Hey, guys; what’s up? Last time we talked about Napoleon and how Wellington decisively defeated him at Waterloo. Today we are going to jump 64 years ahead and travel to South Africa. This article is about the Anglo-Zulu war, although I won’t talk about all the battles. Today I’m going to write about the Battle of Isandlwana.
By 1879, Britain was at the peak of its power. Its empire covered nearly a quarter of the globe, and it had the most modern and powerful navy–far stronger than any other at the time. At the time, explorers from all over the world were still discovering Africa. South Africa was made up of lots of tribes, but the warriors of the large and very amazing Zulu tribe were said to be the most fierce fighters of their day. A small tribe which was usually occupied by other African tribes, the Zulus managed to grow into a massive warrior nation, thanks to the efforts of their greatest king, Shaka, who modernized the Zulu army and adopted an awesome strategy known as “the horns of the buffalo.” The Zulus adopted a unique strategy to defeat their enemies. They would allow the enemy to approach the “chest,” and then reserves would form “horns” on either side by encircling the enemy, flanking them and cutting off their escape, as shown in the diagram below:
Anyway, the Zulus had been seen by Dutch “Boers” (farmers) as a threat to their lifestyle, partially because Zulu youths had been raiding and attacking Dutch settlers. The Zulus, on the other hand, thought of the Boers as taking their territory and stealing their cattle. Both sides had conflicting views, but, to be honest, neither side could be called “the good guys.” The Boers could easily push the Zulus off their land, owing to the fact that they were skilled riflemen. The Zulus were ruthless warriors who were brought up as a warrior nation.
The discovery of diamond mines in Kimberley had started a “Diamond Rush.” The British were always on the lookout for resources to fuel the empire and wanted to annex more territory, but they didn’t want to engage in a war, because wars were very expensive. However, British administrator Sir Bartle Frere, who was totally in favor of war, issued an ultimatum to Zulu King Cetshwayo (without the permission of the British Government) that was practically impossible to answer. Even though the diamond mines weren’t in Zulu territory, the British didn’t want to have to negotiate rights to travel through Zulu land to reach them. The Boers also wanted to settle more land without the threat of Zulu interference.
British and South African (a mixture of Boer and native blacks) forces totaling 15,500 men (6,500 British; 9,000 South Africans) crossed into Zulu land, hoping to lure the Zulu army out into the open and destroy it. The Zulu army numbered an estimated 35,000 warriors. Despite being outnumbered, the British had the most efficiently trained army in the world, armed with the state-of-the-art Martini-Henry rifle ,including a rocket battery. The Zulus, on the other hand, were armed with the traditional assegai spears, iklwa clubs, and throwing spears.
Let’s focus on the battle of Isandlwana. Lord Chelmsford, the commander, tried to draw the Zulus into battle where they could destroy them. But the Zulus didn’t fall for it. Instead, they waited for an opportunity which would allow them to use their “buffalo” tactic to their advantage. Chelmsford foolishly made a terrible mistake and divided his army, taking one half to try to find the Zulus, leaving another encamped at the mountain of Isandlwana. The Zulus quickly took the advantage and prepared to attack. The British at Isandlwana had not dug in, thinking their rifles and wagons were enough. This was partially true, since the British Martini-Henry Rifle could fire 23 rounds a minute, and its bullet had a 60% chance of going through two people at once. (However, after firing 24 rounds, the rifle had a 50% chance of jamming.)
The British tactic of defense was quite impregnable. This tactic was to group the soldiers three to four lines deep. First one rank would fire, then they would the crouch while the second rank would fire, and so on. This tactic was incredibly deadly, especially with a rifle that could fire 23 rounds a minute. These soldiers had fought other tribes, but never a tribe of highly elite warriors like the Zulus. Logically, they still should have annihilated the Zulus, or at least inflicted huge losses, but the British commanders Colonel Anthony Durnford and Colonel Henry Pulleine had no experience commanding a large force.
On the morning of January 22, British Scouts (possibly Boer) spotted 20,000 Zulu warriors in a valley eight miles from the camp. Horrified, they rushed back to inform their commanders. Pulleine started to deploy his men, but in the worst formation: a thin line of troops two ranks deep. Not only was Pulleine was not defending his position; he was trying to meet the Zulus head on and check them with firepower, confident that the Zulus would run at the fire of one volley. But the Zulus concealed their forces by using the landscape to hide their movements. The Zulus soon started to deploy their traditional “horns of the buffalo” strategy with the aim of encircling the British position.
Pulleine deployed Durnford’s cavalry on his flanks but placed his rockets in a isolated sector where they were soon overrun. Pulleine and his force of more than 1,500 men, including 800 British soldiers and the rest of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), still had a massive amount of firepower they could unleash if they had positioned themselves in the camp and had deployed three lines of infantry. But they didn’t, which allowed the Zulus to use their tactics.
The British lines quickly managed to check the main portion of Zulus (head of the buffalo), whilst British cavalry tried to stall them. But by the time the British had fired more than 24 volleys, a third of the British guns began to jam. The excuse made by the British was that their quartermasters weren’t handing out ammunition, but archaeological evidence shows that the British had a huge amount–nearly 400,000 rounds. Now the Zulus used their melee training and rushed at the British, who put up a brave fight. But soon the British were driven back through the camp, and the Zulus soon started encircling the camp. Many British soldiers fell back and organized an efficient line of fire, and, since the Zulu warriors first started coming at them in small piecemeal waves, the British managed to hold them off. But the Zulus soon had the numbers, and the British were forced to make a brave last stand. Only 24 British soldiers escaped. Those fortunate enough to have horses managed to skirmish and harass the Zulus and escape.
It was Britain’s worst defeat against a technologically inferior force. The British, who deployed 1,500 men, had lost 1,300 men, while the Zulus, who committed only 15,000 out of 20,000 had lost 1,000 dead and 2,000 wounded–a severe loss but a great victory. Isandlwana stands as one of the worst British defeats in history. Although the British could have won, due to bad leadership and poor planning, they lost. Next time, I’ll talk about the battle of Rorkes Drift, which is one of my favorite battles in history.
If you want a good movie about Isandlwana, I suggest “Zulu Dawn,” starring Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole.