Depiction of the Battle of Rorke's Drift
|Sir Bartle Frere,
Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford
|14,800 (6,400 Europeans 8,400 Africans)
The Anglo-Zulu War was fought in 1879 between Britain and the Zulus. From complex beginnings, the war is notable for several particularly bloody battles, as well as for being a landmark in the timeline of colonialism in the region. The war signaled the end of the independent Zulu nation. However, on January 22, 1879 the Zulus inflicted the worse defeat in colonial history on the British, when 20 to 25,000 Zulus armed only with spears overcame a British force of 1,500 well equipped men. Later the same day, however, a smaller British force of only 120 men stood their ground at Rorke's Drift against 4,000 Zulus and won. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won in that single day, the largest amount ever awarded for one day's fighting.
One of the puzzles of the Anglo-Zulu war is that although the British invaded Zululand in 1879 they not annex the territory until 1887. This makes it difficult to explain the war solely within the context of colonial expansion. It is more likely that the British wanted to teach the Zulus a lesson, who, as did the Boer settlers, resisted and resented British influence in the region. From the point of view of modern international law, the war was an unprovoked act of aggression. It is also likely that Britain wanted to extent her power in the region to protect shipping to India. The British also learned from Zulu tactics, and, towards the end of the war, gave no quarter, burning homes and crops and laying the land to waste. Given the imperial rhetoric that the British and other Europeans had a moral responsibility to govern Africa until Africans were mature enough to govern themselves, this immoral war suggests that their real motive was somewhat less noble. Even in defeat, the Zulus enjoyed a reputation for their nobility and military skills.
In 1861, Umtonga, a brother of Cetshwayo, son of Zulu king Mpande, fled to the Utrecht district, and Cetshwayo assembled an army on that frontier. According to evidence later brought forward by the Boers, Cetshwayo offered the farmers a strip of land along the border if they would surrender his brother. The Boers complied on the condition that Umtonga's life was spared, and in 1861, Mpande signed a deed transferring this land to the Boers. The southern boundary of the land added to Utrecht ran from Rorke's Drift on the Buffalo to a point on the Pongola River.
The boundary was beaconed in 1864, but when in 1865 Umtonga fled from Zululand to Natal, Cetshwayo, seeing that he had lost his part of the bargain (for he feared that Umtonga might be used to supplant him, as Mpande had been used to supplant Dingane), caused the beacon to be removed, and also claimed the land ceded by the Swazis to Lydenburg. The Zulus asserted that the Swazis were their vassals and therefore had no right to part with this territory. During the year a Boer commando under Paul Kruger and an army under Cetshwayo were posted to defend the newly acquired Utrecht border. The Zulu forces took back their land north of the Pongola. Questions were also raised as to the validity of the documents signed by the Zulus concerning the Utrecht strip; in 1869, the services of the lieutenant-governor of Natal were accepted by both parties as arbitrator, but the attempt then made to settle disagreements proved unsuccessful.
Such was the political background when Cetshwayo became absolute ruler of the Zulus upon his father's death in 1873. As ruler, Cetshwayo set about reviving the military methods of his uncle Shaka as far as possible, and even succeeded in equipping his regiments with firearms. It is believed that he caused the Xhosa people in the Transkei to revolt, and he aided Sikukuni in his struggle with the Transvaal. His rule over his own people was tyrannous. For example, Bishop Schreuder (of the Norwegian Missionary Society) described Cetshwayo as "an able man, but for cold, selfish pride, cruelty and untruthfulness, worse than any of his predecessors."
In 1874, Lord Carnarvon, who had successfully brought about federation in Canada, thought that a similar scheme might work in South Africa. Sir Bartle Frere was sent to South Africa as High Commissioner to bring it about. One of the obstacles to such a scheme was the presence of the independent states of the South African Republic and the Kingdom of Zululand.
In September 1876, the massacre of a large number of girls (who had married men of their own age instead of men from an older regiment, as ordered by Cetshwayo) provoked a strong protest from the government of Natal, and the occupying governments were usually inclined to look patronizingly upon the affairs of the subjected African nations. The tension between Cetshwayo and the Transvaal over border disputes continued. Sir Theophilus Shepstone, whom Cetshwayo regarded as his friend, had supported him in the border dispute, but in 1877, he led a small force into the Transvaal and persuaded the Boers to give up their independence. Shepstone became Administrator of the Transvaal, and in that role saw the border dispute from the other side.
