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DateOriginal Topic
3rd January 2005Why the Big Guns?
By Paul Cubbin
I recently read Donald Morris's wonderful 'The Washing of the Spears' (not a lightweight pamphlet but well worth the effort)and was horrified at the transport problems that faced Chelmsford when he was trying to plan his campaign. It was only much later in a rare moment of clarity that I asked myself "Why did he bother with artillery?"
There is a great (true?) anecdote about Isandlwana where the Zulus watched the gunners from afar and threw themselves to the ground when they saw the gun being fired. This effectively nullified their effect. In fact, I can't remember artillery mentioned as being particularly effective at any time during the war; the exception was the Gatling guns of the Naval Brigade that showed their worth against charging enemies. No doubt the cavalry-like footspeed of the Zulus played its part, along with their total unwillingness to play fair when it came to standing up in nice neat rows. Considering the logistical nightmares involved, the lack of defensive structures to overcome and the nature of the terrain and enemy, artillery seems to be a bit of a chocolate teapot. Obviously my vast, superhuman military experience and knowledge is tempered just a tad by hindsight. But for all his possible faults during and after the campaign, Chelmsford was a damn good planner. He was also well used to working within a tight budget. Surely the guns were superfluous and made things a lot slower and more difficult.
What think you?
3rd January 2005Martin Boyle
Hello, Paul.

Did they have any cannister or grape shot? That could have been very effective - when the Zulus were charging. Or case shot.


3rd January 2005Chris
I belive they used case shot initially (when they fired in support of Durnford) and then switched to grape shot as the firing line was being overrun.
4th January 2005Michael Boyle

There were also accounts of the telling effect of the two pieces at Isandlwana,but I see your point. It was not too difficult to 'lay low' (INCOMING!) when faced with only two guns where it would be an excersize in futility when faced by a number of full sections while mounting an attack.However I suspect Chelmsford only included the limited artillery in his campaign for the percieved 'shock and awe' value.(Had the Zulus ever faced cannon fire before?)

I share your admiration for Chelmsford's logistical ability but it should be remembered that the Battle of Isandlwana occurred eleven days into his seventeen day initial supply (I may be off some) and the camp he was siting on the morning of the 23rd was not on the optimal track to Ulundi given his available transport.I've often wondered if John Dunn couldn't have offered him a better approach. (The quickest distance between two points is not always the shortest.)



4th January 2005Julian whybra
They had not faced cannon fire before but many Zulus had seen them fire before. Cetshwayo was quick to remove the captured Isandhdlwana pieces to Ulundi and to test-fire them for himself!
4th January 2005Graham Alexander

It was not the guns which caused the problems with Lord Chelmsford's transport system. Compared to heavy lumbering ox wagons, drawn by teams of 16 oxen and above, the guns of the Royal Artillery would never be held responsible for slowing down the march of the column. Every battalion in the field required a ton of rations each day, as well as ammunition, tents and fodder. Once this supply juggernaut advanced onto the unmade roads of Zululand, the cart wheels turned the tracks into deep ruts, which the heavy rain then turned into quagmires. Frequent stops were caused by the wagons, but the guns seemed to have travelled along without too many problems.
To stop his column being slowed down by artillery, General George Custer refused the offer of Gatling guns, and we all know exactly what happened to this venture !
The guns of the Royal Artillery were a necessary attachment to any commander in the field, and when used correctly did contribute successfully in the conclusion of hostilities.They played an essential role at the battle of Kambula and in the concluding battle at oNdini. To refuse artillery would not have been an option to any column commander.
Rain, oxen and terrain were Lord Chelmsford's main initial problems, not his guns.

4th January 2005Paul Cubbin
Graham - yes, I understood that the logistical problems were mainly the food and ammunition for the troops. I just thought that the guns would have brought an extra burden that was out of proportion to their usefulness (although obviously, no-one can have suspected the disgrace of their loss at Isandlwana). It seems strange, considering Chelmsfords apparent plan of building a string of fortified camps within half a day's march of each other, not to leave the artillery behind until an easier route was secured. Maybe he was just in a rush to get it all over and done with.
Julian - did the Zulus manage to fire their captured guns successfully? I thought they had been disabled by the gunners at Isandlwana and were found unfired at Ulundi - am I wrong?
4th January 2005Graham Alexander
I think Paul, that the commander in the field considered that all sections of his command
( Infantry, cavalry (what litle he had) and artillery should be self supporting. Imagine if Lord Chelmsford's entire column had encountered the Zulu army on the open plain, what devastation six guns could have done to it. He was not going to be caught out and face severe censure by stating that his guns were safely parked a days march away !
The fortified camps appeared later in the campaign, after the damage inflicted by the Zulu army had occured. Even then, he still advanced all the way with his artillery, leaving just infantry behind to garrison the camps.
4th January 2005Chris
Re: original point of bothering with artillery.

