The Battle of Ulundi
Ulundi: the final
battle of the Zulu War at which the army of Cetshwayo was destroyed.
War: Zulu War
Date: 4th July 1879
Central Zululand in South Africa
against the Zulus
Zulus attacking the 90th Regiment at the Battle of Ulundi
Generals: Lieutenant General Lord
Chelmsford against Cetshwayo, the Zulu King.
Zulu War medal: Thanks to Historik
Orders of Greenwich, Conn, USA.
Size of the
armies: 17,000 British and native troops against some 24,000
Uniforms, arms and equipment: The Zulu warriors were
formed in regiments by age, their standard equipment the shield and
the stabbing spear. The formation for the attack, described as the
“horns of the beast”, was said to have been devised by Shaka, the
Zulu King who established Zulu hegemony in Southern Africa. The main
body of the army delivered a frontal assault, called the “loins”,
while the “horns” spread out behind each of the enemy’s flanks and
delivered the secondary and often fatal attack in the enemy’s rear.
Cetshwayo, the Zulu King, fearing British aggression took pains to
purchase firearms wherever they could be bought. By the outbreak of
war the Zulus had tens of thousands of muskets and rifles, but of a
poor standard, and the Zulus were ill-trained in their use. The
Zulus captured some 1,000 Martini Henry breech loading rifles and a
large amount of ammunition. Some of these rifles were used at
Rorke’s Drift. All the British casualties, few though they were,
were shot rather than stabbed.
Winner: The British
The Charge of the 17th Lancers at the Battle of Ulundi
The Battle of Ulundi
17th Lancers: now the Queen’s Royal Lancers.
1st Battalion, 13th Light Infantry: later the Somerset Light
Infantry and now the Light Infantry.
Illustration courtesy of Tim Reese
2nd Battalion, 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers, now the Royal Highland
58th Regiment: from 1882 the Northamptonshire Regiment, now the
Royal Anglian Regiment.
80th Regiment: from 1882 the South Staffordshire Regiment, now the
90th (Perthshire) Regiment: from 1882 the Scottish Rifles (Cameronians),
disbanded in 1966.
94th Regiment: from 1882 the North Staffordshire Regiment, now the
A Zulu Kraal
Following the battle at Gingindlovu on 2nd April 1879, Lord
Chelmsford’s force advanced to the fortified camp at Eshowe and
relieved Colonel Pearson’s command, entrenched there since the end
of January 1879. Pearson’s men had put all their effort into
building the camp in the expectation that it would be used as the
advanced base for the final assault on the Zulu King, Cetshwayo’s
Royal kraal at Ulundi. To the disappointment of Pearson’s men,
Chelmsford ordered a retreat to the Tugela, intending to establish a
base nearer to the border river.
British troops on the march
Superficially the Zulus appeared to have thrown the British back
to their starting point. But the battles of Khambula and Gingindlovu
inflicted heavy casualties on the Zulus that could not be replaced.
Reacting to the horror of Isandlwana the British government sent out
more reinforcements than could effectively be used. Natal was awash
with British major generals. Sir Garnet Wolseley and the Ashantee
Ring were on their way to displace Lord Chelmsford in command.
Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford
Chelmsford by the middle of April 1879 prepared to invade
Zululand again with 2 cavalry regiments (the King’s Dragoon Guards
and the 17th Lancers), 5 batteries of artillery and 12 infantry
battalions: 1,000 regular cavalry, 9,000 regular infantry and a
further 7,000 men with 24 guns, including the first Gatling battery
to take the field for the British army. The Zulus could maintain
24,000 dispirited warriors.
Chelmsford re-organised his army. Evelyn Wood’s force in the West
was renamed the Flying Column. The newly arrived Major General Henry
Crealock, who had served with the 90th Perthshire Regiment in the
Crimea, took over Pearson’s old command, now entitled the 1st
Division, in the lower Tugela by the coast and a new command
entitled the 2nd Division under Major General Newdigate but
accompanied by Chelmsford himself prepared to invade Zululand in the
central area and join up with Wood.
The British were still nervous of the Zulus, heavily influenced
by the terrible events at Isandlwana. For his part Cetshwayo had
lost faith in his ability to repel the British invasion. Wood began
to march south from Khambula while Chelmsford prepared to cross the
Tugela. There was one outstanding duty to fulfill before the army
could turn its attention to defeating Cetshwayo.
On 21st May 1879 Major General Marshall with his cavalry brigade
of the 2 regular regiments moved forward to Isandlwana and undertook
the task of burying the British casualties from the battle on 22nd
The charge of the 17th Lancers
at the Battle of Ulundi
The advance of Chelmsford’s 2nd Division finally began on 1st
June 1879. But the war had not finished its stock of horrors for the
British. As Chelmsford sat in his tent writing dispatches a staff
officer burst in to tell him of the death at the hands of the Zulus
of the French Prince Imperial. In 1871 the Emperor Napoleon III of
France had abdicated and retired to England where he had died.
widow, the Empress Eugenie became a great friend of Queen Victoria.
Napoleon’s son Louis, the Prince Imperial, attended the Royal
Military College at Woolwich. On the intercession of the Queen the
Prince Imperial was permitted to accompany the army to Natal and
join Chelmsford’s column. While with an advanced patrol and
dismounted he was caught and killed by the Zulus. The Prince’s death
caused an outcry in France. Lieutenant Carey of the 98th Regiment,
nominally in charge of the patrol was tried by court martial but
As the war continued the Flying Column and the 2nd Division met
and marched towards Ulundi in parallel.
On 5th June 1879 Buller’s irregular horsemen encountered a strong
force of Zulu skirmishers. After exchanges of fire it became clear
that the Zulus would not give ground and Buller withdrew.
The British camp after the Battle of Ulundi: Zulus arriving to
surrender their arms
Lancers came up and, keen to establish themselves, rode down the
valley looking for the Zulus. The Lancers came under fire and their
adjutant was shot and killed. The whole mounted force returned to
camp where the unfortunate death of the officer adversely affected
the whole column.
The charge of the 17th Lancers at the Climax of the Battle of Ulundi
On 6th June 1879 a piquet caused a false alarm and the whole
column rushed to take position in the entrenched area of the camp.
Fire was given and some 1,200 rounds discharged before the troops
could be brought under control. It was symptomatic of the
nervousness these inexperienced troops felt about the Zulus.
Wolseley arrived in Cape Town on 28th June 1879 and cabled
Chelmsford who replied that his two columns were within 17 miles of
the Royal Kraal of Ulundi.
The Charge of the 17th Lancers
A Zulu Warrior
Cetshwayo attempted to negotiate with the British while his
warriors gathered at Ulundi for the great last fight. The terms
Chelmsford demanded were rejected with indignation by the Royal
On 30th June the Flying Column and the 2nd Division advanced into
the valley of the White Mfonzi towards Ulundi. Camp was established
by the river. On 3rd July 1879 Colonel Buller took his mounted men
across the river to reconnoitre the Zulu position. The Zulus were
waiting in ambush for Buller and his force only just escaped
During the night the British troops were forced to listen to the
Zulu war songs. For some it was an interesting experience, for
With reveille the next day Chelmsford took the majority of his
force with only ammunition and water and crossed the river advancing
towards the Zulu kraal, moving in the cumbersome hollow square, the
mounted troops covering each side and the rear.
Just before 9am the Zulus attacked the hollow square on all
The fire from the packed British regiments, the artillery and the
Gatling guns was overwhelming. It was the largest concentration of
British military might in South Africa to that date. Prisoners
stated after the battle that they were overwhelmed by the noise of
the firing, let alone the impact of the bullets, and stunned by the
size of the British force. It took only half an hour before the
Zulus began to falter.
Cetshwayo, King of the Zulus
At this point the 17th Lancers passed out of
the back of the square and charged. The impact of the charge broke
up what was left of the Zulu formations and the Zulu army dissolved
in flight, pursued by the Lancers and the mounted irregular units of
Chelmsford’s columns. The massacre of fleeing Zulus seen at Khambula
and Gingindlovu was repeated and multiplied several times. It was
the end of the Zulu army and the war, although fighting continued on
a small scale for some weeks. As soon as the battle was over
Chelmsford ordered his troops to burn the Royal Kraal of Ulundi.
Casualties: The British casualties were 3 officers and 79
men. Zulu casualties were said to be 1,500.
Follow-up: Following the battle the British burnt the military
kraals in the area around Ulundi. The Zulu chiefs began to surrender
across Zululand to the British forces. Cetshwayo, the Zulu king, was
captured on 28th August 1879 and taken into exile in Cape Colony.
The British established a regime in Zululand considered to be
sympathetic to Britain and withdrew.
Trestle and boat bridge built over the Tugela River by the Royal
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
The Zulu War was one of the last campaigns fought by the old
numbered infantry regiments of the British Army. In 1882 the
Cardwell Reforms brought in the system of two battalion regiments,
by combining the single battalion regiments in pairs and assigning
formal regional titles. The regiments up to the 25th Foot already
had two battalions and simply took the new titles. The 24th Foot,
which had both its battalions in the Zulu War, fighting at
Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, from being the South Warwickshire
Regiment became the South Wales Borderers; the shift in focus from
the English West Midlands to Wales being a nod to the Welsh origins
of the soldiers of B Company of the 2nd Battalion who had held
Other arrangements were less happy. The 90th Perthshire Light
Infantry, memorably raised by Sir Thomas Graham in 1794, and one of
Britain’s most consistently successful regiments in the Peninsular,
Crimean and many smaller colonial wars, to its horror became the 2nd
Battalion of the 26th Foot, the Cameronians. The new regiment was
given the formal title of the Scottish Rifles. The 2nd Battalion
continued to call itself the 90th Light Infantry into the First
World War and beyond. It never permitted itself to be referred to as
the “Cameronians”, a reference to the raising of the 26th Foot from
the extreme Protestant supporters of Richard Cameron in 1689.
The 17th Lancers charge the Zulus in the closing stage of
the Battle of Ulundi
The 99th, a Scottish regiment from Edinburgh known as the “Moonrakers”,
to its surprise found itself the 2nd Battalion of the Wiltshire
Regiment, a southern English county regiment. Fortunately few of the
new links were as bizarre as this. In the 1960s, when the Royal
Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiments were amalgamated, the new regiment
was called the “Duke of Edinburgh’s”, a title of the old 99th.
While the Cardwell Reforms created regiments more suited to
colonial policing duties, one battalion of a regiment being in
Britain, while the other was posted to a colony, the flexibility of
the old system, in which officers moved from regiment to regiment
depending on the availability of posts, was lost. The British Army
still struggles to overcome the disadvantages of the 1882
Zulu War by Ian Knight (Pan Grand Strategy).