What Really Happened At The Battle Of Isandlwana In The 1879 Zulu War

Graham Charles Lear
22 min readJan 9, 2022


The Anglo Zulu war has fascinated me since the late 60s. There are so many amazing stories that if filmmakers would learn just a little about it they would be making film after film. The characters who took part in this war are amazing, some are fun like Colonel Henry Charles Harford who in his first battle with Zulus, as an experienced Lieutenant in his first battle was leading his men attacking the Zulus uphill suddenly dropped to his knees, the men behind and indeed the Zulus themselves thought Charlie as he was known throughout all the ranks all thought he had been shot.

The Zulus whooped with joy and his men cried out in dismay when suddenly he got up got out a matchbox and shouted look at this beautiful beetle promptly putting it in the matchbox and carried on assaulting the Zulu positions.

Charlie Harford had an intense interest in nature and had spotted a rare beetle. Charlie was present at many of the battles and it's thanks to him that we have a recorded account of most things relevant in the war. Within days he wrote a remarkable and detailed account of the engagement which, beyond his immediate family, remained unread for many years.

Harford then accompanied Lord Chelmsford on his ill-fated reconnaissance from Isandlwana which left the British unprepared and unaware of the approaching Zulu Army, and he scrupulously recorded the chaos and confusion in the hours leading to the Zulu destruction of Chelmsford’s main camp.

Colonel Henry Charles “Charlie” Harford later in life

This battle that Charlie found himself in was the first battle in the war and it did not take long for the Zulus to capitulate and run from it It was so easy a battle, and its probably this first small battle that they won so easily that lulled the British into a false sense of security.

Within days Chelmsford gave the order for the men to march to Isandlwana and the game was afoot for the scene of one of the worst defeats for a British army in the 1800s. South Africa in the 1800s saw quite a few British defeats. The First Boer War later saw many more defeats and indeed the British lost that war, which is not actually that surprising seeing as the Boer settlers had been fighting on the side of the British for many years and knew how they operated.

This is The Uys family, with Piet Uys in the centre, They joined Wood’s ‘Flying Column’ for the Battle of Hlobane in the Zulu war. Piet Uys was killed when he rode back to help his eldest son (right) struggling with two lead horses.

We all think of the officers and men back in those days as the Officers dining on roast beef and Yorkshire pud with silver service and waiters the ranks eating the not so good meat. Nothing could be further from the truth. They all eat the same and together. There was a close bond between the ranks and the officers. Many had been together sixteen years and had fought side by side all over the world. As can be expected the ranks were mostly uneducated and could not read or write. Many of the men had wives who they took with them on campaigns. In this war this time they left their wives in Cape town, they also could not read or write, which did not stop the wives from writing letters to their menfolk. Officers wives who also went with their husbands would write the letters for them, then their letters would be read to the husbands in the camps by their officers. It's no wonder there was a close bond between them all, the officers knew all their intermate details and the men stood with these officers back to back when the going got tough, they were the ultimate brothers in arms and at Isandlwana, they all died defending each other.

H Company, 1st/24th Regiment, annihilated at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22nd January 1879 in the Zulu War
Two 7 pounder RML guns were captured by the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22nd January 1879 in the Zulu War
Colours of 1st/24th Regiment presented to Queen Victoria on 28th July 1880: Battle of Isandlwana on 22nd January 1879 in the Zulu War: the Queen’s Colour on the left was recovered from the scene of the battle

This is Private Samuel Wassall of the 80th Regiment he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22nd January 1879 in the Zulu War. The first soldier to be awarded the VC in this war.

Many myths have sprung up after the battle of Isandlwana a battle that the British lost, a battle that shocked Victorian society. From ammunition not being distributed to the men, little drummer boys being gutted and that most of the men were Welsh, along with Lord Chelmsford being an incompetent commander who did not come back to the aid of the camp.

So what is the truth of what happened that day?

It's fair to say that Lord Chelmsford did not come back right away and that if he had done when the first message reached him that the camp was being attacked his force which was the main army group could have saved the day. However, did that make him an incompetent commander?

