you are currently viewing: Discussion Forum


The Rorke's Drift VC Discussion Forum
(View Discussion Rules)


PLEASE NOTE: This forum is now inactive and is provided for reference purposes only. The live forum is available at

(Back To Topic List)

DateOriginal Topic
11th March 2005Ammunition Questions again!
By Simon Copley
I have been reading the marathon 183 posting thread about ammo in my lunch hour because I really felt I needed to come to a view on this. I only got half way through but in the time I did have, several questions occurred to me.

After several facetious postings I have decided that the time has come for a serious historical foray so please bear with me chaps, HERE GOES!

(And Im really sorry for raking up old stuff which may have been answered in the part of the thread I did not read!I know this has probably been covered so I am happy for you guys to point me to extant answers here and elsewhere or e-mail privately.)

Firstly, is there a definitive collection of primary sources that we can read and make up our own minds so we can lock horns with learned scholars like Julian Whybra and John Young? I would love to do so on an equal footing! This seems to be the KEY mystery of the hill of the sphinx.

Second - we agree hopefully that primary sources are authoritative and it is claimed that none of these referr to a shortage of ammo. Yet, both Essex and Smith-Dorrien referr to their own strenuous efforts to organise ammo supply. If this was a task that had already been properly assigned to bandsmen then why were two officers engaged so heavily in this task? Another source referrs to a sergeant doing the same. And Smith-Dorriens remark to the quartermaster about a requisition seems to suggest that a serious problem WAS developing.

Thirdly, a bigger question has to be WHY did the line retire? Durnford retired from the donga because he felt the line was too extended but that begs a further question "why was it too extended"?

Could the answer be because the line as it was set was not delivering sufficient firepower to check the Zulus? So is this a deployment problem or an ammo problem? MY question really is - Would an extended line WITH ENOUGH AMMO have kept the Zulus in check?

Fourthly, this business of the screws - what is the evidence about when the lessons of the "kicking" method were learned? How conclusive is this either way?

Fifthly - What weight do we give to Symon's report. It seems to carry a lot of weight as (almost) a primary source, being based on first hand accounts. It may be argued that the document is obscured by political or personal considerations but couldn't this be said about any testimony? even first-hand survivors accounts?

Sixthly - what about the rate of fire? 70 rounds surely wouldn't last very long especially as the Zulus got closer and closer?
About 7 minutes if 20,000 warriors were right on top of you!

Seventhly - the fact that Grenfel (I think) saw heaps of cartridges round the bodies does not rule out the possibilty that supplies ran out. You might argue that it IS evidence of shortage, showing that lots of bullets HAD been fired. (To use a rubbish analogy: the fact that thee are lots of crumbs on my plate demonstrates that I have run out of food, not that I haven't, if that makes sense!)

Finally (hooray!) - the measures that Chelmsford took at Ulundi seem to lend a lot of weight to the fact that he saw the need to ensure ammo supply. The balance of probability is that he based his measures on eye-witness evidence from Isandlhwana.

He and they may have been mistaken of course, and that is the joy of history, allowing us the possibility of seeing with hindsight and overview what even the participants might not have known.

I am ready to be convinced either way - chaps. And congrats and thanks for all your contributions. This sight gets better and better!
11th March 2005Simon Copley
Ninthly - what was the testimony of those few survivors from the front (ie: firing line) where the ammo supply question would have been most trenchant?
11th March 2005Simon Copley
Ninthly - what was the testimony of those few survivors from the front (ie: firing line) where the ammo supply question would have been most trenchant?
12th March 2005Paul Cubbin
A big problem I had when I first became interested in the AZW (and legends therein) was my inherent belief in the last thing I heard. When someone told me 'The lack of ammunition was to blame', I believed it. When someone else said 'Chelmsford was to blame', I believed it. If a book or television program revealed some new glimmer of insight I latched onto it as purest gospel truth and proudly proclaimed my new knowledge to those not swift enough to avoid conversing with me. After having read a few more books on the subject and soaked up as much second hand wisdom as possible from this website and other sources, it is my considered opinion that I don't know any more.

I DO believe that the disaster at Isandlwana was the culmination of several moderate sized errors and a couple of real whoppers. Lack of ammunition, in my opinion, was not the major cause of the defeat but was a contributory factor. It is difficult to ascertain how an efficient supply system could have worked with so many companies scattered over a wide area. Certainly the apparent slackening of volley fire suggests to me that supplies were running low and a runner can only carry so much back and forth over a mile round trip. There is much debate over the issue and many differing, all highly informed and intelligent (except mine), opinions on the subject. However, almost everyone agrees that a tighter defensive formation centred on the ammunition wagons would have won the battle for the British. Make of that what you will.
12th March 2005Michael Boyle

Having misplaced my ten foot pole and it being a rather slow night here at work perhaps I can test my memory retention.

