Thursday, January 9, 2020

About That Hill

The last stand at Isandlwana
Charles Edwin Fripp
In a comment over at Shaun's place, on one of his many excellent posts, I made a reference to a place in Africa...

Here's what that hill looked like in Shaun's video -

It shows up in the first couple of seconds of the video and it immediately made me think of this -

Isandlwana Hill, South Africa
I know, bit of a stretch as the left side of Isandlwana Hill is much higher than what Shaun now calls "Isandalwana Ridge" on his ranch -

(I hope you didn't try playing that "video" above, it's actually a screen shot of part of the post where Shaun made the reference noted above. I also won't dog him regarding the spelling of "Isandalwana," the name of the hill is the English equivalent of the Zulu word for the place. I've seen it spelled a couple of different ways in official accounts of the battle, which we'll get to, shortly.)

Anyhoo, way back in January of 1879 the British Empire invaded the lands of the Zulu. The reasons for this were nefarious and even suspect at the time. Seems that the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, one Sir Henry Bartle Frere, thought it would be just peachy for the Empire to take over the independent South African Republic and the Kingdom of Zululand in order to bring enlightenment and solid British administration to these "benighted" lands. Benighted as they weren't under British rule I suppose.

Note that the South African Republic was also known as the Transvaal Republic, to its white inhabitants, the Boers, it was the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek. That may look like Dutch but it's actually Afrikaans. Related to the Dutch language but with some differences which escape me. I once watched a show on Dutch TV and was amazed that what sounded Dutch to me had subtitles in Dutch running at the bottom of the screen. Some of the words sounded weird but close. A Dutch friend of mine knew the show and told me the show was in Afrikaans. Odd that.

Anyhoo, where were we? Ah yes, Sir Henry covets the lands of the Zulu and the Boers. No doubt thinking that the black Zulu would be easy pickings as opposed to the white Boers, they sent an ultimatum to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo. As I recall the ultimatum would have essentially required the Zulu king to give up his authority over his people and not call up his army without the permission of the British. (They did go after the Boers later. In the first Boer War, the Brits lost. Though they did win the second and managed to screw the locals. You can read more about that here.)

Not a surprise that Cetshwayo pretty much told Sir Henry to "Piss off."

So off into Zululand went Lord Chelmsford and his 15,000 men, of whom approximately 2,500 were African auxiliaries of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC). Most of them were poorly trained in European tactics (but pretty damned good at traditional African methods of war), poorly equipped, and poorly led. Most of the Europeans tended to look down upon the NNC.

The scene in the film Zulu, in which the following exchange between Michael Caine's character, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead commanding company B of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Foot, and Gert van den Bergh's character, Lieutenant Gert Adendorff of the 1st Battalion, 3rd NNC upon hearing of the destruction of the British force at Isandlwana is illustrative of European attitudes towards native troops -
Lt. Bromhead: The entire column? It's damned impossible! Eight hundred men?
Lt. Adendorff: Twelve hundred men. There were four hundred native levies, also.
Lt. Bromhead: Damn the levies, man, more cowardly blacks!
Lt. Adendorff: What the hell do you mean, "cowardly blacks"? They died on your side, didn't they? And who the hell do you think is coming to wipe out your little command? The Grenadier Guards?
Great scene. (Bromhead and Adendorff were both real people, both survived Rorke's Drift.)

At any rate, Lord Chelmsford's biggest concern seems to have been that the Zulus wouldn't stand and fight but slip behind his force into Natal to terrorize the populace. So he divided his forces in order to force the Zulus to come to battle. I'd let that sink in for a moment, divided his forces in the face of a numerically superior force. Sure they were armed with mostly shields and spears and a few older firearms, surely no match for a European army. It's worth noting that the Zulu were a warrior culture, a very tough and hard fighting warrior culture. I've written of them before, not a group you'd want to underestimate, which is precisely what Chelmsford did.

A pretty good account of the Battle of Isandlwana can be found here, suffice to say the Brits almost literally stumbled over the main Zulu force. They fired upon them, the Zulu took umbrage and attacked and destroyed the force Chelmsford left behind to "guard" the camp.

