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Queen Victoria's Longest Day

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 "Queen Victoria"

"Queen Victoria"

By the 1870's, the British Empire under the reign of Queen Victoria, was in full acquisition mode and following British colonial secretary Lord Carnarvon's success with federation in Canada, set it's sights on southern Africa.

In 1874, Carnarvon assigned colonial administrator Sir Henry Bartle Frere High Commissioner in the British colony of Natal with the intention of instigating hostilities against the independent states of the South African Republic as well as the Kingdom of Zululand.

Attempts to confederate southern Africa met fierce resistance by the local Cape government, the Cape's black citizens, and the Boer Republics, citing instability and resentment of forced British expansionism into independent states such as Zululand.

In September of 1877, a tribal conflict erupted on the Cape frontier compelling Frere to declare war on the neighboring Gcalekaland state and in February 1878, a small war was waged against the Transkei Xhosa, to intervene in the "ever-present threat of a general and simultaneous rising of Kaffirdom against white civilization" but ultimately as opportunity to annex the states.

Numerous conflicts and growing unrest across the south of Africa influenced Lord Carnarvon's resignation in early 1878.

The Anglo-Zulu War

On December 11, 1878, Frere issued an impossible ultimatum to Zulu king Cetshwayo kaMpande (effectively a declaration of war) uniting the quarrelsome tribes of the Zulu warrior nation towards a common goal - a common enemy.

In A Nutshell

The Zulus, armed only with shields of animal hide, knobkerry battle clubs and short stabbing assegai spears were deemed easy prey by the British who flaunted the latest in military technology and by January of 1879, the war was officially underway.

Invasion of Zululand

Initially, the British Army had formulated a plan to split their expeditionary force of over 15,000 troops under General Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford (Lord Chelmsford) into 5 columns, drive north from Natal into Zululand, encircle, and then occupy Cetshwayo's royal kraal at Ulundi. Anticipating the failure of Cetshwayo to comply, Chelmsford relocated British headquarters from Capetown to Natal's capital, Pietermaritzburg.

Chelmsford modified the plan to 3 invading columns which would act in the Zulu fashion of attacking in the formation of a bull's head, The head, or main force, would be the main body of the attack while the left and right flanking columns would form the horns.

General Chelmsford and the Main Column

Chelmsford's own Number III Centre Column (the main force), commanded by Brevet Colonel R.T. Glynn of the 24th Regiment of Foot, was to advance from Pietermaritzburg, cross the Buffalo River at Rorke's Drift and move eastwards into Zululand in the direction of Ulundi.

As it was the rainy season, progress for the main column was slow from Pietermaritzburg to Greytown and the roads were badly in need of repair, while between Greytown and Helpmekaar, little more than a footpath. Ponts were constructed over the swollen Mooi and Tugela Rivers but the strong currents drowned many personnel and washed carts and animals down-river.

In early January 1879, headquarters were established at Helpmekaar, Natal, where a portion of Number III Column remained, the rest continuing towards the border where by January 9, the column was concentrated at Rorke's Drift on the Buffalo River. Orders were given on January 10th to cross into Zululand and to commence the invasion on January 11th.

After advancing, unopposed, several miles into Zululand, the 7,800 troops of Number III Column went into camp on January 17th at the foot of a large, rocky butte.

The "Horns"

Colonel Charles Pearson's Number I Column to the southwest, the "right horn", was to advance along the eastern coast, protecting the right, while Number IV Column, the "left horn", under Colonel Evelyn Wood, was to advance to the area of Utrecht in northwest Zululand to defend the left flank against Zulu tribes in that region.


Lieutenant Colonel Anthony William Durnford's Number II Column, charged with patrolling the Tugela River to safeguard against Zulus crossing into Natal, consisted of local colonials and black natives of the Natal Native Horse, Natal Native Contingent, and Natal Native Pioneer Corps.

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Number V Column under Colonel Hugh Rowlands, was ordered to Luneberg to keep watch of the Transvaal border to the north in case of Zulu, Boer or Pedi (Basotho) incursion - Transvaal, previously an independent Boer state until it's annexation 2 years prior due to the efforts of British statesman Sir Theophilus Shepstone.

Bulls Head Formation

Bulls Head Formation

22nd January, 1879

Two reconnaissance patrols sent out the previous day under Major J.G. Dartnell and Commandant Rupert Lonsdale, reported Zulu activity in the valley of the Mangeni River, 12 miles to the southeast of the main column encampment.

Before sunrise on the morning of January 22, 1879, Chelmsford anxiously took the 24th Regiment's 2nd Battalion from the main column in pursuit.

Believing that the main Zulu impis (regiments) were lying in wait beyond the eastern hills, Chelmsford failed to order those remaining in camp, the 1st Battalion under an inexperienced Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine, to take a defensive stance by circling (laagering) the wagons and building entrenchments to protect the column's main supply cache. Though pickets were posted, their vision was obscured by the surrounding hills.

First Blood at Nyezane

Meanwhile, Pearson's right flank column advancing north along the coast, crossed the Tugela River where they were ambushed by 2 Zulu impis at the Nyezane River. Though outnumbered 2 to 1, the British easily won the first major engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War, continuing on to the deserted mission station at Eshowe.

British and Zulu Movements 22 January 1879

British and Zulu Movements 22 January 1879

The Humbling of an Empire

The Zulus spotted by Column III reconnaissance parties bad been deployed as a diversionary tactic by Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, second in command of Cetshwayo's army.

With Chelmsford and a majority of the troop strength of the main column "taking the bait", the bulk of the Zulu army, 20,000 strong, crept quietly and out of sight behind the hills northeast of the British encampment.

It is likely that the main Zulu force, having been "doctored" for combat on the evening of the 21st, where preparing to attack on the 23rd, however, it is believed that they may have changed their tactics as events unfolded, noticing that Chelmsford had taken a large portion of the column, leaving the main camp vulnerable.

The Battlefield of Isandlwana 22 January 1879

The Battlefield of Isandlwana 22 January 1879

Arrival of Durnford

Durnford and his mounted Natal Native Contingency arrived at the camp from Rorke's Drift at about 10:30 AM, bringing along a rocket battery. Soon after reaching the camp, Durnford proceeded on to support Chelmsford's probing maneuvers from the rear. Though outranking him by seniority, Durnford allowed Pulleine to command the camp defenses as he saw fit.

Durnford's patrol under Lieutenant Charles Raw, searching the heights east of camp, pursued a party of Zulus over a ridge where they spotted thousands of Zulus in pre-battle meditation grouped in the valley on the opposite side. Themselves being spotted, Raw's troopers retreated with the warriors in pursuit.

The whole Zulu army suddenly appeared, forming in their traditional method, though with some confusion.

One of Durnford’s officers rode back to the camp to warn of the impending attack.

Pulleine, observing Zulus on the hills to his left front, sent word to Chelmsford, which was received by the General between 9:00am and 10:00am. Chelmsford did not seem to be concerned.

Order out of Chaos?

Having just received orders from Chelmsford to break camp and join with the rest of the column to the southeast, Durnford's message arrived, prompting Pulleine to prepare for immediate battle.

Observing only the Zulu center and right horn developing, Pulleine sent all 6 companies of the 24th out to an extended firing line to repel the attack, never spotting the other horn closing in.

Durnford's column engaged with the Zulu center then retreated to a dry gully to form a defensive line. The inaccurate and ineffective Rocket Battery had lagged behind the mounted troops and were easily overrun. As the native troops under his command were armed mostly with muskets and were soon running short of ammunition, many began to flee.

Pulleine, believing that his main role was to support Durnford, sent another company under Captain Mostyn to join Captain Cavaye’s company on the western edge of the escarpment on Durnford's left and 2 guns were moved to the left of the camp with companies to support them.

Disaster Strikes

After drawing his firing lines nearer to camp, Pulleine seemed to be holding off the main attacking force of the Zulu center, but as Durnford withdrew, exposing Pulleine's right flank to the Zulu left horn, began a hasty retreat towards camp

Soon, the right horn of the Zulus racing around the butte, began closing in from the north, and as the British lines began to crumble, groups were formed, where they fought until the ammunition ran out, then hand-to-hand until struck down.

The "horns" of the Zulu attack never achieved total envelopment of the British and their encampment, as they charged in behind the withdrawing British troops, separating them from the camp.

