After the bloodshed of the Boer-Zulu Wars, an uneasy truce was forced upon the Zulus by a relatively small handful of Boer settlers. Then British Governor-General Sir Henry Bartle Frere cast his eye on KwaZulu territory. He looked at the Canadian federal system and dreamed of creating something similar in South Africa. Without any sanction from the British government back in Westminster, he sent an unanswerable ultimatum to Zulu King Cetshwayo that he disband his armies and accept a British resident in authority over him. He then sat down with British Commander-in-Chief, Lord Chelmsford, and started planning their invasion, settling eventually on a three-pronged attack.
From the start, the British seriously underestimated the Zulus. In July 1878, Chelmsford wrote: 'If I am called upon to conduct operations against them, I shall strive to be in a position to show them how hopelessly inferior they are to us in fighting power, altho' numerically stronger.'
On 22 January 1879, Chelmsford crossed into what is now known as the KwaZulu Battlefields at Isandlwana. The fiercely proud and independent Zulus not only failed to lay down their arms and surrender as expected but massed to meet the invading force.
The British did have infinitely superior firepower, armed with the latest Martini-Henry rifles as well as some heavy artillery. However the over-confident Chelmsford proceeded to do pretty much everything wrong. He failed to reconnoiter properly. He split his force of just under 4,000 men, taking around 2,500 of them off with him in search of the main Zulu force (actually a red herring), leaving around 1750 to guard the camp, under the command of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine. Colonel Durnford was also in camp at the time. Perhaps even more idiotically, he failed to set up any defenses. And when Pulleine sent him a message to say that Zulus were approaching, he ignored it.
The badly defended camp was left to face the main Zulu army, a highly disciplined force of somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 warriors, led by Princes Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khozalo and Mavumengwana kaNdlela Ntuli. The Zulus fought in impis (battle formations shaped like a bulls horns), designed to encircle the enemy. They did have guns but they were of poor quality. Their real weapons were their assegais, short stabbing spears, used to deadly effect at close quarters.
After a day of ferocious fighting, with carnage on both sides, the body count was horrific. Around 2,000 Zulus died either on the battlefield or later from their wounds. But they had achieved a crushing victory. British casualties included 52 officers, 806 British soldiers, and 471 black Africans fighting for the British. Only around 55 British and 350 African soldiers survived. Eerily, at 2.29pm, a total eclipse of the sun swept across the battlefield. The last two to die, Lieutenants Melville and Coghill, died at the Tugela River trying to save the Queen's Colours at around 3.30pm. They were amongst the first to be given posthumous Victoria Crosses (Britain's highest military honour) in 1907. The colours were later salvaged.
Chelmsford, by that stage miles away, knew nothing of what was happening until it was too late.
Tragically, it wasn't the end of a truly horrific day.
A few miles down the valley at Rorke's Drift, a Swedish trading post and mission station had been set up as a field hospital. It was a simple place with a stone-built house and chapel and a few flimsy outbuildings. There were about 140 men there, many of them ill or wounded. Only 104 were officially fit to fight. Command of the post had been handed that morning to Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers.
As news of the battle of Isandlwana reached them barricades were hastily made of anything that they could lay their hands on - an outer perimeter of sacks of corn, an inner wall of boxes of biscuits.
When the attack came, late in the afternoon, 4,500 Zulus descended on the post. Somehow, the defenders managed to hold them off. When the Zulus set fire to the hospital, crowded in and started spearing patients, Private Alfred Hook used his bayonet to fend them off while John Williams dug a hole in the wall and dragged each patient through to the next room. It was a time of extraordinary private heroism.
The battle raged for 12 hours. By dawn, the Zulus had had enough and withdrew, leaving 351 dead. Seventeen of the defenders had died. The rest had survived against the odds. Eleven of them received Victoria Crosses, the greatest number ever awarded for a single military engagement.
The film, Zulu (1964), starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker, gives a glossy, if not always accurate account of the battle.
If Bartle Frere had had no British mandate for the invasion, the furore caused by the massacre at Isandlwana and the heroism at Rorke's Drift was sufficient to ignite the British public. British troops poured into Zulu territory and with Chelmsford blatantly lying to save his own skin, he was feted by Queen Victoria. In the end, the British took what became Natal, winning a decisive Battle at Ulundi on 4 July 1879. King Cetshwayo was captured on 28 August, sent into exile in the Cape, with a puppet government put in his place.
In one last strange footnote, the French Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon, was attached to British forces as an observer when he was killed on patrol on 2 June 1879. The great nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the heir to the family claim to the crown of France, his death saw the end of the Bonaparte dynasty.