The Battle of Isandlwana (South Africa, January 22, 1879)

The Battle of Isandlwana (South Africa, January 22, 1879)


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Page 6 of 7

Back to square one

Reinforcements are therefore sent en masse to South Africa. Then comes the time to look for responsibilities. Chelmsford is singled out fairly quickly, but he has enough well-placed downforce to deflect the bulk of the criticism on Pulleine and Durnford, two scapegoats convenient since they are dead and cannot defend themselves. After some hesitation, Garnet Wolseley was finally sent to South Africa to replace Chelmsford. This officer became popular for his lightning victory over the Ashantis of the Gold Coast - present-day Ghana - in 1874. However, he would not arrive in Cape Town until June. Paradoxically, the victory of the Zulus plunges their kingdom into the major conflict that Cetshwayo hoped to avoid. The scale of the British defeat at Isandlwana certainly made it a Zulu triumph, but it was also too great not to call for an even greater counter-offensive. The king recalls hisunholy, who returns to Ulundi without pushing his advantage. In doing so, it misses the opportunity to completely crush the Chelmsford column, weakened, and which lost most of its supplies at Isandlwana.

This fact would tend to corroborate Cetshwayo's assertions about his desire to keep the conflict within a limited framework, and to avoid its extension to neighboring Natal. In the same vein, the withdrawal of the forces which assailed Rorke's Drift, while the post seemed able to be taken, suggests that Ntshingwayo then regained control of the regiments of his "rump" and brought them back. in Zulu territory. There is, however, another factor to be taken into account: the Zulus sufferedlosses terrible. Isandlwana is widely estimated to have cost them nearly 1,000 killed and possibly double the injured. Among the latter, many, no doubt, are suffering from infections against which traditional Zulu medicine cannot do much, and will die of their injuries. If we add to this the deaths of Rorke's Drift and a similar proportion of wounded, we can deduce that the Zulu losses are around 4,000 men - about 20% of the strength before the battle. If we remember that eachibutho includes an entire age group of the male population of the kingdom, it is easy to understand what bloodletting could represent the battle of Isandlwana, even victorious, for the Zulus. Whether or not she was ordered to continue the offensive and enter Natal, theunholy commanded by Ntshingwayo was probably too weakened to do anything other than return to base.

Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, January 22-23, 1879. Caption:

A- British camp at Isandlwana.

B- Fugitive's Drift.

C- Lieutenants Melville and Coghill are killed there.

D- The flag lost by Melville is found at this location.

E- After crossing the Buffalo, the Zulu reserve attacks Rorke's Drift.


In the months that followed Isandlwana, in Great Britain, we did not agree. For newspapers and the public alike, the resistance of Rorke's Drift prevented the Zulu hordes from surging into Natal. Nationalism obliges, the defeat of the armed forces of the figurehead of the industrial world by warriors in loincloth, armed only with spears and shields, and black in addition, can not be attributed to any weakness in the character of the British soldier. So the press is drinkingstories of heroism a readership that asks only to be reassured about the intrinsic moral superiority of the nation of which it is a part. The military authorities take advantage of this windfall to put the Isandlwana disaster in the background, and go from there with their couplet. Eleven of the defenders of Rorke's Drift, chosen mainly from the men who fought in the hospital, are thus awarded the highest British military decoration, theVictoria cross. The press also highlights two lieutenants killed in Isandlwana, Melville and Coghill, for their attempt to shelter one of the flags of the 24th regiment on foot. In fact, Melville lost the flag crossing the Buffalo - he would be found on its shores a few weeks later - before being rescued by Coghill; the two men were later caught up and killed. Even so, the myth surrounding them will become so strong that they will receive theVictoria cross in 1903, when it became possible to award it posthumously. Garnet Wolseley himself was not fooled by the very political dimension of these decorations and will openly criticize them, the first ones to the extent that the defenders of Rorke's Drift hospital were forced into heroism because it was the only way to save their lives, and the second because he found it doubtful to hire officers who had tried to escape on horseback while their men on foot were being massacred.

The war goes on

At the end of January 1879, Chelmsford's concerns were a hundred leagues from any medals his soldiers might receive. His only satisfaction comes from column n ° 1: on the very day of the battle of Isandlwana, his advanced elements pushed back, near the Inyezane river, a force of 5 to 6,000 Zulus who were trying to block their path. British casualties were minimal, while the Zulus left 350 dead in the field - the Gatling gun fire was particularly deadly. The next day, the column's vanguard reached an abandoned mission at Eshowe. Pearson wasted no time in receiving a message from Chelmsford announcing the disaster of Isandlwana and ordering him to get on the defensive. Rather than risk an ambush by retreating to Natal, the leader of column n ° 1 decides to resist on the spot. At the beginning of February, he found himself isolated in Eshowe with 1,700 men, and subjected to a distant siege. The Zulus, undoubtedly scalded by their previous losses, did not launch any major attack, but waited for hunger and disease to do their work. In fact, Pearson only has provisions to last until April. At the same time, columns 4 and 5 were also ordered to stop their offensive operations. Less than a month after its outbreak, the British invasion of Zululand is at a standstill, and almost all isto redo.

The month of February does not see any major operation: the Zulus catch their breath while Chelmsford strengthens and reorganizes his army, with a view to delivering Column No. 1 to Eshowe. On March 12, the British received a new snub, this time at the border between Zululand and the Transvaal: a supply convoy blocked by the flooded Intombe river was surprised and annihilated by the Zulus, only three men managing to escape. on the other side on the 86 who defended it. At the head of Column No.4, Colonel Wood reacted by launching retaliatory raids from thelaager strongly fortified which he established at Kambula. He also seeks to weaken the Zulus in the region by taking advantage of their relative independence from Cetshwayo. Relying on a brother-in-law of the king, Hamu, he manages to obtain the rallying of several hundred Zulus, who come to place themselves under the protection of the British. At the beginning of March, therelief army organized by Chelmsford is ready to march on Eshowe, and the general orders Wood to go on the offensive to drain north as many Zulu warriors as possible. Meanwhile, Wood is warned by Hamu sympathizers that Cetshwayo has sent the main body of his troops against him - tenamabutho nine of which were present at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift - commanded by Ntshingwayo himself. He therefore decides to take the lead by attacking the position that the local Zulu forces occupy on the mountain of Hlobane, in the hope of then forcing theunholy Zulu coming to break their teeth on Kambula.

He succeeds, but this success costs him dear. As he led less than 700 men in an encirclement movement against Hlobane, on March 28, Wood was unpleasantly surprised to see Ntshingwayo's army arriving to the aid of the defenders, holed up in caves. The retreat he ordered quickly turned to flight, and 225 British regulars, colonial soldiers, native auxiliaries and rallied Zulus were massacred. Reinforced by local tribes, theunholy Zulu, now 20,000 warriors strong, marched the next day onKambula. The Zulu strategy, dictated by Cetshwayo himself, consists of interposing between Kambula and the British rear base in Utrecht, so as to force Wood to leave the entrenchments of hislaager and crush it in the open countryside. The British officer, who has only 2,000 men with him and rightly fears an attack on Utrecht, launches an sortie intended to attract the Zulus against its fortifications. The inGobamakhosi regiment gets trapped and attacks, dragging the rest of theunholy following him. The Zulus succeed in seizing the camp's cattle pen, but the British infantry and artillery cause them heavy losses, and they fail to gain a foothold inside the camp.laager. Wood's counterattack regains lost ground, after which an exit of the British cavalry turns the Zulu retreat into a debacle. Nearly 800 warriors were killed at Kambula and several hundred others during the pursuit, not to mention the wounded Zulu abandoned and killed by the British during the sweeps that followed. By comparison, the defenders had only 29 dead and 54 injured. Hlobane and Kambula reenact the horror scenes of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, but this time the British have won a major victory. Matched with their losses, the defeat of the Zulus shattered the morale of theirunholy, who withdraws, bruised, towards Ulundi.

On March 13, the army in charge of rescuing Eshowe, commanded by Chelmsford himself, set out. It is an imposing force: it comprises 2,600 British regular infantrymen, 2,000 men of the NNC, around 400 colonial and African cavalrymen, 600 sailors and marines disembarked from their ships (a common practice in colonial conflicts), not counting the artillerymen - serving two cannons, four rocket launchers and two machine guns. It took her several days to cross the flooded Tugela, but on March 29, she began her walk towards Eshowe. This time, Chelmsford does not wish to repeat his Isandlwana mistake and applies his own recommendations to the letter, establishing a solidlaager at each bivouac. Cetshwayo sent theamabutho who did not go to Kambula to bar his way. On April 2, at Gingindlovu, the Zulus assaulted the column at a time when it should break camp, but luckily Chelmsford decided not to advance that day. The 11,000 assailants crash into the rampart of wagons, the fire of their enemies not even allowing them to reach it. In just over an hour, a thousand Zulus were killed in fruitless attacks, and the exit Chelmsford launched at the right time - with, again, no mercy on the wounded. The British had only 11 killed and 62 wounded. The column joined Pearson's forces the next day and on April 6, theyevacuate Eshowe to fall back to Natal.

The Zulus were then too weak to launch new attacks and put themselves on the defensive. Cetshwayo multiplies the peace proposals in Chelmsford, but he rejects them. The general is determined to fully restore his reputation, damaged by the setbacks that marked the start of his campaign, by winning a decisive victory before Wolseley arrives to replace him. He is therefore accelerating preparations fora renewed offensive, despite protests from John Colenso, the Anglican bishop of Natal, who took up the Zulus' cause.


Video: Battle of Isandlwana