1860-1899 | Massacres | Prisoners murdered | South Africa | Wounded killed

Battle of Kambula – ‘terrible execution’ as ‘no quarter was shown.’

The Battle of Kambula Hill as depicted in the London Illustrated News, 24 May 1879, p. 482.
The ‘Battle of Kambula Hill’ as depicted in the London Illustrated News, 24 May 1879, p. 482.

29 March 1879

On 29 March 1879, British cavalry and troops massacred hundreds of fleeing and wounded Zulu warriors after the Battle of Kambula, after an officer reminded his troops – ‘No Quarter Boys !’ A soldier from Devon confessed in a letter – ‘I can tell you some murdering went on,’ while a Liverpool lad remembered how so many were butchered that ‘it took five days to bury the dead.’

Since January, the Zulus had been fighting to defend their homeland from a British invasion. Despite facing an enemy who was far better equipped, they had decided to seize the initiative, by launching a desperate frontal assault up a steep slope against a fortified British encampment commanding a high narrow ridge known as Kambula Hill, just inside the northern boundary of the Zulu kingdom.

The Zulus made repeated attacks on the perimeter defences and were met with a deadly hail of bullets. One warrior recalled that ‘so many were killed that the few who were not killed were lying between the dead bodies, so thick were the dead,’ and Corporal J. Henderson Littlejohn of the 90th Light Infantry described in a letter to his father how ‘they were mowed down in hundreds and the grass became covered and as black as coal.’1

After four hours, those still surviving were forced to retreat. Captain Cecil D’Arcy of the Frontier Light Horse (FLH) boasted how he and his troop of cavalry had ‘followed them (the retreating Zulus) for eight miles, butchering the brutes all over the place. I told the men “No quarter boys… !”’2

Other British troops also joined in the slaughter of the fleeing Zulu army.  According to D’Arcy, Lieutenant Frederick Slade ‘did great execution with the bayonet among the Undi (elite Zulu warriors)… who were now falling back.’ Those Zulus who survived were considered fortunate to escape the carnage. Lieutenant-Colonel Redvers Buller, commanding the FLH, remarked that ‘had it not been dark their loss would have been very heavy, still I cannot think that the killed and wounded  in the pursuit was less than 300 at the least.’3  

The Frontier Light Horse at Kambula - The Penny Illustrated Paper, 31 May 1879, p. 340.
The Frontier Light Horse at Kambula –
The Penny Illustrated Paper, 31 May 1879, p. 340.

D’Arcy was similarly dismayed that the number of Zulus cut down or shot in the back as they fled was not higher, expressing his frustration that, due to their ‘physical fatigue,’ his men had not been able to make as much of the pursuit as they might otherwise have done.”4 Despite his disappointment, the following day 157 Zulu bodies were found along the eight mile route the FLH had taken.

The real death toll, however, was significantly underestimated. As historian John Laband, author of several histories of the Zulu Wars, notes, the count of the dead missed many Zulu corpses which ‘rotted undetected for months in the long grass.’5

Colonel Evelyn Wood, commanding the British detachment at Kambula, was jubilant. He boasted in his official report of how the 90th Light Infantry ‘did great execution among the mass of retreating Zulus,’ and the ‘mounted men under Colonel Buller pursued for seven miles the flying Zulus killing great numbers.’ Wood explained lamely that the enemy ‘were too much exhausted to fire in their own defence.’6


There are also further clues pointing to a war crime from correspondence published in some of Britain’s local newspapers. A Southampton resident received a letter from his brother recounting how ‘the niggers were running in all directions,’ and ‘we sent out the mounted men to cover their retreat. and they actually knocked them down with the butts of their carbines, killing hundreds.’7

Another account came in a letter from a Liverpool soldier who took part in the pursuit. He recalled how ‘we went after them and a great chase we had. They were done up, and stood for us to shoot them. We killed about 6,000 and they were buried outside the line in pits. It was an awful site to see them. It took five days to bury the dead.’8

More explicit still was a report in The Scotsman by a ‘special correspondent’ who had obtained a lengthy account of the battle from ‘a trustworthy (but unnamed) source.’ According to that witness ‘at 5.30pm they (the Zulus) had fired their last and began to retreat, and the cavalry and horse artillery were sent after them. Terrible execution was the result and no quarter was shown… it was death to every Zulu who came within range of the carbine of a trooper or the stroke of his sabre.’9

