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20th January 2005The end of the Thin Red Line?
By Paul Cubbin
Something that strikes me about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 is the amount of new challenges faced by Imperial forces in what, at first glance, appeared to be just another African border skirmish to be completed, at the bayonet, in a couple of months.
Specifically, and with reference to this particular posting, I refer to the part that concealment played in the conflict. In the North-West Frontier and in Afghanistan, well armed enemies were virtually invisible in rocky clefts and only the puffs of rifle smoke gave away their position. It is little wonder that so many Imperial soldiers lost their lives in such difficult terrain. Zululand, by comparison, must have seemed like a walk in the park. Sure, there was the odd donga and dramatic mountain or river, but the country was largely open plain. Apart from transport difficulties and orientation, Chelmsford must have decided that he had the easy option compared to his colleagues fighting the fierce Asian tribesmen so many miles away.
However, time and time again, large bodies of Zulus seem to have been able to conceal themselves in what appeared to be very little or zero cover, whilst the British infantry stood out like sore thumbs (do they really stand out? Sore thumbs I mean). Was this clever in country the British knew little or nothing about, whilst their enemies were in their own backyard? Khaki was worn in the Indian Army with some success but good old scarlet seemed to be the order of the African day. Did this make any difference? The Zulus ceratinly didn't seem too bothered at the sight of the Thin Red Line and just set to work making it redder.
Was it simply that Chelmsford did not WANT to hide, and obviously was enticing the Zulus to attack? Or was it a symptom of a wider malaise within the establishment that resisted change for the sake of it? Although some changes had been made in order to face European opponents, the tactics and formations used in Zululand were Naopleonic, should they have been updated?Unfortunately, a very different type of conflict, The Boer War, forced a change in thinking a few short years later (not the uniform specifically, more the formation and tactics of a unit in battle).
21st January 2005Derek C
Paul, an interesting point.

When one is fighting the enemy on "their" ground, there are obvious disadvantages. While Chelmsforod had his spies, one would be naive to believe the Zulus didn't have theirs. I'm guessing from the day that ultimatim was issued, British movements were monitored very closely.

I suppose that one could argue that it was the arrogance of the Empire at that time. They expected that the sight of all those "Red Coats" would disperse the enemy.

Why on God's green earth, would you fight in red, with a tea stained helmet t'boot? Isn't it ironic that Baden Powell, who was in Chelmsfords scouting party & couldn't find all those Zulus, now has urban Scouts running around cities in Khaki?
21st January 2005Peter Ewart

Long grass! (Depending on the time of year). The Zulu could conceal himself in long grass while virtually standing up - a huge invasion column of thousands of men, cattle and hundreds of wagons obviously couldn't.

However, concealment wasn't that crucial in most of the larger engagements. Isandlwana was an exception rather than the rule. There was little or no attempt (or need) to conceal the main Zulu army at Hlobane or Khambula and obviously not at Ulundi (although their presence in the area of Hlobane was reportedly - but not conclusively? - discovered by accident the previous night). Other examples such as Myer's Drift (mist & darkness); Ityotyosi (long grass); or 3rd July (long grass & subterfuge) were all assisted by either poor/non-existent British/Colonial scouting, carelessness or inferior leadership, leading to a failure to appreciate imminent danger. As the war progressed, there were examples of much better scouting but also the odd example of the opposite.

In January and at other times, Zulu scouting was clearly superior but there was little point in good scouting on the part of the invasion force if the reports were not assessed correctly or ignored & consequently not acted upon.

In the field of spying, the Zulu system was far superior. They had long had very effective and sophisticated methods - these skills pre-dated Shaka's time and continued after Cetshwayo's time. All invasion force movements appear to have been observed from even before 11th January & the king or his commanders were in possession of very detailed information extremely quickly. There were often rumours of Zulu spies infiltrating or travelling with the columns (e.g. Isandlwana & Myer's Drift). The extensive Zulu spy network had always, of course, included operations in Natal & continued to do so during and after 1879.

Baden Powell in Chelmsford's scouting party??? He was chasing Dinizulu, not Cetshwayo!!! You're about nine years out, Derek.