He and the army was not that far way probably just ten miles away as he and his army had left just before the dawn broke the day of the battle. He was on his way with the Army to Ulundi where he knew the Zulu army was. He thought he could beat them in a pitched battle, and why not Remember the first battle with Henry Charles Harford the Beatle man, and how easy that battle was, who could blame him for thinking he could catch them in Ulundi. He took with him the bulk of his army along with most of the Gatling guns leaving just two Isandlwana along all but two Two 7 pounder RML guns. His scouts had told him where they were

Once he had established the camp at Isandlwana, Chelmsford sent out two battalions of the Natal Native Contingent to scout ahead. They skirmished with elements of a Zulu force which he believed to be the vanguard of the main enemy army. Such was his confidence in British military training and firepower that he divided his force, taking about 2,800 soldiers which include half of the British infantry contingent together with around 600 auxiliaries, and departed the camp at dawn on 22 January to find the main Zulu force with the intention of bringing them to battle so as to achieve a decisive victory, leaving the remaining 1,300 men of the №3 Column to guard the camp. It never occurred to him that the Zulus he saw were diverting him from their main force. That does not make him an incompetent commander. It makes him a duped commander that underestimated the ability of the Zulu to wage war.

Ten miles is still a long way for men on foot and on horse, but a forced march back to the camp could have saved the day.

I say that because the following day after the battle of Rorkes Drift which was twelve miles away from Isandlwana the force of Zulus who had been attacking the Drift saw his army making its way to the Drift and melted away rather than face the main force of British. I think it's fair to say that would have happened at Isandlwana if the Zulu commanders had seen him turn back. Indeed one of the soldiers who had been wounded who had been left on the mountain would have seen his column making its way back and it might have given a slight hope that he could hold out, and according to the Zulus on the mountain trying to kill him, they saw the column in the distance before they killed him and then slipped away.

So why did he not turn back when first told that the camp was being attacked. He even asked one of his offices to climb a small hill and take a look and he reported that he could not see the camp being attacked even through his telescope. It seems strange today that this officer along with Chelmsford could not see the camp being attacked, they could even hear the firing of the camp guns yet strangely they all ignored it SO why?

Well the standard orders of the British army in the 1800s when it came to an army camp being attacked, was that all the Bell tents that the soldiers slept in should be stuck immediacy. That means the moment they knew they were being attacked the order was given by the commander to pull down the tents. This may seem strange, however, this was done to give a clear line of fire, in other words, there were no blind spots, which meant the soldiers could see all of the battlefields, it also meant that if they had to fall back in an orderly manner the ground was clear they could step back without fear of having to go around the tents in groups.

After the war was over there are accounts by the Zulus themselves that the tents standing upright made it a good killing ground because the soldiers in the firing line fell back in an orderly fashion only to come to a stop in front of the tents. The Zulu say that many warriors went into the tents where they saw the outline of the soldiers and quite literally began stabbing them in the back. We knew we had killed them when we saw the red blood on the tent canvas they said.

What that officer saw that day was the Tents still upright so the camp in his and Chelmsford's mind was not being attacked. But surely he could hear the firing of the guns. well yes, he could, however, the battleground of Isandlwana was actually stretched over quite a few miles, it was not as people think today in the camp itself. That came later that day when the Zulus broke the firing lines of the British. Nevertheless, the camp should have been struck the moment it became clear what was happening perhaps in the first half an hour. They were after all the standard orders of the Victorian British army so why was the camp not struck?

For that answer, we have to look at the man left in charge of the camp that day Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Burmester Pulleine

A very competent army administrator who had never fired a shot in anger in his life. He had over twenty years of service in the British Army and in all that time he had seen no active service. Today he would be called a desk jockey and it seems his actual job during British operations in the Cape Frontier, was that he was responsible for raising irregular cavalry from amongst European settlers in the area. They acquitted themselves well and, combined with Pulleine’s work organising supply columns to besieged British garrisons, it earned Pulleine a deserved reputation as an organiser and administrator.

Cape Frontier Wars, (1779–1879), 100 years of intermittent wars between the Cape colonists and the Xhsoa agricultural and pastoral peoples of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. One of the most prolonged struggles by African peoples against European intrusion, ended in the annexation of Xhosa territories by the Cape colony and the incorporation of its peoples.

One of the many illusions of these wars in South Africa along with the Zulu war its itself is the fact that people think it was just the British who were fighting them when in fact many of the soldiers were raised from both the settlers which would have been Boers who traced their ancestry to Dutch, German and French Huguenot and also the African people themselves and it's these people who Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Burmester Pulleine raised to fight on the British side. Indeed many of the men left behind at Isandlwana were made up of these men. In fact, many of the black Africans on the side of the British were Zulus. They used a red piece of cloth tied to their right arm to distinguish them as friends loyal to the Crown if they did not have a uniform. Of course, when they saw how things were going threw the cloth away and melted away in the confusion of battle.