A commission was appointed by the lieutenant-governor of Natal in February 1878 to report on the boundary question. The commission reported in July, and found almost entirely in favour of the contention of the Zulu. Sir Henry Bartle Frere, then High Commissioner, who thought the award "one-sided and unfair to the Boers" (Martineau, Life of Frere, ii. xix.), stipulated that, on the land being given to the Zulu, the Boers living on it should be compensated if they left, or protected if they remained. Cetshwayo (who now found no defender in Natal save Bishop Colenso) was perceived by the British to be in a "defiant mood," and permitted outrages by Zulu both on the Transvaal and Natal borders.
In 1878, Frere used a minor border incursion—two warriors had fetched two eloped girls from Natal—as a pretext to demand 500 head of cattle from the Zulu as reparations. Cetshwayo only sent £50 worth of gold. When two surveyors were captured in Zululand, Frere demanded more reparations and Cetshwayo again refused. Frere sent emissaries to meet him and tell his demands.
With the Transvaal under British control, Frere was convinced the main obstacle to confederation was the independent Zulu kingdom, which he was determined to crush. Therefore in forwarding his award on the boundary dispute, the High Commissioner demanded that the military system be remodeled. The youths were to be allowed to marry as they came to man's estate, and the regiments were not to be called up except with the consent of the council of the nation and also of the British government. Moreover, the missionaries were to be unmolested and a British resident was to be accepted. Frere also delayed sending the details of the matter to the British government (knowing that his upcoming actions would probably not be supported), but issued an impossible ultimatum to Zulu deputies on December 11, 1878, a definite reply being required by the 31st of that month.
It is believed that Frere wanted to provoke a conflict with the Zulus and in that goal he succeeded. Cetshwayo rejected the demands of December 11, by not responding by the end of the year. A concession was granted by the British until January 11, 1879, after which a state of war was deemed to exist.
Cetshwayo returned no answer, and in January 1879, a British force under Lieutenant General Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford invaded Zululand, without authorization by the British Government. Lord Chelmsford had under him a force of 5000 Europeans and 8200 Africans; 3000 of the latter were employed in guarding the frontier of Natal; another force of 1400 Europeans and 400 Africans were stationed in the Utrecht district. Three columns were to invade Zululand, from the Lower Tugela, Rorke's Drift, and Utrecht respectively, their objective being Ulundi, the royal kraal.
Cetshwayo's army numbered fully 40,000 men. The entry of all three columns was unopposed. On January 22, the center column (1600 Europeans, 2500 Africans), which had advanced from Rorke's Drift, was encamped near Isandlwana; on the morning of that day Lord Chelmsford split his forces and moved out to support a reconnoitering party. After he had left the camp in charge of Lt. Colonel Henry Pulleine, was surprised by a Zulu army nearly 20,000 strong. Chelmsford's refusal to set up the British camp defensively and ignoring information that the Zulus were close at hand were decisions that all were later to regret. The British were overwhelmed at Isandlwana and almost every man killed, the casualties being 806 Europeans (more than half belonging to the 24th regiment) and 471 Africans. Those transport oxen not killed were seized by the Zulus. Afterwards, Chelmsford realized that he would need to account to the government and to history for the disaster. He quickly fixed blame on Colonel Anthony Durnford, who had arrived later with five troops of the Natal Native horse and a rocket battery. Chelmsford claimed that Durnford disobeyed his orders to fix a proper defensive camp, although there is no evidence such an order was issued and he had left Pulleine in charge of the camp under orders not to entrench the camp, as it was meant to be temporary.