The battle went well for the British until the ammunition began to run low. Not even insane courage can force the human body to fling itself against a wall of Martini-Henry rifles over and over again. Lord knows, the Zulu tried. Then the firing slowed and in some cases ceased, when that happened the redcoats and their native allies went down under the enraged Zulus and their assegai (spears).

Thirteen hundred plus men. Lost.

British casualties at Isandlwana were over 1,300 killed - 52 officers, 727 British regulars, 343 from the Natal Native Contingent, 133 European Colonial troops, and 2 artillery pieces captured. The Zulu lost at least 1,000 killed (perhaps as many as 2,500) with roughly 2,000 wounded.

Of the approximately 20,000 Zulu at Isandlwana, some 3,000 to 5,000 (the Zulu reserve) were not engaged in the battle. They moved on to hit Rorke's Drift, a small outpost near the Buffalo River and where Chelmsford's forces had crossed into Zululand. There some 150 soldiers (mostly British with a few auxiliaries and a civilian or three) awaited the coming of the Zulu.

So you'd think that after destroying the force at Isandlwana the small contingent at Rorke's Drift had no chance, no chance at all.

And you'd be wrong.

Chelmsford's camp, under the command of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine, 1st of the 24th Foot, had made no preparations for defense and had their lines too far forward for mutual support. Worthy of note is that this violated Chelmsford's own instructions for fortifying the camp at each stop. Chelmsford himself decided not to fortify the camp as it would take too long and that it wasn't necessary - he severely underestimated his enemy. Apparently the officers at Rorke's Drift paid attention to their orders and when word came of the disaster at Isandlwana, they immediately began fortifying their post with whatever was available.

At Rorke's Drift, in very hard fighting, 150 men withstood and drove off a Zulu force which outnumbered them by at least 20 to 1, perhaps more. The defenders lost 17 killed and 15 wounded, the attackers at least 351 killed and roughly 500 wounded, most of whom were put to death after the battle.* A good account of the Battle of Rorke's Drift can be found here.

 I've read this a few times as well. A good history of the Zulu.

Where the fighting occurred.
Google Maps
Let's just say that the campaign in Zululand in 1879 left quite an impression on me. So when I see something that reminds me of something in history, even just a little, I mention it. Even if it was just a little hill in western Nebraska which reminded me of a much bigger hill in South Africa.

And yeah, I hear this in my mind...

* Some sources indicate that the relief column which came up to Rorke's Drift after the battle killed most of the Zulu wounded, even burying some of them alive. The actual defenders were too damned tired to engage in that slaughter apparently. The Zulu custom of disemboweling a dead (or nearly dead) enemy (to release the spirit from the body) probably contributed to the killing of the Zulu wounded.


  1. The 1964 movie "ZULU" starring Michael Caine made quite an impression on me when I was in college--my soph yr--great flick!!

  2. Funny how the conceited arrogance of battlefield commanders so often leads to underestimating the enemy and sub optimal outcomes for the men under the commanders direction. Failure to learn from other's mistakes sure plays a part in all that. The line between rational self confidence and unfounded arrogance seems rather thin at times.

    1. Good point Tom. It's always the troops who suffer though, innit?

  3. Hey AFSarge;

    The Movie "Zulu" is still one of my favorite movies, I seriously doubt that they could make such a movie today, the "woke" culture would villify any attempt. Something that was shown in the movie "Zulu Dawn" was the battle at Isandlwana was the ammo runners running to the ammo points to get more ammo and the British supply sergeants refusing because it wasn't "their" unit and it would so mess up the paperwork. After the Soldiers ran out after their initial issue that is when the dying really started. I haven't been able to find out of the Zulu's captured the British Standards or not.

    1. One of the 24th's standards was found in the Buffalo River after the battle. So Zulu Dawn had that right.

  4. One fellow who often gets short shrift in the defense of Rorke's Drift is Acting Assistant Commissary Dalron. Portrayed in the film as a rather effete chap, he was actually a retired long-service British Army noncom who had emigrated to South Africa and volunteered his services when war was imminent. He was the one who, when the post got the news of the disaster at Isadhlwana, set the men to rousing out biscuit boxes and mealie bags to build redoubts. He also started opening ammo boxes. He took part in the "council of war" with Chard and Bromhead, and strenuously argued in favor of fortifying the position instead of trying to get away.

