Monday, October 21, 2013

The Zulu

Modern Zulu Warriors
Some time in the late 1960's I first saw the movie Zulu, this one -

The movie made a rather big impression on Your's Truly, budding military historian that I was. For here were a tribal people who fought in organized regiments, had a fairly standard tactical doctrine and who had managed to destroy the main British column invading their homeland. At a place called Isandlwana.

But this film was the story of a small detachment of that same column at a place called Rorke's Drift who held out against 4000 Zulu warriors. But it was the native warriors I noticed, the Zulu. (The Battle of 
Isandlwana would be covered a few years down the road in a film titled Zulu Dawn. I liked that one as well.)

On the one hand, you have a large force of "natives" defeating a numerous, well-armed European foe in open battle. On the other, you have a small European detachment, occupying a semi-fortified position, holding out against a "native" force which vastly outnumbers them.

(For those of you who are perhaps more sensitive than me, I have placed the word "native" in quotes as I feel that, while it is perfectly accurate, it is also somewhat pejorative in the usage of the time. I suppose it's in quotes to point out that I don't mean it in it's insulting sense. I also didn't want to use the perhaps more politically correct term "indigenous personnel". I mean the Zulu were, after all, native to the region. But the term, as used in the 1800's, was 
something of an insult. I don't mean it that way.)

Seems like the modern day Zulu men who participated in the making of Zulu were very much into their roles. Their ancestors would have been proud I think.

But who were these Zulu? How did they make my list of immortal units? Let's go back in time to a chap by the name of Shaka. Ring a bell? No? Well, it should. He was a heck of a warrior and general.

Shaka kaSenzangakhona
(Shaka son of Senzangakhona)

From Wikipedia:
A number of historians argue that Shaka 'changed the nature of warfare in Southern Africa' from 'a ritualized exchange of taunts with minimal loss of life into a true method of subjugation by wholesale slaughter'. A number of writers focus on Shaka's military innovations such as the iklwa – the Zulu thrusting spear, and the "buffalo horns" formation. This combination has been compared to the standardization implemented by the reorganized Roman legions under Marius.

Combined with Shaka's "buffalo horns" attack formation for surrounding and annihilating enemy forces, the Zulu combination of iklwa and shield—similar to the Roman legionaries' use of gladius and scutum—was devastating. By the time of Shaka's assassination in 1828, it had made the Zulu kingdom the greatest power in southern Africa and a force to be reckoned with, even against Britain's modern army in 1879.

Much controversy still surrounds the character, methods and activities of the Zulu king. From a military standpoint, historian John Keegan notes exaggerations and myths that surround Shaka, but nevertheless maintains:
Fanciful commentators called him Shaka, the Black Napoleon, and allowing for different societies and customs, the comparison is apt. Shaka is without doubt the greatest commander to come out of Africa.
That long, very wide blade immediately above the tape measure is an iklwa.
Nasty looking weapon innit?
I'm sure Nancy Pelosi and that lot would call it an assault spear(and ban it) as it's so scary-looking.

Though the battles at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift occurred 51 years after Shaka's death, the tactical doctrine and organization of the Zulu impis were his. (The term impi translates, somewhat loosely, as "regiment".) 

From Wikipedia:
The "buffalo horns" formation of the Zulu army.
Parts 1–4 above: 1 "enemy", 2 "horns", 3 "chest", 4 "loins".

As can be seen in the diagram above, Shaka was a pretty sophisticated "native". The horns of his army's fighting formation would be very obvious to a student of military history. And painfully so to a Roman survivor of Cannae*.

The enflanking "horns" are the maneuver elements, the "chest" is the main body or overwatch elements of the Zulu army. The "loins" are, of course, the Zulu reserve. The reserve can be used on either flank or to support the main body. It is said that Zulu commanders would have the men of the "loins" sit with their backs to the enemy so that they would not become overly excited by the events playing out on the battlefield.

The Zulu impis were also distinguished by the way they were raised and organized.

From Wikipedia:
Age-grade groupings of various sorts were common in the Bantu tribal culture of the day, and indeed are still important in much of Africa. Age grades were responsible for a variety of activities, from guarding the camp, to cattle herding, to certain rituals and ceremonies. It was customary in Zulu culture for young men to provide limited service to their local chiefs until they were married and recognized as official householders. Shaka manipulated this system, transferring the customary service period from the regional clan leaders to himself, strengthening his personal hegemony. Such groupings on the basis of age, did not constitute a permanent, paid military in the modern Western sense, nevertheless they did provide a stable basis for sustained armed mobilization  much more so than ad hoc tribal levies or war parties.

