The Siege And Relief Of Eshowe 1879

Deaths at Eshowe Diary of a Siege Other Information

The Siege of Eshowe was part of a three-pronged attack on the Zulu Impis of king Cetshwayo at Ulundi. After a successful incursion as far as Eshowe, Colonel Charles Pearson was besieged there for two months by the Zulus.

Prelude: Inyezane
No.1 Column of the British invasion force, under Colonel Charles Pearson, had been ordered to establish an advanced base at Eshowe before continuing the advance upon Ulundi. The force crossed the Tugela River from Natal into Zululand on 12 January 1879. The advance was smooth and steady until 22 January, when a Zulu force attempted to bar their way. The British were camped about 4 miles south of the Inyezane River, which they had crossed the previous day, beneath a steep ridge with three spurs leading down towards the river, and surrounded by scrub. A prominent knoll sat about halfway, and a small kraal near the left of the crest.

Shortly after 08:00 a small number of Zulus appeared near the knoll on the ridge, and a company of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), under Lieutenant Hart, were sent up the spur after them. While this company gave chase a mass of Zulus appeared over the crest of the ridge and began pouring downwards. These men were the left "horn" of a 6,000 strong force, dispatched at the same time as the army that engaged the British at Isandlwana, who were preparing just over the crest, to attack the British camp. This left horn had been prompted into a premature attack by the advance of Lieutenant Hart's company, and

in the face of this advance the NNC fled, leaving their European officers and NCOs to make a fruitless stand before being swept aside. As soon as Hart and his men began firing, the camp prepared for defence, forming a hasty firing line. A naval company and two companies of Buffs with a Gatling gun and 7-pounders moved up to the knoll, opening up across the advancing Zulu column. Thus, when the Zulus emerged from scrub and began their assault on the camp, they were taking heavy fire on both their flank and front of their force. The Zulus wavered and then withdrew the way they had come.

While the left horn was being repulsed, the rest of the Zulu impi appeared over the crest. The kraal was taken, and switching their guns to focus on it, the force previously attacking the left horn's flank advanced up the slope and captured the kraal. This position allowed the British to move the Gatling gun onto the crest where its rapid fire soon drove the Zulus off the centre and left end of the ridge, as the British mounted troops came up the right-hand spur to complete the action. The successful counter-attack resulted in 10 British killed and 16 wounded. The Zulu impi withdrew with 350 killed.

Arrival at Eshowe
Pearson continued his march unhindered and the following day reached the mission fort near Eshowe, 2000 feet above sea level. Eshowe consisted of a deserted church, school and the house of a Norwegian missionary. Low hills surrounded it about a quarter of a mile away to the north, east and west, but to the south of the Indian Ocean could be seen
The entrance to the fort at the northern angle

Pearson sent a group of empty wagons, with escorts, to collect fresh supplies from the Lower Drift while the rest of his force began entrenching themselves. Colonel Pearson's No1 column consisted of 4271 combat troops, 3128 oxen, 384 ox wagons, 24 carts,116 horses and 121 mules.
The fort during the siege, based on a sketch by Surgeon Norbury. Note the trous-de-loup obstacles in the foreground

The next day, 24 January, bore a disturbing message for Pearson—Col.Durnford's No. 2 column had been wiped out in the Middle Drift, leaving the Lower Drift behind Eshowe in grave danger. If the Zulus took the lower drift, Eshowe would be cut off and there would be nothing between the Zulu Army and Natal.
Eshowe and Environs during the siege

Two days later, Lord Chelmsford contacted Pearson. Without giving any details of the disaster at Isandlwana he informed him that all previous orders were cancelled, and that he was to take such as action as he thought fit to preserve his column, including withdrawal from Eshowe if necessary. If he withdrew, he was to hold the bridgehead at the Lower Drift, but he might be attacked by the whole Zulu Army. Pearson had no precise information on the whereabouts of the enemy, and although his defences around the mission would soon be complete, it was not an ideal position to defend. His force was good for ammunition, but other supplies were insufficient and the general consensus of his subordinates was to pull back to the Lower Drift. The decision to stay was settled on when news arrived of the return of the supply wagons, with five further companies as reinforcement from the Lower Drift.

Eshowe Besieged
The fort enclosing the mission was roughly rectangular, 200 yards long and 50 yards wide, with loopholed walls 6 feet high, and was surrounded by a broad ditch in which sharpened sticks were embedded. A second line of defence, should the outer rampart fall, was formed by laagering the wagons inside the walls. A horse and cattle kraal was constructed, as was an abattis, and a field of fire was cleared all round out to 800 yards. The garrison numbered 1,300 soldiers and sailors, plus 400 wagoners.
Plan of Fort at Eshowe

The appearance of large bodies of Zulu on the surrounding hills on 2 February, although they retreated under shelling from the 7-pounders, compelled Pearson to request reinforcements. A week later, he learned for the first time the full extent of the centre column's defeat at Isandlwana and was told that no reinforcements could be made. Pearson was on his own, but could still withdraw. Pearson considered withdrawing part of his garrison, if Chelmsford agreed, but receiving no response and no further runners, it became clear that Eshowe was now completely cut off.
Fort at Eshowe

February passed with no Zulu attack, save for sniping attacks and skirmishes between patrols. The beginning of March led Pearson to attack a kraal 7 miles away, to keep the soldiers from idling. The next day a heliograph was spotted signalling from Fort Pearson and a makeshift apparatus allowed Eshowe to reply. The garrison learnt that a relief force would depart the Lower Drift on 13 March and that they were to advance to the Inyezane to meet it. This was cheering news for the garrison, with rations running low and sickness having killed 20 men. A few days later another message delayed the relief column until 1 April.

The Relief Column
Lord Chelmsford led this column, comprising of 3,390 Europeans and 2,280 Africans to relieve the forces at Eshowe. The force had a range of artillery, including two 9-pounders, four 24-pounder rocket tubes and two Gatling guns. The progress was slow, as in addition to taking a roundabout route to avoid ambush, the rivers they had to traverse were swollen by heavy rains. By the evening of 1 April, Pearson's observers at Eshowe could see the relief column laagering on the south bank of the Inyezane. The laager was sited on a 300-foot ridge running roughly west-east. West of the ridge, the ground dipped, only to rise again to the 470-foot 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 in length. Here the relief column fought the Battle of Gingindlovu, a British victory, before continuing on to Eshowe.

Eshowe Relieved
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.

Colonel Pearson

Major Percy Barrow

Captain Warren Wynne RE

Charles St Leger Shervinton

Lieutenant Arthur Davison

Lieutenant Evelyn

Captain H.J.N. Williams

Lord Chelmsford

(Please take note that the Fort referred to here is NOT the standing Fort Nongqayi. The Fort that the British built was built just outside Eshowe. It was burnt down in June 1879 and never rebuilt. There are currently only a few remains left.)


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