Zulu’s Victory: Battle Tactics Used By the Zulus against the British in the Battle of Isandlwana

Zulu’s Victory:

Battle Tactics Used By the Zulu’s vs. the British in the Battle of Isandlwana

Upon gaining the Zulu throne, Shaka kaSenzangakhona made some revolutionary alterations to the Zulu military that reflected his experience as commander of Dingiswayo’s, the king of the Mthethwa, army. Firstly, dissatisfied with the assegai, Shaka introduced the iklwa which was used for close range combat. Secondly, he discarded sandals making his soldiers go barefoot to toughen the bottom of their feet and improve speed and mobility. He, then, developed well-organized logistic support by youth formation. Subsequently, he instituted an age-grade regimental system in order to consolidate Zulu loyalty to the military and thus the king. Shaka developed the famous Impondo Zankomo formation which allowed him to encircle, close in, and decimate his enemies. Shakan reforms are especially noted in the Battle of Isandlwana under the kingship of Cetshwayo, the fourth king to assume the Zulu throne. In this analysis, I will discuss the weaponry and tactics used by the Zulu in the Battle of Isandlwana against the British as well as the weaponry and tactics used against the Zulus. Furthermore, I will discuss the Battle of Isandlwana while highlighting issues Britain faced while fighting the Zulus.

The Battle of Isandlwana from an amaZulu perspective

Weaponry

There were a number of traditional weapons used in the Battle of Isandlwana as well as firearms that were collected from previous interactions with Europeans. It is important to emphasize the traditional weapons as opposed to the firearms because the Zulu army were better trained (and equip) with traditional weapons. Given this, I will focus on weapons such as the assegai, iklwa, isihlangu, and the iwisa that were of great importance to the Zulu army. However, I will briefly note some of the firearms used in the Battle of Isandlwana.

One of the most noted changes in Zulu weaponry was the switch from the use of the assegai to the that of the iklwa, introduced by the first King of the consolidated Zulu Kingdom, Shaka kaSenzangakhona. The assegai is a “pole weapon” with a spear used for throwing. It is about 52 inches in length with a blade that is about 7 inches. The iklwa, on the other hand, is about 18 inches in length and 1 ½ inches in width and has a distended end to prevent one’s hand from slipping off when it is drenched in blood. In battle, the iklwa is used within short range of the enemy as opposed to long-range in which the assegai was intended.[1] The iklwa was used in unison with the isihlangu, a shield made of cowhide. The isihlangu was used for protection but also it was common for warriors to carry spare spears behind it. [2] The iwisa is a Zulu club that is made out of a piece of wood. They have a long shaft and a rounded end. It’s intended use is very simple – they were meant to damage the head with a blunt strike. It is important to note that the iwisa was not as heavily used as the assegai, iklwa, and isihlangu; however, it was very much used. The guns used by the amaZulu were obsolete flintlock and percussion. They were considered “old fashioned” and less effective compared to the guns used by the British. [3] There was a great number of “old Brown Bess” guns, which was muskets from the era of the Napoleonic Wars, discovered in Zululand. They were in poor quality and outdated as they were at least 50 years old. The attempted use of the musket actually did more harm than good because the training that the amaZulu endured did not include musket handling and care. The muskets were often times rusted and jammed and there were only a handful of Zulu warriors who were able to effectively use them. [4]

Tactics

When discussing Zulu army tactics the immediate response, for those who are well-versed in Zulu history, is to mention the Impondo Zankomo formation, or the “horns of the buffalo” formation. This technique revolutionized Zulu warfare in that the amaZulu was able to win many battles using this encirclement technique. The Impondo Zankomo formation is comprised of three basic parts: the isifuba (chest), the izimpondo (horns), and the umuva (loins). The isifuba is where all of the warriors are concentrated. They move straight towards the enemy. The izimpondo is where the younger, swift warriors are positioned. They make up the sides of the isifuba. Their job is to encircle the enemy for the kill. The unuva are warriors who function as fillers in the lines. [5] In the Battle of Isandlwana, the Zulu battle tactics were decided as it had been under King Shaka. The amabutho, or age-based regiment, would charge the enemy. Then, once they’ve engaged the enemy for some time the isifuba, izimpondo, and umuva closed in and used their iklwa to finish the enemy. [6]

The Battle of Isandlwana from a British Perspective

Weaponry

The weaponry used by the British differed immensely from that used by the amaZulu. While the Zulu warriors were using weapons from the Napoleonic Wars, the British was using the newest Western technology. The Marini-Henry breech-loading rife was produced in 1871 to substitute for the snider-field which was utilized by the British for about 30 years. [7] The Martini-Henry was an altered American Peabody. It was constructed to be “ a single short, hinged failing-block rifle.” After its approval in 1872, it was shipped to the British troops for use in 1874.[8] Another weapon used by the British in the Battle of Isandlwana were the 7 pounder artillery pieces. This weapon substituted the 6 pounder gun which was said to be too heavyweight for battling the Zulu in the mountains. [9]

