Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – 22 Jan 1879

A METT-TC, Combined Arms, and Battlespace Analysis of one of the least expected defeats and miraculous victories in military history.  

By Mark D, Harris

The military experiences of the British Empire during the reign of Victoria are filled with lessons for modern day soldiers. Isandlwana was one of the most humiliating defeats in the history of British arms, and Rorke’s Drift, occurring on the same day, only a few miles from Isandlwana and against the same enemy, was one of the most amazing victories. Queen Victoria awarded eleven Victoria Crosses (VC), the highest honor in the British Army. It was the most to VCs awarded to members of any regiment in a single action in British history.


Settlers from Great Britain, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe had been settling for centuries in fertile and geographically important southern Africa. After the carnage of the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648), the land around Cape Town in southwest Africa was settled by the Boers, immigrants from the Netherlands, beginning in 1652. Under the auspices of the Dutch East India company, the settlers established a Boer colony in 1671. French Huguenots joined the colony in 1689. Over the decades, Boers traveled east to establish colonies across the southern tip of Africa. Holland fell to revolutionary France in 1795 and invaded its European neighbors. As part of the war with France, Britain attacked the Dutch Cape Colony 1795, 1803, and formally annexed it in 1814. As the United Kingdom kept annexing territories, tensions continued between the British, Boers, and black African neighbors for the next century.

Shaka (1787-1828) was an illegitimate son of the Zulu Chief Senzangakon (1762-1816). Shaka took control of the Mthethwa alliance after defeating Zwide, the king of the rival Ndwandwe tribe. He revolutionized the Zulu military, imposing conscription, building a standing army, improving weaponry (spear (assegais) and short spear (ixwa)), and teaching battle tactics of encirclement. Shaka devastated his African neighbors, conquering approximately 80,000 sq miles in southeastern Africa. His assassin and successor, Dingane (1795-1840), massacred Boers over a land dispute but later was defeated by the Boers in the Battle of Blood River (December 1838). Cetshwayo, first born son of King Mpande (1840-1872) and half-nephew of Shaka, came to power in 1872, after defeating his brother Mbyazi in the Battle of Ndondakusuka during the Second Zulu Civil War. The Zulus had a few muskets and rifles.

The British colonies in Natal, in southeast Africa, bordered the Zulu state. Zulus power rose under Cetshwayo’s leadership, and the European settlers in Natal saw a threat. After failed negotiations, the British under High Commissioner Sir Henry Bartle Frere went to war. They launched a three-pronged attack into Zululand from the southeast, northwest, and west. The main British attack was commanded by LTG Lord Chelmsford. Chelmsford’s main thrust from the west crossed the Buffalo River at Rorke’s drift, a supply post and the only fordable location for miles downriver.

Timeline (Isandlwana)

The Zulu capital at Ufundi was 110 miles from Isandlwana. The Zulus had to fight two major engagements, at Isandhlwana against the center column and at Inyezane against the southern column, both on 22 Jan 1879.

15 Jan — LTC Russell reconnaissance to Ispezi Hill

20 Jan 1879 — British camp established at Isandlwana with about 4,600 soldiers

Why Isandhlwana? Chelmsford intended his camp at Isandlwana to be temporary, lasting only until he found the main Zulu army. Thus, he ordered the base commander, LTC Henry Pulleine, not to entrench. He also refused a request to laager the wagons, forming them into a defensive perimeter, for the same reason. As a camp site, Isandlwana had many advantages to the British:

  1. It was the only site in the immediate vicinity with space to organize a perimeter.
  2. Brushwood for fires was easily obtainable
  3. Good fields of fire were present, including a steep hill at the rear to provide some cover.
  4. It was overlooked by hills to the north, but was too far away to be significant for Zulu arms, as they had mostly spears, few handheld guns, and no artillery.

21 Jan (early afternoon) — The main Zulu impi (army) arrived at Ngwebeni stream, 8 km from Isandlwana but out of site of the British advanced posts. A new moon was expected on 22 Jan, so the Zulus did not plan to attack until 23 Jan.