Lord Chelmsford and the reconnoitering party returned after paying little attention to the signals of attack; they arrived at the battlefield that evening and camped amidst the slaughter. The next day the survivors retreated to Rorke's Drift, which had been the scene of a successful defense. After the victory at Isandlwana, several regiments of the Zulu army which had missed the battle had moved on to attack Rorke's Drift. The garrison stationed there, under Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead, numbered about 80 men of the 24th regiment, and they had in the hospital there between 30 and 40 men. Late in the afternoon they were attacked by about 4000 Zulu. On six occasions, the Zulu got within the entrenchments, to be driven back each time at bayonet point. At dawn the Zulu withdrew, leaving 350 of their men dead and 500 wounded who were later killed by the British. An equal number is believed to have died over the next few days of their wounds. The British loss was 17 killed and 10 wounded, two of whom later died of their wounds.
In the meantime the Coastal column—2700 men under Colonel Charles Pearson—had reached Eshowe from the Tugela; on receipt of the news of Isandlwana most of the mounted men and the native troops were sent back to the Natal, leaving at Eshowe a garrison of 1300 Europeans and 65 Africans. For two months during the Siege of Eshowe this force was hemmed in by the Zulus, and lost 20 men to sickness and disease.
The left column under Colonel (afterwards Sir) Evelyn Wood was forced onto the defensive after the disaster to the centre column. For a time the British feared an invasion of Natal.
Chelmsford had lost his centre column and his plans were in tatters. However, the Zulus had suffered heavy casualties in their victory at Isandlwana and at Rorke's Drift, so Cetshwayo could not mount a counter-offensive. Chelmsford regrouped and called for reinforcements when Zulu troops kept raiding over the border. As a result of Isandlwana the British Government replaced Lord Chelmsford with Sir Garnet Wolseley but it took several weeks for him to reach Natal, during which Lord Chelmsford remained in command.
The British sent troops from all over the empire to Cape Town. By the end of March 29, Chelmsford could mount an offensive of 8500 men (including men from the Royal Navy and 91st Highlanders) from Fort Tenedos to relieve Eshowe.
During this time (March 12) an escort of stores marching to Luneberg, the headquarters of the Utrecht force, was attacked when encamped on both sides of the Intombe river. The camp was surprised, 62 out of 106 men were killed, and all the stores were lost.
The first troops arrived at Durban on March 7. On the 29th a column, under Lord Chelmsford, consisting of 3400 European & 2300 African soldiers, marched to the relief of Eshowe, entrenched camps being formed each night.
Chelmsford told Sir Evelyn Wood's troops (Staffordshire Volunteers and Boers, 675 men in total) to attack the Zulu stronghold in Hlobane. Lieutenant Colonel Redvers Buller, later Second Boer War commander, led the attack on Hlobane on March 28. However, The Zulu main army of 26,000 men arrived to help their besieged tribesmen and the British soldiers were scattered.
Besides the loss of the African contingent (those not killed deserted) there were 100 casualties among the 400 Europeans engaged. The next day 25,000 Zulu warriors attacked Wood's camp (2068 men) in Kambula, apparently without Cetshwayo's permission. The British held them off in the Battle of Kambula and after five hours of heavy fighting the Zulus withdrew. British losses amounted to 29 the Zulus lost approximately 2000. It turned out to be a decisive battle.
On April 2, the main camp was attacked at Gingingdlovu (In the Zulu language it means Swallower of the Elephant, for the British foreigners it was "Gin, Gin, I love you"), the Zulu being repulsed. Their losses were heavy, estimated at 1200 while the British only suffered two dead and 52 wounded. The next day they relieved Pearson's men. They evacuated Eshowe on April 5, after which the Zulu forces burned it down.
Defeat of the Zulu
By the middle of April nearly all the reinforcements had reached Natal, and Lord Chelmsford reorganized his forces. The 1st division, under major-general Crealock, advanced along the coast belt and was destined to act as a support to the 2nd division, under major-general Newdigate, which with Wood's flying column, an independent unit, was to march on Ulundi from Rorke's Drift and Kambula. Owing to difficulties of transport it was the beginning of June before Newdigate was ready to advance.
The new start was not promising. Invading British troops were attacked in June 1. One of the British casualties was the exiled heir to the French throne, Imperial Prince Napoleon Eugene, who had volunteered to serve in the British army and was killed while out with a reconnoitering party.
