The British forces moved into Zululand in January 1879. General Lord Chelmsford split the advance into three Columns, a coastal, central and a roving mobile column.
He accompanied the central column and on 20 January they reached Isandlwana where they set up camp. It was a temporary camp so no trenches were prepared or other defences put in place.
Meanwhile King Cetshwayo had massed his army to prevent the British advance on his capital Ondini. Under the command of Inkosi Mnyamana Buthelezi the 28 000 strong army began marching to meet the British central column. It is said that the advancing Zulu army flattened the grass as they walked and it remained so for up to five months.
Despite a couple of sightings of Zulu warriors by patrols, the British believed that an attack was unlikely. On the morning of 22 January General Lord Chelmsford rode out with 1200 men to meet Major John Dartnell at Hlazakazi where they had seen Zulu campfires the night before.
The 1768 men left at the Isandlwana camp went about their daily routine. Later that morning a patrol spotted some Zulus and in pursuing them reached the crest of the Mabaso Hill and looked down on the 24 000 strong Zulu army resting there. They fired into the Zulu ranks, which caused a spontaneous attack by the Zulu men.
It was the intention of the Zulu commanders to attack the British the following day, as 22 January was the new moon –or olumnyama usuku.
The attack brought about the devastating defeat of the British. Within hours the camp had been overrun although a handful of men managed to escape the slaughter by crossing the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River at a drift since known as Fugitive’s Drift.
It is estimated that the British lost more than 1350 men on the day while some 3000 Zulu men lay dead.