Battle of Intombe

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Battle of Intombe
Part of the Anglo-Zulu War
Battle of the Intombe river (Illustrated London News)
Date 12 March 1879
Location Right bank of the Intombe river, Zululand, South Africa
27°13′57″S 30°36′41″E / 27.23250°S 30.61139°E / -27.23250; 30.61139Coordinates: 27°13′57″S 30°36′41″E / 27.23250°S 30.61139°E / -27.23250; 30.61139
Result Zulu victory
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg British Empire Zulu Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
Captain David Moriarty  Prince Mbilini waMswati
104 troops[1] 500–800
Casualties and losses
62–80 killed[2][3] 30[4]

The Battle of Intombe (also Intombi or Intombi River Drift) was a small action fought on 12 March 1879, between Zulu forces and British soldiers defending a supply convoy.


The village of Lüneberg, situated at 27°19′1″S 30°36′57″E / 27.31694°S 30.61583°E / -27.31694; 30.61583 in the disputed territories to the north of Zululand, had been laagered by its white settlers ever since the Anglo-Zulu War had begun. The Zulus posed a serious threat to the area (as indicated by a vicious night attack on the area on the night of 10th/11 February). Fearing a repeat of the attack, the British dispatched four companies of the 80th Regiment under Major Charles Tucker to garrison Lüneberg.

In late February 1879, a convoy of eighteen wagons carrying 90,000 rounds of ammunition and other supplies was sent from Lydenburg to re-supply the garrison, and from the Transvaal border was escorted by a single company. By 5 March, the convoy was still 8 miles from Lüneberg, having been hampered by rains which caused the rivers to swell and the ground to soften. Fearing a Zulu attack, Major Tucker sent an order for the company commander to reach Lüneberg that night 'at any cost'. The company commander took this literally and abandoned the wagons and proceeded on.

The escort had succeeded in having six wagons reach the opposite bank of the Intombe, four miles from Lüneberg. Six other wagons were three miles further back.

On 6 March, a party dispatched by Tucker only succeeded in pulling free a wagon which was trapped in a drift, returning to the town that night.

On 7 March, Tucker dispatched Captain David Moriarty with a hundred men to gather together all the wagons and laager them on the bank of the Intombe, and then gave orders for them to wait until the river went down.

On 11 March, Tucker inspected the laager at the river but found it to be poorly constructed, not being impressed with the inverted 'V' shape in that the wagons were arranged, with the base at the river. The river however, had gone down and there was a gap of several yards between the base and the river. Other flaws in the arrangement were viewed by Tucker as affording no 'protection whatever in the event of the Zulus attacking in numbers'. Furthermore, the garrison was weakened by being divided by a river with thirty of its number laagered on the other bank.

The battle[edit]

On the night of 11 March 1879, two sentries were stationed 20 yards from the laager, however their vision range was only 50 yards due to a rise to their front.

At 3.30 am on 12 March, a shot was heard close to the camp, however the men returned to their beds after Moriarty decided that it was nothing.

An hour and a half later, a sentry on the far bank saw to his horror, through a clearing in the mist, a huge mass of Zulus advancing silently on the camp. 'He at once fired his rifle and gave the alarm,' Tucker recorded. 'The sentries on the other side did the same. Of course the men were up in a moment, some men sleeping under the wagons and some in the tents; but before the men were in their positions the Zulus had fired a volley, thrown down their guns... and were around the wagons and on top of them, and even inside with the cattle, almost instantly. So quickly did they come, there was really no defence on the part of our men; it was simply each man fighting for his life, and in a few minutes all was over, our men being simply slaughtered.'

Being one of the first to die, Moriarty was struck in the back with an assegai as he charged out of his tent, shooting dead three Zulus with a revolver. He was shot while trying to climb the laager. His last words were 'I am done; fire away, boys.' However, few managed to put up any resistance, sharing a similar fate. The few survivors fled into the river, the troops on the far bank providing as much covering fire as possible. Upon what survivors they could see reaching the Lüneberg side of the river, Lieutenant Henry Harward, Moriarty's second-in-command, gave the order to withdraw upon seeing several hundred Zulus crossing the river. No sooner had he done this, when he grabbed the first horse he spotted and fled, abandoning his men.

This left the survivors under the command of Sergeant Anthony Clarke Booth. For three miles, the Zulus pursued the group of around forty survivors. Whenever they drew closer, several of the bolder troops, along with Booth stopped to deliver a volley, which dispersed their pursuers. Four men who split up from the group were killed. The others made it to Raby's Farm, around two miles from Lüneberg where the Zulus broke off pursuit. The wagons were looted and all the ammunition and supplies were carried off by the Zulus or destroyed.[5] Booth was rewarded with the Victoria Cross.


Harward arrived at Lüneberg and frantically informed Tucker of what had transpired. The Major quickly ordered all his mounted troops to accompany him to the camp, and ordered a further 150-foot soldiers to follow. Tucker and his mounted force spotted 'dense masses' of Zulus leaving the scene of the battle as they approached. At the camp, they discovered one soldier who had made a miraculous escape by being carried down the river and then making his way back to the camp. He and two African wagon drivers were the only survivors they found.

The result of Intombe was a far cry from that of Rorke's Drift. At Intombe a force of some 500 to 800 Zulu were able to overrun and defeat over 100 British regular infantry in laager in short order while at Rorke's Drift over 100 British regular infantry were able to stand off 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu from behind hastily constructed, but sturdy, fortifications for nearly a day. Intombe demonstrated the vulnerability of the slow and awkward supply lines that the British army was utterly dependent on. If the Zulus continued to exploit this vulnerability any and all invading British columns could be halted or turned back.

Amazingly, Harward escaped the charges brought against him for deserting his men.[6] In any case, his career was over and he resigned his commission in May 1880.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Colenso, Frances Ellen; Durnford, Edward (1880). History of the Zulu war and its origin. London: Chapman and Hall. p. 348. Retrieved 2009-12-09. 
  2. ^ Morris, Donald R.; Buthelezi, Mangosuthu, The Washing of the Spears, Da Capo Press, 1998, p.474, gives 80 killed: 62 British soldiers, 3 European conductors and 15 native voorloopers.
  3. ^ Theal, George McCall (1919). History of South Africa, from 1873 to 1884, twelve eventful years, with continuation of the history of Galekaland, Tembuland, Pondoland, and Bethshuanaland until the annexation of those territories to the Cape Colony, and of Zululand until its annexation to Natal. London: Allen. p. 305. Retrieved 2009-12-09. 
  4. ^ Laband, Kingdom, p. 137.
  5. ^ Donald R. Morris, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, The Washing of the Spears, Da Capo Press, 1998, p.474
  6. ^ Morris, Donald R.; Buthelezi, Mangosuthu, The Washing of the Spears, Da Capo Press, 1998, pp. 475–476.


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