What We Learned: from Isandlwana

By Lt. Col. Mike Snook
10/25/2018 • Military History Magazine

January 22, 1879. Eleven days have passed since Lt. Gen. Lord Chelmsford’s column crossed the border from Natal into Zululand. In that time, the British force, reliant on ponderous ox-drawn transport and a poor excuse for a wagon road, has covered only 12 of the 85 miles to King Cetshwayo’s capital at Ulundi. For the past two days, his lordship’s command has been encamped at the foot of an eye-catching hill called Isandlwana. Intelligence reports now indicate that the main Zulu impis—a dozen superbly drilled, age-grouped regiments—departed the capital five days ago, intent on forcing a decisive battle.

At 1:30 that morning a staff officer clutching an urgent dispatch shook his lordship awake. The message was from Major John Dartnell, now nervously encamped on a hillside 10 miles farther into Zululand, reporting a twilight contact with 1,500 Zulus. Concluding that the main impis simply had to be in front of Dartnell, the general decided to split his command and give battle. He would lead a flying column at dawn.

Left behind to guard the camp will be Lt. Col. Henry Pulleine, with six companies of the 24th Infantry, 100 mounted volunteers, two 7-pounders and 500 poorly armed African conscripts. Lt. Col. Anthony Durnford is ordered to reinforce the camp with five troops of mounted natives. He reaches Isandlwana at 10, but is confused by his orders, incorrectly concluding that the general must require his services on the far side of the plain.

Midday. Lord Chelmsford is chasing shadows 10 miles away. Meanwhile, Durnford has sallied forth with his horsemen to investigate enemy sightings on the high ground north of camp, having first insisted that Pulleine should support him with redcoat infantry. Turns out, the main impis are not in the east, but concealed just five miles northeast of camp in the Ngwebeni Valley. British mounted patrols stumble across them not long after noon, and 25,000 warriors race into position to execute a devastating “horns of the buffalo” double envelopment. Pulleine and his battalion mount a heroic but futile resistance. Close to 1,400 British, Anglo–South African and black African soldiers die over the course of the next two hours. The Zulus suffer more than 3,000 casualties.

Lessons:

  • Never assume you’re entitled to win because you are technologically superior, more prosperous or perceive your self as morally or ethically superior. You win wars only when you soldier better and think straighter than the other man.
  • Quantity can have a quality all of its own. Isandlwana revealed that an army of 25,000 souls spans a five-mile-wide front. If you present a one-mile front in response, find a way to secure your flanks. The British fell back into the obsolescent fighting square and other close-order formations.
  • Don’t commit too early. When facing a highly mobile foe, expect surprises. Retain uncommitted reserves at all times and at all levels of command. As soon as one reserve unit is committed, begin forming a new one.
  • Leave no blind spots. If you do, the enemy will find and exploit them to devastating advantage. Field surveillance must be systematic.
  • Ask…and listen. Consult your brightest, most experienced officers and be open to their feedback. You may be the big cheese, but they are detail men, there to help you get it right. Chelmsford failed to confer, failed to delegate, resisted suggestions and wavered.
  • Lose the deadwood. If you’ve lost confidence in a subordinate, have the courage of your convictions and relieve him. Chelmsford threatened to replace Durnford less than a week before Isandlwana, but left it at a written warning—1,400 men lost their lives as a result.
  • Clarify, clarify, clarify. Make sure everyone understands what is required of him. Chelmsford’s orders to Durnford left too much latitude to a man who could not in the end be trusted to make the right decisions.
  • Learn from your mistakes. Isandlwana was the first in a string of military blunders that nagged the British army between 1879 and 1900, most notably in the Anglo-Boer War. There followed a decade of reform from which emerged the British Expeditionary Force of 1914—arguably the best army ever to leave British shores.

 

Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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