Battle of Kambula 29th March 1879

Graham Charles Lear
10 min readMar 28, 2023

The Revenge of Lt. Col. Redvers Buller, commander of the Frontier Light Horse

On the 28th of March 1879, Buller and his men were fighting for their lives 25 miles away on Hlobane Mountain where 20,000 Zulus had trapped him and his men, he managed to get out alive and after rescuing as many of his men as possible where he won the VC, Buller he was now back at the main camp at Kambula.

Col. Wood the overall commander was well prepared when scouts informed him that a huge impi was nearing Kambula. He knew his small force was no match for 20,000 Zulus out in the open, knowing that the vast openness of the battlefield of Isandlwana had favoured the Zulus he knew he had to find higher ground and fortify that higher position and that's what he did.

He had found a small hill 5 miles from the town of Vryheid in the colony of Natal. and commenced to laager his wagons on a steep-sided plateau tightly locking them together by chains, he formed a stone cattle kraal, both of which were ringed by trenches and earth parapets. A stone redoubt was erected on the summit, a palisade blocked the gap between the kraal and the redoubt, and four 7-pounder field guns defended the northern approaches.

Map of the Battle of Khambula on 29th March 1879 in the Zulu War. Map by John Fawkes

Under Wood’s command were 1,238 infantry, 638 mounted men and 121 Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery, but 88 were ill and unable to fight around the same amount of men who were left to defend Isandlwana.

Leading the colonial riders of the Frontier Light Horse was Lt.-Col. Redvers Buller, whose courageous act the day before was to earn him a VC

Col. Evelyn Wood (middle), commander of the Kambula garrison, and Lt. Col. Redvers Buller, commander of the Frontier Light Horse, confer in the field with Staff Officer Major C. Clery (left).

By 12–45 pm, all were ready with the defenders calmly awaiting the terrifying Zulu onslaught. Col. Wood had drilled his men to be in their positions in less than two minutes so he insisted that they eat a meal before going into action.

The tents were struck and reserve ammunition distributed as the impi drew closer, in five great columns composed of nine regiments, the majority of whom had fought at Isandlwana.

Many of the Zulus were armed with Martini-Henry rifles taken from the dead, but counting against them was the fact that they had not eaten since leaving Ulundi and were tired from jog-trotting for three days. They split into their familiar right and left horn formation and worked their way around the camp perimeter and it is said they sat down beyond gun range to smoke dagga to boost their strength. Col Wood knew that those who fought at Isandlwana arrived in the vicinity the day before the battle and slept the night concealed in a nearby valley, so they’d had time to recover after the long trek from Ulundi. But today the enemy would be denied the advantage of a rest period.

They were denied by none other than the hero of Hlobane Mountain Lt.-Col. Redvers Buller. He was itching to get to grips with the Zulu so he asked for permission from Wood to go out with the Frontier Light Horse and provoke the Zulu Impi.

Permission granted

He and 30 of his mounted troops rode out. When a gap was opened for them, they rode straight at the right horn, dismounted at a few hundred yards and fired one volley into the Zulu ranks. The effect was instantaneous. Eleven thousand Zulus sprang up and swarmed forward with a mighty roar as the FLH fled back with assegai-brandishing warriors in hot pursuit. Unfortunately for three horsemen, a wide patch of swampy ground slowed down their steeds and they were caught and speared to death. The game was afoot as Sherlock Homes is fond of saying.

As Buller and his me withdrew back to the square the Zulus behind them were heard to shout in English back to the withdrawing Buller and the Light Horse

Come back, Johnny where are you going my Assiagie (spear) wants to speak with you.

Then as they closed in on the Square they were heard to shout and sing in their own language, singabafana baseSandlwana (we are the boys from Isandlwana) taunting both the British and the colonials.

What a sight it must have been, advancing, hitting their shields stopping and singing, taunting, so full of confidence. On they came singabafana baseSandlwana, singabafana baseSandlwana, singabafana baseSandlwana, the sound must have been deafoning.

