Saturday 20 September 2014

Aftermath of the Battle of Isandlwana (1869)

Last week I fulfilled one of my ambitions by walking the Fugitive's Trail in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The trail marks the route taken by survivors fleeing from the British Camp at the base of Isandlwana following its' destruction by a 20,000 strong Zulu Army on the 22nd January 1879.
War Graves at Isandlwana Camp
The British force at Isandlwana was in excess of 1,300 strong and the most accurate analysis of historical records gives an estimate of only 65 survivors. Half of the casualties occurred during the defensive battle around the environs of the camp. The other half occurred after the camp had been destroyed as the survivors took the trail back to what is now known as Fugitive's Drift on the Buffalo River which, at that time, marked the boundary between Zululand and Natal.

Younghusband's Cairn
The start of the trail is above the site of the Colonial Cemetery (near the Wagon Park as located during the Battle). On the right the cairn marking the last stand of some twenty soldiers from soldiers of C Co. 24th Regiment can be seen half way up the hill. The battlefield is littered with cairns marking the graves of the fallen and it is easy to discern where the fighting was fiercest as the firing line folded and the panic set in. This area marks the spot where the Zulu Army right hand 'Horn of the Buffalo' swept onto the battlefield via the rear of the defending troops.

The Start of the Fugitive's Trail
Heading down towards the River Manzinyama we passed a line of cairn's which purported to mark the place where Lieutenant Edgar Oliphant Anstey fought to the last with remnants of F Co. 24th Regiment. Anstey's body was recovered by his brother two days after the battle and now lies buried in Woking, England.
Anstey's Last Stand, Fugitive's Trail

The two guns of N Co, 5th Brigade, Royal Artillery were lost near this spot as the gunners desperately tried to take them to safety. The horses were killed in their trails and the guns were hauled back to Ulundi as tribute to Cetawayo. I will cover their recovery in a later entry on this blog when I write about the Battle of Ulundi and the final days of the Anglo - Zulu War.

Dry River Course
The section of the walk through to the crossing point on the Manzinyama is fairly straight forward. Mainly a traverse across even ground through rough, rocky scrub. The cairns are less evident after a time but my friend, Major Paul Naish, told me that there were originally many more - some on the Natal side of the Buffalo river. Over the years they have been washed away or have fallen into disrepair.

Abonga Points the Way
The second part of the walk is uphill through open scrub. Hot work in the sun and a little more difficult to navigate. Luckily our local Zulu Guide, Abonga, was able to point the way. At the top we were rewarded with a view of the Buffalo River. At this time of year, very low and easy to cross. On the 22nd January 1879 the water was 20 feet deep and fast flowing. A challenge for the horsemen involved. I say horsemen because to have a chance of escape, a horse was absolutely necessary. Those on foot soon fell victim to the pursuing Zulus.

View of the Buffalo River from the North Bank
The Crossing Point at Fugitive's Drift
The final section of the walk is the most difficult. It's a steep descent through thick, prickly bushes slipping and sliding on loose shale and rocks. Stiflingly hot too! However, easily achievable in the peace and quiet of modern times during Winter. I cannot begin to imagine how the original fugitives coped with this route - gunning their horses on and skirmishing with Zulu warriors. At the river the we paused to splash about in the crystal clear water near the beach where Smith Dorrien (of WW1 fame) crossed on a requisitioned transport pony hotly pursued by twenty Zulus (according to his autobiography).
Melvill & Coghill Grave

The end of the trail is marked by the impressive memorial to Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill. Both were awarded VCs for their actions on the 22nd January 1879. Melvill who was the Adjutant of the 1st Bn, 24th regiment had taken the Queen's Colour when the camp collapsed and, pursued all the way, managed to get this iconic object half way across the Buffalo river. He was accompanied by Coghill who was also on Colonel Glyn's staff.

Three of us completed the 10km trail - One Brit, one Russian and one Zulu. The scenery was magnificent and the history almost overwhelming. A fantastic experience on a truly momentous battlefield walk. The others in our party took time out to explore the wider attractions of Fugitive's drift including the cool beer available in the bar at the nearby Fugitive's Lodge! Incidentally, for accommodation I would recommend Isandlwana Lodge overlooking the site of Isandlwana Camp. A wonderful place to stay.

For photographs relating to this walk click the following links:
- Click here for pictures of Isandlwana and The Fugitive's Trail.
- Click here for our Pre-Walk Research.