The Battle of Isandlwana (South Africa, January 22, 1879)

The Battle of Isandlwana (South Africa, January 22, 1879)

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Isandlwana attacked

Durnford fears that they will try to fall on the rear of Chelmsford Column: he therefore decides tointercept. After letting one of his mounted companies cover the rear of the camp, he takes his two remaining NNH companies east, along with the rocket launcher section and an NNC company to cover it. His troop thus passed an isolated hill -kop orkopje in Afrikaner - nicknamed "Conical Kop" because of its characteristic shape, and sets out to bypass the Itusi to cut off the Zulus' route. It is then about 11:30 am As the artillerymen and infantry follow him on foot as best they can, Durnford and his horsemen gallop up against the enemy. However, they must quickly become disillusioned: what the sentry saw from the summit of Isandlwana was probably the left "horn" of the unfolding impi. The Zulus are present in large numbers, the uVe, uMbonambi and inGobamakhosi regiments possibly comprising, in all, 5 or 6,000 warriors. The Basuto horsemen dismount and begin to fire, but are unable to slow the attackers. Isolated, Durnford ordered a withdrawal that his riders carried out without difficulty. However, he did not cross paths with the rest of his troops, as the rocket launcher battery was lost and the company of the NNC in its wake. Oblivioning towards the north, the artillerymen marched straight on Itusi, on the slopes of which the Zulus were not long in making their appearance. The rocket launchers barely have time to battery and fire, but they are not followed closely enough by the infantry and are overwhelmed. Confronted with the enemy advance, the NNC soldiers retreat precipitously.

At the same time, Pulleine was informed of what just happened on the set. The Zulu advance south threatens to completely isolate Durnford and his horsemen. Pulleine therefore decides to extend his lines to the east, with a view to maintaining contact with the commander of column n ° 2. At the same time, he also sent company F of I / 24th reinforce the E on the plateau, as well as an NNC company. However, this is insufficient. The British were attacked simultaneously by the right “horn” (uDududu and uNokhenke regiments, 3 to 4,000 men approximately), which sought to outflank their left, and the “breast” (with theamabutho isAngqu, umKhulushane, umHlanga and umCijo, between 7 and 9,000 warriors), who attacks them head-on and begins to descend the slopes of the plateau on the right. Soon the British had no choice but to back down, which they did with discipline, stopping regularly to fire and keep the Zulus at bay. Pulleine advances company C of I / 24th to cover their left, and ordered the 7-pounder gun section to form a battery. At the same time, he received orders from Chelmsford to join him; he makes answer thatthe camp is attacked. With the now massive engagement of British infantry and artillery, the three advanced companies continued to retreat, until their left was anchored on Isandlwana.

Battle of Isandlwana, January 22, 1879, around 12 noon. Caption:

A- A sentry stationed at the top of the mountain observes the Zulus heading southwest.

B- Durnford reacts by taking his troops to block their path.

C- On the plateau, the mounted companies are pushed back and pursued in force.

D- Pulleine deploys his forces in line to defend the camp.

E- Driven from the plateau, the British gradually retreated to the main line.

F- A good part of the NNC soldiers leave the battlefield.

G- The Durnford NNH riders are attacked in force and fall back.

H- The rocket launcher section, lost, is annihilated by the Zulus, the NNC company which accompanies it flees.

During the morning, the forces of Chelmsford multiply the reconnaissance in order to secure the surroundings of the future camp on the Mangeni and to flush out the Zulu army. The general is informed very early that the Zulus have been seen in force on the plateau north of Isandlwana, and he asks one of his staff officers to climb to a height to observe the camp through telescopes. . This one does not noticenothing in particular, except that the draft animals were gathered in the center of the camp - one of the measures taken by Pulleine after the first alert. Chelmsford returned several elements of the NNC towards the camp, including a battalion under the orders of Commander Hamilton-Browne. Along the way, the natives capture and interrogate two Zulu warriors, who inform them that a massive attack is about to be launched against the camp at Isandlwana. Hamilton-Browne calls Chelmsford, but the general moves constantly and the messenger, it seems, struggles to find him. The NNC battalion is then a good dozen kilometers from the camp, a distance it will probably take three or four hours to cover. After five kilometers, Hamilton-Browne finds that the camp is indeed attacked - probably around noon, as the Zulus begin to descend the plateau. The number of attackers is so great that the officer first drives his unit back to a better defensive position. But when he wants to resume walking to come to the aid of the defenders of the camp, his soldiers, doubtless exhausted and frightened by the mass of enemies in front of them, refuse to comply.

