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DateOriginal Topic
4th October 2003Discovery of Zulu Impi
By Melvin Hunt
For many years (since the sixties actually) the books that I read all described the scene where The Impi is discovered in the valley north of Isandlwana and this started the battle the Zulus did not intend to fight until the 23rd.
In some of the latest books a new school of thought has emerged which describes how the Zulu attack was already under way when Raws Troop ran into them.
Any one up for debate on this?
5th October 2003Bill Cainan

A very, very interesting question. I am firmly in the group that believe that the attack was well under way when Raw arrived at the valley.

I believe it is essentially a time and motion question. You first need to accept that the Zulu battlefield tactics were designed for a TOTAL victory, then you can develop the idea. The whole concept of the horns closing behind the enemy was to prevent any escape and thus make the victory complete. However, as the horns have considerably further to travel than the head, they really need to be deployed before the head makes contact. In a best case scenario, the head approaches the enemy, who panic and run immediately. The horns therefore have to have closed before this to prevent escape. It is a matter of co-ordination - the horns HAVE to be sufficiently deployed to enable the link up to happen as the head engages.

This then credits the Zulu command and control system with a degree of sophistication that I believe has been totally underestimated in the past. The Zulu commander would require some sort of signal that the horns are in position before committing the head to tie in the enemy - the Zukus had mounted scouts, so maybe they used riders ?

At Isandhlwana you need to look at a map to see how far the Zulu horns (especially the right horn) had to travel to get into position. Assume the horns are deploying at a jog (say 5 to 7 mph), you then have your time element. Look at the time that the right horn first came under fire from Mostyn & Cavaye; look at the time that Raw came across the main body and then you have some key pieces of your jigsaw. Did the right horn intend to go round Isandlkwana mountain or sweep directly into the camp area, hopefully flanking the left of the British line ? - a possible complication.

The question of exact timing has been raised in this forum on previous occasions, and of course this doesn't help the calculations.

Another factor is the initial Zulu deployment in the valley - were they in one "clump" or were they in fact deployed along the valley over a number of miles - with the regfiments already aligned for their respective tasks ?

And, where exactly in the valley did Raw discover "his" Zulus - there are a number of theories on this. Having looked at the area, I am of the opinion that the main body (head) was assembled on the flat ground where the river loops - however, I kinow that most people believe the Zulu main body was much further to the east along the valley bottom..

Finally as to the day of attack - yes, I know all the arguments concerning why the Zulus did not want to attack on the 22nd - BUT, would the Zulu commanders really have sacrificied the element of suprise by waiting an extra day ? Chelmsford had done his bit by taking half the troops away - the moment was there on the 22nd and the Zulus probably decided to instigate the attack thew minute theyt saw Chelmsford riding out.

This is a most intriguing question, and as you can see I am quite convinced in my theory. Mark Hobson and myself have visited the battlefield on a number of occasions and we are trying to add some substance to this theory - mainly by following the routes taken by the horns and the head.

Well, that's my theory - anyone else have any ideas ?

