3 Popular Myths of Isandlwana – 1879 Zulu War

2 mins read


The Battle of Isandlwana on the 22nd of January 1879 was one of the most devastating defeats suffered by Britain at the hands of local inhabitants.

The clash between British Troops and Zulu Warriors led to a brutal battle that has been retold numerous times, however much of the tale has proven to have more basis in fiction than facts:

1. ‘Men of Harlech’

According to the enduringly popular 1964 movie Zulu, the 24th Regiment – who comprised much of the garrison at both Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – was composed largely of Welshmen. Although the Regiment had indeed established its depot at Brecon in 1873, its recruits continued to be drawn from across the United Kingdom, and only a small proportion were Welsh by 1879. The association with Wales largely post-dates the Anglo-Zulu War – in 1881, the 24th were re-titled the South Wales Borderers, and it is now part of the Royal Welsh.

2. Ammunition failure

One particularly persistent legend has it that the British were overrun at Isandlwana because  of a failure of ammunition supply, either through the parsimony of regimental quartermasters, or because their ammunition boxes could not be opened – an idea which, of course, effectively excuses a number of deeper military errors.

One of the survivors – a lieutenant named Horace Smith-Dorrien, who was destined to become a general in the First World War – recalled the reluctance of Quartermaster Edward Bloomfield of the 2nd Battalion, the 24th, to issue ammunition as the battle began. Yet a close reading of the evidence suggests that this incident was simply indicative of the confusion that inevitably prevailed in the camp; Bloomfield’s reserves were, in fact, earmarked to be sent out to Lord Chelmsford should he need them, and Bloomfield was showing no more than a proper respect for his orders.

In a letter home, Smith-Dorrien admitted to his father that he afterwards secured a supply of ammunition and spent much of the battle distributing it to the front-line companies. Nor were the boxes particularly difficult to open – although reinforced by copper bands all round, access to the rounds was by means of a sliding panel in the lid held in place by a single screw. And if time was pressing, the panel could be smashed out by a sharp blow to the edge with a tent-mallet or rifle butt – over the years, a number of screws bent by such rough treatment have been found on the battlefield.

In 2000, an archaeological survey of the site found the remains of the tin lining of a number of boxes along the British firing positions – sure sign that boxes had been opened there. Last word, however, should go to the Zulus, many of whom mentioned that the British infantry continued to shoot at them until the final stages of the battle.

3. Drummer boys ‘gutted like sheep’

One story that circulated widely in the horrific aftermath of the battle was that Lord Chelmsford’s men, returning to the devastated camp on the night of the 22nd, had seen ‘young drummer boys’ of the 24th Regiment hung up
on a butcher’s scaffold and ‘gutted like sheep’. While it need not be doubted that, in the fury of the attack, the Zulus would have killed boys as well as men – they had taken the Queen’s shilling, after all, and their chances with it – this horror story does not stand up to close scrutiny.

‘Boy’ was a rank in the British Army at the time, applied to lads not yet 18, many of whom were the sons of men serving in the regiment. Drummers were seldom Boys – among their other duties was administering floggings as punishment – and of 12 Drummers killed at Isandlwana, the youngest was 18 and the oldest in his 30s. Five Boys were killed at Isandlwana, most of them in the 24th’s band, and the youngest was 16 – not quite the innocent lads immortalised in sentimental paintings of the time.

Even the contemporary regimental history of the 24th admitted ‘no single case of  torture was proved against [the Zulus]’. But, in the fraught atmosphere that prevailed when Lord Chelmsford’s command returned to the camp that night, such horror stories spread like wild fire and were readily believed –although, as one officer pointed out, ‘it was impossible for those who told these yarns to distinguish anything in the night, it being exceptionally dark’.


    • Taliking shite mate, the English were by far the largest contingent in what was at the time an English regiment.

        • Nonsense there was six battalions of the 24th five of the 1st & 1 of the second along with the carabiners and artillery and some light horse. At most there would have been approx 400 native troops. And as a side note the vast majority of the 24th were English as were the troops at rorkes drift. Including the vCard winners. All that aside any man who fought at both battle on either side were brave men.

          • Well researched! Can I recommend to Phil and anyone else, BritishMuzzleloader’s series on Isandlwana on youtube. Excellently made.

