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Isandlwana ­ A Military Enigma
By Mark Hobson

There are as many riddles and mysteries surrounding the battle of Isandlwana as there are for most epic confrontations between opposing armies. Spion Kop, The Charge of the Light Brigade and Little Big Horn are prime examples of how, over the years and centuries, these can sometimes become bigger than the battles themselves. The Œfog of war¹ remains impenetrable long after the gunsmoke and stench of death has drifted away from the battlefield, keeping secrets that, despite the most vigorous of investigations, refuse to be solved.

Hundreds of books have been written about the events of the 22nd January 1879 in an attempt to unravel the story. They have all explored, in their own way, the reasons for the Anglo-Zulu War and the countdown to the first major battle between Lord Chelmsford¹s army of redcoats and King Cetshwayo¹s zulu regiments, running through the course of the battle in minute detail. Therefore, this famous clash-of-arms is fairly well known to all military history enthusiasts. But there are still many yawning gaps in people¹s understanding of what really happened that day. And there are also many mythsŠ

One of the biggest Œmysteries¹, infact THE biggest mystery of all, is what actually went wrong and caused such a calamity for the British Army? For years there were two major answers given: a failure in the resupply of ammunition, and poor leadership by the two most senior commanders present ­ Brevet Colonel Antony Durnford and Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine. But were these the real reasons for the disaster? And if not, then the question remains: what actually did go wrong?

Perhaps the answers will never be known.

However, over the past few years, more and more information has started coming to light. An archaeological dig is unearthing new evidence at this very moment, newly discovered letters and paperwork from the period are causing a stir amoungst military historians, and a better understanding of Zulu tactics and beliefs is all combining to help fill in those frustrating gaps, to throw a little more light on the enigma that is Isandlwana. So perhaps only now, 125 years on from that terrible day, can any confident conclusions be drawn.

Disbanding with the opening moments of battle ­ the specifics of which are more or less established anyway ­ and the subsequent flight of the fugitives after the camp fell, this article will instead concentrate on the pivotal moment that the British firing line collapsed. What caused the camp¹s defences to be breached? It lays down the sequence of events, as I see them, which resulted in one of the most ignominious defeats the British Empire was ever to suffer.

The Crucible of Battle

The British Perspective

At the height of battle all seemed well for the British. The fight which ensued shortly before midday on Wednesday 22nd January 1879 had come about unexpectedly, true. When Lord Chelmsford had departed from camp early that morning, taking with him a large proportion of No.3 (Centre) Column, it had been thought he would close with the enemy somewhere in the vicinity of Mangeni Falls, 12 miles to the east. The previous evening a reconnaissance force searching these hills found themselves confronted by a sizeable force of Zulu warriors which they had assumed to be the main Zulu army. Sending word back to Chelmsford, urging him to come on lest the opportunity to give battle slipped through their fingers, they were infact inadvertently drawing attention away from the area of real danger. Chelmsford added to this blunder by making it clear to those he was leaving behind that they could expect to have a quiet day, thus lulling them into a false sense of security. So when, just a few hours later, a British mounted patrol blundered into the Zulu army quietly hiding in a valley just a few miles from their camp, to say they were surprised and shocked would be an understatement.

The fact that they got over their initial surprise as quickly as they did is testimony to their professionalism and discipline.

They were now faced with a serious test of their training. The Zulus, in contrast to the Xhosa tribe whom the 24th Regiment had fought during the Ninth Cape Frontier War the year before, would, they knew, be a tough opponent to beat. Highly motivated and well trained, these were a formidable force who were eager to Œwash their spears¹ in the blood of the white soldiers who were invading their land. It would be no picnic. All kinds of terrifying stories about the blood-thirsty nature of the Zulus (all purely propoganda banded about by the white administration of Natal) had been circulating amoungst the men, as well as quiet admiration of just how good these warriors were. Nevertheless, the men in camp were confident that there could only be one outcome to any confrontation: a resounding victory for the British and their African allies.

If the men at the sharp end of the fight knew what a hard task the war would be, their commanding officers did not. They had allowed themselves to wallow in a feeling of over confidence, a tone set by both Chelmsford and the High Commissioner to South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere. Both were under the delusion that their foe would prove easy to vanquish ­ if they could be forced to fight at all ­ and they began the war thus emboldened by a superior and self-assured attitude. Chelmsford expressed this when he wrote :

I am inclined to think that the first experience of the power of the Martini-Henrys will be such a surprise to the Zulus that they will not be formidable after the first effort.

This cocksure approach was to prove different to the bloody reality of battle.

At the outset, the British made mistakes. The first, and possibly most glaring error, was their inability to establish who exactly was in command of the camp. Initially, control was left in the hands of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine of the 1/24th, a solid officer who was thought ideal to be in charge of watching over things whilst Chelmsford was away. The problem was, though, that earlier that morning Chelmsford had ordered Colonel Durnford to move up with his column to join the Centre column at Isandlwana. Durnford was senior to Pulleine. It was natural, therefore, for Pulleine to assume that upon arrival his fellow officer would take command. But Durnford had other ideas. He would not interfere with Pulleine¹s running of things at Isandlwana on the basis that he would not be staying there, he explained whilst the two took an early lunch. His instructions ­ as he read them ­ were to join up with Chelmsford in searching for the main Zulu army to the east. What¹s more, with reports of groups of Zulus moving across the Nqutu plateau towards the General he felt it his duty to head out with his force to try and intercept the enemy, incase they struck Chelmsford in the rear.

This news must have dismayed Pulleine. A good administrator, but with no combat experience, he would have been hoping that Durnford would take away the burden of command. This was not to be so. Yet to contradict Durnford¹s announcement that he would not interfere he then requested that Pulleine lend him 2 companies of Infantry to help with his foray. Confused as to what role he was to take, Pulleine turned this request down. His orders were to defend the camp. Instead, it was agreed that he would lend immediate assistance to Durnford if he and his mounted units found themselves in difficulties. Seemingly happy with this, Durnford prepared to leave, deciding at the last minute to send two patrols up onto the heights to the north to drive the group of Zulus eastwards. And so, with the question of command still unsettled, the two men went their separate ways.

Of course, had Durnford known the true whereabouts of the Zulu army, and had he known of the drama that was about to unfold, he would undoubtedly have chosen to remain in camp.

What happened next is well known and the key facts are not really in dispute. Shortly after Durnford departed the patrols up on the plateau stumbled upon the waiting Zulu Impi, and the battle commenced. The Zulu chest deployed across the heights, moving directly towards the camp below, whilst the Right and Left horns swung far out to the sides, the latter coming into contact with Durnford. Pulleine, once he realized what was happening, deployed his firing line to meet the threat, that is, facing the escarpment in a roughly west-to-east position. The enemy came on fast and the most crucial stage of the battle had been reached.

We must look more closely at both the structure and location of the British firing line in order to gain a better understanding of subsequent events.

For a long time it was thought the line took on a right-angled shape, starting at the northern tip of Isandlwana and running east towards the rocky knoll before swinging south across the front of the camp. Yet it now seems that this wasn¹t the case.

As far as Pulleine was concerned the threat he faced was coming more or less from the north. So he positioned his companies accordingly ­ in a straight line, with the last company bent back in echelon. He also structured it in accordance with Chelmsford¹s recommended defensive formation which had served him so well the year before, with the artillery in a central position, infantry stretched out to either side, then the mounted units at either side of these, and finally the Natal Native companies on the wings, with the flanks drawn back somewhat. A company of Imperial infantry did anchor the left-hand end, these having been sent here to cover the withdrawal of those men (piquets, patrols etc) up on the plateau.

The precise location of the firing line is harder to pinpoint. But when one actually looks at the geography around Isandlwana it is possible to reach a fairly accurate guess.

To the north of where the camp was the land dips into a very shallow hollow at the foot of the escarpment. It would have been obvious to any officer worth his salt that this represented potential Œdead ground¹ to the enemy, a place where they might gather very close to the camp. So it would be essential to cover this hollow, from the slightly higher ground south of it. Coincidentally, this stretch of Œhigher ground¹ ­ and we are only talking a difference of several feet ­ offered some good cover in the form of a knoll of jumbled boulders behind which the men could crouch. This rocky knoll is also in a straight line from the northern tip of Isandlwana, plus it is almost in perfect line with the escarpment. A seemingly perfect location to place the firing line.

The artillery was first to deploy. They rode out and took up a spot about 400 yards from the tents, amoungst the rocks and covering the hollow and the escarpment. The infantry, mounted men and NNC subsequently fell into line alongside. From here, the hollow area is approximately another 400 yards to the north and as this is the most effective range of the Martini-Henry rifle it seems another sensible reason for assuming that this was indeed the location of the firing line.

In short, the positioning of his line was decided by Pulleine for two reasons.

(a) It made sense from a topographical point of view.

(b) Tactically, it offered the best location.

So, running from the northern end of Isandlwana out towards the rocky knoll, the line looked like this:

Younghusband¹s C Coy 1/24th ­ Erskine¹s E Coy NNC ­ The Zikhali Horse ­ Mostyn¹s F Coy 1/24th ­ Cavaye¹s E Coy 1/24th ­ Porteus¹ A Coy 1/24th ­ N/5(two 7 pdr) ­ Wardell¹s H Coy 1/24th ­ Pope¹s G Coy 2/24th ­ Lonsdale¹s 9 Coy NNC.

Colonel Durnford, having ran into the Left horn, fought a slow retreat back the way he had come and took up a position in the Nyogane donga about a mile from the camp and approximately half a mile south of Lonsdale. He was, in effect, a continuation of the line but even though he strung his men out as much as possible there still remained a massive gap between his own position and the nearest Imperial company.

At this stage in the battle nobody on the British side realized just how serious the situation was, with the exception being Durnford who was struggling to hold back the Left horn. The men of the 24th had fought in the Frontier War of 1878, a somewhat disappointing affair for all concerned, and although they were excited at the prospect of action most mistakingly assumed that the battle unfolding around them would not amount to much either. The Zulus might have been made of sterner stuff than the Xhosa, yes, but they were still no match for the British Army.

The firing line began to lay down a steady fire, the company commanders and section commanders maintaining a tight control. To prevent wastage of ammunition and to keep their accuracy as high as possible it was common practice for infantry regiments to fire slowly rather than to blaze away, the idea being that the more time the men had to pick their targets and the longer the breaks in between each volley to steady their nerves, the more hits­per­shot they could expect. By carefully pacing the rate of fire like this they would have a much better chance of stemming any attacking force than they would by laying down mass volley after mass volley in quick succession, where the majority of shots would miss and the enemy would therefore gain in confidence. Another reason for this slow and calculated method was to give the dense clouds of white smoke time to clear. Firing by sections, commencing from the leeward flank, also helped to keep visibility high. There is no reason to believe that the infantry at Isandlwana began the battle in any other way, for this was a tried and tested method. The men were veterans, not fresh recruits, ³old, steady shots² as Sir Bartle Frere referred to them, and were used to following instructions with a remarkable coolness.

In the centre of the line the two 7-pounders of N Battery, 5th Brigade under Major Stuart Smith also opened up. These were Rifled Muzzle-Loading guns mounted on narrow ³Kaffrarian² carriages, with a maximum range of just over 3000 yards, and as the Zulu chest began pouring down the escarpment they commenced fire, lobbing shells into the mass of warriors.

After the inevitable early nerves the men settled down. They laughed and joked with one another, seeing the effect their fire was having on the enemy.

At the bottom of the escarpment the Zulus found themselves trapped in the hollow ground and they were unable to advance any further into the face of such a telling fire. They went to ground and their attack stalled.

British spirits were high.

The Zulu Perspective

As the Zulus raced across the plateau towards Isandlwana they fell into attack formation. Although the suddenness of the attack had taken them by surprise as much as it had their foes, years of vigorous training immediately came to tell as each regiment automatically took up position in what was known as impondo zankomo ­ the beast¹s horns - the classic tactic adopted by the Zulus since the days of Shaka. The two horns, usually made up of younger and fitter men because they had the most ground to cover, were thrown out to begin their encircling movement, whilst the chest rolled forward like some unstoppable juggernaut with a reserve closely following.

The chest would be made up of four of Cetshwayo¹s finest regiments, the uNokhenke and the uKhandempemvu and the uMbonambi and elements of the uMxhapho. They rushed forward as quickly as they could, covering the rough ground at a frightening pace, and began to spill down from the escarpment onto the plain below.

For many of the warriors this was to be their first taste of battle on this scale. Zululand had been relatively peaceful for some time, with the reigns of Mpande and Cetshwayo noted for their long spells of calm prosperity. The last serious fighting the nation had seen, which was a result of Cetshwayo and one of his half-brothers squabbling over who should follow in their father¹s footsteps as the next king, took place in the mid 1850¹s ending with the terrible massacre at ŒNdondakusuka. Since then, apart from the occasional small dispute, the Zulu regiments had not had the chance to Œwash their spears¹. So the men were lacking in experience. But what they did not lack was enthusiasm. They were eager for battle that day, to prove their worth to their King and to expel the white men from their land. With a passion, they wanted to Œeat up¹ their enemy.

