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9th May 2005Zulu victory or British defeat?
By Melvin Hunt
A recent answer to a question has prompted me to ask if the battle of Isandlwana was a Zulu victory or a British defeat?
I contend that, from a military point of view, the Zulu did no more than launch their usual "horns of the buffallo" attack. Could any one demonstrate to me what "extra" strategy the Zulu used that directly resulted in the defeat of the British? (Could we leave the "lure Chelmsford" theory out?)
It goes without saying that I am not trying to diminish the bravery and courage shown on both sides on Jan 22nd.
9th May 2005Martin Everett
Dear Melvin,
I would like to see you control 25,000 warriors without the use of modern communication aids.
10th May 2005Coll

To continue an attack in such a hail of volley-fire, knowing there were going to be an excessive amount of casualties on their side, to be willing to sustain such losses to achieve their objective, says quite a lot about what else was involved on that day, although not a tactic, and I'm sure they would have chosen not to have lost so many of their warriors, determination and of course the ultimate sacrifice for many, played a significant role.

Following the 'usual' chest and horns formation, really still needs quite a bit of guts to see it through, especially when warriors are falling all around, even though still a fair distance away from the british lines.

10th May 2005Melvin Hunt
Martin, Coll,
Thanks for the replies but you have both misunderstood my question.
The communication needed to control 25000 warriors would be the same for most battles. The "quite a bit of guts" would also be the same needed in other battles. It did not enable then to win in most other battles with the British.
Ian Knight does not subscribe to the "Lure" theory yet he is on record as saying that the British were outclassed and out Generalled by the Zulu on the day.
I am asking where and how? What did the Impi do "extra"?
I can see no other tactic at Isandlwana except for the usuall "Horns of the Buffallo". Thus the British defeated themselves.
Please tell me if I am missing something.
10th May 2005Coll

I get an idea of what you mean, but I'm lousy at giving replies.

However, I'll say this, although I'm probably wrong.

The british underestimated the Zulus, but could it be the Zulus really had a good idea of what the british would do ?

In a previous topic, Paul mentioned about taking the initiative, basically taking the battle from the british hands and controlling it the way they wanted it to progress, with the british reacting the way the Zulus expected them to ?

Could that be it, or am I way off the mark ?

11th May 2005mark

without downplaying the zulus , i think the British defeated themselves

they advanced too far, creating a firing line with no strong flanks and no rear guards,
and limited means of supply

only at the end did durnford and a few others try hold the left horn , whilst Shepstone tried to hold the right (just behind the hill)

its was sheer stupidity on the part of the British , perhaps they should have paid more attention to the "boers" who gave advise and were ignored as to a typical zulu attack

almost all the other battles were either the normal squares or from laagered positions

Kambula,Ginginhlovu , Unlundi etc

just my worthless (and soon to be ripped to pieces)input
11th May 2005Julian Whybra
I think most Zulus would have agreed that on the day they were just as lucky as the British were unlucky. When you say what more did they do, the answer is nothing, except have luck on their side. And it was. Was it not lucky that the camp believed that the main Zulu impi was 17 miles to the south-east confronting Chelmsford? Was it not lucky that the camp was unable to see whatever force was on the plateau and not be able to deploy, take affirmative action against an impi, get a message to Chelmsford to that effect, until it was too late to prevent an encirclement so large that they had not the troops to counteract it? Was it not lucky that Chelmsford was just too far away to be able to return in time to save the day? Was it not lucky that the waggons were still half coming in, half coming out, half loaded, half unloaded at the time of the action and there was insufficient time to form a laager? Was it not lucky that at the precise moment when a definitive command structure was necessary Durnford should arrive and there was an element of confusion about who should be in command when? Was it not lucky that the British had only met natives in South Africa who responded exactly as predicted to a British firing line and volley fire and that it was though inexpedient to adopt any other tactic against 'another' group of 'natives'? Was it not lucky that each British company was down to an effective strength of about 80 men per coy by Jany 1879? There are many more 'luckies'which I won't deprive you of the pleasure of realizing for yourself...but before someone shoots me down in flames that at the end of the day it took a hell of a lot of courage (or foolhardiness) to charge a line of British rifles and the fortuitous circumstances which brought the Zulus to the poit of victory were not thrown away by a lack of fortitude on the part of the Zulus.
12th May 2005Mike Snook
We even have a stock phrase for it - the 'fortunes of war.'

12th May 2005Coll
Sometimes using the same strategy works, other times, obviously it doesn't.

Sometimes the British firing line works, but against a cavalry charge it can be torn apart.

Sometimes the British square works, but if enemy artillery homes in on the position, it can be blown to pieces.

Even though the Zulus did use the 'usual' chest and horns formation and won this particular battle, but maybe not other battles using the same system.

Could it not also be said that the 'usual' formations the British used, although mostly successful, but could fail sometimes.

Any criticism of the Zulu commanders because they used the same method of attack, would that not also include other forces who use their own systems over and over again - sometimes winning, sometimes losing.

