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 Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster

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RobOats



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PostSubject: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptySat Feb 11, 2012 9:19 pm

I am not military historian or retired soldier but have a personal interest in this disaster. Many generations have asked the same question; How could a well armed force be defeated by a force armed merely with spears.

In order to appreciate this disaster one must appreciate previous battles against the Zulus and also look at successful campaigns against them.

Firstly lets look at the differences in modus operandi of the Zulus and European forces to get an idea of strength and weakness which should have been done by commanders embarking on this campaign. The Zulu forces specialize in close quarter hand to hand combat. Their primary weapon is the stabbing spear which in reality can only be used in this manner. Shields are used as both offensive and defensive weapons in close quarter fighting. They are used to deflect other spears or bayonets and can be used to unbalance the enemy and make his body vulnerable to attack along the vital left chest area. In standard combat with another warrior carrying a shield, the leading edge of the shield is hooked around the leading edge of the opponents shield and then ripped backwards exposing the left flank so that the stabbing spear can be used to stab the left torso. In the case of a European soldier who uses a standard right handed bayonet attack, the rifle is deflected making his left torso vulnerable. In fact a soldier armed purely with a bayonet has no chance against a Zulu warrior.

The Zulu had a standard battle formation. They massed several regiments in the centre and up to 4 regiments were deployed outwards to out-flank the enemy. The main thrust in depth was still always in the centre with the most experienced warriors.

European troops entering this war were faced with the fact that in every battle they would be outnumbered by at least 10:1 at best and 20 or 30:1 at worst. The European force had to ensure that they used their offensive weapons to maximum effect. They needed to be able use concentrated fire at a rapid rate to effect maximum damage and either to slow or stop the forward movement whilst ensuring that their flanks could be covered either through correct deployment using natural obstruction and protection or sufficient numbers to halt attacks.

Given the above the only major defeat suffered previously by the Zulus was at Blood River.

http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/ransford/map6.htm

So over a period of some 60 years the Zulu army had suffered only a single major defeat. This background makes the Zulu a very determined and serious foe. Looking at the Boer encounters with the Zulu demonstrates their very successful methodology of waging war. They gave Boer forces several severe batterings over a period of years. The consequence was a Boer force that was very demoralized and lacking in leadership. Pretorius joined them and restructured the force which was largely a democratic system and not ideal for a military force at all. He realised that to be successful the Zulu had to be fought in an area suitable to their forces. All previous battles had been fought using mounted men. On each occasion these units had been sucked into ambushes and defeated.

One needs to look closely at the configuration of the laager prepared by Pretorius to understand the formations necessary for success against Zulu forces. The Laager was formed using a half moon. This has great advantages as it allows for cross fire from almost every position. It allows for rapid movement of men from one place to another. The back was formed up against a deep pool in the river and the river could only be crossed at 2 points above and below this pool. The likelihood of attack from the rear was almost totally removed. The Southern flank was on a deep donga and difficult to penetrate. This left an open attack area only on the North and West. I have measured the perimeter of this laager on Google Earth and the perimeter that could be attacked and was attacked measured 80 yards. We believe that there were about 400 riflemen and a total of around 800 people in the laager. Each man is recorded as having 2 or 3 rifles. These would all have been muzzle loaders so took some time to reload. It is understood that this was done by the women in the laager. So to understand the firepower they probably had 75% of riflemen concentrated in the 80 yards under attack which means there were roughly 4 riflemen per yard. This is huge firepower. It is estimated that a force of 15 000 Zulus were in this force. Because the warriors traveled overnight and some regiments got lost there were waves of attacks and those arriving later found themselves on the other side of the river.
A report recalls;
"In the spreading light a solid mass of black humanity was seen only a few hundred yards away and racing towards the wagons. At once the Boer guns and cannons opened with a roar. It was impossible for a single shot to miss such a target. Never at any time was there a hope that this attack would succeed. The shock of the concentrated fire was devastating and almost at once the first wave of Zulus reeled back in disorder. Then for two mortal hours these regiments mounted a wild chain of doomed charges on the north and west faces of the laager and one after the other they were smashed and flattened."

Jan Uys noted that they counted 400 dead warriors in an area of 400 sq. yds in the killing zone. It was estimated that more than 3000 Zulus were killed in the battle. Not a single Boer was killed and only 3 were wounded in the pursuit of fleeing Zulus.

The results of this Battle indicate that to ensure that the Zulu cannot get into a position where they can engage in hand to hand combat is to force them into a confined area of attack so that the greatest firepower can be unleashed on their massed formation.

Now we need to look at the two other defeats that they suffered after Isandlwana to confirm what went wrong at Isandlwana. The next one is Rorke's Drift. Here we have the hasty erection of barriers around buildings. The perimeter from Google Earth of the original positions is 165 yards. We know that the base was left with 130 men capable of fighting. Again because of the buildings it meant that the perimeter was reduced further. Because of the height of the bag walls it was difficult for warriors to get over. But here again we have zones of attack and troops able to move quickly from one position to another because the area is small. In this instance the rifles used cartridges so were quicker to load. In the final stages the troops were in an area with a perimeter of some 75 yds and so here again there is firepower of 2 riflemen/yd. What I found interesting in the statistics which comes from infantry merely firing at the enemy as against deliberately aiming at individuals. They estimated that there were 5000 Zulus in this attack. Some 375 Zulu dead were found. Normal battle stats indicate that the wounded are double this so approximately 750 were wounded. We know that this force fired 19 000 rounds in the battle. So even in this close quarter fighting 1:20 rounds hit their target. Quite an astounding figure.

The next Battle was Kambula which was also fought with British forces able to employ concentrated fire on the enemy behind barricades.

Looking at the debacle of Isandlwana. Its worth reading Chelmsfords orders to column commanders issued Dec 1878, a copy of which was found on Durnford's body at Isandlwana and available though Dr A Grieve;

http://www.anglozuluwar.com/content/html3/2009/04/09/2009040909130630000100.htm

You may or may not agree with Dr Grieve's opinion on this. None the less what happened on the field bears a pretty close resemblance to what was ordered. Looking at the orders, what really stands out for me is that a commander who should be aware of Zulu battle tactics should place inexperienced and untrusted native soldiers on the flanks is extraordinary.

This aside lets look at what transpired given that an experienced commander that has studied (or should studied) previous battles with the Zulus. The other previous victory at Blood river had drawn the Zulu army into a confined area to be cut down by heavy fire and then mopped up using cavalry. So the requirement should be to at least keep a depleted force as compact as possible. However Pulleine on news of the approaching Zulu force sends his Imperial companies right out to take them on. Using Google Earth I measured the initial perimeter to be 5400 yds. As the battle progresses and the Zulus press forward and units are withdrawn this shrinks to 1610 yds. This was the last position before they are over-run. At the last position this is less than one rifleman per yard of perimeter. Compare this with Blood River at 4 men and Rorke's drift at 2. There is no real hope of ensuring that the whole Zulu assault is concentrated to maximize the kill rate. This allowed the Zulus to attack the flanks of the force and penetrate the camp resulting in the hand to hand combat at which the Zulus were superior.

Having looked at these battle orders one must conclude that Chelmsford's strategies was woeful at best and criminally negligent at worst. It strikes me that he put little thought into what tactics the enemy might employ and how to deal with it. This is summarised in his following assessment;

"16) The possible tactics of the Zulus are as follows-
A) Avoid the Troops and attack our line of communications.
B) Attack the Column when on the line of march.
C) Attack the camp at night & charge into it with all their numbers.
D) Await attack in position between White, & Black Umvelosi Rivers.
17) Whatever tactics are adopted, it may be looked upon as a certainty – that when Zulus attack, they will threaten one or both flanks, as well as the front."

I personally have to agree with Adrian Grieves that Chelmsford should have assumed full blame for the failure.
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littlehand

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Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster Empty
PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptySat Feb 11, 2012 10:22 pm

Thanks for posting this Rob. Certainly opens a few more avenues.

