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Zulu strategy
Mel


Joined: 31 Aug 2005
Posts: 345
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I have often wondered why the Zulu Army did not change tactics after the painful lessons learnt at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. Why did they persist in charging against the encamped massed rifles of the British?

I have stood at the top of Khambula several times and it never fails to amaze me how they could have even contemplated charging up that steep hill towards the inevitable death that awaited them.

Why was it that the Zulu could not adapt to meet the challenge of a modern enemy? Why not, for instance, attack when the British Force was strung out on the march and at their most vulnerable? Have a look at the painting done by William Lloyd of the 2nd Div on the march near Isepesi Hill.
If you were the Zulu Commander, would you have waited until the British army had formed an invincible square and had trundled into position at Ulundi before launching yourself against it?

Was the Zulu command really capable of playing the oft quoted "games of chess"?


Last edited by Mel on Thu Nov 28, 2013 11:29 pm; edited 1 time in total

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Peter Ewart


Joined: 31 Aug 2005
Posts: 1797
Location: Near Canterbury, Kent, England.
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Mel

It certainly seems surprising, on the face of it, that the huge, ponderous, vulnerable column was not attacked out in the open during the second invasion. Even though it was the Xhosa who were noted for their ambush tactics, such an attack would also have satisfied the Zulu habit of choosing to fight in the open, where traditionally they were strong.

However, even though the Zulu were not exceptionally fearful of cavalry, having a number of tactics up their sleeves against them, the British cavalry (if they could avoid horse sickness & keep their mounts strong) would surely have been able, with the other mounted forces, to provide an effective guard. Or not? Added to this, the scouting during the 2nd invasion was far superior to that in the central column during the first invasion, so the opportunities for surprises were fewer. Evenings, nights and early mornings saw the column behind strong laagers & trenchworks – although that didn’t prevent a number of panics among the NNC and the raw British infantry recruits sent out, from several minor scares to the major “Fort Funk” incident. The chain of forts also protected the series of relays of supplies to and fro, although at least one was placed in a depression instead of on an eminence. Caution (or over caution) was the watchword in May & June. Defence against any surprise.

There were minor attacks – if not quite ambushes – during the second invasion, but only one major (and almost very successful) ambush arising from a carefully prepared plan, that of 3rd July. That did involve cunning & subterfuge, but even if successful would not have ensnared the whole column, only a comparatively small part of it. The combined column was huge and powerful in numbers & weaponry (albeit with plenty of inexperience) and was approached with “peace feelers” more than by a strong impi while on the march.

At Inyezane there had been some skilful skirmishing under cover and in long grass but effective scouting prevented total surprise. An opportunity for a surprise attack – or just an attack – on the night of the 21st/22nd may have been lost. It is strange that, in two separate locations that same night, the invasion force and the Zulu were very close indeed to each other in the dark, and more or less knew it but didn’t want a night fight, coming to blows only the next day – with a victory each. At Gingindlovu, again efficient scouting meant the proximity of the impi was known, so the traditional “horns of the morning” would not be successful against a large, well armed force behind an entrenched laager, even if the musketry was of a poor standard. So no crafty ruse there either, other than the initial approach under the cover of mist and very skilful skirmishing in small groups.

At Khambula, although the traditional attack was planned, which had been successful with those regiments a couple of months earlier, the rash impetuosity (disobedience if you like) of one horn messed up the whole attack, as the British were able to defend against each section (horns & chest) almost piecemeal rather than all together when surrounded. Although formidably defended, surely Khambula could have gone the other way had the Zulu commanders’ plans not been ignored so rashly. After all, it was still a hell of a fight for some hours and incursions were made in the barricades, even though the horns were considerably depleted by the time the “chest” came up.

The Prince’s death was, of course, a perfect example of a careful surprise attack using the immediate topography and leading to success on a very small scale, aided by appalling slackness all round. Ditto Myer’s Drift on a bigger scale for the same reasons on both sides, albeit with possibly a bit of an excuse for the defenders (but not their leaders) in their exhausted state on arrival at the river.

All in all, Mel, I think the impis were kept at bay during June by the sheer size of the combined column, including cavalry, with extensive (although not always completely successful) scouting, and the King’s concentration on peace feelers that month – if, indeed, the main impi was fully reconstituted by then anyway. The invasion force’s transport was still the main problem, but this was – in a fashion - overcome. Did the Zulu really have much opportunity for complete surprise, or were they more likely to rely on their tried & trusted method which had defeated several enemies over the previous 60 years, including that very year? Perhaps if the impi had arrived in the area slightly earlier on 28th March, and/or gone into battle at Khambula when Wood & Buller and their mounted forces were still at Hlobane, perhaps things just might have been different.

I know this post won't introduce anything new to you, but I thought I'd have a go at tackling your very pertinent question.

Peter
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