The early maps drawn by the survivors of the battle of isandlwana have in common an absence of fixing points for the disposition of the troops. Essex goes as far to say as he can’t be sure of the accuracy at all.
It’s probably understandable that participants in the battle were to a degree fixated with tunnel vision and a total concentration on their particular area.
Essex was running back and forth, first to the ridge and acting as fire controller to the left of the line then down to the camp and assisting in ammunition distribution. He did spend time on the firing line; he met Colonel Durnford there and witnessed the first stages of the NNC retreat.
Gardner had arrived at the camp just after 12 o’clock as the main impi was making its way across the plateau. He had attached himself to Lt Col Pulleines command group and had done duty in positioning Captain Bradstreet and men in the Nyogane donga to cover the retreat of Colonel Durnford.
Hlubi had advanced with Colonel Durnford and on his retreat was far to busy fighting of the left horn to take much notice of his surrounds. In any case because of the curvature of the battlefield his view of the front line and front left was severely restricted.
James Hammer had advanced with George Shepstone over the plateau to the base of Mabaso Hill, been involved in the fighting retreat over the plateau and the fight through the camp. He with Essex are probably the key witnesses to positions. He drew a number of maps, none of which survive, but there are a few descriptive points in his letter home, undated.
The non imperial force survivors left us with descriptions of various areas and in various amounts of detail. Quite often their statements or musings were set down on paper much later in life.
We have statements from Higginson, Cochrane, Stafford, Vause, Raw and Nyanda, all of whom were active on the plateau. Strangely Captain Barton never left a statement
From the Camp area early sightings of Zulus near the camp area were annotated in his diary by Charlie Pope and various survivors pin point activities.
The purpose of this essay is to attempt to re analyze these statements and maps to get a picture of the events after 12 o’clock on the 22nd January 1879.
Colonel Anthony Durnford had arrived at isandlwana in response to an order received whilst on his way to Helmakaar. He had ridden into camp with approximately 250 mounted men at around 10.30 on that Wednesday morning.
He was briefed by Lt Col Henry Pulleine on the reports of Zulu activity stemming from the first report by Lt the Hon William Vereker from 7:30 that morning.
Brickhill recorded that between 6 and 7 that morning Zulus showed in considerable force. Lt Chard RE saw a large force through his binoculars moving from right to left until blocked out by the mountain.
Essex reported the same force.
Popes diary recovered from the field spoke of 7000 men, 4000 moving behind the lion’s kop.
Vereker was quoted by Lt Hillier as speaking of a large number of Zulus advancing on the camp.
These are the key statements for this exercise.
The positioning of the witnesses is pertinent to their relative statements and the view they would have had of the various elements of the battle field.
Brickhill in his position as interpreter would have been close to the Camp headquarters.
Chard was receiving orders and would have been in a similar area.
Pope had just come of Piquet duty and would have probably been eating breakfast. From these assumed locations the plateau is invisible. The saddle is the highest point of the camp but is still well below the height of the plateau.
The surveyed height at the saddle is 2350. The mountain 2820 and the plateau at aprox 2700. In between the plateau and the camp level is Mkwene Knoll at 2945, Nqutu hill at 2875 and iThusi at 2850.
For the sightings to have taken place and the direction observed the advancing impi would have had to move along the edge of the escarpment and to the south of the Mkwene knoll. If the impi had moved inland behind Mkwene on route it would have disappeared from view and Chard would not have been able to comment that they disappeared behind lion hill (Isandlwana)
This force deemed to be the right horn then moved into the Manzimyama valley and out of sight until much later in the fight.
Map 1[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
Durnford determined to scout the plateau and sent two troops to do so. Accompanied by Captains Barton and Shepstone Lts Raw and Vause lead the troops of Zikalis horse onto the high ground. And moved off to the North East.
Vause is credited with discovering the concealed impi at a location below the southern slopes of the Mabaso hill. The area of the ‘discovery’ is disputed and not the concern of this essay.
