Approaching Isandlwana from Rorke’s Drift; the camp layout; the camp site; the view from Isandlwana.
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Leaving Rorke’s Drift 20 January 1879
Richard Walford made two references to what then transpired. In his first letter he said:
We were ordered to move the camp further up into the country, so we went 10 or 12 miles and pitched camp again.
In his second letter he added more detail:
We left Rorke’s Drift camp, that is the name of the drift wh[ere we] crossed over the Buffalo river, which divides Natal from Zululand, on the 19th January to advance about twelve miles into the country. It was a pretty sight to see the column going along, the waggons stretching over five miles, besides the troops. My little horse was sick that day, so I had to walk and lead him all the way. I was very tired when I came to the end of the journey; it was a broiling hot day. Well, we got to the place for camping, right in the centre of two hills, a very bad place indeed, and we pitched camp, and had a good sleep that night.
He made no mention of activities between the attack on kwaSogekle and the move to Isandlwana, which actually took place on 20 January. Some activities were undoubtedly mundane and not worth writing home about, and he would have been uninvolved in or unaware of others. The details of these other activities do, however, help describe his circumstances and some help explain his later comments. The narrative inevitably brings up the names of places, landforms and rivers. These are shown in this satellite image.
It shows the large plain that lies to the east and south of Isandlwana that was the stage for the battle and the activities that preceded it. It also provides a perspective on the scale of the landscape.
The day after the action against Sihayo, 13 January, the men were turned out at 3.30 am and spent the day on the hills watching for any Zulus to the east across the plain. Patrols and vedette duty then became daily activities from early morning until dusk for the next few days. Guard duty is never worthy of a mention in a letter home. On 15 January, some police were included in a patrol that was sent out past Isandlwana to Siphezi Mountain 20 km further on to the south-east on the far side of the plain. This took them along the route the mounted men had followed on 12 January, into the valley of the Manzimnyama River, then across the nek on the southern slope of Isandlwana and out across the plain. This would have been a memorable event, so it seems unlikely that Richard Walford was one of the police involved. The patrol reported that the country was deserted with the homesteads along the way all empty, and that the road needed a lot of work.
This was when Chelmsford decided that his next move would be to Isandlwana. These developing plans also caused him to summon Durnford to move to Rorke’s Drift with his mounted troops, his strongest battalion of the 1st NNC and his rocket battery. Chelmsford wanted him close at hand for support.
The next day, 16 January, Chelmsford had a number of interactions with Gamdana kaXongo, Sihayo’s younger brother, that help explain a later event described by Richard Walford. Gamdana lived near Hlazakazi at the southern edge of the Isandlwana plain. Chelmsford sent a message to him instructing him to surrender and later rode down and personally encouraged him to do so and guaranteed his safety if he did.
There then ensued some days of patrolling and preparation while the road was improved. By 20 January everything was ready for the central column to move on. They were roused before dawn and the camp was packed up. Trooper Fred Symons of the Carbineers described the scene and noted that the column:
. . . slowly wound its way up the grassy slopes overlooking the river [the Mzinyathi], which were then covered with a carpet of green; then down thro the thorns in the Ibatshe valley; up under the frowning rocks of Sirayo’s [Sihayo] stronghold, then turning abruptly to the right and ascending a steep incline and came in view of a curiously shaped hill called by the natives ‘Isandhlwana’.
Several companies of the 24th had preceded us for the purpose of making a road and also the Natal Native Contingent whose camp was on the banks of the Ibatshe stream. They fell into their places as the Column advanced.
The vanguard made a short halt in its debouchment from the valley till the wagons had got over their difficulties on the muddy road where they could only travel in single file.
The Mounted Infantry under Colonel Russell formed the advance guard followed by their wagons. Natal Police supported, Carbineers bringing up the rear. Then came the 1/24th Regiment, with band playing merrily, succeeded by the long dark lines of Native Allies, the 2/24th Regiment forming the rearguard. No. 5 Battery R.A. [Royal Artillery] was also with the column.