And perhaps even moreso, Russell's rockets? 'Ineffectual' applies to them, surely!
5th January 2005Paul Cubbin
Graham - yeah, I guess we're armed with too much hindsight to judge harshly. Had he not taken the guns to Isandlwana, they were bound to be those who would argue they could have saved the day. I also see what you mean about self-supporting columns. I suppose that would then lead on to the argument about waging a campaign without sufficient up-to-date information (that necessitated making each column a mini-army in itself). I know he had plenty of well informed advisors (although he didn't always listen to them), but no-one really knew the exact position of the Zulu impis until they attacked did they.
Chris - yeah, poor old Russell and his rockets. I suspect it was just a way of testing them out, but they don't seem to have advanced any great amount since Waterloo where they had mixed reviews. Perhaps they should have issued sparklers to each man instead (I can see it now, Bob Hoskins as Colour Sergeant yelling, "Arms length now, Williams watch what you're blaahdy doing! You could've had someone's eye out!").
5th January 2005Michael Boyle
I still feel the six guns he brought were for show. If he had wanted he could have incorporated the local militia artillery to field a more effective artillery arm,even replacing local gun crews with British soldiers or Marines.As for the rockets, they were never an effective combat arm and had always been employed more for their psycological effect (even against similarly armed foes).(Which of course led to some catchy lyrics set to an old drinking song !)

It seems that Chelmsford firmly believed that the Zulu would simply fade away into the bush when confronted by the majesty of an Imperial Army, as his experience in the previous year's Cape Frontier War had shown. I further suspect that he maintained his flanking columns simply as a containing force and commanded the center column (no accompanying about it!) with the full intent of personally administering the coupe-de-grace against a demoralized enemy.

His southern column contained the majority of his big fire power, his northern column the majority of his mounted troops (he may have needed a mobile force there as much for those pesky Boers who were acting up again!) and much of the rest of his mounted troops (Durnford) back home in Natal, possibly as punishment for their commander's impertinence (I'd love to get the real story on Chelmsford/ Durnford personality clash) as a mobile reaction force to supplement the local home guard against a Zulu counter-invasion which I honestly don't believe he credited.Although he was denied the British cavalry regiments he'd requested he could easily have realigned his troop dispositions to include sufficient mounted units for the center column to properly act as his "eyes and ears" if he had honestly anticipated a serious conflict.His excellent pre-invasion planning,including two published hand books could have been with more of an eye toward future postings and promotion than the task at hand, especially since he didn't seem to take their admonitions too seriously himself.

Thus far I believe that he thought he was setting off on an oxen mounted fox hunt but found himself the victim of a snipe hunt.

As for the incumberance of horse or mule drawn artillery I concur with Graham, it doesn't comapre to the incumbrance of ox drawn everything-else.Horses and mules will work straight through the day but oxen require a two hour lunch break (powerful union reps no doubt).

Given the inconvenience of pre-internal combustion engine logistics it's a wonder anyone ever bothered to go to war at all!

Paul, the heroic spiking of the guns was borrowed rather freely from other battles in order to lessen the upset of civilians at their breakfasts.When the guns were located one was found to be loaded and upon firing managed to roll the ball out the barrel only to plop rather ignomiously to the ground.It was hard for Cetshwayo to get good help in those days (although I do recall a reference to some Europeans consulted?).


5th January 2005Julian wybra
The guns at Isandhlwana were not disabled by the gunners - there was no time. Cetshwayo's warriors enlisted the help of the captured Trpr Grandier to get the guns to fire and according to him this was not done with any success.
5th January 2005Alan Hobson
Re: the effectiveness of the artillery at Isandhlwana.

Most modern histories (and one or two of the replies above) seem to stress the uselessness of the artillery guns at Isandhlwana.

However, the survivor Brickhill notes that several of the artillery rounds were extremely effective, cutting great swathes through the Zulu lines.

I find it very puzzling that this has not been more widely noticed by historians.
5th January 2005Mark Hobson
There's a great article about Artillery in the Zulu War by D.D.Hall available to read (or print off) on the South African Military History Society website. I can't recall their web address. Maybe another contributor can supply it?
6th January 2005Michael Boyle
Julian,thanks again. That answers a question I had in a previous thread whether the Zulus ever took any prisoners. Did Trooper Grandier ever write his own account of the experience or just interviews?Also, I seem to recall an obscure reference to Portugese (traders?) being consulted by Cetshwayo or maybe it was just an accusation.(I believe from an article in the Red Book.)


6th January 2005Julianwhybra
Michael - the English press made much of the Grandier story and his account (in reported speech) can be found in several of the papers. A day out at Colindale for you perhaps? I should add that he probably inflated his story somewhat and that it was contradicted by the Zulus afterwards.
7th January 2005Michael Boyle
Thanks alot Julian, now I have to add yet another stop on my British Isles wish-list itinerary, the necessary time allotment already falls just short of emmigration!

Didn't someone a while back mention that a British newspaper was going to make it's entire archive available on line this year?( I know British-Pathe' has and they have a fascinating collection of old Boer War newsreels and presumably some RD reunions as well.)