    One other thing that amazes me is how so few men built a relatively extensive redoubt so quickly. Those biscuit boxes weighed 100 lb apiece, and the mealie bags 200lb. I guess having an entire Impi bearing down on you is a great motivator!

    1. Yeah the movie did not portray Dalton in a favorable light. In reality the man was a seasoned soldier with a great deal of experience and common sense.

  5. Shortly after British adoption of the Lee [Enfield] rifle in 1887, American ordnance officer W.W. Kimball 9for whom a certain town in Nebraska is NOT named) wrote the following about the .577-450 Martini-Henry rifles used by the British in Africa:

    "For some years she has been more than content with her famous 0.45 inch calibre single-loading Martini-Henry rifles and Boxer cartridges - guns almost as bad in principle of breech mechanism as our own [trapdoor] Springfields, and cartridges even worse than the United States regulation ones - and in her late “wars with peoples who wear not the trousers,” her soldiers have gallantly fired on the enemy when they knew full well what a horrible punishment they were to receive from the brutal recoil of their weapons, and have borne their torture with true English grit. An English officer informed the writer that the practice was a great aid to gallantry in battle in South Africa, for “when a fellow has been so brutally pounded by his own rifle half a hundred times, he don't so much mind having an assegai as big as a shovel stuck through him; it's rather a relief, don't you know.”"

    Nothing there to detract from the bravery and commitment of the attackers or defenders on either side. But, there are a lot of lessons to be learned about the value or cost of competent leaders, and good logistics.

    John Blackshoe

    1. There's a lot of wisdom in your last statement John.

      Apparently the kick from the Martini-Henry was so bad that at Rorke's Drift the troops switched to firing from their left shoulders as the right were so badly bruised from firing. Towards the end they were just propping them on the mealy-bags. I read that yesterday while researching this post, don't remember where...

    2. From talking to a really (in the community) noted Rev War and Civ War reenactor - British arms are made to look good in a rack, but always punish their users one way or another.

      In the Rev War, the Brown Bess was massively overbuilt, and if given a full powder charge, would kick like a mule. Not something to worry about if only firing 5-10 volleys a battle, but for long-term firing in one day, a serious factor.

      This overbuilding and punishing kick continued through the Martini-Henry until the 2nd gen SMLE. Finally the British soldier had a gun that wouldn't punish them, was overbuilt just enough to handle the stress of war, and could be fired all day long.

      In comparison, during the Rev War we patterned our colonial-built muskets off of, later in the war, the French Charleville musket, smaller diameter bore (which means less powder) and a lighter, more pleasant frame that didn't punish the shooter. Helps that the royal French gave us a metric boatload of them.

      The lighter, more pleasant shouldering gun continued to the 1861 Springfield (in comparison to the M-H of British fame.)

      I've had the pleasure of picking up and shouldering the Brown Bess, a Martini-Henry, a Charleville and an 1861. Fired the BB, the Charleville and the 1861. The French gun and the 1861 were nice. They shouldered smoothly, felt good in my hand and didn't kick too badly. That damned Bess felt like a poorly weighted section of lead pipe on a bad 2x4, and kicked as badly as it felt. The Martini also didn't exactly shoulder nicely. Didn't get to shoot it, since it was a cartridge gun (weird how black powder muzzleloaders are okay to fire, but not cartridge guns...)

      I've read where the English liked the American Enfield over the English Enfield in WWI. (Ami Enfield being the basis of the M1917.)

    3. If Brown Bess kicked more, it's because she fired a larger and more lethal shot than her French counterpart. Another upside of her size was that the larger bore of the Bess allowed British soldiers to use captured or scrounged ammunition from enemy troops in a pinch, whereas the Frenchman of Napoleon's army could not do the same. Regardless of her comparative merits or flaws at an individual level, the British infantry used that weapon to tremendous effect. Napoleon himself learned this the hard way at Waterloo, against the advice of his marhsals (like Soult) who knew better.