I think, only in my opinion, the Zulus used a formation that probably, before the AZW, worked well for them every time, but opposing the British was a different matter.

W.W.1. is a perfect example of lessons not being learned, as wave after wave of soldiers were sent against machineguns, the method being used again and again, men on both sides being annihilated, I mean, the warriors the Zulus lost were of almost an insiginificant amount compared to the losses endured daily in 1914-18.

Luck, yes, a good formation, with brave dedicated warriors, and good leadership, definitely, must have played a more worthy part in the battle at Isandlwana, surely.

12th May 2005Julian Whybra
Re your WW1 paragraph read john Terraine, The Smoke and the Fire. Men vs machine guns for four years...Lessons never ain't necessarily so, as the song goes.
12th May 2005Coll

I'm sorry. I can't tell if you agree or disagree with my example from W.W.1.

However, I'm thinking I am probably wrong.

Looking at my reply above, I guess I didn't need to include that paragraph, as I'm sure I made a reasonable enough point without the inclusion of it.

13th May 2005Michael Boyle

I tend to agree with the Zulu victory side for a number of reasons.

First,unless I'm mistaken, the majority of amaButho were as yet unblooded and had not heard a MH fired in anger. It seems that they were not planning an attack that day and seemed in fact to have been caught flat-footed. Yet under personal initiative (or reaction) they instantly sprang to the attack, forming the chest and deploying the horns while their commanders managed to withhold some as the loins and re-establish adequate control. To us it does seem nothing more than "the usual 'horns of the buffalo' attack" but for them to accomplish it on short notice with untried troops and in numbers that they may never have attempted previously speaks victory to me. When one 'plans the work and works the plan' and the plan does in fact work, there would seem little need for 'extra' strategy.

Secondly,I doubt they anticipated that they could be driven to ground due to the efficiency of massed fire power to which most were unaccustomed, but their officers did what good officers do: rallied their men to renew the attack. The men in turn, despite witnessing such appalling losses rekindled their courage and offered themselves yet again to the guns.(Not unlike their opponents experience later in W W I as alluded to above.) They could as easily have said "This ain't working,lets try something else", but instead trusted to their superior's wisdom and their own bravery to win the day. Granted at the moment of truth the fortunes of war smiled in their direction, I none the less feel victory was already at hand, their having mastered the moment of crisis.

Thirdly, I don't find the argument that 'the British defeated themselves' convincing. True, many mistakes were made but that is also the nature of warfare and the theory that 'the team that makes the least mistakes wins' is by no means always true.Particularly when one doesn't realize one is making mistakes.

The Imperial troops were also caught flat-footed (to perhaps a somewhat lesser degree as they were the aggressors). They however didn't seem to have a clear cut plan to react with and Imperial troops were never trained to act on their own initiative, they were trained to react only to their officer's orders. Therein lies the rub.

Although the officers and O.R.s were,for the most part,battle hardened veterans their prior experience in South Africa seems less military campaigning than some kind of grand safari where they rarely faced a standing (or attacking) foe and fell instead into a routine of basically 'beating the bushes' to manouvre their opponents into surrendering. In spite of the pre-war preparations and published pamphlets this mind-set does seem to have predominated.

Many fault Pulleine for his initial troop dispositions but as pointed out above everyone "knew" the main Zulu force was off to the south east somewhere and it sometimes takes time for a military mind to reassess what his intel holds true. Unfortunately time was the one thing Pulleine lacked. By the time the Imperial troops realized what they were facing the speed of the Zulu advance precluded any meaningful response.

Much is said about the lack of close order firing lines and failure to form square but as far as I'm able to glean through off hand references, those formations were no longer a part of British battle field doctrine (though later re-instituted by Lord Chelmsford). The new regs instituted in 1877 (presumably due to the efficiency of the MH) changed from static close order to advance to contact in open order and reinforce accordingly.

Which Pulleine seems to have tried. (He probably thought he had the initiative, as the Imperial troops always had up to that day.) I'm not sure how much practice the 24th was able to devote to the new doctrine as they were already campaigning at the time but the fact is the tactics were designed for a European foe and proved ineffective against masses of close combat, attacking Zulus. Again, a possibility which seems to have been discounted.

Pulleine's orders were to defend the camp,not entrench and await development. With the huge dead ground north east of the camp offering an opponent ample protected space to mass and form he did the only thing he could do; try to deny it to the enemy at the same time dispersing them.

Had there been ten or fifteen thousand less Zulus his plan could have worked. Had he known the true size of the impi he could have consolidated his force in a defencible position and awaited relief,had Chelmsford trusted his "intelligience" less and his subordinate commanders more he could have returned at the first message and at least relieved the pressure on Pulliene and provide him a point to withdraw to. None of this of course happened because the possibilty of a competent foe was denied.

The Zulu commanders knew the strength and disposition of the British. The British commanders didn't know the strength and disposition of the Zulus.

The Zulu commanders did what they wanted to do, the British commanders didn't know what to do.

