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12th April 2005Unused tactic?
By Stephen Brown
Hello, may I first say to the webmaster what a superb and interesting website!
My question is ( after watching the film Zulu for the umpteenth time) why did the officers not set fire to the bush/scrubland surrounding the encampment? Surley this would of cleared the immidiate area of possible cover, driven the Zulus back somewhat and sent up a lot of smoke so that it is possible that any e-enforcements may of gotten there quicker.
I know I am watching the film and that it is not where the actual battle took place but perhaps those that have been fortunate enough to of visited the actual battle ground would be able to advise me if this would of been a viable option. I realise this would not of been in the military handbooks of the day.


12th April 2005peter Harman
They more than likly never had time.
They were to busy fortifying Rorkes Drift.
In the film zulu the zulus are seen up on the hill over looking the drift before the attack ,infact this did not happen. Out of interest
Click on Pte. H. Hooks account under V.C Winners on the Left.
He will tell you how how fast the Zulu attack was.

12th April 2005Andrew Holliday
James Dalton wanted to clear the brush around the drift but there was so little time and prioroty was given to the barricades
12th April 2005Paul Cubbin
Fire is a wonderfully devastating and dramatic weapon in films and stories, but not in reality. Occasionally fires did get out of control during a battle, of course, and could do serious damage, but they were rarely deliberate.

Most commanders steered away from such drastic tactics for several reasons. Among them are -

1. It is a random element that is as likely to turn against its user if the wind or the battlefield situation changes. At RD the smoke would have been excellent cover for Zulus hoping to sneak close to the fort (a ready-made Victorian smoke-round, thank you Chard).

2. It is harder than it seems to get a fire started in brush. Remember, the ground was damp after rain - it took hours for the hospital roof to catch light with Zulus lobbing bundles of burning torches onto its densely packed thatch.

3. It would take men away from the business of preparing defences and (as correctly stated by those above) time and manpower were limited.

12th April 2005Peter Harman
On a humerous subject.
Did anyone see the Laural & Hardy Film where they were in the foreign legion.
They spread out hundreds of tin tacks outside the fort. The natives who were not wearing shoes came a cropper.
Would this have worked at Rorkes Drift.
Only joking of course it would.
12th April 2005Coll

I'm not sure it would have stopped them, but they certainly would get the 'point' !

Sorry, I never was good at telling jokes.

12th April 2005Neil Aspinshaw
When you see old photographs of RD it is actually quite barren, not like today. Any reasonable size bush would have constituted good camp fire fuel, bearing in mind 2000 men had camped there only 10 days before.
Actually the depositing of broken bottles as a defensive strategy against a barefoot opponent was mentioned if I recall in Chelmsfords field force regulations.
Thorn bush Zareba's were used effectively in the Sudan as a form of barbed wire to prevent the fuzzies getting in close.
12th April 2005Coll

I think I remember seeing this sort of defence used in the film 'Four Feathers' starring Ralph Richardson.

However, it must have been a hellish job for the soldiers to move this type of thorn bush into place to begin with and not cause some injury to themselves in the process.

I think the thorns would strike first blood from the british before the enemy even attacked.

12th April 2005Dave Nolan
And have we not forgotten?

"We have thatched roofs here, Bromhead, let's not give them the present of fire"

12th April 2005Paul Cubbin
Thorn zarebas/zaribas (whatever) were (and perhaps still are) a standard tool used when setting a smallish camp. They can keep out all sorts of unwanted nasties - lions, hyenas, leopards, even unfriendly people!
My understanding of how it is constructed is that convenient chunks of thorn are chopped with pangas or machetes and then dragged into position using slings. Some of the African thorns can be inches long and barbed, so not the sort of thing you want to get too close to.
13th April 2005Coll

Yes. I'm sure this was used in another film I saw 'The Ghost and the Darkness' to protect them from the lions.

On the subject of tactics - were the Lancers taught how to use the lances on foot as well as when they were mounted, very much like the pikemen of medieval times ?

13th April 2005Paul Cubbin
Lancers (especially towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th) were encouraged to be expert at the use of the lance, sabre and rifle (carbine), as well as being expert horsemen. Only the sabre and carbine were practised on foot, it being assumed that the lance would be discarded soon after first strike (or maybe two). Some lancers even carried pistols too, especially officers. It is easy to see why many 'economists' - that cancer to military effectiveness - tried to eliminate lancers as being too costly to equip and train. The lance was most effectively used against infantry and often charges were carried out at such pace that to be unsaddled often meant you were isolated and surrounded by enemies. Thus, whilst dismounted combat was obviously taught - especially with the rifle (carbine) in an infantry role - riders were taught to concentrate on keeping their saddle if the lance was used. If you fell, you got back up sharpish and didn't hang around to play.
13th April 2005Coll

Thanks for your reply.

I recalled the scene from 'The Alamo' when a lancer (I think) on foot, used his lance to pin Crockett (John Wayne) against the chapel door and it just made me wonder.

I bet the Zulus, when they saw the lancers for the first time, thought to themselves -
" They're not going to manage to throw those spears very far ! "

Another bad joke.

13th April 2005Paul Cubbin
If you're interested, Winston Churchill rode with the 21st Lancers (I think) at Omdurman and wrote a graphic account of their charge. It's not difficult to find the text, I'm sure a quick web search would locate it. He cheated, though, and rather than use a sabre (like most other officers) he was using an early 10-shot Mauser automatic handgun.
13th April 2005Ian
Paul, Winston stated that he had pulled the muscle in his sword arm a couple of weeks earlier (whilst boarding a train, or something like that!), & thankfully used his Mauser, he may not have survived the battle otherwise. Weird that a German weapon saved his life & he went on to lead us to Victory against them!
13th April 2005Paul Cubbin
Ian - A likely story! He may have fooled the M.O. but not me! In his account of the charge he admits that he had already resigned himself to not using a sabre and had especially bought the Mauser for this purpose. He had his sabre drawn for the charge before he remembered and took so long sheathing the sword, drawing and cocking the handgun that he almost came a cropper before dispatching an enraged dervish.
13th April 2005Coll
That is what you call initiative - taking a gun to a sword-fight !
14th April 2005Peter Ewart

And he may be unique in being the only British PM to have killed (at least in close combat) an adversary or two in battle, although of course most of our PMs of the second half of the 20th century served in the army during one or the other of two world wars.

Wellington's another possibility (probability perhaps?) and Supermac another.

14th April 2005Paul Cubbin
Trivia - the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, was a tank commander during WW2. Onward Christian Soldier!
14th April 2005Coll
This may have been asked before, but do you think politicians would be better equipped in the knowledge of military matters, especially in recent years, if some, if not all had served in the forces ?

By that I mean, instead of talking about what they 'think' our forces need in time of conflict, they would instead have possible first-hand experience to 'know' what our forces require.

Politics isn't my strong point (I'm not sure what is) so please excuse the naivety of the question.

14th April 2005Ian
Peter, yes most PMs kill with a swipe of a blunt pen these days!!
14th April 2005Paul Cubbin
Margaret Thatcher would have been an SAS assassin....or at least unarmed combat instructor.
14th April 2005Coll
Close-quarters handbag combat more like !