Travellers' Impressions
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Part 8

2nd April 1879

Lord Chelmsford’s Relief Column consisted of a fighting force of about 5,670 men. It was made up of the 57th and 91st Regiments, 6 Companies of the 3/60th, 5 Companies of the 99th, 2 Companies of the 2/3rd, a Naval Brigade from HMS Shah, Tenedos and Boadicea, and 2 Battalions of the NNC, and included 150 of John Dunn’s Zulu scouts. They had 4 x 24-pounder Rocket Tubes, 2 Gatling guns and 2 x 9-pounder guns, and would be accompanied by 3,000 oxen and 140 wagons and carts.

John Robert Dunn arrived in the eastern Cape from Britain in 1820 and later moved to Natal where he married. He was killed by an elephant in 1849, leaving his wife Ann and a fourteen-year-old son John and 3 daughters. The 3 daughters married men in the Cape. Ann died in 1851 at which stage John was 18, spoke Zulu fluently, could read and write English, and was a remarkable rifle shot and hunter. Not suited to city life, he tried to earn an income by taking people hunting, but there was not enough interest. In 1854 he met Captain Joshua Walmsley, a Border Agent who lived on the southern side of the Nonoti River, 10 miles north of the Thukela. Dunn became Walmsley’s assistant and in his travels in Zululand, he became liked by the Zulus who called him Jantoni. He often visited Mpande’s kraal and became a trusted friend of Cetshwayo, who granted him land on which he settled. Lt. General Lord Chelmsford had learnt of Dunn’s association with Cetshwayo and his allegiance with the Zulu people and wanted him to support the British cause. Dunn had been present at the Ultimatum Tree and received a copy of the terms offered by Frere, but had probably failed to explain the ground rules of the Ultimatum to Cetshwayo.

Having crossed the Thukela River at Fort Pearson, the same day Lt. Colonel Evelyn Wood’s camp at Khambula would be attacked, in overall command was Lord Chelmsford, and the Column advanced in 2 Divisions. The advance Division was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Law RA, and the 2nd by Lieutenant Colonel Pemberton, 60th Rifles.

As dawn broke on the 29th, the advance took place in the pouring rain along the coastal track, a better route for the wagons than Pearson had taken. By late afternoon they’d covered 10 miles and established a laager on the southern side of the iNyoni River. By the following evening, the 1st Division was laagered on the bank of the Amatikulu River, which was in flood, with the 2nd Division 2 miles to the rear. The crossing of the Amatikulu the following morning took hours. It was flowing at 7 knots, 40 yards wide and 4-5 foot deep. But by dusk both Divisions had crossed, and laagered that night 2 miles north of the Amatikulu.

The following morning John Dunn and his scouts, accompanied by Captain Molyneaux of the 22nd, went ahead of the Column in search of a suitable campsite for that night. Molyneaux was Chelmsford’s ADC and laager master. He selected a site close to the iNyezane River quite near the Gingindhlovu kraal which Pearson’s men had burnt to the ground 2 months before. Later, Major Barrow and his mounted force, accompanied by John Dunn, had patrolled north and west and come across a substantial Zulu force relaxing behind the uMisi Hill to the west of the laager. Later that evening Dunn and Molyneaux undertook another patrol up the river to the north. At one point Dunn left Molyneaux, crossed the river and returned to tell Molyneaux that he’d seen a mass of bivouac fires less than a mile to the north of the river, and returned to the camp to advise Chelmsford.

The whole of that night it poured with rain. By the following morning the inside of the laager was a sodden layer of mud and manure, and the shelter trench was half full of water. The discomfort they’d suffered throughout the night showed on every man’s face. As dawn broke the camp stood to. It was a cold, misty morning, and as the night pickets were about to be changed they were seen running towards the laager from the north, and reported that a large Zulu force was approaching from the other side of the iNyezane River. Immediately the duty bugler sounded the alarm, the Imperial Infantry took up their positions in the sodden trench. The Naval Brigade positioned themselves on the inner side of the 3 foot rampart, between the trench and wagons and, armed with Gatling guns and Rocket Tubes, manned the 4 corners of the laager. The NNC and wagon conductors remained in the centre of the laager, some clambering onto the wagons in order to see what was happening.

Chelmsford, awoken by his orderly and the bugle call, hadn’t had time to finish dressing, and wearing his red woollen night cap, strode back and forth behind his Infantry, with the staff officers pacing behind him. As the mist lifted they saw 2 separate Zulu Columns approaching. The left horn moved rapidly along the northern side of the iNyezane River. The head of the Column disappeared for a moment into the river and reappeared on the southern bank, 1,000 yards from the laager, in 3 Columns.

The laagered position was almost completely surrounded by long grass and bush, and within seconds the Zulus were hidden by the undergrowth, and using their cover well, crept forward toward the north-east of the laager. Suddenly a Gatling gun opened fire, followed by 2 Rocket Tubes. The bullets and shrapnel cutting great gaps in the grass and sending the Zulus crashing to the ground to crawl forward on their bellies and suddenly reappear 300 yards in front of the trench. The Imperial Infantry opened fire. Several volleys were fired into the massed ranks of the warriors, who once more dived to the ground and were hidden by the grass. The assault was badly timed. The left horn assaulted too early. The right horn and head and chest were still wading across the iNyezane.

Chelmsford immediately ordered Barrow, with the mounted force, to drive the left horn back. But he hadn’t been able to see the breadth of the Zulu force because of the long grass. As Barrow and his men left the laager and headed towards what they assumed to be the massed ranks of the left horn, the 2 outer Columns, that had been seen as they came out of the river, rose out of the grass and quickly started to encircle the mounted force. Chelmsford saw the danger and told Molyneaux to order the mounted force back to the laager. Barrow received the order just in time. Intent on what was happening to his immediate front he’d hardly noticed the Zulus encircling his force from the left and right. They had to fight every foot of their retreat back into the laager. But not before Barrow and 2 of his force were wounded. It had been difficult for the Infantry to give them covering fire. As the mounted force retreated, the right horn assaulted the south-west of the laager and the head and chest, the north-west. At the sight of the retreating horsemen, the Zulu courage grew and several charges were made on 3 sides of the laager to get into the trench, but each was repulsed.

The constant volley fire and use of the Gatling guns was beginning to have effect. Zulu morale was dropping as their casualties were mounting. In one final determined assault, a group of warriors rushed forward and all were killed, with the exception of an Udibi boy aged twelve who survived the bullets, jumped the trench and collapsed up against the 3 foot rampart. Whereupon a large Naval Rating from HMS Boadicea seized hold of him, dragged him across the rampart, kicking and screaming, delivered a couple of slaps with his open palm, subduing the lad, who then remained motionless next to his captor until the battle was over. He was adopted by the Naval crew as a mascot and later joined the Royal Navy. Sadly I have been unable to find out about his service

Chelmsford could see there was little spirit behind the Zulu attack, although they were armed with Martini Henrys. Dunn had advised him that the assaulting force comprised the uVe, iNgobamakhosi, uMcijo and uMbonambi Regiments, about 10,000 in total, who had fought at ISandlwana. In overall command was an elderly Induna called Somopo. Somopo had been told by Cetshwayo to stop the Relief Column from joining up with Pearson at Eshowe. But, instead of assaulting the Column while it crossed a river, or when on the move, he’d not only left it too late but had been forced to assault a fortified position. Although the Zulus had won at ISandlwana, they’d suffered cruelly from the bayonet and bullets dispensed from the Martini Henrys, and the Gatling guns terrified them. After about twenty minutes, the Zulu assault ceased, but from the shelter of the grass they continued firing towards the laager. A bullet grazed Lieutenant Colonel Crealock’s cheek. Lieutenant Johnson of the 99th was killed instantly by a bullet in the chest and Lieutenant Colonel Northey was wounded in the shoulder and died 4 days later from a haemorrhage caused by the wound.

Then the Zulu force began to retreat. Chelmsford could see them scampering back towards the river, and once more ordered Barrow and his mounted force and the NNC to assault. Within minutes the entire Zulu force, including a further 2,000 that had been held in reserve, fled and were hotly pursued by the mounted force and NNC as they attempted to cross the iNyezane River and on towards the uMisi Hill. Chelmsford must have realized that had his force at ISandlwana been laagered and entrenched the disaster might not have occurred. The spiritless assault by the Zulus had cost them dearly. 700 bodies were found around the laager, and 400 more had been killed as they fled. The British losses were 2 officers and 11 men dead, and 48 wounded.
The following day, Pearson was relieved at Eshowe. It had been 10 long weeks. Although the fort had never been attacked, the overcrowding and wet weather had caused a lot of disease. 31 officers and men had died and 120 were critically ill. Pearson and his command headed south on the 4th and the Relief Column followed a day later. When Chelmsford got to Gingindhlovu on the 7th April, he handed command to Pemberton. He then headed back to Durban where he received the news of Hlobane and Khambula. The reinforcements from Britain and various parts of the Empire had arrived, which included 15 Infantry Battalions, a Naval Brigade, 2 Cavalry Regiments and 4 Generals. In total, Chelmsford now had 16,000 European troops and 7,000 NNC under his command.

Map of battle

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.


For permission to use all, or any part, of text, maps or pictures, contact Robert J. Gerrard at

Copyright © Robert J. Gerrard 2003