On the 1st of July Newdigate and Wood had reached the White Umfolosi, in the heart of their enemy's country. During their advance, messengers were sent by Cetshwayo to sue for peace, but he did not accept the terms offered. Meantime Sir Garnet (afterwards Lord) Wolseley had been sent out to supersede Lord Chelmsford, and on July 7, he reached Crealock's headquarters at Port Durnford. But by that time the campaign was practically over. The 2nd division (with which was Lord Chelmsford) and Wood's column crossed the White Umfolosi on the July 4, the force numbering 4166 European and 1005 indigenous soldiers, aided by artillery and Gatling guns. Within a mile of Ulundi the British force, formed in a hollow square, was attacked by a Zulu army numbering 12,000 to 15,000. The battle ended in a decisive victory for the British, whose losses were about 100, while of the Zulu some 1500 men were lost to the battle.
After this battle the Zulu army dispersed, most of the leading chiefs tendered their submission, and Cetshwayo became a fugitive. On the August 28, the king was captured and sent to Cape Town. (It is said that scouts spotted the water-carriers of the King, distinctive because the water was carried above, not upon, their heads.) His deposition was formally announced to the Zulu, and Wolseley drew up a new scheme for the government of the country. The Chaka dynasty was deposed, and the Zulu country portioned among eleven Zulu chiefs, including Cetshwayo and one of his sons Usibepu, John Dunn, a white adventurer, and Hlubi, a Basuto chief who had done good service in the war.
Bartle Frere was relegated to a minor post in Cape Town.
A Resident was appointed who was to be the channel of communication between the chiefs and the British government. This arrangement was productive of much bloodshed and disturbance, and in 1882 the British government determined to restore Cetshwayo to power. In the meantime, however, blood feuds had been engendered between the chiefs Usibepu (Zibebu) and Hamu on the one side and the tribes who supported the ex-king and his family on the other. Cetshwayo's party (who now became known as Usutus) suffered severely at the hands of the two chiefs, who were aided by a band of white freebooters.
When Cetshwayo was restored Usibepu was left in possession of his territory, while Dunn's land and that of the Basuto chief (the country between the Tugela River and the Umhlatuzi, that is, adjoining Natal) was constituted a reserve, in which locations were to be provided for Zulu unwilling to serve the restored king. This new arrangement proved as futile as had Wolseley's. Usibepu, having created a formidable force of well-armed and trained warriors, and being left in independence on the borders of Cetshwayo's territory, viewed with displeasure the re-installation of his former king, and Cetshwayo was desirous of humbling his relative. A collision very soon took place; Usibepu's forces were victorious, and on July 22, 1883, led by a troop of mounted Boer mercenary troops, he made a sudden descent upon Cetshwayo's kraal at Ulundi, which he destroyed, massacring such of the inmates of both sexes as could not save themselves by flight. The king escaped, though wounded, into Nkandla forest. After appeals by Sir Melmoth Osborn he moved to Eshowe, where he died soon after.
Anglo-Zulu war in film
Two film dramatizations of the war are: Zulu (1964), which is based on the Battle at Rorke's Drift, and Zulu Dawn (1979), which deals with the Battle of Isandlwana. A short and rather comical dramatization is present in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983).
Anatomy and assessment of the Zulu Army
The Zulu War of 1879 proceeded in a pattern typical of numerous colonial wars fought in Africa. Relatively small bodies of professional European troops armed with modern firearms and artillery, and supplemented by local allies and levies would march out to meet the natives whose armies would put up a brave struggle, but in the end would succumb to massed firepower. And so it went. Nevertheless the Zulu pulled a major surprise in the war, one of the most stunning native victories of the colonial period. The war also saw acts of outstanding bravery by their European opponents. Well respected by the British, the sardonic comment by one defender at Rorke's Drift "here they come, black as hell and thick as grass" in a sense serves as a wry tribute to the elemental power of the tribal warriors, as does a line from Kipling's irreverent poem "Fuzzy Wuzzy" ("A Zulu impi dished us up in style").