Once the impi was discovered it advanced over the plain towards the camp. The right horn was already in position behind the mountain. The left swung over the Nyezi ridge into the Quabe Valley to confront Durnfords Force. The plateau was left to the Chest, the Ngobamakosi, uVe and uMbonambi.
David Jackson puts part of the uNokhenke as attacking down the West side of Mkwene. Sihlahla puts its strength at 1600; Mehlokazulu attributes a force of 830. So if only portion of this Regiment split off from its main task, to close the road, it would mean an attack of between 800 and 400 men. The losses for the entire regiment are estimated at 40. (1)
Hardly a massive force that would require two full imperial companies to keep at bay.
Traditionally the retreating troops of Raw and Vause moved parallel with the ridge and around the Northern side of Mkwene down into the Tahelane bowl to meet up with the Imperial troops pursued by elements of the right chest.
We are lead to believe that being chased by a strong Zulu force these two troops decide to ride the long way back to their support when by moving between Mkwene and the Nyoni hill, a much shorter distance their route back to camp would have been much quicker and safer.
Would the advancing chest be more concerned with chasing a few horsemen across the country rather than targeting their main objective, the camp?
It has been established earlier that the right horn had blazed a trail across the face of Mkwene, does it not make sense that the following impi would follow suit.
Map 2[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
Before leaving camp Col Durnford had requested that he be supported by Col Pulleine as a consequence a troop of imperial infantry lead by Lt Cavaye where dispatched to the ‘hill’.
The descriptions of Cavaye’s locations were recorded by a number of people.
Essex: At about 12 o’clock, hearing firing from the hill where the company 1/24th was stationed.
On my way I passed 4 Company under the command of Captain Mostyn, who requested me, being mounted, to direct Lt Cavaye to take special care not to endanger the right of his company and to inform that officer that he himself was moving to the left.
Questions that arise.
Essex mentions the hill, not the ridge. From the camp the hill (Mkwene) is very prominent in the centre of the ridge.
If Cavaye wasn’t visible how would Mostyn know where he would be taking position?
Lt Col Pulleine sent out two companies about half way up the hill (this could equate with the base of Mkwene, in line with the top of the ridge.) and drew up the remainder, with the guns in action, in line, on the extreme left of our camp.
Gardner’s map shows the positions as being in front of isandlwana not behind, the ridge is behind, the hill is in front.[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
Court of Enquiry statements translated by W Drummond.
“A company of the Ist Battalion 24th were then moved up to the neck between the Sandhlwana Hill and the positions occupied by the Zulus, where they at once became engaged with the Umcityu Regiment whose advance they completely checked for a while.”
The Tahelane ridge is just 1 mile from the camp. The base of Mkwene is 1.5 miles from the camp.
The Umcitjo regiment formed the right centre of the chest, not right horn. The chest operated as a unit and I would believe it unlikely that they would split on attack.
A company of the 1st Battalion 24th Regiment was directed to take up a position as a piquet on the hill to the North of the camp a distance of 1200 yards.
The distance of 1200 yards doesn’t equate with any position on the ridge or hill.
The piquet on the hill under Captain Barry had been collected by the troops patrolling the plateau from Mkwene hill
Is it merely coincidence that Cavaye's troop was sent to the same area with the same title?
On arriving at the far side of the crest of the hill, I found a company of Lt Cavaye, a section being detached about 500 yards to the left.
The fact that a large, 7000 strong impi had been spotted moving from East to West that morning would surely have been taken note of in positioning his men by Cavaye. The sounds of firing were coming from the North East. Equally, to oppose any such direction it would be common sense to position a defensive force at 90 degrees to that line of advance, North to West.
Historically the troops on the ridge were placed West to East.
If as I propose the defence line was between the two prominences the Mkwene hill would block of a view to the left, I would propose that being the reason that Dyson was detached to cover that point.
I observed that the enemy made little progress as regards to his advance but appeared to be moving to be moving at a rapid pace to our left.
Possibly the chest was giving time for the two horns to get into position, the left having been held up by Durnford. The regiment was being shot at, by moving to the left they would be getting shelter behind the hill while the left horn got into position.
This could explain the mysterious comments of Stafford that he saw the Zulu sitting down!
The right extremity of the enemy’s line was very thin, but increased in depth towards and beyond our right as far as I could see.
The right would be blocked by the Nyoni height to the right of the position. Or if Essex had taken up his position as fire control with Dyson he would be blocked from seeing to the East by the bulk of Mkwene.
We left our horses at the bottom of the Hill, and went up and attacked the Zulus on foot; we drove them back at first, but after retiring over a ridge, they were reinforced and came on in overwhelming numbers and we had a sharp run for it to our horses, which were some little distance away
If we interpret, ‘the bottom of the hill’ as being the point that Mkwene joins onto the ridge it would mean that Hammer and Shepstone rode up to the point where Cavaye was stationed then drove the
Zulu back over the small ridge to the North. When they were forced back they retrieved their horses and rode back to camp. The horse being some little distance away.
If the troops were stationed at the bottom of the Tahelane spur the nearest ridge for them to have chased the Zulus to is very close to a mile away. Not ‘some little distance’, in particular when being chased by fleet footed Zulus.
Before this my company had been joined by Roberts’, with a company of Lonsdale’s footmen.
It is strongly suspected that Roberts was killed by friendly artillery fire. The artillery fire was directed along the ridge, there are no reports of blind firing over the Tahelane ridge to the bowl below. There also are no reports of any kraals in the bowl. There are however indications of kraals below Mkwene hill.
This seems to indicate that Roberts, in company with Raw, descended from the plateau at a place other than the Tahelane ridge. And as they were retreating in the face of the advancing impi it would have been close to the Hill.
The logical place for this to have occurred is therefore below the Mkwene.
The Zulus then closed on us, not withstanding our fire, and we retreated to the bottom of the hill, mixed up with the company of redcoats that had advanced with us. The cannon was then firing, but then that did not hit anyone or check them.
This confirming the above from Raw that the canon fire was close to them and this could not have been on the Tahelane spur or bowl. It is surmised that indeed this was where Roberts got into the Kraal and died.
Whist Molife was not engaged on the ridge he did draw a highly stylised map of the camp.
In a notation A-B Ridge over which the Zulus came, that ridge is shown deliberately in front of the camp and Sandhlwana hill. It also hints at the path of Zikalis horse, again to the front of the mountain.
I was informed by Lt Melvill Adjutant 1st Battalion 24th regiment that a fresh body of the enemy was appearing in force to our rear, and he requested me to direct the left of the line formed as above described, to fall slowly back, keeping up the fire. This I did: then proceed towards the centre of the line. I found however they had already retired.
If the troops were in a line unbroken by any prominence he would not have been surprised that the centre had gone, it would have been very clear from the position on the east. For him to be unsighted there would have to be a visual block. If as surmised earlier the bulk of Mkwene interrupted the line then from his position on the left he would not have seen the centre retiring.
I have used the evidence and statements from Captain Essex as the main points requiring an answer as he being on the ridge was able to give the most detail of that section of the battle.
Map drawn by Edward Essex [You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
On many trips to the battlefield I have consistently been bemused by the supposed positioning of the ‘Troops on the hill’. It has always appeared to be a case of reverse engineering as in, the right centre could have come down here therefore the troops must have been there to stop them. The purpose of this essay therefore is to offer an alternate to that.
There has never, to my knowledge ever been a suggestion that there was communication between the Hill and the camp once Lt Cavaye was in position. So the question of the statement by Mostyn to Essex has been an irritant. In addition the fact that Essex seemed surprised that the centre of the line had left without him seeing, strongly suggests that he was obscured by some thing. The right of that line however was in place or just leaving as he made his way down the slope, possibly therefore the centre of the line was slightly behind the right and could re position without the right knowing.
I have in addition with the above put a definite reason on Dyson being detached, again a point pondered over on many occasions.
(1)Figures estimated by David Jackson.
Nyanda Statement 25th January 1879
Hammer Letter home, undated
Molife Durnford Papers
Raw Statement February 1879
Gardner Statement 26th January 1879
Uguku of the umCijo