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
26th April 2004Zulu attacks at night
By Tarkis
Now I'm not sure whether or not the Zulu ever attacked the British at night, however if they did not.....WHY?!?
Since the main aim of the Impis was to close with the British and engage in hand to hand combat, surely attacking in the dark of night would multiply the chances of achieving this!

Imaging the terror that would streak through the British ranks at hearing the Zulu War chant at 2AM, knowing that an attack was imminent! Expecially if the noises were coming from all directions.
Alternatively, the Zulus could simply creep up on their adversaries and launch a full scale attack from a short distance away?
I know the British had sentries, but how far out from the camp were these placed? And their visibility at night would surely be poor. Yes it may be hard to coordinate an attack at night, but I think the British would suffer more, as they couldn't bring their firepower to bear nearly as well as if an attack was launched at midday.
Were their religious reasons for not attacking at night? If I was a Zulu general this would seem to be a most appealing method of disposing of the British I would think.

What think thee?
26th April 2004John Young

The attack on the wagon convoy at the Ntombe River, 12th March, 1879, was made under the cover of darkness, combined with a heavy mist.

The psychological effect on British forces at night was enough to cause casualties; there were a number "friendly-fire" incidents - one nearly claiming the life of John Chard V.C.

I have discussed this very matter with a number of my Zulu friends, many of whom are the descendants of the Zulu field commanders, almost with one voice they state that night attacks were cowardly, their forebears would have rather faced their enemies in the cold light of day. I should add at this point that the leader of the attack on 12th March, was not a Zulu, but a Swazi.

I hope that helps.

John Y.
26th April 2004Peter Ewart

The third most costly British defeat of the campaign (in terms of lives lost) occurred when Mbelini's force did exactly as you suggested. They approached the British camp at Myer's Drift on the Ntombe River under cover of dark and closely surrounded the tents on the north bank in the half-light of the morning rain & mist before attacking.

A poorly constructed laager (set up by an admittedly exhausted force after atrocious weather) and sloppy picqueting contributed to the disaster but the element of surprise was also due to Mbelini's leadership & daring. He was, however, rather "semi-detached" up north and certainly "his own man" - this night attack was not typical but its result kept the British sentries during the second invasion rather more than "on their toes"!

26th April 2004Peter Ewart

Excuse the duplicated answer - JY and I were obviously answering at the same time.

With regard to the possible religious aspect, I also agree that there appears to be little or no religious reasoning behind the reluctance to attack at night. In his "Religious System of the amaZulu" (1868) Callaway includes a section on the doctoring of soldiers and their preparations for battle but makes no mention of a taboo on night-fighting and his first-hand studies went back to around thirty years before the AZW.

In her "Social System of the Zulus" (1936) Elieen Krige covers many deeply held beliefs on military matters and war but makes no mention of this point either. I'm not sure how sound her work is considered today but she relied heavily upon many of the usual authorities such as Callaway, Gardiner, Bryant, Lugg, Stuart, both Samuelsons, etc, etc. & many others, as well as upon a number of contemporary Zulus. Ian Knight, who quotes some of the same sources, appears to concur in his "Anatomy of the Zulu Army."

There are plenty of examples of Zulu armies since Shaka's day approaching an enemy at night, often (but not always) as a surprise tactic but waiting until morning before attacking. Blood River, 2nd Ulundi (after a very long night march) and Msebe, for example, all commenced at about sunrise.

27th April 2004Tarkis
Thanks for the answers guys...yes it does seem as if this would be a highly effective tactic. Interesting John, that you say the Zulus deemed such attacks cowardly....hmmm I'd trade a few 'coward points' for a significant increase in combat effectiveness, though I know what you're saying.

I imagine there would be a few more cases of 'friendly fire' on both sides, but can you imagine, as the British, trying to shoot at the Zulus with almost nothing to guide you apart from noise (and if the zulus were advancing silently, not even that!), and also the obscuring smoke of their rifles?

What would have happened if the Zulus had waited for Chelmsford to return to Isandlwana (as he did) the night following the battle, then launched a night attack on him! Sure they would have been tired, but who knows?
27th April 2004L.J.Knight
so doesnt the attack on the mission station count as a night attack!
28th April 2004Tarkis
Not really, because that was launched in the afternoon :)
I mean a sudden suprise attack initiated in the dead of the night.