Probably, the most damning evidence was correspondence from Private John Snook, a soldier from Tiverton, writing to a Mr. Warren, landlord of the Royal Oak, which was published in the Tiverton Gazette. He recalled

‘we kept up the fire until 6.20 pm, when it was commencing to get dark, and the black devils commenced to retire. Then we let out our mounted men out of the laager waggons, and I can tell you some murdering went on. They followed them up for about nine miles, and killed about 700… The least estimated loss of the enemy is 7,000 killed that we know of.’ According to Snook, the slaughter continued, the following day and this time the victims were all wounded men.

‘On March 30th, about eight miles from (the Kambula) camp, we found about 500 wounded, most of them mortally, and begging us for mercy’s sake not to kill them, but they got no chance after what they had done to our comrades at Isandula (Isandlwana).’10 He was referring to the annihilation two months earlier of an invading force of 1,800 British troops armed with the latest weaponry by a large force of Zulus armed mostly with spears, assegais and cow hide shields.


The Times correspondent explained candidly the pressure on the British to inflict as severe and brutal a defeat as possible on the Zulus. Referring to military developments since the earlier surprise Zulu victory over the British army at Isandlwana in January, he observed that ‘not merely were our own natives watching with eager interest the course of the war: Basutos, Pondos, Swazis, Griquas and Tembus were all intent upon the struggle which is to determine whether the white man or the black shall be supreme in South Africa.’

‘The continued success of Cetywayo’s (the Zulu king’s) legions,’ he cautioned, ‘might have awakened long-dormant aspirations… and the notion that the black man is equal in all respects to the white would have had ample scope for development.’ That would have been an intolerable situation for the British.

So, it was with obvious relief that the correspondent concluded that ‘the defeat (of the Zulus) at Kambula appears to have been so signal in its character that the fame of it cannot fail to produce a profound impression everywhere,’ adding that ‘most of the slain, estimated at from 3,000 to 7,000, were unmarried men… the flower and strength of Cetywayo’s most warlike regiments.’11

The correspondent did not remind his readers that many, if not most, had been slaughtered as they fled, refused quarter by their remorseless pursuers. A massacre that had been fuelled in part by the racist perception of Zulus as uncivilised ‘black devils’ who were undeserving of mercy, but also driven by the ideology of a race war which The Times was continuing to promote.


23 January 1879 – After the battle of Rorke’s Drift – the mass butchery of the wounded.

Zulu warriors in an illustration by the war artist Charles Edwin Fripp. Source Wikimedia.
Zulu warriors in an illustration by the war artist Charles Edwin Fripp. Source Wikimedia.
  1. Mehlokazulu cited in John Laband, Zulu Warriors: The Battle for the South African Frontier, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2014, p. 245 and letter from Corporal J. Henderson Littlejohn of D. Company, 90th Light Infantry, dated 4 April 1879 and cited in ‘The Battle of Kambula,’ Fife News, 17 May 1879, p. 4.
  2. Captain Cecil D’Arcy cited in Saul David, Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879, Penguin Books, 2005, pp. 274-275.
  3. Captain Cecil D’Arcy and Lieutenant-Colonel Redvers Buller cited in Saul David, Op. cit..
  4. Captain Cecil D’Arcy cited in Saul David, Op. cit..
  5. John Laband, Op. cit., p. 246.
  6. ‘The Attack on Colonel Wood’s Camp: Official Report,’ – The Clare Advertiser and Kilrush Gazette, 10 May 1879, p. 3.
  7. ‘News from Zululand,’ The Hampshire Independent, 28 June 1879, p. 6.
  8. ‘The Fight at Kambula Hill,’  The Westmorland Gazette, 28 June 1879, p. 2.
  9. ‘The Zlobana Trap and the Kambula Repulse,’ The Scotsman, 17 May 1879, p. 7.
  10. Private John Snook’s correspondence cited in ‘Letter from the Seat of War,’ The Tiverton Gazette, 27 May 1879, p. 5.
  11. ‘The Situation in Natal,’ The Times, 10 May 1879, p. 5. The correspondent also published an identical report on the battle of Kambula also entitled ‘The Situation in Natal’ in The Evening Mail, 12 May 1879, p. 8.

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