The British strategy was to force the Zulus into a corner and defeat them. They didn't.

The Zulu strategy was to push the center column back across the river. They did.



13th May 2005markw
i am impressed by your reply !

perhaps as a south african who studied 10years of history at school i guess i assumed EVERYONE knew that the only defence against the zulus was a square or laager

most of the british victories after 22 jan 1879 ,Rorkes Drift /Kambula / Gingindlovu/ Unlundi were from sqaures or entrenched positions

even before the british and the zulus fought,it was common knowledge that the zulus only got beaten by the boers when laagered , every other battle ended in zullu victory

ignorance of the enemy is a bad mistake !
13th May 2005Michael Boyle

Your assumption is correct, everyone did know or in the case of the Imperial army were aware that the laager worked, Lord Chelmsford had even incorporated it into his standing orders but for a variety of "reasons" failed to follow through on it's implementation. Until after Isandhlwana.

The most fundamental precept to planning a strategy for war is to know your enemy. Based on the research Chelmsford put in prior to the invasion it would seem he did. However, for whatever reason, he seemed to feel the British Army was somehow immune to any real threat the Zulu generals could muster. The Zulu generals for their part do seem to have been aware of the threat posed by the invading army and King Cetswayo went to great lengths to forbid his troops to attack entrenched positions. The lack of command and control evidenced by Chelmsford on 22 Jan played right into amaZulu hands and the Zulu generals ability to re-establish there own command and control set the stage for the debacle that followed.

The British Army seems to have been 'out generaled' not just on that day but all the days leading up to it. One could say the British defeated themselves by not taking the Zulu threat seriously and by not establishing the strength and location of the main impi prior to manouvering but that would be ignoring the fact that avoiding just that situation is a general's primary job and generals,by definition are not supposed to defeat themselves.


16th May 2005Julian Whybra
Markw and Michael
But this did not hold true at Inyezane!
I do tend to think that some of the old adages trotted out about WW1 need some reassessment.
16th May 2005Michael Boyle
Different battles,different 'generals', different outcomes!

18th May 2005Julian whybra
Ah, but same tactics!
22nd May 2005Paul Lamberth
This is not a "tactic" but something to consider

Major Timothy M. Karcher's point of view.

"As arrogance and complacency grow unchecked, national and military leaders begin to believe that a standard approach will work for many scenarios, but the use of patterns endangers one's forces when fighting a thinking enemy. If a force uses a proven pattern to solve similar tactical problems, and the enemy reacts in a standard fashion, then the force will likely have success. The danger comes about when the enemy refuses to play properly and reacts in a new or different manner. Since a force afflicted by the Victory Disease will have simply gone through the motions of planning, unexpected enemy reaction will shock the friendly force and allow the enemy to gain the initiative. Yielding the initiative to the enemy becomes the most likely cause for defeat. The cumulative symptoms of the Victory Disease will have had their effect; an enemy who has learned to adapt will defeat the friendly force.
The British military experience during the Zulu wars of the late 19th century illustrates the symptoms of the Victory Disease. The native Zulu population of Southern Africa was just another indigenous people for the British Army to defeat in the Crown's colonization of Africa. Before fighting the Zulus, British colonial fighting experience came about as a result of battles with the Xosas, the Pedis, and finally the Gcalkas, the indigenous tribes of the region. The British defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 illustrates the danger of a military force using established patterns. When developing the campaign that led to the Isandlwana defeat, British Commander Lord Chelmsford planned to fight the Zulus in the same manner in which he had previously "fought a messy little war on the Cape frontier to a successful conclusion." Unfortunately, the Zulus did not resort to guerrilla warfare as previous opponents had done, but fielded an enormous army. Chelmsford's forces were advancing in three converging columns. At Isandlwana, the Zulu army attacked one of the unsuspecting British columns while it was encamped and destroyed it nearly to a man.
The Battle of Isandlwana provided the British Empire with the necessary impetus for eventually destroying the Zulu Kingdom, but not before the British Army lost more than 1,300 soldiers. In this example, the negative effect of using established patterns is evident. The enemy's reactions turned the tide of battle against a British force afflicted by the Victory Disease."
23rd May 2005Michael Boyle

In contemporary support of the above ideas, (from "The Anglo-Zulu War New Perspectives") -

"Zululand will fall after the first engagement into the confederation" (Sivewright to Mrs. A. Merriam, 6 December 1878)

"...Lord Chelmsford had declined local advice concerning the adversary and terrain before him on the grounds that 'the broad principles of tactics hold good in Africa equally as well as in Europe, and the idea of South African colonists that there is a specialit[y] in African fighting is quite a mistake.'" (Chelmsford to Shepstone 10 August 1878)

Although we know he did eventually take colonist input under advisement he failed to act on it until after 22 January 1879. (Though his remaining two column commanders were, thankfully, not so hesitant!)

Apparently the recent Cape Frontier War wasn't enough to change his mind though.

(Actually, if pushed, I could come up with an argument that he wasn't entirely wrong in theory, though in context he way off.)