A Buffalo by the Horns

Lord Chelmsford, as seen through the lens of Vanity Fair. He was relieved of command for his botched handling of the Anglo-Zulu War Photo Credit: Vanity Fair.
Lord Chelmsford, as seen through the lens of Vanity Fair. He was relieved of command for his botched handling of the Zulu War
Photo Credit: Vanity Fair.

Optional Musical Accompaniment for this post

General Chelmsford, about to be famous for more than the impressive brown caterpillar of a handlebar mustache he wore on his face, started off immediately on the wrong foot. His invasion plans called for 15,000 men, but he had to settle for about half that. Also in a hurry to launch the invasion, Chelmsford started marching in the rainy season, the one time of year when every road in the region turned into the bayous of Louisiana. Undeterred Chelmsford began to divide up his forces into three columns, seemingly more worried about bringing the Zulus to battle than he was about how the resulting conflict might play out. Chelsmford set up his main camp on a rocky hill called Isandlwana and a supply depot at a small mission station called Rorke’s Drift. Attached to the main central column, Chelmsford then decided it would be great fun to cut his remaining 4,000 troops down to size again, wandering off with 2,500 men with the hope of catching the Zulus and winning himself a glorious victory that would quickly end the campaign.

As it happened, while the British were struggling along, the Zulu ibuthos, or regiments, had mobilized with terrifying speed. Unburdened by anything more than their weapons, they had covered five times the distance the British had. Now shadowing the British forces, the Zulus began to feel around for the right target and waited for a chance to strike. For his part Chelmsford had no idea his opponents were packed into the gorges just a few miles from his position. He continued to amble off towards Cetshwayo’s capital, somehow hoping to stumble in to their main ibutho based on a few sightings of small Zulu units ahead of him. Even when funny messages began to trickle in, saying things like “For God’s Sake come back, the camp is surrounded”, or the sound of their own field guns firing was heard, he brushed them off. As the reports piled up his staff wandered up a nearby hill to take a look, and saw nothing that really alarmed them. One of the staff officers even dropped an excessively British quip as they surveyed the area, “how very amusing! Actually attacking our camp! Most amusing”.

While everyone looks heroic, the better question at Isandlwana was how they got so trapped in the first place. Painted by Charles Edwin Fripp, (c) National Army Museum;
While everyone looks stoically doomed, the better question at Isandlwana was how they got so trapped in the first place.
Painted by Charles Edwin Fripp, (c) National Army Museum;

Surprising nobody but Chelmsford and his officers, Isandlwana was actually under attack from all sides. The problem, as the British and their Boer and African draftees were quickly discovering, wasn’t just that they were outnumbered almost 20:1. That was bad, but what turned Isandlwana from potential bungle to notorious disaster was that the British had done nothing to fortify the area. Normal protocol when dealing with an enemy armed with mostly melee weapons was to construct a temporary fortress, or Laager, out of the supply wagons and sandbags. It was a strategy popularized by the Bohemian Hussites in the 14th Century, when they found themselves fighting out of their depth against mounted knights eager to stamp out a first stab at Christian Protestantism. Since then, the advent of more rapid firing weapons had made “circling the wagons” the sensible choice when faced with overwhelming odds. Even the Boer guides and mercenaries accompanying the British had urged this strategy against the Zulus. Chelmsford, the Chernobyl of the British military, hadn’t done so as it “would take a week”.

Zulu Tactics as illustrated. Photo Credit: Brammers, Wikimedia Commons
Zulu Impi Tactics. Photo Credit: Brammers, Wikimedia Commons

Zulu tactics imitates the form of a water buffalo, with formations for the horns, head, and body. Traditionally the head moves forward, drawing the attention of the enemy, then soldiers would stream to the left and the right to form the horns which rushed forward and encircle the target around the flanks and rear. The body then moved in as a reserve to put the finishing touches on the slaughter. The only survivors at Isandlwana were those who saw the horns closing in all around them and rode hard for the weakest point in the Zulu line. The battle was a massacre of disastrous proportions for the British, and Chelmsford could only stare in horror when his scouts returned from the camp, reporting that the only red coats they had seen were worn by looting Zulus.

The shock was deeply embarrassing to the British, but it was hardly the end of the story. Incredibly, the supply depot at Rorke’s Drift survived a subsequent two day siege by the Zulu reserve of almost 4,000 men. The 140 men guarding the handful of buildings had improvised a desperate defense, understandably leading the British to give out more Victoria Crosses for the one battle than any other in history. Rorke’s Drift was more of a historic footnote than anything else, but it allowed the British to pretend they hadn’t just been smashed onto their back heels. Incidentally, the movie Zulu dramatizing the siege of Rorke’s Drift is one of Michael Caine’s first starring roles, and utterly fascinated the author when he was at a much more formative age.[1]

A painting of Zulu Warriors on the charge. Note the use of guns alongside spears and hide shields. Painting by: Charles Edwin Fripp (again).
A painting of Zulu Warriors on the charge. Note the use of guns alongside spears and hide shields. Painting by: Charles Edwin Fripp (again).

Since one of Chelmsford’s other two columns had also been surrounded and cut off, he reluctantly fell back to Natal. Now realizing that it was probably better to go in with overwhelming force than conquesting on a budget, Chelmsford eventually swarmed back in with more than 16,000 British troops and another 7,000 African and Boer irregulars. After several battles went the way spears against rifles and cannons usually go, Chelmsford finally smashed the Zulus at the battle of Ulundi in July 1879 and deposed Cetshwayo. As a sad footnote, Cetshwayo had never lost hope of ending the war peacefully. He hadn’t pressed his advantage after Isandlwana, and had restrained his forces from going after softer targets like supply lines. It was a position that had won him few favors from Chelmsford and Frere, but earned him a great deal of sympathy in Cape Colony and London. After several years, public opinion swung so much in his favor that the British actually tried to help restore his position as Inkosi among the Zulus. In 1883 Cetshwayo died of a heart attack, in the midst of another Zulu civil war.

[1] Cetshwayo in the film is played by his real life great grandson and Zulu Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Buthelezi also went on from his film role to cofound the Inkatha National Freedom Party, and is still an active South African politician today.

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