What Was the Prelude to the Battle of Isandlwana? | History Hit

What Was the Prelude to the Battle of Isandlwana?

On 11 January 1879 the vanguard of Colonel Richard Glyn’s No.3 Column crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand at Rorke’s Drift, marking the start of the Anglo-Zulu War. The Column was part of Lord Chelmsford’s main invasion force, launched under the pretext of countering Zulu ‘aggression’.

Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford.

Opening moves

Chelmsford himself joined the Column on 12 January and took effective control. That same day his men met with some initial success, when they overwhelmed the small warbands of a local Zulu chieftain.

Despite being outnumbered these Zulus had chosen to resist the invaders. It was a symbol of things to come.

Chelmsford’s plan centred around caution. Slowly, his army would drive the Zulus back, away from the Natal border and towards oNdini (Ulundi), the capital of the Zulu king Cetshwayo. It would be there that he believed the decisive clash would take place.

Chelmsford was confident in the plan and the invasion; he was convinced that the Zulus would avoid fighting a pitched battle against his technologically-superior force, until forced into one by his own aggressive movements.


Logistical problems and repetitive, small skirmishes proved a nuisance for Chelmsford during the opening days of the invasion. By 16 January his progress from the Buffalo River had culminated at a peculiar-shaped hill 11 miles from the border. It was called Isandlwana.

A photo of Isandlwana Hill, taken in 1882.

Isandlwana Hill was sphinx-like in its appearance, leading the British troops of the 24th Regiment to believe this was an auspicious sign – the Sphinx was the official emblem of the Regiment. It was here, near the hill’s steep slopes, that Chelmsford decided to make a new camp.

The uneven terrain surrounding the camp caused some immediate concerns among Chelmsford’s adjutants. Furthermore, believing that the Zulus would avoid aggressive action the general had decided against either entrenching the camp or erecting a defensive laager (wagon fort). This was against standard procedure.

Several subordinates questioned these key decisions regarding the camp, but Chelmsford dismissed them. The historian Saul David notes,

Chelmsford did not take the necessary precautions because he did not think he needed to.

Saul David, Zulu (2004)

Saul David - historian, broadcaster and author of several critically-acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction - comes on the show to discuss the most brutal and controversial British imperial conflict of the 19th century: the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
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The Zulus respond

The British advance forced Cetshwayo to respond with force. On 17 January he gathered the main Zulu army at kwaNodwengu and readied them for battle. Zulu military tactics revolved around the fighting of short campaigns with decisive pitched battles. They favoured aggression.

Before his troops departed, Cetshwayo supposedly advised them how best to counter their foe:

If you come near to the white man and find that he has made trenches and built forts that are full of holes, do not attack him for it will be of no use. But if you see him out in the open you can attack him because you will be able to eat him up.

His words proved prophetic.

Zulu military tactics centred around short, aggressive and decisive campaigns, so that the militia could return to their homes in time to tend the harvest.

The beginning

In the early morning of 21 January Lord Chelmsford had decided to dispatch a patrol force from Isandlwana, consisting of natives, Natal Military Police and mounted volunteers. Their task was to reconnoitre a rough track that led up to the Mangeni Falls, southeast of Isandlwana.

A map of Zululand and neighbouring Natal. Isandlwana is visible just left of centre.

In command of the patrol was Major John Dartnell, a man who was very popular with the soldiers.

Dartnell lead the expedition out of the camp and it wasn’t long before they encountered enemy activity. As they approached the Mangeni River, Dartnell spotted a sizeable Zulu force. Believing that he was not yet strong enough to counter the enemy force Dartnell decided that his patrol would keep a close eye on it throughout the night.

He sent a message to Chelmsford, informing him of the situation and his plan. Chelmsford received the message in early evening, replying that Dartnell should choose to engage the enemy, ‘if and when he thought fit’.

Dartnell calls for aid

By the time that messenger reached Dartnell with the response, however, circumstances had changed. Dramatically so. By then the Zulu force Dartnell was monitoring had significantly increased, numbering some several thousand.

Hastily Dartnell had dispatched another courier to inform Chelmsford of the increase in activity, as well as a request for supplies. Chelmsford refused the former request, but did approve the latter, sending inadequate rations for Dartnell’s force.

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

Zulu activity only continued to increase into the night; through the darkness, Dartnell’s patrol spotted more and more enemy fires to the east. The commander’s concerns continued to grow. No longer could he conceivably think about attacking his enemy the next morning – such an act would be suicidal without reinforcements.

Without delay, in the late evening of 21 January 1879, Dartnell sent a third messenger back to Isandlwana requesting Chelmsford march to his patrol’s aid, particularly with his British infantry regulars.

The message reached the camp at c.1.30am on 22 January. Within the half-hour Chelmsford was awake and had ordered his men to make ready to march at daybreak.

Defend the camp

View of Isandlwana Hill and the Battlefield. Image Credit: Michael Gundelfinger / Commons.

Chelmsford would take most of the main Column with him. To guard Isandlwana, he would leave:

  • 5 companies of the 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment
  • 1 company of 2/24th
  • 3 companies of the 3rd Natal Native Contingent
  • 2 artillery guns
  • 1 squadron of mounted troops and some Natal Native Pioneers.

In total this numbered 1,241 soldiers: 891 Europeans and 350 Africans.

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To reinforce the Isandlwana camp defence, Chelmsford sent an order to Colonel Anthony Durnford, currently stationed at Rorke’s Drift, to march his contingent (526 men) to the camp and reinforce.

He left Colonel Henry Pulleine in charge with orders to hold the camp, though no-one expected it to be the site of a major battle:

Nobody from the General downwards had the least suspicion that there was a chance of the enemy attacking the camp.

Staff Officer Francis Clery

For all Chelmsford and his officers knew, it appeared Dartnell had discovered the main Zulu army. This was who Chelmsford intended to march out and confront. In fact it was quite the opposite.

Colonel Anthony William Durnford.

A distraction

The Zulu impi that had caused Dartnell so much concern was only a distraction, a detachment sent from the main Zulu army to lure the bulk of the British Column away from Isandlwana:

They kept fires burning all night to convince Dartnell that the main Zulu Army was near

Saul David, Zulu (2004)

It worked.

At dawn on 22 January, Chelmsford led the majority of his Column out of the camp towards Dartnell’s position. Little did he know that his actions were playing directly into his enemy’s hands.

Chelmsford and his force reached Dartnell’s position at 6.30am. Over the next few hours they pursued dispersing bands of Zulus further and further away from Pulleine and the garrison at Isandlwana. Throughout the day various reports reached them from the camp, hints that it was under attack.

Nevertheless Chelmsford remained convinced no serious danger threatened Isandlwana. By 2pm, still he remained unaware of the danger to his rear. For the British, it was a fatal mistake, for the Zulus, a triumph in tactical planning.


David, Saul 2004 Zulu Viking Penguin Random House

Tristan Hughes