I seem to recall the marathon thread had over 200 entries, (the balance entering the void of the crash), which contained most all conceivable positions sprinkled throughout it.

1.) I'm unaware of any single volume with all the first hand accounts of Isandhlwana as such.Perhaps a worthy project?(I believe many of us have years yet to go to even approach equity with John,Julian and all the other well read researchers here!)

2.) This is the heart of the controversey (if we may still call it that). Who said what,where and when. (S-Ds later life memory being called into question.) The preponderance of evidence (or more precisely lack of comment) seeming to lie with the 'Did Not' run out of ammuntion school.

Personally I'm treading the line that the thought of running out of ammunition never even entered anyone's mind as they had never run low in any of their previous encounters with native Africans.This in spite of Lord Chelmsford's pre-war instructions for carrying 100 rds. when expecting contact and his specific instructions on re-supplying ammo and controlling the men's fire.

3.) The consensus here may be that the line retired because it was not deployed correctly in the first place. Of course neither Pulleine or Durnsford knew what exactly they were deploying against, and by the time they found out it was too late to do anything about it.

Both the 'chest' and the 'left horn' were in fact checked for a time, until Durnford's troops did run out of ammo (despite attempts to secure more) and were forced to withdraw,in turn prompting Pulleine to draw in his line. More ammo for Durnsford's troops could have allowed them to hold out longer but to what purpose? No one seemed to realize that the 'right horn' was there and rapidily approaching unchecked to envelope them all. The troops may have been able to hold their front but could never have held their rear at the same time.

4.) This seems to have been a point of dogma for Morris after he found an old twisted length of ammo box strap with obvious stripped screw holes on the field of Isandhlwana (no doubt a very emotional moment for him). He never seemed to realize that the ammo boxes opened with a single screw over the lid and did not have to have their straps unscrewed.

Judging by what I've read and seen of the boxes built to spec., my foot hurts just thinking about kicking them in!

5.)As any police officer will tell you no group of people see the same thing at the same time, in the same way, leaving us with need to sift through and find similarities or otherwise weigh the evidence presented in order to reach a conclusion. Different researchers reach different conclusions.

6.) You'd be surprised at how long 70 rds. can last, today about 10 seconds on full auto,but in 1879 with single shot breech loaders and competent officers controlling fire it could last hours.( I'm still having a bit of trouble getting my mind wrapped around this myself.) However statistics from Khambula and Ulundi have been brought forth in these pages which seem to support it. One must also remember the Battle of Isandhlwana didn't last that long.

7.) I believe the cartridge casings referred to have to be taken in context with the whole of the battle field.

8.) By the battle of Ulundi Chelmsford wasn't taking any chances with anything, he only had one good chance to defeat Cetshwayo before Wolsey would step in and take the credit. (There are of course references to carrying extra screwdrivers at that time!)

9.) As far as I know the only survivors from the firing line were NNC and Durnsford's mounted troops and few thought to interview many of them.


12th March 2005Paul Cubbin
The ammunition boxes and the old 'kick the lid off' action. I don't know about this one - I was under the impression that it needed a lateral kick to shear off the soft metal screw as opposed to bashing in the wood. I did see it done fairly easily on a replica box once (on the telly) and the guy doing it was no Samson. Alternatively the butt of a rifle could be used. The problem is, were commissaries or ammunition runners equipped with rifles?
12th March 2005Coll
Ian Knight demonstrated opening an ammunition box using the butt of a rifle on the programme 'Secrets of the Dead'.

12th March 2005John Young

I think we rather put pay to the little stunt elsewhere on the forum.

John Y.
12th March 2005George hUlmes
Being an impartial observer, I can apreciate how much of a "can of worms" the ammunition shortage debate is.

I've spoken personally to Ian about the "Box Experiment", and as John demonstrates, this subject has its critics.

12th March 2005Coll

It was really just adding to Paul's reply to give Simon a rough idea on the method that might have been used, the only recently televised example that I could think of, but probably not the best.

