The Last Stand at Isandhlwana - British Empire 1815-1914

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The Last Stand at Isandhlwana
by Charles Edwin Fripp
This painting depicts the greatest catastrophe to strike the British army in the c19th. A force of 1,750 men made up of six companies of the 24th (2nd Warwickshires) Regiment supported by African auxiliaries was destroyed by a Zulu army of 25,000 using their traditional tactics of encirclement.

The British force occupied a temporary camp established by General Chelmsford who himself had taken a force to look for the Zulus who were thought to be in the area. Chelmsford had no knowledge of where the Zulus were and in what numbers. He could not conceive of his force being attacked by a Zulu army and the camp had not even been in as a defensive position. Not only did Chelmsford divide this force but his total army had been divided into three for an attack on Zululand which had been organised by him in contravention of instructions from London.

The force that was left by Chelmsford to guard the temporary camp was disorganised and unprotected. It was arranged in front of a large mountain and when the Zulus attacked, the British lines were too thinly protected with little artillery. Rather than the British square which Fripp depicts, the soldiers fought off the Zulus in small groups, and were overwhelmed by the sheer force of their numbers and the lack of any effective overall command.

Fripp arrived at the scene of the battle around three months later to cover the Zulu war for The Graphic. He had been in Africa a year before to cover the Xhosa War. Fripp saw the scattered remains of the British soldiers, rotting on the battlefield but decided to use the same formula as Elizabeth Butler in The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bas and show an image that depicted courage and discipline, and showed the battle from the point of view of the British soldier. The raised colours, Martini-Henry guns and the determined upright appearance of the soldiers contrasts with the swarming warriors.

Later the same day, just ten kilometres away on the banks of the Buffalo river, a small group of about 150 British soldiers managed to hold off a vastly superior force of 3-4,000 Zulus at Rorkes Drift. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for bravery at Rorke’s Drift and the events helped to overshadow what had happened at Isandhlwana.

Chelmsford was eventually recalled and replaced by General Garnet Wolseley who pacified the Zulu nation and hunted down the Zulu leader, Cetewayo. The independent power of the Zulu power was destroyed as Wolseley set about appointing Zulu chiefs who he thought would be loyal to the British.
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