It was great to return from two weeks in South Africa to catch up with this blog and see Richard\'s post on the Anglo-Zulu War, having just visited Isandlwana myself a few weeks after the anniversary. A while back I wrote about Gettysburg and how I felt it richly combined all the best ingredients for a deeply satisfying and moving battlefield visit: manageable dimensions, distinctive landscape features, a high level of conservation and a load of readily accessible, detailed information about what happened there (no guarantee of unanimity in interpretation, of course!), and, above all, atmosphere, and great characters and stories! Isandlwana is absolutely on a par with Gettysburg. The great crag, whose likeness to their sphinx insignia disturbed rather than reassured some of the doomed 24th, dominates the horizon for miles around, and, during our stay, often seemed to be in brooding shadow when the rest of the surrounding country was brightly sunlit.
 isandlwana from north

Here it is seen from across the valley that the Zulu “chest” (the central main force in their “bull” formation) had to cross to engage the imperial troops. Note that at the time of the battle there were no buildings of any kind, no trees, and very few shrubs even. The British line was initially drawn up well forward of the camp.  Their commander, Lt Colonel Anthony Pulleine, good at logistics and administration but with little or no frontline combat experience, apparently did things by the book, positioning his men to command the space below that would have been dead ground to a closer-in defensive position. But this meant that the red line was a very thin one for the hand-to-hand fighting that might be in prospect and dangerously exposed on one flank. My understanding is that it ran roughly along the edge of the lighter ground above the clump of shrubs and traditional huts, from a fairly secure anchor at the base of the crag on its left (C Company, 1/24th) to a right flank somewhere below the further side of the conical hill on the skyline (G Company, 2/24th). There was then a large gap. This was weakly covered by detachments of the Natal Native Contingent. Finally, furthest to the right and some way back was the position stoutly defended by Brevet Colonel Anthony Durnford, Royal Engineers (a larger-than-life figure, moustache included) and his Basuto auxiliaries after they had made their fighting withdrawal in the face of the Zulu left “horn”. The British camp would have been partly visible on the lower slopes of the ridge, the rest was, with the wagons, was beyond the skyline. The tents were still up, in neglect of the standard practice of flattening them to clear fields of fire and allow freer movement when a camp was threatened with attack. The wagons, to the rear on the reverse slope, were not laagered; Lord Chelmsford himself, hasty and overconfident, overrode his own standing orders. With a few basic defensive preparations and a much smaller perimeter, Pulleine\'s temporary command could well have survived in the naturally strong position chosen for the camp.

 isandlwana memorials

It was a powerful experience listening to our passionate and very knowledgeable Zulu guide, Joseph Ndima, as we looked out over this terrible killing ground. White-painted cairns and more formal memorials mark the spots where groups of men fell, surrounded and out of ammunition, after the line broke and the rout surged through the camp, now outflanked by the left and right horns and almost completely encircled. There was no shortage of rounds for the Martini-Henrys (about 400,000 fell into Zulu hands) and no problem with opening ammunition boxes: resupply had simply become impossible. In the case of Durnford\'s auxiliaries, the refusal of the 24th\'s Quartermaster to share ammunition seems to be another myth, probably created in response to efforts to scapegoat Durnford. His men were armed with smaller-calibre carbines and, more mundanely, their ammunition wagon could not be found in the confusion of the camp. The few cairns between the initial positions and the area of the camp itself suggest that the six Companies of the 24th defended themselves well as they fell back, while the ammunition in their pouches lasted. But then the superior reach of rifles with “lunger” bayonets fixed gave no advantage in individual hand-to-hand combat against several assegai-wielding warriors, who could also now move in close for a certain hit with their throwing spears.

isandlwana from south west, fugitive's lodge

The memorials on the ridge are visible from six miles away to the south west on the Natal side of the Buffalo river, which runs along a deep valley beyond the tree-line in the foreground.  Here is the crossing point which became known as Fugitives\' Drift, used by many of the approximately 300 survivors of the main battle.  1,300 British and African troops lay dead behind them, at Isandlwana, along the trail of their flight, where impi easily kept pace with struggling horses, and on both sides of the river.  It is believed that, out of the 19,000 Zulus directly involved, as many as 2,000 died in the fighting or afterwards from wounds: “an assegai thrust into the people\'s heart”, as the tragic and noble King Cetshwayo put it.


isandlwana sunset

By the time the sun had set on the shattered British position, soon to be re-occupied by Lord Chelmsford\'s misguided column, Rorke\'s Drift had been under attack for three hours by the 3,500-strong  Zulu reserve, eager to “wash their spears” having missed out on the action at Isandlwana.  But that\'s another story....