Isandlwana 22 January 1879

The battle (Charles Fripp); the battlefield; Durnford’s Donga (Steve Noon) – the “ditch”.

YOU ARE HERE: Richard Walford Stevens – Isandlwana ► Isandlwana 22 January 1879

Isandlwana ◄ ● ► The Escape

For those left in camp, the morning started ordinarily enough. No one in camp would have contemplated the horror that was about to ensue. Richard Walford described what occurred. His two letters overlap, each with its own perspectives, probably due to his mind’s eye visualising different snapshots of events at different times each with their own sounds and smells. In his first letter he said:

The next morning our camp outposts came and reported the enemy in sight again. We had only about 600 men in camp altogether. Well, we all formed up ready for action, and at that time seven or eight Zulus came in and gave up their arms. The Colonel let them go. Soon after that we saw the hill black with them coming on in swarms. They were estimated at 20,000.

We went out and held a ditch as long as possible, until we were outnumbered. The order was given to get into camp. Well we got there. I went all over the place for a gun, but could not get one; my revolver was broken. I stopped in camp as long as possible, and saw one of the most horrid sights that I ever wish to see. The Zulus were in the camp ripping our men up, and also the tents and everything they came across, with their assegais. They were not content with killing, but were ripping the men up afterwards. Never has such a disaster happened to the English army. There were no means for sending to the General, who was out of the camp.

In his second, he said:

Well, about 9 o’clock the men of our corps who were out on out-post duty, came in and reported the enemy in sight. We all turned out ready for action. We saw a few of them come to the top of a big hill to our left, but they went away again.

Then they sent some mounted niggers [sic] up the hill to see what it was. Presently we heard heavy firing over in that direction, then we saw these mounted men retiring slowly, closely followed by swarms of Zulus. Then they came down in heaps, you could not see the grass for them. The fight began then properly. I and a few more of us were sent out to skirmish in front of the camp, we kept them at bay for some time, then we had the order to retire to camp, and then they came on in thousands. I got into camp and went all over the place trying to get a rifle; my only weapon (a revolver) was broken, so I had no arms. I could not get any in the camp, so I had to stop there without any.

The sight in camp was something awful. They were not content with killing the men, but they ripped them up, and mutilated them horribly. They were so disfigured that when the remainder of the column came back they could hardly recognise one of them.

These five short paragraphs provide a surprisingly good summary of a number of the pivotal events of the day and mark his involvement in those events. The battle was, of course, more than this.

There were five companies of the 1/24th left in the camp, one company of the 2/24th, companies of the NNC, 30 Mounted Infantry, and some 100 Volunteers and Police under the command of Captain Bradstreet of the Newcastle Mounted Rifles – Colonel Russell, having gone out with Chelmsford. This was some 1,200 men, black and white.

Mounted detachments were sent out at around 4.00 am to provide a forward screen. From around 7.00 am they began noticing parties of Zulus moving over the high ground to the east and north. There were repeated sightings on iThusi, the Inyoni ridge and in the “notch” between them – Richard Walford’s “big hill to our left” as they faced out cross the plain. These features can be seen in the following panoramic view of the battlefield from the lower slopes of Isandlwana at a point not far from where the NMP camp would have been. The hill on the left is Mkwene with the Inyoni ridge to its right separated from the peak of iThusi by the “notch” over which the road passes today. The conical hill, amaTutshane, stands in front of iThusi above the Nyogane donga – defined by the closest of the lines of trees on the right.

Panorama of battlefield from Isandlwana
©Gillian Stevens Symons 2021

As described by Richard Walford, the Zulus came and went without any clear intent, but there were also other moves underway on the British side of which he was unaware. Durnford had reached Rorke’s Drift the previous day and immediately crossed into Zululand. Chelmsford’s orders reached his camp at about 6.30 am. There was a small delay because Durnford was out of camp and had to be recalled, but by 8.00 am he was on the road to Isandlwana. As an aside, and unrelated to Richard Walford’s story, he bumped into one Lieutenant John Chard, Royal Engineers, on the way. Chard was headed back to Rorke’s Drift in a hurry. He had been called to Isandlwana early in the morning to work on the crossing through the Nyogane donga that had delayed Chelmsford in the dark. He was concerned that the Zulus spotted on the heights might be attempting a move on the drift. He would have had no inkling that that night he would write himself into history as John Chard VC, Officer Commanding Rorke’s Drift.

