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Posts : 8278 Join date : 2009-09-21 Age : 75 Location : Cape Town South Africa
Subject: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Fri Dec 10, 2021 7:40 am
An Essay by the Late Charles Aikenhead of Rorkes Drift.
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 1329* British dead 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 with 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 particular knowledge and to generously add to the known framework of events, sometimes adding to the store of knowledge and sometimes airing theories that are quite inconsistent with the known facts, thus generating active and sometimes emotional discussions. Sometimes a small piece of the history jigsaw leads 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. Since the detail of 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 four-letter word which is the subject of this essay. The author promises that it is printable. Most early accounts of the disaster at Isandlwana were made after very brief visits to the battlefield, and indeed some were made without visiting at all (eg: the very readable Zulu: Queen Victoria’s most famous little war - by Wayne Bartlett) 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 frustration of everyone else. The dramatization of the failed ammunition supply has been effectively diminished by the discovery of bent screws from the wooden boxes being found out on the firing line; the mounted troops’ (Snider) carbines taking a different cartridge to the (Martini-Henry) rifles gives rise to Quartermasters not issuing to the wrong units, and this as a Chinese whisper becomes a refusal to issue ammunition. Many authors dissect the command structure between Lt Col Pulleine 2/24th and Lt Col Durnford RE and their respective seniority; the local Boer farmers all know that you have to make a laager every night – but with insufficient wagons for their supplies, the British wagons had to be 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 Disrali’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 3000 is an accepted figure. Capt William Symons 2/24th in his report** states “Another report generally stated & confirmed by King Cetywayo himself, was the they had lost double as many men at Isandhlwana as at all the other battles, Kambula, Gingihlovu included. Later a deep ravine 2½ miles 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 burnt but most they cut into strips 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 Tommy Atkins’ bravery, determination, courage and skill pulling his general’s chestnuts out of the fire. The front line cares very little for the command structure above its immediate formation, and it therefore deserves study at this front line level about its failure on this occasion. The author, as an ageing infanteer, has been left with the feeling that there is a missing link in the analysis; not that one factor by itself could change 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? 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 can work that out and it is a fact that a partial eclipse did occur and its zenith was about 2.30 in the afternoon (measurement of time to be confirmed). In the high lands of Zululand below the Nqutu plateau, the sun in the summer (and January is the Southern hemisphere summer) is high and very bright, and a partial eclipse (some 20% is the astronomer statement) is not noticeable. No one is looking 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. The Martini-Henry rifles in the hands of the riflemen of the 24th of Foot were the latest technology in the development of the infantry personal weapon. A breech loading rifle with a ejection system using the lever that also formed the trigger guard, which a skilled man could load and fire at up to 12 rounds per minute, or one each 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 significant technical improvement. The muzzle loading musket (not all were rifled barrels) achieved just over one round per minute, or in round figures a tenth of the rate of fire that was now possible on the field of Isandlwana a few years later in 1879. Development of the bullet was also taking place. The muzzle loading rifle started with a simple lead ball, and then had developed into a bullet shape that fitted a rifled barrel. This 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 more effective by including an explosive charge was effectively banned by the Declaration of St Petersburg in 1868***, but development of the Martini Henry bullet resulted in a similar effect. In order to make the bullet fly true, it was necessary to make it lighter, and 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. This bullet did not need to hit a vital organ or break a bone; its impact 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. We are searching for the reason that this technology did not prevail at Isandlwana. This new weapon required a new tactical doctrine from which to develop infantry tactics for the day, and here we have to recall that The British Empire was sending its army to fight in many countries under Queen Victoria’s direction, 