Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift

The first major engagement of the Zulu War, the Battle of Isandlwana was a Zulu victory that inflicted a devastating defeat on a British army. In the next day’s battle at Rorke’s Drift, a small British garrison repelled the assaults of an immensely larger Zulu force. Despite the great losses suffered by the British, the Zulu lost even more men, and the war would end in a decisive British victory.

Summary of Event

Early in 1879, the British high commissioner in South Africa, Sir Bartle Frere, tried to establish a confederation of white-led states in Southern Africa. However, the Zulu Kingdom stood in the way of his plan. After giving an ultimatum to the Zulu king Cetshwayo that was ignored, Frere launched a military invasion of Zululand. Zulu War (1879);battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift
Isandlwana, Battle of (1879)
Rorke’s Drift, Battle of (1879)
Chelmsford, Second Baron
British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa]
Natal, South Africa;Zulu
[kw]Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift (Jan. 22-23, 1879)
[kw]Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, Battles of (Jan. 22-23, 1879)
[kw]Rorke’s Drift, Battles of Isandlwana and (Jan. 22-23, 1879)
Zulu War (1879);battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift
Isandlwana, Battle of (1879)
Rorke’s Drift, Battle of (1879)
Chelmsford, Second Baron
British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa]
Natal, South Africa;Zulu
[g]South Africa;Jan. 22-23, 1879: Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift[5050]
[g]British Empire;Jan. 22-23, 1879: Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift[5050]
[g]Africa;Jan. 22-23, 1879: Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift[5050]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 22-23, 1879: Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift[5050]
Frere, Bartle
Durnford, Anthony W.
Pulleine, Henry
Chard, John R. M.
Bromhead, Gonville
Dalton, James Langley

Under the command of Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford, the invasion force consisted of three columns and two reserve units. The entire force was directed to converge on the royal Zulu military encampment at Ulundi. At the head of 4,700 men of the central column, Chelmsford crossed the Mzinyathi River on January 11, 1879, leaving behind a small contingent by the river to secure a depot at Rorke’s Drift. The following day his column attacked a Zulu settlement near a large rock crag named Isandlwana and afterward made camp. The camp was considered temporary and unlikely to be attacked, so no defensive measures were undertaken. The column comprised more than 4,900 men and 300 wagons.

On January 17, 1879, 28,000 Zulu warriors crossed the White Mfolozi River near Ulundi. On January 18, 4,000 of the warriors left the main Zulu army, and the remaining 24,000 encamped at isiPhezi ikhanda. On January 19, the larger force split in two and began moving in parallel columns toward the Ngwebeni Valley. Upon reaching the valley on January 21, the army went into hiding.

British soldiers attempting to escape from the carnage during the Battle of Isandlwana, in which more than one thousand of their comrades were killed. From a contemporary engraving.

(Arkent Archive)

On January 21, a scouting party of 150 men left the British camp at Isandlwana. At the same time, 1,600 mounted soldiers of the Natal Native Contingent left to scout to the southeast. During the same day, several skirmishes occurred with Zulu patrols, and both the British and Natal units chose to make camp in the field. The next morning, Chelmsford rode with 2,500 men to reinforce the British scouting party, leaving 1,800 men at Isandlwana under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Pulleine. A second British scouting force spotting a small group of Zulu began a pursuit, ending at an overlook of the Ngwebeni Valley. Spread below them was the 24,000-man Zulu army.

The Zulu intended to attack the British camp the next day, but when the scouting party began firing into them, and Zulu advanced quickly toward Isandlwana. The scouts reached Isandlwana in time to sound a warning. Pulleine established a thin defensive perimeter at the base of the crag. Colonel Anthony W. Durnford then led a mounted troop onto the plain in front of the crag.

The main Zulu attack began with about 20,000 men sweeping across the plain, while 4,000 were held in reserve. Durnford’s position was indefensible, and Pulleine’s force was spread out too far to form a defensive square. The Zulu attacked using their traditional encircling movement, which they likened to the horns of a bull, and quickly engulfed the British. Tactical errors by Pulleine’s Pulleine, Henry soldiers and Durnford’s Durnford, Anthony W. mounted force were magnified by slowness in distributing ammunition. The result was a complete British defeat after three hours of close-quarters fighting. Only six men of the regiment escaped, and nearly every British casualty was found to have run out of ammunition.

A partial solar eclipse Eclipses during the battle added an unearthly quality to the struggle. The victorious Zulu looted the British camp of almost one thousand advanced Martini-Henry rifles and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition, which the British had stored in heavy wooden boxes made to be opened with screwdrivers. More than 1,700 colonial troops were killed at Isandlwana. Zulu losses have been estimated at more than 2,000 men killed outright and another 2,000 who were mortally wounded.

Editorial cartoon by John Tenniel (1820-1914) commenting on the lesson that the British government learned from the Zulu War, in which it had badly underestimated the power of the Zulu.

Late in the afternoon of the next day, January 22, horsemen fleeing from Isandlwana arrived at the little post at Rorke’s Drift with news of the disaster at Isandlwana and a warning that a large Zulu force was headed for Rorke’s Drift. This Zulu force consisted of the 4,000 Zulu who had been held in reserve at Isandlwana. They were under the command of Dabulamanzi, Dabulamanzi Cetshwayo’s half-brother, who was eager for a fight after having been denied action at Isandlwana.

At Rorke’s Drift, Lieutenants John Chard Chard, John R. M. and Gonville Bromhead Bromhead, Gonville and commissary officer James Dalton Dalton, James Langley realized that escape was impossible and resolved that their garrison must defend itself until help could come. Their force consisted of only 140 men, 36 of whom were hospitalized. They had the garrison hastily fortified by erecting a breast-high, 100-yard-long barricade of 200-pound mealie bags, biscuit boxes, and wagons between the outpost store and hospital, both with loop-holed walls, connecting to a stone-walled enclosure kraal and a rocky terrace. Inside this fortification, they built a higher defensive redoubt. From behind these barricades, the British could direct fire in all directions with their Martini-Henry .450 caliber rifles. After the fighting began, the soldiers were allowed to fire at will and were continuously supplied with fresh ammunition.

The Zulu warriors had no artillery and few rifles in the hands of competent marksmen, so they repeatedly launched mass frontal attacks on the British position with the intent of breaking through so they could engage in hand-to-hand combat with their stabbing spears. During sixteen hours of intense fighting, the Zulu broke tradition by attacking at night, as well as by day, and managed to breach the barricades several times. Nevertheless, disciplined British rifle fire and bayonet charges repelled the attackers.

Firsthand accounts from both British and Zulu sources detail a battle of fierce combat and incredible acts of individual courage on both sides. More than 600 Zulu men were killed outright. The British casualties were 15 men killed and 10 wounded, including 2 who died later. Early on the morning of January 23, Chelmsford’s relief column arrived at Rorke’s Drift. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for gallantry to the outnumbered British defenders at Rorke’s Drift. It was the largest number of such awards made to one regiment for a single action in British military history.


British troops advancing on the Zulu at the Tugela River. From a drawing by Max Klepper (1861-1907).

(P. F. Collier and Son)

January 22, 1879, is remembered as one of the worst days in British colonial history. However, despite the magnitude of the British defeat at Isandlwana and the brutal struggle at Rorke’s Drift, the British inflicted more than 5,000 casualties on the Zulu army. The loss represented about 15 percent of the available Zulu fighting force. Total military losses for the Zulu over six months of the Zulu War are estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000—approximately half of all Zulu warriors. Total British military losses during the war were fewer than 2,000 men.

The war resulted in a total British victory under which they imposed upon the Zulu an unworkable peace that divided the Zulu Kingdom into thirteen states. These separate states were denied the prosperity of a united kingdom and began warring against one another. By design, this kept the Zulu militarily impotent and thus unable to attack in force any nearby European colonies. The British victory in the Zulu War, and the imposed dividing of the once independent Zulu state, virtually destroyed the traditional ways of Zulu life.

The 1964 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture Motion pictures;and Zulu War[Zulu War]
Zulu reenacts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Despite the film’s dramatic excesses, its battle sequences are considered realistic depictions of the ferocity and courage shown in the fighting. The 1979 film Zulu Dawn reenacts the Battle of Isandlwana.

Further Reading

  • Edgerton, Robert. Like Lions They Fought. New York: Free Press, 1988. Dramatic recounting of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Contains many historical photographs.
  • Hanson, Victor. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. New York: Anchor Books, 2001. Provides a riveting battle narrative of Rorke’s Drift and a balanced perspective of the battle’s aftermath.
  • Knight, Ian. Great Zulu Battles: 1838-1906. London: Orion, 1998. Analyses of a selection of diverse and significant battles throughout nineteenth century Zulu history, including the Battle of Isandlwana.
  • _______. Rorke’s Drift, 1879: Pinned Like Rats in a Hole. Oxford, England: Osprey, 1996. Essential reference by the foremost researcher and author on the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.
  • _______. Rorke’s Drift: The True Story. London: Greenhill Books, 2005. Revelatory account that strips away imperial British political and press manipulations to show the tragedy of the battle that is in conflict with enduring images of British glory.
  • _______. The Zulu War: 1879. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2003. Informative volume in the Osprey Essential History Series. The book is richly illustrated and gives a concise account of the Zulu War.
  • Lock, Ron, and Peter Quantrill. Zulu Victory: The Epic of Isandhlwana and the Cover-Up. London: Greenhill Books, 2002. Detailed, almost minute-by-minute account of the Zulu victory at Isandlwana based on British sources and surviving Zulu testimonies.
  • Morris, Donald. The Washing of Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965. Popular account of the rise of the Zulu nation under Shaka and its fall under Cetshwayo in the Zulu War of 1879.

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