ANGLO-ZULU WAR 1879 BATTLES OF ISANDLWANA & RORKE'S DRIFT


Contributed by David Buckerfield



Introduction
I took a weekend trip to the northern regions of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province in September 2010 to visit the two battlefields of Idandlwana and Rorke's Drift. The build up, course and outcome of the two battles have been extremely well documented over the years, and so I feel that there is no need to repeat that story here. I hope this write-up gives an idea of what can be seen today and what information and exhibits are available to the visitor. The two battles can be studied independently, but since they occurred within 10 miles of one another within a 24 hour period it surely makes more sense to consider them together, though the layout of the two battlefields and the outcomes could not be more different.
Isandlwana
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Isandlwana
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The Visitor Centre
I have used the current spelling of the name. It has had a variety of spellings over time. On the 22nd January 1879 an impi (armed body of men, regiment) of some 20,000 plus of King Cetchwayo's Zulu foot soldiers stormed down the slopes of Isandlwana Hill and attacked around half of Lord Chelmsford's troops encamped at the base of the Hill. Ignoring scout reports of an impi in the area and ignoring the advice of no less a person than Paul Kruger to always draw the wagons in to a defensive circle to form what is known as a laager, the British and colonial force of approx. 1,700 were in the camp but did not have a proper defensive position. In the ensuing battle, that raged for around five hours, over 1,300 of them were slain.

One is required to report to the nearby visitor's centre first to buy a ticket for entrance to the battlefields. This, plus a guide leaflet, costs less than 2 pounds. Once inside, there is also a visitor centre with an extensive collection of artefacts and information. You can see an example in the Visitor Centre section.

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Gates to Battlefield
The gates to the battlefield open at 9 a.m. and once you are inside you can see various memorials to the combatants scattered about the battlefield.
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Memorials

Just to illustrate the wild nature of the battlefield, I walked on a track up the hillside and noticed some fresh paw prints. I subsequently sent the photo to a professional hunter who identified the spoor (track) to be that of an adult serval.

Back on the military trail, I arrived at the spot where Captain Younghusband and his colleagues fought to the end.

There is an excellent vantage point where one can survey almost the entire battlefield. Each stone cairn marks a British burial site. The larger the cairn the more bodies are buried underneath. I could see in the region of 150 cairns from just this one spot.
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Battlefield Panorama

I had had the entire site to myself until a man arrived in a car which had a KZ-N registration. He was also ambling across the battlefield reading the guide and taking photos. Inevitably our paths crossed and we exchanged greetings. It was one of those most poignant moments of life as, being an Englishman, I had a chance meeting with a Zulu on the slopes on this of all hillsides! The battle of Isandlwana remains the biggest British army defeat at the hands of a native force in a single battle to this day.

En Route to Rorke's Drift
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Landscape

You can see from the photo just how dry and sparse the landscape between these battlefields can be.

This was dry season and I had no problems whatsoever on these dirt roads in a front wheel drive car, but I'd think that a two-wheel drive car could struggle during the wet summer (October- April).

Rorke's Drift
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British Cemetery
The action at Rorke's Drift took place on 22nd and 23rd January 1879. Today, however, this site does not represent an authentic battlefield scene since none of the buildings is original. A church stands roughly where the storehouse was located. An old house, now the visitor's centre and museum, stands in place of the hospital.

Once again there is a visitor's centre packed with exhibits and information. I bought my entrance ticket and the guide book, for the same low entry fee as earlier.

Rorke's Drift was a mission station on the Tugela River. Just over 150 British and colonial troops successfully defended the garrison against repeated intense assaults by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors. The British used rifles and revolvers and some of the fighting was done at a range of no more than five yards.

A record number of 11 Victoria Crosses was awarded after this battle. The question remains; was this primarily a political move after the heavy defeat at Isandlwana or were the Crosses largely merited? The debate rages to the present day! There is a poster in the visitor's centre which clearly poses this question.
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Zulu Memorial

Seventeen British and colonial troops were killed in the defence. It's estimated that around 500 Zulus perished before retreating in disarray and defeat.

In recent years a local sculptor was commissioned to depict the Zulus and their defeat. It is a bronze sculpture and shows a leopard lying on a pile of discarded Zulu shields.

Guided Tours
Guided tours at each battlefield may be booked in advance. The local guides are all enthusiastic and knowledgeable and I'm quite sure that they add further insight, background and anecdotes to the visit. Personally, I'd done much reading up on the battles before the visit and found this, plus the thin but entirely adequate guide leaflets that I bought, gave me a decent insight in to the troop movements and combat flow. I suppose it boils down to personal reference; I prefer to do solo silent tours of battlefields where my mood is suitably somber.
Accommodation in Dundee
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Dundee
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Hotel
I had chosen, via an internet search, to stay in a hotel in the nearby town of Dundee. The town itself is a bit run down and uninspiring. But the 3 star hotel was good and it had its own impressive displays of war memorabilia.

Directly across the road from the hotel stands a memorial to the South African troops from Dundee Kwazulu-Natal and district, who fell in the First World War.

Since 1879
The British army was reinforced and defeated the Zulus at the Battle of Ulundi in July 1879 and the Anglo-Zulu War was over and the two nations have never fought each other since. Approximately 7 Million Zulus live in southern Africa today. There are about one Million of us who are British or of British descent living in this part of the World. South Africa rejoined The Commonwealth in mid 1994, shortly after turning democratic for the first time in the country's history.

HRH Queen Elizabeth visited here on a state visit in March 1995. It was one of the last voyages that HRH took on HMY Britannia. Just before departing Durban for the return voyage to the UK, the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini presented Queen Elizabeth with a live cow on the dockside- surely one of the most unusual presents ever given to her! The present of a cow is the highest honour for a Zulu to demonstrate as a gift. HRHs, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh, were highly amused but no, they didn't take the cow- they immediately donated it to a local worthy cause. Anyway, that state visit clearly illustrated the popularity of the British monarchy in this country back in 1995 and I would say that it's just the same today. But back in 1879 it was not like this at all.

Through the efforts of local historians, historical societies plus a combination of public and private funding these two battlefields are maintained as heritage sites. Whilst such actions are commonplace in many countries in the World, I think it's fair to say that this represents an impressive effort here in Africa.

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Map of Area
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Map of Rorke's Drift
Links
Natal Colony Profile
Zululand Colony Profile
South Africa Colony Profile
Also by David Buckerfield
Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Check
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