5th October 2003Julian Whybra
Three points:
one, Zulu survivors' accounts specifically state that the attack was to be moiunted on the 23rd. A developing attack on the 22nd flies in the face of the written factual evidence, timings or no timings.
two, the Zulus are and were an extremely superstitious people. Culture and taboos play an enormous part in everyday life, far outweighing European ideas of tactical surprise and advantage.
three, none of the final 'religious' pre-battle ceremonies had been carried out - read the Zulu accounts (particluarly from the James Stuart Archive).
5th October 2003Peter Quantrill
Peter Quantrill.
This is probably one of the most intriguing questions in attempting to analyse the battle.
I would like to put forward a case for the battle being pre-medidated.
1. Barry's no. 5 Company of NNC amaChunu, located on the night of the 21st on Magaga Knoll to the North of the camp, were engaged during darkness, in conversation, by either a Zulu fighting patrol or a recon. patrol. (evidence Veriker.) Question---why would the Zulu indicate his presence North of the camp when he should be hidden and not exposed?)
2.Troopers Barker and Whitelaw in the early hours of the 22nd. establish themselves on Qwabe, ENE of iThusi. Whitelaw moves on to Nyezi two miles furthe to the NE.At approx.7.30 a.m. they were attacked and being encircicled by a strong Zulu force. This resulted in abandoning their positions and reporting to Pulleine---hence Pulleine's first message to Chelmsford. Question---why did the Zulu commence offensive action if they did not intend to attack that day? By doing so they had exposed both their direction and strength.
3.Chard had spotted a considerable Zulu force at about 9.45 a.m. on the Northern ridge heading West. This caused him to return to Rorke's Drift to alert the garrison. Question--What were Zulus doing in force that early in the morning if they were not deploying?
4.Charlie Pope writes in his diary,later recovered, " Alarm sounded. Three columns of Zulus and mounted men on hill E. Turn out! 7,000 men ENE,4,000 of whom go round Lion's Kop." All this occurred prior to Durnford's arrival at approx. 10.30 a.m. Question---What were 7000 plus/ minus Zulus doing at 09.45 a.m in that strength if they were not deploying?
5.Charlie Raw is generally credited with attempting to capture cattle and finding the hidden Zulu Army in the Ngabane valley. This is simply not borne out by primary source evidence. Here is what Raw states in his official War Office report. " We left the camp,proceeding over the hills,Captain George Shepstone going with us. The enemy in small groups retiring before us for some time , drawing us on for four miles from the camp where THEY TURNED AND FELL ON US, THE WHOLE ARMY SHOWING ITSELF FROM BEHIND A HILL WHERE THEY HAD EVIDENTLY BEEN HIDING. " Again an aggressive and premeditated move by Tsingwayo.
Had the Zulu wished to fight on the 23rd. none of the above offensive action would have taken place.
5th October 2003Julian Whybra
1) Everything that Peter has stated relates to a form of 'deployment' on the 22nd. It does not relate to attacking. I'd suggest that the army was 'deploying' in readiness for its intended attack on the 23rd.
2) Why assume that the Zulus were trying in some way to hide their presence on 22nd - all the evidence points to the contrary. After all did the Zulus not make their presence well and truly known before Ulundi and Khambula?
3) And on the 22nd, do we not have accounts of Zulu commanders all the way down to amaviyo level trying to restrain (in vain) their men from attacking and pursuing all the way to Isandhlwana precisely because the attack was not planned until the next day?
4) Did the Zulu army not attack in an unintended unspecified formation with one horn becoming the centre by default?
5) Why should all the Zulus who left accounts state that the attack was intended for the 23rd if it were really intended for the 22nd? What would have been the point? Why is there not a single Zulu who states that the attack occurred on the intended day?
5th October 2003Peter Quantrill
Julian---an interesting debate!
1. Barker and Whitelaw were attacked. The Zulu was not just deploying.
2.Why did one third of the Zulu army expose itself at about 9.30 a.m on Nyoni Ridge,to be seen by the entire camp? This seems illogical if the attack was to be mounted the following day. Certainly there was no attempt to hide their actions.
3. Agreed that Zulu post- battle interrogation showed that orders were to wait for the 23rd.In all probality these orders were issued at oNdini on the 17th. The fact remains that it is reasonable to speculate that the Zulu commanders chose to sieze the opportunity that Chelmsford's departure and the extended exposed camp presented, and to act on their own initiative. This decision could not possibly have been communicated to all commanders and the men who were subsequently interrogated
4. On Zulu movement evidence, it is reasonable to speculate that both left horn and right horn were deploying during the early hours of the 22nd, not as a result of the movements of Raw and Roberts, the former certainly never discoverd the "whole army squatting silently on their haunches." In fact the evidence was that the Impi was already on the move.
More the pity that Tsingwayo was never interrogated properly post Ulundi ! We can only speculate on forensic evidence!
6th October 2003Bill Cainan


Most interesting and I think to an extent you are both right. It probably all hinges on what Tsingwayo's plans really were. As Peter says, it's a pity that no record of any interrogation exists - but perhaps the establishment would not want to hear how a modern British Army had been outmanoeuvred by "savages" !!

I think though it might be a good approach to put yourself in Tsingwayo's shoes. He was commander of the main Zulu Army and had been told by Cetswayo to "sort out" the Central Column. Now I would imagine that Tsingwayo was pretty well aware of what he was up against and would be particularly wary of the 1500 or so Martini-Henrys carried by the Redcoats. He would need to capitalise on the assets of the Zulu Army - its numbers, its speed of manoeuvre and its agressive nature. These could all be maximised by the use of surprise. He would know that Chelmsford would expect the Zulu army to approach from the East and needed to confirm that point in Chelmsford's mind. By creating a diversion in the east, he could move his army to the north and attack from an unexpted direction. Also the diversion would almost certainly suck in Chelmsfoird's meagre scouting ability - the NNC and the small numbers of mounted troops. This succeeded perfectly. The scene was thus set for a devastating attack - on the 23rd - for all the reasons put forward by Julian. However, his scouts would have told him that Chelmsford had left the camp in the early hours of the 22nd taking with him half the redcoats. Now this was an opportunity not to be missed - a real bonus - I believe that Tsingwayo then brought the attack forward by some 24 hours.

