South African Military History 


Newsletter No 71 August /Nuusbrief Nr 71 Augustus 2010

SAMHSEC's meeting in Port Elizabeth on 12 July 2010 opened with Mike Duncan's series on medals awarded to Port Elizabeth men. The subject this month was Major C.V. Tiran, ED, best known as PE's charismatic Chief Traffic Officer during the 1950s & 60s. Major Tiran served with the Transvaal Scottish before transfering to PE, where he joined the Prince Alfred's Guard. During WW2, he served in the Middle East in various posts, including tours of duty in the Natal Scottish, SA Anti-Aircraft Artillery and the SAAF Infantry Batalion.

The curtain raiser and main lectures were combined in an illustrated talk by Pat Irwin on the Battle of Isandlwana against the background of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. The talk began by stressing that all wars and battles have political, economic and social contexts and consequences.

On 12 January 1879, Britain and its local allies, including Sotho military units, colonial militia and several hundred politically disaffected Zulus living in Natal, went to war with the Zulu Kingdom, ruled by Cetshwayo kaMpande, for reasons which today would be considered nakedly aggressive, unwarranted and quite inadequate. 10 days later, the British troops and their allies, under the overall command of Lord Chelmsford, suffered a major military defeat at a hill in Zululand called Isandlwana, and a panic ensued throughout the colony of Natal: many Zulu massacres, including Blaauwkranz and Weenen were still within living memory.

The range of source materials and literature on the battle, both primary (some of it contradictory or ambiguous) and secondary, was briefly reviewed and note made of the extent to which the event has captured the imagination of the public and the continuing interest of military historians. In the former case it has largely been due to the popularisation of the Anglo-Zulu War through Donald Morris' 1966 book The Washing of the Spears and the films Zulu and Zulu Dawn, however inaccurate and misleading these are. For the military historians, it is in good measure due to the continuing controversy and debate over several aspects of the battle.

The reasons for the war revolved around several intersecting factors: the British desire for a southern African confederation to save money for the British exchequer - an independent Zululand was perceived to stand in the way of this goal; Natal's mien as a colonial expansionist society with a latent fear of the large Zulu 'standing army' aggravated by Bartle Frere's (Governor and High Commissioner) obsessive determination to crush the Zulu as a military power; and accusations that Cetshwayo was a tyrant. There is no evidence that he was viewed as such by his people, although there were Christian malcontents and others who had fled to Natal from Zulu justice. Linked to this was Cetshwayo's alleged antipathy to Christian missionaries.

War was ultimately provoked by an impossible ultimatum from Frere, demanding amongst other things, the dismantling of the Zulu military system, allowing young soldiers to marry, opening up of the country to Christian missionaries and the changing of many of the laws - effectively the dismantling of the Zulu State as it existed. There was absolutely no way Cetshwayo and his counsellors could accede to such demands. It was noted too in this context that Cetshwayo was not prepared for war and there was reluctance on both his and his counsellors' part to be drawn in to it. By 9 January, a day before the expiry of the ultimatum, no amabutho ('regiments') had yet been assembled.

The leadership, weaponry and tactical approaches of the two armies were then outlined, as was the composition of the various elements within each army. Particular mention was made of the fighting qualities of the 24th (Warwickshire) Regiment, the Natal Native Horse and the Natal Native Contingent. The Zulu 'chest' and 'horns' tactic was outlined as was the highly disciplined nature of the Zulu army which has been argued by some strategists to have been the fastest and finest close combat troops in the world at that time. They could outrun a horse on rough ground - as happened on the 'Fugitive's Trail' after the battle. In sum the key to Zulu success was to catch the British in the open. Concomitantly British success depended largely on not being caught in the open, but having strong defensive positions (wagons, entrenchments, forts/earthworks, infantry squares and cavalry or mounted infantry) and concentrated firepower, all of which they failed to utilize or apply at Isandlwana.

