Zulu War

Graham Charles Lear
20 min readOct 8, 2020


From the last stand at Isandlwana, where on 22nd January 1879, at which the Zulus wiped out a substantial British force, including the 1st Battalion, 24th Foot and rocked Victorian society and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift the defence of the mission station in Natal, on 22nd January 1879, by a small force of British and colonial troops; winning a record number of Victoria Crosses and inspiring Victorian Britain

The battle of Khambula The defeat by Colonel Evelyn Wood of a Zulu army on 29th March 1879, in the opening stages of the Zulu War.

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

All boys own stuff that in the late 1800s young British boys grew up wanting to emulate those heroes. When we read about them today it’s hard to gain a perspective of the ebb and flow of battles. We tend to think of a battle like Isandlwana being a static battle over a small area where the British army camped when the Zulu Impi charged the quickly formed lines only to be overrun as the Zulu Horns of the Buffalo swept around and massacred the soldiers. Yet battles are rarely straightforward, soldiers at Isandlwana did die on the spot fighting for their lives holding the line. We see paintings like this by Charles Edwin Fripp It's called “The last stand at Isandlwana, so it gives the impression that the Zulus finished them off on the spot. However, they didn’t.

Experienced soldiers along with officers who had the experience of war and battles would have known quite early on in the battle that all was lost and many would have and did form groups and tried to break free from the battle to save themselves. They would have known that just twelve miles away was Rorkes Drift outpost, if only they could get there they could, in theory, make a decent stand until the main army could relive them. That is what many tried to do. However, the Zulus had cut that retreat off as one of the Horns had come around and been on the only road to Rorkes Drift.

This video made by Christian Parkinson gives a very good description of the battle and you get a very feel of what it must have been like. Towards the end of the video, Christian finds a small cave where a lone British soldier had found and made a last stand fighting off the Zulu’s. You can imagine this soldiers terror as he looked down the slope of the mountain seeing the slaughter of his mates. In all probability, he had tried to hide but was spotted. He fought them off at the tip of the bayonet until they either managed to stab him or shoot him.

I first came across that story 25 years ago while in a small antique shop in Germain Street London just off Piccadilly. I was browsing looking for something to buy when I saw an enormous painting of a Redcoat soldier in the mouth of a cave with an extraordinary look of fear on his face rifle and bayonet held in his hands and two fearsome Zulu warriors stepping over the bodies of their fallen comrades. The painter had captured the moment beautifully and I must admit if I had £15,000 to spare I would have bought it. What my wife would have said if I had is not printable and more to the point I don’t think I had a wall big enough to hang it on, as it must have been at least eight by six tall and width.


Those on horseback did breakthrough cutting a path through for others on horseback to follow. However, if you were on foot there was no chance of getting through that way. That left one other rout one that was open. It meant skirting the main road to the drift and crossing a swollen river a long hard route, up and down hills through a creek all the while hoards of Zulu Impi running them down. The battlefield was not just in one area it was scattered over miles as this video shows.


Later that day the Zulus attacked Rorke’s drift. If Isandlwana was a disaster for the British then the defence of Rorkes Drift can be regarded as a battle of outstanding bravery by the few men defending the Drift. You can read the full account and more here


However its always nice to see the actual are of the battle, so again we turn to our friend Christian Parkinson.


And once more the reader can get a good idea of the actual battle and what it must have been like. Forget the 1960s film, Zulu. This is the actual battlefield where 11 British soldiers were awarded the coveted Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery. What must it have been like? Well, those 11 Victoria Crosses bear testimony to how horrendous the battle was because usually, a British soldier of any rank awarded the Cross is awarded it when they have died in battle and all 11 survived.

We now turn to the battle of Khambula

The shock of the defeat and loss at Isandlwana on 22nd January 1879 caused a catastrophic drop in morale among the British forces invading Zululand.

Colonel Evelyn Wood VC’s Number Four Column, the most northerly British force, invaded Zululand on 6th December 1879. The Zulus in the area were of the abaQulusi, a tribal group vigorously loyal to Cetshwayo the Zulu King. Led by the enterprising Prince Mbilini waMswati, the abaQulusi held a group of mountains of which Hlobane was the most prominent.

One of Wood’s senior officers was Lieutenant Colonel Redvers Buller, an energetic leader of irregular South African horse. (Buller became one of Britain’s generals in the Second Boer War: in this respect, the experience of Britain was similar to France; highly vigorous and successful colonial small war commanders were found wanting when required to command large formations in set-piece wars).

On 20th January 1879, Wood dispatched Buller with a mounted force to reconnoitre the Zulu positions. After a running skirmish Buller was forced to retire.