At Isandlwana, detachments were posted on the ridge and in the vicinity of Mkwene but the increasing Zulu activity caused Colonel Pulleine, the camp commandant, to have the ‘Fall In’ called. This was around 9.00 am according to Richard Walford, but a number of other accounts put the time at around 8.00 am and the timestamp of Pulleine’s order is 8.05 am. The mounted group stood down after a time and then fell in again as Trooper Granger of the Natal Carbineers explained:

About eight o’clock a message was brought in by one of the Carbineers to the effect that a large body of Zulus was advancing upon us to the left of the camp. We then received orders to turn out, and were drawn up in battle array a little to the left of the camp, where we stayed for some two hours and a half, but as no Zulus appeared, we were ordered back to camp. I took my horse up to the picket rope and off saddled, and was about to get some dinner when some horsemen rode up, and we again received orders to saddle up, which we at once did, and were placed to the left of the camp, but lower down than we were before. (Thornton Denigan 2023, 271)

It was into this atmosphere of mounting tension that Gamdana, who Chelmsford had been courting for days, arrived to surrender his guns. His was the party of Zulus that Richard Walford saw and commented on. He surrendered eleven antiquated guns to Pulleine. Pulleine was contemplating what to do about him when, at around 10.00 am, Durnford arrived in camp with his mounted men. Matters military took precedent and Gamdana was sent on his way.

There is a lot of debate amongst historians about this meeting between Durnford and Pulleine because Durnford outranked Pulleine and was therefore technically in command of the camp, but had a separate command – his own column. There is also a lot of debate about Durnford’s mindset and motivations. These matters are well beyond the scope of Richard Walford’s story and can be pursued in any number of references by those who are interested. Suffice it that Durnford decided to have some of his men investigate what was occurring on the ridge while he pushed further east across the plain.

The mounted men that Richard Walford saw going up onto the ridge to investigate were two troops of Durnford’s amaNgwane, Zihali’s Horse, under Lieutenants Roberts and Raw. Raw’s troop moved closer to the ridge line while Roberts went further north into the watershed of the Ngwebene stream. Durnford and the remainder of his mounted men headed out across the plain beyond amaTutshane. These events were pivotal to the development and progress of the battle. They were in fact the reason the battle occurred at all that day. Their movements can be seen on this satellite map.

Map showing movement of Durnford’s troops.

Quite unbeknownst to the British, despite all their patrolling, the main Zulu army, some 20,000 men, had taken up position in the Ngwebene valley a mere 9 km north-east of Isandlwana. Scouting parties were keeping an eye on the British and others were foraging in the area. This was the activity that had been seen from the camp and described by Richard Walford. They, however, had no intention of attacking the British that day because it was the Day of the Dead Moon – the day of the new moon when none is visible. This was considered inauspicious for battle and the Zulu army was waiting for the next day.

This all changed when Raw crested a ridge on the northern edge of Mabaso and looked down into the valley. There, sitting quietly, spread out in regimental order was the main Zulu army. It would have been an impressive and alarming sight. Awesome in fact. On being discovered and fired on by Raw, the whole army stood up and surged out of the valley, already arranged according to their positions in the classic Zulu fighting formation, the Horns of the Buffalo. This comprised the main assault force, the Chest or Head, a Left Horn and a Right Horn to outflank the enemy, and a reserve force, the Loins, to support the others as necessary.

The far Left Horn, the uVe ibutho, moved rapidly to the left of Mabaso and descended on an unsuspecting Durnford. The remainder surged towards Isandlwana in pursuit of a rapidly retreating Raw and Roberts.