21st January 2005Graham Alexander
The influence of the Duke of Wellington still, unfortunately, held a grip on military thinking at this time. What had been good enough for him should still have been good enough for the soldiers of Her Majesty. The sight of lines of scarlet clothed soldiers had, and was still expected, to strike fear into all their enemies.
During the Gordon relief expedition, the few men to be sent up the Nile to Khartoum, were clad in scarlet jumpers in an attempt to frighten the Arabs.
In the first Boer War, the riflemen were clothed in their traditional green, but still wore white helmets. A wounded rifleman at Ingogo wrote " Can anything be more ridiculous than to clothe us in dark green to prevent observation, and give us a head-dress, a staring white helmet that can be perfectly seen a quarter of a mile off with the naked eye, and offers a splendid target to aim at "
Percy Marling of the 60th rifles wrote that the men had originally dyed their helmets khaki, but were ordered by an aghast senior officer, to return them to their original white !
The experience of modern rifles and enemies who took cover was still to be learnt at this time by the British army, but it was soon going to happen.
21st January 2005Paul Cubbin
As wonderful as it is for collectors (like myself) to see rows of scarlet lined up against the Zulus the whole thing does seem a little silly, doesn't it?
Derek - I'll back you up with Baden-Powell mate, maybe he was after his 'Zulu badge'.
Peter - I was hoping you'd reply as I was sure your depth of knowledge would reveal some nice titbits of information (the joy of a discussion group with your academic superiors). If I might tempt some free learning out of you, what was the basic structure of the Zulu spy system (I can then tout it as my own research when attempting to impress others)? If you just say it was a red band to wear around the head I shall be most upset.
Graham - although green must have been a marked improvement on red it probably wasn't all that great given the terrain - with a fluorescent helmet to boot! Unfortunately, inexperienced, overbearing and above all arrogant officers are a problem that is still with us. Story time. My brother was 2ic of a regiment in the Gulf and was sent out with 8 other men as an advance party six weeks before the rest of the regiment arrived. After arriving in Saudi it was found that, despite having plenty of warning, no-one had been issued any desert equipment nor was any forthcoming, although it was promised to arrive shortly and they were advised to make what provision they could. During the campaign the maximum temperature recorded by this unit was 60 degrees centigrade. Eventually the kit was 'liberated' from a local US Marine unit to whom they were attached. Some weeks into the campaign my brother found out (via his wife, via the colonel's wife) that the CO (the colonel) had received nine sets of desert kit a day after the first party had departed. He had retained one set for himself (he was due to depart six weeks later) and kept the extra eight as 'spares' in his own loft. This he kept to himself and only admitted it when faced with cross examination by the brigadier months later. The centuries roll by, but incompetence and raw ignorance lives on.
21st January 2005Mike Snook
Some observations:

Zululand is not an open plain. It is hill country.

British scarlet was not as obvious in the field as one might think. It fades to a brick red when dusty or dirty and this is only a shade or two from brown. It was the white helmet that stood out, hence the eminently sensible practice of dying them.

Infantry tactics of 1879. They had already changed from what might be charcterized as Napoleonic linear/columnar tactics as practised up to and including the Crimean War. See my 'How Can Man Die Better' for more on this in a few months from now. Close order formations and in particular the square, made something of a comeback on the basis of the Isandlwana experience.

Incidentally at ranges beyond 300-400 yards all human figures are black in appearance.

21st January 2005Alan Hobson
There have been many interesting points and anecdotes in this thread [Paul, that story about the Colonel and the Gulf unfirms is truly shocking!].

However, I am a bit puzzled about Graham's point concerning the Gordon relief column [of 1884-85]. The troops on this column wore khaki for the most part. However, at one point, in order to increase morale, they were allowed to wear their red/scarlet tunics. The subsequent battle was the last time that the British scarlet was ever worn in battle. But they were proper tunics, not jumpers!

Interestingly, the scarlet tunics were still in use a decade later, in 1895, and worn on an expedition in West Africa. This time, however, there was no battle.

But all this brings up another reason the British scarlet was retained for as long as it was, in addition to the supposed "fear factor" referred to above. Basically,it was good for morale. Far from disliking it as too conspicuous, many British infantrymen seemed fond of it.
21st January 2005John Young
Derek C,

Just to endorse Peter's comments above re-Lieutenant Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, 13th Hussars, he was based at & around Lucknow, India in 1879.

His involvement with the amaZulu was during 1888 'disturbances'.

John Y.
21st January 2005Paul Cubbin
Mike - yes, Zululand is hilly, but by COMPARISON with the Northwest frontier it must have been a billiard table. Also, the scarlet tunic may well have dulled with wear, but the colour combined with the massed formations used by the line infantry, Ray Charles could have used them for target practice at anything up to an eighth of a mile. Plus, if I'm skirmishing I'd take a khaki tunic anytime over even a brick red one. In contrast, the Zulus were able to leap out from cover at a distance of a couple of yards. And these guys had a flipping great (if light) rawhide shield to carry too
I'm comparing both the kit and tactics used a) in other arenas and, b) by the other troops involved (Zulus and allied irregulars).
21st January 2005Peter Ewart
Thank you, John. Interestingly, B-P embarked on the Serapis on 6th December 1878 at Bombay & would have been arriving in England (given the usual 6 week voyage of the time, if using the Suez Canal) at about the same time Chelmsford's scouting parties were having a look at Isandlwana, the Malakatha & Hlazakazi.

An interesting little link, however. You'll recognise the name of the same vessel from which F.* Schiess VC was buried in 1884, being one of five identical troopships (with the Jumna, Euphrates, Malaba & Crocodile) which transported the Indian drafts during the trooping season.

But yes, Paul, he certainly was after his "Zulu badge"! The misty (murky?) origins of his famous Wood Badge from Zululand are these days a lot less clear than they once were, though. The Smyth/Baden-Powell adventure of 1888 in Zululand remains controversial to this day.


* I decline to offer a full spelling!
22nd January 2005Mike Snook

OK. Have it your own way. Zululand is like a billiard table.