21 Jan — Forces under MAJ Dartnell and Commandant Lonsdale left Isandlwana in search of Zulu forces. Dartnell found about 500 Zulus on the Magago hill to the southeast. They sent a message back to camp for several companies to advance and attack the next day.

0430 22 Jan — Chelmsford (with 2500 officers and men in six companies, and seven field guns) left Isandlwana to pursue the Zulus found on Magogo Hill. LTC Pulleine was left with 1200 men to guard the main camp.

0730 22 Jan — Breakfast at Isandlwana (five companies of the 1/24 regiment and one company of the 2/24 regiment, a total of 1300 soldiers). First Zulus sighted on plateau and word sent to Chelmsford, but no action.

0930 22 Jan — Chelmsford breakfasted on Magogo hill. He received a report that Zulus had been seen in the Northeast.

1000 22 Jan — COL Anthony Durnsford’s forces of natives arrived at Isandlwana from Rorke’s drift. As ranking officer, he had inherited Pulleine’s orders to defend the camp at Isandlwana.

Between 1000 and 1100 22 Jan — LT Chard (Engineer) arrived at Isandlwana from Rorke’s Drift and inspected the camp. He heard that Zulus were to the north and returned to Rorke’s Drift by 1200, fearing that the road might be blocked. MAJ Spaulding left Rorke’s Drift and returned to the Dutch town at Helpmakaar, leaving LT Chard in command of Rorke’s Drift.

1130 22 Jan — Hearing from a picket that Zulus were moving from the eastward and surmising that they intended to attack Chelmsford from the rear, Durnsford left the main camp with 250 Natal Cavalry and 300 Natal Infantry.

Shortly after 1130 22 Jan —A small detachment of Durnsford’s men under LT Raw who were assigned to reconnoiter the plateau encountered the Zulu impi. Knowing that they had been discovered, the Zulu commanders prepared to attack.

1200 22 Jan — The Zulu impi attacked.

Shortly after 1200 22 Jan – LTG Chelmsford received a note “For God’s sake, come with all your men; the camp is surrounded and will be taken unless helped!” He galloped to a high point from which he could see Isandlwana, saw nothing amiss, and ignored the message.

Between 1200 and 1300 22 Jan — COL Durnsford withdrew his forces to Big Donga (a stream bed). They fought well, but ammunition began to run low, and they retreated. His withdrawal exposed the British right flank.

1300 22 Jan – Cartridges began to run out. The native troop broke and fled. The British line collapsed.

Between 1300 and 1400 22 Jan — Hand to hand combat between Zulus and British. Durnsford withdrew to the southern end of wagon row and made a last stand. All units fought desperately. The Zulus ripped open bodies and dressed in British uniforms. Fugitives from Isandlwana escaped to Rorke’s Drift and informed them of the disaster.

At Rorke’s Drift, Chard and his staff discussed the possibility of abandoning the station. They realized that, carrying the sick, they would be easily overtaken by Zulus. They decided instead to fortify and fight.

1400 22 Jan – LTG Lord Chelmsford headed back towards Isandlwana.

1430 22 Jan – LTG Lord Chelmsford learned of the utter destruction of the British detachment at Isandlwana

1800 22 Jan – Chelmsford arrived at Isandlwana and the camp was deserted, except for the dead. The casualties numbered whites 858, natives 471, Zulus 3000, and white survivors 74.


Timeline (Rorke’s Drift)

  1. Rorke’s Drift was a mission station of the Church of Sweden, formerly used as a trading post by James Rorke.
  2. The site included two buildings, a house (which had been turned into a hospital, made of round stone and brick outside walls, and mud inside walls, roof thatched, high and steep) and a store (which held supplies for the advancing army, all stone, very high roof)
  3. On the morning of the 22nd, the garrison busied themselves with the tasks of supplying Durnsford and improving the roads.
  4. No attempt had been made to fortify the Drift.
  5. British defenders used what was at hand. Biscuit boxes weighed about 100 kg each. Mealie bags also weighed about 100 kg. They built a 4 ft high wall forming a main perimeter, as well as an elevated redoubt in the center (final perimeter, fallback position).
  6. The stone walls of the house, the store, and the kraal had been incorporated into the main perimeter. Defenders knocked holes in the outside walls to allow them to fire.

