Following the disaster at Hlobane on 28 March 1879, Colonel Evelyn Wood's forces prepared to receive an attack by the entire Zulu impi, of which they had only previously encountered the leading sections. Soon after dawn of 29 March, Transvaal Rangers rode out to locate the enemy impi, the cattle were put out to graze and, after some deliberation, two companies were despatched to collect firewood. By 11 am the Rangers had returned with the news that the impi was on the move and was to attack Kambula at noon.
Wood also now received information that the impi was nearly 20,000 men strong, consisting of regiments that had already defeated the British at Isandlwana and other battles and that many of the Zulus were armed with rifles taken from the British dead at these battles. Shortly after this the Zulu impi was sighted 5 miles away across the plain, coming on due westwards in five columns. However, the warriors of the impi had not eaten for three days. The woodcutters and cattle were brought back in and, confident that the defences could be manned within a minute and a half of an alarm being sounded, Wood ordered the men to have their dinners.
Cetshwayo responded to pleas from the abaQulasi for aid against the raids of Wood's troops by ordering the main Zulu army to help them. He ordered it not to attack fortified positions but to lure the British troops into the open even if it had to march on the Transvaal to accomplish this. His orders were not followed. The impi moved and Wood initially thought it was advancing on the Transvaal but it halted a few miles south of Kambula and formed up for an attack.
The defences on Kambula consisted of a hexagonal laager formed with wagons that were tightly locked together, and a separate kraal for the cattle, constructed on the edge of the southern face of the ridge. Trenches and earth parapets surrounded both sections, and a stone-
Two companies were sited in the redoubt; another company occupied the cattle kraal and the remaining infantry manned the laager. The gunners had been told that if the Zulus got in close they were to abandon their guns and make for the laager. In all, Wood's force mustered 121 Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, 1,238 infantry and 638 mounted men. With headquarters staff, it totalled 2,000 men, of whom 88 were sick in hospital.
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