Though some escaped in the direction of Rorke's Drift to the west, most of those fleeing headed through the hills to the southwest, the shortest route to the Buffalo River.

Chelmsford Moves Toward Camp

With Chelmsford's troops in bivouac between the hills of Silutshana and the Magogo, Lieutenant B. Milne was sent to high ground with a telescope to check on the main camp in the distance. A flag signal indicated that the cattle had been driven nearer the camp, causing some curiosity but no sense of urgency.

It was around 2:00 PM before General Chelmsford first made move back to the camp. An officer riding in advance gives this narrative of when he witnessed the camp from it's first view from high ground.

"In a few seconds we distinctly saw the guns fired again, one after the other, sharp. This was done several times -a pause, and then a flash – flash! The sun was shining on the camp at the time, and then the camp looked dark, just as if a shadow was passing over it. The guns did not fire after that, and in a few minutes all the tents had disappeared."

Flight of the Fugitives

When all seemed lost, Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill fled south from the battlefield to save the Regimental Colours. As Melvill and Coghill, among others, made their dash to the Buffalo River, most were overrun by pursuing Zulus.

According to witness accounts, Coghill was caught in the flooding river trying to save the Colours and was rescued by Melvill who had already crossed and then returned. After reaching the other side, both were overtaken and killed near to each other. Though both the Queen's Colours and Regimental Colours of the 24th Regiment's 2nd Battalion (left behind by Chelmsford) were lost, parts of the Colours; the crown, pike and colour case, were eventually recovered.

Of the only 55 survivors who lived to tell the story of the massacre, most were Royal Engineers and Mounted troops who wore dark blue uniforms instead of the traditional bright red tunics of the infantry. The Zulu warriors had been instructed to offer "no quarter" to the enemy in red.

As those fleeing battle were regarded by command as fugitives, the path they took is today known as the "Fugitive Trail", the location where they crossed the river as "Fugitives Drift".

Chelmsford and his troops returned after nightfall and spent the remaining hours of darkness resting amidst the battlefield debris, then early on the 23rd of January, observing the destruction of the previous day, withdrew to take up defensive positions at Rorke's Drift.

Rorke's Drift

Assigned to repair a bridge over the Buffalo River at a Swedish missionary post at Rorke's Drift, Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers met with Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead commanding one company of the 24th Regiment stationed nearby. Hearing the incomprehensible word of the massacre a few miles east and of the Zulu army heading towards them, the young, inexperienced officers had to decide to either withdrawal to Helpmekaar or make a stand. Expecting an attack at any moment, the officers consulted with acting Commissariat Officer J. L. Dalton and made the decision to fortify and hold the position at all costs. Nearly all of the colonial troopers and levies fled.

Defensive walls were constructed by overturning the supply wagons and using mealie bags to build shoulder high walls. The perimeter was formed by a complete northern wall and a southern wall connecting the commissary storehouse with the hospital to the west. From west end to east end, the fortification was roughly 100 yards, it's widest point in the center, about 25 yards.

As a fall-back position, a redoubt connecting the storehouse, stone cattle kraal and water well with the northern wall was built using biscuit boxes.

The Adversaries

A reserve force of 4,000 Zulus under Cetshwayo's half-brother, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, defied orders to stay within the boundaries of Zululand and mounted an attack from the Natal side of the Buffalo River, southwest of Rorke's Drift. The Prince also disregarded orders to refrain from attacking entrenched positions.

The station, defended by 145 engineers, natives and infantrymen, included wounded and troops being disciplined for insubordination.

Initial Attack

The first Zulu attack, to the rear of the post from the south, suffered staggering losses from concentrated fire, followed by a second, also with heavy loss. Many Zulus sought cover in the landscape while others crept up to the walls of the hospital, grabbing at rifles poking out of the loopholes and battering the doors.

The next attack was on the northwest side of the post, defended by riflemen behind the breastworks, with other Zulus on nearby Oskarberg plateau shooting the few rifles they possessed into the compound. The Zulu rifles were inaccurate and mostly ineffective, though eventually causing some British casualties.

Bravery versus Firepower

Bromhead, leading a group of troops with bayonets fixed, was assigned to the center of the post to fill in any gaps along the defensive perimeter.