Yet the reality of their position soon began to sink in once they came within sight of the camp. For the first time ever they were up against a modern army equipped with the best weaponry that the technology of the time could produce, and once they were within optimum range of the enemy¹s guns they began to suffer the consequences of their over-eagerness. 400 yards from the British line, amoungst the broken dongas north of the camp, the Zulu chest flinched, and their attack wavered.

As a warrior in the uKhandempemvu named uMhoti bluntly put it:

The soldiers who lay on the flat ground in front of the camp poured volley after volley into the impi; we crouched down and dared not advance.

This temporary stalemate cost the Zulus dearly. The chest was unable to make any headway save for the odd brief rush forward by small groups of men. The Left horn, which comprised the iNgobamakhosi and the young uVe regiments, had likewise ground to a halt before Durnford¹s men in the donga. They too could not advance and suffered heavily. One warrior of the iNgobamakhosi commented on the sight before them when he called out: ³Lightening, lightening of heaven, see its glittering flash.² ­ a chilling description of the line of guns blazing away at them.

Despite their predicament the Zulu warriors did not give up hope. They sought cover from the rifle fire the best they could, hiding behind boulders or amoungst the broken ground. They even learnt how to counter the effects of the artillery fire, for they noticed that just before the guns fired the white men leaped clear as they pulled on the lanyards, and this gave the Zulus a warning each time the 7-pounders were about to unleash their ordanance. With shouts of ³Umoya!², the warriors would part before the guns, letting the shells pass harmlessly through.

Even so, the situation was bad for them. Stalled as they were, and taking heavy casualties, something had to give otherwise the battle would ­ for the Zulus ­ be over.

If things continued like this for much longer they would be facing defeat in a very short time.

The Tide Turns


There were many causes for the disaster that was about to unfold for the British. It is only now, looking at things in a clinical manner, that one can attempt to try and put things together. To try and unravel the series of terrible coincidences that occurred, one following on from another in quick succession, that set in motion a horrendous chain-reaction which ultimately led to defeat. Decisions were made, orders given, all of which played their part in the debacle. And despite the passage of time it is enough to still send a chill to one¹s core.

Before we break things down it is essential to look at the question of the ammunition supply. The Œprime suspect¹ for nigh on a hundred years, many still consider this, and this alone, to be the chief cause of the disaster. ButŠ this was simply not true.

The few survivors who gave accounts of the battle nearly all agree that fresh supplies of ammunition was reaching the main line from the first stages of the fight onwards. On top of the 70 rounds that each infantryman had on him there was sufficient reserves for a further 200, so in that case there would have been approximately 400,000 rounds in camp, a full regimental reserve for both battalions of the 24th . These were held on ammunition wagons kept immediately behind each unit¹s tents but because these were heavy and cumbersome to move the boxes would have been transferred to smaller Œskotch¹ carts which were pulled towards the line by mules, or carried by runners. Horace Smith-Dorrien and Essex, both survivors, were adamant that they helped distribute the cartridges and at no time did the rate of fire amoungst the 24th slacken.

The ammunition boxes, each of which contained 600 rounds, were constructed of heavy mahogany. To open them was relatively easy. One screw secured a small, sliding lid. Once this was off a thin layer of tin had to be ripped aside in order to get to the packets within. It was not necessary to unfasten up to a dozen other screws as some would suggest, for these simply held down two copper bands whose sole purpose was to strengthen the boxes and nothing else. They did not have to be removed in order to get the lid off ! Much has been made about how difficult and time consuming a job it was to gain access to these boxes, with stories of missing screwdrivers and panic-stricken attempts to kick them open. The truth was that one hefty blow to the side with a rifle butt would do the business quite sufficiently, if the situation became this urgent.

So where did the myth of the dwindling ammunition supply come from?

Well, it came from the simple desire to find an acceptable explanation for the disaster. Nobody could quite believe that a modern army could be beaten by Œsavages¹ armed primarily with spears and obselete firearms, and so alternative theories were sought. A problem with the ammunition boxes and the distribution of their contents seemed a perfect scapegoat. And once this seed was planted the story gained a life of its own.!

The truth is that the men fighting on the main firing line DID NOT run low of ammunition.

The same cannot be said, however, of Colonel Durnford¹s men.

He had ridden out of camp with roughly 100 mounted men of the Natal Native Horse, the Edendale Troop under Lieutenant Davies and the Hlubi Troop under Lieutenant Henderson. After galloping hard for about five miles they had suddenly found themselves coming up against the Left horn, and faced with such superior numbers had been forced to conduct a fighting withdrawal, slowly pulling back towards the camp. They sought shelter in the Nyogane donga, making their heroic stand and temporarily stemming the Zulu advance.

For about twenty or so minutes they held back the iNgobamakhosi and uVe regiments, firing at a higher tempo than the main line. But, because of this and the fact that they had been in action for longer, and also because these men only had 50 rounds each, they started to run short of ammunition. They were not at crisis stages yet but as a precaution Durnford sent back both Davies and Henderson to acquire more from their own reserve.

The problem was that because Durnford had only stayed in camp for such a short time his ammunition wagons had not arrived before he and his men headed east, in search of the enemy. At that time they were still two or three miles back on the road from Rorke¹s Drift, only arriving after the Colonel had departed. So none of the NNH knew of their whereabouts in camp. Davies and Henderson searched everywhere but without success. In desperation they asked the quartermasters of the 24th for some of theirs, but their request was turned down. Then, at the last minute, they found half a box lying unclaimed in the Carbineers camp, and they hurried back out towards the donga.

It wouldn¹t be enough, and Durnford knew it.

On top of this the Zulus they were so desperately trying to hold back had started to swing to the south, threatening to outflank his position. Several other groups had also begun slipping through the large gap between themselves and Lonsdale¹s NNC company away to their left. The situation was worsening with each passing minute.

Durnford was in a dilemma.

He came to a decision.

The Unfolding Tragedy

Back at the camp Pulleine also noted the warning signs. Although the number of Zulus slipping through were still relatively few he realized that soon this trickle would become a flood. Remembering his earlier promise to help Durnford should he get into difficulties he sent out an order to Lieutenant Pope, urging him to drop his company down past Lonsdale and to try and link up with the NNH, to plug the yawning gap in the line.

Pope immediately obliged. At the double, the whole of G Coy, 2/24th, raced south from their position close to the rocky knoll, hurrying over the uneven ground towards the donga. Whether or not they realized the seriousness of the affair is debatable ­ so far they had fought well in securing the right of Pulleine¹s line, helping to steady the nerves of the NNC company close by ­ but either way they carried out this tricky manoeuvre with all the discipline of true professionals. But the distance was considerable, and the whole time they were coming under increasing fire from the Zulus gathering close to the conical hill.

It was all in vain.

For unknown to them, and to Pulleine and his staff back in the camp area, Colonel Durnford was, at that very moment, issuing orders of his own.

His position in the donga was untenable. With more and more of the enemy outflanking him, and his men down to their last few rounds, he decided the time had come to leave. Perhaps he had notions of returning to the camp to discuss the situation with Pulleine and maybe to suggest that they draw the whole of the line back in, to shrink their over-stretched frontage and to concentrate their defence around the tents themselves. Or maybe he realized that the game was up and was trying to get his little command out. Whatever his reasons ­ and he took them with him to his grave ­ he gave the word and his men abandoned the front lip of the donga and mounted their horses, then set off towards the camp a mile or so away.

Many have blamed Durnford for setting in motion the sequence of events that led to disaster, of over-reacting, of being unable to keep his head and remain cool in a crisis, questioning his integrity as a gentleman and his conduct as a senior officer. Yet what else could he have done? He really had little other option. If they had remained in the donga they would have eventually been over-run anyway. And besides, this would only be a tactical withdrawal, the day might still be saved.

Lieutenant Pope¹s company was only about halfway between the rocky knoll and the donga when the one hundred horsemen went galloping by. Suddenly they had been left high and dry, now fully exposed to the Zulu left horn. They wheeled about and began to enfilade the mass of warriors gathered just a few hundred yards away, aware that time was ticking away.

Pulleine, probably shocked dumb by Durnford¹s unexpected move, counter-reacted.

With Durnford gone the far right of his line was now wide open. With things rapidly falling apart before his very eyes, the retreat of Durnford and the gradual slipping away of members of the NNC ­ principally from Erskine¹s company to the north ­ meant that his firing line was now too overstretched to hold back the Zulu chest. As with his colleague he probably saw that the only option remaining to him was to draw in that line and form a new defensive perimeter, for the men to close their ranks and stand literally shoulder to shoulder. So the order for the 24th to fall back was given.

The moment was noticed by uMhoti, still in the vanguard of the uKhandempemvu:

Then, at the sound of a bugle the firing ceased at a breath, and the whole British force rose from the ground and retired on the tentsŠ

The companies tried to stay together but fate intervened.