On 21st January 1879, Wood’s force marched out of camp and moved swiftly on the Zulu positions, forcing the Zulus to withdraw onto Hlobane Mountain. Wood’s troops camped and on 23rd January 1879, Wood began his attack on Hlobane. In the early hours of the morning, the column received the news of Isandlwana, the destruction of Chelmsford’s camp and the loss of nearly a full battalion of British troops.

It was immediately apparent to Wood that the whole Zulu army that had fought at Isandlwana might well attack his column. He abandoned the operation and moved north to a new campsite, away from the main Zulu army.

The British column encamped on a plateau at Khambula, where the ground sloped away on two sides. The troops fortified the camp with wagon walls and trenches, precautions that might have saved the British force at Isandlwana, and built an earthwork bastion on a small hill in the middle of the camp and a further laager to house the cattle and oxen.

No Zulu attack materialised over the next few days and the energetic Wood returned to harassing the local Zulus. On 1st February 1879, Buller carried out another raid on Hlobane.

Over the following weeks, the Zulus raided north into the areas occupied by Boer farms and villages, away from Wood’s camp, while the British raided the Zulu areas.

On 12th March 1879, the Zulus inflicted another disaster on the British. A supply train of wagons and oxen was trapped, as it approached Luneburg in the North of Zululand, by the rising Intombi River. Captain Moriarty, commanding the escort of a company of the 80th Regiment, formed the wagons into a V-shaped defensive position, the apex facing away from the river, while the column waited for the flooding river to subside sufficiently to be crossed.

On the morning of 12th March 1879, a force of some 800 Zulus, commanded by Mbilini, approached to within fifty yards of the camp, unseen due to the morning mist and rushed the defences, killing Moriarty and 60 of his men. A party of the 80th on the south bank fired on the Zulus until forced to retreat. The party of the 80th were pursued some distance until the Zulus turned back to despoil the train. More of this later.

The Intombi disaster prompted Evelyn Wood to launch a full attack on Hlobane Mountain, urged on by Lord Chelmsford, who needed Wood to provide a diversion in the North, as he prepared to march to the relief of Colonel Pearson’s column in its fortified camp at Eshowe near the coast in Southern Zululand.

The information came in that Cetshwayo, the Zulu King, was preparing to advance on Wood’s force. Nevertheless, on 27th March 1879, Colonels Buller and Russell left Khambula with 700 and 250 mounted troops each, to attack either end of Hlobane.

The climb to the long plateau of the hill was steep and laborious. Far from being surprised, the Zulus, who knew the area intimately, were ready and intended to trap Buller’s force.

Wood’s diversionary actions proved all too effective. The main Zulu Army dispatched north by Cetshwayo, arrived at Hlobane during the course of Buller’s raid. The British force was chased along the plateau and escaped, suffering heavy casualties, just before the trap closed on it. Buller lost 12 officers and 80 men. An unrecorded number of native irregulars were killed.

The failure of the Hlobane attack severely affected the morale of the rest of Wood’s column, many of the remaining natives and Boer volunteers leaving for home.

The newly arrived Zulu Army, commanded by Chief Mnyamana Buthelezei, moved on towards Khambula in battle formation; the mass of warriors forming the ‘chest’ with other columns as the left and right ‘horns’, ready to envelope the British, encamped ready for battle the next day.

This time, the British, while in low morale after Isandlwana and the defeat of Buller’s attack on Hlobane, were prepared and in compact formation behind fortifications, unlike Pulleine’s 24th Foot at the Battle of Isandlwana.

A British patrol, out early in the morning, brought in a Zulu defector with information that the camp was to be attacked at midday. The patrol reported that the Zulu Army could be seen approaching.

The main fortification of the camp was the wagon lager, the wagons parked end to end in a square, with additional fortification from heaps of turf, mealie bags and an entrenchment.

The cattle were held in a square of wagons on a raised area of the plateau. In the centre of the camp, area stood the earthwork redoubt built on a knoll.

Colonel Buller winning the VC by rescuing one of his officers on Hlobane Mountain on 27th March 1879: Battle of Khambula on 29th March 1879 in the Zulu War

As soon as the Zulu approach was reported, the troops assembled at their positions, 1,200 men of the 1st/13th Light Infantry and the 90th Regiment, with 800 other irregular troops. Ammunition reserves were established along the rear of the lines.

Wood’s artillery comprised four 7 pounder guns, 2 mule borne guns and several rocket troughs. The mule guns took the post in the redoubt, while the 7 pounders stood in the open ground between the two main fortifications.

The Zulu formation paused for a time, while final arrangements for the attack were made. It may be that the Zulu generals wished to avoid a direct assault on the British camp; Cetshwayo’s instructions being not to repeat the mistake of Rorke’s Drift, but to threaten the Natal border and try to lure Wood’s force into the open. However, the Zulu warriors were in no mood for caution. The Zulu Army began to move towards the British with increasing speed, the horns spreading out to the left and right flanks, the chest heading straight for the camp. The battle began at around 1.30 pm.

The left horn disappeared from view, as it moved into the valley to the South, where it was held up by the marshy ground. The right horn circled round to the North and came in towards the camp. Wood dispatched Buller with his mounted men to provoke the right horn into making a premature attack before the other sections of the Zulu Army were in place. Buller’s move had the effect intended, the mass of the right horn rushing towards the British fortifications.

Buller’s troops rode back into the camp, several men having considerable difficulty getting away from the fast-moving mass of Zulu warriors.

Once the mounted men were clear, the troops along the north face, the 90th Light Infantry, opened fire with the guns positioned in the open between the wagon laager and the redoubt. The storm of fire destroyed the right horn as a threat to the camp, the Zulu survivors rushing back to cover some six hundred yards back and remaining there. Wood was free to deploy a significant number of the troops and guns from the north side against the chest and left horn as they came up.

Hurried by the sound of firing, the Zulu left horn climbed the south face of the hill, out of sight of the British troops until they reached the crest, where they met heavy fire from the 13th Regiment. The Zulus on the right of the advance were able to mount an attack on the cattle laager, forcing Wood to withdraw its garrison and leave the laager to the Zulus.

Wood ordered Major Hackett of the 90th to take two companies to the edge of the hill and fire down on the Zulus assembling in the valley below. This enterprise had to be abandoned, in the face of heavy Zulu fire, using Martini-Henry rifles captured at Isandlwana, from the cattle laager and a hill to the West of the camp, although the Zulu left horn was temporarily halted. Hackett was blinded and one of his subalterns mortally injured.

The Zulu left horn and the chest attempted attacks on the camp at various points around the perimeter from the south to the north-east, all driven back by the heavy fire from the two infantry regiments and the guns of the Royal Artillery: the two mule guns in the redoubt and the four 7 pounders deployed in the open ground between the wagon laager and the redoubt.

At 5.30 pm the Zulus began to fall back. Wood ordered companies of infantry forward to fire into the withdrawing Zulu regiments.

Wood then unleashed Buller’s mounted men in pursuit of the increasingly disordered Zulu retreat. Enraged by the defeat of the previous day on Hlobane and the slaughter at Isandlwana, the horsemen killed the fleeing Zulus mercilessly during the pursuit, that continued over many miles.
British foot patrols sought out Zulus lying wounded around the camp and killed many of them.
Under the pressure of the defeat and the subsequent pursuit, the Zulu Army collapsed, many of the warriors heading for their homes.

Shall we walk the battlefield again with Christian Parkinson


Battle of Gingindlovu

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

Following the disaster of Isandlwana, the British government rushed reinforcements to Natal: two regiments of cavalry, two batteries of Royal Artillery and five battalions of infantry.

On 29th March 1879, Chelmsford’s column crossed the Buffalo River and began its march to the relief of Pearson’s force. The country was covered by Zulu scouts. Signals flashed by heliograph were received from Pearson’s camp at Eshowe. It was clear to Chelmsford that his advance would be fiercely contested, progress further impeded by the terrible weather.

On 1st April 1879, Chelmsford’s column reached the Royal Kraal of Gingindlovu and laagered for the night. Heavy rain came on. Chelmsford had taken careful note of the lessons from Isandlwana. At every encampment, the wagons were carefully positioned to create an unbroken laager wall and the troops required to dig sections of the trench around the laager. Every camp was rendered fully defensible in case of a sudden attack.

Chelmsford’s chief scout, John Dunn, a pre-war inhabitant of Zululand for many years, scouted across the Nyezane River. Beyond the river, he encountered the Zulu Army, some 11,000 warriors. Dunn returned to the British camp and reported to Chelmsford that the Zulus would attack in the morning.

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

In the face of the sustained fire from the 91st, the attack on the rear of the laager ebbed away and Chelmsford ordered his mounted units out of the square to complete the victory. The mounted attack was premature and it was some time before the Zulu withdrawal took hold.

Soon after 7 am, the battle was over and the Zulus in full retreat, pursued by the mounted troops and the native contingent. Large numbers of Zulu warriors were killed in the long pursuit.

