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 Assessment of Zulu performance against the British

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PostSubject: Assessment of Zulu performance against the British   Tue Sep 08, 2009 11:18 pm

Strategy and tactics

Over 40,000 strong, well motivated and supremely confident, the Zulu were a formidable force on their own home ground, despite the almost total lack of modern weaponry. Their greatest assets were their morale, unit leadership, mobility and numbers. Tactically the Zulu acquitted themselves well in at least 3 encounters, Isandhlwana, Hlobane and the smaller Intombi action. Their stealthy approach march, camouflage and noise discipline at Isandhlwana, while not perfect, put them within excellent striking distance of their opponents, where they were able to exploit weaknesses in the camp layout. At Hlobane they caught a British column on the move rather than in the usual fortified position, partially cutting off its retreat and forcing it to withdraw.

Strategically (and perhaps understandably in their own traditional tribal context) they lacked any clear vision of fighting their most challenging war, aside from smashing the three British columns by the weight and speed of their regiments. Despite the Isandhlwana victory, tactically there were major problems as well. They rigidly and predictably applied their three-pronged "buffalo horns" attack, paradoxically their greatest strength, but also their greatest weakness when facing concentrated firepower. The Zulu failed to make use of their superior mobility by attacking the British rear area such as Natal or in interdicting vulnerable British supply lines. However, an important consideration, which King Cetshwayo appreciated, was that there was a clear difference between defending one's territory, and encroaching on another, regardless of the fact that they are at war with the holder of that land. The King realised that peace would be impossible if a real invasion of Natal was launched, and that it would only provoke a more concerted effort on the part of the British against them. The attack on Rorke's Drift, in Natal, was an opportunist raid, as opposed to a real invasion. When they did, they achieved some success, such as the liquidation of a supply detachment at the Intombi River. A more expansive mobile strategy might have cut British communications and brought their lumbering advance to a halt, bottling up the redcoats in scattered strongpoints while the impis ran rampant between them. Just such a scenario developed with the No. 1 British column, which was penned up static and immobile in garrison for over two months at Eshowe.
The Zulu also allowed their opponents too much time to set up fortified strongpoints, assaulting well defended camps and positions with painful losses. A policy of attacking the redcoats while they were strung out on the move, or crossing difficult obstacles like rivers, might have yielded more satisfactory results. For example, four miles past the Ineyzane River, after the British had comfortably crossed, and after they had spent a day consolidating their advance, the Zulu finally launched a typical "buffalo horn" encirclement attack that was seen off with withering fire from not only breach-loading Martini-Henry rifles, but 7-pounder artillery and Gatling guns. In fairness, the Zulu commanders could not conjure regiments out of thin air at the optimum time and place. They too needed time to marshal, supply and position their forces, and sort out final assignments to the three-prongs of attack. Still, the Battle of Hlobane Mountain offers just a glimpse of an alternative mobile scenario, where the maneuvering Zulu "horns" cut off and drove back Buller's column when it was dangerously strung out on the mountain.

S.D

martinfrost
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