    • Britain is made up of England Scotland Ireland and Wales. I believe you mean Scots as Scotch is a drink.

    • They were great warriors but just not good enough. They only one this single first battle where losses were not that far apart (1300 British for 1000 Zulus). The Empire learnt the lesson and comprehensively defeated the Zulu in every subsequent engagement (Rorke’s drift 350 Zulus killed, 500 wounded for only 17 British killed and 15 wounded). Total casualties of the Zulu wars were 1727 British killed and well over 6000 Zulus. After years of domination, enslavement and conquest of many innocent African tribes it was the British who soundly defeated the Zulu and ended their independent nation.

        • Thank you – I stand corrected on Hlobane and the small engagement at Ntombe Drift; I am always keen to learn. Eshowe was a British victory though. Bottom line is we see people waxing lyrical on the rare Zulu victories but stunning victories won by b rave British soldiers remain anonymous.

      • Do you even have the audacity to compare the Zulus with the well trained and armed forces of Britain? The British were and continue to be thieves who attacked the innocent peoples!

        • Mdu – it is not audacious in the least to compare military forces in a military history discussion. By the way, the Zulus were every bit as disciplined and well trained as the British at the time but they were just not good enough.

          Please note that this is a military history forum and not a political one. Therefore, I suggest you keep your ill judged remarks about the British being thieves to a lower level discussion. I am not a thief and neither is my country. To judge people of 200 years ago against modern values is disingenuous. To be crystal clear, the Zulus were not innocent either as they expanded their empire through violence and ‘thievery’ of the lands of peoples they defeated, slaughtered and enslaved other tribes. It was just the way of the World back then so move on and get over it.

          • Sorry that you may not like when you are told the truth in your face. so you think this is a forum where you hide behind some rules you create to gloat about how your ancestors stole from and Massacred the ancestors of others? Why should I believe you that you are not a thieve when you ancestors have consistently demonstrated theft on such a scale over hundreds of years and not just in Africa? I don’t hear gloating about your military exploits during the crusade periods in the middle east here. why? I think I can guess why. The military and the political are inseparable because one comes after the other in any order.

        • The Zulus were masterful, courageous fighters. Their warrior caste ruled their society. They were the Spartans of South Africa. Those people that the Brits “attacked” were often not so “innocent”. As an example, the popular execution method of “death by a thousand cuts” continued in China until those dastardly Brits outlawed it. Need I discuss “foot binding”? Britain has nothing to feel guilty about, they gave the world more than they ever reaped (in science, mathematics, industry, medicine, art, music, architecture, etc.) even blessing you personally with their language.

      • an unsophisticated enemy with spears and old rilfes sparsely distributed against a top european army with the latest martini henry carbine. the revenge and defeat of the zulus was always a foregone conclusion and not really great cause for celebration in the annals of british warfare.luckily for the uk the zulu did not want this forced on them war and did not pursue the beaten chelmsford into natal. that would have been some story today. instead the king forebade it.

      • Now I am sorry for being late in this conversation. Wrong the Zulus were not defeated in every other engagement, the battle of Intombe the British who had comprised of one hundred men were ambushed and defeated by the Zulus who were six hundred men strong roughly eighty British were killed. The battle of Hlobane was a Zulu victory another successful ambush on a column and many battles before and after Isandlawana were Zulu victories, eventually the British won and burnt Ulundi, but the Zulus won many more battles other than just Isandlawana you just never hear about it

        • We can argue all day about what is a planned Battle and what is a skirmish. Bottom line is the Zulus got soundly beaten in enough battles to lose the war and the losses of Zulus in combat vastly outnumbered those of the British.

          One warlike empire defeated by another warlike empire. Simple as…

          • a mismatched contest though and all the aggression orchestrated and set up by britain. the zulus did not represent a real theat and would not have been any threat if left alone.even chelmsford was amazed when he got to natal at the fact that noone on the zulu border or even maritzburg were in any way concerned by the zulu. he expected natal to be on a war footing.it wasnt. this was a war picked and forced . british colonial expansionism at its worse.to compare losses and results is pointless as it was always going to be a mismatch but the zulu certainly inflicted a bloody nose and some embarrassment to the british.

