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Steven Wilson: Isandhlwana
Steven Wilson: Isandhlwana


About the Author

Born in Ohio and raised in Wisconsin, Steven Wilson has been fascinated by history since he was a child. One of his first books, a birthday present from his aunt, was THE CIVIL WAR by Bruce Catton. He was equally enthralled by motion pictures, working in his great-uncle's theater at the age of seven, hauling tins of un-popped popcorn to the concession counter.

Buy Voyage of the Gray Wolves by Steven Wilson
He's held a variety of jobs including tower clock repairman, factory worker, shoe salesman, stock boy, roofer, construction worker and now, museum curator. Wilson began writing novels in 1993, after a sketchy attempt to write short stories.

His eclectic interests include motion picture history, movie soundtracks, 19th Century military history, and World War II. He works fulltime as a curator and museum consultant and writes part-time. He considers research as least as important as the writing, and plans to write some non-fiction works in the future.

Website: www.huntersandthehunted.com/

E-Mail: readermail@HuntersAndTheHunted.Com

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Less than thirty minutes after the battle started, the British line had been pounded into a rough inverted “L“ with the short leg secured to the camp and the long leg running along a donga, or dry creek bed. There was no hope.

British High Commissioner in South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere had adopted what came to be known as a “forward policy.” The concept was very simple; bring the various British colonies, Boer republics, and African tribes under a common, protective umbrella -- an English umbrella. In effect, Frere would tidy up the situation in South Africa to the extent that Great Britain would provide leadership, control, and direction for the various interests that maintained a fragile co-existence on the Dark Continent in 1878.

Part of the policy was fueled by white arrogance, and part by imperial arrogance; the British Empire was a mighty force although it was just decades shy of its demise in a war to end all wars. Britain had gone to foreign lands and settled petty native squabbles and although there had been some setbacks, England ruled a good portion of the globe because of its mighty navy and its equally mighty, but relatively small, army. These two forces were apt extensions of policy, ready to carry out the will of the government in any part of the world. To each -- the navy and the army -- belonged a string of impressive victories, with more in the offing.

Frere, eyeing the lands of the Zulu king Cetshwayo kaMpande across the Buffalo River, manufactured a reason to invade the Zulu territory. The precept was based on runaway Zulu wives, ridiculous demands by Frere that Cetshwayo disband the Zulu army, and the notion that no Zulu warrior protected by ox hide shields and carrying war clubs and spears, could possibly stand up to Tommy Atkins and a .45 caliber Martini-Henry rifle.

Lt. General Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, led the invasion of Zululand in early January 1879. Lord Chelmsford's force numbered nearly 18,000 British regulars, Natal auxiliaries, volunteers, and irregulars; including a number of Boers who had fought Zulus for years and were well aware of their fighting prowess. Chelmsford split his invasion army into thirds. Number1 column, 4,750 men under Colonel C. K. Pearson, was to move against the Zulu capital (royal kraal), of Ulundi after crossing the Tulega River. Number II column under Brevet Colonel Sir H. Evelyn Wood, with 2,278 men, was to strike for Ulundi as well but via the aptly named Blood River. Chelmsford was to take Number III, the center and largest column of just over 4,700 men, cross the Buffalo River at Roarke's Drift. Two other columns, Number II at Krantzkop and Number V at Luneberg were to guard the border in case of any Zulu counter-invasion. Cetshwayo had no desire to invade British Transvaal, and he certainly didn't want to engage in a war. Frere's policy and Chelmsford's menacing columns drove him to it.

The invasion, like many invasions, did not go as planned because the terrain was inhospitable to wheeled vehicles. Chelmsford's Number III column made its way slowly into Zululand, brushing aside any Zulu force that was fortunate enough to encounter the impressive caravan of 220 wagons, 82 carts, seven cannon, and cavalry and infantry. It was a substantial force and must have looked to those riding in its midst, as unbeatable. Lord Chelmsford's force was a modern army, with modern weapons (including a brace of rocket launchers that were frightening if terribly inaccurate), about to engage a primitive enemy. But as disciplined and professional as the British soldier was, the Zulu soldier was his match, and there were many more of them; the numbers varied -- 20,000 to 40,000 Zulus. Their regiments were as proud and as bound by tradition as a typical British regiment. And they were defending their homeland from invasion.

Chelmsford ordered Number III column, ten days into the campaign and only ten miles from Roarke's Drift, into camp at an unusual promontory called Isandhlwana by the Zulu. Roughly translated the word means “something like a little house,” or a variation suggests “the second stomach of a cow.” What it meant to the men of the column was a chance to rest, and as any infantryman will tell you, that's all they need know. It was to be a temporary camp, Chelmsford decided, and as such he did not employ his own Field Force Regulations , calling for entrenchments. Chelmsford also chose not to laager the large freight wagons. The wagons would have to be off-loaded, Chelmsford explained, and the beds removed from the running gear to create stout walls; a very time-consuming practice. It was inconceivable to Chelmsford that the Zulus would attack such a formidable force, and even if they did, the disciplined concentrated fire of his troops would keep the enemy too far away to use their assegais or iKlawa. What chance did a man with a spear have against a man with a rifle?

The same day that Chelmsford's column went into camp at Isandhlwana, three corps of a Zulu impi (army), arrived some fifteen miles from Number III column's position. Twenty thousand men armed with spears, war clubs and an estimated 15,000 firearms were within striking distance of Chelmsford. The firearms were of various calibers, makes, and condition, and it's unlikely that many of the Zulu warriors who carried the weapons had more than just a passing acquaintance with them. The Zulu guns would play a role in the battle, but no one is certain just how much of an impact they had. What is certain is this; Chelmsford divided his column and on January 22, 1879 went off to investigate the presence of a large Zulu force with 2,500 men. Just three years before another officer split his command in the face of a large enemy force, and paid for it by falling on a barren hill near the Little Big Horn River. Chelmsford was not the only man to make mistakes that day, however.

Command of the camp was turned over to Brevet Lt. Colonel Henry Burmester Pulliene.

Brevet Lt. Colonel A. W. Durnford of the Natal Native Cavalry arrived with his command and learning of Zulus to the left front of the camp, sent a party out to deal with them. Durnford, after ordering his men to eat quickly and be ready for action, sat down to lunch with Pulliene. Word came that Zulu were on the move and might possibly try to flank Chelmsford's command. By twelve noon the camp was on alert and the British and natives troops were moving into position to counter the Zulu army which was coming down off a plateau in a sweeping movement. The Zulu tactic was a standard one; the horns and chest of a buffalo. The center, or chest, of the Zulu force advances, and when the enemy moves to engage it, the horns encircle the attacking force, outflank and strike it from the rear. It appears that either Pulliene or Durnford certain of where and when the Zulus would strike because their counter-measures were a series of probing strikes that extended the British lines. This reaction deprived them of their most effective weapon; mass, concentrated, sustained firepower.

When it became apparent that three British companies and a detachment of the Natal Native Cavalry on the left were in danger of being cut off by the advancing Zulus, Pulliene ordered a withdrawal. He sent a company forward to support the retreat. By this time the right flank was hotly engaged firing volley after volley into the massed Zulu ranks. The rifle fire was telling, whole rows of Zulu warriors fell, but the charge did not stop. The barrels of the Martini-Henrys grew too hot to hold from the sustained fire and there was danger of the pieces fouling but the British soldiers continued firing because if there were any respite in the fire, the Zulus would be on top of them.

Less than thirty minutes after the battle started, the British line had been pounded into a rough inverted “L" with the short leg secured to the camp and the long leg running along a donga, or dry creek bed. There was no hope. A Zulu force was swinging in behind the camp, another was flanking the line below the donga, and thousands of Zulus were rushing straight at the rapidly dwindling British line. The fighting was ferocious, Zulus throwing the bodies of the dead on British bayonets to break the line; British soldiers, out of ammunition or out of time to load, wielding their rifles like clubs, braining any Zulu who came within arm's reach.

The artillery, if it had been properly placed and utilized, might have made a difference. Canister fired into massed ranks would kill or wound scores of Zulus. But there had been no time to fully deploy the guns, and they were soon overrun. The rocket battery fared even worse then their elder brother, getting off no more than a single volley before the rocketeers fell. At some point there was a lull in the British fire and the Zulus rushed in among the red coats in an instant and began the slaughter. There has been controversy over the proper issuance of ammunition and the difficulty of opening ammunition boxes, with the resulting theory that the men simply ran out of ammunition. Recent evidence suggests otherwise; there was plenty of ammunition for the red-coated soldiers, there simply were too many Zulus.

The numbers are open to debate; over 1,300 British soldiers and their allies killed, perhaps 3,000 Zulus. Fifteen percent of the attacking force killed -- tack on a conservative 1,500 wounded and you have a casualty rate of nearly 25 percent. Those of Number III column that survived the debacle at Isandhlwana (and again, the numbers vary), fled towards Fugitive's Drift. A few made it to safety, many did not.

Any examination of defeat requires sifting through the ruins to sort out the “what ifs.” It could always be said that studies were conducted to find out the truth of the incident but even those present, if they could have given their account, would have been hard-pressed to define the truth of what happened.

What if the British line had been uniformly drawn up in a concentrated manner so that the firepower (the future Battle of Ulundi illustrates just how unassailable a British square anchored on artillery could be), of the infantry supported by the artillery could keep the Zulu at bay? What if the wagons had been laagered or fortifications erected? What if Chelmsford had been warned of the camps peril and returned with his column to catch the Zulu impi in a pincer movement?

What ifs are rare and should only be applied sparingly to disasters and out-right defeats. Isandhlwana was both -- but the question is, considering the fate that awaited the Zulu empire and Cetshwayo, for whom?

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© 2005 All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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