iSandlwana: The Zulu Victory part 3.


The Battle of iSandlwana began by accident on the 22nd of January 1879. The large Zulu Impi, resting from their arduous march from the royal capitol at oNdini in the Ngwebeni valley just east of the iSandlwana Mountain, were intending to keep a low profile until the next day but fate intervened.

First Shots.

“At first we had not intended attacking the camp that day as the moon was wrong”
Warrior of the uMbonambi

“We were lying without any intention of fighting, although we were ready to engage them if they started. We lay right under their noses to put temptation in their way and make them start fighting…”
Nsuzi Mandla

Scouts had been sent out that morning to search for supplies. While foragers spread out in search of breakfast the senior Izinduna observed the camp and discussed what to do.

“We could see the English outposts quite close to us, we could also see the position of their camp. The outposts evidently saw us, for they commenced to move about and there seemed to be a bustle in the camp, and some were in spanning the wagons and others were getting in the oxen”
Meholokazulu kaSihayo, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

“… We did not know that the army had been divided, as we did not send spies into their camp

“All right, we will see what they are intending to do”
Ntsingwayo kaMahole, commanding General, Royal Impi.

“Just as the sun was beginning to light the tops of the hills we heard firing. We listened for a while and then said to ourselves “There is going to be no fighting today… Because there is no moon” being hungry we took no more notice of the firing, but started to collect the mealies we had been cooking over our fires…”
Mhlahlana Nguni, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

The challenges at oNdini and rivalries of the amabutho no played a part as the uKhandempemvu thought:

“… The iNgobamakhosi were engaged [and] we went up from the valley to the top of Ingqutu, which was between us and the camp”
uGuku, uKhandempemvu ibutho.

Also with the late ceremonies in mind was the uNokhenke:

“…we were sitting resting and we armed and ran forward in the direction of the sound”
Anonymous, uNokhenke ibutho.

Both were mistaken in thinking the battle had begun without them, gaining the heights they saw that

“the Ngobamakosi were not engaged, but were quietly camped lower down the valley”
uGuku, uKhandempemvu ibutho.

Each witness recorded the spontaneous and unexpectedly sudden rush to action.

“we were soon told, that it was the White troops fighting with Matyana’s people some ten miles away to our left front, and returned to our original position… Just after we sat down, a small herd of cattle came past out line from our right, being driven by some of our scouts, and just when they were opposite the umCijo [uKhandempemvu] regiment, a body of mounted men on the hill to the west, galloped evidently trying to cut them off. When several hundred yards off they perceived the umCijo and dismounting, fired on volley and then retired. The umCijo at once jumped up and charged, an example which was taken up by the uNokhenke and Nodwengo on their right and the inGobamakhosi and and uMbonambi on their left”
Warrior of the uNokhenke ibutho.
“It was decreed though that we were not to enjoy eating them because while we were gathering them on of our induna arrived and told us to arm ourselves and get ready for the fight. While we were doing so, the White men were already firing with the Ukandempemvu”
Mhlahlana Nguni, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

“When the day dawned my chiefs were again consulting about sending to the English before fighting… But suddenly they heard the roar of guns and saw he dust and smoke rising up to heaven, and our foragers rushing back to camp, and saying “The cavalry was near”. Then the Chiefs knowing that the work of death was being executed, broke up the meeting and went to their different regiments”
King Cetshwayo kaMapande

“The Zulu regiments were all lying in the valley… But the Umcityu (uKhandempemvu) made their appearance under the Nqutu range and were seen by the mounted men of the English forces, who made at the Umcityu, not seeing the main body of the army. They fired, and all at once the main body of the Zulu army arose in every direction, on hearing the fighting. The attention of the English mounted troops was drawn to the few men who had exposed themselves under the range, and before these mounted men knew were they were the main body of the Zulus got up and swarmed in every direction. On their seeing we were so numerous they retired, and the UKhandempemvu regiment fired…”
Meholokazulu kaSihayo, Ngobamakhosi ibutho

Zulu amabutho charge by Jason Askew.
Zulu amabutho charge by Jason Askew.