Tactics

The British used the “dispersal of detachments” technique in the Battle of Isandlwana. The fought in units somewhat similar to the Roman legions. Their main tactic was that of invasion; however, in highly organized divisions.[10] There were eight companies that were commanded by captains. All of which had two subaltern officers to help them. The company was divided into four sections in which was commanded by a sergeant. There was an infantry unit, Buffalo Border Guards, Mounted Volunteers, etc. to be utilized as needed in detached units. [11]

Zulu’s Victory, Britain’s Defeat

Despite the fact that the British Army had highly advanced weaponry, the Zulu warriors had the numerical advantage. The British mustered up about 14,000 men while the Zulu had over 25,000 men. The commander of the British Army, Lt. Col. Lord Chelmsford, separated his men into five different commands in which to take on the Zulus. Major Pulleine, who was over Lt. Col. Lord Chelmsford, allowed his naiveté to get the best of him as he did not think much of the Zulu. While firing at the Zulu isifuba his men began to decline in ammunition as the Zulu warriors slowly advanced closer. This reason for this is that the depot for the ammunition was located about .5 miles away. Due to Lt. Col. Chelmsford’s arrogance, he did not secure the base camp because of this the Zulu was able to infiltrate the camp. The British was surrounded and separated from one another and the Zulu took advantage of their weakness and cut them down using the impondo zankomo formation.[12] The commander and major’s failure to prepare and inexperience caused their defeat at Isandlwana, It is important to note that the impondo zankomo formation made it difficult for the British army to regain the help they needed from their comrades because of the human barrier the Zulu’s created around them. It is most likely that the idea of the impondo zankomo formation was utilized to simply encircle the enemy and kill them. It was probably not meant to separate the units. This was a bonus.

In this analysis, I have discussed the weaponry and tactics of both the British army and Zulu army. In addition, I have briefly discussed that battle with an emphasis on the issues that ultimately allowed the Zulu to win. The Zulu’s mostly used traditional weapons along with out-of-date guns/muskets. The British used highly advanced guns both of which were newly constructed. Yet, the Zulu was still able to defeat them in battle, The impondo zankomo formation as opposed to the British battle tactics was a bit more advance and well thought out.


[1] Knight, Ian and Angus McBride. Zulu: 1816-1906.(London: Reed International Books Ltd., 1995)., 23

[2] Ibid, 24

[3] Ibid, 25

[4] Ibid, 27

[5] Bauer, Michaela. Shaka Zulu: “Amazing King of the Zulus

in South Africa’s History”, accessed November 24, 2014, http://www.cape-town-guide.com/shaka-zulu.html

[6] Knight, Ian. The Anatomy of the Zulu Army from Shaka to Cetshwayo 1818-1879, (London: Greenhill Books, 1995), 213

[7] Weapons used in the Battle of Isandlwana. Isandlwana, accessed November 25, 2014, http://www.isandlwana.com/about-weapons.html

[8] Machanik, Major Felix Dr. Firepower and Firearms in the Zulu War of 1879. The South African Military History Society, accessed November 25, 2014, http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol046fm.html

[9] Weapons used in the Battle of Isandlwand, n.d.

[10] Hastings, Max. The day I saw the British army being butchered by the Zulus: It’s the shaming defeat Britain tried to hide. MAX HASTINGS saw it being relived…Daily Mail., accessed November 25,2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2558949/The-day-I-saw-British-army-butchered-Zulus-Its-shaming-defeat-Britain-tried-hide-MAX-HASTINGS-saw-relived.html

[11] Snook, Mike Lt. Col., Notes on the Composition of the British Force at Isandlwana.. Accessed November 25, 2014, http://www.empressminiatures.com/BritishForces.pdf

[12] Battle of Isandlwana. Great Military Battles. Accessed November 25, 2014, http://www.greatmilitarybattles.com/html/the_battle_of_isandlwana_and_r.html

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Gerald says:

    War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    1. Thank you… I appreciate your comment.:)

      I agree with you… Warrior culture is quite interesting to me because we can see the intense struggle between morality and the natural instincts of survival (in Freudian terms, the superego vs. the id). Often times, humans are removed from the animal realm because we live on far more than instincts, but we are instinctual nonetheless… Although we are highly emotional, social, logical/pragmatic beings– all the things that are associated with being human/H. sapien sapiens– our “animal instincts” remains the foundation of our humanness. With that said, I feel that as humans, violence will always be an option. While we are immensely intelligent creatures with the ability to solve problems with diplomacy, when (or if) that fails… war is the next option. Is it “right” or “wrong”? Well, that has been a debate from time immemorial… lol.

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