At Isandlwana, repeated bursts of Martini-Henry rifles and 7-pound shells stopped the advance of the Zulus. Experienced and brave as they are, the warriors of Ntshingwayo cannot completely suppress their instinct for self-preservation: faced with the hail of projectiles, they seek cover. The British main line consists of the five I / 24 companiesth (from left to right: C, F, E, A and H), company G of II / 24th, commanded by Lieutenant Pope, holding the right end. The two mounted companies of the NNH are inserted between the C and the F; however, this is insufficient to hold a stretched line onmore than a kilometer and a half. Even deployed as skirmishers, the 600 or so regular infantrymen present only occupy a cumulative length of approximately 5 to 600 meters. There are therefore large spaces between each company, which Pulleine strives to fill with the NNC companies it has. Two of them settle between companies E and A. But the others do not move. Despised by the British, ill-equipped, the native soldiers refused to advance. No doubt the vision of thousands of Zulus descending the slopes of the plateau, to the sound of "low and musical whisper, which gave the impression of gigantic swarms of bees approaching again and again Which Smith-Dorrien will describe as their battle cry, is it too much for these men. They began to leave the battlefield in large numbers, sometimes followed by their European officers and non-commissioned officers. Fleeing the Zulu "buffalo", the mass of NNC infantry retreated southwest, attempting to cross the Buffalo to join Rorke's Drift or Helpmekaar.

The feeling of the soldiers of the 24th regiment on foot is undoubtedly very different. Trained and equipped, they are seasoned and deployed so as to draw maximum firepower from their weapons. It is obvious that the sight of such a large enemy affects their morale, but the two cannons that support them also positively influence it. Their losses are very low, as the Zulus did not make contact, and their imprecise fire meant that the majority of bullets were likely to pass overhead. Perhaps some of them compare themselves to that "thin red line" of infantry which, a quarter of a century earlier, halted the charge of the Russian cavalry at Balaklava during the Crimean War. Each of them received 70 cartridges, an endowment which is doubtless quickly exhausted. Behind, Horace Smith-Dorrien tries to gather all the men without specific employment and makes them transport ammunition. Tirelessly, they and the quarterbacks of each company go back and forth to bring the precious cartridges to the line of fire. The exercise, however, is delicate. Ammunition is not lacking in Isandlwana - there are in the British camp more than 400,000 cartridges - but they are conditioned in screwed cases, the opening of which is very difficult. To make matters worse, some management officers refuse to distribute ammunition to anyone: administrative habits die hard.

From resistance to disaster

However, the British line is holding on. Each attempt by the Zulus to charge is met with a volley of large caliber bullets, which cause serious injuries andmow down the warriors by the dozen. The losses are very heavy, and the survivors take shelter in a network ofdongas, roughly parallel to the position of the defenders, about 400 meters from them. At the foot of Isandlwana, Captain Younghusband's C Company bent its line of fire to the left, so as to counter the attempts of the right "horn" to flank it. The three companies furthest to the right are stationed along an elevation of the ground, which runs in a south-easterly direction and allows them to dominate several hundred meters of open ground. The whole device roughly forms a chevron, extended to the right by the two companies of Durnford. The riders of the NNH have indeed succeeded in reforming on adonga, which serves them as a summary trench and from which they keep in check the little experienced regiments of the left "horn". The breach which exists between them and the rest of the line is partly filled by a detachment mounted colonial, and is seen counter-beaten by the British artillery.

A few kilometers away, Commander Hamilton-Browne left his battalion in position to ride, with a few officers, towards Isandlwana. Having reached six kilometers from the camp, he can observe the attack in progress at leisure. From his position, he probably sees the Zulus clouds on the slopes of the plateau and above all, those of the left "horn" trying to outflank Durnford and his men. He gets the impression that the camp is about to be surrounded and overwhelmed - a false impression, because at this point its defenses are stillsolid. Hence the new message that he sent urgently to Chelmsford: "For heaven's sake come with all your men; the camp is surrounded and will be taken if it is not rescued. This time, the courier manages to find his addressee. Almost simultaneously - probably around 12:30 p.m. - scouts report to him that the camp is under attack. Yet despite the almost hopeless nature of Hamilton-Browne's message, Chelmsford doubts its relevance. The Zulu army is obviously ahead of him; it cannot therefore be at the same time in Isandlwana, about fifteen kilometers to the north-west. At worst, it can only be a diversion, and Pulleine has ample means to repel it. However, Chelmsford decides to climb to the top of akop from where you can see the camp, to be sure. The general observes Isandlwana ... and notices nothing unusual. Satisfied, he takes Hamilton-Browne's message as an exaggeration and doesn't change his plans. Around 2 p.m., he took the road to Isandlwana with his staff, as planned.