At first, the British tried to hold their positions on the ridge in the vicinity of Mkwene with Raw and Roberts retiring to that point, but the weight of numbers of the Zulu Chest pouring over the ridge forced them off the ridge. The Right Horn had already moved past onto the high ground towards the Manzimnyama valley behind Isandlwana. The British took up defensive positions at the base of the ridge. Bradstreet’s mounted men, including the police and Richard Walford, were part of the force at the left end of these positions, facing Mkwene. With the Zulu Chest pouring over the full length of the ridge (“coming down in heaps you could not see the grass for them”), the orderly retreating Durnford came into view to the right of amaTutshane closely followed by a “swarm of Zulus”, the uVe ibutho. The other element of the Zulu Left Horn, the iNgobamakhosi ibutho, had kept to the high ground while the uVe pursued Durnford. They now came over the ridge at the “notch” and down to join the uVe.

James Brickhill, a local civilian from Msinga who was acting as interpreter to the column, noted the positioning of the troops at this stage:

I found the whole army drawn out in battle array to the extreme left of the camp, under the Ingutu. The D. Horse holding the plain to the left of the Northern neck; the White mounted force to its right, the two field pieces a little behind, between them. The Infantry arranged in lines in the rear, about a mile from the nearest camp…. Durnford’s horse now appeared to the right of Conical Hill; keeping up a steady fire and retiring parallel to the road to Mangeni valley. A much larger force now confronted them than we had yet seen, showing that the enemy had had a large accession to his strength from the hidden end of Ingutu behind Conical Hill. The Mounted White force now went down to their assistance and these together held the plain so determiningly that the Zulu lines actually wavered once, and they sought to keep together under cover of kraal in front of Conical Hill. (Thornton Denigan 2023, 169)

D. Horse: Durnford’s Horse; made up of the returned amaNgwane of Roberts and Raw and others who had stayed at the camp.
Northern neck: The valley up the side of Mkwene.
White mounted force: The Mounted Police and Volunteer units under Captain Bradstreet.

The wide sweep of the Left Horn threatened to outflank the British position. As a result Captain James Gardner, a staff officer attached to the column from the 14th Hussars, galloped Bradstreet’s mounted men down to the Nyogane donga where it was crossed by the wagon track. This was Richard Walford’s “ditch”. Durnford and his retreating men took up positions next to them on their right. They all then set about holding the Zulus at bay.

The movements described can be appreciated from this map of the battle.

Map showing positioning and movements of British and Zulu forces.

The position of the mounted men at the north of the camp and their path to the donga are only indicative because they can’t be determined precisely from the various accounts. Their position in the donga is well documented and can be seen in this photograph taken from the slopes of Isandlwana.

View to east from slopes of Isandlwana showing amaThutsane and Nyogane donga.
©Alun Stevens 2005

The red roofs in the line of trees in the middle distance on the right mark the approximate position taken up by Durnford’s men with the mounted men to their left.

It was a good defensive position as this photograph of the donga shows. amaTutshane is clearly visible obscuring the “notch” between the Inyoni Heights on the left and iThusi on the right. The plain below amaTutshane is not visible from inside the donga and vice versa. A secure position. The walls on the far side of the donga were where the mounted men took their positions.

View to east from inside Nyogane Donga.
©Alun Stevens 2005

Richard Walford said nothing of the action itself but others, British and Zulu, did, and those accounts give some indication of the ferocity of the fighting. Trooper Wheatland Edwards of the Carbineers remembered:

This donga was a very deep one – like a great hollow basin – and we managed to get all our horses into it with ease. The natives were now in full view, and we opened fire on them without delay. Nearly every one of us was a good shot, and we were able to knock our men over at 500 or 600 yards with fair certainty. At this stage each of us was quite cool, although the appalling danger the camp was in was not lost on any of us. (Knight 2010, 374)

Mehlokazulu, who had come down from the heights with his company of the iNgobamakhosi, gave an account after the war of chasing a contingent of Carbineers and NMP under Lieutenant Scott off amaTutshane:

There is a little red hill which overlooks Isandhlwana, 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 up their trousers (Carbineers); there were also men dressed in black, but none of the Native Contingent on the brow of this 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. (Knight 2010, 372)

And the developing battle:

When the firing became heavy – too hot – we retired towards the left wing. (Knight 2010, 375)

A fellow warrior of his in the iNgobamakhosi, Mlamula Matebula, in an account in 1936, also attested to the ferocity:

I fought at the Isandhlwana 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 we still 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 [i.e. protected by the donga], it was a fight in the open. (Knight 2010, 375)

The situation is well represented in this recent painting by Steve Noon – Durnford’s Donga. Isandlwana, the Inyoni Heights and amaThutsane define the horizon. The camps can be seen to the left of Durnford and the forward British firing line to the right of him with the obvious gap between them and the men in the donga. The NMP contingent were much further along the donga and out of sight from this perspective.

