South Africa
Isandlwana

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  • Day28

    Isandlwana

    January 27, 2016 in South Africa

    (South) Umzinyathi DC, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
    Wednesday, January 27, 2016

    We departed for Isandlwana at 7.30 sharp this morning. A wake up call and a pot of coffee was delivered to the cabin at 6am, which was a kind thought-I think!
    It was a beautiful sunny morning, as indeed it was on the morning of the 22nd January 1879 and that fatal confrontation between the men of the 24th Regiment of Foot and 20,000 Zulu warriors. The British central column under the command of Lord Chelmsford had crossed the Buffalo River into Zulu land at its natural fording point, Rorkes Drift (drift meaning exactly that, a river crossing), with the intention of meeting the Zulu in battle and subjugating their nation to British rule. This was something the proud Zulu were understandably opposed to. Lord Chelmsford had selected a vast and beautiful plain beneath the crag, that came to be known as Isandlwana, as his vantage point and his men, some 850 white tents, their wagons, horses, oxen and equipment were strewn about the camp, covering a considerable area. The Zulu proved elusive and on that fateful morning Lord Chelmsford took his senior officers and most of the troops into the adjoining valley looking for the Zulu army, leaving some 1400 men under the command of an inexperienced officer, Major Pullaine. Mistakes were made, no lookouts posted and by chance a small contingent of men discovered the might of the Zulu army in completely the opposite direction. They were settled in a gorge awaiting the opportunity to attack, once the anticipated eclipse of the moon had passed ( Day of the Dead Moon-a bad omen). The small group of soldiers made an attempt to attack before fleeing when faced with the enormity of the task. The 24th Regiment of Foot were ill prepared for the battle that then ensued. These men, drawn largely from South Wales, were a courageous, tight, fighting unit, but were completely overwhelmed by a massive attacking force of 6ft warriors, fleet of foot and carefully drilled on their plan of attack. The thundering of their drumming bare feet, thumping of their shields and bloodcurdling war cries must have struck terror into the men lined up to face them. It was total chaos, as is the way of war. Despite great valour and fierce resistance, the camp was overrun and the Zulu took no prisoners. They were fighting for their very identity and were and are an honourable people, completely sold down the river by the local representatives of the British Empire,
    1329 soldiers were cut down that day by a force of warriors 20,000 strong. Just 55 escaped down the Fugitive's trail back to the river which had to be crossed in full speight. The Zulu proved to be a formidable enemy. Many Zulu warriors had jogged bare footed 100kms to reach the battlefield, another 15 kms during the battle and at the end were still strong enough and fast enough to overtake and kill a British soldier on horseback. When it became clear that all was lost and the retreat sounded, only those on horseback stood any chance of avoiding the Zulu spears or assegai. One of Major Pullaine's final tasks was to call the adjutant Lt Meville to him and order him to save the Queen's colour, the most sacred regimental object. They saluted and Melville took the heavy 20' colour in its leather case and rode for the river. Miraculously, amidst the melee, he reached it and was assessing where to cross when a lone Zulu appeared from hiding and speared his horse from under him. The horse, Melville and the colour all ended up in the fast flowing Buffalo river, being buffeted from rock to rock. Somehow, Melville managed to hold on to the colour and as he approached a coffin shaped rock he espied a NCC officer marooned on its top. Melville yelled to him to catch hold of the colour, hoping he could pull him out, but the two of them plus the colour ended up in the water, under heavy attack from the Zulus on the bank. They were swept downstream and were in a desperate situation, when Lt Coghill spotted them from the Natal bank. Coghill was a superb horseman and despite a badly sprained knee, (he could not mount his horse unaided or walk) had forded the river and now without a thought for his personal safety, plunged his horse back into the river to help the two men floundering in the water, with the colour. As he reached them, his horse was shot between the eyes by a Zulu wielding a British Martini rifle. Somehow they managed to reach the Natal bank and what they thought was relative safety, but in the strong current the heavy colour was wrenched from their grasp and carried downstream. Exhausted they dragged themselves up the bank and Higginson the Natal officer, who was in the best state, said he would try to find some loose horses. In truth he abandoned Melville and Coghill to their fate. Melville managed to carry Coghill up the steep bank to a rocky outcrop where they rested until they were found by a group of Zulus skirmishing on the Natal bank. Despite a fierce fight, the two brave soldiers were killed. They were found four days later, by a party sent out from Rorke's Drift to try and retrieve the colour and were buried where they lay, on land now belonging to Fugitive's Drift. Some years later, they were awarded the first posthumous VCs by Edward V11, as his mother Queen Victoria would only present a VC to the living. The colour was indeed found stuck in the rocks further downstream and returned in great triumph to what was left of the regiment at Rorke's Drift.
    We were taken to Isandlwana by Mph'wa Ntabzi, a Zulu whose great grandfather and grandfather fought and fell in the battle and he told the story with emotion, detail and passion. He was a great friend of David Rattray and it was clearly very hard to do this in his place. Later in the afternoon we walked to the graves of Lts Melville and Coghill, accompanied by Andrew, a young officer from The Welsh Regiment, which the 24th foot has been incorporated into. They have a very strong relationship with Fugitive's Drift and regularly send out a representative to experience at first hand one of the regiment's most difficult campaigns. Andrew was able to add some interesting additional facts from the regimental archive and obviously to look at the actions that day from a professional soldier's point of view.
    I cannot tell you how powerful these visits were today and we still have Rorke's Drift to come tomorrow. I feel rung out emotionally, when I think what these young soldiers went through so many miles from home to die in the most horrific circumstances and with the utmost bravery.
    Imagine the reaction of Lord Chelmsford when he returned to Isandlwana some hours later. The decimated camp was knee deep in bodies of men and animals. There were no survivors beyond the 55 fugitives who made it across the Buffalo river back towards Rorke's Drift. The Zulu had removed their 3,500 dead on shields to their villages for burial and had ritually disembowelled their victims, as is their custom, to allow their spirit to escape and roam free...........RIP.
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Isandlwana