As at the Battle of Khambula, the Zulus wounded on the battlefield were killed. The Zulu army was effectively dispersed. The outcome of the battle was a great relief to Chelmsford, showing him that his army’s confidence was re-established and enabling him to continue his advance to Pearson’s camp and on to defeat the Zulu King, Cetshwayo, at the Battle of Ulundi.

Casualties at the Battle of Gingindlovu: British casualties were 6 officers and 55 men; among the dead was Lieutenant Colonel Northey of the 60th Rifles. Zulu casualties were calculated at 1,000.

Unfortunately, we don't have battlefield tour for this battle which is a shame. So we will move onto the Battle of Ulundi which we do have a tour. You won't be disappointed.

Battle of Ulundi

The final battle of the Zulu War fought on 4th July 1879, where Lord Chelmsford’s troops destroyed the army of the Zulu King Cetshwayo

An account of the Battle of Ulundi:
Following the battle at Gingindlovu on 2nd April 1879, Lord Chelmsford’s force advanced to the fortified camp at Eshowe and relieved Colonel Pearson’s command, entrenched there since the end of January 1879. Pearson’s men had put all their effort into building the camp, in the expectation that it would be used as the advanced base for the final assault on the Zulu King, Cetshwayo’s Royal kraal at Ulundi. To the disappointment of Pearson’s men, Chelmsford ordered a retreat to the Tugela, intending to establish a base nearer to the border river.

Charge of the 17th Lancers at the Battle of Ulundi on 4th July 1879 in the Zulu War: picture by Henri Dupray

Superficially, the Zulus appeared to have thrown the British back to their starting point. But the battles of Khambula and Gingindlovu inflicted heavy casualties on the Zulus that could not be replaced. Reacting to the horror of Isandlwana, the British government sent out more reinforcements than could effectively be used. Natal was awash with British major generals. Sir Garnet Wolseley and the Ashantee Ring were on their way to displace Lord Chelmsford in command.

Chelmsford, by the middle of April 1879, prepared to invade Zululand again with two cavalry regiments (the King’s Dragoon Guards and the 17th Lancers), five batteries of artillery and twelve infantry battalions: 1,000 regular cavalry, 9,000 regular infantry and a further 7,000 men with 24 guns, including the first Gatling battery to take the field for the British army. The Zulus could maintain 24,000 dispirited warriors.

Battle of Ulundi on 4th July 1879 in the Zulu War

Chelmsford re-organised his army. Evelyn Wood’s force in the West was renamed the Flying Column. The newly arrived Major General Henry Crealock, who had served with the 90th Perthshire Regiment in the Crimea, took over Pearson’s old command, now entitled the First Division, in the Lower Tugela, by the coast, and a new command, entitled the Second Division, under Major General Newdigate, but accompanied by Chelmsford himself, prepared to invade Zululand in the central area and join up with Wood.

The British were still nervous of the Zulus, heavily influenced by the terrible events at Isandlwana. For his part, Cetshwayo had lost faith in his ability to repel the British invasion. Wood began to march south from Khambula, while Chelmsford prepared to cross the Tugela. There was one outstanding duty to fulfil before the army could turn its attention to defeating Cetshwayo.

On 21st May 1879, Major General Marshall, with his cavalry brigade of the two regular regiments, moved forward to Isandlwana and undertook the task of burying the British casualties from the battle on 22nd January 1879.

The advance of Chelmsford’s Second Division finally began on 1st June 1879. But the war had not finished its stock of horrors for the British. As Chelmsford sat in his tent writing dispatches, a staff officer burst in to tell him of the death, at the hands of the Zulus, of the French Prince Imperial.

Death of the French Prince Imperial on 1st June 1879 in the Zulu War

In 1871 the Emperor Napoleon III of France abdicated and retired to England, where he died. His widow, Empress Eugenie, became a close friend of Queen Victoria. Napoleon’s son Louis, Prince Imperial, attended the Royal Military College at Woolwich. On the intercession of the Queen, Prince Imperial was permitted to accompany the army to Natal and join Chelmsford’s column. While with an advanced patrol and dismounted, Prince Imperial was caught and killed by the Zulus. The Prince’s death caused an outcry in France. Lieutenant Carey of the 98th Regiment, nominally in charge of the patrol, was tried by court-martial but acquitted.

As the war continued, the Flying Column and the Second Division met and marched towards Ulundi in parallel.

Charge of the 17th Lancers at the Battle of Ulundi on 4th July 1879 in the Zulu War

On 5th June 1879, Buller’s irregular horsemen encountered a strong force of Zulu skirmishers. After exchanges of fire, it became clear that the Zulus would not give ground and Buller withdrew.