No Going Back.
Now was all action, speed and adrenaline.

“The whole impi became very excited and sprang up”,
Warrior of the uMbonambi.

“This is the King’s day!”
Brother of Mhlahlana Nguni iNgomamakhosi

“At once [the British cavalry] found themselves in the close embrace of the Kandempemvu even as tobacco [is mixed] with aloes. The Zulu General’s forbade [an attack], seeking to help the White men. But the regimental officers simply mutinied. They marched forward; they went into battle. They [Zulus and enemy] were rolled along together towards Isandhlwana…”
A Zulu boy’s recollections.

“We sped on at the lope like a pack of wolves, spurning the dust with our feet as we passed. Men leaped aloft like spring-bok in their eagerness to get forward to the first view of the enemy. So, running leaping we swept up to the crest of the ridge…”
Conglomeration of many oral retellings to R. Lee.

Ntsingwayo moved just as quickly to form a reserve lest the impetuous attack fail at the onset.
The uThulwana, iNdlondlo, iNdluyengwe and uDloko

“formed a circle and remained were they were. With the latter were the two commanding officers, Mavumengwana and Tshingwayo, and several of the king’s brothers”
Warrior of the uNokhenke

“Ntshingwayo kaMahole at [iSandlwana] declaimed the praises of Senzangkhona and Shaka, and holding up his shield said “This is the love charm of your people” as he said this he shook his shield and said “You are always asking why this person is loved so much”. It is caused by the love charm of your people. There is no going back home”
Ndukwana kaMbengwan.

“We heard firing on top of the rise and as soon as we got on the top we saw the Ukandempemvu and the White men at grips with each other. We were then brought round to get in line with the Ukandempemvu…”
Mhlahlana, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

The rapid lunge into action caused a displacement of the accepted order of battle.

“The original Zulu left became their extreme right, while their right became their centre, and the centre the left”
Warrior of the uNokhenke.

The British cavalry retired in controlled stages, and the Zulus advanced in rushes of 10 or 20 metres at a time until they reached the cone shaped amaTutshane kopje, to avoid casualties.

“As long as they fired we kept still, but as soon their shooting ceased, and they retired to their camp on their horses, we followed, making the impi into the shape of horns”
uNzuzi Mandla, uVe ibutho.

Suddenly a strange and confusing weapon began assailing the iNgobamakhosi. Rockets.

“Mbane, mbane wezulu, kuyacwazimula,
Langa, langa, amaZulu, liyashisha konke!”
(lightning, lightning of heaven, it glitters and it shines; the sun, the sun of the Zulus, it consumes all!)
Manzi kaShodo, praise singer, iNgobamakhosi.

Suddenly the entire ibutho, voice by voice took up the song, mocking the rockets, and 3,000 voices roared the challenge over the grass. The first volley from the Zulu skirmishers fulfilled the prophecy. The iNgobamakhosi and uVe drove forwards, sweeping around the conical hill and pushing back a line of irregular cavalry.

“There is a little red hill which overlooks Isandhwlwana within sight of the camp, and thence the Ngobamakosi, to which I belong, came in contact with two companies of mounted men. This was on the left… We were on the height looking down. Some of these mounted men had white stripes on their trousers; there were also men dressed in black, but none of the Native Contingent on the brow of the hill. The Ngobamakosi and uVe regiments attacked on this side. The English force kept turning and firing, but we kept on; they could not stop us…”
Meholokazulu kaSihayo, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

A young ibutho advances. Picture by the author.
A young ibutho advances. Picture by the author.

Dying by hundreds.
The cavalry conducted a fighting retreat until they reached the drift across the Nyogane stream, already held by a handful of horsemen, the water was running ankle deep, but here they dug in.

“On the side of this little hill, there is a donga, into which the mounted men got, and stopped our onward move there; we could not advance against their fire any longer. They had drawn their horses into this donga and all we could see were their helmets”
Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

As the destructive fire poured from the lip of the donga, men began to fall, terribly wounded. Suddenly all those boasts back at oNdini began to take on a very real and dire meaning.

“Some of our men had their arms torn right off… The battle was so fierce that we had to wipe the blood and the brains of the killed and wounded from our heads, faces, arms, legs and shields after the fighting…”
Inkosi Zimema.

“We started to creep towards the enemy on our hands and knees, but they shot at us so badly that we came back to get our hearts again”
Mhlahlana Ngune, uVe ibutho.

The youngsters of the uVe began extending to their left, meanwhile the iNgobamakhosi came up behind them and attempted to take the donga by executing a series of rushes, throwing themselves flat as the British fired. However the cavalry were utilising independent fire. Rushing forwards Mehlokazulu tried to lead his company forwards, were caught by this fusillade and all but him fell dead and wounded.

“I fought at the Isandlhwana battle and received four bullet wounds on my body, the one on my left leg below the knee dropped me down but I soon got up, the three others were flesh wounds… We fell down by hundreds, but still we advanced, although we were dying by hundreds we could not retreat because we had encircled them.
I, with many others, adopted the style of crouching as we advanced in order to avoid the bullets as our shields could not stop them. While crouching I received a wound on my back, the bullet entered over the shoulder blade and came out lower down, it only made a flesh wound. All four wounds are still visible. The soldiers were entrenched, [in the Nyogane] it was a fight in the open…”
Mlamula Matebula, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

“When the firing became heavy – too hot – we retired towards the left wing”
Mehlokazulu kaSihayo iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

To add to the heady atmosphere of adrenaline, fear, death, heat and noise came British shells. The projectiles came screaming overhead from the camp to burst in the air above the Zulu masses. Those of the uVe trying to outflank the donga saw them, or rather heard them zoom through the sky towards the troops, of the centre, now cresting the ridge from the Ngwebeni valley.

“The “bye-and-bye” fired at the uKhandempemvu and uMbonambi only when they were approaching. The bye-and-bye were in front of the wagons, [possibly their own limbers] about 50 feet in front, and they kept growling ZU-ZU-ZU-ZU-ZU; I should say they fired about 60 times but I was so excited I could not say for certain – but over thirty times anyway.”
Mangwanana Mchunu, uVe ibutho.

A British line now stretched roughly from the donga, curving back to the mountain, the centre composed of regular infantry in open order, laying down a destructive fire pattern across a wide front. However the extending arc of the expanding impi was forcing the British to fight two battles, one against the Zulu left, and the other against the looming centre now dropping down onto the exposed slope overlooking the camp.

“Here… [near the rocket troop position], there were parties of soldiers in red coats who kept up a heavy fire upon us as we came over. My regiment was here and lost a lost allot of men; they kept tumbling over one upon the other (the narrator became quite excited, and indulged in much gesticulation illustrating the volleys by cracking his fingers like pistol shots.) The Ngobamakosi regiment, which formed the left horn of the impi, extended and swept round on the south of the rocket hill so as to outflank the soldiers, who seeing this, fell back and took cover in that donga (pointing to the donga which intersects the field about a mile from the camp), and fired on us from there. By that time the Ngobamakosi had got among the “paraffin” (rockets) and killed the horses, and were circling round so as to shut in the enemy camp on the side of the river, but we could not advance, the fire from the donga was too heavy”
Warrior of the uMbonambi ibutho.

The chest of the impi was now becoming engaged, they had followed up in the wake of the right horn, which was travelling behind the ridge out of sight. On the right of the centre, the uNokhenke, had rushed over ridge and been met by main British infantry line anchored on iSandlwana, under the devastating fire, they had recoiled back beyond the skyline. This however left the uKhandempemvu, appearing to their left, to face the torrent of accurate rifle bullets alone. The vicious fire forced the chest to race for cover in the successive rocky dongas that ribbed the plain.