The conflict thus continues to fascinate new generations of students and war gamers, and has been portrayed not only in massive numbers of books and articles but in popular film as well, more so than other bigger native victories, such as the Ethiopians against the Italians at Adowa, or the Berbers of Abd el-Krim against the Spanish in Morocco. Interest in or reference to the Zulu has taken many forms, from the naming of a serviceable Scottish fishing boat type, to the NATO code for the letter "Z," to dancers and festival celebrants in the Mardi Gras season of New Orleans, to "crews" or groups of urban hip-hop fans. It may thus be useful to take a closer look at the Zulu Army that still inspires such attention over a century later. A similar analysis will be made in relation to the performance of redoubtable British forces.
The military reforms of Shaka
Tribal warfare among the Zulu clans was heavily ritualistic and ceremonial until the ascent of the ruthless chieftain Shaka, who adapted and innovated a number of tribal practices that transformed the Zulu from a small, obscure tribe to a major regional power in eastern South Africa. Many of the innovations of Shaka were not simply created out of thin air, nor can they be dubiously credited to the influence of European troops drilling several hundred miles to the south, nor can they merely be dismissed as the product of vague environmental forces like drought or overpopulation. Shaka's predecessor, Dingiswayo had definitely initiated a number of expansionist changes, and was himself responsible for the initial rise of the legendary Zulu monarch. Shaka continued this expansion, albeit in a much more direct and violent manner.
It is also likely that he had help in designing his military reforms. Elderly clan leaders in whose localities troops were mustered retained a measure of influence on a regional basis, and were entitled to sit on the ibandla, a sort of national advisory council. Redoubtable indunas like Mdlaka, a strong leader, and captain of the last expedition north while Shaka was assassinated, and the presence of several elderly, experienced warriors like Mnyamana and Tshingwayo, both of whom outlived Shaka and who accompanied the victorious Isandlwana impi (Tshingwayo sharing partial command) also suggests more than the sole genius of Shaka at work in shaping the dread host. Nevertheless the standard view sees Shaka as initiating the most important changes. In addition, the practical problems of military command throughout the ages no doubt played a part in organization of the Zulu fighting machine.
Shaka's conception of warfare was far from ritualistic. He sought to bring combat to a swift and bloody decision, as opposed to duels of individual champions, scattered raids, or light skirmishes where casualties were comparatively light. While his mentor and overlord Dingiswayo lived, Shakan methods were not so extreme, but the removal of this check gave the Zulu chieftain much broader scope. It was under his reign that a much more rigorous mode of tribal warfare came into being. Such a brutal focus demanded changes in weapons, organization and tactics.
Shaka is credited with introducing a new variant of the traditional weapon, discarding the long, spindly throwing weapon and instituting a heavy, shorter stabbing spear. He is also said to have introduced a larger, heavier cowhide shield, and trained his forces to thus close with the enemy in more effective hand to hand combat. The throwing spear was not discarded, but standardized like the stabbing implement and carried as a missile weapon, typically discharged at the foe, before close contact. None of these weapons changes are largely important in the local context, but mated to an aggressive mobility and tactical organization, they were to make a devastating impact.
The fast moving host, like all military formations, needed supplies. These were provided by young boys, who were attached to a force and carried rations, cooking pots, sleeping mats, extra weapons and other material. Cattle were sometimes driven on the hoof as a movable larder. Again, such arrangements in the local context were probably nothing unusual. What was different was the systematization and organization, a pattern yielding major benefits when the Zulu were dispatched on military missions.
The age-grade regimental system
Age-grade groupings of various sorts were common in the Bantu tribal culture of the day, and indeed are still important in much of Africa. Age grades were responsible for a variety of activities, from guarding the camp, to cattle herding, to certain rituals and ceremonies. It was customary in Zulu culture for young men to provide limited service to their local chiefs until they were married and recognized as official householders. Shaka manipulated this system, transferring the customary service period from the regional clan leaders to himself, strengthening his personal hegemony. Such groupings on the basis of age, did not constitute a permanent, paid military in the modern Western sense, nevertheless they did provide a stable basis for sustained armed mobilization, much more so than ad hoc tribal levies or war parties. In fact Shaka organized the various age grades into regiments, and quartered them in special military kraals, with each regiment having its own distinctive names and insignia. Some historians argue that the large military establishment was a drain on the Zulu economy and necessitated continual raiding and expansion. This may be true since large numbers of the society's men were isolated from normal occupations, but whatever the resource impact, the regimental system clearly built on existing tribal cultural elements that could be adapted and shaped to fit an expansionist agenda.
Mobility and training
Shaka discarded sandals to enable his warriors to run faster. It was an unpopular initial move, but those who objected were simply killed, a practice that quickly concentrated the minds of available personnel. Shaka drilled his troops frequently, implementing forced marches covering more than fifty miles a day. He also drilled the troops to carry out encirclement tactics. Such mobility gave the Zulu a significant impact in their local region and beyond. Upkeep of the regimental system and training seems to have continued after Shaka's death, although Zulu defeats by the Boers, and growing encroachment by British colonialists sharply curtailed raiding operations prior to the War of 1879. Morris records one such mission under Mpande to give green warriors of the UThulwana regiment experience, a raid into Swaziland, dubbed "Fund' uThulwana" by the Zulu, or "Teach the uThulwana." It may have done some good, for some years later, the uThulwana made their mark as one of the leading regiments that helped liquidate the British camp at Isandlwana.
The Zulu typically took the offensive, deploying in the well known "buffalo horns" formation. It was composed of three elements:
- The "horns" or flanking right and left wing elements to encircle and pin the enemy. Generally the "horns" were made up of younger, greener troops.
- The "chest" or central main force which delivered the coup de grace. The prime fighters made up the composition of the main force.
- The "loins" or reserves used to exploit success or reinforce elsewhere. Often these were older veterans. Sometimes these were positioned with their backs to the battle so as not to get unduly excited.
Development of encirclement tactics
Encirclement tactics are nothing new in tribal warfare, and historians note that attempts to surround an enemy were not unknown even in the ritualized battles. The use of separate maneuver elements to support a stronger central group is also well known in pre-mechanized tribal warfare, as is the use of reserve echelons farther back. What was unique about the Zulu was the degree of organization, consistency with which they used these tactics, and the speed at which they executed them. Developments and refinements may have taken place after Shaka's death, as witnessed by the use of larger groupings of regiments by the Zulu against the British in 1879. Missions, available manpower and enemies varied, but whether facing native spear, or European bullet, the impis generally fought in and adhered to the "classical" buffalo horns pattern.
Control of troop movement
Control must have been tricky once the three prongs were unleashed into an encirclement battle, nevertheless some coordination was supplied by regimental indunas (chiefs or leaders) who used hand signals and messengers. The system was simple and well understood by most of the Zulu. At Isandlwana, the main Zulu strike force of some 14,000 to 20,000 men, concealed with remarkable discipline in a ravine, sprang up as one when they were discovered by a British scouting party, and commenced their "buffalo horn" attack without waiting for their generals to deliberate.
It is extremely doubtful if Zulu tactics and organization owed anything to European troops drilling hundreds of miles distant at the Cape. The Zulu merely had to systematize and extend known tribal practice in which encirclement tactics were hardly unknown. The fact that the "reserve" forces or "loins" existed or that they were sometimes positioned with their backs to the battle suggests origins rooted in earlier known ritualistic tribal warfare, as well as practical command and control problems.
Similar problems of troop movement provoke similar solutions across the centuries. The universal importance of unit leadership is well known (see below) but in the early Roman legions for example, the last line of spearmen, the triarii, were sometimes made to squat or kneel, effectively discouraging premature movement to the front. And similar to Zulu practice, the triarii, the final line of fighters, were often older veterans, whose presence in the rear had a stabilizing effect on the greener hands.
Organization and leadership of the Zulu forces
Regiments and Corps
The Zulu forces were generally grouped into 3 levels: Regiments, corps of several regiments, and "armies" or bigger formations, although the Zulu did not use these terms in the modern sense. Although size distinctions were taken account of, any grouping of men on a mission could collectively be called an impi, whether a raiding party of 100 or horde of 10,000. Numbers were not uniform, but dependent on a variety of factors including assignments by the king, or the manpower mustered by various clan chiefs or localities. A regiment might be 400 or 4000 men. These were grouped into Corps that took their name from the military kraals where they were mustered, or sometimes the dominant regiment of that locality.
Higher command and unit leadership
Leadership was not a complicated affair. An inDuna guided each regiment, and he in turn answered to senior inDunas who controlled the corps grouping. Overall guidance of the host was furnished by elder inDunas usually with many years of experience. One or more of these elder chiefs might accompany a big force on an important mission, but there was no single "Field Marshal" in supreme command of all Zulu forces.
Regimental inDunas, like Roman centurions, were extremely important to morale and discipline. This was shown during the battle of Isandhlwana. Blanketed by a hail of British bullets, rockets and artillery, the advance of the Zulu faltered. Echoing from the mountain however, were the shouted cadences and fiery exhortations of their regimental inDunas, who reminded the warriors that their king did not send them to run away. Thus encouraged, the encircling regiments remained in place, maintaining continual pressure, until weakened British dispositions enabled the host to make a final surge forward.
Assessment of Zulu performance against the British
Strategy and tactics
Over 40,000 strong, well motivated and supremely confident, the Zulu were a formidable force on their own home ground, despite the almost total lack of modern weaponry. Their greatest assets were their morale, unit leadership, mobility and numbers. Tactically the Zulu acquitted themselves well in at least 3 encounters, Isandhlwana, Hlobane and the smaller Intombi action. Their stealthy approach march, camouflage and noise discipline at Isandhlwana, while not perfect, put them within excellent striking distance of their opponents, where they were able to exploit weaknesses in the camp layout. At Hlobane they caught a British column on the move rather than in the usual fortified position, partially cutting off its retreat and forcing it to withdraw.
Strategically (and perhaps understandably in their own traditional tribal context) they lacked any clear vision of fighting their most challenging war, aside from smashing the three British columns by the weight and speed of their regiments. Despite the Isandhlwana victory, tactically there were major problems as well. They rigidly and predictably applied their three-pronged "buffalo horns" attack, paradoxically their greatest strength, but also their greatest weakness when facing concentrated firepower. The Zulu failed to make use of their superior mobility by attacking the British rear area such as Natal or in interdicting vulnerable British supply lines. When they did, they achieved some success, such as the liquidation of a supply detachment at the Intombi River. A more expansive mobile strategy might have cut British communications and brought their lumbering advance to a halt, bottling up the redcoats in scattered strongpoints while the impis ran rampant between them. Just such a scenario developed with the No. 1 British column, which was penned up static and immobile in garrison for over two months at Eshowe.
The Zulu also allowed their opponents too much time to set up fortified strongpoints, assaulting well defended camps and positions with painful losses. A policy of attacking the redcoats while they were strung out on the move, or crossing difficult obstacles like rivers, might have yielded more satisfactory results. For example, four miles past the Ineyzane River, after the British had comfortably crossed, and after they had spent a day consolidating their advance, the Zulu finally launched a typical "buffalo horn" encirclement attack that was seen off with withering fire from not only rifles, but 7-pounder artillery and Gatling guns. In fairness, the Zulu commanders could not conjure regiments out of thin air at the optimum time and place. They too needed time to marshal, supply and position their forces, and sort out final assignments to the three-prongs of attack. Still, the Battle of Hlobane Mountain offers just a glimpse of an alternative mobile scenario, where the maneuvering Zulu "horns" cut off and drove back Buller's column when it was dangerously strung out on the mountain.
Command and control
Command and control of the impis was problematic at times. Indeed, the Zulu attacks on the British strongpoints at Rorke's Drift and at Kambula, (both bloody defeats) seemed to have been carried out by overly enthusiastic leaders and warriors despite contrary orders of the Zulu King, Cetshwayo. Popular film treatments show a grizzled Zulu supremo directing the host with elegant sweeps of the hand. This might have been so during the initial marshaling of forces at a jump off point, or the deployment of reserves, but once the great encircling sweep of frenzied warriors in the "horns" and "chest" was in motion, the inDunas must have found close coordination difficult.
Command of the field forces was also split at times, with one or more inDunas attempting to guide the host, while contending with the thrusting sub-chiefs of powerful and competitive regiments. This "dual command" arrangement of experienced men seemed to work well enough at Isandhlwana, although according to Morris, the commanders Tshingwayo and Mavumengwana argued with a freelancing regional clan-chief called Matyana who seemed to covet leadership of the field force himself, and indeed they appeared to have relocated the host in part, to be rid of his interference. The move it should be noted brought them closer to the British camp, saving the regiments from having to launch their attack from 10 miles out over flat plain.