In the link post withing you post it says.

"A modern examination of these documents clearly reveals that Durnford totally obeyed his orders"

Are we saying that he was ordered to protect Chelmsford rear.. scratch
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Frank Allewell

Frank Allewell

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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptySun Feb 12, 2012 6:01 am

Well posted Rob, in general would be difficult to disagree.
First major defeat wasnt Blood River though, you have missed out 'Veglaer' ( The fighting Larger)Zulus called it emGambeni. Also the same fromat as Blood River though.

As an aside, Blood River is actually the Ncome River. In Zulu it means " the Pleasent one". Ironic isnt it.

Regards
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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptySun Feb 12, 2012 7:33 am

Hello All

Rob,the system is very rigid and Zulu Durnford knowing him, he could have avoided defeat.

1 - Chelmsford is responsible for the strategic defeat and Durnford for the the tactical defeat ...

2 - The Zulu can not defeat an opponent behind a barrier (barricade, laager, laager, ect ...) because they remain under the fire too long, without being able to engage the melee ...

3 - To defeat an opponent immobile, it is necessary for the zulus, that there be no obstacles (barricades, laager, laager, ect ...)and having a superiority of 10 versus 1 minimun...

The Zulu people is too rigid to adapt his military system as the Xhosa or Matabele ...

Cheers

Pascal
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RobOats



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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptySun Feb 12, 2012 2:09 pm

Pascal MAHE wrote:
Hello All

1 - Chelmsford is responsible for the strategic defeat and Durnford for the the tactical defeat ...

If you read the latter link regarding Chelmsford's orders you will note that they were issued to all column commanders. Since these were general orders it was not Durnford's place to change tactics. In fact Chelmsford says in a report that he left specific orders for Pulleine and Glynn regarding the defense of the camp and he specifically did not issue orders to Durnford for fear of confusing the situation. No one knows what instructions were given to Durnford and Shepstone regarding their function after arriving from Rorke's drift. Don't forget that Durford was the commander of an independent column. From the evidence available it appears that he felt that Pulleine had followed his orders as issued by Chelmsford but did comment that he felt the deployments were too far out.

The key here, as I pointed out, the general orders failed to ensure that there were proper defensive positions in place to ensure that the camp force could defend the camp in close formation and use their fire power effectively.

Quote :
2 - The Zulu can not defeat an opponent behind a barrier (barricade, laager, laager, ect ...) because they remain under the fire too long, without being able to engage the melee ...

This applies only if the fire is concentrated enough to kill or wound the vast majority of the attacking force and halt the assault. So whether there are obstacles or barricades is irrelevant. It boils down to hit rate along a defensive line and for that you need close order against a superior force. If fire power is lacking at a point it becomes weak spot and open to penetration.

Quote :
3 - To defeat an opponent immobile, it is necessary for the zulus, that there be no obstacles (barricades, laager, laager, ect ...)and having a superiority of 10 versus 1 minimun...

Again by ensuring that the attacking force is concentrated one area can halt an attack. This is one of the points that I made in regard to the Battle of Blood River. The boers positioned themselves in such a way that they forced the incoming assault into a small physical area. They subsequently left the laager and attacked oncoming Zulu assaults coming across the drifts either side of the pool behind their laager. Again forcing the attacking force to use a defined area and ensuring fire power was maximised in a confined place.

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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptySun Feb 12, 2012 2:28 pm

1 - Rob - When there is a defeat there is always one responsible for Isandhlwana there are two ...

No one can contradict that ...

Cheers

Pascal

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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptySun Feb 12, 2012 2:31 pm

2 - Rob, This is self-evident that one does not leave weakness behind a barricade...

Cheers

Pascal
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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptySun Feb 12, 2012 2:35 pm

3 - Rob it's false, at Gingindlovu and Ulundi, the Zulu are not numerous enough to overcome the british and their military system is too rigid, for they prey on one point ...

Cheers

Pascal
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60thRifleman



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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 11:47 am

Hello to everyone on the forum.

The more I look at Isandlwana the more I doubt the battle was winable at all by the Imperial forces no matter what tactics they employed once the firing started. The fact that the camp was not fortified in any way coupled with the poor positioning of the camp, doomed them from the start. That the wagons were not laagered when the 24th arrived at Isandlwana is due solely to Chelmsford. When he subsequently left the camp with half of his forces, leaving Pulleine in command he had already set a precedent of ignoring standing orders. It is a shame Pulleine did not have the presence of mind to laager, but alas, he did not, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Positioning the camp at the foot of such a large hill was also a mistake. The hill was not sufficient to safely anchor the rear of the camp and prevented the defenders from combatting any envelopment. Fields of fire were also reduced by dongas and the surrounding hills. The camp therefore heavily relied on any outlying pickets/vedettes giving enough warning of an attack for the camp to turn out and adopt a defensive formation. Time and again reading "The Narrative of Field Operations" one reads that such and such a range of hills was reconnoitered one day but not the next. Rule one for Chelsford must have been to find the enemy quickly and then keep him under observation. This was not done and probably came from his complete confidence in the effectiveness of modern weaponry against "primitive" natives.

It was this reliance on firepower that doomed the camp. Using rough figures, there were 800 white troops in camp. I will discount the black levies in the NNC for the purposes of my argument as they had a negligable firepower. Some of the whites in camp were non-combatant for various reasons but there were also the excellent mounted Basutos who would offset this. So essentially, give or take, there was a potential gun line of about 750-800 rifles/carbines.
The Martini Henry can comfortably be fired at a rate of 6 aimed rounds per minute. A company of 80 men therefore, can lay down 480 rounds per minute. Each man carried 70 rounds under normal circumstances which included 20 in the haversack, which may or may not have been worn given the sudden nature of the attack. Therefore each company could have fired some 4000 to 4800 rounds before replenishing. It is a fact that the number of hits obtained even under test conditions with volley fire at anything but very close range is poor. As stated in a post above, accuracy at Rorke's Drift could have been as low as 1 hit per 20 rounds fired. For our company then, for all that firepower, maybe only 200 to 240 hits may have been recorded (and some would have hit the same man more than once). Add to that the known unreliability of the Martini Henry - if only 1 rifle in 40 jammed on each volley then potentially after just 1 minute of sustained fire, 12 rifles or 15% of the firepower may have been compromised. Some companies would have fired all their rounds and been replenished, and some may not. In general lack of ammunition does not seem to have been a deciding factor, at least not before the camp was overrun. 800 rifles equates to 10 of our notional companies which give a potential Zulu loss of 2000 to 2400 - if anything an overstatement of the effectiveness of firepower. This was not enough to stop the large Zulu force from closing. At a jog of 150 yards a minute, the Zulus could potentially have covered the 3,800 or so yards from where the artillery first engaged the centre at 12.00 noon to the tent-line in 25 minutes and much of that while not under fire. It seems the camp was reached sometime around 1.15-1.20pm which equates to an average Zulu advance of 50 yards a minute. Obviously some of this time would be spent halted or awaiting the horns to be in position

In essence then, I doubt the defenders of the camp could have put out enough firepower to halt what was a very determined attack. As stated in another post above unless you can stop the Zulus physically reaching you, be that by barricade, laager, trench or overwhelming firepower, then sheer weight of numbers is decisive.



If the Zulus had used night attacks or properly interdicted the lines of communication, then the war would almost certainly have seen many more "embarrassing" defeats.
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90th

90th

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PostSubject: Isandlwana ; A British Tactical and Military disaster.   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 11:58 am

Hi 60thRifleman.
Welcome aboard , excellent first post .
cheers 90th. Salute
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Mr M. Cooper

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Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster Empty
PostSubject: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster.   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 12:36 pm

Hello 60thRifleman

To echo 90th's comment, Welcome aboard, and yes, a great first post, very well done.

