Zulu and British Battle Tactics
|The horns of the bull deployed against the British|
The Zulus acquired a deserved reputation for bravery during the Zulu War but the
truth is that their initial successes in battle were as much due to British overconfidence and incompetence as to their almost
The British relied on their technological superiority, characterised by the Martini-Henry
rifle, artillery, rockets and gatling guns. During the later stages of the war these weapons effectively broke up the Zulu
charges with few casualties on the British side. However, this technological superiority carried a heavy price as Chelmsford’s
armies lumbered at a snail’s pace towards Cetewayo’s kraal at Ulundi, using ox wagons as transport.
A nagging worry was the lack of regular cavalry which was mobile enough to maintain
reconnaissance of the Zulu forces. To remedy this deficit, some infantry were converted into mounted troops. Chelmsford also
made use of large numbers of colonial and native horsemen.
The Zulu were technologically inferior to the British. They possessed guns but these
were old fashioned – often muzzle loading. Martini-Henrys were captured at Isandhlwana but the Zulus never mastered
the art of shooting them accurately, often aiming too high.
The Zulus chief weapon was the short stabbing spear, or iklwa, which was so
named because of the sound it made as it entered someone’s body. The other weapon used was the knob-kerrie which was
a form of club.
These weapons required the Zulus to close with the enemy. The Zulus were highly mobile
and could cover large distances quicker than the British. Once they sighted the enemy they deployed, at a charge, into their
famous bull formation. The horns would flank around the sides whilst the main body attacked the front. The enemy would then
be trapped and encircled. A reserve would sit with their backs to the battle until they were needed. At Isandhlwana the Zulus
charged five miles to engage the British camp.
Against this the British used the line or the square. The square was the best formation
since it meant that firepower could be concentrated but sometimes the British lines were more strung out. These methods of
fighting were the same as those employed in the Napoleonic wars over fifty years earlier. Against a European army (or even
against the Boers in !880) such tactics were suicidal. But the Zulus were just as predictable. The horns of the bull were
always used so the British knew what to expect. The Zulu tactic dated from Chief Shaka’s time, which was almost as long
ago. Shaka had created the great Zulu nation with his armies. During Cetewayo’s time the army may have been as much
as 50,000 although many of these men would have been old.
The Zulu animation is based on drawings contained within "The Zulu War" by Angus
McBride (Osprey Men at Arms series)