Battle of Ulundi

Battle of Ulundi

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Ulundi
partof=Anglo-Zulu War

caption= The Burning of Ulundi
date=July 4, 1879
place=Ulundi, South Africa
result=Decisive British Victory
combatant2=Zulu Kingdom
commander1=Lord Chelmsford
strength1=4200 British [1911 "Encyclopedia Britannica" entry for Zululand gives 5200]
1000 Africans
2 Gatling Guns
10 canons
strength2=12,000 to 15,000 [1911 "Encyclopedia Britannica" entry for Zululand gives 12,000 to 15,000]
casualties1=10 killed 87 wounded
casualties2=1,500+ [1911 "Encyclopedia Britannica" entry for Zululand gives 1500]

The Battle of Ulundi took place at the Zulu capital of Ulundi on July 4, 1879 and proved to be the decisive battle that finally broke the military power of the Zulu nation.


In April, 1879 the British found themselves at their original starting point for the invasion of Zululand, despite recent battles at Gingindlovu and Kambula resulting in massive losses for the Zulus. News of the defeat at Isandlwana had hit Britain hard and in response a flood of reinforcements had arrived in Natal. Lord Chelmsford, aware that his leadership was being questioned and that Sir Garnet Wolseley was being sent to supersede his command of the British forces and also that he must strike whilst his enemy was still recovering from their defeats, prepared a second invasion of Zululand. For this renewed offensive Chelmsford fielded 2 cavalry regiments, 5 batteries of artillery and 12 infantry battalions, amounting to 1,000 regular cavalry, 9,000 regular infantry and a further 7,000 men with 24 guns, including the first ever British Army Gatling battery. The structure of the force was reorganised; Colonel Evelyn Wood’s No. 4 column became the flying column, Colonel Charles Pearson was relieved of command by Major General Henry Crealock and his No.1 column became the 1st Division and Major General Newdigate was given command of the new 2nd Division, accompanied by Lord Chelmsford himself.


On June 3, the main thrust of the second invasion began. The 1st division was to advance along the coast belt supporting 2nd division, which with Wood's flying column, an independent unit, was to march on Ulundi from Rorke’s Drift and Kambula. As the force advanced Cetshwayo dispatched envoys from Ulundi to the British. These envoys reached Chelmsford on June 4 with the message that Cetshwayo wished to know what terms would be acceptable to cease hostilities. Chelmsford sent a Zulu-speaking Dutch trader back with their terms in writing. Chelmsford’s column was a mere 17 miles away from Ulundi and had established the supply depots of Fort Newdigate, Fort Napoleon and Port Durnford when Sir Garnet Wolseley arrived in Cape Town on June 28. Wolseley had cabled Chelmsford ordering him not to undertake any serious actions on the 23rd but the message was only received through a galloper on this day. Chelmsford had no intention of letting Wolseley reap the reward of his efforts and did not reply. A second message was sent on the 30th reading

:"Concentrate your force immediately and keep it concentrated. Undertake no serious operations with detached bodies of troops. Acknowledge receipt of this message at once and flash back your latest moves. I am astonished at not hearing from you"

Wolseley, desperate to snatch this victory from Chelmsford, saw that his only chance was join 1st Division, lagging along the coast behind the main advance. From there he hoped he could move the division forward and reach Ulundi in time to lead the attack on it. A final message was sent to Chelmsford explaining that he would be joining 1st Division, and that their location was where Chelmsford should retreat if he was compelled to. High seas prevented Wolseley landing at Port Durnford and he had to take the road. At the very time Wolseley was riding north from Durban, Chelmsford was preparing to engage the enemy and his frantic efforts to reach the front had been in vain.

On the same day the first cable was received, Cetshwayo’s representatives again appeared. A previous reply to Chelmsford’s demands had apparently never reached the British force, but now these envoys bore some of what the British commander had demanded – oxen, a promise of guns and gift of elephant tusks. The peace was rejected as the terms had not been fully met and Chelmsford turned the envoys away without accepting the elephant tusks and informed them that the advance would only be delayed one day to allow the Zulus to surrender one regiment of their army. The redcoats were now visible from the Royal Kraal and a dismayed Cetshwayo was desperate to prevent the imminent destruction. With the enemy in sight, he knew no Zulu regiment would accept an order to surrender so sent a further hundred white oxen from his own herd along with Prince Napoleon’s sword, which they had captured June 1, 1879 when the Zulu had surprised and killed him. The Zulu regiment guarding the approaches to the White Mfonzi river, where the British were camped, refused to let the oxen pass. The final stages of negotiation were confused and ended with Cetshwayo never receiving the final offer from Lord Chelmsford. The irate telegram from Wolseley issued on June 30 now reached Chelmsford, and with only 5 miles between him and victory, it was ignored.

The battle

On July 3, with negotiations having broken down, Colonel Buller led a cavalry force across the river to reconnoitre the ground beyond the river. A party of Zulus were seen herding goats near the Mbilane stream and troopers moved to round them up. On a hunch, Buller bellowed an order for them to stop and prepare to fire from the saddle. His instinct proved right, for 3,000 Zulus rose from the long grass at that moment and fired a fusillade, before charging forth. Three troopers were shot dead and Buller ordered his men to retire. As they dashed back to the river, Baker’s Horse who had been scouting further across took up position and gave covering fire for the river crossing. Their crossing in turn was covered by the Transvaal Rangers on the opposite bank. This incident had placed the entire reconnaissance in grave danger, but Buller’s alertness and leadership saved them from annihilation. Chelmsford was now convinced the Zulus wanted to fight and replied to Wolseley’s third message, informing him that he would indeed retreat to 1st division if the need arose, and that he would be attacking the Zulus the next day.

That evening Chelmsford issued his orders – the advance would begin at first light, prior to forming his infantry into a large hollow square, with mounted troops covering the sides and rear. Neither wagon laagers nor trenches would be used, to convince both the Zulus and critics that a British square could “beat them fairly in the open”.

At 6 a.m. Buller led out an advance guard of mounted troops and South African irregulars, which after Buller had secured upper drift was followed by the infantry being led by the experienced Flying Column battalions. By 7:30 a.m. the column had cleared the rough ground on the other side of the riverbank and their square (in reality a rectangular shape) was formed. The leading face was made up of five companies of the 80th Regiment in four ranks, with two Gatling guns in the centres, two 9-pounders on the left flank and two 7-pounders on the right. The 90th Light Infantry with four companies of the 94th Regiment made up the left face with two more 7-pounders. On the right face were the 1st Battalion of the 13th Light Infantry, four companies of the 58th Regiment, two 7-pounders and two 9-pounders. The rear face was composed of two companies of the 94th Regiment, two companies of the 2nd Battalion of the 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers. Within the square were headquarters staff, No. 5 company of the Royal Engineers (led by Lieutenant John Chard, of Rorke's Drift fame), the 2nd Native Natal Contingent, fifty wagons and carts with reserve ammunition and hospital wagons. Buller’s horsemen protected the front and both flanks of the square. A rearguard of two squadrons of the 17th Lancers and a troop of Natal Native Horse followed.

Battalions with Colours now uncased them; the band of 13th Light Infantry struck up and the 5,317-man strong ‘living laager’ began its measured advance across the plain. No Zulus in any numbers had been sighted by 8 a.m., so the Frontier Light Horse were sent forth to provoke the enemy. As they rode across the Mbilane stream, the entire Zulu inGobamkhosi regiment rose out of the grass in front of them, followed by regiment after regiment rising up all around them. The entire Zulu Army around 12,000 to 15,000 strong, now stood in horseshoe encircling the north, east and southern sides of the square. A Zulu reserve force was also poised to complete the circle. The Zulu ranks stood hammering the ground with their feet and drumming shield with assegai, made up both of veterans and novices with varying degrees of confidence. The mounted troops by the stream opened fire from the saddle in an attempt to trigger a premature charge before wheeling back to gallop through the gaps made in the infantry lines for them. As the cavalry cleared their front at about 9 a.m., the four ranks of the infantry with front two kneeling, opened fire at 2,000 yards into the advancing Zulu ranks. The pace of the advance quickened and the range closed between the British lines and the Zulus. The British were ready this time, and the Zulu troops faced concentrated rifle fire, and had to charge forward directly into non-stop fire from the Gatling guns and the artillery firing canister shot at point-blank range.

Rushes were made by the Zulus, in an attempt to get within stabbing range, but their belief in tokoloshe and their cowhide shields proved no defence against bullet and shell. There were a number of casualties within the square to Zulu marksmen, but the British firing did not waver and no warrior was able to get within 30 yards of the British ranks. The Zulu reserve force now rose and charged against the south-west corner of the square. Nine-pounders ploughed chunks out of this body while the infantry opened fire. The speed of the charge made it seem as if the Zulu reserves would get close enough to engage in hand-to-hand combat but no warrior reached the British ranks. Chelmsford ordered the cavalry to mount, and the 17th Lancers, 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, colonial cavalry, Native Horse and 2nd Natal Native Contingent charged the now fleeing Zulus. Towards the high ground the Zulus fled with cavalry at their heels and shells falling ahead of them. The Lancers were checked at the Mbilane stream by the fire of a concealed party of Zulus, causing several casualties before the Lancers overcame the resistance. The pursuit continued until not a live Zulu remained on the Mahlabatini plain, with members of the Natal Native Horse, Natal Native Contingent and Wood's Irregulars killing the Zulu wounded, a vengeance for the slaughter at Isandlwana.


In the space of half an hour the Zulu power was broken and Chelmsford had vindicated himself, with the Zulu men and their stabbing spears falling to the sophisticated arms of the British. British casualties were ten killed and eighty-seven wounded, while over a thousand Zulu dead were counted around the square, with about five hundred dying in the pursuit and as a result of wounds, and the same number of dead are believed to have been wounded. Chelmsford ordered the Royal Kraal of Ulundi to be burnt – the capital of Zululand would burn for days. Cetshwayo had been sheltering in a village since July 3 and fled upon hearing news of the defeat at Ulundi, to be captured on August 28 and sent into exile on Robben Island, near Cape Town. The forces under Chelmsford were dispersed around Zululand in the hunt for Cetshwayo, and the final small battle to defeat the remaining hostile battalions. The day after the Battle of Ulundi, Lord Chelmsford received indication that Sir Wolseley was taking over command. Chelmsford replied to both the Secretary of State For War and Wolseley that he took his supersession as criticism of his conduct, and since he had now defeated the Zulus he requested permission to return home, which he did.

ee also

*Military history of South Africa


External links

* [ Travellers Impressions]

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