©Steve Noon 2022

The men in the donga held the Zulu Left Horn at bay for 20 – 30 minutes and prevented them moving forward. The Left Horn instead began to shift to their left in order to bypass Durnford. This was a significant threat to the camp and to the men in the donga, because, as can be clearly seen in the views of the battlefield, there was no defence and only open terrain beyond Durnford. This threat was then added to by the arrival of the uMbonambi ibutho. They were the extreme left of the Zulu Chest and the last to descend the Inyoni heights via the “notch”. They took up position on the mounted men’s left on the slopes of amaTutshane . This was the most vulnerable part of the British line – the gap between the main force nearer the camp and the mounted men out in the donga. The British brought their artillery to bear and extended their firing line to the right. This checked the Zulu advance. But not for long.

The men in the donga could see the uMbonambi massing in the hollows and attempting to get through the gap on their left. The iNgobamakhosi and uVe were attempting to move around them on their right. And they began to run low on ammunition. Durnford sent back for more, but the group sent couldn’t find their wagons because they had left camp before the wagons had arrived and they didn’t know where they had been parked. They obtained some ammunition, but on their way back, they observed that some groups of the uMbonambi had penetrated the gap and were fast approaching the camp. They then saw the mounted men emerge from the donga. Durnford had ordered them back to the camp as described by Richard Walford.

The position of the firing line was now precarious with nothing preventing the Zulus sweeping around it on its right and into the camp. The only option was to take up positions closer to the camp. The bugles sounded “Cease Fire” and “Retire”. uMhoti, a member of the Zulu Chest later recounted what then occurred:

Then, at the sound of a 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 . . . (Knight 2010, 397)

For the final attack, the Zulus reverted to their iklwas (stabbing spears). This precipitated the scene that Richard Walford described. The camp overrun and men and animals being stabbed. His further comment that the Zulus “were not content with killing but were ripping the men up afterwards” is much quoted in books, and even TV documentaries, of the battle. 16  The scene would have been horrific for a young man not long arrived from the semi-bucolic surrounds of Essex. Whilst undoubtedly horrible, this was not wanton savagery, but Zulu custom according to which. a man who killed an enemy was required to cut the abdomen open to allow the spirit of the dead man to pass safely to the afterlife. Mehlokazulu commented:

All the dead bodies were cut open because if that had not been done the Zulus would have become swollen like the dead bodies. (Knight 2010, 443)

Richard Walford would have taken little comfort from the niceties of Zulu customs, even if he had known about them.

In reading his account, one wonders how useful he would have been in the defence of the donga given that his only weapon was a revolver. A weapon incapable of engaging the Zulus at the ranges mentioned in the accounts of the battle – even when it was in working order. The question is answered by an account of the battle by Trooper Charlie Sparks of the Natal Mounted Police published in the Natal Mercury, on 22 January 1929 (the 50th Anniversary of the battle). He described being on vidette duty that day on one of the hills and after retiring to the camp being sent out to the donga. He said:

I would like to say here that when we dismounted at the ravine we handed our horses to Trumpeter Stevens, of the Natal Mounted Police, and when the order was given to retire, mounting his horse he let all the others loose. Fortunately, although the din caused by the yells from the Zulus and sound of ‘pot-legs’ fired from elephant guns by the enemy was terrific, my horse started quickly to nibble the grass, so I had no difficulty in catching him. (Thornton Denigan 2023, 236)

So, Richard Walford held the horses, probably because he only had an inadequate weapon. He was clearly very keen to get out of the donga and back to the camp. He must have been doing something with his revolver, though, for it to break. Maybe he dislodged the chamber in his haste and anxiety while reloading? A not uncommon issue with revolvers of the day. Being unarmed in the camp would have been very scary.

Isandlwana ◄ ● ► The Escape

©Alun Stevens 2023

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