One of Chelmsford's last acts before he handed over control of the camp to Pulleine was to order Anthony William Durnford

one of the most experienced officers in the Army that was in South Africa having fought with distinction in the Cape Frontier Wars to leave Rorkes Drift and make his way to Isandlwana, he now found himself with his men who were all mounted black Africans in the camp just before the Zulus attacked and it may have been this order for him come and be in Isandlwana that muddied the waters of who was in charge there that day because Anthony William Durnford was a full Lieutenant colonel while Pulleine was a Brevet Lieutenant colonel. Brevet in the British army means as a reward for gallantry or meritorious conduct but may not confer the authority, precedence, or pay of real rank. So Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Burmester Pulleine was actually Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Burmester Pulleine which would mean he was just a Major, while Anthony William Durnford who had just arrived in the camp with his men was a full Lieutenant colonel.

It may have been that Pulleine now thought that Durnford was now in charge and had left it to him to strike the camp, while Durnford who had just arrived thought that Pulleine commanded the camp which of course he did. Whatever the reason it was a catastrophic mistake on Pulleins part that would personally cost him, dear, as he died in his tent writing a letter probably to his wife. We will never know for sure as a Zulu burst into his tent and Pulleine turned so it is said in Zulu folktales and fired his revolver once with the bullet striking the Zulu once in the throat with the Zulu stabbing Pullein to death before dying himself.

It's that catastrophic mistake that the officer tasked by Chelmsford to go take a look at what was going on in the camp would report back, probably saying, well my Lord it can't be that bad at Isandlwana I can see the tents still standing. There were three messages that reached his Lordship saying the camp was being attacked.

This is the last message that Pullein wrote to inform Chelmsford that the camp was being attacked.

Staff Officer — Report just come in that Zulus are advancing in force from the left front of the cam (8.5 am). H B Pulleine, Lt. Col’.

The message was received at 9.30 am by Captain Hallam Parr, a Staff Officer in the field with Lord Chelmsford.

It was only after the third report from a rider from the camp that alarm bells started to go off in the heads of the Staff officers and Chelmsford himself and he turned and made haste back to the camp. By then it was far too late. He arrived back to find his camp decimated with dead bodies scattered all around.

What's the truth about ammunition not being distributed to the men?

The myth sprung up that the soldiers at Isandlwana were not receiving enough ammunition and that when they did they could not open the sealed ammunition boxes.

Let's take a look at why this myth sprung up.

One particularly persistent legend has it that the British were overrun at Isandlwana because of a failure of ammunition supply, either through the parsimony of regimental quartermasters, or because their ammunition boxes could not be opened — an idea which, of course, effectively excuses a number of deeper military errors.

One of the survivors — a lieutenant named Horace Smith-Dorrien,

who was destined to become a general in the First World War — recalled the reluctance of Quartermaster Edward Bloomfield

of the 2nd Battalion, the 24th, to issue ammunition as the battle began. Yet a close reading of the evidence suggests that this incident was simply indicative of the confusion that inevitably prevailed in the camp; Bloomfield’s reserves were, in fact, earmarked to be sent out to Lord Chelmsford should he need them, and Bloomfield was showing no more than a proper respect for his orders. It's the only report of a soldier being refused ammunition and that was only right at the start of the battle not halfway through it or near the end.

In a letter home, Smith-Dorrien admitted to his father that he afterwards secured a supply of ammunition and spent much of the battle distributing it to the front-line companies. Nor were the boxes particularly difficult to open — although reinforced by copper bands all round, access to the rounds was by means of a sliding panel in the lid held in place by a single screw. And if time was pressing, the panel could be smashed out by a sharp blow to the edge with a tent mallet or rifle butt — over the years, a number of screws bent by such rough treatment have been found on the battlefield. In 2000, an archaeological survey of the site found the remains of the tin lining of a number of boxes along with the British firing positions — a sure sign that boxes had been opened there. The last word, however, should go to the Zulus, many of whom mentioned that the British infantry continued to shoot at them until the final stages of the battle.

In fact, at one stage of the battle, the firepower of the British lines was so overpowering that the Zulus faltered and were on the verge of running away when one brave Zulu stood up shouting for them to not fall back but to attack the British lines head-on. Just as he finished rallying his men a bullet took off half of his head and he fell dead and the whole Zulu Impi who saw and heard him and then saw him fall rose up and smashed into the British lines. That means right up to that point the soldiers were receiving more than they needed.

The only soldiers up to that point who were running short of ammunition was our old friend William Durnford who was holding the line with his African mounted soldiers a mile or so away from the main British camp. We are talking of 1879 when you had to send out riders to ask for more ammunition. These days you would talk into radio and say get me more ammunition SAP or I will be overrun and within fifteen min a helicopter would appear full of ammunition the men back then did not have that luxury, even if you sent out a rider you would not be sure he got through the lines to ask for it. So that dispels that myth. Durnford did run out of ammunition in the end and he and his black Africans fought to the last before being overwhelmed. It is said that Durnford was one of the last to die climbing onto the top of a wagon fighting with his one good arm until the Zulus stabbed him to death.

Interestingly, he was well known to the Zulus, he was highly respected for his kindness and diplomacy towards the Zulu nation. Many of his black African soldiers were Zulus who had joined him years before the war broke out and had stayed to fight their own people. He personly taught his men to read and write and could often be seen going into the Zulu encampments to talk to them before the war started. Durnford was found fully clothed and not gutted and with all his possessions and a Zulu war shield covering his body, a Zulu tradition of honouring a Zulu warrior who had fallen in battle, unlike his men who they ripped apart. A token of their respect for him.

Photo Black Africans who fought for the British in the Anglo Zulu war.

So what about the little drummer boys being gutted?

One story that circulated widely in the horrific aftermath of the battle was that Lord Chelmsford’s men, returning to the devastated camp on the night of the 22nd, had seen ‘young drummer boys’ of the 24th Regiment hung up
on a butcher’s scaffold and ‘gutted like sheep’. While it need not be doubted that, in the fury of the attack, the Zulus would have killed boys as well as men — they had taken the Queen’s shilling, after all, and their chances with it — this horror story does not stand up to close scrutiny.

‘Boy’ was a rank in the British Army at the time, applied to lads not yet 18, many of whom were the sons of men serving in the regiment. Drummers were seldom Boys — among their other duties was administering floggings as punishment — and of 12 Drummers killed at Isandlwana, the youngest was 18 and the oldest in his 30s. Five Boys were killed at Isandlwana, most of them in the 24th’s band, and the youngest was 16 — not quite the innocent lads immortalised in sentimental paintings of the time.

Even the contemporary regimental history of the 24th admitted ‘no single case of torture was proved against [the Zulus]’. But, in the fraught atmosphere that prevailed when Lord Chelmsford’s command returned to the camp that night, such horror stories spread like wildfire and were readily believed –although, as one officer pointed out, ‘it was impossible for those who told these yarns to distinguish anything in the night, it being exceptionally dark’.

Were the men mostly Welsh?

We get this at Rorkes Drift as well dont we ‘Men of Harlech’and all that. What's the truth?

According to the enduringly popular 1964 movie Zulu, the 24th Regiment — who comprised much of the garrison at both Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift — was composed largely of Welshmen. That film has a lot to answer for, hardly anything in it was right.

Although the Regiment had indeed established its depot at Brecon in 1873, its recruits continued to be drawn from across the United Kingdom, and only a small proportion was Welsh by 1879. The association with Wales largely post-dates the Anglo-Zulu War — in 1881, the 24th was re-titled the South Wales Borderers, and it is now part of the Royal Welsh.

Then there is Melvill and Coghill tasked by Pulleine to save the colours or were they?

There is no evidence that Pullein gave that order, non at all and certainly not to Coghill as both left the camp separately and at different intervals, and only one had the colours, Melville, several witnesses saw them riding away separately — and in fact, the two don’t seem to have joined up until they reached the river. It's more likely that Melville went to fetch the Colours to rally the men. He more than likely got back to the lines too late and decided to leave the battle to try and save the colours. A Regiments colours are very important

They represent all the battles they have been in. They are and have been a sense of pride, a rallying point to spur the men on and something protect with your life. No one wants to be the soldier who lost the colours and in European wars, the enemy would do their best to get hold of the colours for bragging rights and the defenders would be equal to the task.

There is an unwritten rule that when the colours leave the field of battle before the end then the men are free to flee the field of battle as well, no order has to be issued their duty is done they can flee and try to save themselves. And that's what happened soldiers who saw the colours leave the field fled with it following the only route out of the battlefield. It's now known as Fugitives’ Drift

Buffalo River towards Fugitives Drift (Talana Museum)

The Buffalo river separates Natal from Zululand and the ones who fled the battle knew if they could get across the river they might stand a chance of survival so they ran for their lives chased by the Zulus. Some made small squares and tried to fight the Zulus, one by one they were killed others tried to go it alone and were picked off one by one.