Though the Zulus, wielding their shields and assegais, attacked bravely and relentlessly, they were not able to penetrate the barricades and were repeatedly blasted at point blank range by the Martini-Henry rifles of the defenders. The attackers who did manage to mount the breastworks were repulsed by bayonet.

The various rifles used by the Zulus on the heights of Oskarberg, had been purchased from local traders, and being untrained in the use of the weapons, the Zulu riflemen were picked off at long range by British marksmen.

Battle within a Battle - Defense of the Hospital

After the failure of repeated attacks with extreme losses, the Zulus set fire to the thatch-roofed hospital building, and upon battering down he doors, began spearing the patients within.

Privates Alfred Henry Hook and John Williams, both to be Victoria Cross recipients, were among a squad assigned to protect the patients inside the hospital.

As the Zulus burst in, Hook held them off by bayonet as Williams, gouging holes through the walls separating the rooms, dragged 9 of the 11 patients through, one by one, finally escaping the flaming hospital into the relative safety of the courtyard. This portion of the battle lasted nearly an hour.

Final Holdout

The Zulus began to concentrate on the eastern side of the garrison with multiple heavy attacks, With the evacuated hospital in flames, Chard realized that defense of the north wall was untenable and ordered his men to fall back to the short wall.

By nightfall, the Zulus were strengthening their attacks and the remaining defenders withdrew from the kraal into the redoubt around the storehouse.

The Battle of Rorke's Drift (1879) - Aphonse de Neuville

The Battle of Rorke's Drift (1879) - Aphonse de Neuville

The Zulus continued to charge the last defensive barricades throughout the night while also firing down from Oskarberg, as Surgeon Major James Henry Reynolds, another to receive the Victoria Cross, treated the wounded in the yard. Those who were too badly injured to fire, worked at re-loading and re-supplying those who could still stand.

After midnight, a charge was made by a small group of troops to reach the water well, using an oxen cart as cover. After successfully fetching a well deserved drink for the defenders, the Zulu attacks began to slacken, replaced by constant, sporadic fire, until growing quiet by 4:00 AM.

As dawn began to break, no Zulus were in sight and the battlefield was strewn with the dead and severely wounded. At 7:00 AM, the Zulus suddenly reappeared en masse at the western end of Oskarberg as the British once again manned their positions.

With the British preparing to make a final stand, the attack never came and the Zulus, with hundreds of wounded in their ranks, withdrew in the direction that they came.

Another force was spotted around 8:00 AM, and after manning their defensive positions one more time, were relieved to find it to be advance elements of Lord Chelmsford's column.

Chelmsford Arrives

From the Islandlwana battlefield, the sound of guns and a glow on the western horizon through the night concerned Chelmsford, and by the time his column was approaching Rorke's Drift on the 23rd, a large force of retreating Zulus passed within 400 yeards to his left with no intention of fighting.

Column III arrived at Rorke's Drift to help bury the 17 British dead south of the post, the 400 to 500 dead Zulus, and begin work on more extensive fortifications to be named Fort Melvill.

For the second time in two days, the General arrived on the scene too late to make an impact.

Right Column Stalls at Eshowe

After the morning conflict at Nyezane drift, Colonel Pearson's right flanking column had advanced to Eshowe and entrenched there. Upon receiving word of the disaster at Isandlwana, Pearson planned to fall back across the Tugela River but was cut-off by a detachment of 4,000 Zulus sent by Cetshwayo from the main Zulu force at Islandlwana, beginning a 2 month Siege of Eshowe.

First Invasion Comes to a Close

Wood's Number IV Column of the left flank, encamped 10 miles south of Hlobane Mountain where a force of 4,000 Zulus had been spotted, advanced to attack on the 24th, but withdrew upon hearing of the disaster at Isandlwana.

WIthin a month of the start of the British invasion, only one column remained militarily able to advance, insufficient to conduct the campaign.

The first invasion of Zululand failed.


Day in Summation

A long day for Victoria's Army, January 22nd, 1879, started with a small victory followed by a disastrous defeat, then finalized with a glorious redemption.

The battle of Isandlwana is widely considered one of the greatest disasters in military history.

Due to the lack of survivor testimony of the massacre, many theories have arisen to explain what went so terribly wrong on that day;

  • The British Army, using it's new breech-loading, Martini-Henry rifle, failed to provide screw-drivers to open the carefully packaged crates of ammunition for the weapon, contributing to the loss. The tin and aluminum lined, wooden crates were sealed with metal bands and heavy-duty screws to prevent moisture from compromising the rounds.
  • Forensic research at the battle site in recent years shows that the British firing line was staked out further than originally believed, separating the distance between each soldier as well as their ammunition source. It has also been proven that 12 to 13 rounds fired in rapid succession from a Martini-Henry causes the weapon to lock-up.
  • British underestimation of the mobility, strategy and fighting ability of the Zulu warriors played a major part in their demise, as well as the failure to establish a strong defense at the camp and the decision to break-up the main column into components far too displaced to support each other.
  • Adding to their detriment, visibility was impeded due to the rising dust, smoke from the discharge of weapons, and by another phenomenon occurring that day. At 2:29 PM, a solar eclipse blanketed a path of totality across southern Africa. What the Zulus named "Isandlwana" translates to "the day of the dead moon", hence the name of the battle.

In a nutshell, the British were much too aggressive and over-confident.

Of the total 14 Victoria Crosses (VCs), the highest military decoration of the British Empire, earned on January 22nd, 1879, 11 were awarded for the defense of Rorke's Drift, more than any other British military engagement, possibly to divert public attention from the catastrophe earlier in the day.

Aftermath / The Second Invasion

Cetshwayo's victory at Isandlwana was not without cost. The Zulu army was so decimated that it never fully recovered for the second British invasion which was much larger in troop strength, supplies and British public support (jingoism) than the first.


It wasn't until February 11 that news of the disaster on the 22nd of January reached the Queen and in a scramble for scapegoats, Chelmsford, the Queen's darling, was the primary target.

A cover-up ensued, blame was passed around to many but notably to the deceased Colonel Durnford.

After a conversation between Chelmsford and the Queen, it was determined that

"Most of what Chelmsford told the Queen was a pack of lies."

- Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

End of a Dynasty

During the second campaign to invade Zululand, Lord Chelmsford was credited with another huge failure, the loss of Empress Eugénie de Montijo's son and Victoria's godson, Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte, Prince Imperial.

Due to the fall of the Second French Empire during the Franco-Prussian War, the last of the Bonaparte family sought refuge in England, where the Prince Imperial was enrolled at Woolwich Royal Military Academy, graduating 17th in his class and earning a commission in the Royal Artillery. Chelmsford, taking personal responsibility for the safety of the Imperial Prince, allowed him to take part in the campaigning in Zululand, though under careful attention.

On June 1st, under the watch of Lieutenant Carey, the eager and avid Prince and his scouting party were caught by a Zulu ambush. Carey and the only other survivors, fleeing the ambush, witnessed the demise of the Prince Imperial from 50 yards. Though putting up a heroic fight, the Prince finally succumbed to multiple spear wounds. The death of the Prince caused an international stir. Carey faced a court of inquiry and a court martial, ruining his reputation and lived out the remainder of his life in dejected remorse.

The Anglo-Zulu War Ends - Wolseley Takes Charge

On May 23rd, Disraeli informed the Queen of the decision to replace Lord Chelmsford with Brevet Lieutenant-General Garnet Wolseley.

Though Chelmsford ultimately led the British Army to victory at Ulundi, officially ending the Anglo-Zulu War, it was Wolseley who was to oversee all final operations.

Being a fugitive, King Cetshwayo was captured in August 1879 and sent into exile, but after intervention by John Colenso, Bishop of Natal, was returned to Zululand in 1883.

Wolseley, breaking up Zululand into 13 chiefdoms to prevent unification under a single leader, prolonged Bartle Frere's dreams of a confederated southern Africa until another, even bloodier conflict, the Boer Wars.

Online Resources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Steve Dowell (author) from East Central Indiana on March 01, 2014:

Ever since seeing the movie "Zulu" as a youngster in 1964, I've been enthralled with Victorian England!

Thank you for your compliments FlourishAnyway!

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 01, 2014:

Very well researched and written. A superb hub!

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