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
25th December 2004Were the Zulus stuck in their tactical ways?
By Joseph
I am well aware of the "horns of the Bull" tactic and that it is a fine manner of waging battle. However, I honestly think that if ALL 4000 of the Zulus had come at once, at all sides during Rorke's Drift the outcome might not have been such a good one for the Brits. True the mealie bags and biscuit boxes are what made the difference from the fight at Isandlwhana, but the Zulus also mostily came at the place one side at a time at Rorke's drift. Surely the Zulus would have realised it wasn't working. Were they too stuck in their tactical ways to simply swamp the defenders from all sides in full strength? Would the Lads have been able to hold off such an assault? I'd like to think so!
26th December 2004Paul Cubbin
Was it the only tactic used? It's certainly the only one I've heard of. The Zulus were obviously famous for the 'Horns' but surely the size of force available and the type of action must have dictated a variety of different formations - or maybe not. This is an interesting point isn't it?
The Zulus came to absolute power in the African interior by changing the way conflict between tribes was resolved. Usually clashes were little more than raids and skirmishes. The 'winner' and 'loser' were not very clear and the ultimate price paid appears to be losing your territory - and this rarely happened. Mostly reparations were paid in cattle or slaves and everything returned to relative peace. The Zulus took it several stages further actually began wiping whole clans out. Thus the 'Horns of the Buffalo/Bull' was an effective formation and it prevented enemy troops from escaping. This terrified most everyone else so much that they would either flee or join forces with the Zulus rather than fight. A few forest or plateau based tribes were able to hold out - maybe the broken terrain prevented the effective use of a formation designed for plains combat.
Something else that strikes me is this. Where would European military studies be without writing? Cannae (an interesting 'Horns' tactic there), often described as the 'Perfect Battle', whatever that may be, would be entirely unknown. Centuries of development and experience are passed on to every knew student. Zulu culture relied on oral traditions to pass on information. This would have seriously impeded radical changes in doctrine. Not a great problem unless you face a radically new type of enemy.....ah, yes.
Certainly, Joseph, I agree with you that they should (from their point of view) have swamped the fort. With the best will in the world, I don't think a hundred-odd guys with single-shot rifles would have survived had all 4,000 attacked at once. however, the practicalities would mean that there's no way they could all have attacked at once (lack of space for one, it wasn't a very big place) but still, with a bit more coordination surely enough bodies could have been hurled at the post to crush it. But then, Dabulamanzi was after a quick raid by all accounts. He regarded the destruction of 'Jim's Place' as little more than a formality after Isandlwana. What he expected was a puppy and what he got was a snarling pitbull with a mouthful of teeth. His troops were hungry, tired and must have seen at least some of the destruction caused by massed volleys earlier in the day. After the initial excitement had been beaten out of them, the time when a commander may reasonably be expected to sit down and re-think his plans, maybe the poor guys just didn't have it in them any more. As for the defenders, they would have been tired, very very tired. But still, they had water, they had food and they had beaten off assault after assault. Their morale must have been rising as the Zulus' sank. I think the Zulus' best chance of success was right at the start. After that, the moment had passed.
26th December 2004Bruce Mathews
I think in part, the zulus may have overestimated their ability to simply overpower the british defenders. As they approached the barricades they could see their men falling and witnessed the power of the martini-henrys.

On the initial attack i think they faced such heavy firepower that they naturally swerved around the hospital to gain "easy" access at the back of the post.

They may have become a little disillusioned that their initial attack did not steamroll the defenders. Their attacks from that point do seem to have been disjointed and unco-ordinated.

I do agree that a well co-ordinated attack from 2 fronts would have overpowered the defenders - i believe that if 10 or more zulu had breached the walls, this would have been enough to engage the british while other zulu could pour over the walls. The end would have followed soon.

27th December 2004James Garland

No it wasn't the only Zulu tactic. Shaka used a number of tactics. If you study the battle of Quokli Hill ( there are loads of different ways to spell it) and his preparations for it you will be impressed.
If you also look at the tactics used by the Zulus in the North you will see some differences.
I think the chest and horns tactic was a tactic to be used automatically on contact with the enemy in the way the "Section attack" is used by the British Army today. I.E. Section goes to ground, the gun group goes to a suitable covering position and the section commander leads the section either to the left or right flank after laying down smoke, and is given covering fire from the gun group.
27th December 2004Michael Boyle

Double envelopement ('horns of the bull' or double flanking) has always been the opitimal tactic for field army meeting engagements since field armies first engaged but it requires your opponent to have flanks to envelope, RD being a fortified perimeter had none thus the Zulu Army's most practiced tactic was rendered ineffective.

It should be remembered the Zulu Army had almost always fought battles of manouvre against similarly armed foes who had no doctrine of fortification thus they had no need to alter their tactics.They were essentially a Roman type army but without effective ranged ability (thousands were armed with muskets and rifles but they were unable to train or supply them sufficiently to make them effective) and no siege machines.(I've often wondered why archery never seemed to have caught on in sub-Saharan Africa though.)

Prior to the AZW the Zulu Army had primarily experienced assault on a fortified position only through actions with the Boers, especially Blood River where they proved decidely ineffective.Thus King Cetshwayo's specific instructions NOT to attack a fortified position.(The fact siege tactics nor firearms training were ever developed seems to me to indicate that Cetshwayo never seriously anticipated a war with Britain or simply didn't have the necessary infra-structure to implement them.)

That said ,after finding Isandlwana unfortified it's doubtful that Dubulamanzi would think that RD would be (and in fact wasn't until after the Zulu victory at Isandlwana) and that with four thousand troops he could just roll over it. Had not the excitement of the day compromised Zulu command and control he may well have. The fact that the Zulu troops arrived and engaged piece-meal and attacked under their own initiative rather deploying and forming up prior to the attack under sound tactical control of their officers had as much to do with their defeat as the determined heroic defence by Lt.Chard's command.

After the initial repulsed attacks and with darkness coming on (the Zulu's seemed to rarely fight at night even though night-time engagements would seem play to their strengths, given proper training) coupled with their knowledge that they had already disobeyed the only two specific orders they had recieved from their King they may have fought on with the same desperation as the defenders, for both it could have seemed only 'victory or death' at that point.


29th December 2004Joseph
Excellent points all!
30th December 2004Chris
I have often thought about that.

But I'd have also thought that had so many attacked in full force, the fact that 100 rifles were pouring relentless fire into the masses, unable to miss, and thus felling a great number, would impare, trip up, block and slow such an attack. As such (and given the fact they had to scale the height of the mealie bags and also the terrace as well) would have meant they would have been at the mercy of blistering rifle fire and in fact not had such clear access to overpowering the British. I dunno...just a thought...