The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 18 No 2 - June 2018


By Charles Aikenhead


The battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 continues to gain attention from historians, authors and Zulu War enthusiasts, with at least two books being published on it and its connections each year. The interest is not surprising since the drama that unfolded on that fateful day has many aspects and left few survivors to tell the story of what happened. That the Zulu Army of some 20 000 overwhelmed the defences of the camp, leaving 1 329 British dead (Rothwell, 1881) is not in question, but how this could happen to the mightiest army of the time remains full of opinion and conjecture, the subject of many studies and opinions.

The author built and runs The Rorke's Drift Hotel and is favoured by looking at the site of this defeat almost every day, and of welcoming guides and visitors, who have come to discover and expound their own theories. One of the best aspects of being a hospitality provider here is that visitors love to share their own knowledge and to add generously to the known framework of events. Sometimes, they add to the store of knowledge and occasionally air theories that are quite inconsistent with the known facts, thus generating active and even emotional discussions. Every so often, a small piece of the history jigsaw falls into place, leading to a new perspective on events.

To an old soldier from the pre-digital era, the study of the command, control and logistical detail that is known about the battle is of great interest. Information regarding the collapse of the defensive deployment is not known and has now been speculated upon for generations. It remains a fascination and a continuing basis for ideas' that are formed from the available factual evidence. This brings us to the fourletter word which is the subject of this essay. The author promises that it is printable!

The theories

Most early accounts of the disaster at Isandlwana were made after very brief visits to the battlefield. Indeed, some were made without visiting it at all, such as Wayne Bartlett's very readable Zulu: Queen Victoria's most famous little war (The History Press, 2011), and few have been made by those living in the area, who see the ground almost daily, and worry at the subject, to the enjoyment of aficionados and the frustration of everyone else. The dramatization of the failed ammunition supply has been effectively diminished by the discovery, out on the firing line, of bent screws from the wooden boxes. The mounted troops' Snider carbines taking a different cartridge to the Martini-Henry rifles gave rise to the possibility that that Quartermasters may have issued ammunition to the wrong units, and this, as a Chinese whisper, has turned into a theory about a refusal to issue ammunition. Many authors dissect the command structure between Lieutenant-Colonel Pulleine 2/24th and LieutenantColonel Durnford RE and their respective seniority. The local Boer farmers all know that you had to make a laager every night, but, with insufficient wagons for their supplies, the British wagons were constantly on the move and were therefore denied that option. From these and many more concepts and opinions have developed the host of experts who can explain all the details of this dramatic victory of the Zulus over the British in one of its Empire's most harrowing actions. It remains speculative that the effect of the defeat brought down Disraeli's government, but it is a fact that more British officers died at Isandlwana than on the field of Waterloo.

Zulu casualties are not accurately known, but an excess of 3 000 is an accepted figure. Captain William Symons 2/24th, in his report written after the battle at Rorke's Drift, states: 'Another report generally stated & confirmed by King Cetswayo himself, was that they had lost double as many men at Isandhlwana as at all the other battles, Kambula, Gingindlovu included. Later, a deep ravine 2½ miles [4 km] from the Camp was found full of skeletons. It was into this that they had thrown the greater number of their dead that they had carried off the field. Some of the tents they burned, but most they cut into strips with which to remove their dead. Two men carried four bodies. A native wagon driver who lay hidden behind the HQ rocks till night, & then hobbled across the river, says that they took away 40 wagon loads of corpses; & he also described how they removed their dead in the long strips for canvas.'

The British Army has a rich history of its rank and file soldiers being unbeatable and there are many examples, in both old and modern times of Tommmy Atkins' bravery, determination, courage and skill pulling his general's chestnuts out of the fire. The frontline cares very little for the command structure above it immediate formation, and it therefore deserves study about its failure on this occasion. The author, as ageing infanteer, has been left with the feeling that there is a missing link in the analysis; not that one factor by itself could have changed the course of what happened, but, in warfare, it is generally the case that when enemies are fighting for their lives, the result is finely balanced and can go either way. The fulcrum that determines which way is survival and which side will win, can be a slender slice of technology, morale, ground, leadership or other factors, including luck. Was there one crucial factor that tipped the balance at Isandlwana? And has it been insufficiently recognised by the experts who have studied the clash of arms on that day?

Darkening of the sky

Reports on the battle say that the 'sky got dark' and it is recorded that there was an eclipse of the sun on that day. Astronomers have determined that there was, in fact, a partial eclipse and that its zenith was at about 14.30 in the afternoon. In the highlands of Zululand below the Nqutu plateau, the summer sun in January is high and very bright, and a partial eclipse, said to have been some 20% according to the statement by the astronomer, would not have been noticeable. No one looks at the sun while fighting a battle and all accounts have the British camp overrun about an hour before that time. The timing of the eclipse does not explain the 'darkening of the sky' during the battle. Did it have another cause? Eclipses happen only at new moon, and this is the origin of the 'Day of the Dead Moon', which was held by the Zulus as an inauspicious day for making an attack, although, like many Zulu mores, it did not prevent that decision on this occasion. It is difficult to find a fulcrum of success or failure in the state of the moon.

Weapons technology

The Martini-Henry rifles in the hands of the riflemen of the 24th Regiment of Foot at Isandlwana were the latest in the development of the infantry personal weapon. It was a breech-loading rifle with an ejection system using a lever that also formed the trigger guard, which a skilled man could load and fire at up to twelve rounds per minute, or one every five seconds. This was a magnificent improvement over the muzzle-loader that preceded it, although, since 1830, it had been equipped with the percussion cap which allowed it to fire in wet weather - another magnificent technical improvement. The muzzle-loading musket (not all were rifled) achieved a firing rate of just over one round per minute, or, in round figures, a tenth of the rate of fire that was possible with the Martini-Henry rifle at Isandlwana in 1879.

Development of the bullet was also taking place. The muzzle-loading rifle started with a simple lead ball, which later developed into a bullet shape that fitted a rifled barrel. The new shape and the rifling improved the accuracy dramatically, but, in the event of a misfire, the weapon would be very difficult to clear and re-load. Making the bullet even more effective by including an explosive charge was effectively banned by the Declaration of St Petersburg in 1868 (https://ihldatabases., but the development of the Martini Henry bullet had a similar effect. To make the bullet fly true, it was necessary to make it lighter, and thus the lead bullet was made hollow. This complied with the Declaration, but its effectiveness was awesome. The bullet expanded on impact and the compressed air in the cavity exploded. This transfer of the kinetic energy from the bullet was enough to kill from shock. The bullet did not need to hit a vital organ or break a bone; its impact alone was deadly. '

Captain Symons reached the defences of Rorke's Drift the morning after the Battle of Isandlwana and records: 'The limbs of many of the bodies were strangely contorted, almost tied in knots, giving the idea of the Martini-Henry bullet at very close range causing severe muscular contractions before death'. This is consistent with death from shock. If it was so effective, why did this technology not prevail at Isandlwana?

The new weapon required a new tactical doctrine from which to develop infantry tactics for the day, and here one is reminded that the British Empire was sending its army to fight in many countries under Queen Victoria's rule, mainly deployed against massed indigenous peoples who did not have access to the same technology. The infantry doctrine had, at its core, the engagement of the enemy at the maximum effective range of this new weapon. It was sighted up to 800 yards, but the relatively low speed of the bullet made it drop significantly at that range, with a trajectory at impact approaching 45°? The bullet still had killing potential and, when fired as a volley into massed oncoming enemy, it was effective. However, firing a rifle at a target by aiming about 30 above it tested the confidence of the shooter and made aimed shots an impossibility. The rate of fall of the bullet meant that range had to be established accurately and so a part of the doctrine required the placement of ranging markers on the field of fire. For practical purposes, the maximum range to engage the enemy was up to 400 yards (366 metres) and, even at this distance, the bullet dropped four feet from the muzzle of the rifle. The stopping power of the hollow lead 0.45-inch bullet meant that hitting the enemy anywhere over that four feet made them a casualty. It was devastatingly effective against a massed enemy, and deadly in the hands of a skilled marksman.

The rifle had an 18-inch bayonet (known as a 'sword'), which, when attached, made a cold steel weapon with a greater reach than the Zulu 'iklwa' or assegai, but that application was a last resort. The concept of overcoming massed native enemies was to avoid such a close quarter encounter. That the weapon was extremely effective was borne out later that same day, at the defence of the Mission Station at Rorke's Drift, just 12 miles (19.3 km) away.

So, following the tactical doctrine of engaging the enemy as far out as possible, from 800 to 400 yards, the deployment of the rifle companies by Lt Col Pulleine at 500 to 800 yards (460 to 730 metres) beyond the camp to engage the oncoming Zulus does not seem so wrong. Only with the benefit of hindsight can it be seen as a major error, but it did follow the doctrine of deployment for this new weapon and could be interpreted as a deployment for the defence of the camp. As already stated, the courage and skill of the rifleman in the line had overcome poor deployments before, and witnesses did recall that the Zulu advance was stalled and that the outcome was finely poised. So, at one stage in the battle, the tactical doctrine of keeping the enemy at a distance could be seen to be working. What was the deciding factor that made the defensive line break and allowed the Zulus to annihilate the camp?