“We then shouted “Izulu!” Again, and got up out of the dongas. The soldiers opened fire on us again, and we laid down”
uGuku. uKhandempemvu ibutho.

“The soldiers who lay on the flat ground in front of the camp, poured volley after volley into the impi; we crouched down and dare not advance”
uMhoti, uKhandempemvu ibutho.

“A lot of our men had been shot down by the enemy, as we were crawling through the grass”
Kumpega Qwabe.

“The Umcityu [uKhandempemvu] suffered very severely, both from artillery and musketry fire; the Nokenke from musketry fire alone; while the Nodwengo [right horn] suffered least”
Warrior of the uNokhenke ibutho.

This killing zone in front of the British line saw the Zulus recall their boasts from oNdini. Commanders yelled out over the din to inspire their men “inqaka amatshe phezulu!”
(Catch the hailstones), conjuring the memory of the uKhandempemvu promising to treat the British bullets with contempt and catch them on their shields. The reality of which became obvious as roads were carved through the Zulus as they tried to advance. They soon learned to identify when the guns were about to fire, and yelled “uMlya!” (The wind) and dropped flat. All along the line the Zulus seemed to be halted by the fire, but the uMbonambi could see a gap between the end of the redcoats and the dismounted cavalry in the donga, and began attempting to exploit it. With Zulus visibly penetrating the line in small groups, and running short of ammunition the British cavalry in the donga, mounted and retreated.

The terrain at iSandlwana. Deceptively flat and rolling, but cut as the ground descends from the iNyoni ridge by dongas.
The terrain at iSandlwana. Deceptively flat and rolling, but cut as the ground descends from the iNyoni ridge by dongas.

Ntsingwayo now arrived on the iNyoni rocks, where he could see the action unfolding like a 3D animated battle map. He saw the uKhandempemvu bunched up in the rocks and gullies of the hillside, he saw the crumbling British right being pressed by the uMbonambi and iNgobamakhosi, however if he could not get the uKhandempemvu to advance the entire impi could get thrashed. He ordered Mkhosana kaMvundlana, a wing commander of the uKhandempemvu, to get his men moving.

Hugging the rocky shelves of the hillside the uKhandempemvu suddenly saw an inkosi appear before them. Walking along their front, dressed in a leopard skin collar, cow tails on his limbs, Crane feathers trailing elegantly from his otter skin headband and with bunches of lourie feathers behind his ears. Striding through a ground mist of flying stone kicked up by British bullets, stepping over corpses he shook his snow white shield at them and yelled

“Uhlamvana ubul’mlilo ubaswe uMantshonga no uNgqelebana kashongo njalo!” (“The little branch of leaves, that extinguished the great fire kindled by [the White men known as] Mantshonga and Ngqelebana gave no order such as this!” It was a call to remind them of the battle of Ndondakusuka when the King had defied the whites)
Mkhosana kaMvundlana, uKhandempemvu ibutho.

“Usutu!” Roared the iKhandempemvu, rising from the rocks and dongas and pouring over the top and into the open, they waved their shields and fired off what guns they had not yet fired, many had not been able to reload after returning fire. As his brave boys rushed towards the enemy Mkhosana turned to watch them go, but as he did was instantly hit by a rifle bullet which hit his forehead and blew the back of his skull off. The brave inkosi, who had just won the battle of iSandlwana swayed for a moment then fell amongst the other dead hero’s of the Zulu nation, on the lip of the donga. But his work was done, in the commotion no one noticed his demise and the uKandempemvu rushed over his body oblivious.

On the left flank, the fire was much less concentrated, especially as the enemy began to run out of ammunition, and the artillery were mostly aimed at the chest.

“It [artillery] only killed four men in our regiment, the shot went over us. When we saw the smoke at the cannons mouth, in a direct line for us, we opened out, and the ball passed and lodged behind. Occasionally a man would run, thinking to avoid it, and the shell would burst and he would be struck. We lay down flat on the ground when we knew a cannon ball was coming, and then rose again after it had passed. When we saw the smoke at the cannon’s mouth, it was an indication to us that the ball was coming, when we heard the report the ball was already with us. There are two reports, that from the cannon’s mouth, and that when the shell bursts… We retired towards the left wing… And they [british cavalry in the Nyogane donga] withdrew… They retired on the camp fearing lest we should enter the camp before they could get into it, and that the camp would not be protected… When they were riding out of the donga and retreating we shot two [Natal] Carabineers… They mounted their horses which they had drawn into the donga with them. The Carinineere were still fighting when the Edendale men got into the camp [the men in the donga consisted of several troops of irregular horse under Colonel Durnford].
Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

The retreat was noticed by officers standing on the conical amaTutshane hill. They also saw how the men were mostly lying down for cover.

“Never did his majesty the King give you this command, to wit, lie down on the ground! His words were, go and toss them into Maritzburg!”
Induna Ndlaka, iNgomabamkhosi ibutho [?].

“up started the Warriors, but again they lay down, being endangered by the bullets. The soldiers hoped and said “Perhaps we have killed them all”…”
A Zulu Boy’s Recollections.

It was then that Mkhosana urged the uKhandempemvu, and the sight of them rushing out of their donga caused a wave of excitement and jealously to pass through the Zulus of the left flank.

“Why are you lying down? What was it you said to the uKhandempemvu? There are the uKkhandempemvu going into the tents… Stop firing. Go in hand to hand!”
Izinduna Sikizane kaNomageje, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

With that the whole lot of us rushed the camp
Nzuzi Mandli, uVe ibutho.

They came hurtling on with the speed of a lightning bolt, dropping every 50 yards, only to leap up again and continue the attack yelling “Usutu!”. A smatter of shots cracked off from the dark wave of running figures as they fired their last shot and then left their guns behind.

“we found that after firing one shot we had no time to load again so we just had to use our spears”
Gumpeka Qwabe

This simultaneous forward movement by the chest and left horn coincided with a disastrous order for the British infantry to fall back. It is likely that it was a command intended to prevent the right flank being turned, however it might just have been the appearance of the right horn appearing behind the camp on the iNyoni ridge, or both. Either way a more concentrated position was required, the bugles sounded cease fire and retire.

“Then at the sound of the bugle, the firing ceased at a breath, and the whole British force rose from the ground and retired on the tents. Like a flame the whole Zulu force sprang to its feet and darted upon them…”
uMhoti, uKhandempemvu ibutho.

The Zulus now swept aside the irregular and native troops on the British right and pressed the redocats hard. Many were now already fleeing, seeing the writing on the wall, and desperate to escape. For many it was not to be.

“… We worked round behind Isandhlwana under cover of the long grass and dongas, intending to join the Ngobamakosi on the neck, and sweep in upon the camp. Then we saw the white men beginning to run away along the road to kwaJim; many of these were cut off and killed, down in the stream which flows through the bottom of the valley. More and more came over, some mounted and some on foot. When they saw that the valley was full of our warriors, they turned to the left and ran along the side of the hill towards Umzinyati (the buffalo); those who had not got horses were soon overtaken. The Nodwengu pursued the mounted men, numbers of whom were killed among the thorns and dongas, but I heard that some escaped. Our regiment went over into the camp. The ground is high and full of dongas and stones, and the soldiers did not see us until we were right upon them”
Warrior of the  uNokhenke ibutho.

“The whole regiment charged the infantry, who formed in two separate parties – one standing four deep with their backs towards Sandhlwana, the other standing about 50 yards from the camp, in like formation. We were checked by the fire of the soldiers standing near Sandhlwana but charged on towards those standing in front of the camp, in spite of a very heavy fire on our right flank from those by Isandhlwana. As we got near we saw the soldiers beginning to fall from the effects of our fire… As we rushed on the soldiers retired on the camp, fighting all the way, and as they got into the camp we were intermingled with them.”
uGuku uKhandempemvu ibutho.

