The Battle of Hlobane Mountain changed the Zulu War.

Graham Charles Lear
17 min readMar 27, 2023

There is a lonely grave out in Zululand some eight miles north of Hlobane Mountain. On a slight rise between two streams, where the rooi grass tosses in the wind, an old stone cattle pen with a lone syringa tree marks the spot where two British officers fell, sadly long forgotten, nearly 144 years ago.

Hard on the heels of the reverses suffered by the British at Isandlwana and Intombi Drift, came the last of the trilogy, the battle of Hlobane. In summary, a mixed bag of mounted infantrymen, whose major aim was to steal Zulu cattle being grazed on the flat-top summit of Hlobane mountain in northern KwaZulu Natal, were caught there by the entire Zulu army advancing from the south. It is alleged that when the British later questioned their native allies as to why they had failed to report such a move, their reply had been that they had given good intelligence in the past, but that it had been ignored so often that this time, they hadn’t bothered reporting it!

When we talk of the Anglo-Zulu War we only seem to remember just two of the battles. I put this down to a Hollywood filmmaking spin.

Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana are the only two we remember out of eight battles in the Zulu War. Each one was as interesting as both those two battles, each one was fraught with disaster for both sides.

Colonel Sir Redvers Buller, working towards the western end of the plateau, had soon come to realise the awful certainty that he had been trapped on top of the mountain and that he’d better get off, quickly, before the Zulu horns enveloped the bottom and prevented his escape. He, therefore, gave orders for his rearguard, some distance behind him towards the eastern end of the mountain, to retire “to the right of the mountain”.

As it turned out, an unthinking death sentence!

So what happened at Hlobane Mountain on 28 March 1879?

This a story of bravery, panic, and 350 horsemen and 300 African auxiliaries under the command of Colonel Redvers Buller and 20,000 rampant heavily-armed Zulu warriors out to slaughter every one of the 650 British forces.

Like all stories, we have to start at the beginning and to why these 650 soldiers were on the top of the mountain in the first place. It's 1879 and the wealth of the Zulus was counted not by money or gold but by cattle, the more cattle they had the richer they were. Cattle is what they traded between each other and other African tribes. On top of that mountain belonging to the abaQulusi tribe of Zulus were hundreds of cattle. Deprive the Zulus of cattle and they dont have anything to trade. It's like depriving Putin of Russia the money from oil today, how do they pay for the arms they need?

So that was what Colonel Redvers Buller was tasked to do, go to Hlobane Mountain with your mounted men and the African auxiliaries who were a mixture of Boers who hated the British but hated the Zulus more and black Africans who were loyal to the Crown, many by the way were actual Zulus themselves who did not like the Zulu king.

Buller’s small force of 350 horsemen and 300 African auxiliaries had easily captured Hlobane, the mountain stronghold of the abaQulusi tribe of Zulus, and begun rounding up cattle. They took it fairly easily.

When they arrived at the mountain two miles away they lit fires and camped for the night, however, the fires were meant to deceive abaQulusi Zulus. However not for the first time the Zulus had outwitted the British forces, the abaQulusi were not deceived, they knew something that the British did not know, just 5 miles away camped out of sight were 20,000 Zulus.

It could be said that the Zulus had lured Buller into a trap.

Buller’s attack against Hlobane was almost unopposed and having once gained the plateau his column proceeded at a leisurely pace, looting cattle as they went. That is where it all went wrong.

Buller had split up his forces. Buller had attacked one end of the mountain while Lieutenant Colonel Frederic Weatherley attacked the other end when both columns attempted to meet in the middle of the plateau they found their way barred by a precipitous cliff that was about to become infamously known as Devil’s Pass. While Buller was pondering the problem of getting men, horses and hundreds of looted cattle down from Devil’s Pass, 2,000 abaQulusi warriors, advancing across Hlobane from the adjoining Ityentika plateau to the east, trapped Buller and his men against the rim of the pass just at that moment the main Zulu army appeared on the plain below where, to the horror of the attackers, it began advancing at a fast jog with the obvious intention of encircling the British force.

The awful tragedy that subsequently unfolded hinged on this (in hindsight) careless order, for Buller had been facing west when he gave it, and thus had meant that the rearguard should retire to his (Buller’s) right, or towards the north of the mountain and away from the rapidly approaching Zulu army. However, the men of the rearguard were facing the opposite way when they received the order. Their right was therefore to the south, not the north, and they obediently made their way down the mountain southwards to run slap into the Zulu vanguard.

That is when panic and pandemonium set in, Weatherley responding to an ill-defined order, with a clear escape route unopposed for the moment, did not hesitate. Instead of supporting Buller’s descent down Devil’s Pass, Weatherley left him to his fate — as he did his own native auxiliaries, and his column sped away at speed towards the safety of Kambula 25 miles away.

Colonel Frederick Augustus Weatherley

However, there was another Colonel, his name was Wood and he was in command of everyone who had attacked the mountain and he was there as well. Colonel Wood, with his three staff officers and a small escort, had been enjoying the morning, riding in the wake of Buller’s advance when according to Wood, they encountered Weatherley and the Border Horse riding down the mountain away from any fighting that may have been taking place above.

Wood would rise to be a Field Marshal

According to Wood, hardly had the two parties met when they were fired upon by some snipers in the rocks above, causing the Border Horse, who Weatherley was leading, to hesitate. Wood with his staff pushed through them directly towards the enemy, leaving most of the Border Horse 200 yards behind.

Closing on the rocks sheltering the snipers, Mr Lloyd, Wood’s political officer, was mortally wounded by a marksman only 50 yards away. Lloyd, Wood’s Staff Officer, and carried a short distance to a stone cattle kraal where Wood’s escort and the Border Horse were sheltering. Wood then told Campbell to order the Border Horse forward but Campbell “…found most difficulty in inducing the men to advance, as they alleged the position was unassailable…” Campbell then went forward himself with a few of Wood’s escorts and was shot dead as he reached the snipers’ lair.

Wood has yet another description of what happened. In 1917 (38 years after the event) he wrote a more detailed account in his book Winnowed Memories. In this version, he directs Campbell to order an officer to take some men “…and turn the Zulu’s out…” The officer concerned received the order three times but refused to budge whereupon Campbell shouted “Damn him! He’s a coward. I’ll turn them out”. Then, as before, Campbell is killed. However, Wood goes on to describe the officer accused of cowardice and although he does not name him, he is clearly referring to Weatherley. I can believe this as we have already seen Weatherley leave Buller to his fate on top of the mountain.

It's all a bit of a mess isent it? And to compound matters further Wood then decides to bury Lloyd and Campbell and despite being continually harassed by the abaQulusi, his men set about the laborious task of digging a grave, using spears as spades. Then he finally reads a burial service from Campbell’s bible. This long-drawn-out operation cost the Border Horse, as they kept the abaQulusi at bay, It is as if Wood is teaching Weatherley a lesson for disobeying his orders, but they have lost six men and seven men wounded. Woods' excuse for burying both men is that he did not want the men defiled.

Captain Ronald Campbell

Meanwhile, Buller and his men are trapped at the top of the mountain. The only way down is a surface sown with rocks and boulders which their horses will have to navigate as they withdraw.

You can see from this photo how impossible it would have been for horses to pick their way down the slope.

At the time Colonel Henry Evelyn Woods's column one of three that went into Zululand at different points was the only one that could hit back. Chelmsford and his column had been hit hard and defeated at Isandlwana, the other surrounded and under siege at Eshowe. Now it looked like Evelyn Woods’s column was about to be slaughtered at Hloban, which is pronounced shlo-BAH-nyeh’

There was one very big difference between all three commanders though. Wood had chosen to take up a defensive position around 24 miles away from Hloban at a place named Kambula. This would become crucial after the battle of Hloban.

However, we are getting before ourselves, let's take a step back.

Wood was aware that the abaQulusi were not his only opponents in the area. Recently, the abaQulusi had been reinforced by a contingent of renegade amaSwazi, led by Khosa (prince) Mbelini kaMswati. Most amaSwazi were loyal to the British, but Mbelini, a pretender to the Swazi chiefdom, had broken with them and had allied himself with Cetshwayo. On March 12, Mbelini and about 800 of his followers surprised a company-sized detachment from the 80th (Staffordshire Volunteer) Regiment encamped along the Ntombe River and killed 79 men. Afterwards, Mbelini withdrew, taking with him most of the supplies and ammunition he found in the British supply wagons, eventually joining the abaQulusi at Hlobane. So now you know why the abaQulusi Zulu were able to snipe away killing not only Lloyd and Campbell but quite a few others. They had Martini Henry Rifles taken from Ntombe.

Mbelini ’is on the right of the photo.

Even with Mbelini’s irregulars, the estimated total of 2,000 warriors on Hlobane was hardly sufficient to threaten Wood’s camp, but their raiding and stealing cattle near the Zulu­ Natal border was a considerable nuisance and drew strength from Wood’s defensive position. Wood realized that there could be no peace to the northwest of Zululand until the abaQulusi were subdued, this was another reason why Hlobane became a target and why Wood sent Buller to take the heights.

As the 20,000 Zulus advanced along the lower plateau, Colonel Buller and his men huddled at the top of the steep, rocky incline that henceforth would be known as Devil’s Pass. Surrounded by sheer cliffs, it was the only way off the mountain. It was a case of scrambling down or being slaughtered by the Zulu hordes.

Meanwhile, quite a bit was going on below. Wood was by now on his way back to Kambula to warn his men of an imminent attack of 20,000 Zulus. Weatherley who also had a son with him had lost contact with him so was trying to find him refusing to leave the boy to the Zulus. Turning back, he found his son Rupert on some open ground. Rupert was just 14 years of age which is not too unusual at the time, many married officers would take their families overseas and indeed many of the soldiers did as well. Many more would take their sons with them to gain experience before entering the army. Rupert worked for his father writing his reports and would go out with him on missions like this one, after all, it was a relatively safe mission or so everyone thought.

Weatherley dismounted, heaved the badly wounded boy up onto his horse and turned to face the onrushing abaQulusi. With his arm tightly clasped around his son, he charged into the swirling mass of plumed warriors, who cut the pair to pieces with their deadly blades.

Meanwhile, Captain Barton and 20 others had managed to make their way to the valley, only to encounter the advance party of the Zulu impi–mounted skirmishers of the umCijo ibutho (regiment)who promptly attacked and quickly killed three-quarters of them. Breaking clear of the assailants, Barton was wounded, his horse had been speared, and he now faced a 20-mile ride back to Khambula. Other survivors stumbled away from the carnage on foot. Barton knew that these men without mounts were as good as dead. Recognizing one of his officers, he reined in his horse and picked up Lieutenant Poole of the Border Horse. Barton’s heavily-laden horse stumbled along for several miles, hotly pursued on foot by a number of the seemingly indefatigable Zulu warriors. Finally, the wounded animal could struggle no further. The two British tried to escape on foot, but Poole was overtaken and killed by Chicheeli. Chicheeli–who claimed to have already killed six other enemies in the fight–then caught up with Barton and, when Barton’s pistol failed to fire, gestured for him to surrender since Cetshwayo had given orders for his warriors to bring in prominent British officers alive, if possible. As Barton was about to surrender, however, another Zulu shot him. Chagrined at losing his prisoner, but wishing at least to be credited with the kill, Chicheeli finished off the mortally wounded Barton with his assegai. This brings me to one other interesting fact. A French member of Weatherley’s Horse named Garnier had just hoisted a wounded comrade on his horse when a Swazi grabbed his leg and took him, prisoner. Taken to Mbelini’s kraal on the south side of Hlobane, Garnier eventually escaped and was recovered by Wood’s troops, half-naked and starving, 18 days later. He would later write of his experience as the only European to be taken prisoner during the battle.

