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Battlefields of Rorks Drift and Islandwana

The Anglo Zulu War of 1879 is famous for the great battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift.

Survivors from Isandlwana crossed the Buffalo River at a place forever after named "The Fugitives' Drift" and this spectacular property, a Natural Heritage Site, overlooking the "sphinx" of Isandlwana and the Oskarberg at Rorke's Drift, includes the site where Lieutenant Melvill and Lieutenant Coghill lost their lives saving the Queen's Colour of the 24th Regiment.

The late David Rattray and his wife Nicky, pioneers of Heritage Tourism in South Africa, have created an award winning lodge for visitors to savour this extraordinary saga.
Fugitives' Drift is renowned for its battlefield tours to all the Zulu War and Anglo-Boer War battle sites in the region. Our flagship tours to Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift are led by registered tour guides who are superb storytellers, making the history of that day come alive, and long, family associations with the area and its people allow us to offer you some unique, Zulu perspectives. Learn in gripping detail of the bravery and mobility of the Zulu army that defeated the British, on the Day of the Dead Moon. Listen at sunset to the famous story of Rorke's Drift, where 100 British soldiers were attacked by 4,000 Zulu warriors, winning more Victoria Crosses than in any other battle in history.

Isandhlwana
No.3 or Centre Column began crossing the Buffalo in thick mist and drizzling rain at 4.30am on the 11th January. The advance was led by the mounted troops and the N.N.C., some of whom drowned in the river, which came upto their necks. The less expendable battalions of the 24th crossed on flat-bottomed ponts, operated by the Royal Engineers. They were covered by Lieutenant-Colonel Harness' battery of N/5 Royal Artillery.

A bridgehead was established without opposition and the whole day was spent getting the column across while Chelmsford rode north to confer with Colonel Evelyn Wood of the left column, his last opportunity.

Before the column could advance, a Zulu kraal commanding the track had to be captured to allow the Natal Pioneers to reinforce the track. The task fell to the 1/3rd NNC commanded by George Hamilton-Browne. He had contempt for his command, save for three of his companies which were formed from renegade Zulus. Encouraged by the bayonets of four supporting companies of 1/24th, the 1/3rd NNC attacked Sihayo's kraal on 12th January. The Zulu companies showed themselves proud and the position was taken along with a quantity of sheep and cattle captured.

The next few days were taken up with improving the track and moving the transport forward. The mounted troops scouted ahead towards Isipezi Hill. No Zulus were seen and an intermediate campsite was found with good fuel and water. From here a further advance could be made to Ispezi which lay beneath Isandhlwana hill some 10 miles along the track. Chelmsford decided to form an advanced base there so that the wagons could be offloaded and sent back to Rorke's Drift for fresh supplies. At noon on the 20th January, the wagons were left behind as the column reached Isandhlwana and began setting up camp.

The hill at Isandhlwana runs north for about 400 yards from its highest point just north of the track leading up from the Buffalo, until it drops sharply. The ground rises again for about 1,500 yards along a spur up to the Nqutu plateau. The plateau stretches north and east towards Isipezi Hill 10 miles away, forming the northern boundary of the plain, which is some 4 miles away. The track to Ulundi runs across the plateau to the east of Isandhlwana. South of the track and forming the southern boundary of the plain lie the Malakata, Inhlazatye and Nkandhla hills. The southern edge of the plateau forms an escarpment, broken at various places down which streams flow and the track spur runs down to Isandhlwana. The streams flow to join in wide ditches known as 'dongas' and cross the plain in a north-south direction.

The east of the plateau is wide open with no cover except among the boulders and dongas, the force had a fine field of fire with its back to Isandhlwana, observation reaching out to the escarpment and a conical hill to the east of Isandhlwana and the Malakatas. Only where the northern spur joined the plateau was there an opportunity for an enemy to get round and strike in close to the hill.

The column did not put the standing orders of entrenchment into effect, probably because of the stony ground, but no breastworks were built or obstacles placed to slow an enemy attack. Several of the experienced officers of the 24th expressed concern.

On the morning of the 22nd January, Chelmsford divided the force, sending out mounted troops and sixteen companies of the 3rd NNC to scout the south-east for the Zulu army and sent other patrols out in other directions, The main patrol, under Dartnell, encountered 1,500-2,000 Zulus some 10 miles from camp who withdrew after a skirmish. Dartnell decided to bivouac for the night as it was getting dark and asked for reinforcements. Chelmsford decided to move out to support Dartnell assuming the Zulu force was a portion of a much larger Zulu force in the area.
The camp at Isandhlwana was left to the command of brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine, who had taken over the 1/24th when Glyn was appointed to command No.3 Column. Pulleine had seen no active service. To defend the 900-yard long collaction of tents and over a hundred wagons and draught animals he had five companies of the 1/24th, G Company and the rear details of the 2/24th, 115 mounted men of the Police, Mounted Infantry and Volunteers. Two guns of N/5 RA, Nos 6 and 9 Companies of the 2/3rd NNC and 13 staff officers and assorted administrative troops.
Chelmsford believed that Pulleine's defences were strong enough to beat off any attack and was not concerned when it was reported that Zulus were heading for the camp in force. Chelmsford stuck to his plan and moved to the new campsite. Chelmsford ordered Glyn to gather his scattered troops and move in the direction of Mangeni valley.

At Isandhlwana, Pulleine set out his protective screen. All the mounted men were deployed as vedettes on the high ground to the north-east and east. Infantry picquets were in an arc, with two companies of the 24th guarding the right front and flank, extended in posts of four from the stony hill right round to the centre where they men the No.9 company of 1/3rd NNC midway between the camp and conical hill, No.5 Company of 2/3rd NNC completed the line. A party under Lieutenant Anstey was sent out to repair the track and the rest of the camp settled down to its normal routine. Just before 8am a trooper galloped down from the spur to report a large force of Zulus approaching from the north-east across the Nqutu plateau.

Pulleine sent off a message to Chelmsford and called in the road party and the 24th companies on picquet, but left the NNC companies in position. He sounded the 'fall in'. All remained quiet until 10am when five troops of Natal Native Horse, followed by the rocket battery and two companies of the 1/1st NNC rode upto Isandhlwana. They left their wagons behind on hearing Chard's warning about the Zulus approaching Isandhlwana. The horse, rockets and NNC arrived about 11am. Durnford, who had been commanding the Horse, arrived at the camp and this put Pulleines' position into question. Durnford was more experienced and older than Pulleine as well as having considerable experience in South Africa. Pulleine was willing to hand over command, but Durnford said he and his command would not be staying in camp. They moved out to clear the plateau of scattered parties of Zulus.

Hamilton-Browne who was returning to Isandhlwana was still some 9 miles out as Durnford and Pulleine sat down for an early lunch. They had captured two Zulus, who informed Hamilton-Browne that the impi was close to the camp and was going to attack. Browne sent a message back to Chelmsford but the message did not reach the General until about 2pm.

Receiving a report of 500 Zulus to the north-east moving away east, Durnford decided to ride out with his two remaining troops, the rocket battery and a company to head off this force and asked Pulleine for two companies to support him. Pulleine demurred but gave in under pressure. His adjutant strongly protested at the decrease in the camps' strength and Durnford agreed to leave them behind and at 11.30 rode out of camp. At about midday, a troop of Sikali Horse found the main impi. 20,000 Zulus all packed into a ravine some 5 1/2 miles north-east of the camp and nearly 11 miles north of where Chelmsford was searching for them.

The impi was resting while small detachments gathered food. The troop was pursued as it fell back and joined by another troop. The two horns of the Zulu attack closed in around the camp, Durnford recovered a warning while some 4 miles from the camp as he saw the left horn of the Zulu attack advancing over the skyline to his left front and coming on fast. Durnford extended his troops and opened fire but the enemy was not even slowed and the force began to retire. At about 12.15 messengers reached the camp and Pulleine sounded the Alarm and scribbled a note to Chelmsford about the oncoming enemy force and that he could not break camp now. Pulleine sent F Company 1/24th to plug the gap between Durnfords troops and Cavaye's which were retreating before the right horn of the Zulu attack.