1630 22 Jan – The Zulu detachment, about 3,000 to 4,000 strong, approached the mission station at Rorke’s Drift.

About 1700 22 Jan – Several detachments of native troops, stationed in the stone walled kraals (enclosures for cattle and other livestock), broke and fled. About 150 defenders remained.

The Zulus concentrated on the eastern end of the fortification and occupied both kraals but failed to take the final defenses

1800 22 Jan – British defenders begin to withdraw from the main wall. The Zulus, meanwhile, break into the hospital. Nine of eleven patients are successfully evacuated. Zulu forces set the hospital ablaze.

2200 22 Jan – The cattle kraal fell to Zulu attacks.

2400 22 Jan — LT Chard led a counterattack to get water for his men

0430 23 Jan — The Zulus broke off the attack and withdrew. Zulus had continually assaulted the positions for over ten hours.

0700 23 Jan – The Zulus returned, but shortly withdraw again, skirting far around the station for movement. The casualties at Rorke’s Drift included British 17 dead and Zulus 400-500 dead.

0800 23 Jan – A relief column from Chelmsford arrived at Rorke’s Drift.

METT-TC Analysis

  British Zulu
Mission Destroy Zulu resistance by destroying their army and taking political control in Ulundi Protect their sovereignty by defeating the British forces or by making conquest of Zululand too costly to complete.
Enemy From the Zulu perspective, the English had:

·       Great firepower

·       Small numbers

·       Slow and cumbersome movement

·       Advanced technology

·       A mighty empire behind them

From the English perspective, the Zulus had:

·       Overwhelming numbers

·       Faster tactically and strategically

·       No logistical tail

·       Unity of Command under Cetshwayo

Troops ·       Overwhelming firepower

·       Inadequate training and leadership of the native contingent – good training, equipment and leadership for the native horse.

·       Slower than the Zulus (wagons and carts to supply)

Mostly spears (assegai), few rifles, no artillery
Terrain ·       Hard, stony ground (shale) with insufficient tools to easily dig in.

·       Too few wagons to make a laager

·       Breastworks would take too long to build (longer than they expected to be there

·       Roads and tracks had to be built or improved in front of the advancing army

Intimate knowledge of the terrain.

On the tactical offensive, and using spears (and a few firearms) so they would not have dug in.

Time Against them. Little political support for the war in London, Consuming supplies rapidly The Zulus were on their home turf and had finished much of their agricultural work for the year. They could stay on station for at least a week, but the British did not have the supply chains to stay as long.
Civilian No local support Local support and good spy network


Combined Arms Analysis

  British Zulu
Land Total – 4600 troops, 1275 infantry, 320 cavalry, 152 artillery (6x71b guns, 2 rocket troughs), 2566 Natives (infantry and cavalry), 220 wagons, 82 carts, 1507 oxen, 49 horses, 67 mules, 346 drivers

Rorke’s Drift – LT Chard (engineer), LT Bromhead (infantry), 120 troops, not including 19 too sick to fight

24,000 light infantry
Sea None, no river transport or resupply available, too far from coast.
Air Not applicable then, but very applicable now
Undersea Not applicable then, but very applicable now
Space Not applicable then, but very applicable now
Cyberspace Not applicable then, but very applicable now


Battlespace Analysis

Operations British Zulu
Close Strategic double envelopment with their three-pronged invasion plan.

Tactical reconnaissance in force

Tactical double envelopment
Deep Scouting parties searching for main impi Knowing the British dependence on transportation, they cut the wagon track leading from Rorke’s Drift to Isandlwana
Rear Rorke’s drift

British troubles at Isandlwana

  1. Lack of Fortification

The British forces arrived at Isandlwana on 20 Jan but didn’t fortify their position, never expecting the Zulus to attack in force. Instead, they assumed that the Zulus would launch small unit “hit and run” attacks as was their custom against Europeans. In failing to fortify adequately, Chelmsford made the same mistake as Lee did at Antietam 17 years before.

  1. Poor disposition of British forces at camp

It was 1500 yds (more than a rifle shot) from the front lines to the supply wagons (daytime) and 500 yds (nighttime). The spaces between the front-line companies were inadequately covered. Further, Chelmsford had no forces covering the high ground (the Nqutu plateau).

  1. Incomplete intelligence

The Zulus first appeared on Magogo, which is the same area of their attack on the Boers 30 years before. Had they done their historical homework, the British would have known that and anticipated Zulu movements. Armies, like people, tend to do the same thing over and over again. The Zulu’s occupation of Magogo might have been anticipated. When the Zulus withdrew from Magogo, they did exactly what the British expected them to do. Chelmsford was anticipating only a hit and run attack, and their withdrawal reinforced British preconceptions.

Two companies of mounted Natal cavalry scouted the northeast but no one scouted the Nqutu plateau, where the Zulus were. The first plateau scouting occurred when Chelmsford did his reconnaissance in force away from the camp. The British did not adequately reconnoiter the area around their camp, even though they had a full day to do so. Chelmsford was as blind as Lee was during the Gettysburg campaign when JEB Stuart rode his cavalry around the Union Army instead of letting Lee know where the Union Army was.

  1. Unresponsive supply (Donald Robert Morris, 1966)

Quartermaster Pullen scrutinized every man and drummer boy to ensure they were from his battalion. He knew that all cartridges would have to be accounted for by him after the fight, so he refused to hand over ammunition to men from other units. Quartermaster Bloomfield was in charge of the 2nd battalion’s wagon which was situated in the center of the camp. But his responsibilities were only to Pope’s G Company and that was also over a thousand yards away. Bloomfield was only opening one box containing 600 rounds at a time. Each heavy wooden box required at least six of the eighteen screws to be removed before the lid could be pried off. Men from the northern end of the line naturally stopped at his wagon as it was closer, but he sent them to Pullen’s wagon, another 500 yards to the south.

Durnford had sent mounted natives back as soon as he had reached the donga. But they were refused supplies by both quartermasters and told to find their own wagons. Their wagons were still somewhere on the track from Rorke’s Drift when the action began, and they had no idea where they were now, so finally they returned empty-handed. Durnford, now down to his last few rounds, was helpless.

  1. Tactically divided British forces

LTG Lord Chelmsford’s advance was a reconnaissance in force in the southeast. COL Durnford’s mounted Natal cavalry was a separate command that also explored the southeast. Cavalry should have worked in tandem with Chelmsford to find and fix the Zulus. Meanwhile, LTC Pulleine’s small garrison was isolated at Isandlwana. Dividing forces in the face of an enemy sometimes works, as it did in Stonewall Jackson’s movement at Chancellorsville, but often does not. At the very least, divided forces must have excellent communication between the groups. LTG Lord Chelmsford should never have ignored the warning he was sent early in the battle.

  1. Uncertainty about command of the Isandlwana camp

Chelmsford left LTC Pulleine in charge of the camp, but when COL Durnford, his senior by four years, entered the camp with his NNC, there was confusion about who was actually in charge.


The British at Isandlwana made major mistakes, some bureaucratic (such as the ammunition hoarding), and some social (like their underestimation of their Zulu enemies). Their original military plan was sound, but the political reasons for the war were weak. Frere had not secured sufficient support in London or in Cape Town. Students of war today can and should learn much about their craft from this and other examples from military history.

Related Articles


  1. Donald Robert Morris. (1966). The Washing of the Spears: a History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation. Cape.
  2. Pakenham, T. (2015). The Scramble for Africa. Abacus.


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