Battle of Hlobane
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No. 4 Column of the British invasion force, under Colonel Evelyn Wood, was to occupy the attention of those Zulus dwelling on the flat-topped mountains rising out of the plains of north-west Zululand. The distance of these Zulus from the capital of Ulundi gave them a degree of independence from Cetshwayo rule, enabling the chiefs to withhold their warriors for local defence, rather than contributing to the main Zulu Army. Lord Chelmsford required these Zulus to be distracted so that they would not interfere with the operations of No. 3 Column during its advance to Isandlwana and onto Ulundi.
On 17 January 1879, Wood advanced his column north-eastwards, and a laager (a defensive wagon circle) was established at Tinta's Kraal, 10 miles (16 km) south of a chain of flat-topped mountains on the 20th. These were Zunguin, Hlobane and Ityentika, connected by a nek, and running for 15 miles (24 km) in a north-easterly direction. While the camp was being fortified, scouts investigating the mountains were attacked from Zunguin by about 1,000 Zulus. At dawn the next day an attack was mounted on Zunguin, and the Zulus fled to Hlobane, where Wood observed some 4,000 Zulus drilling that afternoon. An attack on Hlobane began on the 24th, but was scrapped when Wood learnt of the disaster at Isandlwana. After falling back to Tinta's Kraal, Wood decided to move his column north-westwards to Kambula hill, about 14 miles due west of Zunguin. Their arrival on the 31st was met with a message from Lord Chelmsford informing Wood that all orders were cancelled, he was now on his own with no expectation of reinforcements and that he must be prepared to face the whole Zulu Army.
February 1879 passed with no major engagements, save for the mounted patrols sent out daily to raid the kraals of Zulus harassing No. 5 Column across the eastern Transvaal border. At Kambula, a hexagonal laager was formed with tightly locked together wagons, and a separate kraal for the cattle was constructed on the edge of the southern face of the ridge. Trenches and earth parapets surrounded both, and a stone-built redoubt was built on a rise just north of the kraal. A palisade blocked the hundred yards between the kraal and redoubt, while four 7-pounders were positioned between the redoubt and the laager to cover the northern approaches. Two more guns in the redoubt covered the north-east also. This month saw Wood receive much needed reinforcements in the form of Transvaal Rangers, mounted troops, a troop of German settlers and five companies of the 80th Regiment of Foot.
Wood had hoped to capitalise on the near-autonomy of the Zulus surrounding him, by trying to wean them from any allegiance they felt to Cetshwayo, centring hopes on one Uhamu, Cetshwayo's half-brother who had always been friendly towards the British and at odds with the Zulu King. On 13 March, Uhamu entered the camp with some 700 of his people, requesting escorts to bring the rest of his people out of hiding. They were hiding in caves near the headwaters of the Black Umfolozi, 50 miles to the east and only 40 miles (60 km) from Ulundi. It would be considerably risky to escort large numbers to safety over this area, but Wood considered the move to be worth the risk. An escort of 360 British mounted men, in addition to about 200 of Uhamu's warriors were able to return to Kambula with around 900 further refugees. Shortly after this achievement, Wood received a request from Chelmsford to create a distraction to draw off some of the Zulu strength while he attempted to relieve Eshowe. Knowing that an impi was preparing to leave Ulundi and attack either Kambula or another British fort, Utrecht, Wood reckoned that by attacking Hlobane on 28 March he could drive cattle off the mountain, prompting the impi to attack him in his well-prepared position at Kambula.
Hlobane consisted of two plateaux, the lower and smaller of which rose to a height of about 850 feet (260 m) at the eastern end of the 4-mile-long nek connecting it to Zunguin to the south-west. At the eastern end of this lower plateau rose very steeply for another 200 feet (60 m) up a narrow, boulder-strewn way forming a series of giant steps, known as ‘Devil's Pass’, to the higher plateau. On the top of this plateau were some 2,000 cattle and about 1,000 Zulu of the abaQulusi. Wood's plan for mounted troops led by Lieutenant-Colonel Redvers Henry Buller to scale the eastern track to the higher plateau, supported by rocket artillery and friendly Zulus – once on top he was to drive off the cattle. A similarly composed force, under Major R. A. Russell, would occupy the lower plateau.