Shaka organised the various age grades into regiments, and quartered them in special military kraals, with each regiment having its own distinctive names and insignia. Some historians argue that the large military establishment was a drain on the Zulu economy and necessitated continual raiding and expansion. This may be true since large numbers of the society's men were isolated from normal occupations, but whatever the resource impact, the regimental system clearly built on existing tribal cultural elements that could be adapted and shaped to fit an expansionist agenda. 
After their 20th birthdays, young men would be sorted into formal ibutho (plural amabutho) or regiments. They would build their i=handa (often referred to as a 'homestead', as it was basically a stockaded group of huts surrounding a corral for cattle), their gathering place when summoned for active service. Active service continued until a man married, a privilege only the king bestowed. The amabutho were recruited on the basis of age rather than regional or tribal origin. The reason for this was to enhance the centralized power of the Zulu king at the expense of clan and tribal leaders. They swore loyalty to the king of the Zulu nation.
While Shaka didn't come up with all of these innovations  he perfected the system and wielded it with a savagery which made him master of his domain. (Much like Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great wielded the armies their fathers had created and trained.) Zulu ferocity and courage became a standard under his rule and was maintained by the Zulu kings for a half-century after his death. It would take the might of the British Empire to bring them down. And only after a hard, bloody struggle. (I highly recommend the book The Washing of the Spears by Donald R. Morris if you wish to read more about the First Anglo-Zulu War.)

When the British Army first encountered the Zulu impis, all of Britain was stunned by the outcome. These men are truly worthy of being included on any list of immortal military units. Napoléon's Imperial Guard, Chesty Puller's Marines and Jackson's Stonewall Brigade would have recognized them as fellow elites. Men you want with you, not against you.


*The Battle of Cannae was a major battle of the Second Punic War, taking place on 2 August 216 BC in Apulia in southeast Italy. The army of Carthage under Hannibal decisively defeated a larger army of the Roman Republic under the consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. It is regarded as one of the greatest tactical feats in military history and, in numbers killed, the second greatest defeat of Rome, after the Battle of Arausio. It is also the best example in history of a double flanking maneuver in which the Romans were engulfed between two arms of the Carthaginian army.


  1. "I'm sure Nancy Pelosi and that lot would call it an assault spear(and ban it) as it's so scary-looking."

    The carpetbagging bisnatch is a contrarian and should be deported back to Baltimore, her birthplace
    I would bet she's like that because the nuns beat her when she was a kid
    Oops! sorry, didn't mean to go off topic, but you hit a sore spot.

    1. Always feel free to go off topic IT, it's what endears you to us all.

      (Point well taken as to Pelosi. I heard Baltimore doesn't want her back...)

  2. One must be careful with the placement of the hands upon the keyboard when writing about the Punic War, as the "b" and the "n" are immediately adjacent to one another

    1. Yes indeed. The Pubic Wars didn't even involve Rome and Carthage.

    2. On yer last: Those wars continue today if I'm not mistaken.

  3. Well, **I** certainly learned a lot today.

    1. I do try to provide interesting and educational stuff here.

      Sometimes I even succeed!

  4. I remember seeing Zulu sometime around the time I was ending active duty.
    I was impressed say the least.

    1. I've probably watched that film 20 times since then.

      Never gets old. Maybe it's just me?

  5. I first read about them in, The Washing of the Spears" and then in the books of Wilbur Smith. I enjoyed reading a little book called Rourke's Drift which was a book presented for the Army General Staff Officer course back in the 70s. Fascinating. I'm still going to say that Hannibal was the greatest general to come out of Africa.

    1. Concur with your assessment of Hannibal being tops, Cap'n. Though I respect Keegan's work, I have to disagree with him here.

  6. Having fought the Zulus the British respect for their prowess in battle is of the highest. In the hist of the Royal Navy there have been three (3) Destroyers named "HMS ZULU" and there is one RAF fighter squadron named "The Zulus" with a patch consisting of a Zulu shield and crossed spears. Can't show any more respect than that..

    1. Let me amend that. The last two were DDs, but the first was, I think, a frigate under sail)

    2. You got it VX, here's what Wikipedia said:
      Three ships of the British Royal Navy have borne the name HMS Zulu, after the African Zulu people:
      HMS Zulu (1909), a 1905 Tribal-class (or F-class) destroyer that served in World War I
      HMS Zulu (F18), launched in 1937, a 1936 Tribal-class destroyer that served in World War II
      HMS Zulu (F124), launched in 1962, a Tribal-class frigate

    3. Oh yeah, prowess in battle is something our cousins across the pond appreciate.

      The Zulu had it.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)