The Zulu

Zulu bravery had a lot to do with providing that factor. To put it into context, imagine regiment after regiment of the chest of the Zulu army formation coming down to confront the red-coated companies and half-companies of British troops that were deployed to defend their camp. Each British rifleman had been issued with 30 rounds in addition to his standard 40, so had, at his disposal, 70 rounds to start with, and further supplies came up later as already mentioned. Ignoring the resupply, 70 rounds per man for the six companies of about 80 men in each works out to 33 600 rounds. The volley fire was devastating and, firing into massed enemy, the attrition rate should have been unsustainable, even by the brave Zulus. Had just one-tenth of the fired rounds found their mark, the Zulu casualties would have been 3 360. Considering the attack by the Zulu 'chest' only on the British firing line of six companies of the 24th Regiment and one of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), not counting the two flanking horns that held about 3 000 Zulu each, the British would have been facing about 14 000 warriors.

It is accepted military thinking that a military formation is made impotent if its strength is reduced by 25% killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The devastating .45-inch lead bullet at Isandlwana caused dreadful wounds and was a killing round. The Zulu casualties were later reported at 3 000, an estimated 21% of the main attacking chest, alarmingly close to the critical quarter that should make them lose their impetus and allow the Redcoats to prevail and overwhelm them. So, it was a finely balanced battle. What factor tipped the balance in favour of the Zulus? Why did the standard infantry tactic of the day not work? In addition to the formidable courage of the attacking Zulus, there may have been another hidden disadvantage for the British riflemen.

Black smoke

The propellant for the .45-inch Martini-Henry cartridge was black powder, as it had been for generations of firearms since their development in the Middle Ages. One problem with black powder is that it generates a lot of smoke. This was a well-known factor during the Napoleonic battles, and inevitable confusion occurred in the 'fog of battle' generated by the smoke of the muzzle-loading weapons. In earlier times, when normal warfare consisted of firing a volley or two with muzzleloading muskets and then engaging with the bayonet in hand-to-hand fighting, the volume of smoke generated by the one-shot-a-minute weapon was but a fraction of that emitted later by a twelve-shots-a-minute breechloading weapon that engaged its target continuously at 800 yards, 400 yards and less. The result was that ten times the amount of smoke of earlier conflicts could be generated for a much longer time.

The four-letter word

We now need to consider the four-letter word of this narrative: wind, or rather, the lack of it. Summer days in northern Zulu land start off cool and rapidly warm up. Often, by about 14.00, the heat generated from the sun-drenched earth has developed convection clouds that will increase during the afternoon and precipitate rain. These rainstorms can be severe with hail and high winds, but bring cherished rain during their short season. Normally, this convection from a gathering storm in the area will develop a breeze from midmorning. On the day of the battle, however, it did not.
There was no wind.

Witnesses record that the day was very still, and this absence of wind failed to disperse the smoke from the British rifles engaging the oncoming Zulus. Thus, it was the increasing cloud of smoke that caused the sky to darken and the light to diminish, and a gloom settled over the Isandlwana Camp and its defenders. The smoke was so thick that one Zulu eye-witness stated of the camp during the battle: 'What, with the smoke, dust, and intermingling of Zulus and natives, it was difficult to tell who was mounted and who was not' [Norris Newman, p82]. For such a statement, the visibility must have been very limited; organised firing was not taking place by that time, so it must have remained from the defensive line. And this was January, and a wet January; there was no dust to speak of. It was a time of lush grass and moist soil.

There is a crucial tactical effect of the generation of smoke on the battlefield and here perhaps is the fulcrum of the failure of British arms, and the advantage that the Zulus were brave enough to take to achieve their victory. Imagine a half-company of the 24th Regiment deployed out from the camp to defend it and engaging the oncoming Zulus. The half-company was about 40 men, organised in two ranks, the front rank kneeling and the rear rank standing. Firing at the oncoming enemy was controlled in volleys, since this was proven to be more destructive to an enemy's morale, and it allowed the control of ammunition expenditure. 'Half company - fire! Reload. Take aim fire! Reload. Take aim ...', etc. This, however, did not continue for long, because after a few volleys, the Redcoats could not see their enemy, so the rate of fire slowed down.

Map of the Battle of Isandlwana, 22 January 1879

The Zulu attack

On the receiving end of the volley, at a distance of 800 to 400 yards, the Zulus saw the half-company of Redcoats raise their rifles and then disappear behind the smoke of their firing. They then had well over second in which to lie flat on the ground before the bullets arrived. At the distance that this initial engagement took place, time was on the side of the Zulus to avoid the deadly volley of lead, which reduced their casualty rate significantly. Being brave men they then took advantage of the cloud of smoke to rise out of the grass and run forward until the next volley was discharged in their direction. One regimental commander is reported to have shouted: 'Did your King send you to lie like chickens in the grass?' With similar motivation and leadership, the Zulu advance continued. As the smoke grew denser and their coordination improved, they began to run forward in short rushes and then lay flat when the discharge of smoke foretold a further volley. Quite quickly, they were able to advance on the half-companies and get within 200, then 100 and then 40 yards' rushing distance (183-91-36 metres) between volleys. The reloading time of the Martini-Henry is five seconds. Sprinting champion Usain Bolt can run 60 metres in that time, so it is not inconceivable that fit and determined Zulus could cover 40 metres in that time. They were able to approach so quickly that the riflemen had not time to fix their bayonets.