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 a huge distance at that range with a trajectory at impact of approaching 450 . The bullet still had killing potential and when fired as a volley into massed oncoming enemy, it was effective. Firing a rifle at a target by aiming about 300 above it tested the confidence of the firer 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 400yards, and even at this distance the bullet dropped four feet from the muzzle of the rifle. The stopping power of the hollow lead 0.45in bullet meant that hitting your enemy anywhere over that four feet made them a casualty. It was devastatingly effective against 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. That application was a last resort and the concept of overcoming massed native enemies was to avoid such close quarter encounter. That it was extremely effective was borne out later the same day at the defence of the Mission Station at Rorke’s Drift just 12 miles away. So, following the tactical doctrine of engaging the enemy as far out as possible, from 800 to 400yards, the deployment of the rifle companies by Lt Col Pulleine out at 500 to 800 yards beyond the camp to engage the oncoming Zulus does not seem so wrong. Only with the benefit of 20/20 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 was working. What was the deciding factor that made the defensive line break and allow the Zulus to annihilate the camp? Zulu bravery had a lot to do with it, and to put that into context you have to imagine regiment after regiment of the chest of the Zulu army coming down to confront the red-coated Companies and half-Companies of British troops which were deployed to defend their camp. Each British rifleman had been issued with 30 rounds in addition to his standard 40, so at his disposal was 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 is 33,600 rounds. The volley fire was devastating, and firing into massed enemy the attrition rate should be unsustainable, even by the brave Zulus. Let us estimate that just a tenth of the fired rounds had found a mark, the Zulu casualties would have been 3360. We are considering the attack by the chest on the firing line of the six companies of 24th Regiment and one of the NNC so we need to subtract the two flanking horns that held about 3000 each, making the mass of the chest about 14,000 warriors. Now the supposed 3360 casualties amount to 24% of the oncoming Zulu chest. It is accepted military thinking that a military formation is made impotent if its strength is reduced by 25% with killed, wounded or prisoners. That percentage will remove sufficient of the command and cohesion of a unit that it ceases to function. That devastating .45in lead bullet caused dreadful wounds and was a killing round. The Zulu casualties were later reported at 3000 as earlier stated and this as a % of the main attacking chest amounts to 21%, 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 to allow the Zulus to prevail? 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. The propellant for the .45in 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 in all the Napoleonic battles and the ‘fog of battle’ amounting to the inevitable confusions was generated by the smoke of the muzzle loading weapons. In earlier times when normal warfare consisted of firing a volley or two with a muzzle loading musket 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 developed by a 12-shot-a-minute breech loading weapon that engaged its target continuously at 800, then 400yards and less. We now have ten times the smoke of earlier conflicts and generated for a much longer time. We now need to let our four letter word into our narrative. WIND. Actually the lack of it, so calm could have been our key word, but that seems wildly at variance to the dramatic events we are considering. Summer days in Northern Zululand start cool and rapidly warm up. Generally by about 2 o’clock the heat generated from the sun-drenched earth has developed convection to clouds that will increase during the afternoon and precipitate rain. These rainstorms can be severe with hail and high winds, but are the source of the cherished rain during their short season. Normally this convection from a gathering storm somewhere in the area will develop a breeze from mid-morning, but on this day 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, giving a gloom over the Isandlwana Camp and its doomed defenders. The smoke was so thick that one Zulu eyewitness 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 24th deployed out from the camp to defend it, and engaging the oncoming Zulus. The half company is about 40 men, organised in two ranks, the front rank kneeling and the rear rank standing. Firing at the oncoming enemy is controlled in volleys since this is proven to be more destructive to an enemy’s morale, and it allows the control of ammunition expenditure. ‘Half company – fire! Reload. Take aim – fire! Reload. Take aim – etc. This however does not continue for long because after a few volleys, the redcoats cannot see their enemy, so the rate of firing slows down. Slows down because they cannot see the enemy, not because they had no ammunition. On the receiving end of the volley, at a distance of 800 to 400 yards the Zulus see the half company of redcoats raise their rifles and then they disappear behind the smoke of their firing. They now have well over a second to lie flat on the ground before the bullets arrive. At the distance that this initial engagement takes place, time is on the side of the Zulus to avoid the deadly volley of lead. That is not a total security but reduces the casualty rate significantly. Being brave men, they now take the advantage of the cloud of smoke to rise out of the grass and run forward until the next volley is discharged in their direction. As one Regimental commander is reported to have shouted “did your King send you to lie like chickens in the grass?” and with similar motivation and leadership, the Zulu advance continues. As the smoke builds up and their coordination improves, they can run forward in short rushes and then lie flat when the discharge of smoke foretells a further volley. Quite quickly, they can advance on the half companies and get within 200, then 100 and then 40 yards – rushing distance – between volleys. The reloading time of the Martini-Henry is five seconds. Usain Bolt can run 60 meters in that time, so allowing the fit and determined Zulus a handicap, 40 metres is achievable. Now we can see how the Zulus managed 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 24th Companies to their left and right. These poorly trained locally raised (and they were Zulus also) troops had just been entrusted with one rifle between 10 men. So 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 that was written directly after the battle by Captain William Symons** (later General Penn-Symons) 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. That 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 comparable achievement. It is also recorded by Commandant Maori Brown (of the NNC) who was returning to the Camp from the column at Mangeni, stopped about 3 miles away and witnessed ‘The 24th mowing the oncoming Zulus down in swathes’ (Lost Legionary in Zululand) but what he probably was seeing was the Zulus lying down when they saw the rifles firing at 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, tending to make its reporting a bit suspect. Possibly what he saw was the shields of the Zulus turned sideways as they advanced at the run in their final rush on the British line, with their shields on their left side, looking in the distance like a herd of cattle, and 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 makes a decisive difference. All the combination of steps lead to that point. If a step is different or missing, then the turning point may not be reached. At Isandlwana the turning point of the tactical battle was the lack of WIND, allowing the gun-smoke to add some 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 bear heavily on this. Is it possible that here was a dramatic Achilles heel in the modern weaponry on which the power of the British Empire depended, and 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 in to service. This propellant with its higher power made the lead bullet travel a lot faster, and so required a copper jacket to prevent it melting in the rifled barrels. Thus started another era in Infantry Warfare, with a lot of new lessons to learn. *Narrative of Operations, The Zulu War **written at Rorke’s Drift in February–May 1979 *** https://ihldatabases.icrc.org/ihl/ihl.nsf/0/3c02baf088a50f61c12563cd002d663b? Open Document, website of the International Red Cross, Declaration renouncing of certain explsive projectiles, 1868 [with thanks to Terry Willson. SAMHS Journal
Posts : 372 Join date : 2013-09-16 Age : 57 Location : MELBOURNE
Subject: Re: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Fri Dec 10, 2021 12:16 pm
I have always pondered the effect of gun smoke to the accuracy of the firing line, a Zulu eyewitness did say many of the shots landed in front of them, perhaps the smoke had some factor in it.
Posts : 1118 Join date : 2021-01-04
Subject: Re: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Fri Dec 10, 2021 12:38 pm
Thanks Frank. An interesting article to read with my brew this morning, with some rather odd/dubious facts and inaccuracies in there. Two men carrying four bodies? Hollow Martini bullets? etc The idea of smoke hiding the Zulus from the firing line is something I've thought of before but it didn't seem to hinder our boys in other British Victorian victories such as Kambula, Ulundi, Abu Klea etc. and like wise it didn't hinder the 66th at Maiwand who lost for other reasons.
Thanks for posting it up and I'm sure Charles would be pleased to see his essay being discussed on the forum. Do you know when he wrote it? Kate
Posts : 8278 Join date : 2009-09-21 Age : 75 Location : Cape Town South Africa
Subject: Re: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Fri Dec 10, 2021 2:15 pm
Hi Kate/Gary. Just come into town for some supplies, the 42 K trip back starting soon. Life in the bush is a bitch when the Tonic runs out. Kate Charles started writing that article around 30 years ago, eventually got round to finishing in 2019. Have a great xmas guys, be back in touch in January.
Ho Ho Ho.
Posts : 110 Join date : 2013-09-07
Subject: Re: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Fri Dec 10, 2021 6:28 pm
I did listen to Charles deliver a version of this at a Victorian Military lecture in Leicester a few years back and was asked for a few comments from the audience - we had a lively discussion on some of the points raised and decided best to not ruin a good story - as someone who has used black powder in both rifles and artillery pieces in a variety of conditions and numbers the theory doesn't sit well with me but each to their own
Subject: Re: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Sun Dec 12, 2021 10:52 am
The infantry line moved forwards and backwards at least twice (to get a better view). That would counteract any build-up of smoke. Also I wonder seriously how much smoke would be created by only two guns, moving around the line, firing just 2 dozen shells. Not much I would think.
Posts : 947 Join date : 2011-10-21 Location : Algoa Bay
Subject: Black powder smoke. Sun Dec 12, 2021 11:50 am
The smoke from the RML 9 artillery pieces was not causing the problem here. It was the MH's all of which used an early grade of black powder as a propellant in the ammunition. This characteristically burns with a grey/black smoke and a deep orange flame and has significant heat generation. There are eye witness accounts describing this smoke problem on the battlefield.
Last edited by barry on Wed Jan 19, 2022 2:16 pm; edited 1 time in total
Subject: Re: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Sun Dec 12, 2021 3:28 pm
Barry The movement of the line would then seem an attempt to counter the infantry smoke. Out of interest do you recall at all the names of any eye-witnesses to the battlefield smoke? Julian
Posts : 947 Join date : 2011-10-21 Location : Algoa Bay
Subject: Blackpowder Sun Dec 12, 2021 6:58 pm
Hi Julian, I dont have the source to mind right now but I will look for it and revert shortly, I had the misfortune in recent years of working in an industry that produced the newest formulations of blackpowder. Part of the job was frequently observing this material burning. It was quite scary and the black plume of smoke could be seen for kilometres. Another characteristic, as I mentioned was the peculiar colour of the flame and intense heat generation. Its instability was another issue, of course. regards
Posts : 110 Join date : 2013-09-07
Subject: Re: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Mon Dec 13, 2021 2:06 pm
Like you Barry I have a degree of involvement with controlled burns of explosive items etc although black powder as an explosive produces a flash and smoke per se thats not all it's about - in open conditions it will plume and burn briefly but we are talking about its smoke production from a controlled charge - I personally don't think that in open order trained troops used to using black powder weapons would be particularly phased by it nor even on a wind less day would it hang to the extent to obscure vision until possible the closing stages when fire control has been lost - as I say an interesting discussion but not one I would support from my experience - her's a link to a black powder fireball if anyone wants a look https://youtu.be/rsrSpnFQuzk
Subject: Re: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Mon Dec 13, 2021 4:03 pm
Barry I must admit I couldn't recall any eyewitnesses reporting gunsmoke so I had a look through some of my more obscure survivor accounts and still can't find any. If you do get a chance to look for what you were referring to, I'd be pleased to hear about them.
Posts : 99 Join date : 2017-11-16 Age : 56 Location : Epsom, Surrey
Subject: Re: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Mon Dec 13, 2021 10:44 pm
The other factors affecting smoke hanging around a battlefield are the temperature and humidity. From the little I’ve read on the subject (an article by Ian Knight) I believe it was hot (up to 30 degrees) on the 22nd and a clear day (evidenced by Lt Milne having a clear view back to the camp site). These factors would help the dispersal of smoke to some extent even if there was no wind as the smoke would rise more quickly than on a cool, damp or humid day. Of course a hot day would produce more dust though…. Regards Phil
Posts : 1118 Join date : 2021-01-04
Subject: Re: ISANDLWANA AND A FOUR LETTER WORD Sun Jan 16, 2022 3:51 pm
Talking of smoke on the battlefield, this from a soldier of the 58th at Ulundi. Sheffield Daily Telegraph 13th September 1879:-
"..But, my God, it was something fearful the havoc our volley fire by sections made amongst them. We made lanes through their dense masses, and the artillery made fearful gaps amongst them. Before 9a.m. we were attacked on all sides of the square and the battle became general. We ceased firing for a minute or two for the smoke to clear, and now the main attack developed itself"
The discipline required to actually cease fire during an attack must have been superb. Kate