13th March 2005Julian Whybra
First thought: Oh no, here we go again.
Second thought: Simon, read all of what remains of the marathon.
Third thought: Michael - there is no one volume containing all the Isandhlwana statements although England's Sons lists them all - I am however slowly working my way through them with the intention of producing such a marathon work (provisional title - A Ride for Life).
13th March 2005Ian
I have read accounts of other battles where the Martini Henry was in use i.e North Africa, Afghanistan etc. Some of the accounts talk of bringing to the front line fresh rifles, swapping with sections in the rear, due to black powder fowling. I haven't read of this occurence at Isandlhwana. If it did happen would not the rear sections be in possession of fowled rifles at the time the right horn extended around them? Adding more problems to the British predicament during the battle.
13th March 2005Julian whybra
I'm tempted to ask what rear sections are you talking about? The reserve consisted only of a single NNC coy. I don't think this was an issue at Isandhlwana.
I love the fowled rifles typo - were they used on Chicken Run?
13th March 2005Paul Cubbin
Martini HENrys ?
13th March 2005Ian
Sorry about the spooling misteak chaps! It was a long saturday night! As for sections they are the make up of Companies. I am not of the opinion (like secrets of the dead) that many rifles would have fouled up, the Martini is a well engineered piece of equipment, a joy to fire (especially in the Chicken run!!). I was throwing a question out to you lions, to ask your expert opinions.
13th March 2005Ian
Just to add, Paul, I liked the Martini HENry pun though! Humour is not dead. . . . .
14th March 2005Derek C
The ammunition question is one that will never be put to bed IMHO. To come to logical terms with the situation, the so called survivors accounts (Anglo et al) are in a sense oxymorons because there were no real survivors, they left the battlefield *before* the last men died (fugitives, if you will). Hence, we must rely on the Zulu accounts of the battle, like we do for Youghusband's fate. Mr. Buntings childhood chaperon (Day Of The Dead Moon) described pockets of soldiers, out of ammunition, fighting with bayonets. Did Durnford & Co. get the ammunition they needed before their final stand?

To say that ammunition supply at Isandlwana was not an issue, is naive. How much of an issue, I can't answer, that's for the experts. Pulleine's M.O. does not instil me with confidence that ammunition supplies were a priority (not a dig at Pulleine, just a man out of his depth).
14th March 2005simon copley
Thanks for your replies fellas - I will continue to think on. Good luck with your compilation Julian, I would certainly like a copy.

Talking of fowl - I hope this ammunition controversy does not prove to be a canard. We must not continue to duck the issue nor snipe at one another. (Was it a rocket battery hen, btw?)

14th March 2005stephen mann
Its interesting to compare Rorkes Drift & Isandhlwana to see if lack of ammo reduced the effectiveness of the 24th men as a klling machine. At Rorkes Drift 100 men firing with full ammo at a dense mass of Zulus at close range killed about 350 men during a fight of many hours. One private was remarked upon with admiration for killing 9 zulus. Say an average of about 3.5 each in what, 12-14 hours? At Isandhlawana about 1000 white men with martinis killed about 3000 zulus in a short fire-fight of (dunno-short-Smith Dorrien says half an hour doesn't he?). So firing at distance (for much of time) or in a melee the Isandhlwana lads killed about 3 zulus each in a short time. Doesn't this suggest the firing at Isandlwana pending circling by the right-wing to have been pretty ferocious? I think I read that at Khambula or was it Gingin. the troops only fired 9 rounds each when attached in a similar fashion as at Isandl. Putting all this together and assuming volley firing was controlled and directed in the normal fashion seems unlikely there was an ammunition problem in the firing line during the short duration of the battle. Rather, it seems the 24th were doing remarkable execution up to the point where they had to retire because of the flanking action.
14th March 2005Julian whybra
At Isandhlwana the men were in two lines and all firing in volleys - I cannot imagine men in the rear lines swapping rifles with those in front (what would be the point).
Naturally once the soldiers were surrounded in small parties they would eventually run out of ammunition - that goes without saying and no-one is denying that. But that is not the question. The whole ammunition debate centres on whether the men were adequately supplied in the perimeter line before the Zulu charge and flanking move and were forced to retire for lack of ammo. As far as I'm concerned I've not seen any evidence to suggest they weren't supplied. All the evidence I have seen suggests they were. The British survivors' accounts are thus of immense interest because they certainly did not leave the field until after the Zulu charge/flanking/encirclement and would have witnessed any ammo failure had it existed.
15th March 2005Michael Boyle

Good news indeed. Are you planning to include the discredited sources as well as the European,allied native and Zulu accounts? (I found that feature in "Englands Sons" quite valuable.) (It could even be expanded to famous literary accounts,although I'd hope you wouldn't come down overly hard on old Mr. Morris!)