An examination of the physical layout and configuration of the battlefield was followed by a blow-by blow account of events as they unfolded from the time that Chelmsford departed from camp at 0400 on the 22 January with the 'bulk' of the army's fighting power and the chance discovery of the main Zulu army by scouts later that morning, through to the Zulu attack and annihilation of much of the British army remaining in the camp by about 1330, to Chelmsford's return in the early evening, and the return to bury the dead only some four months later. The almost immediate attempts by Chelmsford's staff to shift the responsibility for the disaster was noted, and in this context the roles played by Colonels Pulleine and Durnford, the two most senior officers on the battlefield, were outlined.

The tactical movements of the Zulu army were examined as was the evidence for a 'battle plan' on their part and the possibility that the Chelmsford had been decoyed, allowing the poorly defended main camp to be attacked. The overall significance of the battle lies not in that it was decisive, although it certainly spurred the British to commit greater resources to the conflict of which it was a part, but because it was one of the biggest defeats ever inflicted on the British Army by indigenous people.

Zulu casualties are difficult to estimate but were probably between 1000 and 3000 and included many important individuals, amongst them two sons of Ntshingwayo the Zulu Commander. British losses amounted to a total of 1357, nearly 1200 of whom were either from the 24th Regiment, which had stood its ground to the last man, or the Natal Native Contingent, which had attempted to flee early in the battle and thus opened itself to destruction. These casualties can be compared with 28% at Waterloo, 20% at Trafalgar and 7% at El Alamein in October 1942.

There followed a brief look at some of the monuments and memorials commemorating the event as well as an assessment of the short and long term impacts of the battle on each side. Despite a nominal victory, the battle was a disaster for the Zulu people, who in April 1879 faced a greatly reinforced British Army returning in a second invasion, driven both by its own pride and colonial fear of the Zulus. This time however it was war against the people and not just the Zulu army. Aside from a number of skirmishes and the final battle (more aptly termed a massacre) at Ulundi on 4 July, with the coming winter, crops and homes were destroyed on a massive scale - an approach to war the British Army was to repeat in the Orange Free State and Transvaal 21 years later. One might observe too, with regret, that the Britain political-military establishment did not learn from the experience. Two years later it again faced ignominious defeat on a hill called Majuba. 19 years on its troops were again slaughtered on yet another hill, Spioenkop and these were not the last of such occasions.

In terms of the wider war, the Zulus lacked an overall strategy to cope with the massive resources which the British Empire was able to bring to bear on the conflict and their peace overtures subsequent to Isandlwana were summarily rejected. Their military tactics, after the first flushes of success at Isandlwana, Hlobane, Intombi Drift and a few minor skirmishes, proved wholly inadequate against the superior technology and weight of the British Army. The chest and horns approach was, irrespective of the courage and determination with which it was executed, no match for artillery and disciplined firing from the infantry square. The close quarter fighting at which the Zulu so excelled, no longer had a place.

Despite the crushing defeat at Ulundi, sporadic resistance continued until the warriors, under Mahubulwa kaDumisela, submitted on 1 September 1879. The gross and probably inevitable results of the war were: the destruction and desecration of the Zulu Kingdom and the society which constituted it, with ramifications which ring down to the present day, the expulsion of Cetshwayo from Zululand and the breaking up of the kingdom into 13 petty chiefdoms, several deliberately placed under chiefs at odds with each other. This was an appalling lack of foresight and judgement on the part of Frere, whose sole aim appeared to be to reduce Zululand to a position of dependency with no possibility of ever again becoming a united and economically viable society. This in turn led to civil strife, civil war in 1883 and 1888, the expulsion of Dinizulu, Cetshwayo's son and successor, uprisings (such as Bambata in 1906), poverty and repression. It also opened Zululand to white settlement on some of the best land and from the traditional Zulu perspective, the corrosive influence of the missionaries.

Despite much sympathy and admiration for 'the Zulus' in Britain, the subsequent British 'administration' of Zululand did little or nothing to redress the conditions caused by the war. It is arguable that the Zulu nation has never really recovered from the devastating effects of the war and the continuous civil unrest and poor administration which followed it.

The lecture concluded with a brief assessment of some of the current modern legacies of the battle, such as various tourism activities and the relationship between the successors to the 24th Regiment and current Zulu military and political units.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on 9 August 2010 (Public Holiday notwithstanding) at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be on the Activities of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the Eastern Cape by Charles Ross. The main lecture will be The Underground War by Mike Duncan.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
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