      But I’ll leave my admiration of Brown Bess in the hands of a far better wordsmith than myself:

      In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes and brocade
      Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise--
      An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
      With a habit of looking men straight in the eyes--
      At Blenheim and Ramillies fops would confess
      They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.

      Though her sight was not long and her weight was not small,
      Yet her actions were winning, her language was clear;
      And everyone bowed as she opened the ball
      On the arm of some high-gaitered, grim grenadier.
      Half Europe admitted the striking success
      Of the dances and routs that were given by Brown Bess.
      —Kipling, “Brown Bess” (1911)

    4. Served the British Empire well.

    5. Brown Bess looks good on the shoulder for marching.

      Charleville looks good on the shoulder for shooting.

      But in reality, the Brown Bess was built and made as an advancement of the weapons mid to late 1600's, where more than 10 shots per battle was 'excessive' and the ability of the musket as a smashing weapon was emphasized.

      Weird that the Charleville musket was designed as more of a shooter and less of a smasher 5 years before the Bess was introduced shows the difference in tactics between the French in the early 1700's (volley fire, more than 10 shots per battle, lighter weight, less material costs overall) and the English at the same time (volley fire, around 10 shots per battle, butt used to smash anything hit with it (English troops being very good at smashing things...))

      Both guns worked. But you can see the Charleville musket in the lines of the 1861 Springfield rifled-musket.

    6. An elegant weapon compared to the Bess.

    7. A certain town in Nebraska IS named for some UPRR flunky. Before the flunky it was called Antelopeville. Which I prefer. But the new name is easier to type.

    8. Well, if the typing is made easier...

      Nah, Antelopeville is better than being named for a flunky.

  6. Let's see...

    Islawandamandapanda - English Plan - Wander into the middle of a huge number of armed and pissed off natives and divide your forces and get away from your log train and don't fort up. Loss!

    Little Big Horn - American Plan - Wander into the middle of a huge number of armed and pissed off natives and divide your forces and get away from your log train and don't fort up. Loss!

    Teutoburg Forest - Roman Plan - Wander into the middle of a huge number of armed and pissed off natives and divide your forces and get away from your log train and don't fort up. Loss!


    1. Yeah, I'm seeing a pattern here.

    2. All three battles the soldiers on the losing side got separated from their logistics train, by order of their commanders.

      And this is the reason US soldiers carry up to 150-200lbs of stuff when on foot. (And the reason for Marius' Mares in Roman times.)

    3. Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.

    4. Real professionals study how to keep the log train in constant touch with the fighters.

  7. My interest is the Indian battles around CO-WY-UT. Two come to mind where the Indians miscalculated (The Battle at Summit Springs) and the overconfident officers grossly miscalculated (The Milk Creek Massacre).

    I often watch parts of the movie, Zulu, on YouTube. Men of Harlech scene is a favorite.

    1. I need to read up on those two actions.

      I too watch clips from Zulu on YouTube, then when enough time has passed, I watch the movie again. (Fortunately I have it on DVD.)

  8. Men of Harlech stand ye steady
    It cannot be ever said ye
    For the battle were not ready
    Welshmen never yield

    (Yes, I know in reality they did not sing this. But is a rousing damn good tune. One worthy of their stoic defense at Rorke's Drift.)

  9. (Don McCollor)...Remembering Kipling' Fuzzy Wuzzy (Soudan Expedition)...An''eres to you Fuzzy Wuzzy...for you broke a British square!...

    1. The British went to war against some very fierce people.

  10. If I could buy a few hundred years I'd study me some serious history. I think I'm gonna rename the ridge Rorke's Ridge. I can almost spell that one and I can say it pretty good too. Just kidding. It's Isandlwana Ridge forevermore. I just need to work on pronunciation.

    Very tidy history lesson Sarge. Many thanks!

    1. Well, Zulu is a hard language. I looked up the pronunciation and, well, good luck with that. Close as I can get is "ee-sand-ul-wa-na," which is close I'm betting. There are a lot of sources on YouTube which absolutely butcher it. We bloody yanks can't seem to speak anything but American English! Iziwula eziyize! (Not that I'm saying it right...)

  11. Great film. The scene where they sing Men Of Harlech is awesome.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.