Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The 58th at Ulundi; Anglo-Zulu War 1879

The Anglo Zulu war of 1879 is full of "Roy of the Rovers" stories and anecdotes, the Victorian penny dreadfuls with heroic stories of the magnificent defence of Rorke's Drift and the slaughter of men at Isandlwana. Often forgotten were regiments in other actions during this campaign. (Even the battle on Jan 22 at Inyezane is largely neglected by historians, which is wrong in my estimation.)

After the Cardwell reforms of 1881, the 58th regiment of Foot became the Northampton regiment and, of course, other foot regiments then changed name as well. After the debacle at Isandlwana and the some say "pumped up" significance of Rorke's Drift (it is on record that a very eminent expert has called Jan 22/23 1879 a side issue of the war) the somewhat arrogant attitude to the Zulu warrior had changed. It goes to show that the Zulu intelligence system was really sharp and on the ball. Cavalry and bayonets were two elements that the Zulu warrior was not too keen on. The battle of Ulundi, the home of the royal kraal, was fought on July 4th 1879 just two months before the end of the war. The most significant aspect of this battle was the use of a well tried British tactic, The Square.

Again, this was a tactic used as a result of finally realising that the Zulu would never be defeated if fought on his terms. On the 22nd June 1879 "A" and "D" companies of the 58th were left as the garrison of Fort Evelyn on the Umhlatosi river. This reduced the regiment to 4 companies as "C" company was at Durban and "H" company was at Ladysmith. On the 25th June 1879 the division stopped at Entonjaneni which is about 20 miles from Ulundi, the site of Cetewayo's kraal. Finding themselves in this position Zulu envoys were sent out to talk peace terms . The response? The Zulu were to return captured weapons and lay down their arms as an act of submission.

A time limit of the date of June 29th was set for the Zulu to act, this elapsed and the advance continued . Come July 2nd 1879 the force had reached the White Umvolosi river . A large force of Zulu were seen and some sniping occurred on the 3rd but there was no attack. A square was formed and it consisted of the following elements. If you can visualise a map of the square it was constructed thus: Top left (90th regt) 4 x 9 pounder guns; Top right (58th regt) companies commanded by Captains MORRIS, ANDERSON, ST JOHN and HESSE. A single cannon on the end. Right leg (21st regt) 2 x cannon in centre of the leg, at the corner a single cannon. Bottom leg (94th regt) 2 x 7 pounders (13th regt), a single cannon. Last leg (80th regt) 2 x cannon in centre of leg and a final single cannon to complete the square. Inside the square, dragoons, mounted irregulars, carts, native contingent and finally the 17th lancers, quite a force.
What follows is an account (from a Journal of the Northamptonshire regiment) by an officer of the 58th concerning the 3rd and 4th July:

"We got our orders on the morning of the 3rd to fall in an hour before daybreak, and after being shown our places we all lay down to sleep. Officers were in front of their respective companies, which were posted all round the lager. Our rest was soon disturbed by the Zulu army singing their war song . The noise appeared to come from about 2 miles the other side of the Umvolosi river in the direction of the Unodwengo kraal. It had a wonderful effect, about 20,000 men all joining in, they kept it up for about an hour and then all was silent. It looked like business for the morrow.

No bugle sounded the rouse, but we were all awake and had breakfast in the early morning. Luckily it was brilliant moonlight, and in about an hour the division was formed up and ready to start. It was broad daylight when the order to advance was made. The formation was a square, the English infantry forming the sides. The irregular cavalry went in front, the artillery, native troops and ammunition carts in the centre of the square and the 17th Lancers brought up the rear. In this order the Umvolosi was crossed, and then had about a mile of very irregular and bushy ground to get over before getting onto the plain of Ulundi.

Luckily we were not opposed here or our loss might have been very heavy. No sign was seen of the enemy. We went steadily on until we had passed on the left of the Unodwengo kraal, a large Kaffir town with hundreds of huts: not a Zulu was there. The square was halted and the cavalry sent forward to reconnoitre, some of them being sent to burn Ukandampanivu kraal which was in our left rear. This was soon in flames. The Zulu were now seen coming down the sides of the hill to our left about 3 miles off. Our square was advanced a little to about one thousand yards beyond the Unodwengo kraal and a position was taken up on top of some gently rising ground. Now we had time to look about us and we began to think we should not be attacked after all. 

