It is early January 1879 as you assume the role of British Lieutenant General Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2d Baron Chelmsford (you are referred to and addressed by your title, Lord Chelmsford). You are currently in Britain’s colony of Natal in southeastern Africa, where you command an army of nearly 16,000 British regulars, colonial troops and indigenous African auxiliaries. Soon, you will lead an invasion of the neighboring African kingdom of Zululand, which lies across the boundary formed by the Buffalo and Tugela rivers.
The upcoming attack has been instigated (without the authorization of the British government in London) by Britain’s resident high commissioner in southern Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere. Seeking to justify the use of military force to extend British-controlled territory in southern Africa, Frere has falsely portrayed Zulu King Cetshwayo as a bloodthirsty tyrant eager to launch his army of 35,000 warriors in an unprovoked invasion of Natal.
Claiming a few mostly minor border incidents as provocation, Frere issued Cetshwayo an ultimatum on December 11, 1878, while fully realizing the king could not meet its demands. Your army has been ordered to invade Zululand when the ultimatum’s one-month deadline expires on January 11, 1879.
Cetshwayo controls his army from within the royal kraal (capital village) at Ulundi. His force consists of numerous age group “regiments,” each containing several hundred tough, disciplined warriors who train and fight together and who are in superb physical condition.
The Zulu warriors’ principal weapons are amaklwa (singular iklwa), 4-foot-long spears weapons. When initiating a battalion volley against a massed target, your troops open fire at 800 yards, and your British infantrymen can accurately hit individual enemy soldiers at 400 yards. Additional firepower consists of 17 cannon (primarily 7-pounder field pieces) and one Congreve rocket battery.
Tactically, you intend to move offensively but fight defensively. Your army will advance into Zululand, thereby forcing the Zulus to attack. Once battle begins, your troops will fight from field entrenchments or “hollow square” formations and employ overwhelming firepower to defeat the Zulus’ superior numbers. You are confident your infantry can break up the attacking formations before the warriors can engage your men in the close-quarter combat at which Zulus excel.
When advancing, your force carries everything necessary for sustained field operations: food, tents, ammunition, fodder and equipment. Since a single infantry battalion requires at least 18 large supply wagons, hundreds of them pulled by thousands of draft animals accompany your army. To negotiate southern Africa’s difficult terrain, which is largely devoid of roads, these wagons are longer and heavier than those used in Europe, and each one is pulled by a team of 16 slow-moving oxen that can work only four hours a day.
Although the sturdy wagons impede your army’s movement, at night they can be circled around the encampment (laagered) to provide a strong defensive position. In fact, the local Boer residents – descendants of southern Africa’s original Dutch settlers who have been fighting Zulus for a half-century – strongly advise you to laager your wagons at the end of each day’s march, even though this time-consuming process will further slow your army’s advance.
Your goal is to destroy Cetshwayo’s main army, but to do that you must devise a course of action that draws the enemy into battle. You and Frere have decided that an invasion threatening Cetshwayo’s royal kraal at Ulundi seems the surest way to force the Zulu army into a fight. Now, you must determine how to organize and conduct that invasion.
You have already dismissed the idea of marching your army in a single column, since the large number of troops and the hundreds of supply wagons would make moving as one column too difficult. Moreover, given the Zulu army’s superior speed and mobility, Cetshwayo’s warriors could easily avoid contact with the column and possibly launch a counterinvasion of Natal.
You are considering three courses of action, each consisting of a multiple-column advance.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: ADVANCE IN FIVE COLUMNS. Under this plan, your army will advance across the Natal-Zululand border in five widely spread, equally sized columns, with each column fording one of the river border’s major low-water crossing points (drifts). By deploying the forces across a wide area before converging on the strategic objective of the royal kraal at Ulundi, this plan offers the greatest chance to enemy’s ability to slip between the columns to launch a counterinvasion.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: ADVANCE IN THREE COLUMNS. With this option, the army will advance in three columns, crossing the Natal-Zululand border in the north, center and south before converging on the royal kraal at Ulundi. The center column will attack as the main strike force, and its larger number of troops should compel Cetshwayo to react to it as the greatest threat. The right and left columns will have fewer troops, but their numbers should be sufficient to repel any Zulu attacks while also blocking any counter-invasion of Natal.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: ADVANCE IN TWO COLUMNS. With this plan, you will divide the army into two columns of equal size – each powerful enough to destroy the main Zulu army – to form a pincer movement against Ulundi. The columns will cross the border in the northwest and the south and then advance toward Cetshwayo’s capital at a deliberate pace. Along the way, they will establish numerous fortified supply bases to protect their lines of communication with Natal while gradually reducing their number of slow-moving supply wagons.
With Frere’s ultimatum to Cetshwayo set to expire in just a few days, you must decide which plan offers the best chance to bring the Zulu army to battle under conditions that give your British forces the greatest probability of success.
What next, Lord Chelmsford?
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: ADVANCE IN FIVE COLUMNS
You conclude that converging on Cetshwayo’s royal kraal with a five-pronged attack will allow you to nearly encircle the Zulu army and force it to fight. Using smaller columns ensures the fastest advance, reduces the chances of being outflanked, and discourages an enemy counterattack against Natal.
Each of your columns consists of approximately 3,140 men – 1,300 British regulars plus 1,840 African auxiliaries and colonial mounted infantry – supported by three artillery guns. The first column will cross the border at Lower Drift, the second column at Middle Drift, the third column at Rorke’s Drift, the fourth column at Landman’s Drift, and the fifth column at Utrecht. You decide that you will accompany the third column, which includes the rocket battery.
On January 11, however, the day the columns are supposed to cross the border, the two northernmost forces report they are still attempting to organize logistical and transportation support. The commanders of these columns estimate it will be at least another week, perhaps two, before they can advance.
Unwilling to postpone the invasion, you decide that the first, second and third columns will continue as scheduled, and that the fourth and fifth columns will join in once they are ready. Although this reduces your in- find the Zulu army and bring it to battle. Moreover, it defends Natal by restricting the vasion force by two-fifths, you believe your superior firepower will compensate for lower troop numbers.
Your three columns cross the Natal-Zululand border at Lower Drift, Middle Drift and Rorke’s Drift. Per your orders, they advance as rapidly as possible, eliminating time-consuming procedures such as laagering the supply wagons at encampments. Less than a week later, you are pleased with their progress, yet the only Zulus you have seen are a few scouts in the distance.
During the afternoon of January 20, while the third column is encamped 10 miles east of Rorke’s Drift on the lower slopes of a prominent, rocky hill called Isandlwana, a small party of Zulus arrives at the direction of Cetshwayo to negotiate peace before any fighting erupts. You summarily reject the Zulu king’s peace offer and send the delegation back to Ulundi.
On January 21, you lead the third column southeast from Isandlwana. Despite the peace offer, you are convinced that Cetshwayo is gathering forces to oppose your invasion. Since the third column is closest to Ulundi and constitutes the greatest threat to the Zulu capital, you believe the main Zulu army will be found southeast of Isandlwana.
After marching in that direction all day, your third column encamps on good defensive ground that evening. Although you do not laager the supply wagons, you order the troops to spend the night formed in a “hollow square,” with the vital supplies and artillery guns in the center. While the men will be uncomfortable sleeping on the bare ground in this tactical formation, you feel they must be prepared for a surprise attack by the Zulus.
At dawn on January 22, your concerns are validated when mounted scouts rouse the camp shouting, “Zulus!” Hot on the horsemen’s heels is a force of at least 4,000 Zulu warriors running at full speed toward the camp.
Your artillery guns are the first to engage the enemy, firing shrapnel that blasts holes in the attackers’ ranks. Once the Zulus are within a few hundred yards, your infantrymen initiate volleys with their Martini-Henry rifles. Combined, the rifles and artillery produce a wall of overwhelming firepower.
The Zulus attempt to press their attack over the bodies of their fallen comrades, but within a half-hour your men turn back the assault and the remaining warriors withdraw. You estimate the Zulus have suffered 1,000 casualties.
As you congratulate yourself on the victory, a colonial mounted infantryman, his horse lathered and ridden nearly to exhaustion, arrives with devastating news. The first column has been ambushed and annihilated at the Inyezane River by Cetshwayo’s 25,000- man main army. The Zulus then moved south, crossed the Tugela River at Lower Drift, and are now invading Natal.
