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Last Charge of the Zulu Rhinos




by David Atwell



Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande glanced over the field of victory with much reflection. The bodies of around 600 British soldiers, along with a similar number of their horses, littered the ground around his vantage point. Even the dead body of the British commander, Lord Chelmsford, lay at his feet. But the Prince was not a happy man. Even with such a great victory, he was not a happy man. Fore not only had the main Zulu army achieved a far greater victory over the British a few days earlier, one which he missed, but he had lost 19 of his Rhinos and 28 of his Elephants in his recent engagements. Furthermore there was every chance that the British would return with an even larger army anytime soon.

It had been some 200 years since the Zulu Empire decided to utilise suitable beasts of nature in order to support its already impressive military prowess. In that time, even though the Rhino and Elephant Cavalry had been seldom used in battles, the Zulu still preferred infantry engagements. Only on the odd occasion, did they deploy their Rhino and Elephant Cavalry; yet when they had victory it was always that much more stunning. In fact such feats had become legendary, amongst the local African tribes, long before the arrival of the British to southern Africa. And so the Zulus were much feared.

The British, however, viewed such military units with a mix of amazement tempered with a large dose of scepticism. Having experienced centuries of warfare in Europe, where the power of the rifle and cannon now ruled more than ever, tales of Rhino and Elephant Cavalry seemed to jump out at them like stories of Alexandria The Great and those of Cathage and its most famous general Hannibal. The Zulus, though, had never heard of either. And furthermore they had had two centuries to perfect the craft of mixed engagements wherein the human infantry, rhinos, and elephants all had a particular part to play in their battle plans.

The causes of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 are somewhat complicated, but essentially it came down to the fact that two empires wanted control of southern Africa. The Zulus were slowly expanding from the north-eastern regions, based around the coastline of the Indian Ocean, whilst the British were following earlier Dutch settlers, known as the Boers, and wanted the same region for themselves. Consequentially it was merely a matter of time before a clash of arms took place in order to settle the issue of territorial ownership.

It goes without saying that the British were highly confident of military success should it come to that. Only once before, in their military history of the 19th century had they been defeated by an indigenous nation in the far off land of Australia. But that was a mere hick-up in the overall colonial empire built by Britain. And this defeat took place only because the Aboriginals had used Fighting Kangaroos and Running Emus to great effect. But the Zulus had nothing similar and, as far as the British knew, fought only infantry engagements for the most part, which was indeed somewhat true.

Thus, with these thoughts in mind, the British in southern Africa basically declared war on the Zulu Empire on 11 December 1878. Within a month, the main British army had crossed the border, whilst several smaller columns likewise crossed which acted as strong flank guards. Even though the British were confident of early success, they did plan accordingly remembering their earlier colonial defeat in Australia some 50 years previously. On this occasion, as far as the British were concerned, they were not to be surrounded in unfriendly territory.

But regardless of the plans of the British, the Zulus had ones of their own. For two weeks, Zulu scouts kept up a constant stream of reports, detailing the British force involved not to mention their travel routes and deployments. Most importantly, as far as the Zulu were concerned, was the fact that it appeared that the British army had decided to establish a major camp at the foothills of Islandlwana. It was at this moment that the Zulus decided to attack.

The Zulu plan for the Battle of Islandlwana was rather complicated, although simple enough. It did, though, have a dangerous manoeuvre requiring the iNdluyengwe, uThlwana, iNdlondlo, and uDloko Regiments, along with all of the Rhino and Elephant Cavalry under the overall command of Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, to move around the western side of Islandlwana, where a large gap had developed between the main British force and its flank guards, whilst the rest of the Zulu main army formed up towards the north of the British camp. Once the detached Zulu force of mixed infantry and cavalry were in position, towards the rear of the British, the attack would commence.

Unfortunately the Zulu plan soon fell apart, after the British commander, Lord Chelmsford, split his force in two and rode off on a punitive mission further to the east. His departure was seen, by the forward Zulu regiments of the main army, and they soon attacked the British camp at Islandlwana in defiance of standing orders. In some respects the British were concerned about such a possibility and made a good defence. In doing so, many a Zulu warrior died in the importune attack, even though the British garrison of around 1 200 was eventually slaughtered almost to a man. Only a handful survived. Importantly, though, Prince Dabulamanzi was furious that he had missed the battle and, in seeking military glory, decided to write new orders for himself and thus marched to the border in order to take the battle to the British.

It was thus, on the morning of 22 January 1879, that a small British garrison at Rorke’s Drift came under attack by Zulu scouts of Prince Dabulamanzi’s mixed force. The British easily repulsed this small incursion, but, more importantly, were alerted as to the presence of the enemy. It was not, until later in that same morning, did they discover to their horror that the British camp at Islandlwana had been overrun, all but a handful of the troops there killed, and that Rorke’s Drift could expect the same fate. Indeed, by 4.30pm that afternoon, Prince Dabulamanzi’s first infantry regiment launched an attack with exactly this in mind.

The first attack of the Zulu infantry, however, was soon repelled with heavy losses. The British had created good defences and their rifles ensured that the Zulu infantry suffered for no gain. Immediately, especially with daylight running out, Prince Dabulamanzi decided to send in the Rhino and Elephant Cavalry and, although it took an hour before they could commence their attack, there was nothing which the British could do in order to prevent it.

The only warning which the British got, prior to the historic charge of the Rhino Cavalry, was the sounds of the most hideous beasts yet to make their presence felt on a battlefield. At around 6pm the British saw, to their horror, some 30 Rhinos charging their positions. At one hundred yards, nevertheless, the British opened fire with their rifles. The first volley, however, did little to deter the oncoming Rhinos. Furthermore, before the second volley was fired, some 60 elephants could also be seen behind the initial row of charging Rhinos.

What the British defenders did not further see were about 1 000 Zulu warrior infantry immediately behind the Elephants. Yet, even being in such ignorance, the British kept on firing, now in some desperation, at the horrific sight before them. If it was any other day, many would have marvelled at such a sight before them, but within a few minutes the fate of the British ensured that such things went with them into their graves. Fore even though ten of the Rhinos had become casualties, by the time they reached the British defence line, the remaining 20 ensured that they crashed through it wreaking the British attempts at repelling the attack.

And immediately behind the Rhinos the Elephants, acting in support, ensured that the gaps, now literally ripped physically through the British line, were kept open. Those British who had not been thus trampled, or garrotted on the horns of the Rhinos, were now menaced by the Elephants. Then, if the surviving British thought that was bad enough, they then had to fend off the 1 000 spears of the following Zulu warriors. By 6.30pm, just as dusk made its presence felt, the battle was over for now with the Zulus victorious.

In the overall scheme of things, however, the first day of the Battle for Rorke’s Drift was a small affair. Only about 120 British soldiers manned the location. It seemed, thus, completely unfair considering the large force with which the British had to contend with. What was more irritating for the victors, was that Prince Dabulamanzi knew this. Consequentially, he began to draw up plans for far more challenging adventures to come. Yet, having said that, even he had quickly become worried as to the overall wisdom of leading an invasion of British territory. Unlike previously at Islandlwana, this afternoon he had witnessed personally the firepower of the British soldier. If the small garrison could kill ten of his Rhinos, a similar number of Elephants, along with about 250 of his Zulu warriors, then maybe it would not be prudent to engage an even larger hostile force.

The next day, however, Prince Dabulamanzi soon had to put any further invasion plans on hold as Lord Chelmsford’s army column, the one that had detached itself from the British main camp at Islandlwana, finally got into action. Having returned to witness the destruction of their base at Islandlwana, Chelmsford’s force further withdrew towards Rorke’s Drift not aware that it had been overrun the afternoon before. Thus it came as quite a shock, to both sides actually, that the other was present at Rorke’s Drift: Prince Dabulamanzi assumed incorrectly that the main Zulu Army would protect his rear, but it had in fact wondered off in looking for Chelmsford, whilst Chelmsford believed that the Zulu Army had not divided itself and instead had ventured towards the east in response to his earlier attempts at raids.

It was under such circumstances, then, that a second day of battle occurred at Rorke’s Drift. It is, though, with some irony that this time the Zulu army of Prince Dabulamanzi based themselves on the now burnt out makeshift British fort, whilst Chelmsford advanced towards it akin to the reversal of the situation less that 24 hours before. Yet, even with the advantage of having mostly a horse cavalry force, Chelmsford decided to charge the Zulu positions which had the benefit of enjoying defensive ground. Plus he took his time in doing so. Still, Chelmsford had little choice as events seem to dictate his actions rather than the other way around.

The Zulu’s, even though they were somewhat caught unawares, at first, with their Rhino and Elephant Cavalry not actually at Rorke’s Drift but down at the river where their human handlers were allowing them to drink and rest, soon got into action nevertheless. Prince Dabulamanzi immediately issued orders for them to reform and charge the British cavalry as soon as was possible. Consequentially, instead of the British cavalry charge getting in amongst the lightly armed Zulu infantry, the Rhino and Elephant Cavalry were able to charge into the flank of the British horsemen at the most inconvenient moment.

The resulting clash resounded with a sickening thud of flesh and bone. Horses and their British riders could be heard screaming in pain. The horns of the Rhinos easily destroyed horse after horse. Likewise the Elephants enjoyed much success. Some of the British, however, were able to shoot and kill the occasional Zulu beast of war, but in the end it was to no avail, as at the crucial moment, the Zulu infantry charged into the maelstrom of the cavalry battle and finished off the British as a result. None of the British were to survive.

The Anglo-Zulu War was, however, far from over. Other British army columns were still operating in Zulu territory and had to be dealt with accordingly. This was far from an easy task, as only secondary Zulu militia units were left to attack these other British columns. On two such Zulu attempts, the British were able to convincingly defeat these Zulu militias. In fact it was only after news eventually reached these British columns, of the events at Islandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, did they withdraw from Zulu territory to take up defensive locations along the border.