Martin. Salute

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RobOats



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Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster Empty
PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 5:40 pm

60thRifleman wrote:
Hello to everyone on the forum.

When he subsequently left the camp with half of his forces, leaving Pulleine in command he had already set a precedent of ignoring standing orders. It is a shame Pulleine did not have the presence of mind to laager, but alas, he did not, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.


Good post 60th.

In the above, are you referring to Chelmsford or Pulleine? And what standing orders?

In my original post I gave a link to standing orders left to all column commanders by Lord C. These were found on the body of Durnford.

In regard to these orders Pulleine adhered to the orders given. He was not at liberty to change the defensive pattern set by Lord C.

Lord C was warned by Boer commanders of the need to pick camp positions carefully and the need to form a laager. The Boers had warned him of Zulu Battle tactics and the fact that in any battle his forces would be severely outnumbered.

I agree the loss of the battle was inevitable. The reason why has variously been blamed on different Officers ever since. What I was trying to demonstrate was that Lord C was entirely to blame from the outset because he failed to appreciate the Zulu battle formation, tactics and numbers whilst over estimating the ability of his own force. As can be seen from other battles won by forces using firearms, it was necessary for them to force the Zulu to attack them so that they were forced into a confined area into which they could concentrate fire. This would in itself nullify the Zulu traditional encirclement.

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tasker224

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Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster Empty
PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 5:42 pm

Subject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster

Or a great Zulu tactical and military victory???
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60thRifleman



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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 6:13 pm

Rob i seem to remember before the campaign that Chelmsford issued instructions regarding laagering of wagons in a document/pamphlet.

Your point about funneling the Zulus into a small area is a valid one and a tactic used since Ancient times as a way of negating superior numbers (eg Thermopylae). The effect also, is to create a barrier of enemy dead which make subsequent attacks even more difficult as happened at Agincourt. A human version of barbed wire!!
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Mr M. Cooper

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Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster Empty
PostSubject: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster.   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 6:27 pm

Hi Rob

In your post you say that Pulleine was not at liberty to change the defensive pattern set by Lord C.

However, Chelmsford did say that he would expect his commanders to disobey his orders if the situation had changed, therefor, with the situation having changed since Chelmsford had left the camp, would it not have been in Pulleine's (and the camps) best interest if he had altered Chelmsford's defensive pattern, and set one that was a lot better for himself and the troops to defend the camp, rather than stick to the one set by Chelmsford?

Martin. Salute
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tasker224

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Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster Empty
PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 6:47 pm

Martin is quite right.
I do not remember the exact wording, but there was certainly a clause that made provision in Chelmsford's orders to Pulleine, to essentially do whatever he thought fit if the situation changed.

At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the commander on the ground to decide how best to defend the camp, or else carry out orders.
This provision has always existed and exists today. When an order is given, the senior commander delegates the task to his subordinate and would certainly expect that subordinate to use his own initiative and carry out those orders competently.
As Chelmsford expected (and didn't get) from Pulleine.
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Drummer Boy 14

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Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster Empty
PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 7:43 pm

Mr M. Cooper wrote:
Hi RobIn your post you say that Pulleine was not at liberty to change the defensive pattern set by Lord C.However, Chelmsford did say that he would expect his commanders to disobey his orders if the situation had changed.

Lord C told Col. D about disobaying orders if he needed to, this was a private letter sent to Durnford on the
13th of January. As far as i know it wasn't a general order, so Pulliene wouldn't know about it.


Cheers
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impi

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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 9:04 pm

But it still would have represented Chelmsford view as a whole to all the officers under his Commarnd.
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Drummer Boy 14

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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 9:06 pm

Even so Pulliene wouldn't know about it. Salute
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impi

impi

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Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster Empty
PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 9:26 pm

I wonder if Chelmsford had order Pulliene to jump off the top of Isandwana, he would have. Suspect
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Drummer Boy 14

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PostSubject: Re: Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster   Isandlwana: A British tactical and military disaster EmptyMon Mar 05, 2012 9:29 pm

scratch
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