Battle of Isandlwana, January 22, 1879, around 2:30 p.m. Caption:

A- Durnford's men lacking ammunition, they retreated to the camp.

B- Company G of II / 24th moves back to compensate for their departure.

C- Seeing his right without cover, Pulleine orders his troops to retreat to the camp in their turn.

D- During the withdrawal, the remaining companies of the NNC fled.

E- A simultaneous charge from the Zulu center infiltrates the breaches between the British companies, reaching the camp and overwhelming its defenders.

F- Durnford tries to rally some of his men on the edge of the camp.

G- The Zulu right horn bypasses Isandlwana and attacks the rear of the camp, cutting off the British retreat.

On thedonga which served as their trenches, the native horsemen of Durnford began torunning out of ammunition for their rifles. They are the furthest from the camp, and their leader sends some men to fetch cartridges. However, the No. 2 Column wagons carrying them got lost in the twists and turns of the camp, and the NNH horsemen cannot find them. In desperation, they solicit the fourriers of I / 24th, but they categorically refuse to give them anything. On the line of fire, the rate of salvation slows down. Finally, Durnford realizes that he must fall back to avoid falling completely short. His two companies and the colonists mount the saddle and retreat westward, to redeploy with their backs to the camp in the hope of receiving new cartridges more easily. This movement first obliges the Pope company to retreat to face the left "horn" of the Zulus. Pulleine realizes Durnford's withdrawal and realizes that his right wing runs the risk of being flanked. He then orders a withdrawal to a shorter line closer to the camp. Then suddenly, everything accelerates. The sky darkens, plunging the battlefield into an unreal twilight. It is 2:29 pm: an annular eclipse partially obscures the sun. When it ends, the British infantry fire has practically ceased ... and the Zulus assault the camp.

The reason for this sudden collapse is still todaydisputed. Horace Smith-Dorrien, and after him the first historians of the battle, believe that due to the conditioning of the cartridges and the reluctance of the quartermaster to distribute them freely, the British infantry found themselves short of cartridges, which would have allowed the Zulu warriors to charge them without opposition. This version is now practically abandoned, because nothing seems to indicate that the ammunition was lacking in the front line. On the contrary, even after the camp's defenses collapsed, the companies continued to use their rifles. In fact, it seems doubtful that the soldiers' initial endowment alone allowed them to fire almost continuously for more than two hours without being supplied in the process. It therefore appears that the ammunition supply, even with the difficulties evoked by Smith-Dorrien, worked properly. It's possible that the eclipse itself played a role, preventing the British from properly targeting their opponents for a few crucial minutes. However, the brevity of the phenomenon does not appear to be sufficient to explain the sudden and general collapse of the British defenses.

The most direct cause is probablythe Durnford fold, which left exposed the right flank of the camp's defenses. The subsequent repositioning of Pope Company to compensate for this situation further increased the distance that separated it from the rest of the line, creating a breach that the 7-pounder guns, harnessed to be pulled back and therefore unable to fire, could not. more fight. The Zulus of the left "horn" were therefore able to pass behind the British center and submerge it, which seems to be confirmed by the fact that the companies which kept their cohesion the longest, thereafter, were those posted on the wings and not in the center. It also seems that, by pure chance, the withdrawal ordered by Pulleine occurs when theizinDuna of the "chest" have succeeded in rallying their men for a new massive charge, which takes the British in default in full retreat. If the infantry of the 24th regiment remain calm, it is not the same for the NNC soldiers still present, who panic and flee. Their departure thus created other breaches in the British line, into which the Zulus were quick to infiltrate. The British put bayonets and regroup - with varying degrees of success - in an attempt to form squares and keep their cohesion.

In the camp, everything is played out very quickly. The first to feel the danger coming were the civilian team drivers, who have already started to set off in the direction of Rorke's Drift. Soon, the trail becomes congested, as the soldiers try in vain to re-establish a line of defense. Several companies are already dispersed: the men who do not run fast enough are caught up and ruthlessly stabbed with spears. As the Zulus burst into the midst of tents and wagons, therun for your life becomes general.

Video: January 22, 1879: Zulu Dawn, The Battle of Isandlwana