At dawn on 27 March the forces departed and, although hampered by a heavy thunderstorm and Zulus firing at targets presented by the light of lightning flashes, Buller's mounted troops had reached the summit by 6 am of the following day. Native infantry then began herding cattle westwards. As Russell's troops occupied the lower plateau, Wood, who was personally commanding the attack on the ground, encountered a group of the Border Horse who had become detached from Buller's advance up the higher plateau. Wood ordered them to advance towards the firing on the upper plateau but the men, mostly English settlers from Transvaal, refused. Wood himself rode on with his small party, intending to take Buller's track up to the summit, and was eventually followed by the Border Horse. Coming under fire from the caves, as Buller's men had, Wood was again faced by refusal upon ordering the Border Horse to clear the way. Five of Wood's escorts charged the caves themselves, resulting in the death of two officers — Wood's staff officer, Captain R. Campbell, and his political agent Mr Lloyd. The group moved westwards to join Russell on the lower plateau.
On his way, at 10.30 am, Wood was riding along the southern flank of Hlobane and spotted five large columns of Zulus to the south-east. This was the main impi, which he was not expecting to arrive in the area for another day and were closing on the British fast, only 3 miles (4.8 km) away. The impi was already breaking up and Wood could see that they would effectively block Buller's retreat from the upper plateau and then trap Russell also. Even if Wood withdrew both groups, a rapid retreat to Kambula would be required before the Zulus could reach it. Wood hurriedly sent a message to Russell, ordering him to move up to the nek, but with the advantage of high ground Russell had already seen the impi, an hour and a half before Wood, and warned Buller of their presence.
Buller realised the serious predicament of his force. Descent by his route up was impossible. The only option was to make for the lower plateau, where he would be supported by Russell's force. Russell had moved his troops off the lower plateau to Intyentika Nek, to support Buller's descending troops. When Wood's orders arrived, Russell and his officers believed that Wood wished for them to take up positions on another nek, 6 miles (10 km) westwards by Zunguin. Leaving a small number of troops behind, Russell's force departed in that direction, leaving Buller alone at Hlobane.
Buller's troops only had one route to the lower plateau, Devil's Pass. The treacherous traverse was the cause of much confusion among his nervous troopers with their frenzied horses, causing inevitable casualties. This danger was heightened by the abaQulusi, who after they saw the approaching Zulu army, became more confident and daring in their attacks on the withdrawing troops. The British had to fight their way through the pass. Despite this serious situation, the British were able to get off the plateau and onto the plains, where Buller gave the immediate order to make for Kambula. The force was broken and disorganised, and with many horses lost the men were required to ride pillion to make it to Kambula, but they eventually all made it. The Zulu impi reached the plain shortly after the British had departed. Wanting revenge, they followed the them for 12 miles (20 km), skirmishing from all sides.
The Battle of Hlobane had been a British defeat. Fifteen officers and 110 soldiers were killed, a further 8 wounded and 100 native soldiers died. The loss in horses gravely weakened Wood's mounted capability. The Border Horse unit, trapped and unable to retreat to Kambula was wiped out, and the battalions of Zulu warriors helping the British had decamped. However, Wood was confident that the Zulu impi would now attack Kambula as he hoped, and he was confident of victory. The following day, at the Battle of Kambula, Wood did indeed rout the Zulu army.
Colonel Buller received the Victoria Cross for his conspicuous gallantry and leadership, as did Lieutenant Henry Lysons and Private Edmund Fowler for charging the caves that morning. Major William Knox Leet and Lieutenant Edward Browne were awarded the VC for going back to save the lives of wounded men at the descent of Devil's Pass. Lieutenant D’Arcy of the Frontier Light Horse was recommended for the Victoria Cross but denied on the grounds of his being a colonial. This was later rectified.
- Military history of South Africa
- Horror at the Devil’s Pass – The Battle of Hlobane, 28th March, 1879
- Laband, 2009, p. 115.
- Laband, 2009, p. 115, gives 94 British and well over 100 African auxiliaries
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