Zulu War. Battle of Intombe

Graham Charles Lear
11 min readAug 24, 2020


The Battle of Intombe (also Intombi or Intombi River Drift) was a small action fought on 12 March 1879, between Zulu forces and British soldiers defending a supply convoy.

The village of Lüneberg, situated at 27°19′1″S 30°36′57″E / 27.31694°S 30.61583°E in the disputed territories to the north of Zululand, had been laagered by its white settlers ever since the Anglo-Zulu War had begun. The Zulus posed a serious threat to the area (as indicated by a vicious night attack on the area on the night of 10th/11 February). Fearing a repeat of the attack, the British dispatched four companies of the 80th Regiment under Major Charles Tucker to garrison Lüneberg.

On late February 1879, a convoy of eighteen wagons carrying 90,000 rounds of ammunition and other supplies was sent from Lydenburg to re-supply the garrison, and from the Transvaal border was escorted by a single company. By 5 March, the convoy was still 8 miles from Lüneberg, having been hampered by rains which caused the rivers to swell and the ground to soften. Fearing a Zulu attack, Major Tucker sent an order for the company commander to reach Lüneberg that night ‘at any cost’. The company commander took this literally and abandoned the wagons and proceeded on.

The escort had succeeded in having six wagons reach the opposite bank of the Intombe, four miles from Lüneberg. Six other wagons were three miles further back.

On 6 March, a party dispatched by Tucker only succeeded in pulling free a wagon which was trapped in a drift, returning to the town that night.

On 7 March, Tucker dispatched Captain David Moriarty with a hundred men to gather together all the wagons and laager them on the bank of the Intombe, and then gave orders for them to wait until the river went down.

On 11 March, Tucker inspected the laager at the river but found it to be poorly constructed, not being impressed with the inverted ‘V’ shape in that the wagons were arranged, with the base at the river. The river, however, had gone down and there was a gap of several yards between the base and the river. Other flaws in the arrangement were viewed by Tucker as affording no ‘protection whatever in the event of the Zulus attacking in numbers’. Furthermore, the garrison was weakened by being divided by a river with thirty of its number laagered on the other bank.

The battle

On the night of 11 March 1879, two sentries were stationed 20 yards from the laager, however, their vision range was only 50 yards due to rise to their front.

At 3.30 am on 12 March, a shot was heard close to the camp, however, the men returned to their beds after Moriarty decided that it was nothing.

An hour and a half later, a sentry on the far bank saw to his horror, through a clearing in the mist, a huge mass of Zulus advancing silently on the camp. ‘He at once fired his rifle and gave the alarm,’ Tucker recorded. ‘The sentries on the other side did the same. Of course, the men were up in a moment, some men sleeping under the wagons and some in the tents; but before the men were in their positions the Zulus had fired a volley, thrown down their guns… and were around the wagons and on top of them, and even inside with the cattle, almost instantly. So quickly did they come, there was really no defence on the part of our men; it was simply each man fighting for his life, and in a few minutes all was over, our men being simply slaughtered.’

Being one of the first to die, Moriarty was struck in the back with an assegai as he charged out of his tent, shooting dead three Zulus with a revolver. He was shot while trying to climb the laager. His last words were ‘I am done; fire away, boys.’ However, few managed to put up any resistance, sharing a similar fate. The few survivors fled into the river, the troops on the far bank providing as much covering fire as possible. Upon what survivors they could see reaching the Lüneberg side of the river, Lieutenant Henry Harward, Moriarty’s second-in-command, gave the order to withdraw upon seeing several hundred Zulus crossing the river. No sooner had he done this, when he grabbed the first horse he spotted and fled, abandoning his men.

This left the survivors under the command of Colour-Sergeant Anthony Clarke Booth. For three miles, the Zulus pursued the group of around forty survivors. Whenever they drew closer, several of the bolder troops, along with Booth stopped to deliver a volley, which dispersed their pursuers. Four men who split up from the group were killed. The others made it to Raby’s Farm, around two miles from Lüneberg where the Zulus broke off pursuit. The wagons were looted and all the ammunition and supplies were carried off by the Zulus or destroyed. Booth was rewarded with the Victoria Cross.


Harward arrived at Lüneberg and frantically informed Tucker of what had transpired. The Major quickly ordered all his mounted troops to accompany him to the camp and ordered a further 150-foot soldier to follow. Tucker and his mounted force spotted ‘dense masses’ of Zulus leaving the scene of the battle as they approached. At the camp, they discovered one soldier who had made a miraculous escape by being carried down the river and then making his way back to the camp. He and two African wagon drivers were the only survivors they found.

The result of Intombe was a far cry from that of Rorke’s Drift. At Intombe a force of some 500 to 800 Zulu was able to overrun and defeat over 100 British regular infantry in laager in short order while at Rorke’s Drift over 100 British regular infantry were able to stand off 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu from behind hastily constructed, but sturdy, fortifications for nearly a day. Intombe demonstrated the vulnerability of the slow and awkward supply lines that the British army was utterly dependent on. If the Zulus continued to exploit this vulnerability any and all invading British columns could be halted or turned back.

Amazingly, Harward escaped the charges brought against him for deserting his men. In any case, his career was over and he resigned his commission in May 1880.

Anthony Clarke Booth

(21 April 1846–8 December 1899) was an English recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

Born in Carrington, Nottingham,[1] he was 32 years old, and a sergeant in the 80th Regiment of Foot (Staffordshire Volunteers) (later The South Staffordshire Regiment), British Army during the Zulu War when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC.

On 12 March 1879 on the Intombe River, South Africa (Zulu War), during an attack by very large numbers of the enemy, Colour-Sergeant Booth rallied a few men on the south bank of the river and covered the retreat of 50 soldiers and others for a distance of three miles. Had it not been for the coolness displayed by this NCO not one man would have escaped. He later achieved the rank of Colour Sergeant

The London Gazette has him as a colour sergeant, but on the day of the Battle of Ntombe, (or Battle of Intombe) he was actually a sergeant, his promotion came the following day to replace a colour sergeant killed in the action. The gazetting of his VC was delayed due to the fact the surviving officer from the action Lt. Henry Hollingworth Harward was court-martialled for cowardice, the trial commenced on 20 February 1880 and concluded on 27 February 1880. Harward escaped the charges brought against him for deserting his men and he resigned his commission in May 1880. During the course of the trial Booth’s award appeared in the London Gazette on 24 February 1880.

His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Museum of the Staffordshire Regiment in Whittington, Staffordshire.

Lt. Henry Hollingworth Harward

Lieutenant Henry Hollingworth Harward was an officer in Captain Moriarty’s H Company, 80th Staffordshire Regiment when it was attacked with disastrous consequences at Intombi River on 12th March 1879. Harward’s detachment was on the other side of the river from the rest of the company and saw the attack. They opened fire but some Zulus crossed the river and advanced on them. Harward told Colour Sergeant Booth to fall back on a farmhouse 3,000 yards away while he, Harward, rode for help. He managed to alert Major Tucker at Luneburg who mounted some men to rescue Booth and his party. They succeeded in finding them but were too late to help Moriarty’s company.

When Lord Chelmsford heard the news he was extremely angry with Harward for deserting his men and ordered him to be court-martialled. He was tried in Feb 1880, and he said, in his defence, that he was the only one with a horse so it had to be him that rode off to get help. He was acquitted, but Sir Garnet Wolseley took a dim view of Harward’s apparent cowardice.

He stated that; “The more helpless a position in which an officer finds his men, the more it is his bounden duty to stay and share their fortune, whether for good or ill.” The Duke of Cambridge endorsed this comment and ordered it to be read out to every regiment in the army.

Two men on the opposite sides of the divide. One an officer from a well to do family. The other from a working-class background. It shows that in the heat of battle men can become heroes and also freeze when all seems lost. It shows that no matter what background we all come from we are all the same.

Lieutenant Henry Hollingworth Harward was expected to take charge of the men when Captain Moriarty’s was killed he was second in command and when in battle and your superior officer is either killed or wounded that what the next inline does. Yet he mounted his horse and rode away. He was later to say in his defence that as he was the only man with a horse it was up to him to get help. We will never know if this is true or an act of panic and cowardice. His last words though before he rode out to Anthony Clarke Booth was to make his way to to the safety of a farm 3 miles away and take as many men as he could find,

That's what he did he found a few men alive and he took charge of them and covered the retreat of around fifty men making their way to the farm, stopping at intervals to form a line and volley shoot as the Zulus got ever closer keeping them at bay. Its was for this action that he was awarded the Victoria Cross. While Lieutenant Henry Hollingworth Harward received the Contemp of fellow officers.

So why did he not take charge of the situation?

The Court-martial was held at Fort Napier, Pietermaritzburg and was in session between 20th-27th February.

Part of Harward’s defence was that he had only joined the convoy escort the night before and could not form a proper laager with just two wagons. When his command began to disintegrate, he had decided to ride to get help. Much to the surprise of many and the fury of Wolseley, the Court acquitted Harward of all charges and he was allowed to return to his regiment.

Wolseley could not alter the verdict but he refused to confirm the Court’s findings, adding his own view.

“That a Regimental Officer who is the only Officer present with a party of men actually and seriously engaged with the enemy, can, under any pretext whatever, be justified in deserting them, and by so doing, abandoning them to their fate. The more helpless a position in which an officer finds his men, the more it is his bounden duty to stay and share their fortune, whether good or ill.”

When the findings and Wolseley’s comments reached London, the Duke of Cambridge, the Commander in Chief of the Army, instructed them to be read out as a General Order to every regiment.

With his army career in tatters, Harward had little option but to resign his commission, which he did on arriving at Kings Town on 11th May.

Colour-Sergeant Booth was summoned from his station in Ireland to Windsor Castle, where the Queen presented him with the Victoria Cross on 26th June 1880. The citation reads.

“For his gallant conduct on the 12th March 1879, during the Zulu attack on the Intombi River, in having when considerably outnumbered by the enemy, rallied a few men on the south bank of the river, and covered the retreat of fifty soldiers and others for a distance of three miles. The Officer Commanding 80th Regiment reports that, had it not been for the coolness displayed by this non-commissioned Officer, not one man would have escaped.”

Booth’s conduct and that of another 80th man, Private Samuel Wassall, who won the VC at Fugitives’ Drift, gave the Regiment justifiable pride in what had been a less than a glorious campaign.

Through the misplaced confidence and casual approach to defending the camp, Captain Moriarty was held to blame for the poorly arranged laager. However, just like Dalton at The Battle of Isandlwana he had been killed so could not defend himself.

His superior, Major Tucker, was deemed at fault for not insisting on the wagons being pushed together when he had voiced his reservations about the laager.

Lieutenant Harward’s alleged cowardice in not only abandoning his men but also precipitating the large scale flight of most of his command was an action that did happen all too often during the Zulu War and caused consternation with leaders like Wolseley, Wood and Buller.

The attempt by Tucker to cover up a fellow officer’s cowardice at the expense of recognising Sergeant Booth’s part obviously caused comment and resentment within the Regiment.

When the truth was revealed to Wolseley, Tucker all but admitted that he had concealed the facts in order to protect Harward and the Regiment’s reputation.
Tucker’s role in this matter did not seem to have affected his career for he ended as a Major General and Colonel of the South Staffordshire Regiment (the amalgamation of the 80th & 38th Regiments) until he died in 1935 at the age of ninety-seven.

I find the Zulu campaign fascinating as there so many cockups in it that its a wonder we won. It also throws up one more fascinating aspect. For a short war, 23 soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross. It shows throughout all the cockups the bravery of the men under the command of what can only be described as fools was exemplary.



Graham Charles Lear

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