During this period, where a strange kind of truce descended upon the waring parties, both sides did what they could to build up their respective forces. The British were able to achieve this at a faster rate, although their supply situation was poor to say the least, but regardless the British were determined to regain Rorke’s Drift, from Zulu occupation, if they achieved nothing else for the rest of the year. Thus, by early June, the British main army was once more on the move with Rorke’s Drift as their objective. In many ways, they did not have overly much distance to travel, but due the large force which had been gathered, along with a large artillery park, unsurprisingly it took about a month before the British were in a position to attack.

The Zulu’s, meanwhile, did not do themselves any favours by not challenging British movements and garrisons on British territory. Instead they basically sat where they were, albeit they gathered their strength. Part of this situation, though, rested on the concerns of Prince Dabulamanzi. Because of the result of the hard fought battles, which his Rhino and Elephant cavalry had endured, he was down to a mere 11 Rhinos and 32 Elephants. The losses were hence alarming, to say the least, and he questioned the wisdom of further major battles against the British. He was now certainly against any invasion. Yet, on 4th July 1879, his concerns no longer mattered as the British attacked the Zulu positions around Rorke’s Drift.

The subsequent Second Battle of Rorke’s Drift was a hard won battle for the British. But it did not necessarily had to be that way. The British, however, wrongly believed that they had to shell Rorke’s Drift into complete rubble, before they sent in their infantry. Considering only a few hundred Zulu’s were actually positioned there, meant to say that the British wasted their time and efforts. But fundamentally, the British showed the Zulu’s the location of their valuable artillery and the Zulu’s immediately pounced.

Out of nowhere, or so it seemed, the vaunted Rhino and Elephant Cavalry charged towards the British guns. Helping them, in this desperate endeavour, were some 5 000 Zulu infantry in support. The British who had a similar numbered force, albeit it was their overall number, were actually outnumbered as the Zulus had a further 10 000 warriors in reserve. Needless to say, however, this unexpected Zulu attack, against the British guns, caught the British by surprise. Consequentially, the Rhino and Elephant Cavalry got half way to the British guns before anyone could do anything about it. In sheer desperation, hence, a regiment of British Lancers tried to intercept the charge of the Rhinos, but they were swept aside in a manner akin to Chelmsford’s cavalry charge six months before. And what the Rhinos did not repulse, their ever trustworthy partners, the Elephants, handled with little effort.

Alas the sacrifice of the British Lancer regiment gained time for the British guns to take aim of their new targets and let loose a devastating volley of grape-shot. Added to this lethal volley of cannon, some 1 000 British rifles, now that the British infantry had been redeployed, fired upon the Last Charge of the Rhinos. Still, even gravely wounded, the war beasts of the Zulus struggled on towards the British guns. Unfortunately for the Rhinos and Elephants, none of them would make it to their objective.

Having said that, even with the sad loss of these marvellous beasts, the supporting Zulu infantry were able to make it to the reformed British lines with only a few hundred casualties. It appeared to all and sundry, now that some 4 500 Zulu warriors clearly outnumbered their British counterparts, that the Zulus would win the day. Furthermore most of the British artillery crews suffered horrendous casualties as the infantry battle was waged around their positions. But the British, like the Zulus, had kept several battalions in reserve. Although they were not expected to use them, in this particular engagement, they were sent nevertheless into the desperate battle currently being fought. Consequentially the Zulu infantry attack was eventually repulsed.

As a result of the day’s fighting, both sides were completely exhausted. The British had lost most of their gun crews, plus some further 1 200 infantrymen, not to mention the loss of about 400 cavalrymen overall. Meanwhile the Zulu’s were in no better condition. They had lost all of their Rhinos and Elephants, and it goes without saying their human handlers as well, not to mention about 4 000 warriors as a result of the infantry battle. Yet even though the Zulus had not technically lost this day’s fight, they nevertheless thought it prudent enough to withdraw from Rorke’s Drift and take up defensive positions in ground far more favourable than was currently the case. The British then marched cautiously into Rorke’s Drift the next day, but showed no intention of pursuing the Zulu Army.

Thus the Anglo-Zulu War pretty much ended, although a few months of border skirmishes took place before a formal cease-fire treaty was finally arranged. Both sides, afterwards, claimed victory, even though the Zulus rightfully claimed that the British invasion of Zulu territory was defeated, whilst the British likewise claimed that Zulu expansion into British territory had been stopped. In truth it was a fragile stalemate: the Zulu’s casualties, especially the annihilation of their famed Rhino and Elephant Cavalry, ensured that any further military action was severely limited, whilst British morale had reached the lowest levels thought possible thanks to their defeats at the hands of the Zulu army.

In the end, though, the low esteem of the British army did not overly matter as, within a year of the conclusion to the Anglo-Zulu War, the Zulu Empire erupted into civil war. And two years later, the British were invited to restore order by a usurper king. The independence of the Zulus ended not long afterwards through British annexation of their lands.



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