The 17th Lancers came up and, keen to establish themselves, rode down the valley, looking for the Zulus. The Lancers came under fire and their adjutant was shot and killed. The mounted force returned to camp, where the unfortunate death of the officer adversely affected the morale of the column.

On 6th June 1879, a piquet caused a false alarm and the British troops rushed to take a position in the entrenched area of the camp. Fire was given and some 1,200 rounds discharged without a target before the troops could be brought under control. The incident was symptomatic of the nervousness of these inexperienced troops and their fear of the Zulus.

Wolseley arrived in Cape Town on 28th June 1879 and cabled Chelmsford, who replied that his two columns were within seventeen miles of the Royal Kraal of Ulundi.

Cetshwayo attempted to negotiate with the British, while his warriors gathered at Ulundi for the great last fight. The terms Chelmsford demanded were rejected with indignation by the Royal Council.

On 30th June 1879, the British Flying Column and the Second Division advanced into the valley of the White Mfonzi, towards Ulundi. Camp was established by the river.

On 3rd July 1879, Colonel Buller took his mounted men across the river to reconnoitre the Zulu position. The Zulus were waiting in ambush for Buller and his force only just escaped annihilation.

During that night, the British troops were forced to listen to the Zulu war songs. For some, it was an interesting experience, for others unnerving.

Inside the British square at the Battle of Ulundi on 4th July 1879 in the Zulu War

With reveille the next day, 4th July 1879, Chelmsford took the majority of his force, with only ammunition and water and crossed the river, advancing towards the Zulu kraal. The British troops moved in a cumbersome hollow square, the mounted troops covering each side and the rear.

Just before 9 am the Zulus attacked the hollow square on all sides. As the attack began, the British mounted troops moved inside the square.

Charge of the 17th Lancers at the Battle of Ulundi on 4th July 1879 in the Zulu War: picture by Orlando Norie

The fire from the packed British regiments, the artillery and the Gatling guns were overwhelming. It was the largest concentration of British military might in South Africa to that date. Zulu prisoners stated, after the battle, that they were overwhelmed by the noise of the firing, let alone the impact of the bullets and stunned by the size of the British force. It took only half an hour before the Zulus began to falter.

At this point, the 17th Lancers passed out of the back of the square and charged. The impact of the charge broke up what was left of the Zulu formations and the Zulu army dissolved in flight, pursued by the Lancers and the mounted irregular units of Chelmsford’s columns. The massacre of fleeing Zulus seen at Khambula and Gingindlovu was repeated and multiplied several times. It was the end of the Zulu army and the war, although fighting continued on a small scale for some weeks. As soon as the battle was over, Chelmsford ordered his troops to burn the Royal Kraal of Ulundi.

Casualties at the Battle of Ulundi: The British casualties were 3 officers and 79 men. Zulu casualties were said to be 1,500.

On the road to Ulundi’: A British officer interviewing a Zulu prisoner after the Battle of Ulundi on 4th July 1879 in the Zulu War: picture by Richard Caton Woodville

The follow-up to the Battle of Ulundi: Following the battle, the British burnt the military kraals in the area around Ulundi. The Zulu chiefs began to surrender across Zululand to the British forces. Cetshwayo, the Zulu king, was captured on 28th August 1879 and taken into exile in Cape Colony. The British established a regime in Zululand considered to be sympathetic to Britain and withdrew.

  • The Zulu War was one of the last campaigns fought by the old numbered infantry regiments of the British Army. In 1882 the Cardwell Reforms brought in the system of two-battalion regiments, by combining the single battalion regiments in pairs and assigning formal regional titles. The regiments up to the 25th Foot already comprised at least two battalions and simply took the new titles. The 24th Foot, which had both its battalions in the Zulu War, fighting at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, from being the South Warwickshire Regiment, became the South Wales Borderers; the shift in focus from the English West Midlands to Wales being a nod to the Welsh origins of the soldiers of B Company of the 2nd Battalion, who had held Rorke’s Drift.
  • Other arrangements were less happy. The 90th Perthshire Light Infantry, raised by Sir Thomas Graham in 1794, and one of Britain’s most consistently successful regiments in the Peninsular, Crimean and many smaller colonial wars, to its horror, became the 2nd Battalion of the 26th Foot, the Cameronians. The new regiment was given the formal title of the Scottish Rifles. The 2nd Battalion continued to call itself the 90th Light Infantry into the First World War and beyond. It never permitted itself to be referred to as ‘Cameronians’, a reference to the raising of the 26th Foot from the extreme Protestant supporters of Richard Cameron in 1689.

Shall we walk the battlefield?




Graham Charles Lear

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