With a fifth of your army destroyed and the remainder fragmented over a hundred miles in four dispersed columns unable to support one another, your invasion plan has proved an unmitigated disaster.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: ADVANCE IN THREE COLUMNS
You decide that advancing in three columns will allow the army to cover the widest possible area consistent with its available logistical and transportation resources. You will accompany your strongest force, the center column, which contains over 7,000 regulars, colonial troops and native African auxiliaries plus artillery guns and the Congreve rocket battery. You divide the remaining troops and artillery guns equally between the left and right columns. Then on January 11, you launch the invasion of Zululand.
The right column crosses the border at Lower Drift and encounters several thousand Zulus preparing an ambush at the Inyezane River. After a short skirmish, the enemy withdraws and the column moves to the deserted mission station at Eshowe. Since the large Zulu force is still in the area, the column’s commander decides to build fortifications at Eshowe in anticipation of an attack.
After advancing from Utrecht on January 11, the left column encamps on good defensive ground about 10 miles south of Hlobane Mountain. However, it too halts its advance and remains encamped there after a Zulu force of approximately 4,000 warriors is sighted.
Meanwhile, following the January 11 border crossing at Rorke’s Drift, your center column makes very slow progress due to the oxen-drawn wagons. Yet unlike the left and right columns, your center column encounters no large enemy force, only a small Zulu scouting party.
On January 20, you order your center column to encamp on the lower slopes of Isandlwana, a prominent hill 10 miles from Rorke’s Drift. Although British field forces are required to “partially entrench on all sides” when encamped, you believe the ground is too rocky for digging trenches and that an infantry square formation will provide adequate defense if your men are attacked. You do not bother to laager the wagons, since that time-consuming process will impose an unnecessary delay once the advance resumes.
Later that same day, a Zulu scout captured near Isandlwana claims that a large impi will attack your camp from the northeast – yet you decide to reconnoiter to the southeast. You believe that moving your column southeast poses a greater threat to Ulundi, and therefore the main Zulu force most likely will be found in that direction. Accordingly, you split the center column, taking nearly 2,000 regulars, African auxiliaries and colonial mounted infantry southeast with you.
In the late afternoon of January 21, your reconnaissance-in-force engages and repels a Zulu force of over 1,500 warriors. After the Zulus withdraw, your force loses contact with them. This encounter seems to confirm your conviction that the main Zulu army is somewhere in this direction, and that the force you just engaged was its vanguard. Therefore, at 1:30 a.m. on January 22, you send an order to the Isandlwana base camp to send reinforcements consisting of a regular infantry battalion, colonial mounted infantry, a company of African auxiliaries and four of the column’s six artillery guns.
The requested reinforcements depart the base camp at dawn, reducing the force at Isandlwana to about 1,350 men (regulars, African auxiliaries and colonial mounted troops), two artillery guns and the rocket battery. Your center column is now split into three widely spread components: the Isandlwana base camp guard, the reinforcements, and your reconnaissance force.
At 8:50 a.m., the base camp commander suddenly discovers that immense numbers of Zulus are advancing on Isandlwana from the northeast. He forms the troops into ranks to repel the onrushing attackers, but over the next few hours the nearly 25,000 warriors of the main Zulu army overwhelm his outnumbered men and wipe out the unfortified camp. Only a handful of defenders escape the slaughter. Lying dead at Isandlwana are 52 British officers, 806 British regulars and 471 African and colonial troops.
Zulu casualties, meanwhile, are estimated at 2,000-3,000 – a fraction of the main army’s strength. The victorious warriors also have captured plentiful supplies and ammunition as well as hundreds of Martini-Henry rifles.
A force of 4,000 warriors from the Zulu army moves on to strike the small British garrison of 104 regulars at Rorke’s Drift. However, your men there repel that attack after 10 hours of heroic fighting.
By the close of January 22, your center column has been disastrously defeated, the right column is under siege at Eshowe, and the left column, although intact, is too weak to continue the campaign alone against Ulundi. Your invasion has failed after less than two weeks of campaigning.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: ADVANCE IN TWO COLUMNS
You decide to advance your army in two strong columns of equal size that will converge on Ulundi in a pincer movement. You believe this plan places your forces in the best position to compel Cetshwayo’s army to fight and gives them the greatest chance of defeating the enemy.
Each invading column of over 7,800 men (regulars, colonial troops and African auxiliaries) contains artillery guns (seven in one column and 10 in the other) and 300 mounted infantrymen. Heeding the advice of local Boers experienced in fighting the Zulus, you decide to sacrifice speed for the greatest possible security against a surprise enemy attack. Therefore, the columns will advance at a deliberate pace – they will laager the wagons at all encampments and create a string of fortified and garrisoned supply depots along the route.