Before attempting the descent with his troopers, Buller ordered his African levies to make their way down first. They managed to do so, but during their subsequent flight from Hlobane about 100 of them were overtaken and killed by pursuing Zulus. The British cavalrymen then tried their luck on the incline, while Buller and a small rearguard, including Captain Brown’s mounted infantry, did their best to hold the abaQulusi off.

A new recruit to the FLH rode up to join Brown and Buller as they peered over the cliff edge into Devil’s Pass. Mounted on a Basuto pony named Warrior, he had no uniform, aside from the distinguishing strip of red cloth tied around his hat. He was 16-year-old George Mossop, who had run away from home in Greytown at the age of 14 to become a hunter in the Transvaal.

Looking down into the pass, Mossop could see that even if he and his pony could make it down the 130 feet to the ridge, they would still have to descend 700 feet more to reach the valley below–and then somehow make the 20-mile trek to Khambula.

It was a daunting proposition. Men and horses were rolling down into the pass as the abaQulusi crawled over the rocks, jabbing at the horses with their assegais. Several troopers were captured by the abaQulusi, only to be summarily hurled to their deaths from the mountainside. Mossop asked a man standing next to him, ‘Can we get down?’ ‘Not a hope,’ the trooper replied. He then placed the muzzle of his carbine in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Mossop gave one yell and bounded down the slope, leaving Warrior to his fate. Suddenly, an arm gripped the boy and he looked up into the enraged face of Colonel Redvers Buller. ‘Where is your horse?’ Buller yelled. Mossop pointed back up toward the plateau. ‘Then go and get him,’ shouted Buller, ‘and don’t leave him again.’ More terrified of Buller than the abaQulusi, Mossop started back up the pass for Warrior.

By now, most of the men still on the clifftop were corpses. As the abaQulusi came ever closer, Mossop scrambled down again, dragging Warrior behind him. Although the pony lost his footing and rolled down to the ridge, on inspection he seemed to be all right.

Mossop mounted once more just as the abaQulusi rushed him. Warrior bounded forward down the steep slopes that led to
the valley below. Once on the plain, Mossop came to a stream. Dismounting, he plunged his face into the cold water. Although somewhat revived, he now saw the exhausted Warrior was
in a bad way. Feeling weak himself, the boy lay down beside his faithful mount. No sooner had he done so than he was roused by the sharp cry ‘uSuthu!‘ The Zulus had seen him and were running toward him. Mossop frantically sprang onto Warrior’s back once again, and somehow the injured pony managed to outpace his Zulu pursuers. Mossop arrived safely at Khambula late in the evening. But his gallant pony died the following morning.

Back on the plateau, Buller worked desperately to save as many of his men as he could. Many of them had fought their way down the deep rocky pass, and so long as there was one man left, Buller would not flee. Time and time again he plunged into the pass to rescue more of his men, take them to the safety of the lower plateau and send them on their way to Khambula. Others were similarly snatched from certain death by Major Leet and Captain Browne.

By now most of the Boers had reached the lower plains. Finally, only Piet Uys and his two sons stood with Buller as the men in the pass below managed to make their escape. Unaware that a number of abaQulusi were closing in on him, Uys’ eldest son, Petrus, struggled to calm a frightened horse. Uys raced to his son’s assistance and had just extricated him from the trap when another abaQulusi sprang from some rocks onto Piet Uys’ horse and assegaied Uys in the back, killing him. Another Boer, Andries Rudolf, shot Piet Uys’ assailant and then fled to safety, along with both of Uys’ sons. With all the men down from the pass, Buller finally made his way over the plateau onto the plains, back to Khambula. What had started as a straightforward raid against the abaQulusi that morning had turned into a bloody massacre of the British forces, thanks to the unexpected arrival of Cetshwayo’s main impi.

