Thursday, December 17, 2009


Horns of the Bull: British Tragedy and Triumph at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift


The British Army: The British Army in 1878-1879 had neither the prestige nor the political clout of the Royal Navy. Conditions for enlisted men were abysmal, and the pay exceedingly low. Since there was no conscription at that time, enlisted recruits generally were men who had few other options. Men enlisted for six years, with an additional six-year reserve commitment. British regiments consisted (on paper at least) of two battalions-- one at a home depot in Great Britain, while its partner battalion was deployed overseas. The army in 1878, however, was small enough that in some instances both battalions of a regiment were in fact overseas-- the 24th Regiment of Foot was unusual, however, in that both its 1st and 2nd Battalions were deployed in the Zululand Campaign.

British troops were supplemented with Natal volunteer units and the Natal Native Contingent, which was formed with native levies. Chelmsford had eight Natal volunteer units, and seven Natal Native Contingent battalions at his disposal, and also had 1,200 men of the volunteer Frontier Light Horse available. The problem with his Natal volunteer and Native Contingent units, of course, was that they had neither the training nor the discipline of his British regulars.

British Weapons: The British Army employed the Martini-Henry .45 caliber single-shot, breech-loading, lever-action rifle. It was a reliable and accurate weapon, capable in the hands of an expert marksman of downing a target at 1,000 yards, and rear-sighted for a firing distance of 400 yards. Its muzzle velocity was 375 yards, or 1/5 of a mile, per second. It fired a soft lead bullet that flattened on impact, wreaking havoc on bones and soft tissue. The Martini-Henry rifle was used in combination with a 21 ½ inch bayonet known as a "lunger."

British Strategy and Tactics: Lord Chelmsford, senior commander of British forces in Zululand, elected to divide his forces and ordered them to advance and then converge on Cethswayo's main homestead. During the advance, they were to destroy as many Zulu amakhanda as possible, thus limiting the capacity of the Zulu to carry on a military campaign of any length. Chelmsford hoped to provoke an attack on open level ground, where it was assumed that British military discipline and firepower would more than compensate for British inferiority in numbers (Chelmsford had 16,000 men, including a not-so-reliable as he might have hoped native contingent, while Cethswayo had at least 40,000 men at his disposal, nearly 30,000 of whom were estimated by reliable observers to have been mustered by Cethswayo for his war with the British). This was ironic, in that Cethswayo also hoped for a decisive battle on open level ground, where he thought Zulu superior numbers and Shaka's Horns of the Bull tactics could inflict a telling defeat on the British. He specifically cautioned his war chiefs, however, against attacking entrenched British troops, for Cethswayo thought that taking such a strong position, while possible, would prove too costly for the Zulu.

Chelmsford's main columns crossed into Zululand at Rorke's Drift, while a much smaller unit under Colonel Charles Pearson crossed into Zululand at the Lower Drift near the mouth of the Tugela River. Some British regulars were left behind in Natal, partly to guard against Zulu incursions, and partly to keep an eye on the Boers. British intentions were painfully obvious to the Boers, many of whom then refused to take any part in the British invasion of Zululand.

British supplies had to transported by oxen, who could only move eleven miles per day on good roads in good weather conditions. Chelmsford had no system of supply depots, so each of his columns was obliged to carry all of it own food and equipment, and from its own men to supply a guard for its supply train.

Thomas A. Pearson, Reference Librarian
Special Collections Department
St. Louis Public Library

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