The first shots of the Anglo-Zulu War.

Graham Charles Lear
25 min readJan 17, 2022

One hundred and forty-three years ago 11 January 1879, Lord Chelmsford’s Centre Column crossed into Zululand at Rorke’s Drift, and the Anglo-Zulu War began. Chelmsford spent the night at his camp at Rorke’s Drift; a few miles ahead of him, in the valley of the Batshe river, lay the territory of the amaQungebeni people, whose inkosi, Sihayo kaXongo, had been appointed by King Mpande as a watcher of the border. Inkosi Sihayo had been characterised in the settler press as a trouble-maker who was deeply opposed to British interests — this despite the fact that he traded regularly with white traders passing through his territory, and was on good terms with border missionaries — and Chelmsford, who needed to retain the strategic initiative and was anxious to prove the British were in earnest, decided to attack him.

Here’s what happened next, an excerpt from the book ‘Zulu Rising’ written by Ian James Knight a world authority on the Anglo Zulu war of 1879

The Batshe valley straddled the British line of advance no more than five or six kilometres ahead along the track. Jim Rorke’s old wagon trail rose lazily up out of the Mzinyathi valley, then curved easily to the right, below the southern edge of the low hills which marked the western edge of the valley, then dipped towards the stony bed of the Batshe itself. The valley was pleasantly open, marked further upstream by the bright green fields of Sihayo’s mealie crop, but the stream itself, usually no more than a few inches deep, was flowing fast after the recent rains. Sihayo’s homestead, kwaSogekle, lay about four kilometres upstream, nestling into the foot of the cliffs which line the rather steeper hills on the far back. Great boulders still litter the foot of the cliffs and were then overgrown with bush which extended in patches here and there as far as the stream on the eastern bank.

Lord Chelmsford’s plan — and he had dictated it himself, though he was courteous enough to hand it over to Colonel Glyn to execute it — was simple enough. The 1st 24th, NNC and mounted troops would occupy the valley by the road, and the mounted men would be sent around on the right to ascend the southern end of the hills. The troops and NNC would sweep up the valley, heading towards kwaSogekle, but hoping to encounter and destroy the Zulu concentration Dartnell had teased out the evening before. Should resistance prove to be unexpectedly tough, the 2nd 24th would be held in reserve.

The troops marched quickly up the track, excited at the prospect of being in action. As they spilled over the low rise on the near-side of the valley and down to cross the stream, they began to deploy ready for action. Lord Chelmsford and his staff hung back on the high ground, to watch from a polite distance, while the mounted men struck off to the right, looking for a way up the hills on the far side. The amaChunu and the iziQoza were in luck; the 1st battalion of the NNC was to spearhead the attack, with the 1/24th supporting them to their left.

As the NNC picked their way gingerly across the stream, urged on by their officers and NCOs, the first optimistic shots rang out from the rocks at the foot of the cliffs opposite, and the ball began.

According to British intelligence reports before the war, inkosi Sihayo commanded the allegiance of about 3000 men, but there were no more than 200 of them present in the valley of the Batshe that morning. A week earlier — once it had become obvious that the British were serious in their threat to cross the border — the king had summoned all the fighting men to oNdini to assemble his amabutho. Many of the border amakhosi had been instructed to retain their men, however, to watch out from British movements, and harass them if necessary. Further downstream Sihayo’s neighbour, inkosi Matshana, had taken to the Qudeni bush with most of his followers, but Sihayo seems to have taken a deliberate decision to commit most of his men to the general muster. Certainly, he had gone himself, to take part in the last-minute discussions among the royal council which would shape the Zulu response to the invasion and then, if necessary, to fight. Nor was Mehlokazulu at home; on his father’s advice he had sought refuge, once Frere’s demands for his surrender were known, with his old friend, the Swazi freebooter Prince Mbilini, in the rugged country along the Phongolo river in the far north of the disputed territory, placing himself beyond the immediate danger of British attempts to arrest him, or of Zulu attempts to surrender him.

Instead, those men of the amaQungebeni who had stayed to watch the British crossing and to protect Sihayo‘s homestead and crops were led by another of the inkosi‘s sons, Mkhumbikazulu. The previous afternoon, as Charley Harford had noticed, they had done what they could to round up their cattle and to secret them away. There was nowhere in the valley itself to hide them, nor on the open hill-tops on either side and instead, they had been driven in among the rocks in a place which had, in all probability, long been marked down as a place of refuge. At the southern end of the hills, the cliffs swept inwards, scalloped into a giant horseshoe, and along their foot, the boulders lay particularly think. There were narrow passageways running between them up the steep slope at the foot of the cliffs, and here and there the cliff-face itself was pock-marked with caves, all of it overgrown with scrub and hanging creepers. It was in among the boulders that Mkhumbikazulu and his men hid the amaQungebeni‘s cattle, and with them, too, those women, children and old men who had not already fled before the British advance. At dawn that morning, Mkhumbikazulu‘s men had joined them, taking up positions in the crevices and caves, barricading some of them with thin barricades of fallen stones. They took with them their spears and their personal shields, but they were armed with many of the old guns Sihayo had, over the years, procured from passing traders.

They must have known, however, that they were hopelessly outnumbered, even before the lines of red-coats, and the NNC, their great dappled shields catching the light as they moved, spilled down into the valley opposite that clear, bright morning. Chelmsford was deploying almost all of the fighting elements in his column apart from his artillery — nearly 1500 men. The NNC alone outnumbered Mkhumbikazulu’s followers by five to one; the amaQungebeni were about to pay the price for their exaggerated reputation.

Their only hope was to make a stand among the rocks, hoping that the British would baulk at the casualties they might inflict in a direct assault. And certainly, they put on a brave face, calling out their defiance as soon as the British came within earshot below. A ritual taunting of the enemy was often an accompaniment to Zulu warfare, and Captain Henry Hallam Parr of the Column Staff noted the challenge;

They began to taunt us, making their voices sound through the still morning air in the curious way natives can: ‘What were we doing riding down there?’ ‘We had better try to come up;’ ‘Were we looking for a place to build our kraals?’ etc., etc. This badinage, which was accompanied by a few shots by way of emphasis, did not last long …

Yet there was more to this than just an expression of defiance; Mkhumbikazulu’s men were giving vent to a question which had been troubling the border communities for months — just what exactly did the British want in Zululand?

One voice called out clearly — presumably in isiZulu — asking by whose orders the invaders came. Norris-Newman thought there was no reply, but Hamilton Browne had a better story. ‘My interpreter and right-hand man (Capt. R. Duncombe)’, he claimed, ‘answered ‘by the orders of the Great White Queen’’ — which piece of Imperial posturing was not entirely true, of course — and Browne noted with unconscious irony that at that news ‘the enemy or those of them who had exposed themselves, at once ran back to cover’.

Down in the valley, Charley Harford was at the head of his men in the NNC, and scarcely unable to contain his excitement as he entered into his baptism of fire;

It was most unpleasant going, for above us, on our right, were hills with the usual cavernous rocks encircling them a little below their crests. It was evident that the warriors we had heard singing their war-chant the day before were ensconced in these caves, for the instant the troops got within range a continuous popping went on from these places. The crack, crack, crack of their guns and rifles echoed and re-echoed among the hills in the still morning air and made it impossible to detect exactly where the shots were coming from. Now and then a Zulu was seen in the open, and on one such occasion, I saw the man taking deliberate aim at Colonel Glyn who was standing in an open patch above me. Shouting as loud as I could, I told him to get out of the way before the shot was fired.

As the NNC advanced, Hamilton Browne passed Lord Chelmsford himself;

The General returned my salute and calling me over to him said, ‘Commandant Browne, those krantzes are full of cattle; go down and take them, but on no account are you to fire before you are fired at.’ He also said, ‘I shall hold you responsible that no women or children are killed.’

He then wished me luck in the kindest and courteous manner — a manner that endeared him to all of us. No general that I ever served under in South Africa, was liked and respected as he was, and certainly, no Colonial officer ever said a word against him or blamed him for the awful disaster that came later on ..

As the NNC advanced into the horseshoe gorge, however, the roughness of the ground began to break up their formations, and their grasp of British tactical formations — tenuous at best — began to collapse. The battalion had thrown out a firing line with supports behind but Harford noted wistfully that ‘the firing line and supports soon got mingled together’. Hamilton Browne was, inevitably, more scathing — ‘a South African native cannot walk in a line, draw a line, or form a line, and if placed in a line will soon mob himself into a circle. There was worse to follow, as the first shots began to strike home. Harford saw ‘one of our Natives, who was close by my side, got a bullet in the thigh, breaking the bone’, and Browne watched the effect the first casualties had on his men;

My men advanced leaping and jumping, singing war songs, sharpening their assegais, and looking so bloodthirsty that I feared they would kill every woman and child we came across. But as we drew nearer the scene of the action, their zeal for fighting — like Bob Acre’s courage — oozed out of them. Their war songs dwindled away and they seemed indisposed to come on. In fact, some of them suddenly remembering they had important business to transact towards the rear had to be encouraged with the butt of the rifle or the ready boot of my non-coms. As the native must be led, I and all the officers were in front …

Not all of them, according to Harford, who saw ‘two NCOs sheltering behind a rock instead of leading their men, [and] I went forward to drive them on; and had just got them away when ‘ping’ came a bullet and cut away a bough just at the spot where my head was a second before. This was luck!’

Nevertheless, Browne’s men pressed into the gorge, driving through the bush and winkling out a number of Mkhumbikazulu’s men who had placed themselves behind the forward boulders. Many of these scrambled back up the slope — some of them were shot as they ran — to join the men hidden among the caves and rocks behind but as Norris-Newman noted there was nowhere else for them to run, and they fought with an intensity born of desperation. A veritable hail of fire hit Hamilton Browne’s leading men, and his attack stalled, and Hamilton Browne gave the order to carry the rocks with a rush. He set off at the head of a company consisting largely of iziGqoza — who were spared Browne’s usual contempt since he thought them ’real Zulus’ and ’splendid fighting men’ — when

A ragged volley was fired at us by the enemy, but we charged on through it and up the rising ground to the mouth of the V which we found to be full of boulders. I had gained the mouth when I looked back. Ye gods of war, what a sight for a commandant! №8 Company, led by two of the best colonial officers I have ever met, were on my heels, but the rest. I saw their backs in a mad stampede while among them raged their furious officers and non-coms.

The officers tried to stem the flow with blows and kicks, but the men would not advance, the exhortations of Gabangaye the day before largely forgotten. It was an uncomfortable moment for Browne, who found himself with the iziGqoza alone, and close enough to Mkhumbikazulu’s men for the fighting to break out hand to hand;

Shield clashed against shield, assegai met assegai and the hissing word ’Guzzie’, as the stab went home was answered by the grunt or yell of the wounded man. I had my hands full and had to use freely both my sword and my revolver. The enemy fought splendidly but my men would not be denied …

My white officers and non-coms. also fought like fiends and we drove them back over the rocks until at last, they took refuge in rear of cattle jammed into the narrow end of the V. These had to be driven out before we could get at them again, and it was done; also a lot of women and children were brought out. Thank the Lord none of them was hurt, and they with the cattle were removed to the open. We now found that the enemy had retreated by a narrow path to the top of a cliff about 60 feet high and had blocked the path by rolling big boulders into it.

Both Wilsone Black — commanding the regiment in the absence of Lonsdale — and Harford saw the danger he was in. Black went forward to urge his men on and was waving his hat in one hand and his sword in the other, calling out in ringing tones. Trooper Symons of the Carbineers was told afterwards that a bullet clipped Black’s hat and tore it out of his hand; he calmly bent down, picked it up, and went on cheering his men. A few minutes later, according to Hamilton Browne,

He was standing with his back turned to the rock and was waving his sword when the Zulus hearing him rolled over some stones; one struck the gallant Major on the — well, not the head — and he fell on his knees and poured forth a volume of Gaelic that filled my non-coms. With delight.

According to Harford,

… I could hear Major Black’s shrill voice in broad Scotch urging his men on, and, making my way up to him with supports, I found that he and Commandant Hamilton-Browne were in a hot corner close to some caves, with hand-to-hand fighting going on. When I was within about twenty or thirty yards of the place, one of their men fell almost at my feet with a terrible assegai wound, which had nearly cut him in half, right down the back. The poor fellow was not yet dead, and although I could see it was only a matter of minutes, my feelings almost led me to try and put him out of his misery with my revolver. But I abstained…

It was a shocking introduction to the realities of combat, but according to Hamilton Browne Harford was over it soon enough;

Just then Lieutenant Harford off the 99th Regiment, who was acting as S.O. to Commandant Lonsdale, came up to me. He was a charming companion, one of the very best, but he was a crazy bug and beetle hunter and would run about on the hottest day with a landing net to catch butterflies and other insects. He moreover collected and treasured snakes, scorpions and other loathsome beasts of all sorts. He had never been under fire before and had on two or three occasions talked to me about a man’s feelings while undergoing his baptism of fire, and had expressed hopes he would be cool and good while undergoing his. Well, we were in rather a hot corner and he was standing to my right rear when I heard an exclamation, and turning round saw him lying on the ground having dropped his sword and revolver. ’Good God, Harford,’ I said, ’you are hit!’ ’No, sir,’ he replied, ’not hit but I have caught such a beauty.’ And there the lunatic, in his first action, and under heavy fire, his qualms and nervousness all forgotten, had captured some infernal microbe or other and was blowing its wings out, as unconscious of the bullets striking the rocks all around him as if he had been in his garden at home. He was just expatiating on his victory and reeling off Latin names — they might have been Hebrew for all I knew or cared — when I stopped him, and told him to get as quick as he could to the right flanking company and hurry them up. He looked at me with sorrow, put his prize into a tin box, and was off like a shot …

Harford noticed that most of the damage among the NNC was being inflicted by a group of Zulu marksmen hidden in a commanding cave. By this time, some of the 2/24th had been despatched up the spurs to the left of the horse-shoe and were trying to pick off the Zulu snipers, but with only limited success;

Confronting me over the bend was a large, open-mouthed cave, apparently capable of holding a good number of men, and hanging below it was several dead Zulus, caught in the monkey-rope creepers and bits of bush. They had evidently been shot and had either fallen out or been thrown out, by their comrades when killed. Later on, I learned that a Company of the 24th Regiment had been firing at this particular cave for some time, and had been ordered to cease firing on it when our men came up. It was an uncommonly awkward place to get at, as it meant climbing over nothing but huge rocks and in many places having to work one’s way like a crab, besides which a loss of foothold might have landed one in the valley below. However, there was not much time to think, and I determined to make an attempt, so, sending some men to work round below, I took a European NCO who was close at hand, and told him to follow me. Clambering at once over a big piece of rock, I got a rather rude shock on finding a Zulu sitting in a squatting position behind another rock, almost at my elbow. His head showed above the rock, and his wide-opened eyes glared at me, but I soon discovered that he was dead.

Scarcely had I left this apparition behind than a live Zulu suddenly jumped up from his hiding place and, putting the muzzle of his rifle within a couple of feet of my face, pulled the trigger. But the cap snapped, whereupon he dropped his rifle and made off over the rocks for the cave, as hard as he could go. Providence had again come to my aid, and away I went after him, emptying my revolver at him as we scrambled up. Out of my six shots, only one hit him, but not mortally. I stopped for a second to reload, but finding the wretched thing stuck I threw it down into the valley below, at the same time turning around and shouting to the NCO, who I thought was following me, to let me have his revolver. But he remained behind, where I had left him at the start, and all he did was to call out, as loud as he could, ‘Captain Harford is killed!’ However, I soon put this right by shouting down, ‘No, he is not, he is very much alive!’

Nothing daunted, Harford looked back for the man he had been chasing and saw him in the mouth of the cave. Calling to him in isiZulu, Harford urged him to surrender, promising him that he would not be harmed, and the man squatted down in submission. Harford asked him if there was anyone else in the cave, and being told there was not, gingerly edged into the opening;

Close to the entrance lay a wounded man with his feet towards me. Although unable to rise, he clutched hold of an assegai that was by his side, but I told him at once to drop it, that I was going to do him no harm, and questioned him as to who was in the cave. He stoutly denied that there were any others there. By this time I was getting accustomed to the darkness, and saw several likely-looking boltholes and kept on repeating that I knew there were others somewhere in hiding and that they were telling me lies. At the same time adding, in a tone loud enough to be heard by anyone near the place, that if they would come out I would promise on oath that no harm should be done to them and that I would accompany them myself to the General, who would see that they were well treated.

In a short time this had the desired effect, and presently a head appeared from a hole, and as the object crept out I kept careful watch for any sort of weapon that might emerge with it; another and then another crawled out from the same spot. All were unarmed and squatted down close to me. I then wanted to know where the others were, but they swore that there was no one else. As this seemed to be the case, I moved off with all my four prisoners, leaving the badly wounded man in the cave. We soon made our way down the valley…

In a private letter to his mother, Harford admitted that two of his prisoners were badly wounded, and died before he could get them down the slope.

While the NNC had assaulted the Zulu positions in the cliffs, the mounted men had ridden round to the right, passing over the neck at the southern end of the hills, and swinging up onto the heights in the hope of catching the Zulus from behind. The grassy slopes seemed to be deserted and the Mounted Police struck off to the left towards the top of the cliffs. Col. Russell ordered Offy Shepstone to send four of the Carbineers to the right to feel for any Zulu presence while the rest of the men dismounted and horse-holders were told off. Trooper Symons was one of those selected, and as they rode forward they spotted a group of mounted Zulus ahead of them. On seeing the Carbineers the Zulus turned away and disappeared behind a heap of boulders. The Carbineers tentatively set off after them;

What’s going to happen now thought I but wasn’t long in doubt when V-o-o-o-rr went a pot-leg or cumbrous missile overheads. At this, we opened fire too along the whole line — a frightful waste of ammunition. On top (for we did not halt) we saw no sign of the enemy, and their horses were grazing quietly about half a mile to the right. Dan Scott, Sergeant Major C. Slatter and another beside myself went after them and when we had covered about half the distance we saw some Zulus charging down towards us. I shouted to the other Carbineers who were moving towards the left but they didn’t hear, then Dan gave the order to fix bayonets (knives about nine inches long) on the carbines and kneel with presented arms while he shouted out ‘Ulipi?’ once. ‘Ulipi?’ twice. ‘Ulipi?’ thrice, by this time the natives were about forty yards from us and I had one spotted fairly in the wind and was pressing the trigger when up went their hands and a shout of ‘Nombulwan’. They were Contingent men who had pulled off the red badges from their heads through fear of the Zulus …

In the valley below, Chelmsford had watched the still resistance to the 1/3rd NNC advance and had decided to order up to four companies of the 2/24th and the 2/3rd NNC, who were stood to as reserves in the camp at Rorke’s Drift. The companies hurried up the road and as they reached the valley Chelmsford ordered them to work upstream, towards Sihayo’s homestead, to support the existing attack from the left.

Yet in truth, the fighting was largely over. Mkhumbikazulu and some of his men had managed to work up the cliff-faces and onto the heights, but here they found the 1/24th had also reached the summit on the left of the gorge while the mounted men were moving up in a leisurely fashion from the right. Mkhumbikazulu rallied about sixty of them and they tried to mount a charge in the direction of the mounted men but were hit by a well-directed volley that killed or wounded nine or ten of them, and the rest lost heart and began to move away as fast as they could.

Down in the valley, the 2nd 24th and 2nd 3rd NNC swept through the amaQungebeni mealie-fields until they were close under kwaSogekle. The homestead itself was built on a knoll surrounded by the escarpment, and it was widely rumoured to have been fortified. The 2/24th expected it to be stoutly defended, and approached it accordingly — much to the amusement of their sister battalion, as the regimental history dryly reported;

Lord Chelmsford, who had come round from Major Black’s party, ordered the troops to form line and scramble up the steep slopes of the knoll. This had to be done, but on reaching the top of the knoll the kraal was found to be abandoned. It was looted and burnt … It was afterwards discovered that the 1st Battalion 24th had worked up to the edge of the kranz overlooking the kraal, and, knowing it to have been abandoned, were indulging in good-natured chaff at the energy displaced by their comrades of the 2nd Battalion.

With the homestead in flames, the men were recalled. On the heights, the Volunteers had been roaming the heights, examining a deserted homestead they found there. They turned out several antiquated firearms, and marvelled at a new wagon they found there, reputed to be the property of Sihayo himself.

Charley Harford was pleased with his performance, his earlier doubts about his courage firmly dispelled. He had made his way down into the valley — herding his prisoners with his empty revolver — and had been lucky enough to pass Glyn and his staff;

I was met by Major Clery, the Adjutant-General, who greeted me with ‘Well, Harford, I congratulate you on your capture, the General and I have been watching your gallantry for some time’ … Having handed over my prisoners and telling the Adjutant-General the promise I had made them, and after seeing the man that I had myself wounded was placed in the ambulance wagon for conveyance to hospital, I went off again.

On getting back to the Contingent, one of the men walked up to me and with the usual salutation of ‘Inkosi’ gravely handed me my sword, spurs and courier bag, all of which had been torn off me in walking through the bush, as well as the discarded revolver. Never was I more thankful than to get these things back, especially the courier bag … luckily this Good Samaritan had followed carefully in my tracks and picked up the things as they were dropped. Curious to say, in the excitement of the moment I had never felt anything going.

Once the last shots had been fired the Contingent picked up its wounded and the whole force assembled in the valley. Hamilton Browne claimed scornfully that ‘my beauties had bagged thirty-two of themselves’, but the official returns list just three men of the Contingent dead and Lieutenant Purvis and Corporal Mayer and 15 unnamed men of the NNC wounded. Neither the 24th nor the mounted men had suffered a scratch.

The entire affair was over by lunchtime, and the troops began to return to Rorke’s Drift in high spirits despite a sudden thunderstorm that burst overhead. They had captured over 400 cattle and some goats and sheep, much to the delight of the Volunteers, who expected to get a share of their worth when they were sold off by Government agents — a promise which, in the end, proved to be almost as illusory as the promise of farms in a conquered Zululand. A number of women and children had been captured — including apparently one of Sihayo’s wives — and several firearms,

… many assegais, and much sour milk and other Kafir produce. None of the guns was modern but consisted of old Tower muskets and carbines. A large quantity of ammunition was found, including several hundred rounds of Westley-Richards ammunition … The cartridges were brought away.

Two of the wounded Zulus were taken back to Rorke’s Drift to be treated at the field hospital there, a sop to Lord Chelmsford’s finer feelings; many more must surely have been left among the boulders to fend for themselves.

Behind them, the troops left great billows of dense white smoke rising from the kwaSogekle, and perhaps thirty Zulu dead crumpled among the boulders along the cliff-face or scattered over the grassy heights above. Among these, someone claimed to recognise Mkhumbikazulu himself.

The shades of MaMtshali and MaMthethwa had begun their revenge upon the House of Ngobese — and thousands more on both sides would die before the work was done.

Lord Chelmsford was delighted;

I am in great hopes that the news of the storming of Sihayo‘s stronghold and the capture of so many cattle (about 500) may have a salutary effect in Zululand {and either bring down a large force to attack us or else produce a revolution in this country} — Sihayo‘s men have I am told always been looked upon as the bravest in the country and certainly those who were killed today fought with great courage.

Chelmsford’s staff officer, Major Crealock, agreed.

Our fight … showed the pluck of these Zulus. Of course, they had every advantage being in a most difficult position. If we are not attacked tonight it is thought we shall not meet a Zulu army for some time. On hearing of our having attacked his people, it is thought [Cetshwayo] will have taken instant action.

Trooper Symons, sceptical as ever, thought it all ‘a big fuss over a small matter’, but Charley Harford had every reason to be pleased with his own performance;

The Colonel and the Chief of his Staff who saw the whole proceeding complimented me very much on my success and the manner in which I got up to the cave so I hope it may do me good. My commandant specially mentioned me in his report to the General so I dare say I may have been mentioned in despatches. I expect we shall have a rough time of it and the young boys of Cetewayo intend giving battle. They are determined to fight, it will be the best thing that possibly can happen to the Colony … we shall give him a tremendous thrashing he won’t ever forget …

That night no Zulu attack was made upon the camp at Rorke’s Drift, and the column slept easily in a fug of self-satisfied content. Once again British troops had proved themselves the master of African enemies in the field, and the evident courage and determination of the Zulu had only reinforced their prevailing sense of superiority.

Whatever the Zulu chose to do next, Lord Chelmsford and his men felt themselves more than up to the challenge.

On the anniversary of the skirmish at Sihayo’s homestead, I think it fitting to publish excerpts from three accounts by combatants who fought there.

The first is a letter from Trooper Robert Litton, Natal Mounted Police, and was published in the Longford Journal on March 29, 1879. The second is from an unknown Trooper of the Buffalo Border Guard and was published in the Hinckley News on May 3, 1879. The final is an excerpt from the diary of Lieut. Nevill Coghill, VC, recovered off the battlefield of Isandlwana. In the case of the Coghill diary, I’ve edited the punctuation for clarity.


“We crossed the Buffalo at Rorke’s Drift, and our column was composed of 1,570 white men and 2,000 blacks or native levies, under the command of 200 white men. The first day nothing happened of importance; the next day, Sunday, was the first time I was under fire. We were advancing with a force of about 1,000 men, and while surrounding a Zulu stronghold the whole surface of the mountain was covered with the natives; a perfect stream of bullets poured in amongst us. I can hardly describe to you the sensation I felt as if my whole inside was in my mouth. We retired out of range, sent the infantry forward, dismounted from our horses, and commenced climbing the hill; we blazed away right and left as a n**** showed himself, and after half an hour’s hard fighting, we saw the n**** running away; there were ten of ours killed and wounded, and 80 of the n****. I send a paper with particulars.”


“Early the following morning (Sunday), the outlying picket sent word that a body of the enemy was in sight on a rocky mountain, a Zulu stronghold about five miles from camp. We had orders to start at once- the cavalry, infantry, and our K*** contingent (2,000 strong). When close to the mountain we saw it was alive with K***, but we did not think they would show fight. We proceeded slowly around one side, the infantry keeping along the foot. We got within three hundred yards of the enemy; they were running and riding on the rocks above us, and all at once, much to our surprise, they opened fire on us, many of the bullets coming much too close to be pleasant; but fortunately, they, being bad shots, and we getting undercover in a water wash, none of us received any injury. The mounted infantry dismounted and gave them about five volleys; they very quickly began to clear out of the rocks then, the volleys seemed to astonish them a little. We made up the hill and cut them off, and in less than two hours what was left of them were running for their lives in all directions, we sat among the rocks waiting for our chances for potshots. We returned to camp late in the day, riding over many Zulus who lay dead in our path. Thus ended our second day and first Sunday in Zululand. I thought afterwards that possibly you were sitting quietly in church, or in the cosy parlour at the time, little thinking how busy we were out here.”


“The following morning the 12th we left camp at 5 a.m. for a reconnaissance of the country in the neighbourhood of Sirayo’s Kraal which was reported to be occupied by the enemy and to be impregnable.

According to the orders of the previous evening, a party consisting of the 1/24th 1/3rd NNC and the mounted men were to start at 5 and the 2/24th and 2/3rd NNC to leave at 8 by another route and join the first party at a certain point- this arrangement was however changed as on approaching within a mile or so of a krantz near Sirayo’s Kraal we heard the lowing of cattle and the Zulus chanting their war song and as it was evident that resistance would be made I was sent back to bring up the 2/24th and 2/3rd NNC. When I returned from the performance of this duty I found that only the only response to this demand that they should give up their arms was a volley which necessitated coercion to carry out our request- the first volley delivered by the enemy had the effect of grounding several of the NNC who were rather in advance and producing a momentary check but the 1/24th coming up they followed them and the krantz was taken the Zulus expelled from their caves with a loss which is difficult to estimate but somewhere between 12 & 15 killed. In the meantime, the mounted men had wound round onto the flat ground above the krantz and there met some 40 or 50 of the enemy. A sharp exchange of fire took place resulting in the rout of the Zulus leaving 10 dead bodies on the ground.

While this was going on the 2/24th and 2/3rd NNC were being moved round to attack the kraal itself which was reported to be strongly fortified and loopholed- the position was strong had it not been that it was completely commanded from the cliff above under whose shelter Sirayo had in the innocence of his heart erected an “impregnable fortress”- Its strength and the mettle of its defenders was not to be tested for on arriving at the Kraal it was found to be deserted and we were informed by some old women who still remained that they had only left the previous day. The Kraal was burnt and we returned home with the cattle we had captured in a thunderstorm accompanied by torrents of rains. Our loss was 2 Native Contingent privates killed 18 wounded 2 N.C. officers NNC wounded.”



Graham Charles Lear

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