Return to home page

Further information on viewing conditions, site index and the site Google search facility
Frost's Meditations Logo

The Anglo-Zulu war - the stuff of legends

David Blair Nov 13, 2006

The Anglo-Zulu war inspired bravery on both sides

Just back from KwaZulu-Natal where I visited the battlefields of the Anglo-Zulu war. If you have any interest in military history, I think they are one of South Africa's highlights.
Painting depicts the Battle of Isandlwana

A sweeping plain leading up to a rocky mountain called Isandlwana is dotted with 269 stone cairns. Beneath these simple whitewashed monuments lie the remains of 1,329 British soldiers who died in one of the most extraordinary battles in history.

On the morning of 22 Jan 1879, some 20,000 Zulu warriors attacked a British invading army. They carried spears and clubs; the British were armed with modern rifles and two heavy guns.

But the Zulu commander, Ntshingwayo, deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest generals in African history. First he used a masterly deception plan to lure Lord Chelmsford, the British commander, and 3,000 troops away from their main camp at the foot of Mount Isandlwana and send them on a wild goose chase across the plains.

Then Ntshingwayo opened a massive attack on the weakened British force left in the camp. He deployed his warriors in a classic "buffalo horns" formation. The left horn broke through the British firing line, while the right swept around behind Isandlwana and occupied the supply depot and ox-wagon train. They separated the British from their ammunition supply and also stampeded their oxen, sending about 4,500 animals careering across the veldt.

In the ensuing chaos, the British were overwhelmed and cut to pieces. Of 1,774 British and African troops in the camp, only 55 survived. Some 14 British soldiers, led by Capt Reginald Younghusband of the 24th Foot, made a last stand on the slopes of the mountain. Zulu sources record that the men shook hands before making a final bayonet charge.

As they charged to their deaths, a giant shadow fell across the plain and a 76 percent eclipse of the sun took place. By the time the solar eclipse was over, an industrial revolution army equipped with guns had been annihilated by a force carrying nothing but spears. Ntshingwayo had achieved the impossible.

Artist's Depiction of The Defence of Rorke's Drift
A few miles away at a mission station called Rorke's Drift, 100 British soldiers learned of the disaster at Isandlwana and realised that they were the next target. They had one hour in which to fortify the mission station using the only materials that were to hand biscuit tins and sacks of grain.

Then 4,000 Zulu warriors launched a massive attack. This time, the British were ready and they defended their makeshift fortress with extraordinary tenacity. Outnumbered by about 40 to one, they held off the Zulus until 3am on the following day when the attack petered out.

Within the space of 24 hours, the British at Rorke's Drift and the Zulus at Isandlwana had both achieved the impossible. Has anything more remarkable occurred in the annals of military history?

[top]



Anglo-Zulu War
Date 11 January 1879 - 4 July 1879
Location South Africa
Result British Victory, End of the Independent Zulu Nation

Belligerents British Empire Zulu Kingdom
Commanders
Sir Bartle Frere,
Frederick Augustus Thesiger,
2nd Baron Chelmsford
Cetshwayo
Strength
35,000
1st invasion 
15,000 to 16,000:
6,600 Europeans
9,000 Africans
17 cannon
1 Gatling gun
1 Rocket Battery

2nd invasion
25,000
16,000 European troops
7,000 Natal natives
2,000-3,000 civilian transport 

Casualties and losses 1,727 killed, 256 wounded 10,500+ killed

The Anglo-Zulu War was fought in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Empire. 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 ended the Zulu nation's independence.

In 1862, 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 south boundary of the land added to Utrecht ran from Rorke's Drift on the Buff 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. The activities of the missionaries were unwelcome to Cetshwayo. Though he did not harm the missionaries themselves, several converts were killed. The missionaries, for their part, were a source of hostile reports. 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."[citation needed]

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 patronisingly upon the affairs of the subjugated 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.

Ultimatum
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," 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.

Three separate incidents occurred in late July, August and September which Frere seized upon as his causes célèbres. The first two incidents related to the flight into Natal of two wives of Sihayo kaXonga, and their subsequent seizure and execution by his brother and sons, and were described thus:

"A wife of the chief Sihayo had left him and escaped into Natal. She was followed [on 28 July 1878] by a party of Zulus, under Mehlokazulu, the chief son of Sihayo, and his brother, seized at the kraal where she had taken refuge, and carried back to Zululand, where she was put to death, in accordance with Zulu law...

"A week later the same young men, with two other brothers and an uncle, captured in like manner another refugee wife of Sihayo, in the company of the young man with whom she had fled. This woman was also carried back, and is supposed to have been put to death likewise; the young man with her although guilty in Zulu eyes of a most heinous crime, punishable with death, was safe from them on English soil; they did not touch him."
 
The third incident occurred in September, when two men were detained while on a sand bank of the Thukela River near the Middle Drift. Sir Bartle Frere described this matter in a despatch to Sir Michael Hicks Beach, Secretary of State for the Colonies:

"Mr. Smith, a surveyor in the Colonial Engineer Department, was on duty inspecting the road down to the Tugela, near Fort Buckingham, which had been made a few years ago by order of Sir Garnet Wolseley, and accompanied by Mr. Deighton, a trader, resident at Fort Buckingham, went down to the ford across the Tugela. The stream was very low, and ran under the Zulu bank, but they were on this side of it, and had not crossed when they were surrounded by a body of 15 or 20 armed Zulus, made prisoners, and taken off with their horses, which were on the Natal side of the river, and roughly treated and threatened for some time; though, ultimately, at the instance of a headman who came up, they were released and allowed to depart."

By themselves, these incidents were flimsy grounds upon which to found an invasion of Zululand. Indeed, Sir Henry Bulwer himself did not initially hold Cetshwayo responsible for what was clearly not a political act in the seizure and murder of the two women.

"I have sent a message to the Zulu King to inform him of this act of violence and outrage by his subjects in Natal territory, and to request him to deliver Up to this Government to be tried for their offence, under the laws of the Colony, the persons of Mehlokazulu and Bekuzulu the two sons of Sirayo who were the leaders of the party."

Cetshwayo also treated the complaint rather lightly, responding

"Cetywayo is sorry to have to acknowledge that the message brought by Umlungi is true, but he begs his Excellency will not take it in the light he sees the Natal Government seem to do, as what Sirayo’s sons did he can only attribute to a rash act of boys who in the zeal for their father’s house did not think of what they were doing. Cetywayo acknowledges that they deserve punishing, and he sends some of his izinduna, who will follow Umlungi with his words. Cetywayo states that no acts of his subjects will make him quarrel with his fathers of the house of Shaka."

We should note that the original complaint carried to Cetshwayo from the Lieutenant-Governor was in the form of a request for the surrender of the culprits. The request was subsequently transformed by Sir Bartle Frere into a 'demand':

"Apart from whatever may be the general wish of the Zulu nation, it seems to me that the seizure of the two refugee women in British territory by an armed force crossing an unmistakable and well known boundary line, and carrying them off and murdering them with contemptuous disregard for the remonstrances of the Natal policemen, is itself an insult and a violation of British territory which cannot be passed over, and unless apologized and atoned for by compliance with the Lieutenant Governor’s demands, that the leaders of the murderous gangs shall be given up to justice, it will be necessary to send to the Zulu King an ultimatum which must put an end to pacific relations with our neighbours."

We find the first mention of an ultimatum in this despatch. After considerable discussion and exchanges of views between Sir Bartle Frere and Sir Henry Bulwer, it was decided to arrange a meeting with representatives of the Zulu king. The ostensible reason for this indaba was to present the findings of the long awaited Boundary Commission to the Zulu people. In fact, the occasion was also to be used to present the King with an ultimatum.

By the time the ultimatum was presented, the two infractions by Sihayo’s sons and the roughing up of Smith and Deighton were only part of the justification used, as several issues had arisen in the meantime. One of these was Cetshwayo’s apparent breaking of promises he had given to the then Mr Theophilus Shepstone at the king’s ‘coronation’ in 1872. This farcical piece of theatre had been agreed to by Cetshwayo simply to satisfy the wishes of Shepstone and meant nothing to the Zulu people. Indeed, his real Zulu installation had taken place several weeks earlier when he had been acclaimed by his izinduna.

A second addition to the ultimatum, which seems almost like an afterthought, required the surrender of Mbelini kaMswati. Mbelini was the son of a Swazi king who unsuccessfully disputed the succession with his brother, resulting in his exile from the kingdom. He sought, and received, refuge from Cetshwayo and was granted land in the region of the Ntombe river in western Zululand. (It is entirely possible that Cetshwayo regarded him as a useful buffer between himself and the Boers of the Transvaal.) Here, he took up residence on the Tafelberg, a flat-topped mountain overlooking the river. Something of a brigand, Mbelini made raids on anyone in his area, Boer and Zulu alike, accruing cattle and prisoners in the process. With the annexation of the Transvaal, Britain had also to deal with Mbelini, and, because Frere was convinced that the bandit chief was in the pay of the Zulu king, his surrender was included in the ultimatum. The light in which Mbelini was regarded is shown in a paragraph from a memorandum written by Sir Henry Bulwer:

"The King disowned Umbilini’s acts by saying that Umbilini had been giving him trouble, that he had left the Zulu country in order to wrest the Swazi chieftainship from his brother, the reigning Chief, and that if he returned he should kill him. But there is nothing to show that he has in any way punished him, and, on the contrary, it is quite certain that even if Umbilini did not act with the express orders of Cetywayo, he did so with the knowledge that what he was doing would be agreeable to the King."
 
Frere has been accused of chicanery by taking deliberate advantage of the length of time it took for correspondence to pass between South Africa and London to conceal his intentions from his political masters, or at least defer giving them the necessary information until it was too late for them to act. The first intimation to the British government of his intention to make ‘demands’ on the Zulu was in a private letter to Hicks Beach written on 14 October 1878. But that letter only arrived in London on 16 November, and by then messengers had already been despatched from Natal to the Zulu king to request the presence of a delegation at the Lower Tugela on 11 December for the purpose of receiving the Boundary Commission’s findings. Had Hicks Beach then sent off an immediate telegraphic response explicitly forbidding any action other than the announcement of the boundary award, it might have arrived in South Africa just in time to prevent the ultimatum being presented – but only just. No prohibition was sent, however, and could hardly be expected to have been, for Hicks Beach had no means of knowing the last minute urgency of the events that were already in train. Nowhere in Frere’s letter was there anything to indicate how soon he intended to act, nor was there anything to suggest how stringent his demands would be.

Hicks Beach had earlier admitted his helplessness with regard to the Frere's actions in a telling note to his Prime Minister:

"I have impressed this [non aggressive] view upon Sir B. Frere, both officially and privately, to the best of my power. But I cannot really control him without a telegraph (I don’t know that I could with one) I feel it is as likely as not that he is at war with the Zulus at the present moment."

It is believed that Frere wanted to provoke a conflict with the Zulus and in that goal he succeeded. Cetshwayo rejected the demands of 11 December, by not responding by the end of the year. A concession was granted by the British until 11 January 1879, after which a state of war was deemed to exist.

The Terms of the Ultimatum The following are the terms which were included in the ultimatum delivered to the representatives of King Cetshwayo on the banks of the Thukela river on 11 December 1878. No time was specified for compliance with item 4, twenty days were allowed for compliance with items 1-3, that is, until 31 December inclusive; ten days more were allowed for compliance with the remaining demands, items 4 13. The earlier time limits were subsequently altered so that all expired on 10th January 1879.

•  Surrender of Sihayo’s three sons and brother to be tried by the Natal courts.

•  Payment of a fine of five hundred head of cattle for the outrages committed by the above, and for Cetshwayo’s delay in complying with the request of the Natal Government for the surrender of the offenders.

•  Payment of a hundred head of cattle for the offence committed against Messrs. Smith and Deighton.

•  Surrender of the Swazi chief Umbilini, and others to be named hereafter, to be tried by the Transvaal courts.

•  Observance of the coronation promises.

•  That the Zulu army be disbanded, and the men allowed to go home.

•  That the Zulu military system be discontinued, and other military regulations adopted, to be decided upon after consultation with the Great Council and British Representatives.

•  That every man, when he comes to man’s estate, shall be free to marry.

•  All missionaries and their converts, who until 1877 lived in Zululand, shall be allowed to return and reoccupy their stations.

•  All such missionaries shall be allowed to teach, and any Zulu, if he chooses, shall be free to listen to their teaching.

•  A British Agent shall be allowed to reside in Zululand, who will see that the above provisions are carried out,

•  All disputes in which a missionary or European is concerned, shall be heard by the king in public, and in presence of the Resident.

•  No sentence of expulsion from Zululand shall be carried out until it has been approved by the Resident.


[top]

 
The battle of Isandlwana

Photograph of Zulu warriers
Zulu warriors

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 22 January the centre 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 (it is generally thought that a Colonel Anthony Durnford was in command, but new information has surfaced showing that it was not so), 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 ensuing Battle of Isandlwana was the greatest victory that the Zulu kingdom would enjoy during the war. In its aftermath, a party of some 4000 Zulu reserves mounted a raid on the nearby British border post of Rorke's Drift, and were only driven off after 10 hours of ferocious fighting.

While the British central column under Chelmsford's command was thus engaged, the right flank column on the coast, under Colonel Charles Pearson, crossed the Tugela River, skirmished with a Zulu impi that was attempting to set up an ambush at the Inyezane River, and advanced as far as the deserted missionary station of Eshowe, which he set about fortifiying. On learning of the disaster at Isandlwana, Pearson made plans to withdraw back beyond the Tugeala River. However, before he had decided whether of not to put these plans into effect, the Zulu army managed to cut off his supply lines, and the Siege of Eshowe had begun.

Meanwhile the left flank column at Utrecht, under Colonel Evelyn Wood, had originally been charged with occupying the Zulu tribes of north-west Zululand and preventing them from interfering with the British central column's advance on Ulundi. To this end Wood set up camp at Tinta's Kraal, just 10 miles south of Hlobane mountain, where a force of 4000 Zulus had been spotted. He planned to attack them on the 24 January, but on learning of the disaster at Isandlwana, he decided to withdraw back to the Kraal. Thus one month after the British invasion, only their left flank column remained militarily effective, and was too weak to conduct a campaign alone.

Re-invasion
It had never been Cetshwayo's intention to invade Natal, but to simply fight for within the boundaries of the Zulu kingdom. Chelmsford used the next two months to regroup and build a fresh invading force with the initial intention of relieving Pearson at Eshowe. The British government rushed seven regiments of re-inforcements to Natal, along with two artillery batteries.

During this time (12 March) an escort of stores marching to Luneberg, was killed, and all the stores were lost.

The first troops arrived at Durban on 7 March. 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 28 March. 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, while the Zulus lost approximately 2000. It turned out to be a decisive battle.

While Woods was thus engaged, Chelmsford's column was marching on Eshowe. On 2 April this force was attacked en route 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 5 April. after which the Zulu forces burned it down.


Defeat of the Zulu
The new start was not promising for the British. Despite their successes at Kambula, Gingindlovu and Eshowe, they were right back where they had started from at the beginning of January. Nevertheless, Chelmsford had a pressing reason to proceed with haste - Sir Garnet Wolseley was being sent to replace him, and he wanted to inflict a resounding defeat on Cetshwayo's forces before then. With yet more reinforcements arriving, Chelmsford reorganised his forces and relaunched his invasion in June.

One of the early 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 on 1 June while out with a reconnoitering party.

Cetshwayo, knowing that the newly re-inforced British would be a formidable opponent, attempted to negotiate a peace treaty. However with Sir Garnet Wolseley hard on his heels, Chelmsford was in no mood for negotiations and he proceeded as fast as he could to the royal kraal of Ulundi, intending to destroy the main Zulu army. On 4 July the armies clashed at the Battle of Ulundi, and Cetshwayo's forces were decisively defeated.

Aftermath
After this battle the Zulu army dispersed, most of the leading chiefs tendered their submission, and Cetshwayo became a fugitive. On 28 August 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, i.e. 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 the 22 July 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.

Later Zulu Rebellion and participation of Gandhi
The rebellion was supported by Mahatma Gandhi, who was in South Africa at the time. Gandhi felt that the Indians in South Africa would better serve their role in the British Empire as a reserve force in the Army against the Zulu uprising.[14] Whatever may have been his motive, Gandhi's ambulance corps treated the Zulu wounded, a task which the British would not do.

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.

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, thick as grass and black as thunder" in a sense serves as a wry tribute to the elemental power of the tribal warriors.

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.

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 izinduna 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.

Weapons
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.

Logistics
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 moveable 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.

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.

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. Initially the move was unpopular, 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 (see below). 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.

Tactics
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. The tactic was called the beast's horns by the Zulu and was called "impondo zekomo" in the native Zulu tongue.

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 izinduna (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 izinduna who controlled the corps grouping. Overall guidance of the host was furnished by elder izinduna 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 izinduna, like the non-coms of today's army, and yesterday's 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 izinduna, 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. (See Morris ref below- "The Washing of the Spears").

[top]


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. However, an important consideration, which King Cetshwayo appreciated, was that there was a clear difference between defending one's territory, and encroaching on another, regardless of the fact that they are at war with the holder of that land. The King realised that peace would be impossible if a real invasion of Natal was launched, and that it would only provoke a more concerted effort on the part of the British against them. The attack on Rorke's Drift, in Natal, was an opportunist raid, as opposed to a real invasion. 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 breach-loading Martini-Henry 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 izinduna must have found close coordination difficult.

Command of the field forces was also split at times, with one or more izinduna 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 also taxed 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.

See also
Scramble for Africa
African inferno
The British Empire
Being brave

Readers please email comments to: editorial AT martinfrost.ws including full name

Note: martinfrost.ws contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available to our readers under the provisions of "fair use" in an effort to advance a better understanding of political, economic and social issues. The material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving it for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material for purposes other than "fair use" you must request permission from the copyright owner.
Return to home page
top