For at the precise moment that Pulleine was giving his order the Zulu regiments facing his men decided to put in one big effort. Pinned down as they were, unable to advance from out of the hollow ground and at the mercy of the British volley-fire, the two Zulu commanders watching from atop the escarpment sent down one of the uKhandempemvu¹s chief indunas to rally his warriors. Ndlaka moved to the front of the Zulus, exposing himself to enemy fire, and cried out ³The little branch of leaves that beats out the fire did not order this!² Ashamed of themselves the regiment picked itself up off the groundŠ

At the exact same time that the line of soldiers just 400 yards away turned and raced back towards the camp.

Seeing that their moment had come they stormed forward. According to uMhoti:

Like a flame the whole Zulu force sprang to its feet and darted upon them.

Across to the east the iNgobamakhosi in the left horn saw this charge. Their commander, Sikizane kaNomageje, gave an equally famous rallying cry. ³Why are you lying down?² he asked. ³What was it you said to the uKhandempemvu? There are the uKhandempemvu going into the tents. Stop firing. Go in hand to hand.² And they too made one final charge, one last ditched attempt to take advantage of the crumbling British line.

In the face of this overwhelming rush from the Zulus it is remarkable that the British companies managed to somehow maintain their integrity. They possibly formed into rallying squares as they fell back, supporting one another as they went. Very few men were actually killed out along where the line was positioned , or infact on the way in. Apart from twenty men of Wardell¹s company who found themselves cut off amoungst the rocks the majority made it back to the tents, although the manner with which they achieved this must have been desperate. As Essex noted:

The men became unsteady.A few fixed bayonets, and I heard the officers calling on their men to keep together and be steady.

UMhoti also testifies as to how well the soldiers behaved:

As we rushed on the soldiers retired on the camp, fighting all the way, we were intermingled with them

The Zulu regiments poured forward and closed with the British, and at last they were able to take advantage of their superior skills at hand-to-hand fighting, getting in close enough to make use of their stabbing spears and overwhelm their enemy with sheer numbers. After being on the receiving end of such punishing fire, plus following on from days of spiritual and psychological preparation, and the taking of medicines designed to imbue them with courage, the warriors had been champing at the bit to Œeat up¹ the British. With cries of ³kill the pigs!² and ³uSuthu!² they set about the chilling business of killing.

Pope¹s company was struck by the left horn but miraculously made it down to the road more or less intact. They retreated back up the gradually sloping ground fighting for every inch of turf, before being over-run just short of the 1/24th camp, Pope and his second-in-command being the last of G Coy to fall. Lonsdale¹s NNC fled back through the tent area in a blind panic as did their companions in Erskine¹s company. Younghusband succeeded in getting onto the shoulder of Isandlwana in one body, where they fought desperately, whilst the Natal Native Horsemen alongside them galloped for the nek. The two artillery pieces were somehow extricated through the commotion and escaped through the camp, only to be caught beyond the saddle. Mostyn and Cavaye were swept down the front of the tents in a swirl of movement and Wardell and Porteus ­ who had possibly the furthest to travel ­ were rolled back across the flat area away to the front of the camp, the men trying to draw together at the nek where Pulleine would soon form them into a last stand.

The line had totally crumbled. In a matter of minutes the whole tone of the battle had changed. From being in control of things the British suddenly found themselves facing defeat, for once their defensive line was breached the momentum of the fight shifted irrevocably out of their hands. A bizarre set of terrible coincidences, all happening virtually simultaneously, handed victory to the Zulus. And although the fighting would rage for some time to come the battle was lost the moment the firing line began to disintegrate, first with Durnford¹s withdrawal, then with Pulleine¹s reactionary decision to bring his men in, together with the Zulus putting in their last effort.


Lord Chelmsford had left behind 1700 British troops and their African allies at Isandlwana when he had marched out of camp in the early hours of that morning. Just a few short hours later more than 1300 of them lay dead, with only 60 Europeans escaping the carnage. His whole campaign plan had been thrown into disarray at a single stroke thanks to British ineptitude and disrespect for their enemy coupled with superior Zulu tactics. The speed with which the Zulus deployed took both Pulleine and Durnford by surprise (despite the latters knowledge of African warfare) and they could not react fast enough. There is little doubt that, individually and as a whole, the British showed remarkable courage in the face of crisis. Right down to the very end they fought splendidly. Yet a question has to be raised about the overall tactical knowledge of British officers and commanders. But did the fault lie with Pulleine and Durnford? Or with Chelmsford, whose recommended defensive formation they followed to the letter in setting up the firing line?