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Today in history… tide turns in Anglo-Zulu War

12:00am & Lifestyle

Despite being outnumbered 10 to one, British and Colonial troops earned a decisive victory which turned the tide of the Anglo-Zulu War on March 29th, 1879.

At Kambula, in northwest Zululand (now part of South Africa), a force of 2,000 troops under the command of British Colonel Henry Evelyn Wood faced the main Zulu ‘impi’ (army) of King Cetshwayo, numbering at least 20,000 warriors.

But the British had learned the lessons of a shock defeat at Isandlwana in January, where 1,300 troops were massacred, and a disastrous forced retreat from Hlobane Mountain just the previous day, which cost more than 200 lives and the loss of many horses. In both cases the British had been overconfident, believing they were facing an ill-disciplined ‘native rabble’ which could be easily overcome by trained men with better weaponry.

While most Zulus were armed only with the traditional ‘assegai’ – a short staffed iron-headed spear – and a hardened cowhide shield, they were far from ill-disciplined. In fact, the Zulus were a warrior nation, trained in well-proven battlefield strategies. They were also highly mobile, able to move swiftly on foot across many miles of territory carrying only their light weapons.

British overconfidence led them to face Zulu forces in the open, putting their faith in the “thin red line” – a forward firing line of troops in their distinctive scarlet tunics. It was a disastrous tactic, as the Zulus were willing to sacrifice large numbers of warriors approaching the line to draw its fire – the ‘head of the buffalo’ – while to the left and right of the firing line other groups of warriors – the ‘horns of the buffalo’ – would stealthily outflank the enemy and overrun its position.

In contrast to the massacre at Isandlwana, and immediately after it, a small force of just over 150 British and Colonial troops successfully defended the small mission station at Rorke’s Drift against sustained attacks by up to 4,000 Zulus. The lesson was obvious ­– don’t get caught in open ground and instead force the Zulu impi to attack a solidly entrenched position.

It was a hard-learned lesson which the British put into practice 139 years ago today, at the Battle of Kambula. Realising the danger, King Cetshwayo ordered his warriors to ignore the British force there and instead feign an attack on neighbouring Natal, which would have drawn their enemy out. But his generals, elated by previous victories, could not resist the temptation of a heavily outnumbered enemy apparently making a desperate last stand.

In fact, the British had prepared well, constructing a hexagonal ‘laager’ ­– an improvised fort made of wagons tightly locked together and well defended on each face. The troops inside were armed with breech-loading Martini-Henry rifles and a good supply of ammunition, enabling them to maintain a withering volley fire on the attacking Zulus from the relative safety of their barricades. They also had half-a dozen field artillery guns covering the main approaches, firing both shell and canister shot.

By now, a significant number of Zulus also had rifles, captured in their previous victories, but they had no training in how to use them effectively, and limited ammunition. This time it was the Zulus who were overconfident and tumbled into a well-laid trap. As their ‘buffalo head’ formation approached the laager, mounted troops were sent out to fire on the right horn and sting it into a premature attack, before galloping back to safety.

It worked, and as a great wave of 11,000 warriors surged forward they were met with a hail of bullets and artillery fire. Only a small number made it into the laager, where a line of steel bayonets waited. When the left horn tried to attack it was met with equally stiff resistance, including crossfire from troops stationed in a walled cattle ‘kraal’ (enclosure) to the east of the main laager. Eventually the kraal was overrun, but most of its defenders escaped to the laager.

More attacks followed on both sides of the laager, the Zulus confident their vastly superior numbers would swamp its fragile defences, but as each attack was repulsed the warriors’ undeniable courage began to falter. Their cowhide shields were no match for a rifle bullet and they could not get close enough to use their short spears, designed for thrusting rather than throwing.

At times the battle’s outcome hung in the balance, but as evening approached, after more than four hours of fighting, the disheartened Zulus began to withdraw, leaving hundreds of dead behind them. Their retreat soon became a panicked scramble as Colonel Woods ordered his mounted troops out in a merciless seven-mile pursuit of the fleeing Zulus. It was a straight reversal of the previous day’s retreat from Hlobane, and the British exacted a bloodthirsty revenge.

The Zulus lost up to 2,000 dead and wounded, while the British and Colonial forces suffered just 29 dead and 54 wounded. More significantly, the morale of the Zulu impi was shattered, many warriors simply abandoning the army and returning to their homes. Just four months later, on July 4th, 1879, Cetshwayo’s remaining forces were utterly routed at the Battle of Ulundi, ending the Anglo-Zulu War.

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