“I suddenly noticed I was fired at by some soldiers who were trying to get back to Isandhlwana. I would have liked to have attacked them but could not get to them. I saw a line of soldiers near the tents who were in a line shoulder to shoulder and I was afraid to go and attack them as they had chucked away their guns which were broken and using them as clubs, and were standing with those small spears that they carried at their sides. I saw them like a fence holding hands against the attackers, and they were soon all killed by the Mkandempemvu and Mbonambi regiments”
Zofikasho Zunga, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

“When I got in sight of [iSandlwana] the whole place was a twisting mass of soldiers and natives fighting – the Mkandempemvu and Umbonambi were all killing, and then we attacked… One can remember little and saw less except for the twisting faces of men”
Sofikasho Zungu, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.

The Battle could be considered won. But the victory was not yet complete. Ahead lay the traumatic destruction of the British infantry, and the redcoats would not go down without a fight.


The Zulus: Ian Knight.
Zulu Rising: Ian Knight.
The Zulu War: Angus McBride.
The National Army Museum Book of the Zulu War: Ian Knight.
The Washing of the Spears: Donald R Morris.
Zulu Warriors: John Laband.
History of the Zulu war and its origin;. London, Colenso, Frances E. (Frances Ellen), 1849-1887. 1880.

Zulu Kings and their Armies, By Diane Canwell

2 Replies to “iSandlwana: The Zulu Victory part 3.”

  1. A beautifully crafted piece with gripping detail, maps and photos that present the facts and capture the visceral spirit of the battle. One can visualise standing-to on the battlefield and facing the sheer volume of advancing chanting Zulus, cascading down over Nyoni Ridge from left to right and, unseen, coming up behind the Isandlwana hill.
    I lived in Dundee as a 9 year old and went to my first Isandlwana memorial service in January 1956 when a friend and I found a buried seam of battlefield debris in a eroded gully in the middle of the camp site. This comprised dozens of strips of twisted copper ammunition strapping with screws, charred pieces of wood, broken jars (“dentifrice paste” I recall) and bottles, brass tent fittings (some with shreds of canvas attached), handfuls of cartridge cases, now in various local museums.
    I last stood on this iconic battlefield in May this year, doing a detailed drone shoot covering the entire battlefield to, after editing, give viewers a better feel of the topography, landmarks and distances involved.
    Having spent many tens of hours fossicking over every meter of the battlefield over the years on numerous visits since my childhood and from extensive reading and studying of literature, my opinion ranks the causes of the defeat as follows:
    The Zulu perspective:
    • British empirical arrogance distorted/diluted their acceptance that the war-honed Zulus were masters of the rough terrain and non-firearm warfare
    • as proven by their successful forward placing of their many regiments of thousands on gently sloping seemingly almost flat grass covered ground and their decoy tactics to the east of the battlefield that led Chelmsford to fatally split his force
    • the Zulu battle formation of “the horns of the bull” was perfectly executed over this wide battlefield area (± 15 sqr kilometres) with their left and right horns finally closing around the entire camp.
    The British perspective:
    • Inadequate scouting cloaked the imminent danger to the camp.
    • With the heavy firing rate at the huge number of warriors, the stretched distances (± 300 meters and more) from the forward placed firing lines back to the ample ammunition supply in camp, created shortages.
    • Sheer numbers of mentally doctored (and hence “bullet-proofed”) Zulu warriors eventually overwhelmed the camp.

    I would gladly share my knowledge and up-to-date experiences with any interested people.

    P.S. My eldest son is named Rorke for obvious reasons!

    1. Wow, thanks so much for your comment Bevin! Really great to read. If you want to get in touch via email and talk about sharing your stories, either here in text or on my YouTube channel, please use the address in the contact page

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