Our doubts were soon dispelled. Down the hillside on our left and front they began to move in beautiful formation. It seemed like endless companies in line all marching at regular intervals.
Our place was in the rear of the square, so I can only describe what took place on our side which was in the direction of our camp. Soon the very ground we had marched over coming from the river was swarming with Zulu. As yet they were not within rifle range, but the cavalry began to retire on the square. Suddenly a heavy fire began from where as yet we had seen no enemy, namely from the right of the Unodwengo kraal, and the irregular cavalry were seen coming over the brow of the hill and firing as they retired. In another minute the ground they had just left was covered with a swarm of Zulu who opened fire on us. The bullets began to whistle about us and one of our men fell back and was carried away on a stretcher.

The men were ordered not to fire until the cavalry had retired, which they did in good order, openings being made in the square for them to pass through. While this was being done the Zulu opened terrific fire upon us from all sides. Our artillery now began on them and sent their shells bursting where they were thickest, but they still came on in swarms, shouting and yelling. We now sent volleys into them by sections at six hundred yards range and mowed them down. This did not check their advance however and they made a rush for a hollow piece of ground about 200 yards from our side of the square and were lost to sight.

They must have been collecting for their final rush, for in another minute I could see (being mounted) a great mass of them, all bending nearly double to avoid our fire and making a rush for our corner of the square. As soon as they appeared our men opened on them such a murderous fire that nothing could live before it; guns at the corner also blazing canister (shot) into them as fast as they could. In a few minutes we ceased fire and when the smoke cleared the Zulu were seen flying in every direction. We sent up such a cheer, and helmets went flying into the air, such was the delight of our men.

Now was the time for the cavalry, and in a minute they were out of the square and pursuing the Zulu, cutting them down, spearing and shooting them. Numbers of them turned at bay and fired, killing and wounding a good many horses and several officers and men. The Zulu were in full retreat and got onto the hillsides where the cavalry could not follow, so the guns kept on shelling them till they got out of sight. We now got the order to advance to Ulundi. Cetewayo's enormous kraal and 2 other military kraals about a mile beyond Ulundi were burnt and soon the sky was black with smoke. The men were now allowed to rest and have dinner, so we lay on the grass and watched the burning kraals and began to count the casualties.

Our Major (Maj W D BOND) was shot through the arm, and LIEBENROD, who was aide-de-camp to Col GLYN, was wounded slightly in 2 places. One of our men was killed and 10 wounded. The loss of the whole force was about 13 killed and 70 wounded, wonderfully small considering the converging fire we were exposed to for more than an hour. The bullets hummed and whistled all about us and there were many narrow escapes. Luckily the Zulu as a rule cannot shoot and trust to close quarters and the assegai. If we had been in the Zulu's place and they in ours not a man of them would have got away. Our men were very steady and confident of beating off the attack. They knew, as we did that defeat was death. The strength of the Zulu is estimated at about 20,000, our strength was 5000. It looks rather heavy odds to contend with, but nothing could touch us in square with our deadly musketry fire. After halting for about an hour, we began to retire towards our camp about sunset, tired but rejoicing at the result of the day's work."

The 58th were commended by Col GLYN and Major General NEWDIGATE ( CO 2nd Division ). Col Glyn stated "All the Brigade behaved with great steadiness, and I specially wish to bring to your notice the companies of the 58th regiment posted near the guns at the corner." General Newdigate stated: "Col WHITEHEAD, officers and men of the 58th regiment, I have to thank you for your gallant behaviour on July 4th. I have never seen troops steadier under fire. Your fire was excellently directed and the consumption of ammunition very small, proving the value of firing in volleys. It was a great victory. I shall make a most favourable report of the 58th regiment."

During the battle the regiment's strength was 19 officers and 407 men, casualties were 1 man killed, 1 officer and 10 men wounded. In addition Lt C C WILLIAMS, 58th in command of the native levies (Uhamu`s People), was killed at Inhlobana on March 28th 1879. The night of July 4th was passed at the laager by the White Umvolosi and the following day the force moved back to Fort Newdigate halting on the way at Entonjaneni. On the night of the 6th a storm of bitterly cold wind with drenching rain fell upon the troops, through the 8th and 9th it raged, stopping movement and destroying a large number of transport oxen. The Zulu were spent and surrendered en masse, Cetewayo was still at large in August and when eventually he was captured by a squadron of the King's Dragoon Horse and sent to Pietermaritzburg the war was over. Thus ends the story of the 58th regiment at the battle of Ulundi.

Footnote: In the film "Zulu" Cpl ALLEN is seen kicking Pte HITCH into the river - strange that, as neither men were on the ponts, the river at the time was supposed to be in full flood (a mere trickle in the film sequence) and there is no mention of Sgt Frederick Augustus MILLNE 3rd Buffs who was in command of the ponts and offered CHARD to tie off the ponts in mid-stream and defend them, an offer declined by Chard.

British Gatling Guns AZW

Graham Mason
Anglo-Zulu War Researcher.

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