Resuming its march the army passed through an open piece of country flanked on the left by a long stony ridge, and falling on the right towards the Buffalo; and entered another valley bestrewn with mimosas, aloes and rocks.
During our march along the clear country the band broke off suddenly, in the middle of a verse of ‘Don’t you love me Mollie Darling’ (Knight 2010, 249)
The column took the route that the scouting party to Siphezi Mountain had taken, across the Batshe, up onto Ngedla and then down into the valley of the Manzimnyama – the “valley bestrewn with mimosa and rocks.” They then moved up the slope to the strange sphinx-like hill – Isandlwana.
The wagon track went up to and over the readily visible nek between it and Mahlabamkhosi on the right. Once there, they set up camp on the slope of the east face of Isandlwana. The wagon track came over the nek very roughly where the line of white cairns is today, “right in the centre of two hills”, as described by Richard Walford. From left to right facing the mountain, the 1/24th set up camp just to the left of the wagon track where the large group of white cairns can be seen today. The mounted men were just to the right of the track; then the Royal Artillery; the 2/24th with Chelmsford’s HQ behind them; the 1/3 NNC; and finally the 2/3 NNC more or less along the line of the current access road.
|View of the east face of Isandlwana from the Inyoni Heights.
©Alun Stevens 2005
|Sketch by Lieut HG Mainwaring 2/24th 24 February 1879
The National Archives MPHH 1/675/4 See Copyright Note
The camp for the mounted men was laid out as three sides of a square open to the plain with the police being the right arm on what was described as swampy ground requiring trenches to be dug around the tents – “a very bad place indeed” according to Richard Walford. Their horses were tethered in the centre for protection and ease of access, and their wagons parked behind them further up the slope. This created a line of tents some 750 metres long. No attempt was made to fortify the camp.
Police outposts were placed on all the commanding hills to the east. Some were forgotten and did not return until well after dark. Richard Walford simply says that they pitched camp and had a good night’s sleep, so it seems that he did not go out, possibly because of his sick horse.
This panorama of the area provides some idea of the scope and scale of the scouting and the later battle. The view is to the south from the Inyoni heights. The squat, dark highland in the centre on the horizon is Malakatha. The Hlazakazi heights lie to its left (east). The Mangeni gorge and river lie beyond them. The conical hill, amaTutshane, is peeping through the trees on the left. The prominent ridge on the far horizon behind Isandlwana is the Biggarsberg with Helpmekaar just to the right of Isandlwana.
While the troops were unpacking and establishing themselves, Chelmsford decided to investigate reports that large bodies of Zulus had been seen in the country to the south of the Malakatha and Hlazakazi. He was concerned that the Zulu army might be able to use that route to enter Natal in his rear. His party, which included Major Dartnell of the NMP, rode down to the Malakatha then turned eastwards up onto the Hlazakazi heights and proceeded down to the prominent conical hill, Mdutshana, just above the picturesque Mangeni falls and Mangeni gorge. They saw no Zulus, but Chelmsford decided that the flats above the falls would be an excellent site for his next camp. Back at camp, he decided that the area needed to be thoroughly scouted.
Isandlwana 21 January
Chelmsford felt that the NNC and mounted units were best suited for this task because of their mobility and local knowledge. He committed the bulk of the mounted force and the NNC to the task under the command of Major Dartnell, with only sufficient of them staying in camp to provide pickets. The scouting force assembled at 3.00 am comprising those with the best horses. They took only sufficient rations for the day and no warm clothing as it was intended that they would be back in camp by evening.
Richard Walford described the patrol. In his first letter, he said:
The next day patrolling parties, in fact the greater part of the camp, went out. I could not go: my horse was sick. A message came in that they had seen the enemy, and were going to be out all night, so we sent biscuits and great coats out to them.
And much the same in his second letter:
The next morning, most of our men went out patrolling, and were to return the same evening, but about tea-time an order came in that they had seen the enemy out a good distance from the camp, and that they were going to stay out all night, so we sent out their food and great coats.
His sick horse, which had forced him to walk to Isandlwana, also prevented him from going on the patrol. He was one of 34 police who remained in camp.
After the scouting party left at dawn, the camp settled down to the daily routine. Pickets were placed and the cattle turned out to graze. After breakfast, Chelmsford rode down to the Malakatha to see how the reconnaissance was progressing and to call on Gamdana once more to talk surrender. Gamdana wasn’t there and they could not see the scouting party. While there, he sent orders for Durnford, who by then had reached Helpmekaar, to proceed to Rorke’s Drift immediately.
Not long after he returned to Isandlwana, Gamdana presented himself saying that he had been hiding because he had expected a big Zulu impi which hadn’t materialised. They had a discussion about the number of guns that Gamdana would surrender and he was sent away to return the following day with his weapons.
Zulu horsemen were spotted at a distance several times during the day from vantage points on the Inyoni heights, but late in the afternoon word came from Dartnell that he had seen a significant force of Zulus. The day of scouting had been tedious and uneventful. The NNC had worked its way over the Malakatha and into the Mangeni valley beyond and then returned up onto Hlazakhazi where the mounted Volunteers had also found very little. The police contingent with Dartnell had skirted the bottom of Hlazakazi and moved into the hilly country beyond – the watershed of the Mangeni River. This is defined by the conical hill Mdutshana just above the waterfall and the peaks of Magogo and Silutshana to its north east (see map). Further east, on another rocky outcrop called Phindo, the police saw a group of Zulus on a ridge. When they went to investigate, a large body of Zulus, estimated at some 1,500, spread out across the ridge and chased them down the hill.
By then it was around 5.00 pm and the sun was sinking fast. Dartnell was unwilling to engage the Zulus late in the day with tired troops and also concerned about moving back to camp in the dark with a large force in his rear. He also did not want to have his day of scouting wasted by having the Zulus slip away during the night so he decided to stay and camp out for the night. He sent word to Chelmsford telling him about the Zulus and his intent to spend the night.
On receiving the news, Chelmsford sent out a detachment of Mounted Infantry with rations and supplies as described by Richard Walford. Dartnell was ordered to attack the Zulus when he thought fit. Lights out in camp was at 8.00 pm and the band played “Home Sweet Home”. The camp settled down for the night.
But they did not get a good night’s sleep.
Out on Hlazakhazi, Dartnell’s men were having an uncomfortable night. The NNC in particular was skittish in the dark with Zulu fires across the ridges to their east. There were a number of false alarms that caused minor stampedes and disrupted the force. Dartnell was concerned that the Zulus would attack in the morning and that his force would not hold together. Once the Mounted Infantry had delivered the supplies and his orders, he sent them back to Chelmsford requesting reinforcements. He indicated that there was an increase in enemy numbers and that he believed that it would be imprudent to attack in the morning without some white troops.
This message reached Isandlwana at about 1.00 am and Chelmsford responded immediately. He was looking for a fight and was still concerned that a sizeable force of Zulus might be able to attack down the Mangeni River valley into Natal in his rear. He decided to take all but one company of the 2/24th, the bulk of the Mounted Infantry under Colonel Russell and four guns. He was keen to leave before dawn without alerting the Zulus so the camp was aroused quietly and departed around 3.00 am marching down the wagon track. They had some difficulty crossing the dongas at the bottom of the slope, and then headed off to Hlazakhazi. Before leaving, Chelmsford arranged for orders to be sent to Rorke’s Drift for Durnford to move his men to Isandlwana as reinforcements.
Richard Walford mentioned this in his second letter:
Early the next morning the General took out most of the column with him, leaving in camp about 800 white men and several native contingents, and two big guns. This was the morning of the 22nd.
A fateful decision on a fateful day.
©Alun Stevens 2023