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  • The Zulu Battlefields

    Posted by Rupert Denham December 16, 2013 - 2,270 views - 0 comments - 1 like

    A friend and I recently visited the Anglo-Zulu War battlefields at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. We stayed at the comfortable Isandlwana Lodge, which has a wonderful view of the sphinx-shaped hill of Isandlwana about two miles away. The hotel is set in the face of the hill down which the Zulu soldiers ran when they attacked the British camp, and lies just beneath the rock where King Cetshwayo stood while he directed the battle.

    The tours were given by the historian Rob Gerrard, who has an excellent grasp of the details of both battles. He explained the cause of the conflict, which began with an unprovoked invasion by the British in January 1879, and the various troop movements before the battle of Isandlwana as the British searched in vain for the main Zulu army.

    On the 21st January, the British force was split when General Chelmsford, thinking that the main Zulu army was to the east, marched out of the camp with about half his men. This left about 1200 soldiers at Isandlwana, along with six 7-pound guns. They had not encircled their wagons, as the Boers had advised them to do, or dug defensive trenches. 


    The main Zulu army of 20 000 men attacked from the north in the late morning of the 22nd. They advanced despite being cut down by the British seven-pound guns and by the rifles which fired twelve shots a minute. Encircling the British, they cut off many from their ammunition supply, which was too far from the frontline troops. The battle was over in about two hours, leaving 1350 British dead and at least twice as many Zulu casualties. About fifty British escaped by horseback over the Buffalo River to Helpmekaar. One carried the regimental colours, and its desperate journey involving three men has its own story at a place on the river called Fugitive’s Drift.


    Rob Gerrard speaks fluently and passionately about the brutality, bravery and mistakes of the two battles. An ex-soldier, he has obvious sympathy with and understanding of the courage and sacrifices on both sides. He has a strong grasp of detail, such as the average height of the British (five foot six) and Zulus (six foot) and the number of bullets each British soldier was given at the start of the battle (only seventy). The 22nd January is the middle of summer, and it was an especially hot day. In their usual uniform of red woolen tunics and leather boots, the British would have been very uncomfortable. The steel-heeled boots also made them far slower than the barefooted Zulus. 


    We heard several moving stories of personal courage. For example, there was the Zulu leader, who, seeing the central column (the ‘chest of the buffalo’) retreating under rifle and artillery fire from the British, ran in front of his men and shouted that the King had not given them permission to fall back. Immediately shot by a British rifle, his example encouraged his men who edged forward once again and broke though the British line. In Zulu oral tradition, he is the hero of the battle.

    A British officer Captain Young-Husband, retreating with his men up the slopes of the hill and seeing thousands of Zulus below, stopped to shake hands with each of his men to say goodbye. Seeing this, the nearest Zulu leader ordered his men to wait so that the British could say their farewells, before they charged down the hill to their deaths. The last British soldier, well supplied with bullets, held out in a cave high up the mountain for an hour and a half after the main battle was over. Returning to the battlefield several months later to find only bones, the British army built cairns of stones where the bones lay, and these, painted white, dot the battlefield today. 

    Rorke’s Drift is twenty minutes’ drive from Isandlwana and consists of a museum on the site of the hospital, through which the British and Zulus fought ferocious hand-to-hand combat during the night. The garrison at Rorke’s Drift, a supply point and hospital, consisted of about 130 men when it was attacked by approximately 4000 Zulus, who, having not had the chance to fight at Isandlwana, crossed the Buffalo River into Natal on the afternoon of the 22nd in search of action. In Zulu culture, you could not ask the King to marry until you had ‘washed your spear’ in the body of the enemy.


    The camp’s defences were hurriedly organised in an hour or so when the British heard of the impending attack, and consisted mainly of bags of corn stacked four feet high, joining the store room with the hospital in a circle. The soldiers held out for over twelve hours, fighting through the night, with the shot and bayoneted Zulu bodies falling beneath the corn bags and adding a gruesome extra layer to the defences.

    Tours with Rob Gerrard cost R 450 for each battle site. Accommodation at the four-star Isandlwana Lodge was R 1190 per person per night sharing. Each room has a balcony with a view of the battlefield, and the food is excellent, with four course dinners.

    To get there from Durban, take the N2 along the coast until Eshowe and turn west there. Or you can take the N3 and turn off for Ladysmith and go via Dundee. Each journey takes about four hours. From Pietermaritzburg you can also go via Greytown, Tugela Ferry and Pomeroy, taking about two and three-quarter hours, with a decent dirt road for the last half hour.