15th March 2005Simon Copley
Stephen - the ferocity and efficacy of the fire at Isandhlwana (cf RD eg) would suggest that there was NO ammo supply problem.

This would then lead to the conclusion that the men in the firing line were overwhelmed by numbers and the Zulus flank advantage over a badly dispositioned defending force.

They retired because they saw they were being outflanked not because they had nothing left to fire.

This would be backed up by the fact that the Zulus suffered horrendous casualties which their king saw as crippling to their fighting capabilities for the rest of the campaign. The Zulus pressed home their advantage despite these losses as the momentum of their flanking advantage carried them forward. Would this be a fair description of what happened?
15th March 2005Stephen Mann

Yeah, thats what I was trying to say. The zulus killed figure for RD per man also suggests to me that that battler was considerably exaggerated. If in reality the defenders were popping away for the best part of 10-15 hours at zulus charging right up to them, one would expect each infantryman to have killed at least one zulu per hour. Instead its one zulu every four hours? Doesn't paint a picture consistent with the film, does it?
15th March 2005Michael Boyle

It must be remembered that the vast majority of the battle of RD was fought in the dark (by the light of the burning hospital for a time) and the defenders recorded that throughout the night they potted away madly at the sounds of the Zulu warriors seeming to reorganize for a new rush.(The Zulu worked themselves back up to fever pitch between attacks by dancing and chanting.) Thus most of the defender's fire would have been at no particular target, but at breaking up the unseen start of attacks.


15th March 2005Peter Ewart

The casualty rates among the Zulu at Rorke's Drift and the efficacy (or otherwise) of the firepower of the defenders has been gone into in great detail in earlier threads. You'll find them interesting.

It might be worth mentioning here that in addition to the 351 reported bodies around the barricades on the morning of the 23rd, additional casualties included the large number of wounded helped away, including those who died later and who were being found for some time afterwards. The total Zulu killed (including the 351) is usually estimated at around 500-600, with an unknown number (not high perhaps?) of surviving wounded on top of that. The above figures would include those wounded who were reported as despatched afterwards by the defenders or by elements of the retiring invasion force.

The defenders were not "popping away for the best part of 10-15 hours." All reliable and/ or detailed accounts from defenders state that the attacks were only desultory for much of the night period, especially after midnight anyway. No attacks at all after 4 am, by which time they had long been spasmodic.

In addition, even the attacks of the daylight period were unco-ordinated and frequently quite separate from each other, with part of the attacking force believed not even to have arrived until after the engagement began. It was the case for most of the time that the defenders were not all occupied at once. The technicallities & the ratios regarding the ammunition expended and casualty rates have been gone into both on the forum and, I think, among the contributions listed on the left.

Read the detailed reports supplied by those who were there to get a better idea of what actually happened. Forget the film. There were some excellent authentic scenes but also many which would throw you off the track completely if you imagined it happened like that.

However, attempts to suggest that accounts of the engagement have been exaggerated rapidly founder when the available evidence is examined.

16th March 2005Julian Whybra
Yes, I intend to include the forgeries but not literary acounts (there are too many overall and too mnay that are the same) - I do intend to summarize the differences between the main ones though so that readers can look for themselves among the primary sources for evidence one way or another.
16th March 2005Paul Cubbin
Further to Peter's observations above - remember multiple hits to a single warrior. The Zulus were famous for continuing a charge even after being perforated with bullets (not to say that the first wound would not have eventually been fatal anyway). During volley fire this is particularly going to happen as obviouly its likely that several defenders will draw a bead on a single attacker. Personally, I have always found the official tallies to be a bit low (for once) and recognise that they do not, as Peter says, include those mortally wounded who were returned to their home kraals, buried in ant hills or who crawled off to die somewhere quiet.
16th March 2005Cliff Buffham
What is commonly forgotten in these discussions is that some proportion of the Zulu casualties must have been due to bayonet wounds or rifle butts, particlarly at Rorkes Drifts where fights at the barricades took place.

This is obvious when you remember that most Zulus HAD to come to grips with the British in order to inflict casualties on them, and the Martini-Henry with bayonet would be longer, and therefore a better weapon, than an assegai or knobkerrie.

Is there any agreement over what proportion were hand-to-hand casualties?
17th March 2005Derek C
I do not want to detract from the topic of this website, but just to show how confusing reports, statements, witnesses, investigations etc. can be, consider the JFK assasination for an instant. It's even recorded on the Zapruder film! To this day there is still a haze of condradictions and theories, and no one person (except the government??) can produce the Royal Flush.