The Anglo-Zulu War:
Technology vs. Tatics

Tom Clay           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            The Anglo-Zulu War bridged the transition period between cavalry charges and trench warfare.  Daniel R. Headrick says, in The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century :

“The gun revolution that had begun in the 1860s was completed by the 1890s.  Any European infantryman could now fire lying down, undetected, in any weather, fifteen rounds of ammunition in as many seconds at targets up to half a mile away.  Machine gunners had even greater power.  Though the generals were not to realize it for many decades, the age of raw courage and cold steel had ended, and the era of arms races and industrial slaughter had begun.”[1]

While the arms of the Anglo-Zulu War had definitely begun to slaughter on an industrial scale, the time for “raw courage and cold steel”[2] had not yet ended.  In this war, training and tactics were not yet overcome by technological advantages.

            The Zulu, under Shaka Zulu, became more than just another Bantu tribe.  In the Bantu tribes (from abaNtu meaning “the people”)[3], armies consisted of between one tenth and one quarter of the adult male population.[4]  Shaka Zulu set up a system in which every adult male was a member of the standing army.  Boys were accepted into the military around age twelve and formed into impis, or regiments, that the new warriors would stay with until reaching age forty.  Then impis that survived to age forty went into the “reserves” so to speak and could still be called up.[5]

            The impi was then the social structure for Zulu males.  The impi replaced the new warriors’ families and became their life.  Impi life involved training in making war.  The tactic taught to Zulu impis was of the bull.  The impis fighting formed four forces. 

The head consisted of the largest group of troops.  The warriors went forward closely packed together in ranks many lines deep.  The head’s job wasn’t to win the battle, but to pin the enemy in place and force them to fight the head.  The next two forces were equal in size.  They were the left and right “horns” of the bull.  When the “head” had the enemy fully engaged, the “horns” went left and right around the enemy and attacked from the sides or the rear.  These were the killing impis.[6]  The fourth group was the “chest” of the bull.  The chest made up the tactical reserve.  The overall commander would send these troops in whole formation or in parts to reinforce which ever part of the attack needed more soldiers.  If not needed, the “loins” stayed back to fight another day.[7]

The training also included personal combat tactics.  The Zulu warrior carried a large cow hide shield on a wooden frame.  The shield was a defensive and offensive weapon.  The offensive use was to hook the left side of the warrior’s shield on the enemy’s left side of his shield and pull the opponent’s shield aside, opening up the left side and under arm for a thrust of the assegai.[8]

The assegai evolved from the Bantu assegai or spear.  Shaka Zulu is credited with making the change to the Zulu weapon.  He shortened the shaft down to around two feet in length.  The spear head was lengthened to around a foot and a half and broadened.  The resulting assegai could be thrown, but was mainly a stabbing weapon along the lines of the Roman spatha.[9]

Training for a Zulu male included the arts of camouflage and moving silently.  In their day, a wide variety of game populated the high veldt for the Zulu hunted.  To hide in long grass, their “uniform” included cow tails which blended with the tall grass.  These cow tails also quieted the sound made moving through the grass.  In learning to hunt the lion and the leopard, the warrior learned how to hunt men just as well.[10]

The Zulu impi was also trained for physical endurance.  Aside from working the king’s lands, the warrior from the impi would be expected to be able to run distances greater than the marathon we enshrine and still be able to fight immediately upon arrival.  This gave the Zulus great mobility, rivaling that of European cavalry.[11]

As for “modern” technology, the Zulu were exposed to muzzle loading fire arms.  Pictures of Zulu warriors from the mid nineteenth century frequently showed warriors holding fire arms.  The Zulu warrior understood the ability of the rifle[12].  At Rorke’s Drift for example, the Zulu positioned snipers on the terraces on the hill over looking the mission station the British defended.  The average warrior just preferred close combat with the assegai over the impersonal sniping with guns[13].

The most dangerous of the changes implemented by Shaka on the Zulu warrior was celibacy.  Under Zulu law, all males joined the army right before puberty.  The impis were required to remain celibate until the king gave each warrior individual permission.  The king would not allow a warrior to wed until he reached the age of 40 and their impi went into the inactive reserves, so to speak[14].  The king gave permission to ask for “restrained sexual intercourse”[15] for one who had killed an enemy in combat from any girl the warrior met to settle issues of superstition.[16]  With an incentive like this, it is amazing that any one ever bested the Zulu impi in combat.

On the British side, technology for the Zulu War consisted of the Martini-Henry breach loading rifle, the pith helmet, limited use of camouflage, and occasionally, breach loading artillery, and Gatlin guns.  The Martini-Henry rifle allowed the average soldier to fire much faster than the muzzle loaded weapon’s limit of three rounds per minute.  The range likewise improved.  Now a marksman could hit a target up to half a mile away[17].

The pith helmet, while quite silly looking, was an aid to the white man in the African heat.  The pith helmet provided shade and insulation for the wearer’s head.  The pith helmet also provided limited protection during combat.[18]  Since the average pith helmet issued to the British infantry man was white, camouflage was used to dull that.  Taking something the Army learned in India, some soldiers colored the white with coffee or tea stains.  This color in India had been called khaki, but wasn’t in vogue for the Army just yet[19].  Irregular forces formed in the Cape Colony frequently were not dressed in the Royal Army red coats.  While the red coat did hide the blood and the extent of your mate’s wound so you wouldn’t get discouraged, it stood out in the browns and tans of the African veldt.  None of the Imperial officers who survived Isandhlwana wore a red coat that day.[20]  The Irregulars dressed in brown or tan uniforms and kept their head gear colored similarly (who wants a target on their head).[21]

Breach loading artillery and Gatlin guns were huge technological advances available to the British.  But these crew served weapons were unwieldy and required teams of draft animals to haul them and their ammunition.  The terrain also limited the ability to move these crew served weapons[22].  The Gatlin guns used in the Anglo-Zulu War did not perform as well as they should have.  It turns out that the government in buying ammunition, bought the cheapest that could be found.  This ammunition did not meet the manufactures specifications and, no big surprise, frequently fouled the weapons[23].  Yet, when the artillery and Gatlin guns could be brought to bear (and work), the results were extremely bloody[24].

The War started with several weeks of maneuvering by both sides without any meeting.  This bloodless war ended 22 January 1879.  A relatively small skirmish occurred on the Nyezane River.  Five thousand Zulu attacked the right hand column and were repelled[25].  Corporal Schiess of the Natal Native Contingent was slightly wounded in this fight and sent to Rorke’s Drift where he earned one of the eleven Victoria Crosses awarded following the fight there.[26]  Also on the 22nd, Lord Chelmsford led half of his force from the main camp to hunt Zulu[27].  Meanwhile back at the camp, the Zulu, having slipped by Chelmsford, attacked.  The British soldiers and Natal Native Contingent troops quickly manned the defenses set up.  But the defenses were not the normal British square.  Instead, the defenses formed a shallow “V” which left each flank open.  The Zulu forces of more than twenty thousand did the bull maneuver and the horns enveloped the defenders all too easily.  The Zulu tactics and training beat the British technology[28].  But if you were only counting bodies, the results would be different.  While the British and Natal Native Contingent dead were 1770 (not counting the cooks, grooms, hostlers, teamsters, and such) , the Zulu losses were well over three thousand[29].  So, while technology didn’t beat “raw courage and cold steel”, the industrial slaughter had definitely begun.

The Battle of Fugitive’s Drift was really the post battle hunt for stragglers escaping.  The Zulu hunted down most of those not killed outright in the battle at Isandhlwana[30].  The only reason this place ever got named or remembered is the last stand of two young lieutenants guarding the unit Queen’s Colours from Isandhlwana.  Lieutenants Melville and Coghill climbed a steep cliff and together fought the Zulu to the death.  The Zulu did not desecrate the bodies of these two “fellow warriors.”[31]

At Rorke’s Drift, both “raw courage and cold steel” and the technology were necessary to hold off the Zulu massed attacks.  The Zulu brought forty-five hundred to the fight while the defenders had 115 available to man the defenses.  A major difference at Rorke’s Drift from Isandhlwana was the defenses.  At Rorke’s Drift, a wall was made around the mission and a final redoubt was built against a wall.  No open flanks were left to envelope.  The results after twelve hours of fighting were 17 British dead and 351 Zulu dead at the defenders’ wall.  The number who weren’t found by the British is unknown[32].

The next two major battles came in sequence.  Hlobane was a flat topped mountain (similar to the mesa of the American West) defended by the Zulu.  Colonel Woods was ordered to attack this.  The Zulu defenders were joined by twenty thousand reinforcements.  The remnants of Woods’ force retreated back to the position at Kambula[33].

At Kambula, the column had dug in and also laagered the wagons (the Boer version of circling the wagons in our West) along a ridge.  With each position a circle, the Zulu bull attack had no flank to get around.  The British defenses were a mass of small group positions with defensive walls[34].  After four hours of battle, the Zulu withdrew, having suffered severe losses (as an interesting aside, two of the British soldiers noted as being in this particular fight were Englishmen with the last name of Kambula)[35].

The final battle was a mix of old tactics, and new technology for the British.  To take Ulundi, the Zulu capital, Chelmsford brought the new technology of twelve breach loading cannon, and two Gatlin guns (and the Martini-Henry rifle).  To this technology, he married the old tactic of the British Square.  More than fifteen thousand Zulu enveloped the square, but could not overcome the British[36].  Between the rifles, the Gatlin guns, and the artillery, the Zulu could get no closer than seventy meters[37].

