Travellers' Impressions
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Part 7

29th March 1879

The fortified camp at Khambula basically consisted of 3 laagers. 2 constructed using the wagons and 1 of stone. A low ridge stretched east-west overlooking sloping open grassland to the north-west and south. Approximately 200 yards to the south of the ridge was a deep sided ravine. To the east of the ridge open grasslands, and to the west, the grasslands headed off for 2,000 yards before rising up the side of a mountain range.

On top of the ridge Colonel Evelyn Wood had constructed a stone laager; to be called the redoubt, the command centre, no larger than the area of 2 tennis courts; into which 2 Companies of Infantry (200 men), 2 x 7-pound Royal Artillery guns, Wood and his staff officers, would assemble. 150 yards to the west of the redoubt was the main laager, constructed with about 90 wagons, in an hexagonal shape. This laager held 1,000 men of the 13th and 90th Light Infantry. 650 mounted men from various mounted units that still existed and 700 horses saddled and ready for use.

The area separating the redoubt from the main kraal was covered with large wooden stakes, and 4 Royal Artillery guns were positioned just outside the stakes, facing north. 50 yards to the south of the most westerly point of the redoubt a further 40 wagons were used to construct a square laager. The wagons were chained and fortifications built as per the main laager. A Company of the 13th manned this position. Although a little isolated it was overlooked from the redoubt. This kraal was connected to the redoubt by a 50 foot long palisade. 4 x 7-pounders were harnessed to horses outside the fortification, ready to move in any direction. Broken glass and other sharp objects had been littered around the outside of the walls of the redoubt.

The whole area covered no more than 7 acres. When not under threat, the tents stood erect outside the defense positions. Tents could be struck and men in their positions in little over a minute. Wood knew that the camp defenses could be manned and tents struck in a matter of minutes and insisted that his men had an early lunch, which was completed by noon. By which time the Zulus could be clearly seen approaching in 5 Columns as they had approached Hlobane the previous day.

Wood and Lt. Colonel Redvers Buller had discussed for hours various methods of countering a Zulu assault. They’d decided it important to entice one or other of the horns to assault before the other. It appeared to Wood that the right horn had achieved its objective as the warriors were now forming up preparing to assault. But the left horn was still proceeding to close the gap. Wood gave Buller the order he’d been anticipating as the deployment and method of assault became obvious.

Buller, commanding the mounted force within the main laager, gave the order for the laager gate to be opened and the FLH, NNH and Mounted Infantry rode out, extending into open order and walked their horses down the slope towards the right horn, halting and dismounting a couple of hundred yards infront of the 7,000 warriors of the iNgobamakhosi Regiment. And, on Buller’s command, fired a volley into their ranks and were then ordered to remount and ride back into the laager. However the NNH remained to skirmish the flanks of the iNgobamakhosi. The effect of the volley was spontaneous. The iNgobamakhosi rose as one, bellowed uSuthu and charged forward. As the mounted men retreated, the Artillery had opened fire with case shot into the packed masses of the iNgobamakhosi. The effect was devastating. Dead and wounded warriors lay spread like a carpet for half a mile or so to the north of the laager and redoubt. But their charge continued, a few reached the walls of the laager and scrambled over the wagons to be met by the Light Infantry bayonets.

Finally the iNgobamakhosi assault collapsed and the remnants of their warriors fell back to a large rocky outcrop 400 yards north of the redoubt, where the Artillery continued to shell them. The iNgobamakhosi charge had been extraordinarily brave and many British would later vouch that they’d never seen such bravery. As they charged, their ranks had been mutilated by the Artillery, but the whole event had lasted not longer than 30 minutes.

By 2.15pm Ntshingwayo had moved the head and chest forward. They were now straddled about 700 yards to the east of Wood’s redoubt. At 3.00pm the battle started again. With great shouts of uSuthu and the rattling of assegais against their shields, the left horn charged forward, heading towards the ravine to the south of Wood’s redoubt. For a moment or two they were hidden in the dead ground of the ravine, then the uNdi Corps and abaQulusi appeared on the crest of the ravine. Just over 200 yards separated them from the 13th Light Infantry and Artillery in the redoubt. As they appeared on the crest they were subjected to devastating crossfire from the redoubt and laager, and Lieutenant Nicholson’s 6 Artillery guns opened fire with case shot. Nicholson, while directing the fire of his guns, stood on the redoubt wall and was almost immediately mortally wounded. But the individual Zulus, driven by the masses and the frenzy around them kept coming, forcing their way, through sheer weight of numbers into the cattle kraal, just below and to the south of Wood’s redoubt, where a hand-to-hand battle ensued in and amongst maddened cattle. The scene to Wood was chaotic and he ordered the 1/13th Light Infantry to retreat through the palisade into the redoubt.

