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After seeing the film "Zulu" at an early age, two contradictory questions remained in my mind:
Why was it at Rorke's Drift some 4,000 Zulus were unable to overrun a British Garrison of less than 150 (odds of 26 to 1), when earlier the same day a force of 20,000 Zulus had overrun a British/Colonial force of nearly 1300 men (odds of 15 to 1) ?
Why did the Zulus have any success at all when the British troops were equipped with the Martini Henry rifle that was accurate to around 1000 yards ?
Many years later, following an obsessive on-going interest in the Anglo-Zulu conflict, I believe that I am now able to suggest fairly sensible answers to both these questions.
The first point to be made is that Isandlwana was NOT typical of the way battles went in the Zulu War. The reasons for the British defeat here were varied and complex. Much more "typical" were the battles of Khambula, Gingindlovu, Ulundi and Rorke's Drift, in all of which the British casualties were light, the Zulu casualties horrendous with each resulting in a resounding victory for the British.
To understand the British success I have decided to take a single example of a Zulu attack and subject it to some detailed analysis. The attack I have chosen is that of the iNdluyengwe Regiment at Rorke's Drift - the very first attack of the action.
However, before we look at the action itself, we need to consider the organisation of a Zulu Regiment. Most historians interested in the Anglo-Zulu War tend to have a fairly good grasp of the organisation of the British and colonial units but have the Zulus down as just a large "mob". I must admit I too initially had this attitude and it was only after some pretty extensive reading that I began to appreciate the sophisticated Zulu military organisation. This then led to a greater understanding of how the Zulus had achieved their position of supremacy within the tribes of South Africa and also why they were able to give the British Forces such a difficult time during the 1879 invasion of Zululand .
ZULU REGIMENTAL ORGANISATION AND TACTICS
For a detailed understanding of the Zulu military organisation, one of the best sources is Ian Knight's Book " Anatomy of the Zulu Army"
The Zulu REGIMENT (or IBUTHO) was recruited by age groups between the ages of 17 and 19. The size of the Regiment would depend on the number of youths of that age available at the time of recruiting. The size of Regiments could therefore vary considerably.
However, irrespective of the size of the Regiment, the basic building block of the Zulu Army was the COMPANY or IVIYO this was a grouping of around 50 men. The number of men that could be effectively controlled by ONE man determined the size of the group. As the Zulus tended to operate in fairly compact tactical groups - the optimum number of men was found to be around 50. The more disciplined the group the larger it could be, thought companies around the 100 strong mark were rare, with by far the majority of Companies being between 40 and 60 men strong. There is a direct analogy here to a modern Rifle Platoon of about 35 men.
The Company commander was known as an INDUNA and to support him he had another officer - a second in command. The company was then split into two wings for both administration and tactical reasons. Each wing had a wing officer and a deputy. The two Company officers were likely to be older more experienced men, possibly transferred from a veteran Regiment. The four Wing Officers were almost certainly picked from within the Company as being natural leaders. ALL of the officers would lead from the front.
In graphic form, the ZULU COMPANY would look like this:
The Zulu Regiment would consist of any number of 50 man companies. At Rorke's Drift, the iNdluyengwe Regiment was around 550 strong and could therefore have been made of eleven companies. This is of course conjecture as the Zulus kept no written records.
In an attack the Regiment would adopt the typical "Beast's Horns" formation with a chest and loins and two fast moving horns to encircle and trap their enemy.
In graphic form the iNdluyengwe Regiment formed up for attack would look something like this:
Each company would advance in two or three ranks, in open order with a few paces between each man. In front of the chest there would be one company deployed in an extended line, with the aim of distracting the enemy and drawing his fire, leaving the two companies at the head of the chest relatively intact for the impact with the enemy. The Zulus advanced into action at a rate of around 100 yards per minute, with a faster rush over the last fifty yards. During this rush they would tend to close their order to maximise the impact.
It was the responsibility of the companies forming the two horns to flank the enemy on either side and to close in behind him, thereby encircling and trapping him. The Companies forming the loins would act as a reserve and would also add weight to the charge of the chest companies.
THE BRITISH RESPONSE
The British response to any attack by natives was to rely on volley fire fromtheir Martini Henry rifles - a single shot breech-loading rifle accurate to 1000 yards. The trained British Infantry man could get off six shots a minute. Effective fire was normally opened at ranges between 600 and 800 yards. In the eight minutes or so that it took a Zulu Warrior to cover the 800 yards, his red-coated opponent could get off 48 rounds. A British company of 100 men would thus fire 4,800 rounds, and a British Regiment of eight companies would fire 38,400 rounds. This weight of fire was considered adequate to stop the charge of any amount of native opponents. And of course, even if that failed, the men had their bayonets !
THE ZULU APPROACH TO RORKE'S DRIFT
The iNdluyengwe Regiment, 11 companies totalling 550 men, had formed part of the reserve at Isandlwana. They were an unmarried Regiment with an average age in the early thirties. When it was obvious that the battle at Isandlwana was going in the Zulu's favour, the reserve (under Prince Dabulamanzi) moved towards the isolated British garrison at Rorke's Drift.
They left in the early afternoon, with the battle still on going. There had been no chance to loot Martini Henry rifles off the dead British soldiers. The approach to Rorke's Drift involved a cross-country march of nearly twelve miles and included crossing a major river - the Mzinyathi. The iNdluyengwe Regiment leading the reserve corps arrived at Rorke's Drift first, approaching the post from the south, around the flanks of the Oskaberg (Shyiane Hill). They formed up into their attack formation behind the hill. The right horn would move along the terraces of Shyiane Hill while the left horn swung wide around the post taking advantage of a covered approach. The chest and loins would advance directly on the post covering some 600 yards of open ground. The skirmishers came into sight at 1630hours at a range of 600 yards. The British moved defenders to the south wall and opened fire less than a minute later with the Zulus having advanced to about 500 yards.
To undertake the analysis, a number of suppositions have been made, which although they might not be 100% accurate, should be close enough:
The British troops will fire six rounds a minute
(* Howard Whitehouse " Battle in Africa ")
In tabular form, an analysis of the attack will look like:
* Note: The Zulu attack was checked at 50 yards.
We now need to look at the effect these casualties would have on EACH of the three companies, to see what actually caused the attack to fail. In a book entitled "Das Regiments Kriegspiel" Capt Nauman* of the Prussian army had outlined the results of a statistical analysis on the effects that taking casualties had on a unit. He determined that there was a variation depending on whether the unit was operating under FAVOURABLE or UNFAVOURABLE conditions. He defined those conditions as follows:
The %age losses suffered by a unit could then be used to anticipate the unit's reaction:
These statistics would apply equally well to most units in most periods.
(* quoted in Andrew Wilson's "The Bomb and the Computer")
At Rorke's Drift, the lead three companies of the iNdluyengwe Regiment were initially operating under FAVOURABLE conditions:
When they had left Isandlwana, the main Zulu Army was well on its way to achieving a total victory - morale was therefore very high
For the first minute of the advance (500 yards down to 400 yards), from the time the British had opened fire each Company had suffered about 8% casualties. The British had not immediately run away, but things were still favourable.
For the second minute (400 yards down to 300 yards) the cumulative casualties were 16%. The casualties were mounting, the British were still there, the advance was progressing and conditions although not as good were still on the favourable side.
For the third minute (300 yards down to 200 yards) things were beginning to change. The cumulative casualties were now getting high - 32%. One- third of each Company were now casualties, along with most of the officers who had been leading from the front. The British were showing no signs of running away, indeed the weight of their fire was noticeably steady. Doubts would now enter into minds. However, these tactics had obviously just worked at Isandlwana, the other companies were right behind them, and the veteran regiments would shortly be there to watch them as well. One final effort should do it ?
For the fourth minute (200 yards down to 100 yards) things were beginning to falter. Cumulative casualties were now at 48% - half the men were down, and probably all the officers. The British were obviously not going to run. The Zulu warriors were now close enough to see the glistening bayonets waiting for them. The pace instead of increasing was now decreasing - men were beginning to look for cover or to veer away from that awful fire.
For the fifth minute (100 yards down to fifty yards) the reality had sunk home - this attack was NOT going to succeed, in the first 30 seconds of this period casualties had reached 56%. Despite the pressure from behind, the men stopped, those that could find cover in ditches went there. Those with no cover swung to the left (to the right was the obstacle of the Shyiane Terraces) to the left were clumps of bushes, ditches, a wall - COVER ! The three lead companies were effectively DESTROYED. The companies following up had seen the effects of the fire on the men ahead of them, they too were beginning to take casualties. There was obviously nothing to be gained by carrying on, and they too veered to the left.
The four remaining companies of the chest/loins and the two of the left horn (250 - 300 Zulus ?) now swept around the end of the hospital building taking advantage of a blind spot in the defences, and also of a more covered approach. The two companies of the right horn moving along the Shyiane Terraces took up firing positions among the rocks and caves and opened up a steady fire on the defenders who they overlooked.
Fortunately for the defence, although many of the 100 Zulus were armed with firearms, most would have been old rifled muskets or even smoothbore muskets, and the distance to the post was too great for any accurate fire.
The initial attack of the iNdluyengwe Regiment had failed. It's next attack would be on the hospital building, which because of the nature of the terrain approaching it - bushes, walls, fences, ditches etc. - would have to be undertaken by one or two-company sized groups. The rest of the reserve corps was beginning to arrive, and seeing the evidence of what had happened to the "youngsters" of the iNdluyengwe wisely swung immediately to the left, in the tracks of their predecessors and then wider still, overlapping the iNdluyengwe to attack the north wall of the post.
The British success/Zulu failure was clearly the result of concentrated rifle fire being directed on the lead companies of the Zulu Regimental attack. The destruction of these companies either stalled the Regimental attack or forced it to veer to a flank away from the deadly fire. The destruction of three companies out of eleven meant an overall loss of nearly 30% to the Regiment. The conditions could now be regarded as "unfavourable". The Regiment would be classed as "shaken" and would therefore not have the necessary morale to pursue the original attack.
Zulu Regimental Organisation: