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Anglo-Zulu 1879 War Analysis Essay

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Updated: Sep 10th, 2021

The Zulu kingdom was created by Shaka Kasenzagakhana. It lasted about six decades until it met with the might of the imperial British Empire. It took about six months for the kingdom to be completely shattered which required a complete military campaign, the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. The Zulu nation had been invaded by Voortrekkers and up to the time it was subdued by the British, it had fought numerous battles and even when the Zulu finally lost to the British, they had won the same battles against them, testifying to the strength of the Zulu army.

The full campaign of the British army involved 3 invading columns. The central column was almost completely uninhibited at the battle of Isandlwana in a battle viewed as a great military disaster for the British. The British redcoats under lord Chelmsford had expected the hit and run tactics that Lord Chelmsford had experienced in other African countries. Chelmsford accompanied the central column as they advanced into Zululand and crossed the Tugelo River at Forke’s drift.

The supplies for the entire column were carried in ox carts, pulled by about 20 oxen. The pace was slow due to the hilly nature of the country, the absence of roads, and because a lot of time had to be spent feeding and caring for the oxen. In addition, it was necessary to picket hilltops and scout the country for Zulus in ambush. The wetness due to heavy rain caused risks to swell making progress when slaves (www.britishbattes.com/zulu-war lisandarkra.htm)

Chelmsford decided to head for Isandlwana a hill that resembles a sphinx. Against advice, Lord Chelmsford camped along the hill’s slopes. Major Dartnell in his reconnaissance of the direction of advance of the British army met with the Zulu army and due to their strength he could not disengage until the following day, 22nd January 1879 (Knight, 1992).

Upon receiving Dartnell’s intelligence, Chelmsford decided to advance to defeat the Zulu in a great battle with a great force of the British army. Chelmsford advanced to meet Dartnell but found that the Zulu had disappeared. The first battalion of the 24th foot had been left in the camp and colonel Danford had been ordered to take his column to reinforce the camp.

The Zulus had bypassed Chelmsford and advanced to Isandlwana when Chelmsford received news of a threat to the camp, he ordered Colonel Pulleine to break camp. Conolel Dunford went in search of the Zulu warriors, whom he found unexpectedly in a fold in the ground. The sudden appearance of colonel Dunford and his troops forced the Zulu army to respond immediately by forming as much as they could, their traditional form of assault, the left horn, the central chest of the attack, and the right horn.

The main Zulu frontal assault appeared over the ridge causing some of the companies to withdraw as they paused to fire. The horns of the Zulu posed a greater danger to the British line as they found the end of the British line and enveloped it. The companies of the 24th and NNI could not prevent this envelopment and Dunford men on the right flank ran out of ammunition and had to go back to camp leaving the right flank open. The Zulu chiefs grabbed the opportunity and encouraged the chest warriors to revamp their attack leading to the British troops falling back on the encampment.

As the lives broke up, the British soldiers formed groups that fought Zulus until they had no more ammunition. Many men were caught at the Tuget River, It is possible that natives from Natal; came to the river and killed British soldiers. Most of the soldiers who survived were those on horseback. In total the battle resulted in the death of 52 British officers and 806 non-commissioned officers and 471 Africans who were fighting for the British. Among the Zulu, about 2000 of them died both on the field and from wounds sustained in battle. The Zulu also got an estimated 1000 rifles and the whole reserve ammunition supply of the column. The British army had an initial force of 1200 men while the Zulus were around 12000. They were armed with “the breach loading single short Martini Henry rifle and bayonet”.

The regiments of the Zulu warriors were formed by age with shield and stabbing spear (the assegai) as the main equipment. The military strategy employed by the Zulu was the Horns of the beast’ devised by Shaka. The frontal assault was delivered by the main body of the army; the horns spread out and delivered the second attack in the enemy’s rear or the sides which often was fatal. The Zulu king, Cetshwayo had brought firearms so by the time war broke out the Zulus had many muskets and rifles but of poor quality and the Zulu had poor skills in their use.

The impression one gets from reading Churchill’s account of the battle of Omdurman is that the African armies were easy to vanquish. This, as shown by the initial defeat of the British in the Anglo-Zulu war was quite the opposite. This can be mainly attributed to the military strategy of the Zulu and also the fact that lord Chelmsford had little familiarity with the technique of the Zulu.

Though the early campaigns against the Zulu went wrong the British eventually won the war. The defeat at Isandlwana led the British soldiers to perceive the Zulu army in a different light.

The British soldiers began to view them as a disciplined, army with controlled savagery rather than a group of part-time soldiers who were herdsmen. This defeat, however, ensured that the Zulu kingdom would be eventually destroyed. The Zulu had no real defense against the retaliation of the British who had amassed firepower and had professional British soldiers while they (the Zulu) had the stabbing spear as their primary tool of offense and defense.

The success at Isandlwana caused the Zulu army to be exhausted and as such Cetshwayo could not mount a counteroffensive into Natal. This provided lord Chelmsford with an opportunity to regroup. The empire provided South Africa with British troops and Chelmsford ordered the march of a column to aid Colonel Pearson’s men at Eshowe who had been besieged for three months. The column was ordered to make a diversionary attack at a Zulu stronghold, Hlobane Mountain. They however had to scatter because of the unexpected arrival of the main Zulu army. The following day the Zulu army attacked the camp at Khambula but was defeated. The two defeats of the Zulu army in different parts of the country within a short period led to demoralization within the Zulu army. Chelmsford organized his forces and pressed on towards Ulundi where they arrived towards the end of June. Ulundi was forced and the King fled but was later captured and exiled in Cape Town. The defeat at Ulundi marked the end of the war and Zululand was divided into thirteen administrative areas under pro-British chiefs. This led to years of civil war, a strategy of the British.

The British through unwarranted acts of aggression provoked the Anglo-Zulu war. In the 1840s Natal, a British colony was established. It bordered the southern parts of Zululand. The British however continued to move forward to consolidate control of all the British colonies in the region and bring the Boer republics and other African groups under British control.

The overall goal was the implementation of economic development. According to Sir Henry Bartle Frere, British High Commissions in South Africa, Zululand threatened this policy. He, therefore, started a quarrel assuming that the Zulu army would be easily trampled by the mightier British Imperial army.

The war initially did not go well for the British because they underestimated the Zulu army. The army was brave and highly organized and outmaneuvered and outfought the British army. They also had significantly high numbers than their opponents. There’s, however, a brief victory was. The British had superior firearms and ammunition. In addition, they could regroup faster than the Zulu army. The provisioning system of the British army was much advanced than that of the Zulu (Knight, 1999).

Though the technique of the Zulu worked in Isandlwana, it sometimes failed to work like in Khambula and Ulindi and other previous battles with the Boers. When the frontal assault experienced a shattering attack, many times the reserve attack would be unable to do anything constructive. For example the Zulu after becoming exhausted against British firepower in Khambula, there were very few Zulu reserves available to provide a significant defense. Their traditional formation though a great strength was also a great area of weakness especially in the face of concentrated firepower. Commanding and controlling the army was especially difficult when the horns and chests were in motion. The Zulu also made errors in strategy because they did not take advantage of their mobility by attempting to attack British supply lines or the British rear area of Natal (Knight, 1999).

The greatest assets of the Zulu army, morale unit leadership, numbers, and mobility helped them in various encounters with the British but overall were not sufficient to win the war. The setting up of fortifications by the British empowered them further which led to great losses when the Zulu attacked well-defended camps (Knight, 1999).

The honor was also a motivating factor for the Zulu army. This was tied to morale and discipline. During the battle at Isandlwana, the advance of the Zulu was weakened by the British bullets and artillery but the regimental izindura shouted from the mountain proclaiming to the warriors that the king had sent them to fight not to run away. Thus reminded the regiments that were encircling stayed in place and continued to fight the British until they could advance. Here the values of the Zulu contributed to helping them win.

Their values, however, also lead to their defeat. They believed so much in Shaka’s traditional formation that they did not think to change it even when it had failed them in previous battles like those against the Boers where their assaults were constantly broken up (Knight, 1999). In addition, even when they had the opportunity to do so the Zulu failed to adopt the use of firearms so that they could adjust to the new threat of firearms hence their defeat by the Britsh (Knight, 199).

The Zulu treatment of prisoners and civilians who collaborated with the British was cruel. Many times they took rifles away from the prisoners and would cut them to pieces. They would ‘debowel’ their warriors after the war to release their spirits.

The war had the effect of disheartening Zulu civilians so much that they eventually submitted to British rule. Many young men were lost who could have participated in other socio-economic activities within the Zulu kingdom. At the time of the war in Ulundi, most of the Zulu had had enough of fighting and desired peace more than anything and to resume their normal lives. A newspaper correspondent is reported as stating, “By deprivations of all kinds the Zulu must feel the miseries of war and nothing will bring to home to them the horrors of war better than being deprived of the shelter of huts in cold nights. Fire, sword and rifle must never rest, day or night to ensure every Zulu man, woman or child at last cry for peace.” (Laband, 2006). This was a description of methods employed by the British 1st battalion to bring the non-combatants to submission. They repeatedly burnt mini and amakhanda (homestead groups) of the Zulu civilians and drove off their livestock. They aimed to reduce the morale of the civilian population as much as possible so that they could not fight (Laband, 2006).

The submission of the Zulu was enhanced by offers Chelmsford made to their leaders. He offered protection for the people and retention of the chiefly status as long as the military systems and the monarchy were abolished (Laband, 2006).

The Anglo-Zulu war is in some ways typical of African military resistance to colonial conquest. This is because though the Zulu initially defeated the British army, they did so with great losses compared to the losses of the British Force. Eventually, the tide turned against the Zulu army and the British used the same divide and rule tactics to ensure complete submission as they had done in all of Africa resulting in a Zululand with 13 chiefs and therefore no hope of ever becoming a force to reckon with again.

In addition, the inferior Zulu weaponry and military strategy was not a match for the superior British army which had professional soldiers, firearms, bayonets, and British musketry. The fortifications the British set up also helped to prevent the advance of the Zulu Army. The defeat at Isandlwana also motivated the British forces and they staged an all-out campaign against the Zulu army causing them to retreat at almost every other battle thus disheartening them and causing their eventual submission. The high death toll left the Zulu army exhausted and unable to regroup as rapidly as the British force which could get support and provision from the rest of the British Empire placing the British at a greater advantage than the Zulu army.

The Anglo-Zulu war is different slightly because unlike the other African armies, they put up a resistance for a significant amount of time. Also, their initial defeat of the British shook the entire empire something which other African resistances had not done before. What the British thought would be an easy fight turned into a six-month war in which the British also sustained significant losses.

Works Cited

  1. Knight I, 1999 Anatomy of the Zulu Army: From Shaka to Getshwayo, 1818-1879, Greenhill Books, ISBN 1853673633 pg256-270
  2. Knight I, 1992, Zulu War 1879: Twilight of a Warrior Nation, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1855321653
  3. Laband J, 2006, Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Africa: From Slavery Days to Rwandan Genocide, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0313335400
  4. The Anglo Zulu War.
  5. The Battle of Isandlwana, Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
  6. BritishBattles.com. Web.
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