          • Sorry mate – painting the Zulu as no threat is suggesting they were a peaceful culture. They are warrior race who conquered and occupied in the same way as every other empire.

            So what if there is a mismatch? History is full of mismatches where either side wins. Britain has fought countless battles where they were the underdog

            I get tired of judging the actions of people in the past against modern standards. The way of the world was you generally ran an empire or got conquered by one. After centuries of being attacked the British Empire grew to be the greatest the planet has ever seen. I never see apologists for the Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Vikings, Persians, Ottomans, Chinese, Mongols, Napoleonic French etc

    • The Zulus were not “real” warriors, they had no honour. When they attacked travelling settlers they would kill ever man, woman, child and even babies. Read what happening at Weenen, heartbreaking.

      • Anthony, if that make you go to sleep at night then thats okay, you can say it million times.. the bottom line is the Zulu’s were defending themselves from the ruthless British thieves!

        • The Zulus killed and stole from weker Africans to build their Empire as they butchered their way down from Natal. You are just a bit upset that the British gave them a taste of their own medicine and comprehensively defeated them

      • Minerva, I agree with you we were not the only empire but we seem to be the only nation who should feel bad about the past.

  1. The British were taught a bitter lesson. Egged on by supposedly superior arms and technology, drunken on a brew of arrogance and unproven superiority towards native peoples, they got taught by savages on how not to be condescending. No excuses please, the better generals won.

    • “Savages” Emma!! Who were the savages, those who forcibly subjugated other people, or those who were peacefully living in their own country and minding their own business?

      • It is disingenuous to judge people of the Victorian age by modern standards. The Victorians were empire builders in a long line of empires stretching back over 7000 years of history. The Zulus were not subjugated people living in their own country; they were empire builders too from central Africa but I don’t see them getting condemned. Please stop with the racist judgemental rubbish and stick to military history.

    • The Zulus learned the biggest lesson which was not to take on the Empire which comprehensively defeated the Zulu in every subsequent engagement (Rorke’s drift 350 Zulus killed, 500 wounded for only 17 British killed and 15 wounded). Total casualties of the Zulu wars were 1727 British killed and well over 6000 Zulus. After years of domination, enslavement and conquest of many innocent African tribes it was the British who soundly defeated the Zulu and ended their independent nation.

  2. It was a usual Zulu ritual to slit open the bellies of their victims to release the dead person’s spirit and to prevent the body from exploding as it putrified in the heat. The reports after the battle state the bellies of dead British soldiers had been slit open but this was not as an act of mutilation but out of respect for the dead. No doubt this got distorted as these so called drummer boys were found in the same condition.

  3. I think the most important aspect of the battle was the tragic heroism displayed by both sides. Why on earth were they killing each other? The British believed they were saving Natal from Zulu savagery. The Zulus believed they were protecting their sacred lands from foreign invasion. Overall, I tend to side with the Zulus. But could the whole issue have not been decided over a couple of beers, for God’s sake? There was surely room in the vast expanses of South Africa for everybody!

    • Absolute rubbish, Zulu sacred lands my ar*e! The Boers were in South Africa before the Zulus cam down from the North!!!! The Zulu empire met the British empire and only won this single battle – they lost the War and don’t you forget it.

        • The Dutch arrived in 1648 and settled first in 1652. The Zulus were founded in 1709 by Zulu kaNtombela. Their Nguni forbearers came from East Africa and migrated down over the centuries but they were not Zulus as we know it. Therefore, I am correct and do not need to wake up or stop day dreaming. If you wish to engage in a military history discussion then fine but do a bot or research before you comment on my posts please.

          • Well put at least someone has done there research and got the facts bang on

        • Very true.The British were the bullies and Ilegal Invaders who Waged wars to Rob something that never belonged to them.Its Racism at its best.

  4. The Zulu nation left a great legacy.You will hear Zulu variants spoken from South Africa to the Congo,Rhodesias,and even in Tanganyika.They were also great strategists and tacticians.Their agriculture was also very advanced.A GREAT NATION.Although many have succumbed to vagrancy this is due to interference by the white man.

    • Why are we happy to talk about the Zulu’s legacy being great but ignore the positive impact of the British empire in setting the foundations (developed by the Boers) of South Africa which was the most advanced and developed of the African nations below the equator, if not the whole of Africa.

