In December 1878 the British declared war on the Zulus, the warrior tribe of present-day South Africa. The rather flimsy pretext was border troubles between Zululand and the British state of Natal; the real aim was to destroy the Zulu army, the last remaining native force threatening British interests in the area, and to absorb Zulu territories into a British-run confederation of states. The British commander, Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford, drafted a plan to invade Zululand with three columns, the central one aimed at the capital of Ulundi, the heart of the kingdom.
Many Englishmen in Natal were thrilled at the prospect of war and at the potential benefits of taking over Zululand, but no one was as excited as fortyeight-year-old Colonel Anthony William Durnford. For years Durnford had bounced from one lonely British Empire outpost to another, finally ending up in Natal. In all his years of military service, Durnford had not once seen action. He yearned to prove his valor and worth as a soldier, but he was approaching the age when such youthful dreams could no longer be fulfilled. Now, suddenly, the impending war was sending the opportunity his way.
Eager to impress, Durnford volunteered to organize an elite force of native soldiers from Natal to fight alongside the British. His offer was accepted, but as the British invaded Zululand in early January 1879, he found himself cut out of the main action. Lord Chelmsford did not trust him, thinking his hunger for glory made him impetuous; also, for someone with no battle experience, he was old. So Durnford and his company were stationed at Rorke’s Drift, in western Zululand, to help monitor the border areas with Natal. Dutifully but bitterly, Durnford followed his orders.
In the first days after the invasion, the British failed to locate the main Zulu army, only trickles of men here and there. They were growing frustrated. On January 21, Chelmsford took half of the central column, which was encamped at the foot of a mountain called Isandlwana, and led it east in search of the Zulus. Once he had found the enemy, he would bring the rest of his army forward–but the elusive Zulus might attack the camp while he was away, and the men at Rorke’s Drift were the closest reserves. Needing to reinforce Isandlwana, he sent word to Durnford to bring his company there. As colonel, Durnford would now be the highest-ranking officer at the camp, but Chelmsford could not worry about Durnford’s leadership qualities–the impending battle was the only thing on his mind.
Early on the morning of January 22, Durnford received the news he had been waiting for all his life. Barely able to contain his excitement, he lead his four hundred men east to Isandlwana, arriving at the camp at around 10:00 A.M. Surveying the land, he understood why Chelmsford had put his main camp here: to the east and south were miles of rolling grassland–Zulus approaching from that direction would be seen well in advance. To the north was Isandlwana, and beyond it the plains of Nqutu. This side was a little less secure, but scouts had been placed at key points in the plains and at the mountain passes; attack from that direction would almost certainly be detected in time.
Shortly after his arrival, Durnford received a report that a seemingly large Zulu force had been spotted on the plains of Nqutu heading east, perhaps to attack Chelmsford’s half of the central column from the rear. Chelmsford had left explicit orders to keep the 1,800 men at Isandlwana together. In case of attack, they had enough firepower to defeat the entire Zulu army-as long as they stayed concentrated and kept their lines in order. But to Durnford it was more important to find the main Zulu force. The British soldiers were beginning to grow edgy, not knowing where this vaporous enemy was. The Zulus had no cavalry, and many of them fought with spears; once their hiding place was uncovered, the rest would be easy–the superior weaponry and discipline of the British soldiers would prevail. Durnford thought Chelmsford was too cautious. As senior officer at the camp, he decided to disobey orders and lead his 400 men northeast, parallel to the plains of Nqutu, to find out what the Zulus were up to.
As Durnford marched out of the camp, a scout on the plains of Nqutu saw a few Zulus herding cattle some four miles away. He gave chase on his horse, but the Zulus disappeared into thin air. Riding to the point where they had vanished, he stopped his horse just in time: below him lay a wide, deep ravine, completely hidden from the surface of the plains, and crowded into the ravine, as far as he could see in both directions, were Zulu warriors in full war regalia, an eerie intensity in their eyes. They seemed to have been meditating on the imminent battle. For a second the horseman was too stunned to move, but as hundreds of spears were suddenly aimed at him, he turned and galloped away. The Zulus quickly rose and began clambering out of the ravine.
Soon the other scouts on the plains saw the same terrifying sight: a wide line of Zulus filling the horizon, some 20,000 men strong. Even from a distance, it was clear that they were moving in formation, each end of their line coming forward in a shape resembling horns. The scouts quickly brought word to the camp that the Zulus were coming. By the time Durnford received the news, he could look up to the ridge above him and see a line of Zulus streaming down the slope. He quickly formed his own men into lines to fight them off while retreating to the camp. The Zulus maneuvered with incredible precision. What Durnford could not see was that the men in the left tip of the horn were moving through the tall grass toward the rear of the camp, to link up with the other end of the horn and complete the encirclement.
The Zulus facing Durnford and his men seemed to grow out of the earth, emerging from behind boulders or from out of the grass in ever-greater numbers. A knot of five or six of them would suddenly charge, throwing spears or firing rifles, then disappear back into the grass. Whenever the British stopped to reload, the Zulus would advance ever closer, occasionally one reaching Durnford’s lines and disemboweling a British soldier with the powerful Zulu spear, which made an unbearable sucking sound as it went in and out.
Durnford managed to get his men back into camp. The British were surrounded, but they closed ranks and fired away, killing scores of Zulus and keeping them at bay. It was like target practice: as Durnford had predicted, their superior weaponry was making the difference. He looked around; the fight had turned into a stalemate, and his soldiers were responding with relative confidence. Almost imperceptibly, though, Durnford noticed a slight slackening in their fire. Soldiers were running out of ammunition, and in the time it took them to open a new crate and reload, the Zulus would tighten the circle and a wave of fear would ripple through the men as here and there a soldier in the front lines would be impaled. The Zulus fought with an intensity the British had never seen; rushing forward as if bullets could not harm them, they seemed to be in a trance.
Suddenly, sensing the turning point in the battle, the Zulus began to rattle their spears against their shields and emit their war cry: “Usuthu!” It was a terrifying din. At the northern end of the camp, a group of British soldiers gave way–just a few, panicking at the sight and sound of the Zulus, now only a few yards distant, but the Zulus poured through the gap. As if on cue, those in the circle between the two horns rained spears on the British, killing many and making havoc of their lines. From out of nowhere, a reserve force rushed forward, fanning around the circle and doubling its squeezing power. Durnford tried to maintain order, but it was too late: in a matter of seconds, panic. Now it was every man for himself.
Durnford ran to the one gap in the encirclement and tried to keep it open so that his remaining men could retreat to Rorke’s Drift. Minutes later he was impaled by a Zulu spear. Soon the battle at Isandlwana was over. A few hundred managed to escape through the gap that Durnford had died in securing; the rest, over fourteen hundred men, were killed.
After such a devastating defeat, the British forces quickly retreated out of Zululand. For the time being, the war was indeed over, but not as the British had expected.