On January 11, the two columns cross the border into Zululand. The first column crosses the Tugela River at Lower Drift to advance initially along the coastal road before swinging north toward Ulundi. The second column, which you accompany, crosses the Buffalo River at Landman’s Drift to move southeast before skirting south of the Inhlazatye Mountains and then turning northeast toward Ulundi. Both columns use mounted infantry to conduct reconnaissance patrols of the route and to locate water sources near planned encampments.
As the columns advance, they sight small Zulu scouting parties but see no sign of the main Zulu army. Neither of your columns is attacked; in fact, Cetshwayo sends envoys seeking peace before any major fighting breaks out. Yet your mission is to defeat the Zulu army, not to make peace, so you reject his offer.
Your slow, deliberate advance is in its 34th day by the time the second column finally reaches the vicinity of Ulundi. You order the first column to halt south of Ulundi in a blocking position at St. Paul. Once the second column crosses the White Umfolozi River, Cetshwayo’s royal kraal is only a few miles away. Your scouts soon report observing numerous enemy regiments converging on Ulundi – the Zulus are preparing to fight to defend Cetshwayo’s capital, just as you had expected.
On February 15, as the second column begins its final approach to Ulundi, you order it to advance in a “hollow square” of infantrymen, with the ammunition, supplies and artillery guns in the center. After marching the square a few miles, you move it onto nearby ground that is well suited for defense.
Meanwhile, your mounted infantry force advances aggressively toward the gathering Zulu regiments to provoke them into attacking. The horsemen ride forward, dismount and fire volleys at the enemy. This provocation works, and as massed numbers of Zulu warriors rush forward, the infantrymen remount and retire into the hollow square.
Executing the “charging buffalo” attack formation, the Zulu main body advances toward the left and front of your square, while the “horns” move rapidly around the square’s right and rear to complete the encirclement. Once the warriors are within 1,500 yards on all sides, your artillery opens fire on them using shrapnel. These anti-personnel rounds blast huge gaps in the enemy ranks, but the Zulus continue rushing forward over the bodies of their fallen comrades.
As the Zulu attackers close the distance to 800 yards, your British infantrymen begin firing volley after volley with their Martini-Henry rifles. The Zulus press on, but the overwhelming combined fire of the rifles and the artillery creates carnage in the warriors’ ranks. Within a half-hour, the Zulus begin to hesitate and then withdraw.
Seeking to exploit your advantage, you order the mounted infantrymen to charge out of the square and attack the Zulus retreating toward the royal kraal. The enemy army’s flight soon becomes widespread. As your mounted force rides into the kraal, it discovers that Cetshwayo has fled the area.
The battle is over in only 40 minutes. Your losses are fewer than 100 killed and wounded, while the Zulus suffer at least 1,500 casualties. You have gained a smashing victory that has won the Zulu War in a single engagement.
HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS
Although Chelmsford preferred to invade using five columns as the surest way to contain the Zulu army and force it to fight, he discovered that his available logistical and transportation resources could not support that many separate elements. He therefore decided to consolidate the planned five columns into only three (COURSE OF ACTION TWO: ADVANCE IN THREE COLUMNS), and the battle unfolded as described in the COA Two narrative.
Chelmsford personally accompanied the strongest column, the center one, but then he and his subordinates made tactical mistakes and underestimated the Zulus’ capabilities, which led to disaster. The January 22, 1879, Battle of Isandlwana was the single greatest defeat suffered by British regular troops at the hands of a native force.
The shocked government in London reacted by sending reinforcements – once the unwanted war was started, Britain had to win it – and by informing Chelmsford that he was being replaced by General Garnet Wolseley. However, in June, before Wolseley could arrive, Chelmsford organized and led a two-pronged second invasion of Zululand (which unfolded as described in the COURSE OF ACTION THREE: ADVANCE IN TWO COLUMNS narrative) that won the Zulu War by destroying Cetshwayo’s army at the July 4, 1879, Battle of Ulundi.
Despite this victory, Chelmsford never again held a field command. And for instigating a war that no one in the London government sought, Sir Henry Bartle Frere was demoted to a minor administrative post.
Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Armchair General.