Battle of Gingindlovu in the Zulu war.

Graham Charles Lear
9 min readApr 3, 2023

We are now coming to near the end of the war and the tide has now turned in favour of the British

The battle was fought on 2nd April 1879, where Lord Chelmsford defeated a Zulu army on his route to overwhelming the Zulu nation at Ulundi.

However, before he could get to Cetshwayo at Ulundi Chelmsford first had to rescue Colonel Pearson’s Number One Column that lay isolated in a fortified position at Eshowe surrounded by Zulus. To do this Lord Chelmsford now back in Natal still licking his wounds from the mauling he had at the hands of the Zulu at Isandlwana had to now cross once again the Buffalo river which he and his collum did on 29th March 1879.

The country was covered by Zulu scouts. Signals flashed by heliograph were received from Pearson’s camp at Eshowe saying be careful the Zulus are massing to attack you. It was clear to Chelmsford that his advance would be fiercely contested, progress further impeded by the terrible weather.

On 1st April 1879, Chelmsford’s column reached the Royal Kraal of Gingindlovu and laagered for the night. Heavy rain came on. Chelmsford had taken careful note of the lessons from Isandlwana. At every encampment, the wagons were carefully positioned to create an unbroken laager wall and the troops were required to dig sections of the trench around the laager. Every camp was rendered fully defensible in case of sudden attack. It's something he should have done at Isandlwana but did not, such was his complacency and disrespect of the Zulus.

It's something that all Officers should never do, never ever underestimate your enemy no matter what personal feeling you have for them.

Chelmsford’ then sent out his chief scout, John Dunn, a pre-war inhabitant of Zululand for many years, to scout across the Nyezane River. Beyond the river, Dunn was a character in his own right in the past he had been Cetshwayo's right-hand man for quite a few years until the pair had fallen out.

Dunn encountered the Zulu Army, some 11,000 warriors. He returned to the British camp and reported to Chelmsford that the Zulus would attack in the morning. Was that a guess? or had he ridden into the Zulu camp and they had told him? He was well known to every Zulu for his connection to their King, Perhaps in the future, I will look into it and find out.

This is Dunn and interestingly he is talking to Dabulamanzi, so it is possible he was welcomed into the Zulu camp and had talked to Dabulamanzi, and they had discussed the coming battle. Dunn is an interesting character in his own right. During his 61 years, he married 49 wives and fathered 117 children most of his wives were Zulus.

This is Dabulamanzi, He is King Cetshwayo’s half-brother. He is quite partial to disobeying his brothers' orders. He had been ordered not to attack entrenched positions Yet he was the one who attacked Rorkes Drift and here he was again attacking an entrenched position. I am sure if he had attacked the column while on the move it would have been just like Isandlwana.

Chelmsford’s column was laagered on the top of a hill, sides sloping away in each direction, as good a position as any for the battle. In accordance with the new standing orders, the laager was entrenched in a square.

The north face of the square was held by the 3rd Battalion, the 60th Rifles; the west face by the 99th Regiment and the Buffs (3rd Foot); the east face by the 91st Highlanders and the south face by the 57th Regiment. The corners of the square were reinforced by Gatling Guns, conventional artillery and rocket troughs. Each angle was manned by the Naval Brigade, Bluejackets from HMS Boadicea and Marines. The Gatling from HMS Boadicea was mounted in the Northeastern corner and the two rocket tubes under Lt Kerr were positioned on the North-west corner, whereas the two 9-pr guns under Lt Kingscote covered the South-west. The second Gatling and two more rocket tubes covered the Southeastern approach and these were under Commander Brackenbury.

As the sun rose, irregular horse and infantry piquets patrolled towards the Nyezane River, scouting for the Zulu advance.

The Zulus were commanded by Somapo and Dabulamanzi, who had been given strict instructions by Cetshwayo to prevent the relief column from linking up with Col Pearson in Eshowe. They were about to discover to their cost the effect of their disregard of these orders!

The British regiments in the camp stood at 4 am. Shortly before 6 am, reports came in from the advanced piquets of the Zulu approach. A native soldier pointed to the skyline. ‘Impi’ he declared. The British officers stared at the hilltop for some time, before realising that what they had taken to be a long smudge of vegetation was the mass of the advancing Zulu ‘chest’. Zulu skirmishers opened fire from cover as they rushed forward.

This is the battlefield at Gingindlovu months after the battle. The skeletons are of Zulu warriors. It's a sad fact that the British did not have time to bury the dead Zulus. Just like at Isandlwana where the British and colonials lay dead for months so did the Zulus here.

Even before the impi crossed the Inyezane River, it had begun to split up into the traditional Zulu horn formation, with the two horns running ahead of the chest or loins. As the impi drew opposite the laager, it entered the water and splashed across, the right wing and loins split up again and trotted over the Umisa Hill to the west. Having split up, it became clear that the column was facing no less than six Zulu Regiments, as well as a reserve, the former totalling over 10 000 and the reserve in excess of 2000. Most were warriors who had fought at Isandlwana, the regiments being the Uve, in Gobamakhosi, umCijo, umHlanga, uMbonambi, and the head-ringed uThulwana. The Gatling from HMS Boadicea rattled off the first shots at a range of 1000 metres, and the Zulus dropped into the long grass and reappeared some 300 metres from the shelter trench, at which range fire was brought to bear on them in volleys. This checked their advance to some extent and prompted Lord Chelmsford to order Maj Barrow to make a somewhat premature charge with his mounted infantry, in an attempt to check the advance of the Zulu left horn. The Zulus were quick to realize that Barrow was uncomfortably far from the laager and threatened to cut him off in the rear. Chelmsford ordered him back to the safety of the laager but the men had to fight their way in.

Despite fearless determination, the Zulus were unable to advance to within more than 20 metres of the laager and this only by launching wave after wave of attacks. Despite the fact that the British were so well entrenched, they suffered some serious casualties. Lt Col Northey was hit in the shoulder, and although the naval surgeon managed to extract the bullet, at the time it was not realized that the slug had severed an artery, putting him out of the fight and resulting in his death some days later. Capt Barrow and Lt Col Crealock were also slightly wounded and Lt Courtenay and Capt Molyneux had their horses shot from under them.

Lieutenant Colonel Francis Vernon Northey (1836–1879), 60th Rifles Corps, mortally wounded at Gingindlovu

Once the Zulus had realized that the Gatling had checked any further advance from the North, they turned their attention to the West (left face) of the laager and it was during this attack that Lt G.C.J. Johnson of the 99th Regt was killed. At the same time, another attack developed from the direction of Umisa Hill, in the rear. Throughout the attack, the Zulus kept up a withering fire from behind the cover of bushes or long grass.

At this stage, Chelmsford ordered Maj Barrow to attack once again with his mounted infantry. They had been engaged in clearing the front face of the laager from the outside and accordingly redirected their attention to the impi’s right flank. It was probably this manoeuvre that finally broke the Zulus’ determination, coupled with the fact that they realized that they were unable to penetrate the laager from the rear, which they had thought poorly defended. On the appearance of Barrow’s men, the Zulus broke and started their retreat, hotly pursued by the Mounted Infantry and the Natal Native Contingent.
The pursuit was continued for several kilometres, resulting in the flight becoming a route. The reserve impi on Umisa Hill joined the general exodus and by 07h30 the Zulus had all but disappeared. Many of the fleeing warriors were sabred by the Mounted Infantry and whilst Chelmsford claims that they were highly successful, D.R. Morris mentions in ‘The Washing of the Spears’ that many of the blows were successfully parried by the warriors’ rawhide shields.

The Zulus lost heavily. Over 470 bodies were buried initially and more than 200 were subsequently found. The Gatling gun and artillery, in particular, took a heavy toll, in addition, scores were wounded, many to die in solitude later. Hundreds of Martini-Henry rifles were recovered, most of which bore the stamp of the 24th Regiment on their butts; grim reminders of the disaster at Isandlwana some nine weeks earlier. The British lost two officers and 11 other ranks killed and about 50 wounded, and the dead were buried close to the laager where they lie to this day.

Those still besieged in Eshowe who had not fallen ill with fever, including Col Pearson, observed much of the battle of Gingindlovu from vantage points overlooking the coastal plain below. Most of the Zulus who had participated in the siege had joined the impis engaged in action. Once it had become clear that the Zulus had been routed, Pearson flashed his congratulations to Chelmsford by heliograph, the latter politely acknowledging and informing Pearson that he anticipated arriving in Eshowe the following day.
Early on the 3rd, a flying column left the camp at Gingindlovu and proceeded along the track to Eshowe, leaving the rest of the invasion force to prepare to advance along a route closer to the coast. Col Pearson rode out to meet them and the column trickled into the fort at Kwa Mondi, the first regiment to enter being the 91st Highlanders and the last man arriving at about midnight: Eshowe had finally been relieved after a siege that had lasted some 10 weeks. The Eshowe garrison left the fort and proceeded to Fort Pearson, by which time an additional two officers and two other ranks had died of fever.
Lord Chelmsford followed Pearson out of Eshowe some 24 hours later and reached Gingindlovu on the 7th of April. Here, the command of the column was handed to Col Pemberton who established a new advance base approximately 8 km from Gingindlovu, overlooking the Inyezane River, which was named Fort Chelmsford.

It was now time to plan for the Battle of Ulundi which would be on the 4 July, in between there would be small skirmishes and more losses for both sides.

One thing that strikes me when I see photos of this part of Africa is how much it looks like parts of the UK

Below is a photo of part of the battlefield at Gingindlovu and the route the British would have taken to get to Eshowe, If it was not for the sign to Nyezane which of course was one of three battles fought on the same day as Isandlwana and was near Eshowe you would think at first glance we were looking at a photo from the UK. Of course, back in 1879, there was no road.

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Graham Charles Lear

What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.