Battle of Kambula

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Battle of Kambula
Part of the Anglo-Zulu War
Kambula 1.jpg
Battle of Kambula (Melton Prior)
Date29 March 1879
Kambula, South Africa

27°41′34″S 30°40′22″E / 27.692893907°S 30.672702398°E / -27.692893907; 30.672702398Coordinates: 27°41′34″S 30°40′22″E / 27.692893907°S 30.672702398°E / -27.692893907; 30.672702398
Result Decisive British victory
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg British Empire Zulu Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
Evelyn Wood Mnyamana kaNgqengelele[1]
180 African auxiliaries
6 cannon
Casualties and losses
29 killed
54 wounded
758 confirmed killed[4][5]
Out of the 65 wounded British soldiers, 11 died from fatal wounds sustained in action. There is no count or record of Zulu wounded or taken prisoner.[6]

Battle of Kambula took place in 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War when a Zulu Army attacked the British camp at Kambula. It resulted in a decisive Zulu defeat and is considered to be the turning point of the Anglo-Zulu War.


Following the disaster at Hlobane on 28 March 1879, Colonel Evelyn Wood's forces prepared to receive an attack by the entire Zulu impi, of which they had only previously encountered the leading sections. Soon after dawn of 29 March, Transvaal Rangers rode out to locate the enemy impi, the cattle were put out to graze and, after some deliberation, two companies were despatched to collect firewood. By 11 am the Rangers had returned with the news that the impi was on the move and was to attack Kambula at noon.

Wood also now received information that the impi was nearly 20,000 men strong, consisting of regiments that had already defeated the British at Isandlwana and other battles and that many of the Zulus were armed with rifles taken from the British dead at these battles. Shortly after this the Zulu impi was sighted 5 miles away across the plain, coming on due westwards in five columns. However, the warriors of the impi had not eaten for three days.[7] The woodcutters and cattle were brought back in and, confident that the defences could be manned within a minute and a half of an alarm being sounded, Wood ordered the men to have their dinners.

Cetshwayo responded to pleas from the abaQulasi for aid against the raids of Wood's troops by ordering the main Zulu army to help them. He ordered it not to attack fortified positions but to lure the British troops into the open even if it had to march on the Transvaal to accomplish this.[8] His orders were not followed. The impi moved and Wood initially thought it was advancing on the Transvaal but it halted a few miles south of Kambula and formed up for an attack.

Kambula's defences[edit]

The defences on Kambula consisted of a hexagonal laager formed with wagons that were tightly locked together, and a separate kraal for the cattle, constructed on the edge of the southern face of the ridge. Trenches and earth parapets surrounded both sections, and a stone-built redoubt had been 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.

Two companies were sited in the redoubt; another company occupied the cattle kraal and the remaining infantry manned the laager. The gunners had been told that if the Zulus got in close they were to abandon their guns and make for the laager. In all, Wood's force mustered 121 Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, 1,238 infantry and 638 mounted men. With headquarters staff, it totalled 2,000 men, of whom 88 were sick in hospital.


A British map of the battle

At 12.45 on 29 March 1879, the tents were struck, reserve ammunition was distributed, and the troops took up their battle stations. As the troops moved to their posts they could see the Zulu right horn, circling north out of British artillery range before halting north-west of the camp. The left horn and centre of the impi continued westwards until they were due south of Kambula. At 1.30 Lieutenant-Colonel Redvers Henry Buller suggested his mounted troops sting the right horn into premature attack, which was agreed to. The men rode out to within range of the massed Zulus, fired a volley and then galloped back, closely followed by a great wave of 11,000 Zulu warriors. As soon as the horsemen had reached Kambula, and cleared the field of fire, the British infantry opened fire with support from their four 7-pounders firing shell, and then when the Zulus got closer canister shot. A small number of Zulus managed to burst into the laager, and were repelled with bayonets, while the bulk of the advance was held at bay by the steady British rifle shots and gunfire. Some of the Zulu force swung right to come in against the western sides of the laager, but were met with equally effective resistance. After about half an hour the Zulu right horn drew back to the north-east.

At 2.15, as the right horn made its withdrawal, the left horn and centre surged up out of the ravine, their leading warriors falling to crossfire from the laager and kraal as they came over the crest. However, more and more swarmed on to the glacis between the cliff and the defenders, funnelling into the gap between the kraal and laager. The Zulus soon forced their way into the cattle Kraal and fought hand-to-hand with men of the 1/13th company. The cattle in the kraal hampered both sides, but with Zulu pressure mounting up the heavily outnumbered British troops managed to extricate themselves and pull back to the redoubt. Zulu riflemen were now able to open fire from behind the walls of the kraal to give their advancing comrades cover. At about this time the right horn came on again from the north-east, charging across the north face of the redoubt towards the guns and the eastern sides of the laager.

The closing stages of the battle of Kambula. A company of the 1/13th in the foreground are driving the Zulus back into the ravine.

Although now attacked on both sides, Wood appreciated that the situation to the south was critical and ordered two companies to clear the Zulus off the glacis. Led by Major Hackett the men formed in line with bayonets fixed and charged across the open ground, forcing the Zulus back over the rim. The troops then lined the crest and opened volley fire into the packed warriors in the ravine. The counter-attack had succeeded perfectly but Hackett's men suddenly found themselves under fire from their right, where Zulu marksmen had concealed themselves in a refuse pit. Hackett sounded the 'Retire' and his men returned to the cover of the laager, but not before losing a colour-sergeant, a subaltern and himself receiving a blinding head wound. The sight of this withdrawal encouraged the Zulus in the ravine to charge again, but along the narrow killing zone in front of the laager they could not this time prevail against the controlled volleys from behind the wagons and the redoubt.

On the north side the Royal Artillery men fought their guns in the open, not taking cover, and poured round after round directly into the right horn.

The Zulus charged again and again, with unwavering courage, but the head of each charge was shot away and at about 5 pm Wood sensed the impetus was going out of their attack. Two companies moved to clear the kraal and lined the rim of the cliff with a further company to fire into the dead ground.

As soon as the Zulus began to pull away eastwards Woods ordered Buller, the commander of his mounted troops, to mount his men up and pursue. The Zulus were harried mercilessly for 7 miles, mounted troops firing one handed with carbines from the saddle or spearing them with discarded assegais. Cecil D'Arcy of the Frontier Light Horse (FLH) told his troopers to take no prisoners and told them, 'no quarter boys and remember yesterday!' – referring to the action at Hlobane, where his men had suffered severely.[9] The FLH men singled abaQulusi warriors for their special attention, chasing them as far as Hlobane and extracting a savage revenge for their comrades killed the day before at Hlobane. D'Arcy recalled that they, 'butchered the brutes [Zulus] all over the place' while Buller was, 'like a tiger drunk with blood'. Following the cavalry, the British infantry and African auxiliaries combed the field killing any wounded or hiding Zulus[10] The merciless pursuit of the retreating Zulu army at Kambula caused some controversy in Britain itself but from a military point of view it had presented an invaluable opportunity to inflict crippling losses on the Zulu army.


A total of 785 Zulu dead were counted in the immediate vicinity of the camp by burial parties two days after the battle, but their total losses were significantly higher. Laband states the Zulu losses are a matter of some debate.[11] Knight says, "785 [bodies] were collected from close by the camp. Many more lay out on the line of retreat where the slaughter had been heaviest... Perhaps as many as 2,000 died" while Colenso states 1,000.[12] Some of the dead had been carried away by friends or relatives but had to be abandoned during the pursuit. Many more warriors retreating from the battle were overtaken and killed by British mounted troops and furthermore, many wounded warriors died before they could reach home and help, the following day 157 bodies were counted along the line of retreat with reports of more in the distance.[13] The official British estimation at the time put the total Zulu losses of dead and wounded at 'nearly 2,000',[14] while the Zulus thought that their casualties were at least as high or higher than those suffered at Isandlwana.[15]

The morale effect of the battle of Kambula on the Zulu army was also severe. Their commander, Mnyamana, tried to get the regiments to return to Ulundi but many demoralised warriors simply went home. The shock of the defeat contributed to a weakening of the Zulu resolve to maintain armed resistance to the British invasion.[16]

By contrast to the heavy Zulu losses, only 18 British soldiers were killed, and 8 officers and 57 men wounded, 11 of whom later died.[17] Kambula is considered as the turning point of the war, for the British demonstrated that shield and assegai were no match for an entrenched force with artillery and the Martini-Henry. Never again would an impi fight against a prepared position with the ferocity and resolution displayed up to this date.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Laband, John. Historical dictionary of the Zulu wars, Scarecrow Press, 2009, ISBN 0-8108-6078-3, p.6..
  2. ^ Knight & Castle, Zulu War, 1992, p.69
  3. ^ F.E. Colenso, History of the Zulu War and Its Origin, London, 1880, p. 353, "The strength of the enemy was thought to be 20,000..."
  4. ^ F.E. Colenso, History of the Zulu War and Its Origin, London, 1880, p. 353, "The strength of the enemy was thought to be 20,000 of whom 1000 are supposed to have been killed.".
  5. ^ Ian Knight. Brave Men's Blood, The Epic of the Zulu War, 1879, (1990), p.142, "785 [bodies] were collected from close by the camp. Many more lay out on the line of retreat where the slaughter had been heaviest... Perhaps as many as 2,000 died".
  6. ^ As at Rorke's Drift Zulu wounded may have been killed. Lock, Ron; Quantrill, Peter (2005). Zulu Victory: The Epic of Isandlwana and the Cover-up. Greenhill Books. ISBN 1-85367-645-4, p. 232, "... it is possible that all the Zulu wounded were put to death.".
  7. ^ Donald R. Morris, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, The Washing of the Spears, Da Capo Press, 1998, p.496
  8. ^ Knight & Castle, Zulu War, 1992, p.69
  9. ^ Knight, Brave Men's Blood, p138
  10. ^ Knight p.138
  11. ^ Laband, Kingdom, p. 164.
  12. ^ Knight, Ian. Brave Men's Blood, The Epic of the Zulu War, 1879, (1990), p.142. Colenso gives 1,000, p. 353.
  13. ^ Laband, Kingdom, p. 165.
  14. ^ Laband, Kingdom, p. 164, taken from the War Office narrative, p. 81.
  15. ^ Laband, John. Kingdom in Crisis: The Zulu Response to the British Invasion of 1879 (1992), pp. 164–165.
  16. ^ Knight, Brave Men's Blood, p. 142.
  17. ^ Laband, p. 164.


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