Handling of reserve forces
Although the "loins" or reserves were on hand to theoretically correct or adjust an unfavorable situation, a shattered attack could make the reserves irrelevant. Against the Boers at Blood River, massed gunfire broke the back of the Zulu assault, and the Boers were later able to mount a cavalry sweep in counterattack that became a turkey shoot against fleeing Zulu remnants. Perhaps the Zulu threw everything forward and had little left. In similar manner, after exhausting themselves against British firepower at Kambula and Ulindi, few of the Zulu reserves were available to do anything constructive, although the tribal warriors still remained dangerous at the guerrilla level when scattered. At Isandhlwana however, the "classical" Zulu system struck gold, and after liquidating the British position, it was a relatively fresh reserve force that swept down on Rorke's Drift.
Use of modern arms
The Zulu had greater numbers than their opponents, but greater numbers massed together simply presented yet more lucrative, easy shooting in the age of modern firearms and artillery. African tribes that fought in smaller guerrilla detachments typically held out against European invaders for a much longer time, as witnessed by the 7-year resistance of the Lobi against the French in West Africa, or the operations of the Berbers in Algeria against the French.
When the Zulu did acquire firearms, most notably captured stocks after the great victory at Isandhlwana, they lacked training and used them ineffectively, consistently firing high to give the bullets "strength." Adaption to firearms was well within Zulu capabilities and knowledge. Southern Africa, including the areas near Natal was teeming with bands like the Griquas who had learned to use guns. Indeed one such group not only mastered the way of the gun, but became proficient horsemen as well, skills that helped build the Basotho tribe, in what is now the nation of Lesotho. In addition, numerous European renegades or adventurers (both Boer and non-Boer) skilled in firearms were known to the Zulu. Some had even led detachments for the Zulu kings on military missions.
The Zulu thus had clear scope and opportunity to master and adapt the new weaponry. They also had already experienced defeat against the Boers, by concentrated firearms. They had had at least 4 decades to adjust their tactics to this new threat. A well drilled corps of gunmen or grenadiers, or a battery of artillery operated by European mercenaries for example, might have provided much needed covering fire as the regiments maneuvered into position. No such adjustments were on hand when they faced the redcoats. Immensely proud of their system, and failing to learn from their earlier defeats, they persisted in "human wave" attacks against well defended European positions where massed firepower decimated their ranks. The ministrations of Zulu witchdoctors, or the bravery of individual regiments were ultimately of little use against the volleys of modern rifles, Gatling guns and artillery at the Ineyzane River, Rorke's Drift, Kambula, Gingingdlovu, and finally Ulindi.
A tough challenge
Undoubtedly, Cetshwayo and his war leaders faced a tough and extremely daunting task—overcoming the challenge of concentrated rifled, machine gun (Gatling gun), and artillery fire on the battlefield. It was one that taxed even European military leaders, as the carnage of the American Civil War and the later Boer War attests. It would be unrealistic to look for modern sophistication from the largely illiterate spearmen against a major world power. Nevertheless, Shaka's successors could argue that within the context of their experience and knowledge, they had done the best they could, following his classical template, which had advanced the Zulu from a small, obscure tribe to a respectable regional power. It had served them well in the past, and they saw no need to make significant adjustments. Faithful to their master even in death, the Zulu spearmen fought the only way they knew, as he had taught them, securing one of the most impressive victories by native forces in the colonial period. It was to bring them worldwide fame and notoriety, but their moment of glory was to be relatively brief. Even as the victorious regiments departed from the shadow of Isandhlwana's great rock, the sun was already setting on their empire.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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- Snook, Lt Col Mike. How Can Man Die Better; The Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed. London: Greenhill Books, 2005. ISBN 9781853676567.
- Snook, Lt Col Mike. Like Wolves on the Fold; The Defence of Rorke's Drift. London: Greenhill, 2006. ISBN 9781853676598.
All links retrieved July 27, 2023.
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