This photo shows where some fell. Underneath those white stones are the remains of soldiers perhaps six to ten in each one buried where they fell

There are graves like this all the way through the drift Melvill and Coghill were lucky in one respect, they rode horses and had more than a good chance of escaping, the problem was when they got to the river was fast running and swollen due to the rain that has fallen. This was where Cogill found Melvill.

Lt. Melvill

Coghill had reached the other side of the river so was in Natal when it said from witnesses he looked back and saw Melville in serious trouble in the middle of the river

Coghill decided to go back and try to help

Lt. Coghill

Melville had his horse shot from under him He was soon joined by an NNC officer named Higginson. and together both were swept downstream to a larger boulder aptly named Coffin Rock

You can see from this photo how high the river was at the time.

They were soon joined by Coghill. The colours were swept down the river to be lost. The Zulus on the other side were now taking potshots at all three that were clinging to the rock for dear life. They had lost all the horses however the Zulus had not crossed the river for some reason, it could be that they could not swim or it could be that they were following their Kings orders not to cross over into Natal.

Somehow all three managed to get to the Natal side of the river, They crawled onto the bank of the river exhausted, still, the Zulus had not crossed the river.

No one can be sure how they now felt, All three had survived the battle, then they had survived running down Fugitives Drift trail They had survived the river crossing, and now lay on the Natal side On the plus side they were alive on the other hand they had lost the Queen's colours a most shameful act for any British soldier, however, they were alive, now all they had to do was get to the safety of Rorkes Drift.

Coghill had sustained an injury to his knee earlier in the day when trying to catch a chicken for Lord Chelmsford’s supper. That injury had stopped him from going with Lord Chelmsford that day. Having had an injury to my own knee I know how much pain he would have been in, he must have thought he was one of the luckiest men alive that day having survived everything that he had gone through.

Higginson told Melvill and Coghill that he had spotted horses on the upper bank of the river and told them he would climb up and get them and for them to follow him when they had recovered, the Zulus had still not crossed the river as he climbed up the slope he heard shouting from the Zulu side of the river which he must have thought nothing of. He managed to secure three horses went back to where he had climbed up from to find a group of natives spearing both Melvill and Coghill to death. He could do nothing for them so made good his escape.

A week or so later after both the battle of Isandlwana and Rorkes drift men from the drift went back to find the bodies of Melvill and Coghill and the men on the trail so they could bury them and found something quite curious. They noticed that all the men on the Zulu side of the border had been gutted, disembowelled, as was the custom of the Zulus, yet Melvill and Coghill had not been gutted, they had just been speared to death. When Higginson heard about that he remembered the shouting from the Zulu side of the river and he had a sneaky feeling that it was not the Zulus who had killed both officers but friendly natives on the side of the British who could have been from the Zulu nation and the shouting from the Zulus on the other side were threats telling the natives, we know who you are, we know where you live we know you have family kill the two white men, which they did. When the war was over the Zulus confirmed this was indeed true, afraid for their own lives and the lives of their families they did indeed do what the Zulus were telling them to do.

Both were buried on 4 February 1879 where they died. They were reburied in an isolated grave on 14 April, the site being marked by a memorial. There are also two cairns just below this, presumably where other fugitives died and were buried. The site has been known since then as “Fugitive’s Drift”.

What of the Queen's colours?

The Colour was found some weeks later by a patrol who saw the pole sticking out of the water. Most of the gold braiding had perished. The restored Colour now hangs in Brecon Cathedral.

Both Melvill and Coghill would be the first soldiers to receive the VC posthumously after a campaign by their families that took 22 years. At the time, senior officers expressed reservations about the wisdom of recognising as heroic the actions of men who — however good the reason — were in fact abandoning the field. As Chelmsford himself said at the time, by saving the Colours Melvill ‘was given the best chance of saving his life which must have been lost had he remained in camp … The question, therefore, remains had he succeeded in saving the colours and his own life, would he have been considered to have deserved the Victoria Cross?’

One other VC winner on the 22nd. of January was a Private Samuel Wassall from Birmingham. He rescued a comrade who was drowning in the Buffalo River during the retreat from Isandlwana. He went on to live until he was 70. He is buried in The Barrow-in-Furness Cemetery, section 3.B. plot 1952. There was another VC winner who died at Isandlwana. He was Private William Griffiths, born in Ireland. He won his VC in 1867 at Little Andaman Island. His grave is unmarked on the battlefield at Isandlwana.

This is the bank that Melvill & Coghill and Higgison managed to get to and the bank that Higginson had to climb to get to the horses



Graham Charles Lear

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