While the Anglo-Zulu War was another example of the technological advancements in the art of killing one’s fellow man, guts were still needed.  Aside from the unknown actions of the dead at Isandhlwana, the Anglo-Zulu War resulted in a total of twenty-two Victoria Crosses being awarded, eleven in one fight[38].  Headrick’s age of industrial slaughter had begun.  The age of “raw courage and cold steel” had not yet ended.  This is best summed up by borrowing the words given to Lt Chard and Colour Sergeant Bourn in the movie Zulu:

Colour Sergeant Bourne:  “…It’s a miracle!”

Lt Chard:  “If it's a miracle Colour Sergeant, it's a short chamber Boxer Henry,

point 4-5 caliber miracle.”

Colour Sergeant Bourne: “And a bayonet Sir! With some guts behind it!”[39]

Enough said.


 

Map of Lord Chelmsford’s Invasion Plan.

 


 

Map of the Battle at Isandhlwana.

Map of the Battle of Fugitive’s Drift.


 

Map of the Battle at Rorke’s Drift.

All maps from G. A. Chadwick, B.A., B.Com. The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift  (Military History Journal - Vol. 4 No. 4.  The South African Military history Society. http://www.rapidttp.com/milhist/index.html http://www.rapidttp.com/milhist/vol044gc.html)  01 June 2004

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Chadwick, G. A., B.A., B.Com. The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879: Isandlwana and Rorke’s

Drift Military History Journal - Vol. 4 No. 4.  The South African Military history Society. http://www.rapidttp.com/milhist/index.html http://www.rapidttp.com/milhist/vol044gc.html  01 June 2004.

 

Critchley, Alan www.rorkesdriftvc.com http://www.rorkesdriftvc.com 01 June 2004.

 

Furneaux, Rupert.  The Zulu War: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.  J. B. Lippincott

Company, Philadelphia and New York.  1963.

 

Headrick, Daniel R. The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the

Nineteenth Century.  Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.  1981.

 

Morris, Donald R. The Washing of the Spears: the Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation

Simon & Schuster, New York.  1965.

 

Shaka Zulu. Television. 600 min. Trimark. Natal, 1986.

 

Vandervort, Bruce, Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa 1830-1914.  Indiana University

Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.  1998.

 

Zulu. Film, Technorama70. 138 min. Diamond Films Ltd, Twickenham Film Studios

England and Natal, 1964.

 

 


 

[1] Daniel R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1981)  101.

[2] Ibid.  101.

[3] Donald R. Morris.  The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. (New York: Simon & Schuster. 1965) 24.

[4] Ibid. 37.

[5] Ibid. 33.

[6] Ibid. 48.

[7] Ibid. 50.

[8] Ibid. 47.

[9] Ibid. 47.

[10] Ibid. 52.

[11] Ibid. 50-51.

[12] Daniel R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1981)  110.

[13] Donald R. Morris.  The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. (New York: Simon & Schuster. 1965) 324-325.

[14] Ibid. 66.

[15] Rupert Furneaux, The Zulu War: Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift. New York: J. B. Lippencott,.  1963) 16.

[16] Donald R. Morris.  The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. (New York: Simon & Schuster. 1965) 66.

[17] Daniel R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1981)  98-99.

[18] G. A. Chadwick, B.A., B.Com. The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift  (Military History Journal - Vol. 4 No. 4.  The South African Military history Society. http://www.rapidttp.com/milhist/index.html http://www.rapidttp.com/milhist/vol044gc.html)  01 June 2004

[19] Donald R. Morris.  The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. (New York: Simon & Schuster. 1965) 263.

[20] Ibid. 381.

[21] Ibid.263.

[22] Ibid. 316.

[23] Ibid. 422.

[24] Ibid 570.

[25] Ibid. 324.

[26] Ibid. 325.

[27] G. A. Chadwick, B.A., B.Com. The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift  (Military History Journal - Vol. 4 No. 4.  The South African Military history Society. http://www.rapidttp.com/milhist/index.html http://www.rapidttp.com/milhist/vol044gc.html  01 June 2004)

[28] Bruce Vandervort Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa 1830 – 1914. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1998) 108.

[29] Donald R. Morris.  The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. (New York: Simon & Schuster. 1965) 340.

[30] Ibid. 380.

[31] Ibid. 386.

[32] Alan Critchley www.rorkesdriftvc.com (http://www.rorkesdriftvc.com 01 June 2004)

[33] Bruce Vandervort Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa 1830 – 1914. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1998) 110.

[34] Ibid. 110.

[35] Donald R. Morris.  The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1965. p 641.

[36] Ibid. 568.

[37] G. A. Chadwick, B.A., B.Com. The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift  (Military History Journal - Vol. 4 No. 4.  The South African Military history Society. http://www.rapidttp.com/milhist/index.html http://www.rapidttp.com/milhist/vol044gc.html  01 June 2004)

[38] Donald R. Morris.  The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. (New York: Simon & Schuster. 1965) 621.

[39] Zulu, (Film, Technorama 70, 138 min, London: Diamond Films Ltd,  1964.)

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