Then the infantry went into action when Buller’s men returned and fired concentrated volleys. The 7-pounders caused havoc with exploding shrapnel shells, checking the Zulu advance at 300 yards. Enfilading fire from riflemen in the laager and redoubt soon forced them to fall back to the cover of a rocky outcrop in the northeast.

With their strategy disrupted, the Zulus were unable to complete the encirclement of Kambula hill, allowing the garrison in the northern and western salient to repel the foe’s advance from the opposite quarter.

At 2–15 pm. the Zulu left and centre again attempted to develop their belated attack. Using dead ground below the ridge to the south, and undaunted by the heavy fire, they came at the defenders in a series of great waves. Buoyed by a belief that witchdoctors’ potions had made them immune to bullets, they threw themselves recklessly at the barricades and were mown down by shrapnel fire and volleys from the infantry defending the laager’s south face.

Then Zulus breached the outer defences and charged across the plateau to attack the entrenched positions. Their war cries of “Usutu!” mingled with bugle calls, cries of the wounded and dying, and the thunderous crash of rifle and artillery fire. A few reached the laagered wagons and crawled between the wheels, only to be bayoneted or shot dead by the defenders.

Wood had stationed himself between the laager and redoubt, was not averse to taking an active part in the fight himself and was restrained by his officers when he attempted to go to the aid of a wounded trooper who had been shot outside the redoubt.

He then grabbed the rifle of one of his escort bodyguards Private William Fowler who was trying to shoot a Zulu commander, aiming at the ground between the Zulu's feet he fired and dropped the Zulu with a round in his stomach, he then shot two more Zulus by aiming at their feet, he then calmly handed the rifle back with a curt, adjust your sights man they are out. It's an easy thing to do in the heat of battle Martini Henry Rifle has pop-up ladder sights, so if you are aiming at 600 yards you would keep the bar on the sights to the marker saying 6/7, usually, before a battle, you would put in white stakes at 800 yards 600 yards, 400 yards, 300 yards 200 yards and then at that point if you had not stopped the charge the enemy would be on top of you in seconds, forget to adjust your sights after the enemy had passed the various sighting posts and your bullet would fly over the top of their heads. This means if Private William Fowler was aiming his rifle at the centre mass of the chest of the Zulu the bullet would fly right over the head of the Zulu and Wood had noticed what was happening, that's why he aimed at the ground, it raised the trajectory of the bullet by two or three feet. Usually, the men firing their rifles would be told either by their Officers or Sergeants to alter their sights accordingly as it would be quite easy to forget especially if many of the soldiers were not used to fighting in battle, old sweats and had seen it all before knew instinctively what to do.

Then around 40 Zulus with rifles climbed to the rim of the ravine and began firing at the defenders in the cattle kraal, forcing their withdrawal into the redoubt. Helped by a thick smoke screen from hundreds of black powder cartridges, Zulus took control of the kraal until Wood ordered two companies of the 90th Light Infantry to re-take it with a bayonet charge. Although hampered by 2,000 terrified oxen, the troopers pushed a wagon out of the way to provide a clear run, formed a line with bayonets fixed and forced the Zulus back into the ravine. This was a disciplined British soldier at its best.

The attack on the redoubt was likewise repulsed at 3 p.m. and, as the Zulus withdrew, gunners of the Royal Artillery poured round after round directly into them. The retreat gave riflemen an opportunity to spread out all along the crest to unleash their own deadly volleys at the warriors below. A few groups of desperate Zulus attempted feeble charges but were mercilessly cut down until the carnage was sickening to see. There was no chanting of we are the boys from Isandlwana now from them

Then at 5–30 p.m., when the weary and dispirited survivors were slinking away, Buller chomping at the bit and three companies of mounted soldiers were ordered by Col Wood to seek revenge, a gap opened up and three companies of mounted soldiers rode out in pursuit, and the Zulu retreat became a rout. Urged by their officers to “remember your dead colleagues and show no mercy,” the riders exacted a savage revenge on the retreating horde, firing their carbines at them one-handed from the saddle. The FLH was followed by infantry and African auxiliaries on foot who combed the field and killed every Zulu lying wounded or hidden. Captain Cecil D’Arcy was heard to shout more than once “no quarter boys and remember yesterday!” referring to the action at Hlobane, where his men had suffered severely. Buller was seen as a man demented, drunk with blood, ’ he and his men singled out the abaQulus Zulus who had trapped him at Hlobane and ran them down showing not an ounce of mercy.

Friedrich Schermbruecker, the elderly commander of a corps of German volunteers and their sons who rode out with Buller wrote a letter the next day

After manning the northwest face of the laager during the battle, these Cape volunteers (whose horses were already saddled and tied to the picket rope) raced out after the retreating Zulus.

‘I took the extreme right’, he says, ‘Colonel Buller led the centre, and Colonel Russell with mounted infantry took the left. For fully seven miles I chased two columns of the enemy. They fairly ran like bucks, but I was after them like the whirlwind and shooting incessantly into the thick column, which could have not been less than 5 000 strong. They became exhausted and shooting them down would have taken too much time; so we took the assegais from the dead men, and rushed among the living ones, stabbing them right and left with fearful revenge for the misfortunes of the 28th (i.e., at Hlobane). No quarter was given. About 50 of his men kept up with their fiery Commandant, who claims they killed fully 300 Zulus before dusk and a heavy mist fell at 18h30. His own losses were light, one man killed, another wounded, 14 horses killed; the white horse he was riding ‘got a bullet across his right ear’ and nearly threw him. Buller, he saw ‘like a tiger drunk with blood and, no doubt, the vivid recollection of the cruel manner in which the Zulus destroyed part of his forces on the 28th increased his war fury’. Schermbruecker believed that Kambula ‘finished the Zulu war, and I am proud of the part my men have taken in it.’ Given that he was unaware of the further defeat of the Zulus at Gingindlovu and the subsequent relief of Eshowe, it was a shrewd judgement.

This was sheer butchery, just like at Isandlwana where the Zulus saw no reason to take prisoners, Buller and his men saw no reason at all to take prisoners.

Writing on the same day, an officer of Wood’s Swazi Irregulars adds further proof of the vulnerability of the Zulus in retreat after a lost fight. ‘Towards the end of the pursuit’, he says, ‘they were so tired and exhausted that they couldn’t move out of a walk, some scarcely looked round and seemed to wish to die without seeing the shot fired. Some turned around and walked to meet their death without offering resistance, some threw themselves down on their faces and waited for their despatch by assegai or bullet, some got into antbear holes, reeds or long grass and tried to evade detection, but very few succeeded in this. It was indeed a slaughter. The infantrymen saw nothing of all this, but they were jubilant at the crushing effect of their shot and shell. As one of the defenders told his sister, the Zulus ‘did me out of my dinner, but we did a good many of them out of their tea’. It is a shame no war artist was there to witness Kambula and record it. Other merciless pursuits, though not as bloody as that on 29 March, were to follow the Zulu defeats at Gingindlovu and Ulundi. They bring into the open the utmost savagery with which total war was being waged by the British and Zulu armies.

Aftermath

Casualties at the Battle of Khambula:

Wood’s force suffered 83 casualties. It is believed that 3,000 Zulus were either killed in the battle or died of wounds.

The follow-up to the Battle of Khambula:

The battle at Khambula significantly reduced the ability of the Zulus to resist the British invasion of Cetshwayo’s Zululand kingdom. The diversion of such a large force of warriors to the North enabled Chelmsford to relieve Pearson at Eshowe in the South and then press forward to the final defeat of the Zulus at Ulundi.

  • The soldiers of the 13th and 90th Regiments expended an average of 31 rounds per man during the Battle of Khambula.
  • Wood appears to have considered the role of the Royal Artillery guns as decisive in the battle, firing shrapnel over longer ranges and case shot at short distances into the massed Zulu ranks.

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Graham Charles Lear

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