The cattle kraal was now held by the Zulus and more and more Zulus rushed forward from the ravine taking cover in the kraal. A mass charge by this force, across 50 yards, could easily put Wood and the men in the redoubt in serious trouble. Wood immediately sent Captain Woodgate to the main laager with an order for 2 Companies of the 90th to retake the cattle kraal and drive the Zulus back into the ravine. Moments later the 90th, led by Major Hackett and Lieutenant Bright were formed up outside the laager gate, ordered to fix bayonets and advance. The British soldier has always been renown for his bayonet drills. The initial advance was at a walk and Captain Woodgate, with sword drawn, led the advance as if they’d been on drill parade. Then they charged and bellowed an assortment of war cries of their own, the 90th standing and thrusting with their bayoneted rifles drove the Zulus from the grassy slopes to the south and west of the redoubt and laager into the ravine, where thousands of Zulus waited. As the 90th reached the edge of the ravine, Zulu riflemen opened fire from the abandoned native camp to the east and from a rubbish dump to the west killing or wounding 40 of the 90th.

Wood immediately ordered the 2 Companies of the 90th back to the laager and an orderly retreat began and in that instant the Artillery and riflemen of the 13th, who had been unable to support the 90th until the retreat began, opened fire once more, driving the Zulus back into the ravine and killing the Zulu riflemen that had delivered the cross fire from the east. Although the 90th had incurred heavy casualties, they had succeeded in clearing all but a handful of Zulus in the cattle kraal. But again and again for the next 3 hours, the uNdi Corps and abaQulusi swarmed from the ravine, initially encouraged by the sight of the 90th retreating, and their victories at ISandlwana and Hlobane.

Then in a last desperate effort, the iNgobamakhosi reappeared from the rocky outcrop north of the redoubt, where they’d been attending to the wounds inflicted upon them at the start of the battle. They charged forward towards the redoubt once more, being subjected to continuous rifle fire from the redoubt and crossfire from the laager, and the two Artillery guns that devastated their ranks with case shot. For the next half hour the battle raged from all sides of the redoubt. The experienced officers and battle-hardened men of the Light Infantry would all later speak of the incredible bravery of the Zulu warriors. While bodies lay in piles around the camp, undaunted they continued to assault.

Late in the afternoon, the uMcijo Regiment massed in the ravine put in one final assault and Wood ordered 2 Companies of the 13th led by Captains Thurlow and Waddy, to repulse the assault. The 13th charged forward from the laager with fixed bayonets and accompanied by Commandant Raaff, with 12 of his Transvaal Rangers, drove the uMcijo back into the ravine and fired volley after volley into the massed number of Zulus below them, devastating their ranks. That was the moment when the will of the Zulu warriors failed. Having run 120 miles in four days since leaving Ulundi, and fought 2 successive battles over 2 days, with little or no food, they were exhausted. Wood noticed from his command post in the redoubt an immediate withdrawal by the Zulu army and ordered Buller to pursue the exhausted warriors with his mounted force.

Wood had won the Battle of Khambula. But what was a British victory, now became a rout. At 5.30pm Buller led the mounted force in pursuit of the exhausted warriors. Shouts of "Remember yesterday", and "No quarter were heard". The Zulus were smote down with impunity by the sword, the butt of a rifle or bullet, until darkness obliged them to stop. The abaQulusi were hounded back towards Hlobane.

The British had expended nearly 140,000 rounds of ammunition and 1,070 Artillery shells. In the region of 2,000 Zulus lay dead. 1,000 bodies lay around the camp. Another 1,000 lay dead in the ravine or along the route of their retreat. The battle had lasted 5½ hours and the British casualties were 29 dead and 55 wounded.

The battle of Khambula was the turning point of the war. The courage of the Zulu army would be seen again at Ulundi, but the might of Cetshwayo’s army was in tatters. The Zulu dead were buried in one mass grave by the British with full military honours.

Battle of Khambula

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 Gingindhlovu

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Copyright © Robert J. Gerrard 2003