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The Battle of Ulundi, Friday, 4th July 1879

The final battle of the Anglo-Zulu war at the end of Lt. Gen. Chelmsford's second invasion of Zululand destroyed the Zulu Kingdom.

Lord Chelmsford was aware that he must defeat the AmaZulu before his successor, Sir Garnet Wolseley assumed command in the field, and from the intelligence gleaned from a reconnaissance conducted by Brevet Lieutentant-Colonel Redvers Buller, V.C., on the 3rd of July, 1879, he knew he had to strike now, in an attempt to stifle his critics.

All through April and May there was much to and fro manoeuvring by the British, particularly with supply and transport.[9] Eventually, on 3 June, the main thrust of the second invasion began its slow advance on Ulundi.[10] 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. Still hoping for an end to hostilities, King Cetshwayo refrained from attacking the extended and vulnerable supply lines, consequently the British advance was unopposed.[11] As the force advanced Cetshwayo dispatched envoys from Ulundi to the British. These envoys reached Chelmsford on 4 June 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.

On the evening of 6 June jittery British troops and artillery in laager at Fort Newdigate opened fire on an arriving piquet company of Royal Engineers commanded by Lieutenant John Chard of Rorke's Drift fame, killing two horses and wounding one.[12] By the 16th the slow advance was quickened by the news that Wolseley was on his way to Natal to take command.[13] On the 17th a depot named 'Fort Marshall' was established - not far from Isandlhwana. On 28 June 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. 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 stop him from making a last effort to restore his reputation and did not reply. A second message was sent on 30 June 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, straining to assert command over Chelmsford, tried to join 1st Division, lagging along the coast behind the main advance. 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. 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. Wolseley's 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 not reached the British force, but now these envoys bore some of what the British commander had demanded – oxen, a promise of guns and a 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 end the hostilities. With the invading enemy in sight, he knew no Zulu regiment would surrender so Cetshwayo sent a further hundred white oxen from his own herd along with Prince Napoleon's sword, which the Zulu had taken 1 June 1879 in the skirmish in which the Prince had been killed. The Zulu umCijo regiment, guarding the approaches to the White Umfolozi River where the British were camped, refused to let the oxen pass, deeming it a useless gesture, saying as it was impossible to meet all Chelmsford's demands - fighting was inevitable.[14] The irate telegram from Wolseley issued on 30 June now reached Chelmsford, and with only five miles between him and a redemptive victory, it was ignored.

The Battle of Ulundi, Friday, 4th July 1879

At about 6a.m. on 4th July, Buller led his mounted forces; composed of Mounted Infantry drawn from the ranks of the British Army, and his South African irregular volunteers, across the White Mfolozi River by the lower drift and took up position on the bluff that commanded the upper drift.

There was bitterness in the laagered camp that remained on the south bank of the Mfolozi. A battalion must remain in the camp to provide adequate protection should anything go wrong. The duty rosters dealt a cruel blow; the task of protecting the laager fell to the reconstructed 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, the men who most wanted the chance to avenge the massacre at Isandlwana would be denied the chance.

Brigadier-General Henry Evelyn Wood's "Flying Column" crossed first, followed by Major-General Edward Newdigate's IInd Division. The unopposed crossing was completed by just after 7a.m. The troops laboured through dense undergrowth before reaching the open country of the Mahlabathini Plain. Buller's mounted force scouted ahead in the direction of kwaNodwengu. Whilst Wood's command halted and began forming the front of the square, Newdigate's men completed the formation. Lord Chelmsford had formed a "living laager" from his infantrymen; twelve artillery pieces and two Gatling Guns added to the firepower. Within the hollow square, or to be more accurate the hollow rectangle, were a company of Royal Engineers; reserve infantry companies; a field hospital; ammunition wagons; a battalion of Natal Native Contingent and a contingent of "Wood's Irregulars". Outside of the formation, to the front and on both flanks rode Buller's horsemen. Forming the rearguard were two squadrons of the 17th Lancers and a troop of Natal Native Horse.

The appearance of the square was somewhat cumbersome at first but Lord Chelmsford marshalled the formation into a semblance of order. The band of 13th Light Infantry struck up martial airs and the colours of the regiment were uncased now the advance could begin. The formation moved across the Mahlabathini Plain. As the rearguard passed the kraal of kwaBulawayo the Natal Native Horse put it to the torch. The square moved on, passing the kraal of kwaNodwengu. The huts there almost suffered the same fate as kwaBulawayo, but as the dense smoke rolled along the ground, Chelmsford realised this proved a useful screen for the enemy and quickly ordered them to be extinguished.

Buller's irregular horsemen retraced their steps from the previous day's reconnaissance. The Zulus held back, skirting their movement. Anxious to engage with the enemy Buller sent a small detachment of Baker's Horse forward to provoke the Zulus into attacking. Galled by the gesture, the Zulus rushed the party and attempted to cut them off, but the men managed to extricate themselves without loss.

Lord Chelmsford brought the square to a halt; the regular cavalry from the rearguard withdrew into the formation. At the opposite sides of the square the front right and the rear left, the Natal Native Horse, commanded by Lieutenant William Cochrane, 32nd Light Infantry, a survivor of Isandlwana and Captain Theophilus Shepstone respectively, chided the AmaZulu warriors, endeavouring to provoke an attack. Slowly they withdrew into the comparative safety of the square.

The Zulu forces surrounded the square and the artillery pieces came into action at about 8.45a.m. The infantry were ranked four deep, the front two ranks kneeling, and the rear two standing, in the "Prepare to Receive Cavalry" position. As the Zulu closed every face of the square became engaged. The artillery pounded the oncoming warriors, whilst the Gatlings clawed into the Zulu ranks. Wood urged his men; "Steady my lads, close up, fire low, and not so fast!" The Zulu responded with inaccurate rifle fire and very few casualties were sustained.

Those within the square who had witnessed Zulu attacks in previous actions felt that the assault lacked the ardour, the ferocity of previous engagements. There was a determined rush from the direction of kwaNodwengu of some 2,000 to 3,000 warriors on the corner of the square held by the 21st (The Royal Scots Fusiliers) and the 58th (The Rutlandshire) Regiments. Chelmsford saw the emergency and implored his men, "Cannot you fire faster?" The infantry duly obliged, their concentrated fire destroying the Zulu rush.

Colonel Drury Curzon Drury Lowe had been recalled from Half Pay to assume the command of the 17th Lancers, after the commanding officer had been wounded in a training exercise just prior to embarkation for the seat of war. A spent round struck Drury Lowe and unhorsed him, he made a brief self-examination and satisfied he had not sustained any serious wound he remounted. Drury Lowe had served with his regiment in the Crimea, but had not ridden in The Charge of the Light Brigade, although his brother had. No minor wound would rob him of the chance of participating in a cavalry charge at the head of the "Death or Glory Boys".

The Zulu attacks were by now faltering all round. They fell back, disorganised by the effect of the British firepower. Chelmsford chose this moment to unleash his regular cavalry, he ordered, "Go at them, Lowe, but don't pursue too far!" Drury Lowe led his squadrons out of the rear face of the square, formed, and charged the fleeing warriors. From the front of the square issued Buller's horsemen and a troop of 1st (The King's) Dragoon Guards. A ruthless, relentless and pitiless pursuit commenced with no quarter being sought by the Zulu and certainly none being offered by the British. There were score to settle, Isandlwana was to be avenged. Clemency was thrown to the wind as the Natal Native Horse and African infantry of the Natal Native Contingent and Wood's Irregulars set about butchering the Zulu wounded to a man. The huts that dotted the plain were put to the torch. Cannon pounded the retreating Zulus, before the gunners turned their attention to shelling Ulundi (onDini), King Cetshwayo's own ikhanda.

Shortly after 10a.m. Chelmsford ordered Buller to burn Ulundi. A race commenced to see who would be first enter Ulundi, Captain Lord William Beresford, 9th Lancers, won it. The Zulu 'capital' was set aflame, the fires of its destruction would burn for days. As for King Cetshwayo, he had left Ulundi on the 3rd of July, and had been sheltering a nearby village when he heard of the defeat of his army, he too fled, a fugitive in his own kingdom.

The last pitched battle of the Anglo-Zulu War had been fought.

Zulu Commanders


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