First to withdraw were the unfortunate Natal Native Contingent, placed in the centre of the firing line with the companies of the 24th Regiment to their left and right. These poorly-trained, locally-raised (and Zulu) troops had just been entrusted with one rifle between ten men. This meant that they did not have the restricted visibility of a lot of smoke and could see the Zulu regiments approaching on either side of them. Unsurprisingly, they fell back, and allowed the pursuing warriors to pour through the gap in the line.

In the report written directly after the battle by Captain William Symons (later General Penn-Symons) at Rorke's Drift, his analysis is as follows: 'What made the line retire? The evidence on this point is conflicting but two survivors say that they distinctly heard bugles sound the "Cease Fire" or "Retire", & that it was passed down the line. Others, the majority, say they heard nothing of this. The "Cease Fire" should have sounded seems scarcely credible but for the "Retire" would account for the movements. We believe that the Bugles did sound the "Retire" on the left, but whether the Buglers got an order to sound or who gave it is a mystery that will never be solved. It can only be surmised that some Officer at last seeing the danger of thus opposing an "attack formation" where collective & defensive measures should have been used, gave the order to retire, & the Company Officers & the men seeing their danger, reluctantly gave up their position in the Donga & tried to get together & rally. It was without doubt the result of the following circumstances: First & chiefly, the break up & flight of the Native Contingent; second, the desire on the part of our Officers & Men to get closer together & rally; third, the failure of the ammunition supply.'

As spelt out in the infantry tactical manual, the doctrine of defence with the breech-loading rifle is not to allow the enemy to approach. The absence of wind allowed the rifle fire to create an effective smoke screen, and the Zulus took advantage of it.

It is documented by survivors how the Zulus took cover from the artillery by lying down when they saw the gun team dress away from the gun and the No 1 take the lanyard to fire. That they also worked out how to avoid the volleys of the infantry companies is a very commendable achievement. It is also recorded by Commandant Maori Brown (of the NNC), who was returning to the Camp from the column at Mangeni and had stopped about three miles (4.8 km) away, that he witnessed '[t]he 24th mowing the oncoming Zulus down in swathes' (Lost Legionary in Zululand). What he probably was seeing was the Zulus lying down with each volley against them. He also states that he saw the Zulus driving a herd of cattle against the British line, but his is the only such account, casting doubt on its reliability. Perhaps what he saw were the shields of the Zulus turned sideways as they advanced at the run in their final rush on the British line, given that shields on their left side might look like a herd of cattle, particularly as smoke restricted the visibility. That he recalls seeing the 'cattle' impact on the line and the line then breaking, is particularly poignant.


In war, at a tactical level when soldiers are fighting for their lives, the victors and the vanquished are often separated by a narrow and crucial margin, and one key factor can make a decisive difference. If one factor is different or omitted, then the expected turning point in the battle may not be reached. At Isandlwana, this factor was the lack of wind, which allowed the gunsmoke to provide cover to the Zulus and make them invisible to the British line.

Modern authors have not ignored the effect of the black powder smoke, but it seems compelling to make it a critical factor. The main question is why none of the (few) witnesses mention the effect of smoke. That there were no survivors from the infantry line may provide part of the answer. Is it possible that here was a dramatic 'Achilles' heel' in the modern weaponry on which the power of the British Empire depended, and that, to allow that to be widely known could have undermined confidence in the whole structure? It seems unlikely that there was a blanket of secrecy on the smoke effect since it had been widely known, but it was not many years later that the more powerful smokeless powder (cordite) was put into service. This propellant, with its improved power, made the lead bullet travel a lot faster, and so required a copper jacket to prevent it from melting in the rifled barrels. Thus started another era in infantry warfare, bringing with it a lot of new lessons to learn.


Rothwell, J S, Narrative of the Field Operations Connected with the Zulu War of 1879 (Intelligence Branch, 1881).
Open document, https:/ (website of the International Red Cross), 'Declaration Renouncing the Use, in Time of War, of Explosive Projectiles Under 400 Grammes Weight, Saint Petersburg, 29 November/11 December 1868' [with thanks to Terry Willson, Military History Journal, Vol 17 No 2, December 2016].

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /