Starting the War

Rorke’s Drift looking back to Shiyane from the Zululand bank of the Mzinyathi; Ngedla Hill.

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Isandlwana: Richard Walford’s View ◄ ● ► Isandlwana

Richard Walford’s letters are the abbreviated, personal accounts of a common Trooper dictated by the myopia imposed on him by his position. Their import needs to be considered in the context of the broader events they describe – the battle as a whole and the events that precipitated it. This wider perspective also allows for a better appreciation of what he experienced and the specific events he described.

The ultimatum

Frere and Theophilus Shepstone wanted a war so that they could invade Zululand and use Britain’s military might to destroy the Zulu kingdom. They also wanted an excuse to justify this war. The long-standing land dispute between the Zulus and the Boers of the Utrecht region on the Natal/Transvaal border provided an opportunity. Shepstone had previously played Boer and Zulu interests off against each other to favour British and Natal interests, but after he annexed the Transvaal for Britain in 1877, he sought to persuade the Zulus to accept the Boer position. He felt humiliated when the Zulus accused him of betrayal and he became an even stronger advocate for crushing Zulu power.

The much less hawkish Lieutenant Governor of Natal, Sir Henry Bulwer, proposed a Boundary Commission as a means of reducing tensions. Frere accepted in the hope that it would rule in favour of the Boers and keep pressure on the Zulus. The commission is peripheral to Richard Walford’s personal story, but two men appointed to the commission later played a part in Richard Walford’s war and his letters, and a digression to consider them is helpful to recounting that story. The two men were the Colonial Engineer of Natal, Anthony Durnford, and a senior Zulu induna (adviser), Sihayo kaXongo Ngobese. 13  

Sihayo, was the inkhosi (chief) of the amaQungebeni (Zulu: Qungbeni people) 14   who Mpande had directed to protect the lower reaches of the Mzinyathi River from incursions by the Boers. They lived in the Batshe River valley which lies just across the Mzinyathi from Rorke’s Drift, the primary crossing point into Zululand in this area. It also lies close to Isandlwana and it is reputed that it was Sihayo who bestowed the name on the rocky outcrop.

Anthony Durnford was a Royal Engineer, a military man, with a mixed reputation in Natal. He had been selected to deal with inkhosi Langalibalele and his amaHlubi people in 1873. Colonial authorities were concerned that the amaHlubi were becoming a threat because of their increasing acquisition of guns. When challenged, however, Langalibalele decided to move to Lesotho. Durnford had been charged with preventing this, but he was given too few troops and his orders constrained his use of force. The action was a disaster. The locals never really forgave him for the deaths of a number of their menfolk.

The action did, however, introduce him to two important groups that he would later draw on at Isandlwana and who feature in Richard Walford’s letters. The BaTlokoa (Sotho: Tlokoa people) 15   and the men of the Edendale Wesleyan mission at Pietermaritzburg. The BaTlokoa were Basotho, originally from the Free State side of the mountains in the vicinity of Witsieshoek (now Phuthaditjhaba). The Edendale men were Christians who had adopted a more western way of life. Both groups were disciplined, skilled horsemen who could shoot.

The Boundary Commission met at Rorke’s Drift and determined that there was no merit in the Boer claims. The Colonial Office concluded that, as a result, there was no cause for war, but Frere suppressed the report while he contemplated his options.

He was then handed the excuse he was seeking. At about the time the Boundary Commission was meeting, Sihayo’s principal wife, MaMtshali, had deserted him, escaped across the Mzinyathi River with her lover, and sought refuge with a Natal border guard. A second wife had done the same. This had outraged MaMtshali’s and Sihayo’s eldest son Mehlokazulu, then about 24 years old and destined to play a notable part in the war and later Zulu history. He crossed into Natal on 28 July 1878, dragged his mother back across the river and there bludgeoned and strangled her to death. A few days later he did the same to the other wife. This incursion into Natal and the subsequent murders were just the justification that Frere needed. He set the preparations for war into motion under the command of Lieutenant General Frederic Thesiger, Lord Chelmsford.

Preparations were more or less complete by the end of November, and Frere invited the Zulus to attend a meeting at the Lower Thukela Drift on 11 December 1878 to receive the Boundary Commission report. The Boundary Commission findings buoyed the Zulus, but the British then imposed a number of conditions. Significant conditions. These included the surrender of Mehlokazulu and his brothers for the murders; the payment of a hefty fine in cattle; the abandonment of the amabutho 14   conscription system that underpinned Zulu military security; the appointment of a British Resident to the Zulu court to ‘advise’ the King; and the grant of free access to Zululand for missionaries. No self-respecting Zulu king could agree to these conditions. The 30 day timeframe for the demands was therefore an ultimatum for war that expired on 10 January 1879.


Chelmsford originally envisaged invading Zululand with five columns. The first at the Lower Drift near the mouth of the Thukela. The second at the Middle Drift over the Thukela near Msinga. The third, central, column at Rorke’s Drift. The fourth moving down from Utrecht into the disputed lands. The fifth from the north from the border area between Zululand, Swaziland and the Transvaal. In the end he decided that the second and fifth columns would be defensive only with the central column being the main attacking force. It is the second and central columns that are relevant to Richard Walford’s story. He was in the central column and the second column was commanded by Durnford who ultimately played a major part in the battle of Isandlwana and featured in Richard Walford’s letters.


Chelmsford arrived at Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg in August 1878 to begin his preparations for war. He needed manpower from within the colony because he had insufficient Imperial troops at his disposal. The local volunteer militia were an obvious source. They comprised fifteen volunteer corps, eleven of them mounted. They were bolstered by the full-time, paramilitary Natal Mounted Police. Collectively they numbered only a few hundred in total and very few had any real military experience.

Chelmsford therefore also turned to the colony’s black population of which many were not supportive of the Zulu king. By November he had permission to raise what became known as the Natal Native Contingent (NNC). The men were primarily armed with traditional weapons with only one in ten having firearms and then only obsolete percussion models. Chelmsford turned to Anthony Durnford to recruit, equip and train these men because he was the only Imperial officer with experience of serving with black troops in Natal.

Durnford was offered command of the Second Column which would be comprised almost entirely of African troops – the 1st NNC and several troops of mounted men. For these Durnford turned to those he knew. He attracted 50 BaTlokoa under their Morena (Chief) Hlubi who had helped him against Langaliblele, 160 neighbouring amaNgwane from the foothills of the Drakensberg who went by the name of their late inkhosi, Zihali Horse, and 54 men from the Edendale mission. These men brought their own horses and were given good quality uniforms, Swinburne-Henry carbines and ammunition. They were to play a decisive role in the battle and Richard Walford’s story.

Chelmsford selected Helpmekaar as the assembly point for the central column. Dartnell reported there with 100 of his police in mid-December. The Pietermaritzburg men had picked up the Greytown contingent en-route and the Estcourt men had travelled via Dundee. There is no information on which group included Richard Walford.

Sketch by W Nelson 22 December 1878
(Illustrated London News Feb 1879)

They were joined by Natal Carbineers, Buffalo Border Guards and Newcastle Mounted Rifles. The expectation was that they would all be placed under Dartnell’s command, but Chelmsford instead put them under the command of Lt. Colonel John Russell of the 12th Lancers. This caused a minor revolt and, as a result, Dartnell was invited onto Chelmsford’s staff.

The police Christmassed at Helpmekaar, but it was not as they had hoped. Very heavy rain had turned the encampment into a sea of mud. It also ruined their Christmas dinner. They had ordered a wagon-load of luxuries from Pietermaritzburg for a banquet, but this was washed away when trying to cross the flooded Mooi River at Keate’s Drift. (Holt 1913, 47)

They moved down from the muddy Biggarsberg to Rorke’s Drift in early January and by 9 January they were all there – the main force of Red Soldiers of the 1/24th and 2/24th, the NNC, the Volunteers and the police. The last had some belated Christmas cheer with rescued delicacies from the stricken wagon arriving on 8 January.

Durnford had taken up his command at Middle Drift, but on 8 January, Chelmsford ordered him to Msinga so that he could be more readily available to support the central column. He moved out on 10 January with the bulk of his force.

On the evening of 10 January, Chelmsford issued his orders that the invasion would begin at dawn the following day.

The invasion

Richard Walford’s description of the start of the war and crossing into Zululand is brief:

I will commence from the day of our entrance to Zululand. It took two or three days for all of our column to cross over the river. There was not a Zulu to be seen for some distance. Patrolling parties were sent out, and they came back with a lot of cattle and said there were not any niggers [sic] to be seen.

Fortunately a lot of others recorded more comprehensive accounts and his experiences can be considered in more detail. The activities took place in the landscape shown in the following satellite image.

The homestead of Rorke’s Drift lies at the western base (left) of Shiyane hill. The land on the northern bank of the Mzinyathi River opens into the valley of the Batshe River where inkhosi Sihayo and his people were placed in order to guard this crossing. Sihayo’s homestead, kwaSogekle, lay about 9 kms up that valley and Isandlwana lies some 11 km to the east.

The men were roused at 2.00 am on 11 January. The river was a deep torrent across the drift because of recent heavy rain. It was a major challenge, especially in the dark and the heavy mist that had settled into the valley. The engineers had installed two ponts just upstream of the drift and these were assigned to the regular infantry. The colonials, ie the mounted volunteers and the NNC, crossed at the drift. The police had their arms, haversacks and belts transported across on the ponts to lighten their loads. The crossing was largely uneventful and everyone was across by 4.00 am.

There was no opposition. The rising sun cleared the mist and showed the troops dotted about grouped defensively in squares. The absence of the enemy was puzzling to Chelmsford so he sent Dartnell out on a scouting mission. Dartnell moved into the Batshe valley and followed the river through standing mealie fields to kwaSogekle. They did not see any warriors, but did hear war songs. They and other scouting parties captured a lot of cattle as noted by Richard Walford who, from his comments, was not a participant in any of these patrols.

He was, however, part of the action the following day which he also described rather laconically:

We pitched our camp over the river, and stayed there some time. On Sunday, the 12th January, the outposts reported the enemy in great force at the back of the hill in the distance. We all turned out, but only saw a few of them. The infantry halted on one side of the hill, and we went to the other. Then we saw them following us. We did not think they meant to do anything, so we went right close to them, and when we were about 100 yards off they fired on us. We all dismounted and let them have it. They hid away in the stones; we turned them out and killed most of them. That is the greater part of that affair.

Despite Richard Walford’s comment, there were no reports of a great force of Zulus on the hill. Sihayo was well known to have thousands of men at his disposal, but only a few had been seen and heard. There was, in fact, only a modest guard. The bulk of the men had gone to join the main Zulu army which was itself preparing for war. Chelmsford and Dartnell had concluded, correctly, that Sihayo’s followers had been hiding amongst the boulders, scrub and gullies at the base of the Ngedla hill. Chelmsford decided to mount a frontal assault on the cliffs of the Ngedla hill and on kwaSogekle. He did not want to leave a sizeable force in his rear when he advanced further into Zululand.

This photograph shows the Ngedla hill from a point just across the Mzinyathi from Rorke’s Drift looking east. The ground rises slightly then dips down to the Batshe River which is out of sight behind this higher ground. The Ngedla then rises on the far side of the river. KwaSogekle was just around the corner beyond the end of the ridge line on the far left. The horseshoe shaped indentation in the cliff line just left of centre was the focus for the attack.
©Alun Stevens 2005

After a wet and stormy night, the troops stood to at first light. They then marched down the wagon track to the drift over the Batshe River which was a little further north than the current crossing and more or less opposite the horseshoe of cliffs they were to assault. While the infantry assembled to attack, the mounted men crossed the river, went around to the right (ie south) and then up and over the nek (saddle) where the road is now. They then swung left again onto the grassy high ground of Ngedla hill and the police went further to the left and moved towards the top of the cliffs.

The assault on the cliffs was resisted strongly by Sihayo’s warriors under the command of his son Mkhumbikazulu, but they were significantly outnumbered and were driven back. A few, including Mkhumbikazulu, managed to get up the cliff face and onto the heights, but found that they had been beaten to it by two companies of the 2/24th who had worked their way up the cliff to the left of the main assault. Caught between them and the mounted men, Mkhumbikazulu and about 60 men rushed the mounted men. This would have been the event recounted by Richard Walford. The attack was unsuccessful. Nine or ten Zulus, including Mkhumbikazulu, were killed and the remainder fled eastwards across the summit.

In the meantime, infantry not engaged in the assault on the cliffs had moved up the Batshe valley to kwaSogekle which they found undefended. It was put to the torch. The battle was over with minimal casualties amongst the attackers.

Isandlwana: Richard Walford’s View ◄ ● ► Isandlwana

©Alun Stevens 2023

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