British forces advanced into Zululand in three columns; one from the Transvaal, one from the south through Eshowe and the other in the centre, through Rorke’s Drift and the Mzinyathi River. The centre column, led by Lord Chelmsford, crossed into Zululand on 11 January 1879. The Zulu army, ritually sprinkled for war, left kwaNodwengu on 17 January under the command of chiefs Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza and Mavumengwana kaNdlela Ntuli. Cetshwayo had promised his men that the British would be defeated in a ‘single day’.
On 20 January Chelmsford encamped at Isandlwana hill. He encountered some local resistance and – mistakenly assuming it to be the main Zulu force – divided his column, taking half to support an engagement some fifteen kilometres away. Colonel Henry Pulleine was left in charge of the remaining forces, but did not laager his camp, as the wagons would be needed shortly to transport supplies. Colonel A.W. Durnford arrived the next day with a detachment to reinforce the camp and take over command.
Durnford, described as being ‘as plucky as a lion but as imprudent as a child’, impetuously pursued a Zulu foraging party. Coming over the ridge of the Mabaso heights, to his horror he encountered the Zulu army, 20 000 strong, massed below. The Zulu had not intended to attack then as it was a new moon and it was considered unwise to fight on a ‘dark day’. Once discovered, however, they had no choice but to go on the offensive. Pulleine was forced to spread his fire-power over a long distance instead of concentrating his men in a tight formation.
The Zulu steadily advanced in the horn formation, their centre, or chest, pitted against Pulleine’s left flank. They suffered huge losses as the British concentrated fire on the chest, and the attack temporarily stalled. But the Zulu left horn outflanked Durn ford’s infantry and descended on the British camp from behind. Realising he was surrounded, Pulleine tried to retreat in order to save the endangered camp. This allowed the Zulu centre to advance again. Raising the national cry of ‘uSuthu’ the Zulu impi interposed themselves between the retreating British and their camp. Hand to hand combat ensued and the Zulu carried the day. A detachment of British troops tried to mount a final stand at a stream two miles away, but most retreated to Rorke’s Drift or fled down the Mzinyathi River with the Zulu in pursuit. The British lost 52 officers, 727 white soldiers and 471 black men of the Native Contingent – a third of Chelmsford’s men. The Zulu, ‘as was their custom, took no prisoners at Isandlwana, and spared no lives, despite pleas for mercy’. Virtually everything in the camp was carried off as booty.