Saturday, October 11, 2014

Military Blunders: Isandlwana

(Hey Wayne, this one's for you, amigo).

Most people have seen the movie Zulu, the story of the 1879 gallant defence by British soldiers of the mission station at Rorke’s Drift in Natal. The mission station was defended by 150 men against 4,000 Zulus, who were armed not only with traditional spears (known as assegai) and shields, but also with the captured firearms from the earlier Battle of Isandlwana. Unlike Rorke’s Drift, that battle was a monumental fail, characterised by blunder after blunder.

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Back then, a time when Britain was seeking to increase its colonial holdings in Africa, one of the obstacles was the kingdom of Zululand headed by King Cetshwayo, pictured below.

Sir Henry Bartle Frere, pictured below, the British High Commissioner in South Africa, sought to deal with the obstacle. 

On his own initiative and without the approval of the British government, he presented demands and an ultimatum to Cetshwayo that were impossible to meet, the intent being to instigate a war with the Zulus. When the time expired, Frere ordered Lord Chelmsford to invade Zululand.


Two weeks into the invasion, the British troops camped at Isandlwana. Cetshwayo had sent over 24,000 warriors to attack the Brits, who numbered 4,000 plus native auxiliaries and levies but who were armed with advanced firearms against the Zulu assegais, throwing spears, clubs and cowhide shields.

Chelmsford was dismissive of defence precautions, ignoring standing orders to entrench.  He failed to circle his wagons, stating "It would take a week to make." Like many other military commanders of the time, Chelmsford believed that a small force of trained British soldiers with superior weapons and artillery could withstand any native attack.

After a skirmish with a small Zulu force, Chelmsford came to the conclusion that it was part of the main Zulu force. Not only was he wrong, he then compounded the blunder by splitting his army, taking 2,500 men including half of his British soldiers, with the intention of wiping out the Zulu contingent. The reality was that the Zulus he had seen were a feint, intended to draw him away from his main force, a thought which did not occur to Chelmsford.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine, an administrative officer with no combat experience, was left in charge of the men who remained, his orders being to defend the camp and to assist Chelmsford if called upon.


Colonal Anthony Durnford arrived not long afterwards from Rorke’s Drift with mounted troops and rocket battery. Although senior to Pulleine and although by tradition he should have assumed command, he elected to pursue a group of Zulu he thought were intending to attack Chelmsford’s rear.


The Zulus were behind Chelmsford, that part is correct. Whilst Chelmsford was searching for them, the Zulus had manoeuvred themselves behind him, attacking the camp using the traditional horns and chest of the buffalo strategy that features in the film Zulu, the intent being to encircle the British. 

The failure to secure an effective defensive position, the poor intelligence on the location of the main Zulu army, Chelmsford's decision to split his force in half, and the Zulus' tactical exploitation of the terrain and the weaknesses in the British formation, all combined to prove catastrophic for the troops at Isandlwana.

Although the British lines held initially, the sheer weight of numbers forced the defenders to make smaller and smaller defensive squares. As ammunition ran out, hand to hand fighting – bayonets and rifles used as clubs against assegais and clubs – was fierce. The Zulus overran the camp and 1,300 of the 1,700 defenders died, comprising virtually all the British soldiers including Pulleine and Durnford, and native auxiliaries. Estimated losses on the Zulu side were the same.

The Zulus took or left on the field 1,000 Martini-Henry rifles, two field artillery guns, 400,000 rounds of ammunition, three colours, most of the 2,000 draft animals and 130 wagons, as well as tinned food, biscuits, beer, overcoats, tents and other supplies.. 

As King Cetshwayo feared, the embarrassment of the defeat forced the policy makers in London, who to this point had not supported the war, to rally to the support of the pro-war contingent. The Zulus ended up being crushed and the kingdom of Zululand taken over.

Chelmsford blamed Durnford for the debacle, claiming Durnford disobeyed his orders to fix a proper defensive camp, although there is no evidence such an order was issued Although much of the blame was sheeted home to Chelmsford, he finished his career with further multiple honours and promotions.

Isandlwana today

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