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DateOriginal Topic
20th January 2005Unarmed combat during the Zulu War
By Coll
Although soldiers were trained in the use of firearms and bayonet practice, were they taught hand-to-hand fighting, similar to modern-day armies, using either knives or bayonets as individual weapons not attached to rifles or carbines, teaching them effective techniques in close-quarter combat, when the enemy is too near to use guns or fixed bayonets ?.
20th January 2005Paul Cubbin
Coll - I read your post and said to myself, 'No, almost certainly not,' then stopped and thought, 'Well, why not?' Interesting point, I've never heard of any unarmed techniques further than the various boxing and wrestling exercises that were encouraged (Victorians were very keen on athletic achievement). Obviously, the background of many of the recruits, a large proportion of whom were still from the 'crminal classes' (at least before the Cardwell reforms), would point towards them being able to look after themselves in a fist fight. Life in the Lower Classes could be rough. Prize fighting was still very popular and there were doubtless many offical and unofficial contests between the regiments. Eastern martial arts techniques were a mystery to most Europeans and Savate (French kick boxing combined with fencing) was really only ever practised in any numbers in France, less so after the public wearing of swords was no longer popular.
It's interesting that in the film 'Zulu Dawn' Bob Hoskins takes down a Zulu opponent with a swift headbutt as to many other nations this method of attack was unknown (even today, any foreign town that has a British garrison nearby invariably has certain bars where residents can watch the interesting techniques employed by skinny 18 year old squaddies against large local miners/farmers/lumberjacks/oil workers/road workers etc..). I had the good fortune, some years back, to read a manual given to American GI's just posted to West Germany (as it was in those days, the 1980's). It gave a quick overview of the various nationalities of soldier they could expect to meet during their stay. Of particular note was the entry for British service personnel which went along the lines of, 'Under no circumstances should you allow yourself to become embroiled in a physical altercation with British servicemen/women whilst drinking in the town. They are more able to hold their liquor than most Americans as their native beer is stronger than ours and they drink more of it. Even though they may appear smaller in stature than you, they are usually able to win a one-on-one fight through persistance and aggression. Even if you are fortunate enough to avoid serious harm, you may find yourself outnumbered in the carpark afterwards by his/her angry colleagues.'
Somehow, it makes you glow inside .... although that could be all the native beer.
20th January 2005Coll

Thanks for your reply.

Using the scene from Zulu Dawn was a really good example, because like the real battle, when the shooting came to an end, survival instinct took over and even though the soldiers had no chance of living, the fighting resorted to hand-to-hand, knives, clubbed rifles and carbines, mallets, even fists.

I just wondered if the men were trained in some kind of unarmed combat, although maybe not at Isandlwana, they were given the best chance of being able to survive a close-quarter fight, if firearms were not available.

21st January 2005Adrian Whiting

Soldiers equipped with the sword bayonet for carbines were instructed in using it as a sword (apols if a little obvious !).

There were instructions for using the MH socket bayonet as a handheld weapon, although doctrine very much favoured the bayonet being affixed to the rifle for use.

Hopr this helps

21st January 2005Coll

Thankyou for the information.

22nd January 2005Mike Snook

The Victorian army certainly boxed and wrestled. Nor was it confined to the enlisted men. Bromhead boxed and wrestled with some distinction as a new subaltern. There were keenly contested inter-company and inter-battalion competions for these sports, as well as for bayonet fighting. Every company and battalion would have had a bayonet fighting team. Bayonet fighting skills were exercised by numbers as an absolutely standard part of weekly training programmes. (You might be interested to know that the bayonet has been used in anger in Iraq.)

During the stand on the right at Isandlwana it is recorded that the Carbineers and Police fought with their bare fists, with hunting knives, and that they threw stones. (Obviously once the ammunition was done). There is a famous first hand Zulu account describing how he was pinned to the ground and almost throttled to death by one of the 24th men. (A passing Zulu stabbed his assailant and saved him.) Another soldier fought with a wooden tent peg mallet.

I own a Martini-Henry. It is beautifuly balanced as a rifle - but reverse it and it is also beautifully balanced as a baseball bat!


22nd January 2005Paul Cubbin
Mike S - with regards to your entry about The British infantsyman vs the Zulu, do you know if the Zulus practised any form of unarmed combat? I know that wrestling is (almost) universally practised by nations but is sometimes too ritualised to be of great use in a 'tooth and claw' scrap. In a previous link I stated that the average Zulu must have physically been more than a match for the average British soldier - perhaps I should revise that in the face of this post. A good, well delivered right hook will drop even the biggest of unprepared opponents - especially if boxing is unknown to them. I
It was fascinating to read of Bromhead's athletic record, too (perhaps that helps explain the deafness?). We should bear in mind that boxing matches in the nineteenth century were brutal and could go on for hours, even after the introduction of the Queensbury Rules of 1867. Whilst pugilistic prize fights were less common among 'gentlemen' it doesn't mean they didn't happen. It may help explain why sheer numbers helped out many Zulu warriors who, when faced with an unarmed opponet, quite naturally expected them to surrender or run. Maybe it explains the surprise of so many Zulus at the ferocity of cornered soldiers.
23rd January 2005Mike Snook

I'm afraid nothing by way of unarmed combat springs immediately to mind, though no doubt they wrestled as you say. They practised extensively with their traditional weapons including both stabbing and throwing assegais - they were powerful and accurate with the latter. And they indulged in stick fights as a way of practising their hand to hand skills.

You make an interesting point about Bromhead's deafness - that possibility hadn't occurred to me. I am a inclined to believe he might have been a little hard of hearing before 22 January 1879, and deaf as a post thereafter. In other words that the onset of serious deafness actually originated with the gunfire of the battle. I should think there were a lot of hearing problems afterward.

23rd January 2005Paul Cubbin
I thought the reason for his relatively slow promotion and the 'risk free' posting to Rorke's Drift was his deafness and that he was only given command at all out of a sense of duty. Is this another supposition based on hearsay?
23rd January 2005Mike Snook

Lordy me, yes it most certainly is. Don't believe everyhting you read! B Coy, like all the other 24th Coys employed on the lines of communication, was to be relieved at RD by the 4th Regiment who at the time of the battle were marching along the border road for Helpmekaar under Col Bray. The 24th companies would then habe marched on into Zululand to join their respective battalions in the field. Only history never let things go that far...

So whilst B Coy had inded been left behind it was only a temporary arrangement.

They were detailed to the duty in 2nd/24th routine orders the night before the invasion.