  5. Thanks Leonidas – I just wish people would stick to military history and not make political points on this forum.

  6. I would suggest anyone who would like to know the true
    history of the Anglo-Zulu war should read the acclaimed
    historian Saul Davids book ”Anglo Zulu war”.

  7. Can never understand why more Zulus weren’t killed at islandwana. Most experts say approx 1000 -1500 Zulus died, ie very similar to the British losses. But that means, on average, every British soldier only killed one Zulu. The battle lasted 4 hours, and for most of that time the British Firing Line held the Zulus at bay. Each soldier usually carried 70 rounds of ammo, so 70,000 bullets probably fired, plus the 2 field guns. Can’t understand why not more Zulus were killed in a 4 hour battle, when the charging Zulus would have made an enormous target that it would have ben difficult to miss. Anyone have any thoughts ??

    • Because that’s killed only, not wounded. Most bullets would not be fatal, there are stories of the zulu carrying warriors away with them. The number hit by bullets is probably more than double the killed.

    • the zulu spent a lot of the four hours approaching and surrounding and then swarming the camp.the front was therefore vast and the red line thin and spaced out. . the artillery was initially useful but the zulu saw the gunners leap away from the guns at the point of firing and quickly learnt to lie flat.

    • lots of wounded. the martini henry round would go through muscle and sinew but on hitting bone would flatten and shatter. lots of bad clean wounds amongst the fatal hits

  8. The most factual book written that accounts the history and development of South Africa is by Cuan Elgin, called Bulala (Zulu for “kill”) to fully appreciate the “military” skills and the ruthlessness of the Zulu, it is a must read.

  9. I was Google-alerted to this discourse by Mel’s mention of my name, above. Thank you Mel, for the endorsement of ‘Bulala’. If I could add my own impression of the Battle of Isandlwana and then Rourke’s Drift, I would say that the British were over-confident, and unprepared for the Zulu onslaught and thus destroyed at the former, and ‘heroically desperate’ at the latter. While undoubtedly brave, for the Zulus to make suicidal frontal assaults against entrenched, disciplined British troops, was unwise, and in defiance of their own king’s orders. They paid the price. The earlier blogger who referred to the Boers as being an older nation than the Zulus, is entirely correct. Further, the Trekboers occupied a hinterland left virtually uninhabited by the genocidal rampages of both Shaka and Mzilikaze, so they had as much claim to those areas, as anyone else. The only truly ‘indigenous’ inhabitants of present-day South Africa, were the Khoi and San; today mainly extinct, or at most, represented by the mixed-race, so-called ‘Coloureds’. We are all ‘settlers’ here!

  10. Thank you Cuan Elgin for your insights and level headed comments. History is subject to the filter of human memory and passion , so is very unlikely to hold 100% TRUTH for any person or group’s vantage point.

    • Indeed, Brian. No matter how sincerely a historian (including myself) may strive to present ‘all the facts’ in an objective fashion, there will always be a ‘perspective’. It is thus very important to try to obtain eyewitness accounts from the period being studied, from both sides of any given situation, and to then seek the unbroken thread of truth therein. Only thereafter should the historian allow revisionist versions to ‘add colour’ to the tapestry.

  11. Do not forget the late David Rattray’s discussion in hos book. Having sat on Isadlwana and listened to his description it might just be that there were too many brave men attacking the British for the Brits to fend them off.

  12. It’s funny how you will take written evidence over eye witnesses account of Quartermaster Bloomfield’s actions.
    It’s the same thing as stating that Hitler escaped his bunker because of possible written evidence to this fact. And because of this, people actually believe it, even though there were numerous eye witnesses who were present during his suicide.
    So tell me, which has more truth, the Eye or the Pen?

  13. I visited Military Through the Ages at Jamestown , Virginia this past Sunday. There was a group there representing the 24th. They looked pretty good to me. When l inquired about their ammunition, one of these fellows produced a glass tube containing an original cartridge. He expounded on the fact that each cartridge consisted of an iron disk , brass foil, and over a dozen parts for each cartridge. I am sure that all of you knew this. Another man in this group stated current statistics indicate that the Zulus suffered about 1000 to 1500 KIA, and an additional 3000 to 3500 wounded.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.