Tuesday, April 2, 2013

This Day in History: Apr 02, 1879: The Battle of Gingindlovu

The Battle of Gingindlovu (uMgungundlovu) was fought on 2 April 1879 between a British relief column sent to break the Siege of Eshowe and a Zulu impi of king Cetshwayo.


Charles Pearson had led the No. 1 Column of the British invasion force across the Tugela River with the intention of creating an advanced base at Eshowe. This they did, but found themselves besieged in the hastily constructed base, at a deserted Norwegian mission station. A relief column was organised, and under the leadership of Lord Chelmsford it departed Fort Tenedos on 29 March to march to Pearson's relief. The column composed 3,390 Europeans and 2,280 Africans, and a range of artillery, including two 9-pounders (4 kg), four 24-pounder (11 kg) rocket tubes and two Gatling guns.[3] The progress was slow, as Chelmsford took a roundabout route to avoid ambush in the close country Pearson had previously passed through. In addition, the rivers they had to traverse were swollen by heavy rains and fearing a repeat of Isandlwana, Chelmsford ensured his men spent much time laagering and entrenching their camp at the end of each day.

Despite this slow progress, Pearson's observers at Eshowe could see the relief column laagering on the south bank of the Inyezane on the evening of 1 April. The laager was sited on a 300-foot (100 m) ridge running roughly west-east. West of the ridge, the ground dipped, only to rise again to the 470 foot (140 m) Umisi Hill. The ground sloped away in all directions, allowing a good field of fire. A trench surrounded a waist high wall of earth, which itself encompassed 120 wagons formed a square with sides of 130 yards (120 m) in length. While these defences were being constructed, a scout returned in the evening bearing news of Zulus massing on the far side of Umisi Hill. A second scouting party reported no forces there, but that an impi was camped to the north west of the laager. While the scouts could not assess the Zulu strength because of the darkness, this impi was in fact composed of 12,000 warriors, all of whom had been at Isandlwana. The impi had been ordered to ambush the relief column, and thwarted by Chelmsford already; this was their final chance to stop the column before it reached Eshowe. The night passed with no attack.

The battle

At daybreak on 2 April 1879, the morning sun revealed a muddy and sodden ground and a heavy mist. Chelmsford could not move his wagons until the ground dried out, and so sent out the Natal Native Contingent to provoke the Zulus into an attack while he held a strong position. Once the mist lifted, the left horn of the impi was seen advancing eastwards over the river towards the British laager before disappearing into tall grass. A long burst of fire from one of the Gatling guns saw the warriors disappear into the long grass. When the left horn re-emerged it had joined the rest of the impi and the left horn, chest and right horn were advancing over Umisi Hill. The whole charging buffalo formation came in at a run on the three sides of the laager. This was the scenario Chelmsford had planned for, at a range of between 300 and 400 yards (300 to 400 m), the British infantry opened fire, supported by the Gatling guns and rockets. Zulu marksmen caused a few casualties within the laager, but the defenders kept the Zulus at bay and Chelmsford's defence was working. Though the Zulu regiments made persistent rushes to get within stabbing range, their charges lacked the drive and spirit that had pushed them forward at the Battle of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. After 20 minutes, the Zulu impi began to crumble away. Seeing this, Chelmsford ordered pursuit by the mounted troops and the native contingent. Large numbers of Zulu warriors were killed in this chase. By 07:30, the Zulus had fled and the grim task of killing Zulu wounded was undertaken.

Around the laager itself, 700 Zulu bodies were counted and 300 more were killed in the mounted chase of the retreating warriors. The British took eleven dead, including a Lieutenant-Colonel, and 48 wounded.



The battle restored Chelmsford's confidence in his army and their ability to defeat Zulu attacks. With the last resistance between Chelmsford and Pearson's columns removed, he was able to advance and relieve Eshowe. On 3 April, the relief column entered Eshowe, led by the pipers of the 91st Highlanders. The two-month siege had been lifted. Chelmsford concluded that Eshowe did not need to be retained, and the laboriously constructed defences were demolished. Bivouacking on the first night after their departure from it on 6 April, Pearson's men could see that the Zulus had set Eshowe alight.


  1. ^ Laband, John. Historical dictionary of the Zulu wars, Scarecrow Press, 2009, ISBN 0-8108-6078-3, p. 6.
  2. ^ a b c Colenso, Frances Ellen (1880). History of the Zulu War and it Origin. Chapman and Hall. p. 384. Retrieved 2009-07-20.
  3. ^ Theal, George McCall (1919). "XIV - The Zulu War". History of South Africa from 1795 to 1846. London: Sonnenschein. p. 334.

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