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DateOriginal Topic
8th April 2004Various questions
By James Prime
I have chosen the Zulu War as the topic for my A Level assignment and have a few questions on different aspects of the war that perhaps someone could help me with.
The title is 'To what extent did the British conduct the war competently?' The questions I have are:

Did Pearson's column laager on the way to Eshowe? In Fearful Hard Times Ian Knight and Ian Castle are quite critical of Pearson's precautions for the column's safety, and imply that the column did not laager, especially on the night when the second division was stretched across both sides of a river. However, in 'By the orders of the Great White Queen' an account given by a soldier in the Buffs (written some years after the war) says they laagered every night, including entrenchment and obstacles between the wagons. I guess he would have been with the first division, perhaps they did laager but the second division didn't?

How many rounds a minute could a Gatling gun fire? I have read figures of 100 rounds a minute, 300 rounds a minute and 800 rounds a minute in three different books.

The Martini-Henry could overheat and jam after repeated use. A TV documentary I have on video suggested this could have contributed to the failing rate of fire at Isandlwana. If it happened at Isandlwana, why did it not cause the same kind of problem at Rorkes Drift or at Kambula?

Each British soldier carried 70 rounds of ammunition. The Martini-Henry could fire at a rate of 10 rounds per minute. This allows for 7 minutes firing at the maximum rate. Obviously the soldiers at Isandlwana were firing at a much slower rate, but they seem to have stretched their ammunition out for a long time before they became desperate for resupplies or ran out. Is this correct?

I haven't got a copy of 'The Washing of the Spears' but another book says that the author's analysis of the battle has since been questioned. Can you tell me what Morris thought the main reason for the defeat was? Was this the ammunition boxes theory? If that theory didn't come from Morris, where did it first appear?

In Michael Barthorp's 'Pictorial History of the Zulu War' he quotes instructions from the Field Force regulations for the troops in South Africa concerning keeping ammunition in readiness for issue. Was this in the instructions in January 1879 or was it just included in the revisions following Isandlwana?

Sorry for the barrage of questions. I am sitting the exam in the week beginning 19th April, so anything anyone can help me with by then would be great.

Many Thanks,

James Prime.

9th April 2004John Young

I actually think that Pearson was the most cautious of Chelmsford's initial column commanders. His advance towards Eshowe, was, in my opinion, strictly by the book. His order of march mirrored that recommended by Chelmsford in his orders to the column commanders.

"Harry O'Clery of the Buffs", personally I don't think that "Harry" was a ranker, if he were then he was most certainly "a gentleman-ranker". I actually believe that the tale is that of an officer of the 2nd/3rd Regiment, recounted under an assumed name. If we accept that premise, then I have no problem in accepting the statement; 'Every night we camped in laager.'

I think you are right in stating that the authors imply the laager was not formed, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions.

According to Major F. Myatt's work 'The Illustrated Encyclopedia of 19th Century Firearms', published in 1979, the cyclic rate of the British-made Gatling Gun was about 200 rounds per minute. That said that I have seen a post-1879 claim that the Gatling Gun was capable of firing '600 rounds per minute to be fired to be fired with the greatest ease.' That however was with the improved receiver, rather than the side receiver of the pattern in use in 1879, fed by the "Broadwell Drum".

The question of the testing of the Martini-Henry rifle in the documentary 'Secrets of the Dead' has appeared previously on the forum. I am reliably informed the tests were not conducted under true test conditions. I am also informed that the person who conducted the test-firing is sceptical of the results as they appear on the documentary.

Ammunition boxes - there were improvements made to the Mark V ammunition box, post the disaster at Isandlwana. The most notable was the replacement of the locking-screw with a split pin in November 1880.

In his work 'The Washing of the Spears', Donald Morris states that; 'Six screws had to be removed to raise a lid,...' I have seen this statement somewhere other than Morris but at this time cannot provide you with the source. The ammunition box's lid was a sliding one, so therefore no need whatsoever to 'raise' it. I was secured by just one screw and not six, as Morris states. Try a search on ammunition on the site's search engine found on the home page for further references.

I sadly can't quote you chapter & verse from Chelmsford's instructions, as I can't locate my copies of those either. However, when preparing to relieve Eshowe Chelmsford issued the following instruction; 'Each wagon and cart with the convoys must have some ammunition boxes place on it in such a position as to be easily got at. The regimental reserve boxes must have the screw of the lid taken out, and each wagon or cart will have a screwdriver attached to one of the boxes so that it may be ready for opening those in which the screw has not been taken out.'

I hope that is of some help to your research.

John Y.
9th April 2004Julian Whybra
James, you are not using the best book on Isandhlwana - FWD Jackson - Hill of the Sphinx - available from this website.