, Pulleine’s company soldiers and the Natal Native Contingents supporting them attempted to retreat before they were cut down:

Our ammunition failed once but we got more from the camp, and remained firing until the Zulus were within 100 yards of us…The company of soldiers was with us and on nearing the tents knelt down and commenced firing on the enemy…Our captain now got off his horse and gave it to me, telling me to take it to the ammunition wagons and, turning back…he joined the red soldiers who were firing and I never saw him again.

Malindi, an NNC auxiliary

The defence became fragmented; the Zulus were among them; the line had broken.


Having broken through the defence the Zulus entered the camp, having been ordered to show any redcoats they encountered no mercy. A Zulu warrior recalled what happened when one band attempted to surrender:

How can we give you mercy when you have come to us to take away our country and eat us up? uSuthu!

It was around this time, as the Zulus started wrecking havoc among the tents, that it is believed Colonel Pulleine was killed.

For a short time, behind the camp Colonel Durnford and some of his Natal volunteers kept a narrow ‘escape route’ open for retreating soldiers. Soon however, Durnford’s force was overwhelmed, the man himself was killed and the two Zulu horns completed their manoeuvre, encircling the camp. For those still in the camp, their fate was sealed.

‘The last stand at Isandlwana’ by Charles Edwin Fripp. Today you can view the painting in the National Army Museum.

The survivors fled to the Buffalo River, chased all the way by the Zulus. The bank became the scenes of some of the most terrible fighting.

Amidst the chaos a story arose that Lieutenants Coghill and Melville had attempted to save the Regimental Colour, but were cut down during the escape. This version of events, however, is now hotly-contested. Some witnesses claimed the two officers had fled out of cowardice, using the Colour as an excuse to flee.

The aftermath

This is a photo of Isandlwana the hill in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa where the Battle of Isandlwana was fought. The rockpile in foreground is one of many marking the location of British mass graves at the site.

Only 55 Europeans and 350 Africans survived the disaster on the British side, out of a total of 1,762 (soldiers and camp followers).

Casualties were significant on both sides and to this day, memorials to the fallen warriors remain well-preserved at the base of Isandlwana Hill.

Memorial erected at the site commemorating the valour of the fallen Zulu impi at Isandlwana Hill, which is visible in the background.

It was a truly terrible battle. In accordance with tribal ritual, the Zulus disembowelled their fallen enemies, much to the horror of Chelmsford’s Column when they later reached the battlefield.

The General was stunned. Worse was to follow. Fires were seen in the distance, coming from Rorke’s Drift. It was just the beginning.


David, Saul 2004 Zulu Viking Penguin Random House

Tristan Hughes