The arrival of Durnford and his mounted men complicated the matter, but probably by then the orders were issued and were being executed. Even Durnford took quite a while to realise what was developing to the North.

Now that would be a discovery - Tsingwayo's long lost diaries (even if you have to write them yourself !). How much do we know about Tsingwayo ? Are there any articles specifically written on him ?

7th October 2003Julian whybra
Peter's points
1. Well.....first, yes, Barker and Whitelaw were attacked, but only in so far as the Zulu army was trying to mop up/pick off scouts in the same way the British had been doing. This is no different to the day before Ulundi.
2. The (part) impi did show itself but this also happened before other battles (Ulundi).
3. The evidence suggests that Tshingwayo did not seize the initiative (his unruly warriors did).
4. Yes, the horns were moving into position on the 22nd - there's nothing wrong with that either - you'd expect them to.
Bill's points
Yes, it is a shame Tshingwayo left no account. However, lots of other Zulus did incl. commanders up to amabutho level - and they all speak with one voice. And it's saying 23rd.
7th October 2003John Young

In answer to your question regarding articles on Ntshingwayo kaMahole. There is Ian Knight's chapter on him in 'Great Zulu Commanders'.

I have also written a piece on him for the 'Ntshingwayo kaMahole Trust', which is a student exchange programme between the U.K. & KwaZulu, which is run by Ntshingwayo's great-grandson.

John Y.
7th October 2003Melvin Hunt
Have you any thoughts on the above topic?
A big thank you to all who have replied so far.
Is it a case of the primary scources being revisited and more closely analysed as a whole?
For instance Muziwento describes how, on discovery, the zulu Generals forbad an advance but the officers simply mutinied.
Nyanda says that Shepstone joined him on the crest of the ridge and the army of 15000 zulus SPRUNG UP.
Raw said that the zulus turned and fell upon him with the whole army showing itself from behind the hill where they had been HIDING.
The warrior from the uNokhenke regiment stated that the uMcijo JUMPED UP and attacked Raw.
These statments do not paint a scene of an impi already in the process of attacking.
Could I point out that I have not seen the original scources and I am quoting from some of the many excellent books available.
8th October 2003Peter Quantrill
The arguements for and against show that the matter is not clear cut. It could be speculated that the Zulu right wing was ordered to deploy early on the 22nd.( This is confirmed by current oral history as related by independent Zulu elders in the district) Instead of heading West, the Impi deliberately headed North West, thereby exposing themselves on Nyoni Ridge. Certainly both horns were deploying very early on the 22nd. We must speculate why Tsingwayo ordered such deployment on the 22nd and not the 23rd. One of the most intriguing aspects of these events relates to Barry's 5 company NNC stationed on Magaga Knoll ( on Nyoni Ridge north of the camp) This vital ground looks from the camp to be but a small pimple on the ridge. However, once on the crest of Magaga, which is 4478 feet above sea level, it forms an elevated plateau commanding the ground to the northeast and north. It completely commands Tahelane Ridge ( 4202 feet above sea level) where Mostyn and Cavaye were positioned. It is common cause that about one third of the Zulu army showed itself along the ridge overlooking the camp at about 9.30 am on the 22nd as reported by Chard and Pope. The question is what position on Nyoni Ridge did the Zulu's occupy?There is not a single report to indicate that Barry's picket engaged them. If they disappeared from view behind Isandlwana,as reported by Chard, they were probably occupying the ground on Tahalane Ridge---in which case why were they not engaged by the NNC, who not only were looking down on them, but were also within relatively short range.Alternatively why did the right wing not attack and occupy Magaga Knoll? One of the mysteries of of the 22nd.
9th October 2003Adrian Wright
At the risk of getting my head bitten off by you chaps, I,m curious to know the build up and reason for the attack by the zulus on No. 1 coastal Column also on 22ND JANUARY 1879.It seems odd that cetshwayo's two
impi's disobeyed orders given and ignored their superstition regarding attacking on the 23rd January.
14th October 2003Julian whybra
A trap sprung prematurely by Lieut. Hart's impetuosity!