Piet Uys and his sons along with servants

British casualties on Hlobane numbered 17 officers and 82 enlisted men killed, along with some 100 irregular and native troops. One officer and seven other ranks were wounded. Of the 750 black volunteers of Wood’s Irregulars, only 50 remained after the battle; of the rest, those who had not been killed had deserted. Precise Zulu statistics for the battle are unknown, but they described their own losses as ‘negligible.’

Following the battles of Isandlwana and the Ntombe River, Hlobane was the third and last major Zulu victory of the war. Never again would they be presented with the circumstances that made their victory possible–a British force caught and trapped while on the move and in the open–on so large a scale.

Indeed, the very day after Hlobane would see those same victorious amabutho slaughtered in an unwise assault against Wood’s prepared defences at Khambula.

Hlobane was the end of the Zulu's successes against the British. Both Wood and Buller would be waiting for those 20,000. When the 20,000 Zulus appeared it would be like a slaughterhouse When the rifle fire and artillery from the large square had finished and the Zulu began to run away. The Square opened and Buller led his mounted men out and for miles chased after them sparing no one. It is said the Zulu were so tired that many of them just sat down and waited for the troops to kill them, they offered no resistance whatsoever.

But that's another story for another day.

The Anglo-Zulu war is quite a strange war. It only last six months. It was a war that the Benjamin Disraeli government back home did not want and gave orders that war was not to be started with the Zulu. Yet one did start and it threw up some surprising victories for the Zulu. But each battle victory for the Zulu thrust a spear wound into the heart of the Zulu nation Cetshwayo said as much after the Zulu Victory at Isandlwana. Each big battle like Isandlwana Rorks Drift took the lives of thousands of Zulus. Rorkes Drift should have taught the Zulu a valuable lesson. Cetshwayo knew what that lesson was and he actualy told his Impi not to attack fortified positions, catch the Redcoats out in the open, hit them hard and then get away he told his Impi. However, on many occasions, the Zulu commanders disregarded his orders, and it was their downfall.

Colonel Redvers Buller for his gallantry under fire at Hlobane was awarded the Victoria Cross

The citation

For his gallant conduct at the retreat at Inhlobana, on the 28th March 1879, in having assisted, whilst hotly pursued by Zulus, in rescuing Captain C. D’ Arcy of the Frontier Light Horse, who was retiring on foot, and carrying him on his horse until he overtook the rear guard. Also for having on the same date and under the same circumstances, conveyed Lieutenant C. Everitt, of the Frontier Light Horse, whose horse had been killed under him, to a place of safety. Later on, Colonel Buller, in the same manner, saved a trooper of the Frontier Light Horse, whose horse was completely exhausted, and who otherwise would have been killed by the Zulus, who were within 80 yards of him

Trooper George Ashby one of the troopers Buller came back for, gave an account of his rescue by Col. Buller.

… it was discovered that the mountain was surrounded by a vast horde of Zulus. An attempt was made to descend on the side opposite the pass. Cpl. Ashby and his little party endeavoured to fight their way down, and at last, he and a man named Andrew Gemmell, now living in New Zealand, were the only ones left. With their faces to the foe, firing as they retired, they kept the Zulus at bay. Then an unfortunate thing happened, Cpl. Ashby’s rifle burst, but, fortunately for him, Col. Buller, afterwards Sir Redvers Buller, who was one of the party, came galloping by, and offered to take him up behind him. Col. Buller was a heavy man, and his horse was a light one, and realizing this, Cpl. Ashby declined his generous offer. But the Colonel stayed with him, and, Cpl. Ashby having picked up a rifle and ammunition from a fallen comrade, the two men retired, firing whenever a foeman showed himself. They eventually reached the main camp, and for this service, as well as for saving the lives of two fellow officers on the same occasion, Col. Buller received the Victoria Cross. Out of 500 men who made the attack on the Zjilobane Mountain, more than 300 met their death

Piet Uys Memorial

Again in this photo, you can see what the men had to come down all the while with Zulus stabbing at them.

This gives the reader the size of the slope and what they had to contend with. Notice the small figure of a man

Photo of the Hlobane Mountain

Next the story of the battle of Khambula

--

--

Graham Charles Lear

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