22nd January 2005Michael Boyle

I agree Zululand was no Hindu Kush but the terrain was none the less sufficiently diverse to hide 20,000 or so Zulus within six miles of the camp long enough to tell on that morning 126 years ago( today Zulu Time).(With that I toast "Absent Comrades" and take a pull on my whiskey and raise a pint in their honour.)(Please feel free to join me.)

As for the "Red Line" , although the Zulus had thousands of rifles, they had neither the training nor supply to make them reliable until well within effective British range thus had the entire infantry force turned out with fluorescent bull's eyes painted on their chests it would have made them no better a target in that campaign!(I tend to attribute British firearm casualties in the AZW more to bad luck than good marksmanship.)

You may interested to know that the lack of proper equipment in the current conflict is not limited to the U.K. In the States a commercial outfit,Brigade Quartermasters, had found a niche in allowing the family and friends of combatants to purchase and ship everything from body armour to night vision to desert cammies and 'ready-baths' to their loved ones.(I only mention this in case someone has mates who have not yet been equipped to their satisfaction. I don't hold with our Sec. Def.'s recent answer to queries that "An army goes to war with what it has,not with what it wants"[probably mangled that], an illiteration that may have been true for Lord Chelmsford but holds no place in modern elective war-fare.)

(Sorry,a week off-line and I go into a rant!)


You've got me 'chompin' at the bit'. I've often wondered why so little consideration has thus far been credited to the (ugh,don't say it,arrgh can't help it!) 'paradigm shift' of the 1878 Regs. change.

Boy Scouts- here at least, they wear khaki as the dress uniform but olive-drab in the field.(As far as memory serves.)



22nd January 2005Derek C
My appologies regarding Baden Powell. I had a brain stall (again) was thinking of Sir Berkeley Milne.
22nd January 2005Graham Alexander
I have been trying to find the confirmation to my statement that the troops going up to Khartoum on the steamers wore red jumpers, but why is it you can never find things when you want to. However I have now found the necessary details. In " Englands Pride " by Julian Symons he writes :-
" Divided between the two boats were twenty men of the Sussex regiment.....The red coats on which both Wolseley and Gordon had set so muchstore had been lost or looted, and red serge jumpers belonging to the Guards and the heavies had to be used instead. Many of them were too big for the Sussex men.....
Both khaki and red uniforms were taken on this expedition and it can only be assumed that it was vital to have the men dressed in red when they appeared at Khatroum.
22nd January 2005Paul Cubbin
Michael - yes, its a pity that British Victorian attitudes appeared to view other nations, such as the Zulus, with a bizarre and contradictory mix of respect and condescension. Had they taken the trouble to learn, post AZW, some of the concealment techniques used by Impis it may have saved lives in later campaigns.
At the risk of boring people (too late) with irelevant annecdotes I have an epilogue with regards to the kit issued to troops in the Iraq War. One of the reasons my brother pushed for assignment to a US Marine unit was that they had their own tanks, air support and ice cream! UK families also were forced to send desert equipment to their loved ones via mail order catalogues. When a visiting US officer entered my brother's tent to find him absent he commented to the British squaddie accompanying him on the palacial nature of accomodation - large tent, proper bed, air conditioner, fridge hooked up to a 'genny' - enjoyed by even the lowest ranks in the British unit. 'Yes Sir,' the squaddie blankly supplied. 'The Boss encourages us to steal things we like the look of.' The officer did not visit again.
22nd January 2005John Young

The Camel Corps during the attempted relief of Khartoum, wore a light grey/blue jacket, just to add to your uniform detail.

John Y.
22nd January 2005Peter Ewart

Ah, now you're talking!

Wasn't it partly Admiral Berkely Milne's scouting shortcomings in the Med which allowed the Goben & Breslau to slip through into the Dardanelles in Aug 1914? Fisher & Churchill certainly weren't impressed. In fact, Fisher had never been impressed wiith B-M & had more than one nickname for him, such as Berkely Mean, because he bought his copy of "TheTimes" second-hand for 1d. Fisher also complained bitterly when B-M got the Med fleet job on account of it having been "Buggins' turn."

One can almost picture him scanning the Med for the two battle cruisers through his "bins" or telescope & exclaiming: "I think the tents are still standing, Your Lordship."

Perhaps a little unfair!

23rd January 2005Michael Boyle

A word of advice for your brother-before sending out troops to 'scrounge' from US Marines be sure to have a good plan and 'get up pretty early in the morning'. Marines have a well deserved reputation as master scroungers themselves! (How do you think we got our own tanks and planes?)


23rd January 2005Graham Alexander
Quite correct, complete with blue puttees ! -
There really was some experimental uniforms taking place on this campaign. You can only assume that the red jumpers were issued to ward off the chill of the desert after dark.

23rd January 2005Paul Cubbin
Michael - its amazing how many British camp beds got 'run over' by a tank and were written off by the quartermaster at about the time that the same amount of US Marine tents were 'run over' and written off. Cooperation is a wonderful thing.