Pulleine now had a dilemma; he had undertaken to assist Durnford who was far out on the plain but his orders were to draw in a compact defence close to the hill. Durnford was also in danger of being cut off as the Zulus began spilling over the lip of the escarpment. Pulleine deployed two guns and some companies to the east of the NNC camas others on the left took up a position to cover the retreat of Cavaye and Mostyn who fell back to form their right front. The whole line was a mile and a half long from Young-Husband on the left to Scott on the conical hill to the east and faced north and north-east. The guns opened fire with shrapnel as the Zulus boiled down the escarpment. Rifle fire was added as the range shortened to half a mile.

On the right, the right horn overran the NNC and rocket battery as it pursued Durnford which picked up Scott from the concial hill and rode hard for the safety of the big donga. On reaching it, he dismounted his men and lined the bank, opening fire on the approaching Zulus. Mounted riflemen galloped down to join Durnford and they succeeded in halting the inGobamakhosi below the conical hill, where the fire of one gun temporarily dispersed them. The gun then returned to its former position.

Pope, commanding G Company of the 2/24th, part of the left defence was threatened by the left horn and wheeled back onto the rocky crest facing east, so that his left linked up with Wardell's H Companies of the 1/24th. At 1.30pm Pulleine's line curved in an arc form the north end of Isandhlwana to a point on the rocky crest 600 yards due east of the centre of the camp, with Durnfords men forward on the right holding the donga.

The Zulu advance wavered in the face of heavy musketry from the 24th. Each time the Zulus rose from cover, the rifle fire drove them down again. Those Zulus armed with rifles returned the fire, but more of their rounds passed overhead. Durnford was running short on ammunition, men were sent back but were refused ammunition from the 1/24th's wagons, not being able to find their own. The whole impi rose for a general advance while the two troop leaders were out of the line. The centre was halted again some 1150 yards short of the line by the 24th companies closing up and firing vollies. The left horn was wavering away and cross-fire from Pope's company extended to its left to encircle Durnford's right. Durnford abandoned his position when he ran out of ammunition and made for the camp to form a new line in front of the tents as the officers went in search of ammunition. This imperilled the whole line, with ammunition not reaching Durnfords men.

Pope had also been forced to fall back to a new position between the big and narrow dongas, just north of the track. Part of the Zulus' left horn was now sweeping south under the cover of a herd of oxen at the 1/24th's tents. Pope's move had exposed the right of the main line. This left only Pope's ninety-odd men between the camp and the Zulu left horn, a gap of about 700 yards between him and Wardell. Puelline ordered the 'Retire' to be sounded as the entire 1/4th were in danger of being outflanked. As the companies fell back the Zulus rushed in. After a fierce flurry of hand-to-hand fighting the guns were got away. Those of the native Horse who could, rode away, bereft of ammunition,. Some 85 Europeans reached Helpmakaar these being chiefly of N/5 and the Mounted Infantry. Most of the Basuto and Edendale troops got clear and many of the NNC made their escape.

The gun detachments of N/5 fought their way through the camp, losing fifty men in an attempt to save the guns but further on two guns were lost, one overturned and another was halted by a ravine. The 24th fought to the bitter end at Isandhlwana. When their ammunition ran out they fought with bayonets in squares until the Zulus finally overcame them by sheer weight of numbers. Only two bandsmen and a groom of the 24th survived. Three serving with the rocket battery and four with the Mounted infantry had also survived.

As the Queen's Colour of the 1/24th became imperilled, the adjutant, Melvill, was ordered to carry it to safety. He rode off and was joined by Lieutenant Coghill who had an injured knee. Both were killed on the Natal bank of the Buffalo river. The Colour was recovered some weeks later. Both men were awarded posthumous Victoria Crosses. Private Wassall of the 80th, serving with the Mounted Infantry also won a Victoria Cross for saving a drowning comrade while crossing the Buffalo under fire at Fugitive's Drift.

The last hours of Isandhlwana were witnessed by Hamilton-Bronwe whose battalion was 5 miles from camp when the impi was discovered. He approached the camp but his battalion was of uncertain calibre and as such, retired. Chelmsford was finally found by a messenger at 2.30pm and was finally convinced of the full extent of the disaster at 3.30pm. Chelmsford immediately decided to retake the camp after a rider reported that the camp was full of victorious Zulus. Glyn's column marched at best speed and reached Chelsmford at just after 6pm. Chelmsford ordered the advance with the 2/24th in the centre flanked by the Volunteers and Mounted Infantry on the wings. By the time they approached Isandhlwana it was dark. Over 1,200 men in the camp and nearly 500 of Durnfords men had been slain.

Rorke's Drift
In January 1879 the British invaded KwaZulu in South Africa, without the sanction of the Home Government, in a war brought about by the misguided policy of "Confederating" Southern Africa under the direction of the Governor-General Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere. The fiercely indepedent AmaZulu people refused to lay down their arms and accept British rule over the Sovereign Kingdom. The British General Officer Commanding, Lord Chelmsford, despite having abundant military intelligence on the AmaZulu, had a misconceived idea of the fighting prowess of his enemy. The result was that on 22nd January a British force of seventeen hundred strong, was attacked and only some four hundred men, of whom only some eighty Europeans, survived at a place called Isandhlwana.

Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande commanded an impi, the Undi 'corps' of 4,500. His men had played little part in the action at Isandhlwana, but goaded on by his men, and despite the orders of his brother, King Cetshwayo kaMpande, not to cross the Buffalo River into Natal, he chose to attack the British supply base close to a river crossing known as Rorke's Drift, which the AmaZulu called KwaJimu.

The post was established in a trading store-cum-mission station that consisted of a dwelling house and a chapel, both sturdily built of stone. The house was doing temporary duty as a field hospital, the chapel was full of stores and there were only 104 men who were fit enough to fight. The command of the post had passed to Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers, when Major Henry Spalding of the 104th Regiment left on the morning of the 22nd January. Commanding a company-strength was Lieutenant Bromhead of the 24th Regiment.* James Langley Dalton, a volunteer serving as an Acting Assistant Commissary and a former Staff Sergeant, ordered the construction of barricades connecting the two buildings with sacks of corn, and an inner barricade with biscuit boxes.

When the Zulus attacked, wielding their short stabbing assegais, they were unable to reach the men behind the barricades and they were blasted by rifle fire at point blank range. Most of those who did mount the breastwork were repulsed by the bayonets of the defenders. Some of the Zulus were armed with rifles, purchased from unscrupulous traders, but they were not trained marksmen and the British soldiers were able to pick them off at long range.

After a number of unsuccessful attacks the Zulus set fire to the hospital, burst in and began to spear the patients. A private named Alfred Henry Hook, a Gloucestershire man, kept them at bay with his bayonet while his friend John Williams hacked holes in the wall separating one room from another and dragged the patients through one by one, the last man had dislocated his knee. Williams had to break the other to get him out of a window and into the yard where the barricades offered some protection.

Fighting went on all night in the fitful glare from the blazing hospital as the Zulus made charge after charge on the barricades. Both sides fought with desperate courage. A patient from the hospital, a Swiss born adventurer Christian Ferdnand Schiess, stabbed three Zulus in quick succession after he had clambered over the breastwork. In the yard Surgeon James Henry Reynolds tended to the wounded, oblivious to the life and death struggle going on all around him.

Those too badly hurt to shoot propped themselves up as best they could and reloaded the guns, and re-supplied ammunition to those who were still on their feet.

When dawn came at last, the Zulus drew off taking their wounded with them and leaving at least 351 dead around the barricades. Later Lord Chelmsford arrived on the scene with a column of British Soldiers.

Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead were both awarded the Victoria Cross, as were the redoubtable privates Alfred Hook, Frederick Hitch, Robert Jones, William Jones, Corporal Allen, James Langley Dalton and Pte. John Williams. Surgeon Reynolds got the Cross for tending the wounded under fire; and the Swiss volunteer Christian Schiess - the first to a soldier serving with South Africa forces.

About the Author

A must for the history buffs! The Anglo Zulu War of 1879 is famous for the great battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift for your Holidays to South Africa.



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