THE ANGLO ZULU WAR OF 1879
ROBERT GERRARD FRGS
THE BATTLE OF HLOBANE 28th March 1879
The Hlobane mountain was a natural fortress rising 600 feet above the plain below. The plateau on the top was surrounded by impenetrable rocky cliffs. Access to the plateau was limited to a route up the eastern and western ends of the mountain. On the top of the mountain lived the abaQulusi clan, thought to number 3/4,000, with their cattle.
Colonel Evelyn Wood, commanding the Northern Column, had been asked by Chelmsford to demonstrate to the north in order to draw part of what he considered to be the entire Zulu army from Pearsons besieged garrison at Eshowe.
On the 27th a two-pronged assault on the mountain moved towards the eastern and western ends of Hlobane.
Colonel Redvers Buller, with a mounted force, headed east and Colonel Russell, with a similar force, headed to the west. The plan was thought to be simple, although in practice it was known that the abaQulusi would be fearless opponents and guard their cattle with determination.
Buller would ascend the mountain from the east, drive the cattle off the plateau to the west, where Russell would be waiting to capture the cattle, and the abaQulusi, caught between the two, would be defeated.
Bullers force had come under fire before reaching the summit and 2 officers and 2 soldiers had been killed. But once on the plateau Buller thought the task ahead reasonably simple, although the number of abaQulusi on the plateau proved to be considerably greater than originally anticipated. But he then noticed a dust cloud to the south, raised his field glasses and saw the entire Zulu army heading towards them. These were King Cetshwayos warriors who had been victorious at ISandlwana, armed with Martini Henry rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Now rested and confident of further glory theyd been sent by Cetshwayo to defeat Woods column who had been identified as the most serious remaining British threat.
Buller realised the serious predicament of his force. Descent by his route up was impossible. The only option was across the 3 mile plateau to the west, where hed be supported by Russells force and he gave the appropriate order.
Meantime Colonel Russell had ascended from the west only to discover that between him and the upper plateau existed a sheer rocky cliff which he considered impossible for horsemen to ascend. At which point he also noticed the approaching Zulu force and withdrew, leaving a handful of men to clamber up on foot, what became known as Devils Pass, to support Buller.
The abaQulusi on the plateau had been comparatively tentative in skirmishing with Bullers force until they saw the approaching Zulu army, then all hell let loose. Bullers retreat towards Devils Pass became a nightmare. They had to get off the plateau down the pass before the Zulu force, moving down the southern side of the mountain, cut off their descent.
Trooper George Mossop later wrote Some distance ahead I saw a number of horses bunched together and came to the conclusion that they were abandoned for I could not see anybody near. Pushing through them to the edge of the pass and dismounting I saw one man standing at my side looking down. I also looked down and my blood turned. The pass was steep and narrow and chocked with boulders. About 20 yards from where we stood was free of horsemen, or rather of men leading their horses, for no-one could sit a horse in such a place. Below was a complete jam. The abaQulusi were crawling over the rocks, jabbing at the men and horses. Some of the men were shooting and some used clubbed rifles and were fighting their way down.
George Mossop was one of the last of Bullers force to arrive at Devils Pass, 50 yards wide with a drop of 100-150 feet, littered with large rocks, making a descent on foot difficult, on horseback impossible.
As Bullers column reached the plain he ordered an immediate retreat to Woods fortified camp at Khambula. Had he waited, total disaster would have occurred, the Zulu army having attempted to cut off Bullers retreat, arrived exhausted minutes after theyd set off. But the abaQulusi wanted revenge on those soldiers who had stolen their cattle and for 12 miles followed Bullers column, skirmishing the column from all sides.
The Battle of Hlobane had been a total disaster for the British. 15 officers and 110 Europeans killed and over 100 native troops died.
The battle score was now 3:2 in favour of King Cetshwayos army. But the following day would prove disastrous for the Zulus.
Chaos at Devils Pass
Isandlwana Lodge where Rob Gerrard FRGS is based
Rob Gerrard FRGS, the resident historian at ISandlwana Lodge, relates these events of all the battles of the Anglo Zulu War with passion and knowledge as if he had been there. Battles themselves have limited interest, but he brings the characters involved on both sides to life and relating information found in trunks and archives, his audience is spell-bound.
Next Month The Battle of Khambula
Copyright © Robert J. Gerrard 2003
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